Writer’s Log, February 13th: Fixing the Internet

Shortly after our last presidential election, Walter Isaacson, the author of the definitive Steve Jobs biography wrote, “We have to fix the internet. After 40 years, it has begun to corrode, both itself and us.” His voice has been joined by thousands – if not millions – of others, all declaring that the information superhighway has become a source of corruption, misinformation, and greed.

When I first started using Facebook to post my Writer’s Log, several well-meaning friends and acquaintances wondered if my off-label use of social media meant that maybe I didn’t understand the Internet so well. People didn’t have the attention span for something like that on Facebook, I was told. Why don’t you just start a normal blog?

But since when has being a writer involved striving toward normalcy? And isn’t there a huge potential difference between how we use the Internet, and how we might?  If we always see social media as a place to indulge our collectively mindless, reactive, and self-serving thoughts, how can we expect it to do anything else? If we continue to follow its apparent rules – many of which are little more than entrenched, herd-like behaviors — what more should we expect?

The Internet, at its best, is an open platform. And its current state might be partially the fault of how we applauded it from the start: as an information highway. Information is virtually mindless without context, without interpretation, without impact. But the traffic on the Internet is widespread and varied, much like the human race, like the human capacity for thought. So how difficult would it be to shift away from our perception of it as an information highway, a place where cold facts are king and the faster they can be exchanged and absorbed is the jester that keeps us all entertained? How difficult would it be to use the flexibility, creativity, and curiosity that created the Internet to save it?

 

Art: Megan Meagher, Revolution IV

Writer’s Log, February 6th: Rules for Writers

I have three kids in school right now, and collectively they have nine teachers supervising their writing and multiple peers editing it, which means they’re getting approximately thirty-six messages about how to write well, many of which overlap, several of which conflict each other.

You can just imagine homework time around here.

Anyway, Rome wasn’t toppled in a day, so my strategy has been to troubleshoot according to age group. I tell my two older children to think of good writing not so much as a singular conception, but as something similar to good cuisine. You can enjoy excellent Thai, Indian, Ethiopian foods and recognize each one as strong in its own right; similarly, you can listen to your history and English teachers and mother and appreciate what each is offering, without having to decide that one is right. (Or, that two (or more) are wrong.) And when my fourth grader began to start every other sentence with the phrase, “according to the text,” we talked about the writing in his favorite books, and he tried some on his own.

I have an unequivocal appreciation for teachers who clearly and intelligently share writing advice with students, so it’s not so much the instruction that rankles me. I think it has more to do with the underlying sense that there are rules to be followed without exception – and I don’t mean grammar or syntax, those socially agreed upon measures by which we can understand one another’s meaning; I’m thinking about the rules of expression.

It makes a bit more sense for the young. It helps them to have frameworks to learn, even if they wind up casting them aside. But what concerns me is that they are so rarely cast aside, so rarely evaluated as tools that are meant to serve the writer, not tools that the writer must employ. And on a deeper level, I fear that if writing is our most powerful means of personal expression, what does it mean that we allow the constraints of others’ rules to dictate what we say?

The degree to which this gets under my skin surprises even me. At heart, I’m a traditionalist, a fan of the canon and grammar and the good, old-fashioned novel. Yet I come across so many adult writers who dutifully remind themselves to show and not tell, to write what they know, to avoid adverbs as they might poison oak, etc., etc. I even get students asking if they can break these rules which, frankly, breaks my heart. Of course you should break them, if it makes sense to. In fact, I’d say it’s much more important to experiment with breaking them than to follow them blindly. Isn’t it true, after all, that ultimately the writer should be the authority of what gets said and how, not the writing?

 

Art: Frank Tjepkema, paper sculpture from the “Mechanical Heart” collection

Writer’s Log, January 30th: Planting Seeds

 

Spring arrives early in Northern California. It’s not even February, and already the white rosebush in our backyard has produced a plucky blossom, and the air is thick with the fragrance of mud and scraggly wildflowers. I’m not much of a gardener, but I know a planting season when I see it, probably because of the life I lead as a writer. I’m always sniffing around for fertile ground, for places that look good for the planting of ideas.

I’ve had the wonderful pleasure of teaching at Stanford Continuing Studies this winter, and I’ve been struck, anew, by the narrow-minded way we’re trained to think of getting our thoughts down on paper. It probably doesn’t help that the writer’s medium is language, which is largely infused with definitions – those blocky, impenetrable things. But I think the larger issue is that we’re a culture that loves its finite packages, the ability to share an idea in an elevator or on a fortune cookie or in a tagline. It’s no wonder that I get so many students who worry that if they don’t come up with the next best idea, they’ll have no chance of getting their work out there.

But the magic of writing never really happens because of the idea. The idea is the catalyst, the seed, the starting point. The magic happens as it grows and evolves. We need ideas to get started, of course, but instead of latching onto them — as if keeping them perfectly intact and shiny and new is our only ticket out of anonymity and into the popular kids’ parties — is the creative equivalent of tying a racehorse’s legs together before he even gets out of the gate.

This need for flourishing space might be better understood reductively. Think of some of your favorite stories/novels/poems, and reduce them to their ideas. How magical do they sound now? I shudder to think of what would have happened if pale, reclusive Emily restricted herself to the success of an elevator pitch when entertaining ideas about flies on the wall and feathery hope. Or if William judged the promise of his plays on how well his first ideas about them were received on Twitter. Or if Nabokov came to a writer’s workshop wondering what we all thought of his idea to write a novel from the perspective of a pedophile.

