Writer’s Log, April 11th: Wait for It

Once upon a time, before there was every form of immediate gratification available to us in the entertainment realm, we used to have to bring much more to the table in order to make something interesting. My kids have approximately eight gazillion computer games available at the click of a button; I played with wooden blocks. They can log onto devices at home, school, and the library and be instantly connected to a world of information and other minds; I had a pen pal I wrote to by hand. And when my blocks got boring and my pen pal stopped writing and I was tired of making up new games or tormenting my little brother or sneaking into my sisters’ closets, I laid down on the floor and stared up at the ceiling, so irritable with boredom I thought I’d spontaneously combust.

My kids are definitely happier than I was. There’s no denying the sweet satisfaction of having so many lovely, shiny objects to dangle in front of the mind. And many of the things that entertain them educate them as well – they’re just as likely to play math games as Plants vs. Zombies, they know how to code, and they’re incredibly facile when it comes to processing new information. And in all honesty, I do think they’re better off than I was, at least in part. Also, I couldn’t be less interested in enforcing the “us vs. them” dichotomy that we are usually so eager to place between generations.

But there’s a wonderful quality to the “wait for it” versions of entertainment that I was forced to notice and appreciate during my childhood – and that the billions of humans that came before me perfected and built upon. There’s still no greater artistic gift, in my mind, than a book that doesn’t hand feed you, that challenges you, that has the muscle to stand up to many interpretations – that asks you to bring something to the table. Same with theater, and music, and art, and film, and dance. Because artistic creations do not have to be something we receive only; they can be a two-way street, and might even be at their best when they are. There is really no replacement or substitute, no matter how bright or shiny it might be, for the spark of connection and recognition that can take place when an artist offers work that their audience must open their hands to receive.

So the next time you’re near a kid who might be halfway willing to be unplugged, drag them to the theater. Take them camping and read to them from a novel that would be diminished if it were made into a movie. Give them the space to walk through their own minds on their own steam. They’re hungry for it. Maybe even hungrier than we realize.

 

Art: Georgia O’Keefe, Abstraction, White Rose, 1927

Writer’s Log, April 4th: The Art of the Breakup

You know you have to do it. It’s just not working anymore, and you’re in need of a clean break. Maybe it’s that novel you’ve toiled over for the past seven(teen) years, or that short story no one but you understands, or that poem an English professor once told you had promise. You’ve held onto it and lingered over it and made excuses for it, but you just can’t bring yourself to walk away.

I know. I’ve been there. You’re afraid this is a diamond in the rough that will certainly fall between the cracks without your devotion. Or you fear that you only have one decent novel/short story/poem in you, and you need to figure out a way to be happy with what you’ve got. Or you’ve just spent so much of your creative time on it, it’s hard to walk away now.

Recently, I gently set aside a novel I’ve been working on for the better part of three years. I’m not sure I could have done that earlier in my career, but now that I’ve trained myself to know the difference between a project that will respond to all my efforts and one that will bleed me dry, it’s getting easier to know when to walk away – and to appreciate the importance of doing just that. When I was still getting my creative sea legs under me, I might have just walked away in frustration, or stayed too long out of desperation. But now that I have a few solid failures under my belt, I understand that the art of the break up has so much more to do with what’s right for me as an artist than the relative merits of the piece I’m leaving behind.

In other words, instead of walking away from a project simply because it’s driving me crazy or I’m getting nowhere with it or it’s stubbornly refusing to evolve at the pace I prefer, I know to walk away only if the challenges it presents me with deplete me more than they help me to grow. Similarly, I won’t stay with a project that moves merrily along with no blips in sight because I know it’s not offering me the opportunity to make the most of my talents. The relationship you have to your work, in other words, should set you up to step into your best possible artistic self – not your most comfortable self, or your most tortured self – but the self that allows for all your complexity, that both celebrates and challenges everything odd and wonderful about you.

The value of this goes far beyond the obvious reasons. Because whenever you can remember to make a judgment call that prioritizes your growth as a writer over the growth of any particular piece – as opposed to the judgment calls we might be sorely tempted to make in the opposite direction – it helps you to bring the full bore of your talents into the next project and the wisdom to know how they are best engaged. Over the years, this behavior has a cumulative effect, so that you find yourself better able to zero in on those projects and ideas that will be the most fruitful.

