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?

Grammar Police and Word Nerds

Lately, on my weekly runs (aka meditative jogs), I’ve been listening to a podcast called “The History of English.” I have to confess that my first thought when coming across the ninety-plus episode podcast on iTunes went something along the lines of, WTF? Who can a) talk that much about the history of a language and still have new things to say; and b) make this sound like anything but the aural equivalent of watching paint dry? I mean, I love linguistic nuggets as much as the next writer, but ninety-plus episodes of one guy talking mostly about white Europeans? Wasn’t that my junior year in high school?

But in all honesty, I think I also feared an endless reckoning with all the things I don’t know about this language I live, love, and write in. Because, as this sentence (which begins unconventionally) and the last (which ends in a preposition) show, all writers secretly worry about the grammar police. (Even if we’re deputy members of their squad, we still worry.)

In their defense, grammar police are generally well-meaning folks who are rightly concerned about the obfuscation and general misuses of language. They find themselves bruised and battered by the carelessness with which many people speak and write, and it makes them testy. Oftentimes, their deeply embedded concerns surface in socially awkward attempts to correct those who are bandying the language about like intoxicated cowboys. Unfortunately, this behavior frequently backfires and leaves those who might otherwise wish to know how to be better speakers and writers feeling chastised and sore.

But much to my delight, “The History of English” turns out to be written and narrated by Kevin Strout, a honey-voiced lawyer who speaks with the insight and intelligence of a seasoned linguist, but who clearly just loves to geek out over how this strange and wonderful beast we call the English language has been Frankensteined into existence.

I can’t tell you what an itch this scratches for me. And it’s also brought me to a realization: there are lots of us out there who care deeply about the language but don’t have the inclination or desire to become members of the grammar police. I was one of those kids who would tear through a book without looking up a single word because I didn’t want anyone interrupting my stories, much less those restrictive voices that lie within definitions. But while I would never want to interrupt any kid riding a literary wave, avoiding dictionaries and style guides until I was in graduate school probably wasn’t the way to go. Ultimately, anyone who works with language is going to need to develop some kind of working understanding of how its structure affects its meaning. Which makes me wonder: Is there a way to care deeply, to acquire deeper knowledge (in this and other things), without becoming, as they say, too high-falutin’?

Maybe it’s just about speaking out and up about the value of being a word nerd. To insist that we have as deep and intelligent an engagement with language as our more formal counterparts, but that we’d rather spend more time blown away by how weird and wonderful language is than trying to reign it in. We study grammar books insofar as they help us to manipulate the nuances of what can be said and how, not because we hope to become authorities on the subject. We’re OK with tripping over our own words in deep conversations, knowing it’s probably because we chose to read a few more stories instead of completing our due diligence with a dictionary, and that it’s the conversation that matters above all. And while many of us are teachers, we’re more students than anything; more eager to be dumbfounded than proclaimed expert. After all, who wants the responsibility of saying she knows it all, even when it comes to even the smallest area of knowledge? What’s the use of knowing everything about anything? Wouldn’t that just mean you’re, well, done?

I love to lurch my way through Scientific American every now and then, and I’m always struck by the tone of awe and delight that comes through when existing theories are proven to be incorrect. Informal studies of language will never be awarded the same gravitas and attention as, say, astrophysics, but I think the willingness they lend to explore those terrains grammar and its brethren cannot access makes them just as important. Because just as studies of the solar system invite our brains to explode with the vast, incomprehensible nature of the universe, the act of putting words to human experience is as incomprehensibly variable and rich as humanity itself.

Living with Fear

I’m pretty sure that you’d have to be living under a rock if you haven’t felt a significant increase in fear over the past several months. Actually, I think even those of you under those rocks are feeling a bit insecure these days, peeking out at the rest of us running around like chickens with their heads cut off and wondering when we’re going to stop kicking all the dust around.

It’s pretty hard to create in the middle of all this. But you know what’s harder? Not creating. Let me explain.

