Writer’s Log, October 17th: Progress and Persistence

One of the great frustrations any artist faces is measuring progress. As if it weren’t hard enough to enter into work that is, by its very nature, inventive, and therefore not designed to live up to any clear benchmarks, more often than not, the effort we put into our work is not neatly reflected in our results. We might spend days on a single moment on a single page, or bang out an entire chapter in a few hours.

Unfortunately, because most of us with at least a tenuous hold on sanity rely on logic, we tend to believe that our most productive days are the ones when we produce the most material. Superficially, this logic is sound, but on a deeper level, it’s woefully misleading. The trouble with measuring a writer’s progress against what she produces on any given day is that so much of the heavy lifting, creatively speaking, occurs long before the words line up on the page in neat and pleasant order.

This has never been more evident to me than now, when I’m a few years in to writing my first historical novel about a subject that is virtually nonexistent in fiction but widely covered in scholarship. Since I’m an incurably dutiful student, I haven’t wanted to proceed with my own take on these issues until I understand what’s already been said, which means that I’ve spend the better part of three years wandering through a forest of literature so thick there have been times I’ve felt sure that a wolf passing by to swallow me whole would be a far more merciful end than finding my way out. And now that I’ve begun to write the book itself in earnest, that same, dutiful student in me is wringing her hands when confronted with the amount of words I’ve read vs. the amount of words I’ve written. It is more than a little easy to feel overwhelmed.

But thankfully, this isn’t my first expedition into the wilderness, and as judgey and frustrated as I could be with my evident progress and the looming future, I’m honestly never been more excited about a project. Because amidst all these private cares and solitary work, I’ve never been more engaged with a challenge. Although I’ve spent actual weeks without producing a single word, what I’ve learned and tangled over and resolved during that time represents far more progress than what I might have done if I panicked, sat down, and just punched out a daily quota.

And while this might not be true for everybody, I think far more writers do far more work before they put words to a page than we ever allow for. Writing, after all, represents new ways of thinking, and this is not achieved simply by sitting down with a cup of tea and waiting for the must to show up. It requires wrassling with everything you know to discover something you don’t, and then it requires you sifting through everything you’ve ever expressed to discover something you haven’t. Much of this shaping takes place with language as the clay, but a great deal of it must also unfold while mulling and considering and debating and wondering, if not walking and sketching and mapping and listening.

The bottom line is that if you’re doing your subject justice, you won’t see words produced in lock step with the work you’ve done. What you will see is much more difficult to pinpoint, but much more pervasive. More than anything, it’s really a progression of learning, marked not by what you can show that you know, but how far you’ve come in stretching your own thinking.

So instead of worrying about how much you’ve produced, ask yourself how much you’ve persisted. Perhaps you’ve only got 100 words down for that 100,000 word saga you envision, but how much time and thought do those 100 words represent? And, if you eventually decide that you’d rather replace them with a different 100 words, not because you’re tearing yourself to shreds, but because you’ve considered them and moved on, consider how much ground you’ve gained in the process. If you honor and respect what you know you’ve done, rather than what you can point to, your writing, and everything it produces, will only be stronger.

Art: Cool Growth, Albert Koetsier

Writer’s Log, October 2nd: Discovering Your Subject Matter

For more than two decades, I lingered in this terrible writer’s limbo of knowing I wanted to write and having no idea what to write about. I’d turn out lengthy, rich, prose pieces with no anchor or sense of story, and feel as if I’d just produced the literary equivalent of unsalted schmaltz. Part of the trouble was that I was young, and hadn’t had enough experience or perspective on that experience to really know what I wanted to say, but I think the real trouble lay in the limiting ways in which I saw subject matter.

While I’d read everything I could get my hands on, when it came to carving out my own literary terrain, I was trying to get by with two, rather grainy beacons to guide my way. The first was to “write what you know,” and the second was to “write the book you want to read.” These aren’t terrible directions to follow, but neither are those signposts that say things like “Children X-ing” and “Danger.” Sure, you get the general idea, but a few specifics wouldn’t hurt.

