Writer’s Log, May 23: Fun Shaming

Every now and then, I’ll meet someone who comes to a full stop when I tell them I’m a novelist. “What?” they’ll say. “A novelist,” I’ll say, and then, because I’m super helpful I add, “I write fiction.” “Wow,” they’ll say, “Really?” “Really,” I say, trying to will the tics from kicking in.  “Have you published anything?” they’ll stutter next. “I have,” I say. “Wow,” they say, relieved, “Good for you! That must be so much fun!”

At which point I usually fail colossally in holding up my side of this particular type of social exchange and make some sort of mildly subversive, slightly dejected attempt to explain how much work being a literary novelist in 21st century America can be.

But what I wish I had the courage to say is this: “Yes. It is fun!”

Because the truth is, it is fun. And that’s an important truth. In fact, it isn’t just the fun of novel writing that inspired me to devote as much as I could to it long before I ever had a hope of being published; it’s the very fact that I do find my work fun (among other things) that proves, in my mind, that it’s the most important work I could do.

So many of us hold ourselves back from admitting how essential fun is to good work. We think of fun, and we think of goofing off, taking valuable time away from work, playing hooky from our real responsibilities. And yet we wonder why we get stuck in our careers, why we no longer generate the great ideas we had when we were young and simply thrilled to have a job, why we obsess so much more over what isn’t working than what is.

Somewhere along the way, I think we made the very grave mistake of conflating dedication with seriousness. We got very fearful of ourselves, and became convinced that if we let loose on a regular basis, we would fall down the slippery slope of being unproductive, slothful, and generally out of hand. Even now, as you read this, I’m sure it’s making you a little uncomfortable. Heck, it’s making me a little uncomfortable to write it. I don’t want you to think I’m encouraging everyone in the world to take their tops off in Times Square and go for broke. But I, too, need to be reminded of the difference between having fun because it’s a healthy and natural part of the human mind’s impulse to be engaged and thriving and thrilled, and a tendency to behave like a drunk teenager on perpetual spring break.

Of course it makes sense that no one will get anything done without dedication, a ton of grit, and a healthy dose of good sense. But by the same token, we can’t expect to get our best work done if we’re not flourishing. After all, is joy really something we need to actively avoid? Is that why we’re wired to seek it? Why it makes us feel more powerful, more flexible, and more creative? And if we’re constantly playing Whack-a-Mole with activities that invite joy, fluidity, and creative fast balls, how can we expect to produce in the age of innovation and invention? A related question: When have personal flourishing and success ever really been at odds with each other?

Where I live, in Silicon Valley, people have a lot of fun. They’re mocked for it regularly; but they keep doing it. Sadly, no one here is doing anything worthwhile or interesting, and we’re all dying early of heart attacks. I miss the Boston that raised me, but sometimes I think I had to come out here in order to really embrace the person I most needed to become; the fullest, most ridiculous(ly productive) version of myself.

The photo I’ve shared with you was taken when I was around three years old. Fun fact: I recently discovered that my family has been showing me only the “pretty” pictures of myself when I was little; much to my delight, I found a treasure trove including this one of me looking like a miniature Latke Gravas on the days he forgot the Brylcream while going through my parents’ storage locker. The truth is, I knew I always had a miniature Latke Gravas inside me, and it saddens me that I ever shut her (him?) up just so I could look a little prettier, appear a little more somber in my family of full professors and widely respected doctors. And for the first three decades of my life, I did manage to fake it in the world of Serious Work. But look at me here, at the typewriter, with my sunglasses upside down, frisbee at the ready — in my natural state. I see this photo and I just think: Thank God that at least I eventually remembered I was supposed to have fun. What’s more, I suspect we all have such photos in our archives. Where are you in yours? What are you doing? Have you ever felt more genuine or more engaged? Is it really so far from here to there?

 

 

 

 

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Writer’s Log, May 16th: Artistry and Athleticism

Artists and athletes are rarely grouped together. It’s hard to see the similarities between, say, Tom Brady and Toni Morrison. Heck, it’s hard to even wrap your mind around the fact that Simon Biles and Truman Capote are of the same species. But the things artists could learn from athletes could, well, fill a book.

