Writer’s Log, December 4th: Inconvenience vs. Incompatibility

Most people come to writing because they have a flirting acquaintance with the many rewards it has to offer. Perhaps they have produced the occasional essay or story that met with widespread approval, or have been pleasantly daydreaming about writing the great American novel, or have a lifelong love affair with reading that has made them wonder what it would be like on the other side of the page. Maybe all of us come to writing for one – or all — of these reasons, yet the truth is, so few of us stay. And it’s not because those who do are more talented, or more touched, or so relentlessly pursued by their muses that they occasionally need to ask them to pull back on the inspiration a little because their fingers are cramping from all that furious typing.

But you know this already, don’t you? You’ve probably read something about how important it is for writers to be dedicated to a regular practice. Maybe you’ve heard authors mention a little something about blood, sweat, and tears. Perhaps you’ve even experienced, firsthand, the incredible difference between an easy first draft and a hard-won third. I certainly had encountered all this information and more by the time I began trying to establish an ongoing writing practice, but still I found myself regularly demoralized and frequently bereft when it came to trying to apply all that great advice to my life.

What I’d failed to realize was that, in addition to all the wisdom I’d collected and internalized along the way, I’d also picked up some nasty little mental viruses that made themselves known the moment I tried to put this wisdom into practice. I knew that a regular writing practice was important, but I narrowly assumed that had to look a certain way – sitting down in the same place at the same time every day, for instance – and when it didn’t look the way I’d romanticized it to look, I started to doubt myself. And I also knew that writing could be hard, but when I thought ‘hard’, I somehow pictured Descartes in his bathrobe, furrowing his brow while chewing over the fascinating paradoxes his mind generated while someone else cleaned the bed pan. I didn’t picture getting interrupted every five minutes by a toddler, or getting assigned jury duty for six weeks when I was in the midst of writing a novel, or unexpectedly losing a dear friend when I was just working up the courage to be more vulnerable in my work. Or the infuriating expectations around texting.

The truth is, a healthy writing practice is rarely either pretty or predictable. And for those of us who cannot afford to spend the day in our dressing gowns, it’s enormously inconvenient to keep a regular practice going, mostly because, nine times out of ten, your best laid plans will be derailed. But it’s critical not to confuse inconvenience for incompatibility. Just because you feel like it’s not unfolding the way you think it should does not mean it’s beyond your grasp. It just means that you just need to reframe what the unfolding should look like. If, however, you persist in believing that the writing practice you establish as a 45-year-old mother of three should look like it did that week when you were single and 23 and possessed with the kind of inspirational fervor that only a recent breakup and a six pack of beer can produce, you will get exactly as far as those who decide a marriage is not worth pursuing after the first spark of infatuation has faded.

If, on the other hand, you expect and nourish the kind of commitment that honors both you and your writing, no matter what it looks like or how often it’s derailed, and if you also stop using that magnificent storytelling brain of yours to yield horrible internal narratives about how the fact that the washing machine just broke and the dog has mange means that it just isn’t your destiny to be a writer, you can get an astonishing amount done. If, in other words, you are willing to relinquish everything you’ve imagined about writing to make space for everything that actually works for you around writing —  even if that only means five quality minutes a day to check in with curiosity and compassion on your latest pet project — you’ll be on a path to far more rewarding, far more lasting relationship.  

Art: Color Chaos 3, Natasha Marie

Writer’s Log, November 18th: Defining Your Audience

One of my favorite sayings is that a book is not finished until it is read. I find so many helpful insights woven into this statement. First, it reminds me that all this toiling I’m doing behind closed doors is not because I’m antisocial and unwell, but because I’m willing to go deep and long if it will help carve out more meaningful lines of communication. Second, it helps me to contextualize the need to define my audience, a task I think many writers find baffling.