Instead of just writing what I know, for instance, I’ve found far better subject matter by seeking out the mysteries buried within what is familiar to me. I certainly agree that you don’t want to try to write about the Louisiana Bayou if you’ve never been any further west than Tucson, but if you just try to write about Tucson, chances are you’ll find yourself floundering myopically through a sea of childhood memories. Instead, try identifying subject matter within the familiar by asking yourself what still mystifies you about Tucson, despite knowing the general region like the back of your hand. I like to call this the To Kill a Mockingbird approach, and it rarely disappoints.

Another way into your subject matter is to study the people who make up the emotional fabric of your life. Who do you love the most? Who are your dearest friends? Greatest enemies? What do these characters share in common? Why do they resonate with you? Why are you devoted to them? What are their hidden fears and triumphs, and how do they echo yours?  Throw them all in a supermarket for an afternoon and go to town.

A further consideration is your own creative sweet spot. Are you most excited to go deep and long, or would you rather flirt on the surface? Don’t judge; just notice. Do you see yourself following one character through several books, or shaking things up every time you begin a new project? What are you reading? Be honest, here. Maybe you think you’re a Tolstoy gal, but your Kindle is recommending nothing but bodice rippers, “based on your choices.” Hint: Few writers read only one type of writing, and most find their creative sweet spots by picking and choosing from among their own, eclectic tastes. Just seek out that wonderful zone that lies right before taking yourself too seriously and well beyond underestimating yourself.

In the same vein, what sorts of hobbies and ideas preoccupy you? What do you know how to do really well? What do you do terribly but persistently? If you’re a lawyer who kayaks every weekend, then maybe a book that involves parsing through bigger questions while navigating the wild is your cup of tea. Or if you’re a drifter with a passion for spraying great walls with graffiti creations, perhaps your subject matter lies in the realm of a character who drifts on the fringes of society, reflecting its heart back at itself. This might be considered another variation on the theme of writing what you know, but it’s really about capitalizing on your existing passions, preoccupations, and unique ways of interacting with your world. One caveat: if you go too literal here, you’ll miss your creative edge. So even if you’re a politician with a passion for prostitutes, if you don’t find some distance and fabrication to separate yourself from your reality, your fiction won’t have space to breathe.

Finally, pay attention to how your voice and aesthetic can be leveraged more adroitly in the service of certain subject matters and less so in the case of others. For instance, if you’re a witty, cocktail-party denizen with neon art on your walls, you might not find your fullest expression through a book that features an old man and the sea, despite what your sophomore college professor made you think was most worthwhile. The much better book, for you, is probably one in which a glittering college student finds herself wanting to entrap a fascinatingly distant English teacher.

The point is to look closely at the richness and curiosity that’s sitting right at your fingertips, and to honor what lights you up, even if that’s writing about the collection of slugs at the bottom of your garden. Subject matter never exists in a vacuum, and what makes a story truly memorable is rarely just what it’s about, anyway. Instead, it’s the sense that you’ve connected with the author’s innermost light, and that it illuminates a new way of seeing your own hidden gems.  

Art: Pablo Picasso, Owl

Writer’s Log, September 18th: Opening the Door

One of the most confounding aspects of writing is how hard it can be to just get started. We finally finish playing whack-a-mole with all the usual demands on our time, manage to squirrel away an hour or two to ourselves, only to sit down, take a deep breath, turn on the computer, wait patiently for a few minutes, panic, and start watching YouTube. Rinse and repeat.

Yes, I’m looking at you.

Traditionally, most of us shame or question ourselves when this happens. We tell ourselves we have nothing to say, and that our hoary third grade teacher was right when she said we had no work ethic. Or we decide we have writer’s block, as if all this writing stuff is entirely out of our hands and something outside ourselves is preventing us from getting in. Or we doubt our sanity and talent, privately but deeply concerned that we’re willing to move heaven and earth to get the chance to write, only to squander those precious few hours or minutes in procrastination and misery.

