Writer’s Log, October 15th: Working from the Inside Out

A writer’s life can be a lonely one. And yet, contrary to popular opinion, that’s not because we’re incurable hermits. Writing is, ultimately, an act of communication, a desire to go beyond a superficial awareness of the human experience and enter into challenging conversations that deepen our collective understanding. But this deep, focused work must be done primarily on one’s own, so it’s no wonder that when we come up for air, we tend to overcorrect ever so slightly.

I firmly believe that a book (or poem or short story) is not completed until it’s read. But it can be all too easy to give your power away when you engage in the necessary activity of inviting opinions from others. This probably has more than a little to do with the fact that many of the qualities that produce excellent writers also make them unusually willing to ingest and believe what others tell them about themselves — a fearless tendency to question everything; a willingness to court doubt; exquisite sensitivity; perfectionism; and the aforementioned compassionate introversion that gives us the capacity to spend hours alone but doesn’t mean that we don’t crave deep and meaningful connections with others. This might be why, every now and then, when your editor/friend/spouse generates feedback with your best interests in mind, you still wind up contemplating manuscript arson or divorce.

Yet while it will always sting because we will always care, I have found that reminding myself to work from the inside out has helped to protect me from drowning in a sea of my own misguided insecurities. This, incidentally, also produces better work, because working from the inside out involves approaching your writing practice and your work with an intrinsic drive calling the shots. And before you leap to defend yourself, insisting that you only write for yourself and never let other people’s opinions get in your way, take a moment to really think through the last time you worried about what people might think of your work, or whether or not you’ll ever be publishable, or how what you write stands up to the work of some of your favorite writers, or the last time you found yourself nursing old wounds from writing teachers and other horned beasts from the past. And it’s not just these more obvious thoughts that can tip us into the dangerous terrain of working from the outside in; it’s also our own hidden expectations or defensive perfectionism that can get in the way, most of which are generated by way of the warped ways we have taught ourselves to fit in and maintain whatever social status quo our middle school selves fought so hard to maintain. How people see us, in other words, matters. But it should never matter more than what we have to say.

 

Art: Marc Chagall, Le Peintre et Son Double

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Writer’s Log, October 2nd: The Hidden Dangers of Industry

 

Ansel Adams, “Aspens, Northern New Mexico,” 1958

 

I have the privilege of teaching a fantastic group of writers this fall, and last night they reminded me of just how insidious our cultural ideas of what it means to be industrious can be. Within seconds of my asking them what industry looks like, they came up with so many of those loaded words that don’t just fail to define the creative process, but actively work against it. Words like efficiency; productivity; reproduceable results.

I said it then and I’ll say it now: a great way to know that you’re not fully engaged in the creative process is to keep tabs on how efficient, productive, and easily translatable your work is. Naturally, these might not be the adjectives you’d use, but how many of us worry about how quickly our work is moving along, or if we’re getting enough done, or how likely it is we can attract the attention of countless adoring readers or have it converted to a wildly popular HBO series? You don’t have to answer those last questions aloud. But I have yet to meet the writer who doesn’t dwell occasionally in the fantasy land of realizing Rowlingesque popularity. We were, after all, usually the ones with glasses who chose to read in a comfy corner when everyone else was out playing tag football, so it’s only natural that we might be hungry for a few more people to see and celebrate the world the way we do.

That said, it’s just as important that we see how these unhelpful notions of industry are controlling our puppet strings as it is that we avoid them. In other words, in order to tame the beast, you must be willing to see it in all its grisly and backlit glory. What’s more, you will need to regularly revisit the terrain it wanders, being ever vigilant about protecting your creative space from culturally embedded, directly oppositional ideas of what it means to be worthwhile and productive.

Creative work thrives around a willingness to engage uncertainty, to invest in growth instead of product, to keep your mental playground open to discovery, surprise, and emotional truth. As such, it is far more organic than man-made, and whenever we try to force ideas of good work that stem from 20th century factories down its throat, it’s no wonder that it seizes up like an abruptly boneless toddler who has decided that leaving for preschool is no better than being boiled alive. Why does it react with such petulance and immaturity? Because if you continue to ignore its messages in favor of keeping up with J.K. Joneses, it’ll respond accordingly.

If, on the other hand, you treat it as you would tend a garden that might yield the kind of life-giving sustenance you cannot survive without, you’ll enter into an entirely different kind of exchange. If you plant seeds gently and attentively when you’re just starting out, showing gratitude for even the smallest signs of something taking root in the soil you’ve cultivated according to the climate and conditions that work best for it, you will see astonishing things sprout almost overnight. If you go on to shape these wonders according to how well their leaves can receive the light of the sun, you will find eventually see a harvest of extraordinary abundance. And if, after that harvest, you allow for the time your creative soil needs to go fallow and rework its magic in depths far beyond the limitations of the human eye, when renewal tugs at your sleeve yet again, will be more prepared than ever to sow those marvelous new oddities only you can grow.