The first few times I was asked to define what kind of audience I was writing for, I had no idea how to respond. I don’t know, I would think, a big one? In super-mature fashion, I came up empty handed so many times, I started to feel a little self-righteously indignant. Wasn’t I supposed to be doing my best to write according to my own sensibilities and unique voice? Weren’t artists supposed to create without caring what anyone else might think?

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was repeatedly hitting my head against one of the biggest paradoxes of a writer’s approach to her work. We absolutely should be writing in our own voices and drawing on our own experiences, but we cannot forget that, ultimately, writing is an act of communication. Most art is, really. And going too far in the direction of writing for oneself can be just as dangerous, creatively speaking, as trying too hard to pen a bestseller.

As with any piece of writing advice, there’s an art to working with it. In this case, I find the idea that a work needs a reader to be complete particularly appealing, because rather than placing the emphasis on how others might judge our work, it places it on the fact that writers and readers need each other in order to experience the best the written word has to offer.

What’s more, the fact is that 99.9% of us are myopic about our work. If we give it any kind of close attention, it’s all too easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees, and having someone look in on our imaginary playgrounds from the outside can give us invaluable perspective on how well they’re really holding up. I think, in fact, that we should hope and strive to have readers in our lives who compassionately point out flaws in our writing that we never saw, not because revealing what we didn’t see shines light on our technical or imaginative shortcomings, but because we know that, without an outside perspective, we’re robbing ourselves of the ability to see our work fully. The writing, in other words, might be done in private, but the awareness of the writing simply cannot be generated alone.

So when I think about defining an audience, I start with people I already trust to give me valuable feedback on how I’m presenting myself to the world. My sisters. My best friend. My husband. They’re always in the front row. And seated next to them are their friends and trusted advisers. I have a few critics in there, sure, because I’m my own worst enemy, but I try to introduce a bouncer who regularly checks to be sure that most of the remaining seats are filled with people who love the books I love, people who care and wonder about the same things, people whose books I’d want to read, should they offer them to me. Eventually, my audience becomes people who would be keeping literature alive for me anyway, even if I never chose to write another word.

Art: Rembrandt, St. Jerome Reading in a Landscape

Writer’s Log, November 5th: Pretend Everyone You Love Is Dead

The longer you hang around writers, the weirder the conversation gets. Usually, this is a good thing, as long as alcohol isn’t involved. If alcohol is involved, gird your loins and take notes.

But when the conversation is good, it is, at the very least, though provoking. Years ago, after an agonizing, two-hour workshop discussion on how to handle the fact that our own truths, in print, might not sit particularly well with those we hold dear, our beloved instructor cut us off. “Just pretend everyone you know is dead,” he said. “Nothing is more important than the writing.”

I get why this might seem, at first pass, terrific advice. First off, it’s hard to forget. Second, it speaks boldly to a universal difficulty so many writers have. Many of us get our best material from our worst experiences, and some of us even become writers because we were silenced or denied our truths from an early age, and we find it ever-so-slightly therapeutic to put them in print and distribute them as widely as possible, preferably nationwide. Still, no one wants to actually throw Uncle Henry under the bus (no matter how much he might deserve it), not least because Thanksgiving is coming up and we’d rather eat pie in peace than navigate his seething fury for an afternoon.

But that’s not the only reason why I’m not a huge fan of this advice. In general, I’m not a fan of writing advice that smacks of desperation, ultimatums, or wishful thinking. I used to find such extremes liberating, but, like most extremes, their charms are limited and short-lived. Pretending everyone you love is dead might startle you into more ballsy material, but it takes a helluva lot more work to figure out ways to write about our truths without resorting to the kamikaze method of airing your dirty laundry.

This is because fiction wants to be created, not appropriated. It doesn’t want to be shocked alive; it wants to be nurtured on a solid base, one that represents the best you have to offer, including your integrity. As food for thought, around the same time I heard the above advice, I started to notice that one thing most of my favorite authors had in common was kindness. Not Disney Princess kindness. Unflinching, unapologetic kindness. Kindness in how they delivered tough truths, so they could actually be swallowed. Kindness in refusing to allow even the most minor character to come across as two-dimensional. Kindness in how they developed their voices without artifice, knowing that, while contrivance and design might seem more sexy or thrilling, the most touching thing a writer can do is stay honest.