Does that mean breakups ever get any easier? Well, yes and no. The months leading up to the breakup will always be filled with a certain amount of anguish and angst, but knowing you can ultimately trust yourself to make the best decisions on your own behalf does soften the blow — and infuses even the most difficult of separations with a steady, indefatigable hope.

 

Art: John LeGatta, Ballroom Dancing

Writer’s Log, March 28th: Point of View and Perspective

While I love/hate discussions of point of view as much as the next writer, sometimes I think they become needlessly complicated. And because writers have a teeny tiny tendency to get tangled up in their own knots, I suspect that, when choosing between first and third person, it might be useful to remember the reasons why we make such choices in the first place.

It used to be that making such choices involved much higher stakes. There was a feeling that you either had to try to follow in the godlike footsteps of Tolstoy or Dickens and adopt a narrative voice that oozed knowledge about every single character’s private and public concerns as well as the world (or worlds) they inhabited, or you were a Bronte and wrote tortured scenes about the state of your soul. Fortunately for us, there’s been a 20th century, and the lines between first and third person are far blurrier. You can write in third person as Rowling does, embracing a major main character bias; or as Chris Cleave does, switching the global perspective depending on whose scene it is. Or you can write first person as Fitzgerald did in Gatsby, using an “I” to tell someone else’s story; or actually embrace the hell out of your narrator’s unreliable qualities, a la Mark Haddon’s Christopher in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, or Ishiguro’s Kathy H. in Never Let Me Go. You can even be a Joshua Ferris and try your hand at second person (though all of us agree that speaking for more than one voice has a tendency to water down all voices).

The point is (no pun intended) that the point of view you choose matters far less than identifying the perspective(s) best suited to telling your story. In fact, you might even consider casting those rigid points of view aside and think instead about choosing a narrative voice the way a photographer chooses a lens or an artist her frame. Is a private, interior view the best way to sharpen your vision, or must you go broader and wider to do your story justice? Do you want us to see your story unfold from an outsider’s perspective or an insider’s; from far above, or from deep down in the trenches? Is it important that the narrative voice get out of the way of the action, or do its curious interpretations play a vital role in how you want your reader to experience your character’s story?

And don’t sweat it when you realize that the perspective you ultimately choose leaves some aspects of telling a story unavailable to you. My beloved graduate school advisor always used to remind us that every way of seeing is a way of not seeing. This is unavoidable in life and in art, and trying too hard to capture everything that has ever interested you about a particular subject will result in a spineless, sprawling disappointment. Making the kind of bold and powerful choices that shape great fiction always result in leaving more than you thought you could live without on the cutting room floor. Rather than mourning what you can’t say, in other words, embrace what you can, and shape everything else accordingly.

Art: Robert Delaunay, Homage to Bleriot

Writer’s Log, March 20th: Why Writers Hate Writing

It’s a dirty little secret in the writing world, but if you’re tackling the sort of writing that truly matters to you, there are days (or weeks, or months) when you’d rather peel off your own fingernails than return to the page. I used to be tremendously bothered by this, and didn’t want to admit to it. Varsity level crazy is no stranger to my family, and I wondered if I’d come up with my own, peculiar brand of psychosis, characterized by a compulsive desire to write and an absolute aversion to doing just that.

But after years of opting to do such things as clean the cat’s litter box from top to bottom or alphabetizing my kids’ books (a Sisyphean task if there ever was one) instead of writing, I finally summoned the courage to stare my crazy in the face. And what I’ve learned – much to my surprise – is that it makes perfect sense that the thing I love most to do in the world is oftentimes also the thing I avoid like the plague.

Maybe if there were guarantees to writing, it would be different. Maybe if every time I approached the page I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that opening my heart and taking risks and demanding my mind’s peak performance would result in the sort of writing that dreams are made of, I’d be more eager to get started. But it rarely works that way. Usually, I open my heart and take risks and demand the best my intellect has to offer and, at most, I’ll get a few piddling paragraphs. Or, I find myself daydreaming about dinner or Dubai or random thoughts that have nothing whatsoever to do with what I’m trying to write about, and instead of eking out a few piddling paragraphs, I find myself on the Internet, watching cat videos on YouTube. So much for great intentions. The wandering mind can be as mortifying as an unfiltered toddler asking questions in a crowd.