The darkness is always there. Even when we think everything’s hunky dory, somewhere, it’s just not. This is not a phenomena new to the 21st century, either. If anything, the surge we had in awareness around human rights issues of all kinds in the last few decades was a breakthrough, a huge divergence from the cavemen mentalities so many of us had been laboring under for so long. And whenever breakthroughs happen, there are severe backlashes. That said, no matter how evolved we eventually become – and I do believe that we will move beyond this, and make further breakthroughs – we will always be afraid of what we don’t know, and our knowledge will always be limited.

Wait a dang second, you’re thinking. This is supposed to be a pep talk?

Yes, it is. Because I’m going to go against the grain of the white male patriarchy for just a sec and say that the thing to fear is not fear itself. In fact, if we fear our fear, we just encourage it. Just as a for instance, say we are writers who are too afraid to create because we’ve just had it up to here with fear lately, thank you very much, and we think it’s time to look into accounting. We can do that – it would be a good way to avoid fear temporarily – but we will have done exactly what fear wants us to do to keep it alive. We will have avoided our most meaningful experiences and expressions, thus rendering ourselves even more unhappy and insecure — opening the opportunity for fear to muscle in just a little bit more.

This doesn’t mean that we won’t feel fear, or that we can expect to get all enlightened and walk through our fears as if we don’t feel how painfully they burn our feet when we most want to move forward. Fear cannot be eradicated. For as long as humans are alive, we will break each others’ hearts. The trick is, I think, is to move forward anyway. Not because we are heartless, but because we are courageous. Courage comes from the French word for heart: Coeur. It means to have heart not just when there are rainbows and unicorns dancing around us, but when someone’s kicking the unicorns and saying rainbows don’t exist. The very moment, in fact, when we most want to turn inward is the moment to turn outward, to stand up and say we are absolutely, 110% terrified, that we are living with an unacceptable amount of fear, and that we are going to live through it and beyond it. Because fear is most dangerous when it festers, when we think it’s more than we or our loved ones can handle, and we try to either pretend it’s not there, or that we can overcome it. Those things are not happening; trust me, I’ve tried both six ways from Sunday.

But something far more astonishing is possible: to be joyous and creative and open-hearted and loving even when your heart is breaking under the strain of, say, simply reading the newspaper, or trying to live through the staggering humanitarian backlash on parade right now. We can live through this fear. We can create through this fear. We can do these things for ourselves, and for others, as a reminder that fear is nothing more than a bully who fights dirty because he knows he can never truly win.

Distractions

As I sit here writing this, my husband is on the phone talking to his dad about retirement, my fourteen-year-old is cursing his math teacher under his breath while loudly sniffling from the cold he insists he doesn’t have, and my twelve-year-old daughter is making motions I don’t think she should know yet to film music videos on Musically. Meanwhile, my cat, who came in from outside this afternoon with a mysterious bloody scratch across his nose, has been trying to perform a Vulcan Mind Meld on me for the past fifteen minutes so I’ll change his food. Oh wait. He just jumped up and settled his chin across the upper right quadrant of my keyboard, his latest trick. Which is now making my fourteen-year-old stop cursing his math teacher long enough to look up and laugh, and my daughter to gently remind me for the fifteenth time that I promised to play a game with her. But at least my nine-year-old is in the shower! He’s just finishing the fourth Harry Potter book, and likes to give me a blow-by-blow of every development the moment after he reads it.

Let me be clear: I have never been happier, and my family is 95% of the reason behind that. But also, the life I’ve gladly created for myself makes a writing practice just a tiny bit challenging to create.

Usually, I avoid doing what I’ve just done: namely, taking stock of all the distractions in my life that, when added together, clearly point toward my having no chance of having a complete thought until at least 2031. Indeed, when I think of all these distractions, when I let them Mean something, it feels like my writing is going to have to go under for good.

As a species, we have never been more distracted. And of course distractions can sabotage all the best creative intentions. But there’s a big difference between letting them build into a larger sign that your writing practice will never get off the ground, and just navigating them as they come. It’s a subtle difference, but enormously helpful. There are certainly days when no act of God or man will help you protect the writing time you set aside, but on most days, if you don’t let what’s already distracted you affect how you feel when you do get time aside, even five minutes alone can keep you connected to your practice. And you’d be surprised what even five minutes a day devoted to tuning everything else out and visiting your creative mind space can do toward keeping your writing practice – and your writing itself – alive. It might only happen at 11:30 when you’re doing the dishes and thinking through that latest plot twist, but that counts, too. One minute of quality time devoted to a work when that’s all you have is no less significant than one minute of quality time devoted to a work when you have a hundred minutes to spare.