Unfortunately, we are waaayyyy behind when it comes to understanding how to help artist flourish in this country. That might have a little something to do with the fact that most working artists could probably find their entire annual salary in the cushions of Tiger Woods’ couch, but I digress. The good news is that a little education can usually go a lot farther than a lot of money.

To begin with, now that we’re well into the second decade of the 21st century, it’s time we unburden ourselves of those hundred-year-old, mis-educative ideas of artistry so many of us are still laboring under. Romanticism is over, peeps. No one works well under the conditions provided by fickle muses, self-sacrificing devotion, glorified mental illness, and/or substance abuse. And while we might all generally understand why these notions don’t work as driving forces behind artistry, we’ve done really little to try to improve on them. And it’s starting to piss me off.

It makes me so angry, for example, when I run into a would-be writer who believes she can’t write because when she sits down to write, it doesn’t go well. Or that she doesn’t have enough time. Or talent. Where else does this thinking work? Would we ever tell a budding football player to give up and go get an MBA if his passes were falling short during practice? It’s past time we all embrace the unglamorous and empowering fact that artistic practice is infinitely more practical and boring than we’ve allowed ourselves to believe.

As a case in point, I spent approximately thirty years waiting for my muse to show up, or my talent to rise to the occasion. Then, after my third child was born, I accidentally started running. I was wrecked from three C-sections in five years, but with my kids (aka three people who couldn’t read) calling the shots, I couldn’t exactly sign up for an exercise class and expect to ever get there on time. So I learned to seize whatever moment came along, lace up my sneaks, and run until I had to come home.

Turns out, showing up for myself whenever I could and keeping my expectations down taught me more in a year than a lifetime of misguided notions about art ever could. Athletes, I learned, don’t decide they’re talented and unworthy if their training isn’t going well. They just keep training. They don’t give into horrible stories about themselves if they’re one mile into an unusually painstaking run; in fact, they get through the next two miles by recognizing that they’ve got to improve their mental game, or just get out of their own heads. They deal with exhaustion and injury by resting. They know that if they fill up with junk, they’re not treating themselves; they’re undoing their own best efforts. They learn to stay level-headed, to develop mental grit, to appreciate that they are their own best coaches, to remember to breathe even when stretching themselves to their limits. The best of them, in other words, are unfailingly practical and understand that how they treat themselves is directly related to how far they’re going to get.

Similarly, when we show up to our writing practices and see them as practices, we get our best work done. When we politely sidestep the terrible stories we like to tell ourselves when things aren’t going well, when we recognize that both ten pages and ten words of writing represent some kind of progress and drop the self-flagellation, when we recognize that there will be weeks when we need to shoehorn practice in between all the other demands of life and don’t make that into a story about not having enough time, when we see missteps as par for the course, when we remember to breathe – these are all the things that sustain a healthy writing practice.

Being an artist, in other words, is just that: a way of being in the world, not an identity that is defined by abstract things like talent, muses, or the public. It’s much more boring to think of it this way, but it is thousands of times more rewarding. And if you absolutely must keep your eyes on the prize, the wonderful irony is, when it comes to any investment in the heart – whether that be athletic or artistic — the more we invest in the day-to-day, the more likely we are to realize the truly exceptional.

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Writer’s Log, May 9th: Colic and Creativity

When my delightful older son was an infant, he was sort of a colicky hot mess. He was big and beautiful and loud and sweaty and hungry and tired and spitting up and screaming about 80% of the time. As new parents with no infant experience, my husband and I found this ever so slightly unnerving. My husband dealt with it by doing whatever he could to soothe the baby, which usually involved coming home from work, taking off his shirt, and walking endless loops around the apartment with our boy sucking contentedly on his forearm, sometimes for hours at a time. But I, who was home alone with the baby most of the time, often found myself at my wits end, undone by the baby’s distress and about to cry myself.