It’s no wonder, then, that when I take a deep breath and dive in with all my heart and soul because I love and revere books and beautiful writing and want to devote my all to the craft of producing them but wind up watching cat videos instead, that I’d rather crawl under a rock than rinse and repeat. But that’s exactly what a writer has to do.

Because it’s that willingness to fall flat on our faces again and again, creatively speaking, that enables us to build the wiry, spunky, creative strength that keeps us going. Great writing is the result of sustained commitment, not a flash-in-the-pan evening of flushed inspiration, despite what the movies might want us to believe. It’s boring and sometimes treacherous and frequently disappointing, but it’s also the kind of essential training we need to engage in to reach our highest goals; a training of the mind, the spirit, and the heart to engage in the painstaking work it takes to wrangle letters into a shape that approximates something true and moving about the human experience.

So yes, if you’re doing it right, you should hate your writing. But like anyone building themselves up toward something better, you can love it, too. For challenging you this much, for keeping you humble, for surprising you, for showing you your own strength, for reminding you that when you go after something that doesn’t produce immediate results, you’re demanding the most out of your particular gifts, and believing in their highest potential. So roll around on the floor and moan and groan and maybe just empty the cat box – then get back to work.

 

Art: The Concert, Marc Chagall

Writer’s Log, March 13th: Support Networks

Most writers understand the importance of an external support network. We realize how critical the encouragement of our loved ones and the honest criticism of our trusted readers can be. But despite how much time we spend in our inner worlds, I think many of us fail to truly appreciate the benefit of a strong internal support network – those private practices and structures we establish to complement and strengthen our writing work.

At the most basic level, an internal support network is an agreement you come to with yourself to skip the self-directed trash talk long enough to get a few words down on paper. This is hard for many of us most of the time, and shouldn’t be undermined. But there really is so much more. And when you take advantage of it, you might notice a remarkable and incidental reduction in the impulse toward self-directed trash talk. In other words, if you practice preventative creative mental health care, you are less likely to fall victim to your own invented diseases.

One practice I fell into early on that I return to again and again is that of engaging in complementary artistic work – an act that’s particularly helpful when I’m taking my writing a bit too seriously. It can feel like playing hooky to paint or sing or learn to play the banjo when your novel is stalled, but nothing could be further from the truth. Oftentimes, the stall comes from our failure to release the work to our better creative selves, the ones that know how to play and design and get out of their own way; when we engage them otherwise, that engagement spills back over into the parched writing world and floods it with color.

Another is to practice the kind of paying attention and care we want for our writing in our actual lives. It makes sense that we won’t get much development or color on the page if we’re not developing or adding color to our own lives – and to the lives of those around us – but we often follow through on the truth of this simple connection. Maybe volunteering regularly or asking your kids what they really think about their homework or visiting your aging grandparent might not feel like writing work, but it is. A life half-lived will cut your writing off at the knees.

And while many of us are guilty of unconsciously drawing divisive lines between the mind and the body, those of us who spend a lot of time in our heads tend to be even more guilty of enforcing this false dichotomy. We tend to neglect the expansiveness and care and potential of the body, as if these things have nothing whatsoever to do with how flexible and facile our minds can be. So while few of us are likely to become Ironwomen, to paraphrase the mighty Theodore Weisel, if you have feet on your legs and air in your lungs, use them. They’ll get you quite far indeed, and there’s no telling what your mind might notice along the way.

Even if you’re skeptical and think you can get along just fine with your exhausted mind and collapsed spine and frayed relationships, thank you very much, take a week or a month or a year to play with the idea of caring for them as a way of caring for your writing anyway. You might be surprised, as I was, to learn that while a richer and more balanced life might seem like it takes time away from your writing, it actually enriches your writing resources tenfold, so that fifteen minutes of work might get you much further than a few hours did before.

 

Art: Albert Koetsier, Ginko