Like any lifelong activity, your practice must be resilient. It must be built up to flourish not only during those mythical weeks of time we all dream of having one day in the unspecified future to write, but in the moments between parenting or teaching or earning the money you need to keep a roof over your head. And believing in its resiliency – not deciding that you can’t write because you have children or a job to hold down or are otherwise occupied in the service of staying afloat and earning your keep – can do wonders to actually make it resilient. So don’t let the distractions or discouragements or roadblocks infect you; just see them for what they are, and get creative about sidestepping them – or using them for the inspiration and humor and life experience that are essential to all great works of art.

Efficiency Is Not Your Friend

Thanks to a five-week jury service and a series of colorful ailments that my children have been generously sharing with each other, yesterday was the first time I returned to my novel-in-progress in a few months. And while I’m a huge fan of letting the fields go fallow every now and then, it’s never easy to return.

One of the not-so-helpful but incredibly stubborn ways I have of coping with opening a document that’s collected its share of virtual dust is to don my good little student britches and get to work. Yesterday, this took the form of deciding to sketch out the novel in its entirety – broad strokes only, of course, even my inner control freak thinks she’s reasonable – AND discovering a new way of sketching out novels in their entirety. I read about note cards and inventive Word documents and Excel templates until I found myself staring glassy-eyed into my new, free-for-30-days copy of MindManager, a program I’d describe as something Martha Stewart and Spinoza might come up with if they had to tunnel out of prison.

Anyway, it will come as no surprise to any of YOU that once I had my chosen diagram and templates in place, I had no idea how I wanted to fill them in. My creative self was effectively DOA, killed off by the army of Type A code breakers that live in my head. But as I stared, slack-jawed, at the computer, I remembered a few helpful things. One, no matter how much you know about writing, you will always stumble when encountering new or neglected terrain. In fact, it’s probably a good sign that you’re still willing to be open and vulnerable and willing to be surprised. Two, sometimes structure can be a great way into a difficult arena, but if you’re not careful, it can lock all the doors when you’re not looking. And three, just as you cannot control what goes in or out of a baby, you cannot control how your novel unfurls.

This last point is a little tricky. On the one hand, you will have to organize your novel as it develops, and in fact not doing enough organizing can mean it might wander off without you. Still, this is far better than trying to wrangle it into shape too soon. And further, oftentimes when you’re on the cusp of doing something truly innovative, you really need to beat back those stringent armies who want to come in and deal with that uneasy, thrilling feeling by slapping a seat belt on you before throwing on the breaks.

So how do you tell the difference? Well, you are more likely to seize up unnecessarily around work that is new or newly developing. In simpler terms, efficiency is rarely ever helpful when you’re starting a new creative project. If you clamp down too soon, you might miss out on all those weird and wonderful things your deeper self might want to say once the one that spends half the time on the Internet blows its wad. One exercise I love doing is to write the first line or paragraph of a new book or a new development in a book twelve different ways (thanks, Kenneth Fields!). Not only does this shake me out of my comfort zone, but it has the oddly soothing effect of satisfying those parts of my mind that want to just dig in and get it done.

Another great thing to do is to ask yourself if what you’re doing aligns with why you’re writing. If you’re writing to get rich and famous, this won’t work for you. But if you’re writing for the reasons that most of us write – because you know that personal expression is a gift that sours in the hands – noticing those moments when your energies stray from that truth can be surprisingly helpful.

Either way, the point is that what works in regular life doesn’t always work in the writing life, and that’s part of why writing is so appealing and so frustrating. The trick for me has been to recognize that these two lives will never totally assimilate, but they can certainly grow to inform each other in wonderful and beneficial ways. And as long as you can keep yourself from demanding that your writing follow the paths you set out for it, and forgive yourself when you slip up on this, you’ll be navigating the truly rough and wonderful waters of creativity with all the swagger you’ve earned. Sure, you might be scarred and tattooed and a little wonky-eyed, but no one – especially not you — will be able to deny your courage.