Writer’s Log, October 10th: Speaking Up

It’s been an interesting year for the world of words – an interesting few years. The role the media plays in shaping our collective and private thinking has never been more hotly debated, and the way we speak to and about each other is rumbling beneath all this, thrumming to the quickening pulse of social upheaval.

Today’s news, of course, is peppered throughout with stories about the breaking Harvey Weinstein scandal. Many voices have spoken to it today, but what stands out for me about this story — and so many like it — is that it highlights what has remained unspoken for so long. In fact, what we’re calling breaking news actually appears to be a simmering cauldron of suppressed information that is only now bubbling over. And what’s even more notable about this situation is that it features people who are supposedly in power; women and men in an industry that puts them on a platform from which their voices can carry significantly. Unfortunately, no matter how far our voices can carry, we can still be convinced – either by ourselves or others – that we would be better off muting them.

At the very least, I hope the message we take from all this is that it’s important to speak out. But beyond that, I hope we can start to appreciate the value of speaking up. Not just making our voices heard, but using them to elevate and stretch ourselves toward something better.

Consider all the inflammatory and reactionary chatter out there – you know, the stuff that’s giving you hives. Not to get all mathematically complicated on you, but doesn’t it follow that if words can do so much bad, they can do as much good, too? And I don’t just mean “good” in the sense of saccharine, heartwarming stories that are proliferating throughout social media like so much candy sprinkled over a war zone. I mean speaking up; using words to improve, to invigorate, to inspire.

And while we both know you want to go telling yourself that your voice isn’t loud or strong or impressive enough, we also both know that isn’t true. A simple “yes” or “no” can have enormous speaking up power, as can simply speaking up where and when you feel you can. Apologizing to a spouse, for example, in a way that shows vulnerability and love, is a way to speak up that can have enormous ripple effects. You can apologize to your children with grace, too, and really blow wide open their blossoming concepts of power. Or you can write a few sentences in that novel you’re sure you won’t have time to finish in any foreseeable future, or erase a few that you wrote because you decided you had to explain or defend or otherwise bury your truth in others’ perceptions.

The bottom line is that if we’re navigating an onslaught of words, instead of wringing our hands about all the havoc they’re creating, or diving into the mud-slinging, twittering fray, maybe more of us can seize this as an opportunity to do more with our words than we ever thought possible.

 

Art: Piet Mondrian, Composition No, VII, 1913

Writer’s Log, October 3rd, 2017: Context

It took me a while to figure out what to write in this log today. Once again, the daily news is filled with sucker punches of devastating information. How, I thought, can I write about writing, given everything else that’s going on in the world?

And then I remembered: I write about writing because I choose to fan the flames of meaning and connection and compassion and perspective. Other peoples’ words have taught me how to be better than just myself; have given me the perspective to know that violence and fear and mass destruction are as old as the hills (or bear baiting or crusades or plagues or wars or slavery or just plain shitty behavior); and have reminded me that when push comes to shove, sadness has nothing on miracles.

Writing and its related activities – reading; art; teaching; learning; experiencing the world with a joyous, fearless insistence on seeing and loving it for what it is — also remind me that where we put out attention is in lock step with what we fuel. If, for example, we disappear into the dark tunnel of reactive social media posts, we add more fuel to the terror, reactivity, and fear than is absolutely necessary. And while it is absolutely necessary to see and feel that terror, reactivity, and fear – and ride out the sorrow, frustration, and occasional despair that they inspire – it is equally critical that we do not allow them to bleed into the incredible fortune we are capable of inspiring and spreading. We cannot lose sight of the fact that while the buffoonery of our president and outbursts of mass violence feel unprecedented, the volume of voices that are advocating social tolerance are truly unprecedented, as is our ability to heal and unite with medicine and technology, as is the intelligent compassion arising around on how we can minimize damage to our environment, as are the three children I live with who are even brighter, funnier, smarter, and infused with more global compassion than all the generations that have come before them – just as yours are. And above all, we cannot lose sight of the fact that in every single case, at every single time in human history, real progress has always inspired the worst kinds of backlash. When things hatch, predators will circle – and frequently dive.