I’ve been writing regularly for over twenty years, and I am still not immune to this wicked cycle of self-flagellation. But I’ve learned the hard way that there are excellent reasons for why it’s so hard to begin, none of which have anything to do with mysterious forces beyond my control, or the imminent discovery of my worthlessness as a human being, or an undiagnosed mental illnesses (all mine have been diagnosed, thank you very much). Instead, I’ve found that understanding the nature of this particular beast is a huge asset in learning to step past it with all my limbs intact. And the truth is, I think this reluctance to begin that so many writers punish themselves over is actually an excellent sign of a healthy psyche.

In fact, I find it particularly odd that we’re so willing to tear ourselves down in the face of this resistance, when the reasons why it shows up are so eminently practical. As a for instance, many of us know that the best writing comes from a place of authenticity and honesty, two qualities many of us have yet to consistently share with our own children, and yet we freak out when they can’t be summoned at the snap of our fingers. And we also know that writing involves venturing into the dark unknown of our own minds without a flashlight, and yet we still berate ourselves for hesitating at that threshold. We’ll even readily admit at cocktail parties that it’s entirely possible we’ll pour years into our work and it still might not see the light of the day, yet what we’re willing to laugh over with strangers can become perfectly beastly behind closed doors.

To add salt to the wound, many writers tend to come to writing because we love reading, and we can’t get enough of it, and we’ve formed Very Strong Opinions about what constitutes a successful foray on the page. So right out of the gate, we have exceptionally high – if not downright inhuman(e) – standards. And if we come to our own budding efforts without checking these standards at the door, it’s a little like holding Michelangelo’s David above the head of the nearest kindergartner getting ready to open his finger paints.

It’s no wonder that every last protective mechanism within you raises its hackles when faced with a blank page. And for good reason! But you know what has an even better reason for pushing forward? Every part of you that ever sought to be heard, to lead a meaningful life, and to realize the kind of fulfillment only the most worthwhile, intentional risks can bring. If you can just manage to shift back into that perspective every now and then, you have to admit that self doubt really doesn’t have a place in all this, nor does it stand a chance.

So yes, it can feel damn near impossible to get started. But that’s not because there’s something wrong with you. In fact, it’s because there are several things right with you. It’s probably an indication that you’re ready to take the kinds of risks that make that little man in the hard hat who likes to stomp around planting safety cones in your head go weak at the knees. It’s also an indication that you care about what you’re about to do, and, what’s more, that you have the sensitivity and sensibility to carry it out. For all these reasons and thousands more, this resistance is a sign that you’ve hit upon something vital that needs to be expressed, and that you are the person best suited to the job.

It’s been said that writing is a gift that sours in the hand. When it comes to the writing life, I’m not sure truer words have ever been spoken. Your writing wants out of you, but it’s going to spend a lot more time festering if you bear down on every unexplained difficulty it presents with shame and judgment. Instead, if you come to expect – nay, welcome, as a sign of a healthy mind and a worthy heart – the resistance you face when you come to the door that leads to so many unknowns, and you gently wait until your hand steadies on the knob instead of beating your head against it, you might be amazed at how quickly that fear can slip away. Because more often than not, opening the door is the hardest part. Once you’re in, you’ll only wonder how you managed to stay away for so long.  

Art: Georgia O’Keeffe, “Patio with Black Door”

Writer’s Log, September 5th: The Paris Effect

One of the biggest challenges of writing fiction is how liberating it can be. At the outset, it can feel exhilarating to spin an entirely fabricated world of your own design, but most writers don’t get very far before they begin to feel overwhelmed by the sheer number of unsupervised choices they have to make. And no matter how much you felt like you were in charge at the outset, it’s all too easy to get a few chapters in and feel the reins slipping from your hands. And that’s never a comfortable feeling. No one wants to grasp the tail of a dream only to feel it slipping from their fingers. That said, there are both helpful and not-so-helpful ways of handling this inevitability.

It is helpful to understand that whether you run a Fortune 500 or can organize a laundry room to within an inch of its life, your writing will not respond to your usual project management methods. In fact, the more severely you impose your timelines and goals and outlines on your fiction, the faster it will turn its back on you and dig in its heels. You are drawing on your subconscious and your imagination to harness your unique way of seeing the world. Trust me when I say these things to not respond well to seat belts and leashes.