Even if you don’t share my tastes, I think you will find that your favorite authors offer something deep and lasting, rather than something quick and shocking. And, if anything, they offer us the chance to see that we can navigate the world without having to pretend everyone we love is dead. Instead, they show us how to bring them along, flaws and all, and how doing so can make us feel more whole. Not because we are free of all responsibility and worrisome care, but because we flourish anyway.

Writer’s Log, October 17th: Progress and Persistence

One of the great frustrations any artist faces is measuring progress. As if it weren’t hard enough to enter into work that is, by its very nature, inventive, and therefore not designed to live up to any clear benchmarks, more often than not, the effort we put into our work is not neatly reflected in our results. We might spend days on a single moment on a single page, or bang out an entire chapter in a few hours.

Unfortunately, because most of us with at least a tenuous hold on sanity rely on logic, we tend to believe that our most productive days are the ones when we produce the most material. Superficially, this logic is sound, but on a deeper level, it’s woefully misleading. The trouble with measuring a writer’s progress against what she produces on any given day is that so much of the heavy lifting, creatively speaking, occurs long before the words line up on the page in neat and pleasant order.

This has never been more evident to me than now, when I’m a few years in to writing my first historical novel about a subject that is virtually nonexistent in fiction but widely covered in scholarship. Since I’m an incurably dutiful student, I haven’t wanted to proceed with my own take on these issues until I understand what’s already been said, which means that I’ve spend the better part of three years wandering through a forest of literature so thick there have been times I’ve felt sure that a wolf passing by to swallow me whole would be a far more merciful end than finding my way out. And now that I’ve begun to write the book itself in earnest, that same, dutiful student in me is wringing her hands when confronted with the amount of words I’ve read vs. the amount of words I’ve written. It is more than a little easy to feel overwhelmed.

But thankfully, this isn’t my first expedition into the wilderness, and as judgey and frustrated as I could be with my evident progress and the looming future, I’m honestly never been more excited about a project. Because amidst all these private cares and solitary work, I’ve never been more engaged with a challenge. Although I’ve spent actual weeks without producing a single word, what I’ve learned and tangled over and resolved during that time represents far more progress than what I might have done if I panicked, sat down, and just punched out a daily quota.

And while this might not be true for everybody, I think far more writers do far more work before they put words to a page than we ever allow for. Writing, after all, represents new ways of thinking, and this is not achieved simply by sitting down with a cup of tea and waiting for the must to show up. It requires wrassling with everything you know to discover something you don’t, and then it requires you sifting through everything you’ve ever expressed to discover something you haven’t. Much of this shaping takes place with language as the clay, but a great deal of it must also unfold while mulling and considering and debating and wondering, if not walking and sketching and mapping and listening.

The bottom line is that if you’re doing your subject justice, you won’t see words produced in lock step with the work you’ve done. What you will see is much more difficult to pinpoint, but much more pervasive. More than anything, it’s really a progression of learning, marked not by what you can show that you know, but how far you’ve come in stretching your own thinking.

So instead of worrying about how much you’ve produced, ask yourself how much you’ve persisted. Perhaps you’ve only got 100 words down for that 100,000 word saga you envision, but how much time and thought do those 100 words represent? And, if you eventually decide that you’d rather replace them with a different 100 words, not because you’re tearing yourself to shreds, but because you’ve considered them and moved on, consider how much ground you’ve gained in the process. If you honor and respect what you know you’ve done, rather than what you can point to, your writing, and everything it produces, will only be stronger.

