Writer’s Log, December 12th: How’s Your Reception?

Every year around this time, one or more of my children comes home from school with the following old chestnut: “It’s not what you get, Mom, it’s what you give.” And while I absolutely appreciate how this represents a heroic effort, in our consumer culture, to encourage children to see the holiday season as something other than a chance to rake in as many Shiny New Objects as possible, I fear it sidesteps an opportunity to talk about how profound and important it can be to receive gracefully.

This is something I’ve had to teach myself on the fly and out of desperation, and it isn’t exactly my strong suit. But as both a writer and a teacher of writing, I see how often we get tripped up by our unwillingness to fully receive what’s being offered to us. Take criticism in a workshop, for example. If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of your least favorite fellow writer tearing your work to shreds, you know what it feels like to engage in a resistant reception. Perhaps that sort of rejection of what’s being offered seems excusable. But what happens when your favorite reader smiles tightly after reading your latest favorite work? Historically, I tended to do one of two things: Either willfully ignore my screaming intuition and somehow wheedle them into saying something positive; or poke the bear by proclaiming that nothing they could say would bother me, encouraging them to take me and my work down so cavalierly that I could go home and grumble to my spouse that maybe they had a point, but that they really crossed the line. In both cases with my favorite reader, and probably even in the case of my least favorite one, my ability to receive what was on offer was severely compromised by my desire to nurse my sore feelings.

As the years of writing diligently accumulate, I’ve become much better at receiving criticism, mostly because I’m now much more aware that the ability to generate my best work makes me infinitely happier than the desire to receive positive feedback. It’s never easy, however, especially when the criticism comes in the form of a snarky review or packaged along with a load of hooey, but I have found that the more good criticism I can find, no matter what the source, the better. Because once you get over the sting, you find that good criticism is its own kind of fuel, sort of like fiber for your creativity, if you will – if taken in the interest of your ongoing health, you’ll soon appreciate that the benefits of integrating it far outweigh the unpleasantness of taking it in.

I find that the work, too, has frequently offered me things that I’m reluctant to receive, much to the detriment of both me and it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read and reread scenes that never quite feel right to me, blaming them as liberally as I might a puppy-kicking pundit, or determined to “fix” them into what I’ve already decided is their ideal form. After wasting what has probably added up to years of time engaging in these strategies, I am finally beginning to recognize that a scene that refuses to smooth itself into submission is oftentimes a true blessing in disguise, the red flag waving you toward the disconnect between what you think the writing should go and where you’re ignoring its potential. Perhaps it’s showing you that despite how much you want those two characters to fall in love, doing so would sacrifice a far more interesting, complicated, and authentic relationship. Or maybe it’s showing you that as much as you want to be an unimpeachable historical novelist with impeccable credentials, without some healthy doses of magical realism, your work just doesn’t reflect how you actually see the world. No matter what the case may be, listening to the work, really receiving what it’s offering you without your ego trying to beat back whatever it’s not sure it can take, is often the difference between lingering indefinitely in the creative doldrums and catching a new and exciting wind to a place you never even knew existed.

 

Art: Bustling Aquarelle, Wassily Kandinsky, 1923

Writer’s Log, December 5th: First Flight

 

Whoever thinks it’s only the mother birds who have to push their children out of the nest in order to get them to fly has never met a ten-year-old boy with a mild cold and school anxiety issues. Mine was pulling all the stops out this morning trying to convince me that even though he did not have a fever and spent most of his day home from school yesterday chatting and bouncing around he was psychologically, physically, and perhaps morally unable to conceive of going back to school today. There were many tears – his on the outside, mine on the inside – but I told him I loved him, that I believed in him, and that jumping in when you don’t want to is oftentimes the only way to really learn how to swim.

I wish my own parents had taught me this, but it really was my writing that did. Ann Patchett has this wonderful line in an essay on writing in which she compares trying to get the magical ideas in her head down on the page like pinning butterflies into a frame. I totally relate to this, but I like the baby bird analogy even better, because it speaks to what happens if you don’t get the ideas down. I can’t tell you how many constipated writers I’ve met – brilliant, soulful, incredible people who simply cannot bear to watch their imaginary creatures take the awkward, frequently treacherous, and sometimes fatal leap from conception into flight. They claim they’re just fine doing nothing and holding back, but frankly, I don’t believe them.