All this, incidentally, is part of the reason why I still believe firmly in the necessity of poems and stories and novels, etc. The importance of what we read has so little to do with the idea itself, and so much to do with our experience of it, how thoughtfully and compassionately we can enter into its complexity, how much dimensionality we see it has to offer when we wander through all the different gardens that can be created from it. It reminds me that the most important thing to do with the germ of an idea is to plant it well and give it the space it needs to bloom.

 

Art: Vincent Van Gogh, Blossoming Almond Tree

Writer’s Log, January 23rd: Getting Better

I’m sitting here listening to my youngest make noises on the trumpet that would make a whale shudder, and it strikes me, as his teacher enthusiastically remarks on how much better he’s getting, that this is a phrase that is seriously underused. We usually reserve “getting better” as a consolation prize of a comment, something we admit to only rarely. It might perfectly acceptable, for example, to say you’re getting better after a tough flu or breakup, but we rarely allow the phrase into our more aspirational identities. If a surgeon, for example, were asked during a job interview about his operating skills, “getting better” would probably not be the answer anyone would want to hear.

And yet, isn’t it? Don’t we want to know our surgeons, too, haven’t tapped out a certain level of skill? I mean, maybe not before they operate on us or someone we love, but wouldn’t it be nice to know that even the most lauded experts among us think getting better is something worth striving toward? So maybe you’ve mastered triple bypass surgery, but what about your bedside manner? So maybe you’re a full professor at a university, but does that mean you’re no longer heeding your curiosity?

One of my favorite exercises to give my writing students is to do any particular exercise twelve times: rewrite the first sentence of your story twelve times, do the same prompt twelve times, write the same scene twelve different times – you get the idea. Usually, however, when I roll this particular chestnut out, there’s no small amount of panic in the eyes around me. But we barely have time to write as it is, their thought bubbles say, how can we take time away from our precious novel/short story/memoir to intentionally generate disposable material? Why can’t you just tell us how to get it right?

But getting better is so much more generative and productive than getting it right. Getting better involves loosening up and inviting creativity to take its seat at the table. It alleviates the all-or-nothing pressure we can place on works we’ve deemed promising and gives them the opportunity to flourish. It reminds us that producing refined work doesn’t make us better writers; writing does. And the most delicious twist of all is that the less we focus on getting it right, the more likely we are to enable the spaciousness of mind that helps us to realize our best work.

 

Art: “Sketch of a Dancer” by Edgar Degas

Writer’s Log, January 16th: Perspective

There’s an old Yiddish saying that goes, “To a worm in horseradish, the world is horseradish.” I can’t think of any other nugget of wisdom that more perfectly sums up the experience of living in today’s world, unless it’s one that swaps “radish” for something stronger. The constant bombardment of information, the increasingly breakneck pace at which we’re expected and encouraged to respond to what’s thrown at us, the head-snapping rate at which new and increasingly disturbing reactions emerge from a White House under turmoil – it can feel next to impossible to catch your breath, never mind a little perspective.

Writing, for me, has always been something I need to do to maintain some semblance of mental health, and that has never been truer than it is now. When our country first started to take a moral nosedive, I felt sucker punched, creatively speaking, sure there was nothing to say or do in the world of words that could make a difference. But that was my reactive mind speaking. My deeper mind, the only one that’s close to capable of getting anything worthwhile done, just forced my butt back into the chair to sit for a while and see what was there. And, as always, doing just that reminded me that it’s not our first reactions that matter most, but the reflections that stand the test of time. The ones that benefit from some degree of perspective, that take our noses out of our asses or wait until we’ve managed to unwrap those protective arms we’re clenching around ourselves, squeezing so tight we sometimes forget that we are the most constrictive thing in our lives.

A dear friend helped start a wonderful non-profit several years ago called The Art of Yoga Project, an organization that seeks to help incarcerated teenage girls develop self-regulating skills. One of its other founding members was a local judge who noticed that many of the young girls she was seeing as victims in assault cases wound up as defendants several years down the line. As it turns out, many trauma and abuse sufferers experience far faster than average reaction times when confronted by threats. As a result, many of these kids act before they think, and get into trouble accordingly, thus perpetuating a cycle of victimhood that can seem impossible to break. Yet, simply by teaching kids to practice taking a breath to reassert control over the choices they make with their bodies and minds, The Art of Yoga Project and ones similar to it have been able to achieve noticeable results in the rate of recitivism among juvenile offenders.

It’s a surprisingly simple and inexpensive intervention, and one that might benefit just about anyone who’s ever felt rushed to leap before they look. But developing perspective takes practice, which is something we’re all that more likely to shelve when we’re in the daily throes of rushing to meetings and answering texts and checking email and scurrying around like chickens with our heads cut off. Yet imagine what we could do, as writers, as workers, as parents, as people, if we reacquainted ourselves with the ancient art of taking a step back and/or taking a deep breath. For me, this practice looks like writing, and sometimes yoga, and sometimes just setting everything that’s literally or metaphorically in front of me aside and listening wholeheartedly to one of my kids. For you, it might look entirely different. But what it looks like doesn’t matter; what does are the small revolutions that can start the big ones, the meaningful steps we take in daily life to live as we wish to, not as we’re driven to.

 

Art: Wassily Kandinsky, “Color of Squares”