So while I, too, am tempted to fall victim to the heaviness in my heart, I know it’s never been more important, in my lifetime, to turn my energy toward fueling those things I believe in. You’ll have to forgive (or embrace) the light reference, but just as the eternally wise Theodore Suess Geisel showed us in his books, when chaos comes, you can either a) join the mob; b) beat your own drum and tune everything out and develop terrible hair, or c) know that even your insignificant, tiny voice can be the one that, when joined with the others, makes that collective, giant yalp of affirmative goodness finally heard by the deafest of ears.

 

Photograph: Javier Trueba, “Cave of the Hands, Argentina”

Writer’s Log, September 26th: Unlikeable Characters

I recently read Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl, a delightful if glossy reimagining of The Taming of the Shrew.  Watching Tyler reposition these sixteenth century characters into a 21st century story made me stop and think about many things, not least of which is the difficulty of writing unlikeable characters for a modern audience.

Is it just me, or does there seem be a narrowing of the character traits we’re willing to entertain as 21st century readers? It’s hard to imagine King Lear, or Captain Ahab, or Humbert Humbert featured in the back copy of a new release. Maybe a scoldy, mixed review on NPR or The New York Times, but I doubt that would drum up much enthusiasm.

Yet hasn’t literature always served as a fundamental way to challenge and expand existing frameworks of thought? And hasn’t this path always been lined with characters who dance with immorality and/or flirt with iconoclasm? If you think about the original Shrew, for example, a play that is still read and revered today, I think it’s safe to say none of its main characters would have been any more likely to win popularity contests in the sixteenth century than they would in the twenty-first. Not only does it lead with a title that features a less-than-ideal character trait, but its primary characters put on a veritable parade of ignorance, machismo, arrogance, narcissism, vanity, subterfuge, and entitlement. And where would the play be without them? If Bianca were secretly thoughtful, or Petruchio pulled back the curtain to declare he was deliberately playing the villain to prove a noble point, wouldn’t we lose a great deal of valuable squirming around how we think about conventionality, or marriage, or relationships?

It’s very much in vogue today to talk about dodging the dreaded unlikeable character in one’s work. At the most, we might get a rude but brilliant and misunderstood scientist. Certainly, two-dimensional villains or violent sociopaths are hard to relate to, but unlikeable characters who are drawn well present us with the opportunity to dwell much deeper into the possibilities of human experience. While we might not necessarily sympathize with those we find off-putting, we might learn so much more about the world we inhabit if we take them into consideration; we might, indeed, shed a bit of the us vs. them mentality that can get even the most open-minded among us into reductive trouble.

In many ways, we’ve come so far. Today’s literature entertains issues that would have been unheard of even twenty years ago, never mind in Shakespeare’s or Melville’s day. But while we’ve broadened the scope of our characters’ experiences, have we pulled back on the variance in personality? Would Edgar Allan Poe, or Richard Wright, or any of the Bronte sisters have an audience if they debuted today? Or would they have been gently turned down at publishing’s gate when they refused to take the edge off of Usher or give The Invisible Man more friends or send Catherine and Heathcliff to couples’ counseling? What might we have lost if they had? What voices might we not be hearing today? Do we really want literature to evolve into little more than a chorus of heroes?

 

Art: “Waves and Birds,” Katsushika Hokusai, 1825

Writer’s Log, September 19th: The Physics of Writer’s Block

 

What, exactly, is writer’s block? When most of us talk about it, we don’t mean that we are literally negotiating a boulder between ourselves and our computer, or stuck under something heavy. I think we’re talking about being at a creative impasse, a terrible no man’s land where the desire to write and actual writing are inexplicably staring each other down. In other words, writer’s block isn’t so much a thing as it is a perspective, one that doesn’t necessarily require nearly as much muscle to budge as it might seem.

Have you ever seen two kids fighting over a toy in a sandbox? All other toys fall away in the conflict, and they lock on that piece of plastic like it’s the only source of joy any child can ever hope to know. Almost always, there are other toys within reach. But whenever we start wrestling with a conflict, we run the risk of getting obsessed with the conflict, instead of what’s driving it.

Here’s a little exercise to do the next time you have writer’s block: Describe it. What does it look like? When and where does it come up? Who or what are you thinking about when it rears its ugly head? And, most importantly, what’s around it, or on the other side of it?

Once you’ve described it, realize that you’ve also defined it – and given it parameters. Now ask yourself this question: How might I go around this block? Try not to ask how you can get rid of it; in my experience, if you try to move writer’s blocks, they get agitated and blow up, not unlike supernovas. Instead, take a minute or two to consider what, exactly, it’s standing in the way of. And if you get stuck again, remember that you’re not trying to summit Mount Everest; you’re trying to move past something you’ve constructed in your own mind.