Art: Cool Growth, Albert Koetsier

Writer’s Log, October 2nd: Discovering Your Subject Matter

For more than two decades, I lingered in this terrible writer’s limbo of knowing I wanted to write and having no idea what to write about. I’d turn out lengthy, rich, prose pieces with no anchor or sense of story, and feel as if I’d just produced the literary equivalent of unsalted schmaltz. Part of the trouble was that I was young, and hadn’t had enough experience or perspective on that experience to really know what I wanted to say, but I think the real trouble lay in the limiting ways in which I saw subject matter.

While I’d read everything I could get my hands on, when it came to carving out my own literary terrain, I was trying to get by with two, rather grainy beacons to guide my way. The first was to “write what you know,” and the second was to “write the book you want to read.” These aren’t terrible directions to follow, but neither are those signposts that say things like “Children X-ing” and “Danger.” Sure, you get the general idea, but a few specifics wouldn’t hurt.

Instead of just writing what I know, for instance, I’ve found far better subject matter by seeking out the mysteries buried within what is familiar to me. I certainly agree that you don’t want to try to write about the Louisiana Bayou if you’ve never been any further west than Tucson, but if you just try to write about Tucson, chances are you’ll find yourself floundering myopically through a sea of childhood memories. Instead, try identifying subject matter within the familiar by asking yourself what still mystifies you about Tucson, despite knowing the general region like the back of your hand. I like to call this the To Kill a Mockingbird approach, and it rarely disappoints.

Another way into your subject matter is to study the people who make up the emotional fabric of your life. Who do you love the most? Who are your dearest friends? Greatest enemies? What do these characters share in common? Why do they resonate with you? Why are you devoted to them? What are their hidden fears and triumphs, and how do they echo yours?  Throw them all in a supermarket for an afternoon and go to town.

A further consideration is your own creative sweet spot. Are you most excited to go deep and long, or would you rather flirt on the surface? Don’t judge; just notice. Do you see yourself following one character through several books, or shaking things up every time you begin a new project? What are you reading? Be honest, here. Maybe you think you’re a Tolstoy gal, but your Kindle is recommending nothing but bodice rippers, “based on your choices.” Hint: Few writers read only one type of writing, and most find their creative sweet spots by picking and choosing from among their own, eclectic tastes. Just seek out that wonderful zone that lies right before taking yourself too seriously and well beyond underestimating yourself.

In the same vein, what sorts of hobbies and ideas preoccupy you? What do you know how to do really well? What do you do terribly but persistently? If you’re a lawyer who kayaks every weekend, then maybe a book that involves parsing through bigger questions while navigating the wild is your cup of tea. Or if you’re a drifter with a passion for spraying great walls with graffiti creations, perhaps your subject matter lies in the realm of a character who drifts on the fringes of society, reflecting its heart back at itself. This might be considered another variation on the theme of writing what you know, but it’s really about capitalizing on your existing passions, preoccupations, and unique ways of interacting with your world. One caveat: if you go too literal here, you’ll miss your creative edge. So even if you’re a politician with a passion for prostitutes, if you don’t find some distance and fabrication to separate yourself from your reality, your fiction won’t have space to breathe.

Finally, pay attention to how your voice and aesthetic can be leveraged more adroitly in the service of certain subject matters and less so in the case of others. For instance, if you’re a witty, cocktail-party denizen with neon art on your walls, you might not find your fullest expression through a book that features an old man and the sea, despite what your sophomore college professor made you think was most worthwhile. The much better book, for you, is probably one in which a glittering college student finds herself wanting to entrap a fascinatingly distant English teacher.

The point is to look closely at the richness and curiosity that’s sitting right at your fingertips, and to honor what lights you up, even if that’s writing about the collection of slugs at the bottom of your garden. Subject matter never exists in a vacuum, and what makes a story truly memorable is rarely just what it’s about, anyway. Instead, it’s the sense that you’ve connected with the author’s innermost light, and that it illuminates a new way of seeing your own hidden gems.  

Art: Pablo Picasso, Owl