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Writer’s Log, September 15th: Getting Stuck

We’ve all been there. We’re deep in the throes of a project, happily plugging along when, seemingly out of nowhere, everything grinds to a halt. It’s brutal. Not least because it’s just as likely to happen for no apparent reason whatsoever.

In my closet, there’s a collection of intricately woven, hand-beaded bracelets, each of which takes me several months to create. There are also neglected yarn piles throughout my house, as well as painting supplies, inventive cookie cutters, elaborate baking books, a fully tripped-out tool box I won’t let anyone else touch, half-potted plants, and, more often than not, random collections of other people’s children. To look at my interiors, you might be tempted to think a half-cocked mother hen with serious time management issues lived here. But the reality of what this represents couldn’t be further from the truth.

Other than my own children and family, there’s nothing I’m more devoted to than my writing. And a few decades of such devotion have taught me that there will always be times when the writing appears to dry up. It doesn’t actually dry up – what’s usually happening is some unhelpful collision of overly high expectations and work that just wants to unfold on its own, or a misinterpretation of some pivotal moment that my subconscious is red flagging, or an essential need to put something on the creative back burner without that narrow-minded, self-important rabbit brain of mine breathing down my neck with her insatiable hunger for achievement and word count halitosis.

When I was newer to this process and encountered these road blocks, I’d immediately get my knickers in a twist and call them writer’s block and moan and groan and make myself and everyone around me miserable and want to go lie in the street. A few decades down the road, however, I’ve learned that when my writing doesn’t go according to plan, it’s rarely a sign that it’s on the verge of failure. Quite the opposite, in fact. When my writing surprises me – even if the surprise is an unpleasant one – it’s almost always a sign that the parts of my mind responsible for creativity, invention, insight, artistry, and dismantling the impossible have grown strong enough to arrest that rabbit brain in her tracks. A full, intuitive stop, in other words, while rarely pleasant to experience, is frequently just what the muse ordered.

Knowing this makes it much easier to weather, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t still scowl and grumble when I’m sure that my absolute best intentions have been unceremoniously thwarted. Still, I find that it’s a thousand times easier to manage if I step away from the work AND keep the creative juices flowing. Because I now know that it’s not that my work has stalled because I’m dried up and done for – it’s that I’m at a pivotal turning point, and I need to simultaneously relinquish the reins and watch how the horse runs on its own. Not to give up and turn my back on it because it won’t behave, but to step back and broaden my vision of how it might move forward.

Practically speaking, this means redirecting your energies toward anything that allows you to relieve some of the pressure on your work without interrupting the impulse to flood and nourish the creative mind. For me, this usually looks like any variety of creative engagement, as described above. It can also look like a general reengagement in something meaningful – turning your attention to someone or something else outside of you that might benefit from that visceral warmth and play you’ve been squirreling away so jealously for your work. I’m fairly certain that if it invites the qualities of expansiveness, optimism, and humor, you’ve nailed it, whether it’s finger painting with your neighbor’s toddler or finding a non-judgmental way to rediscover your love of color and texture.

The key, I think, is to allow for the redirection instead of fighting it, keeping your mind and heart open even if your ego is feeling a bit bruised. After all, the only time a bruised ego really hurts anyone is when we act on the sulkiness and naval gazing it inspires. And creativity always flourishes when its given the largest playground possible, one with clear views to the world outside even from its highest and emptiest hills.

 

Art: Andrew Wyeth, Her Room

 

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Writer’s Log, August 31, 2018: Moving On

There’s a saying in literature that a work is never done, it’s only abandoned. As reckless and mildly demoralizing as this is, I think it’s often true. There’s always a feeling that we could be doing more, or better. No matter how long or hard we’ve worked, there remains a sneaking suspicion that there are hidden arrangements of words lurking just beyond our reach. And sometimes the only way to stop going after them is to simply go turkey. End it. Full stop.

It gives you a little chill, doesn’t it? I know. It might help to know that you’re not alone. It took me ten years to write one modest book of poetry, and then I went on to become a novelist. You can only imagine how agonizing I find the idea of releasing three hundred or so pages. I’d much rather swim in the deep waters of our lexicon endlessly, entranced by the fact that it might just have depths unseen by human eyes. But one does get tired after a while. And I think it’s perhaps this, more than anything, that’s difficult to swallow. Even if we were able to spend every waking moment of our lives typing at lightning speed, we’d wouldn’t ever get close to stringing together every last marvelous combination of words, much less shape them into readable/digestible packages.