If I’ve learned anything about writing in the thirty plus years I’ve been doing it, it’s that if you want to write, you have to write. Isn’t that the most obnoxious advice ever? Especially when it sometimes feels as if in order to write you have slog through the sort of psychological resistance that would make General Patton go weak in the knees. But more often than not, we use our writer’s blocks as an opportunity to moan and groan about how terrible they are (in other words, procrastinate).

Just as an example, my own writer’s block frequently takes the form of unreasonable expectations. I get stuck because I feel like I need to produce work that meets a certain standard, which of course totally ruins me for the natural process of crappy writing that must unfold in order for anything to get done. I can’t get rid of those standards and expectations, because they are the dark side of how much I believe in the power of the written word, but I have learned to step around them. In other words, I peel my grouchy, grimy fingers off the red bucket, give myself a cookie or a snack, and pick up the blue one instead. It may not look anything like what I think I want to play with, but if I can get myself to play again, after a while I forget what I thought I needed and just enjoy the playing.

This is not my best metaphor. But I do think it’s enough to give you the idea. You don’t need to solve your writer’s block or wait for a future in which one won’t exist (spoiler alert: such a future exists in the land of unicorn-riding yetis), you just need to see it for what it is and get creative about walking around it. Maybe today isn’t the day you write what’s going to win you that Pulitzer, but it probably is a day where you can write five sentences. Maybe those five sentences will be some of the worst you’ve written since you kept a journal in seventh grade, but maybe their awfulness will make you laugh, which will almost certainly loosen up something interesting inside of you.

The point is, I think we tend to lose sight of the fact that the products of our writing are not what give it vibrancy; they’re just what we leave behind. The actual vibrancy exists in the writer herself, and anything you can do to get out of her imperfect, impulsive, insightful way will give her the space she needs to get going again.

 

Art: Ed Koren

Writer’s Log, September 12th: Truth and Fiction

Every now and then, I come across a statement from a writer who claims that they only write non-fiction because they are most inspired by the truth. I always find this kind of statement baffling, because it frequently implies that we writers of fiction are primarily interested in the untruthful world.

There are certainly fiction writers who wish only to disappear into fantastical settings where the rules don’t apply, but it’s very likely that you don’t read them. Most of the fiction you love, I’d venture to say, no matter how outlandish its setting and premise, relies heavily on believable relationships, motivations, moral outlooks, misgivings, and human drama. In fact, sometimes we can get after the human experience with even greater depth by losing the constraints of what happens in real life – your mom walking in before you had a chance to tell that boy how you really felt about him; the scientific study that only went into one trial before it lost its funding; the ghosts you pretend you don’t see.

And even if the actual stories of actual experiences are as wide and rich and wonderful as the people who live them, I’m not so sure that wearing the non-fiction hat is always the best way to capture their truth. I’m a card-carrying relativist, but I think most of us would admit that if you put twelve people in a situation you’re liable to wind up with thirteen takes on what happened. We see through subjective eyes, and sometimes I think the greater honesty actually lies in working with fiction instead of attempting to pin the elusive truth that is human experience to the page.

I’d like to argue that whether or not a writer makes her home among fiction or non-fiction is not the best way to judge how close she’s getting to the truth. As many of you already know, I cut my authorial teeth in the world of academia, and it was actually this discomfort with writing non-fiction that became one of the many reasons why I left. There’s a wonderful book, How to Lie with Statistics, that can speak to this far better than I can, but without absolute transparency on the writer’s part – a la Mary Karr’s marvelous willingness to tell us what truths she does and does not think she speaks to – I squirm around “factual accounts.” At their best, they’re incredibly lean. At their worst, they’re woefully unexamined.

I don’t really mind the distinction between non-fiction and fiction, because it does give us a platform that helps us begin to understand the author’s perspective, but I’m not sure it’s useful to say that one captures truth while the other throws caution to the wind simply so it can ride off upside down in a cotton candy carriage. Because let’s face it: Even if you’re going write into the world of the Mad Hatter, you’ll have to sit at least one person at his tea table to comment on the nature of insanity.

 

Artwork: Pablo Picasso, L’Atelier a Cannes