Writing, it is said, is a gift that sours is the hands. And baby birds whose mothers never push them out of the nest do not learn to fly. Their mother might avoid having to see them splutter and dive and get bruised, but she will never see them grow. Each and every time I come to the page ready to commit a scene to paper, I know that any number of grisly things might happen to it; it might come out stunted and weak, it might sink like a stone, it might be hackneyed or schlocky or derivative. But just as is the case with my children, and with new and unsteady things of all ilks, if it is released attentively, patiently, and with the sure knowledge that its first steps are very unlikely to look anything like its best, it will eventually take flight. The key, I think, is to table what you think it can do when you release it and instead respect what it does do, to see that the evolution of an idea is a sure, steady thing so long as you have the courage to support it and stand by it, no matter what it looks like when it leaves your nest.

 

Art: Blue Jay, John James Audubon

Writer’s Log, November 28th: Voice Lessons

You can’t throw a stone in a writing workshop without hitting a discussion about voice. We’re constantly told how important it is, how we’re supposed to use ours, or maybe find it. Yet most of us sit there silently wondering, what the heck is voice, anyway? I know I came across someone’s definition of it once or twice in an English class I was somnabulating through, but I’m pretty sure it got lost in the vortex of abstractions along with tone and mood. Maybe that’s where I lost it!

Anyway, while I don’t find discussions of voice nearly as interesting as your average literary critic, I do find the idea that each writer has a particular je ne sais quoi to offer quite compelling. But I doubt that what draws us to a particular author has as much to do with what the language coming from the author’s pen sounds like than it does from where the author chooses to direct our attention. What the author chooses to write about, in other words, and how she chooses to shape the lens she uses to capture her chosen topic, seems to me where the power of voice truly resides. And, similarly, I think when we struggle to “find our voices,” instead of pouring over what we’ve written for telltale birthmarks, I think it’s far more useful to look outside our writing to see what we’re choosing to speak about in our lives.

The author who struggles to find traction in a central relationship of her novel, for example, might wonder how clearly she’s willing to see some of her own central relationships. I know, I know – I’m already making you squeamish. But bear with me. Because it’s easy enough to see that the author who wants to feature a chef as her central character but is not willing to step into a kitchen might be in trouble, but when we take big risks in our writing, we tend to shy away from taking a closer look at how well we’re showing up in our actual lives for what we are asking our readers to devote their attention to. And the more meaning we want to bring to the page, the more meaning we need to be willing to tolerate in our lives. We may not like it, but the author who wishes to say something meaningful about human rights, for example, will struggle to do so unless she’s willing to take a close look at how willing she is to stick her neck out on behalf of others, and how effective her efforts to do just that might be.

I’m not saying that we need to spend a month in prison if we want to write about a prisoner. The correlation rarely needs to be that direct. We don’t see the unflinching courage of looking at the pain of losing relatives to the Holocaust in Maurice Sendak’s drawings, for example, but they do communicate an extraordinarily tender view of fear in a child. “I refuse to lie to children,” he once said, and more profound statement is rarely uttered. He is only one of several role models in the arts who remind me that often, when we’re casting about for a voice in our stories, we are failing to see the correlation between what we’re willing to witness and speak to in our lives and what we’re able to describe and speak to in our writing.

And the good news is that a little can go a long way. Listening with an open heart when our endlessly complaining mother starts complaining yet again, for example, might open the doors to shaping a far more prismatic view of motherhood in your next novel. Or looking the next person who asks you for money on the street in the eye when you reply might help you to recognize that the note of desperation in your central character’s remark on page 43 can be far more nuanced than it was when you walked down that same street the day before thinking only about getting your latte on time.

I’m usually not nearly as good at this as I want to be or sometimes think I am. I don’t think the idea is to become an entirely selfless, unfailingly conscientious person, because let’s face it – that would be almost as boring as being an incurable narcissist. I do think, however, that paying just a smidge more attention to what you do and do not choose to speak about and to in your own life can make a world of difference in the power of what you find yourself able to say on the page.

 

Art: Maurice Sendak, detail from Where the Wild Things Are

Writer’s Log, November 14th: Definitions             

As writers, it’s impossible for us to work without definitions. Our very medium requires us to understand how every unit – every word — of our craft contains and is limited by its meaning. But, I wonder, are we also particularly susceptible to limiting definitions of ourselves?