We cannot, in other words, ever reach the end. There is no end, as far as a writer’s work is concerned. One must, instead, pay attention to what the writer has to give a particular work. Some works – such as that modest body of poems – actually respond to being set aside again and again, reworked, tinkered with, shaped. Those poems were started when I first became a mother, and while they captured those first, vivid impressions of pregnancy and early childhood, I really did need some distance to shape them into something whole. Other works can be written in a flurry of creative inspiration, which has never really happened to me, but I’m sure it’s true for some of you greater humans out there. But I have had the experience of entire sections of a novel arriving in my lap after months of weathering the sort of dry spell I was sure would leave be creatively desiccated. The bottom line is that for most writers, there is no such thing as a steady flow throughout our lifetimes, and it becomes our job to recognize when a seed is done blooming, or a field must go fallow. And there’s no science to this. Each case is unique, each ending its own. We’re not, after all, accountants. We don’t clock in and out, sitting at a desk in a cubicle, serving dutifully at the exquisitely tame altar of calculation until retirement. Most of us never, in fact, retire.

But what we get in return is incalculably life-affirming. Our puzzles will never be solved, will never leave us twiddling our thumbs and wondering what’s next. Our words will never truly abandon us, leaving us speechless and empty. Yet while it’s true that language will never be conquered, it’s also true that it never stops offering us the chance to be engaged, to drink deeply of wonder. And we can offer ourselves that chance to step aside when we’ve had too much, to enjoy the delicious period of self-pitying recuperation before we get tired of our own moaning and groaning and leap back into the stream, perhaps even allowing ourselves that sweet, private yalp to escape us as we do. Because while we may feel sometimes that we’ll drown in it, it’s actually the very thing that keeps us afloat.

Art: Pablo Picasso, Mediterranean Landscape

 

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Writer’s Log, August 15th: The Mental Load

I’m usually not a big fan of pithy phrases to describe the human experience, but I make a pointed exception when it comes to the mental load. If you’ve never come across this phrase, it stems from an effort to define that condition so many primary caregivers suffer from; namely, the psychological weight of being constantly preoccupied with the thousand-and-one behind-the-scenes details of keeping a family and household together.

It’s been an enormously useful concept to me as a parent, but I’ve also found it useful to see it at work in my writing. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that we’re susceptible to mental overload in any arena where our passions and ideals far exceed our capacity. And while I generally embrace the idea of shooting for the stars, it can be ever so slightly demoralizing when you realize exactly how many of them there are in the sky. And that they’re all glittering and mysterious and enticing and fascinating, and before you know it you’ve stopped reaching and are lying in the grass, dumbfounded and immobilized.

This has never been truer for me than now, six months into writing my first historical novel. It’s usually pretty challenging to juggle the mental load of a book-length fictional work-in-progress, but now I find myself navigating over five hundred volumes that comprise the existing body of work on my topic. Needless to say, there are days when all I really manage to do is play whack-a-mole with all the seemingly critical information I’ve got to sift through, but when I’m on my game, I remember two important things. One, the mental load is something I’ve had a large hand in creating, which means it’s also something I can significantly reduce; and two, when it comes to doing meaningful work, doing it all has nothing on doing it right.

To my first point: It’s tempting to feel as if the mental load is something being imposed on you. What’s worse, the more strenuous the mental load becomes, the more it feels like it’s something beyond your control. But the truth is that what we pay attention to is largely under our control. We might stop briefly at a light and feel like we can’t help but be consumed by concerns over what’s for dinner and who’s getting the groceries and how much money you’ve been spending and whether or not that mole on your daughter’s foot is really something you need to worry about and whether that stubborn bit of fat between your armpit and bra strap is ever going to go away, but you don’t actually have to. Similarly, we might feel like we’ll never get anywhere in our novel if we don’t first read everything ever written on, say, Asian tea ceremonies over the past 5,000 years before even thinking of letting our characters share a cuppa, but we don’t actually have to.

Which leads me to my second point. When it comes to doing meaningful creative work, it’s never about checking all the boxes. If it were, anyone with any kind of personal connection to their work would go lie in the street, because the more you care about something, the more you see ways you can devote your attention to it. This is true in parenting and writing and in life. The truth is, though, that one, good family dinner a week – even if it’s only twenty minutes long – is so much better that a week’s worth of menus if it means you’re able to really laugh and listen while you’re there. And knowing when to set the encyclopedic volumes or maps or voices aside to devote your attention to one thoughtful, authentically written moment is a thousand times more productive than however many more reams of paper you might have used up to flush out your notes.

Sure, things will get left aside. Important things, sometimes, in work and in life. But not getting hurt or disappointed and never hurting or disappointing anyone are unrealistic goals. Instead, set your sights on what’s manageable, which is knowing that at any given moment, you can return to the core of why you do what you do, and embrace even the smallest of victories you find there.

 

Art: Roy De ForestAutobiography of a Sunflower Merchant, 1962-1963

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