Writer’s Log, March 1st: Hard Work

When I was younger, I thought the toe-curling reaction I had to a few hours of writing time stretching out before me made me abnormal. Either I had confused what I thought was a feverish passion for writing with some other fever – a delusional one, perhaps – or I didn’t have the chops to make it as a writer. In fact, I hate to admit this, but the truth is that I avoided writing for many, many years because I was sure that my desire to run quickly out of the room with my tail between my legs every time I faced a blank page was a sign that I had no hope of growing into the writer I so wanted to be.

I’ve since learned that (almost) all writers hate writing. Bear with me here. I’m not saying that all writers hate all writing all the time, or that writers are mentally and/or emotionally challenged individuals who compulsively indulge in self-destructive behavior just for kicks (though that has been said before, unfortunately, since it’s such a gross misinterpretation of authorial behavior). But I have learned that almost every writer I know experiences an excruciating amount of unwillingness to just sit down and write. Even writers I don’t know own up to this. Amy Tan has a wonderful story in her memoirs about getting stranded in a cabin after a flash flood – when a rescue team finally arrived, all she could think was that if she got out of there, she’d have to finish her novel.

So why do writers hate writing? I want to know your thoughts, but I have a few theories of my own. First, I think many writers are perfectionists, because a writer must be incredibly driven and incredibly detail oriented in order to wrassle (not a misspelling: think alligators and jello pits) her thoughts down into the medium of language. This perfectionism does not, however, prove very helpful when one needs to step into a creative space that courts risk and the unknown. So there’s that (which I’ve written about extensively already), but I think I’m ready to expand on that theory. I think another reason why so many writers hate writing is because AT FIRST – and this is critical, since the rewards of a writing practice are too numerous to begin to list — writing demands so much, yet it promises so little in return.

Again, a moment to clarify: the act of writing can be thrilling and centering and inspiring, all at once. But more often than not, it’s just a slog, and the more you write, the more slogging you must do. Moreover, you must come into the slogosphere with your most heightened sensitivities tuned to their highest frequencies, and you must keep your heart open and either leave your assumptions and baggage at the door or find a way to authentically shape them into something that doesn’t resemble the tear-and-ink-stained rant of a diary you kept under your bed when you were fourteen. In other words, most of the time, writing feels a bit like working up the courage to share the contents of your heart with the crush of your life who has barely ever noticed you, or, I don’t know, showing up to a middle school dance naked.

No matter what answer we come up with, though, I will say that I think it’s pretty amazing that writers write anyway. It takes extraordinary courage to enter the lion’s den with nothing more than a magic wand with iffy batteries. I try to remember that when I get hard on myself about avoiding my writing. It’s not always about how well you do what you do; it’s also about how well you manage to keep your head held high even when you’re tripping over your own feet.  

Art: Wassily Kandinsky, Improvisation Sans Titre

Writer’s Log, February 1st: Self-Promotion

Self-promotion is rarely easy, but I think it’s particularly difficult for writers. For starters, many of us come to writing because we’d much prefer to be on a cozy couch with a book than marching a sandwich board down Broadway. And to make matters far worse, if we manage to take those first, tentative steps toward honoring our own work enough to want to publish, sell, or share it, we get bombarded with a slew of dusty, crusty old ideas about what it means to be successful, much of it similar to the kind of persistent shaming I imagine Victorian virgins had to endure. If we’re really worth having, we shouldn’t have to draw attention to ourselves. We should wait for others to invest in our futures, rather than take such matters in our own hands. If we linger in obscurity indefinitely, it’s probably because we deserved it.

For several years, I’ve been writing this log and promoting it on Facebook. I was not on board with this, at first. I don’t like social media, and I liked the fact that my publisher was pushing for me to engage with it even less. But I’ve come to find my off-label use of Facebook to spread the word (as it were) about the realities of the writing life an increasingly rewarding process. And, for the most part, it’s been received far better than I ever could have hoped.

But, of course, nearly every time I promote a post, the very fact that I am promoting it ties someone’s knickers in a vicious twist, and they make sure I hear about it. I know, I know. Haters gonna hate. But I don’t find it useful in the least to hate them back. I’d much rather look at that hate and see what it represents, how it places its owner in shackles, how something I posted gave them a way to show the undersides of their wrists, where the metal has dug in.

In my experience, 99% of the time, hate is fear with an ingrown toenail. And in this country, where we’re taught to consume our feelings and conceal our vulnerabilities, so many of us have been told that we have no right to share ourselves openly with others. As a result, many of us only want to appear in public with impregnable reasons for doing so. But how does waiting until one’s star is firmly placed in the firmament do anything to support the rest of us here on earth?

So here’s what I think. It’s never too early to start promoting your work and yourself as an artist, and doing so is not really about how great you think you are or how much genuflecting you think you can inspire. It’s about standing up for art, and artists, and meaning. Not because those things are invulnerable, but because they aren’t.