Oftentimes, when I’m stuck, there is a definition in my way. Sometimes it’s actually a word that’s getting me stuck, sometimes a sentence, sometimes a description that’s eluding me. But sometimes the reason why I’m stuck bleeds into something I’m telling myself about what it means to be a writer, or what I’m writing, or what I can write, or should write – some way I’ve defined my talent, or scope, or positioning. I can’t write about blank because someone else has written about it already, or I don’t know enough about it, or it’s just too difficult to pin down on the page. Or I can’t get back to something because I’ve neglected it for too long, or I’ve written more for my Twitter feed than I did on my novel last month/year which clearly means I’m not cut out for this work, or my most dislikable character is starting to look an awful lot like my mother and all my self-preservation instincts are going off. Sometimes the self-limiting definitions I form even emerge for all the right reasons – I want to keep the readership I’ve developed; I want to say something important about something I care about; I want to keep myself on a path I rather like the look of.

But writers are artists, too, despite the fact that we frequently get sidelined in discussions about the arts, perhaps because of this very conundrum, this tendency to both create and define, to straddle the line between unbridled creativity and bespectacled eggheads. Whatever the reason, though, I think we need to be extra vigilant about using our powers for good instead of evil, making sure that our keen ability to name and constrain is not actually cutting our creativity off at the pass.

The good news is that our creative impulse is always there, even if it has to wait patiently for us to dig it out from under all the things we’re telling ourselves about what we should or should not do with it. I find mine easiest to rediscover when I’m driving, or daydreaming, or otherwise engaging my busy rabbit brain with a task that keeps it happily collecting carrots in rows and out of my way. But honestly, anything I can do to trick myself into forgetting my own best plans and wander, instead, where the work wants me to go, is a day when the battle’s won in my favor. I suppose this is as simple as remembering to get out of my own way, and if it is that simple, I’ll accept that gratefully. But if you, too, sometimes get all tangled up in your own leash, maybe it’ll help to remember that instead of spinning in ever tightening circles, you can always reach up and just let release the hook. So simple, so terrifying and, ultimately, so exciting! Where could you go if you went even further and loosened your collar, or took it off? How liberated could you actually allow yourself to be?  How much closer are you than you thought to widening the gate and allowing your own best work to come through?

 

Art: paper sculpture by Geraldine Gonzalez

Writer’s Log, November 7th: Prompts!

 

Just this morning, I was describing to my friend Lisa the Parental Law of Averages. It’s a little known but fundamental law of maternal physics, but suffice it to say that it boils down to the fact that the one hour you choose not to check your phone is almost always the hour when someone gets a concussion, or a bloody nose, or gets sick in the most inconvenient and embarrassing location possible at school.

Clearly, someone up there was listening, because when I got home this afternoon, I intentionally set my phone aside so it wouldn’t be a distraction as I composed this writer’s log, and it was only when I got up forty-five minutes later to get a cup of tea that I noticed that the screen was lighting up like a Christmas Tree. Sure enough, as I was diligently generating ideas in the deep recesses of my imagination, I was simultaneously getting the Mother of the Year award thanks to the school’s frantic attempts to reach me while my daughter sat crying with a possibly broken wrist for upwards twenty minutes, comforted primarily — wait for it, the salt on this wound is of the finest variety — by another seventh grader.

Several hours, x-rays, and a splint later, she is just fine, but it’s been, to say the least, a day!

So instead of laboring long into the night to get some words of wisdom your way, I’m going to instead continue tending to my daughter, knowing that all the richness I give to my writing comes directly from the rich well of experience that’s filling every time I’m present for my kids when they truly need me, whether it be several hours at the doctor’s office and TLC for the rest of the night, or a moment of absolutely pure attention when they most want to be heard. As with writing, I obviously don’t always get it anywhere close to right, but it helps to know that I do these things because they are so much more important than just me.

So today, in honor of those cries for help that always, somehow, get met, I’m turning the tables on you and asking you to share your favorite writing prompts with all of us in the comments below! There’s nothing like a good prompt to get you back in the game, no matter what the sidelining might look like, and given all the wonderful comments you’ve delivered my way over the years, I have no doubt you have several up your sleeve I’ve never even heard of. Many thanks, and enjoy!

 

Art: Gustav Klimt, detail from Mother and Child, 1905