Writer’s Log, December 3rd: Necessary Evils

 

Let’s face it. Even the most thoughtful criticism is painful, whether the feeling is of being mildly stung or outright gutted. I don’t care how evolved or accomplished you are or that you have the emotional skin of a reptile; no one likes to hear that their work isn’t landing well with a reader. Even if that reader is someone you never really liked anyway and who is dead to you now.

I’ve been in this writing game for over two decades, and it still feels like my baby got kicked in the teeth every time I get a less-than-ideal response from a good reader. It’s not unlike the first time someone threw sand at my son at the park. Sure, it was another two-year-old, and my son was in the habit of taking toys and asking questions later, but that didn’t stop the visceral reaction of wanting to TAKE THAT KID OUT. Chock it up to human nature. When we put our hearts out there without protecting them with artifice or inauthenticity, even the smallest bruise can put our fight-or-flight responses into overdrive.

Still, without feedback, we go nowhere. Writing is, ultimately, an act of communication, so the written work can’t truly be finished until it’s read. How, then, to survive the discomfort of getting read? At first, our instincts might tell us there is only one possible option. Licking our wounds in outrage, we will want to hate everyone and everything and go live in a cave. We must wait for this to pass. Because avoiding feedback altogether, no matter how much it stings or has us begging for mercy, is to fail, fundamentally, at believing in ourselves and the writing process. That’s because every single piece of feedback you will receive is valuable, and knowing that is the key to navigating the treacherous terrain that comes with it.

Before you get your panties in a wad, yes, I do understand that sometimes the actual feedback we get can be crappy and otherwise unhelpful. In my experience, few people are actually very skilled at giving feedback, so more often than not, you’ll be on the receiving end of a hot mess of hemming and hawing. But even this feedback is helpful, for two essential reasons. One, it will teach you to stand up for what you believe in, if the feedback you’re receiving is truly unhelpful and has far more to do with what the reader wants for you than what you want for yourself. And two, it will teach you to tell the difference between criticism that raises your hackles because it’s off base, and criticism that raises your hackles because it shines a light on weaknesses you kinda sorta hoped no one else would notice.

If you’re lucky enough, you’ll develop relationships with readers who will offer you the latter, and you must treat them with tremendous gratitude and respect. (At least to their faces. It might take a squidge more time not to shake your sweaty fists in their general direction. S’okay. We’ve all been there.) But over time, you’ll realize that the only way you can fail as a writer is to avoid the growth available to you, even if it comes in the shape of ogres who find your main character “boring and obnoxious” (actual quotation from a family member who read my first novel. Clearly, I’m still not totally over that one.).

Please understand that I am not suggesting you develop a thick skin and get over it. Not even a little. We are writers! We care! We make ourselves vulnerable on purpose, because writing in a meaningful fashion matters, as does putting our hearts out there and reaching beyond our comfort zones and doing all sorts of other things that defy those who insist that toughness is power and self-righteousness is defensible. So please, by all means, lick your wounds. Cry a little. Maybe cry a little more than your partner or writing group or friendly neighborhood mental health professional might advise. Give yourself a little time to be terribly sympathetic with yourself and roll around moaning in self pity, if it helps you in shedding that tired old layer of skin.

So go out there, and share – not because you’re sure what you’ve written is just so amazing that even Harold Bloom’s jaw will drop open when he reads it, or because you wrote it last night and would rather sadistically subject yourself to premature discouragement than maybe read it over a few times yourself — but because your work is worth reading. And because you know that writing is to be shared and developed in communities of invested citizens, not entombed in dusty drawers. Be as brave and compassionate as you already know you are, and maybe, one day, someone will return the favor by presenting you with their new and growing work, and you will have learned to recognize it as the gift it truly is.

 

 

Art: George Braque, Nature Morte

Writer’s Log, November 15th: Responsibility

For the past eight weeks, I’ve been teaching an incredible group of writers. And as much as I hope they’re learning something by listening so generously to me, I suspect I’m the one coming out ahead. Thanks to their questions during our last class, for instance, I found myself articulating something it’s taken me years to fully realize, despite the simplicity of the general idea. It is this: We are 100% responsible for our own writing.

Perhaps that seems 100% obvious. But while most of us, if pressed, might ease our way toward this realization, we oftentimes fail to act on it. Maybe this is because, as writers, we always have potential audiences yammering away in our heads, or we’re always worrying about whether or not agents and publishers will ever look our way, or we’re afraid our mother will find out that the witch in Chapter Three is not fiction after all. Not even a little bit.

But at the end of the day, whether or not we write is up to us. Responsibility, as someone once told me, isn’t just about what we need to take care of – it’s also about how we choose to respond. It’s a little annoying to realize this. I, for one, would much rather pass an afternoon nursing my emotional bruises so tenderly that I ultimately convince myself that I really can’t/shouldn’t write, after all, and that I need to spend the afternoon eating chocolate and staring at a screen because I’m feeling so very sorry for myself. This is delicious work, let me tell you. But ultimately, it sours. Ultimately, it’s far more empowering and invigorating to shut down the pity party and realize this glorious thing: No matter what happens, no matter what anyone says, no matter how many real or imagined rejections I receive, all I have to do to write is pull out a piece of paper and a pencil.

And, as I’ve said so many times before, the more we write, the better the writing becomes. I don’t simply mean that we produce better writing, though that is true. But what counts, what changes our lives is when the writing — the expression of our voices, the discovery of new lines of thought and connection, the relationship to language and communication – gets better. This is worth sacrificing any number of afternoons on the couch, no matter how soft and comforting it might be there. The feeling of new muscles flexing and our hearts beating surely and soundly; this is what it feels like to actually be living our lives.

 

Art: Georgia O’Keefe, White Flower #1

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

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.

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