Art: Georgia O’Keeffe, Abstraction White Rose

Writer’s Log, January 1st: Nutritional Information

In defiance of New Year’s resolutions, which oftentimes stem from the idea that a life must be fundamentally changed in order to improve, I like to use this time of year to wonder how I might rededicate myself to some meaningful aspect of my life. This approach works even better if I try to identify something I’ve started to neglect because I feel like I don’t have enough time or energy to devote to it. Because usually, when I’ve convinced myself I don’t have time for something I think I care deeply about, I either don’t care as much about it as I thought, or I’m avoiding the kind of next level attention I could bring to it because doing so feels too hard.

And in recent months – maybe even in recent years – it’s becoming clearer to me that I don’t give a certain kind reading nearly as much attention as I used to. This is significant not just because I’m a writer, but because I’ve always believed that the information we consume signifies where we direct our attention and why.

It’s not that I don’t read. I probably read more now than I ever did. And reading, in a sense, has never been more of a preoccupation for all of us. Social media is, after all, a form of reading, as is the textosphere, and the internet. The problem is that I’ve become hooked on immediately digestible and available information, frequently filling my head with the intellectual equivalent of a coffee and a donut.

And I’m definitely starting to feel the long term effects. It’s not just that I feel overstimulated and empty after ingesting this kind of information. I think many of us are aware of such intellectual bloat, and wish to do something about it. But a deeper problem reveals itself the moment I try to invest my energy into the intellectual equivalent of kale or, to be honest, just a single, flavor-packed blueberry. I’ll sit down with the best intentions, but after just a few minutes, my mind immediately reveals its most recent training. It assumes that anything worth reading will grab me just as readily as the phone that pings, tsks, and wriggles in my pocket all day. It wants to sprint, to fly, to be tickled and tantalized. It does not want to complete even a single page of Dickens.

The problem, in other words, is not just that I’ve become an unknowing consumer of relatively empty information. It’s that my mind is so accustomed to this kind of fuel, it has lost its taste for the good stuff.

And I’m not alone. You can’t get through a positive rating of a newly published book without encountering star-spangly adjectives, many of which refer to things like pacing or drama or humor. Pick up one of those volumes, and the chances are excellent that you will encounter a birth, death, or maiming in the opening chapter. And while many of these volumes deserve the praise they’re given and more, should the immediacy by which a piece of literature grabs us be so important? And while literature might be evolving to involve more spark and shimmer, do we leave anything behind when we kick slower reads to the curb? Can we trust that these evolutions protect literary integrity, knowing that many modern readers want the same hit out of their novels as they do out of their television shows?

In all honesty, I’m not sure I know the answer. But I plan to find out. This year, I resolve to rededicate myself to reading. Or, more specifically, the kind of reading I’ve neglected. The books that are quieter or refuse to be digested quickly, the ones that might take a month – or more – to read, but give me enough to chew on for a year. Maybe even a lifetime.

It won’t be easy. I’ll have to reread many sentences and put my phone in quarantine, which means I might get the shakes from the FOMO. I’ll have to relearn how to focus and use proper lighting. My eyelids will need to take on some strength training. But I think all these muscles are worth redeveloping. Perhaps in all of us.

Art: Octopus, Lantern Press

Writer’s Log, December 18th: Defining the Work

Whether you’re the type of writer who won’t begin a project until you’ve drawn up several spreadsheets and have exhausted every possible corner of research as well as your local librarian, or you prefer to tackle the work in Thurber-esque fashion, happily puttering ahead as long as you can see three feet in front of you, at some point or other, you’re going to need to define the work.

Unfortunately, unless you fully embrace this opportunity, it becomes all to easy to wind up defending the work. For instance, instead of getting very clear about your voice, and how it can be crafted into a wonderfully peculiar song, you might wind up worrying about what you don’t want to sound like, what fun they’ll make of you in The New Yorker for how shrill/dull/simpering/clinical/cold/warm it is, and how smug your third grade frenemies will feel when they read your work from atop their vulture perches. Or instead of figuring out why you are drawn to a particular subject matter and how you, as a writer, can serve it in an authentic and riveting way, you worry instead that every story worth telling has already been told, and decide to go lie in the street.

The truth is, every story worth telling has already been told, but that’s a reason to go dance in the street, because the human desire for narrative never fades, nor does our potential to fall in love anew with every voice we encounter. In other words, it’s not about how well you beat back your faults, and how cunningly you defend yourself from all critical reads by constantly henpecking every word you put on the page, it’s how gladly and intentionally you embrace the vision that most excites you.

Furthermore, your work is not a clown car, existing for the primary purpose of seeing how much of yourself and your interests can be packed within it. Just as it does not want to be burdened with every single one of your insecurities, your are not meant to be your work’s stage mother, sure that if it doesn’t shine so brightly that it wipes out the competition for years to come, neither one of you should ever show your face in public again. What it does want is for you to notice the form it’s taking, and respect that container for everything it has to offer and nothing more.

And while the work might evolve over time, breaking free of its original definitions, you must take abundant care to be sure such shifts represent creative growth, rather than the development of new armor. Because at the end of the day, the only thing you must truly stay vigilant about is your vulnerability, your willingness to tackle those things that make your heart cry out, your knees weaken, and your mind soar. Similarly, you must have the courage to own your definitions, just as you would anything else you’ve invested in, and embrace how they represent the artist you are, which is also, conveniently, the very artist you’re supposed to be.

Art: Charles the First, 1982, Jean-Michel Basquiat

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