Here’s the thing. He only had a few simple needs. For the most part, he was unhappy because he was tired, hungry, in need of a diaper change, or just straight up colicky. And also for the most part, these needs could be simply met. But when I was in the midst of it, when he’d worked himself into a lather (sometimes literally: we were working with a lot of drool), the wiser part of me who could step outside of the situation and see it for what it was got blocked by the part of me who couldn’t bear another hour of crying and just froze.

And because I have such a gift for adding insult to injury, I started to wonder if I just wasn’t cut out for this motherhood thing. After all, the viper inside me reasoned, if I couldn’t remember to do a basic check of my baby’s needs when he was suffering, how could I expect to get him through middle school? It was a real party inside my head, let me tell you.

So I had to work with myself where I was – in the place where there seems to be no discernible learning curve, where you just care too much about what you’re doing to ever fully distance yourself enough from it to come up with some kind of foolproof game plan for managing it – and I made myself a list. It was a very simple list, so I could check it even when my brain was threatening a total systems shutdown, and it went something like this: diaper, food, nap, fever, colicky despair. And I put it right out in the open on my favorite appliance: the refrigerator.

I’ve since learned two important things: one, that there are lots of similarities between how to take good care of someone you love and how to take good care of yourself; and two, it’s oftentimes the situations that you do throw yourself into wholeheartedly that are most susceptible to a total freeze. Think about it: When your heart goes all in, it’s not so easy to pull up and pull back.

Take writing, for instance. Despite all I know and all I’ve learned after two decades studying the art from the inside out, it’s more essential to me than ever, which means I still find myself in situations where I need a note on the refrigerator, particularly when I’m working on a new project. It’s not even that different from the one I put up when I was a new parent: Have you eaten? Have you exhausted yourself? Are your standards too high? Are you working at your writing? Are you, in effect, a hot colicky mess, and do you need to take a time out? They’re deceptively simple questions, and may not look like much here. But oftentimes, I’m stuck because I’m in my own way, and doing even the most basic things to get myself back on track can work wonders. Because when you bring your wholehearted self into a new task, you can both forget the most fundamental rules of self-care — as a person and as an artist — and you have never needed to rely on them more.

So don’t expect a steep learning curve as you continue to pursue your writing. In fact, it’s much more useful to expect that if you’re doing things right, if you’re reaching out with everything that you have, willing to fall flat on your face, you’re not necessarily going to be cool-headed enough all the time to remember what it is you need to move forward. But you will. Even if you need a note on the refrigerator. Because just as it’s useful to drop your expectations when you’re writing, it’s also useful to drop your expectations of yourself as a writer. So do whatever it takes to get yourself fed, watered, and optimized for work. The writing will always follow. Maybe not according to your greatest plans or most diligent designs, but what great writing ever does?

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Writer’s Log, May 2: Watch Your Language

I wish I could use this phrase more often. Actually, I do, when I’m alone and talking to myself. Which is fairly often. How else do you think I became a writer?

But I wish I could encourage other to use it, too, because I find it to be one of the most useful pieces of writing advice out there. All too often, I think people lose their way as writers because they’re not watching their language. Either they’re too busy watching someone else’s language – a writer they admire and wish to emulate; an old English teacher who drilled stifling vocabulary lessons into their heads on perfectly good Friday mornings – or they’re just not paying attention to their own. As a result, they wind up allowing voices that belong to others take over their work. And while many people can write passably without their own voices at the helm, there’s a big difference between captaining your own ship and just going along for the ride.

In other words, when we don’t watch our language, we jeopardize the potential breadth and depth of what we might have to say. Yet so few people seem to realize that they have a right to write in a voice that feels natural to them. For example, I can’t tell you how many freshman compositions I’ve seen that are shot through with multisyllabic obfuscations. (Yes, that’s as bad as it sounds. It should probably be considered for entry into the DSM). Or worse yet, essays that are hesitant and bland, clearly written by someone whose personal expression has been beaten into submission.

They even have a hard time believing me when I tell them that every halfway intelligent human being has within her a language that can truly speak to her experiences and way of seeing the world. That each of us has a language that only we hear and speak; the language our loved ones use when speaking to us; the language we use to tell the truth; the language we use to rationalize our most desperate lies. It’s also the language we hear on the streets we frequent, the turns of phrases and diction and pacing and word choice that lets us know we’re home, or at least somewhere familiar.

So how do you know if you’ve found your own language? Well, if you’re just starting out or need a refresher, as so many of us usually do, you can ask yourself some key questions. Are you worrying more about how people will read your work than what you most want to say? Are you writing in fits and starts, getting halfway through sentences only to delete them in hostile acts of keyboard aggression? Are you using words that you think make you look smart, or words that have been on your tongue and in your heart?

This evaluation process is hard, but it’s more rewarding than you’d ever imagine. Because it’s the gateway to your best writing, the kind of writing that only you can generate. Don’t get me wrong – your language will not be entirely unique, but it will have a certain essence, a certain energy that comes from someone who trusts that her life matters. This is far more complex and nuanced than where you’re from, or how you were educated (or miseducated), though those things do come into play. For example, I grew up just outside of Boston, but it would be a real stretch for me to attempt a Southie accent, in person or on the page. But I also grew up listening to more than my fair share of recorded stories – my dad loved radio; my mother folk singers – so I internalized the music of a sung story at an early age.

So it’s not just about how you shape the medium of language. It’s about how you tune into the frequency of your story, those subtle shifts that speak to a truth only you can articulate. It may not be the noblest or most profound truth, but it’s the song your voice is ideally suited to carry. The kind of song that, incidentally, makes the most memorable music.

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Writer’s Log, April 24th: Maybe It’s Just a Misunderstanding

We all want to blame the writing. When it’s not going well, we scowl at our creations, muttering horrible things about them under our breath and indulging in violent fantasies that involve the delete key and/or the shredder. And indeed, any kind of writing that goes beyond composing grocery lists or taking dictation is apt to misbehave. At its best, writing can be a form of thinking through our experiences and observations, arriving at surprising discoveries and insights along the way. In a way, your writing gives you the chance to encounter parts of yourself that you’re forced to ignore in the service of getting through the more superficial demands of everyday, the busy rabbit part of our brain sending us here and there so we won’t be late and we’ll get dinner on the table and remember our mother’s birthday. But there’s so much more to the mind than scheduling.

Getting to other parts of your mind takes work, though, and not just the kind of work we associate with things like flogging and toiling. It’s more like the kind of work you need to bring to a relationship, because you’re building a relationship to your deeper self and the world around you when you engage in the act of writing. And just as our closest relationships challenge us to see ourselves in new and deeper ways, you and your writing will only flourish when you figure out how to navigate through rocky patches that arise between you. And just as berating our loved ones doesn’t help to improve the relationships we have with them — even when they’re at their most frustrating – your writing won’t really respond if you only respond with rage, self-loathing, and/or despair when it won’t bow to your will.

Oftentimes, rereading my drafts still makes my hackles rise and/or triggers my gag reflex. But if I go with those reactions, I usually just get stuck. If I can manage instead to take a step back and try to see what the writing is doing – instead of focusing on what it isn’t doing – if I listen and notice without imposing my expectations on it, something almost always releases. Maybe a scene isn’t working because the particular intimacy I wanted for those characters has evolved into something else (if I’m lucky, maybe their relationship has developed new complications and depth). Maybe a dialogue is flat because I’ve already decided how I want it to end, or I’m overwriting it, not allowing the characters’ voices speak for themselves. Or maybe a kernel of emotional truth I didn’t even know was there has begun to blossom, and if I cultivate it well enough, I might wind up taking the story in a direction that is much more powerful and interesting than the “reason” why I decide to write in the first place.

Overall, the willingness to learn from the writing even when it’s not going well requires that we trust in more than the final product. It means we trust in what the process can show us along the way, to see it as a relationship that benefits from open-mindedness, patience, and a true desire to grow. So as temporarily satisfying as it might be to pitch a fit and go around slamming doors when your manuscript isn’t doing what you want, your writing will go so much further if you can take a minute to just listen to it. I know this is maybe not the advice you want to hear, but since when are relationships easy? Especially the ones most worth having?

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