Unfortunately, many people don’t recognize the warning signs before their inner control freaks snatch the wheel with their bony, white-knuckled hands. Yet I’ve seen a particular kind of collateral damage time and time again in the pages of a newly hatched book, or one that is apparently refusing to evolve. I like to the think of it as The Paris Effect. At some point, probably when the author realized she was navigating an ocean of consciousness in a homemade dinghy, she unwittingly reached for a commercial barge. Faced with the thin, early sketches of characters and scenes and settings that need her heart, soul, and acres of patience to grow into fruition, the nascent novelist suddenly has a brilliant idea. She’ll set everything in Paris! Or Rome! Or both!

And for a while, she’ll feel enormous relief. There’s sanctuary in the known, after all. And I’m not saying we should deny ourselves that sanctuary; but I do think we need to take care to keep it out of our novels. Because unless your version of Paris has your main character chatting up a red, bearded, billy goat, it isn’t yours. Paris has saturated the collective unconscious, as have so many other cultural icons and commercial heavy hitters. And while such cultural rock stars might deliver delicious and true pleasures, they don’t belong in your novel, because the minute they appear, they eclipse everything around them, sort of like dropping Godzilla into your friendly neighborhood paleontology exhibit. Another way to think about it is that everything that’s ever been said about Paris comes along with it when you use it. It’s like saying I love you in the opening page; you’ve landed a linguistic atom bomb in the novel long before the small, sure voice that is only yours had a chance to even call for help.

So if you’re looking for some something familiar and undeniable, take a trip to Target and marvel over how the Cheerios box doesn’t look a bit different than it did when it stood on your circa 1968 breakfast table. Or call your mother and tell her you have the sniffles and lip sync her admonishments and advice. Just don’t infect your novel with your desire to find shelter under existing cultural superstars because ultimately, this will just reflect someone else’s light. If, on the other hand, you’re willing to wait until the clouds of your own, peculiar uncertainties clear, the view you’ll get to witness afterward is unparalleled. And it will be so much more meaningful than Paris.

Art: Marc Chagall, View of Paris

Writer’s Log, August 15th: Revision as Revelation

Here’s one of the things they don’t tell you in writing class: It’s next-to-impossible to engage in any kind of substantive revision without experience more than your share of existential despair. I don’t care how well the work is coming along. If it will stand up to a heavy revision, it probably represents your best efforts to date; by the same token, it probably also isn’t ready for its close-up. So you get the lovely job of rolling up your sleeves and getting into the nitty gritty with what you hope might be the love of your life but will probably end up not looking so great once you’ve pulled back all that makeup and hair.

I wish someone had told me this before I set out to see a novel from start to finish, because I was sure I was crazy/not fit to write/doing something terribly wrong. In fact, I think I spent the first ten years of my writing career dreading revision, which makes perfect sense, given my pattern of thinking my latest draft was the bee’s knees just after I finished writing it, only to wring my hands in despair once I came back to revise it, shocked and embarrassed at how much I seemed to have beer-goggled my writing.

Fortunately, other, far wiser writers have come before me. One of them was Stanley Kunitz, who was filmed at the 92nd Street Y giving a lecture to a bunch of teenagers sometime during the mid-90s, which means he was in his mid-90s. But despite liver spots on one side of the conversation and acne on the other, the age gap seemed non-existent. One girl asked him if he ever got frustrated, and wanted to give up. “Always,” he says. “It happened yesterday. It happened last week.” A second astute teen pipes in. “Are you ever satisfied?” she asks. “The only moment of satisfaction,” Kunitz answers, “is the moment when I finish on the typewriter and I pull out that page, and I read it, and it’s four o’clock in the morning, and I say, ‘How wonderful this is!’ And I go to bed happy. Then I read it in the morning, and I want to tear it up, and I start over.” Sure, when he goes on to wax poetic about the perpetual discontent of the artist it may seem like this isn’t a happy ending, but if you look at his face while he’s talking about this discontent, it’s infused with this quiet joy and wonder.

Ten years ago, I wouldn’t have seen that quiet joy and wonder. I would have just rolled my eyes in solidarity. But now I know that the very discontent he speaks of is at the very heart of why we return, again and again, to writing. Why we fight so hard for it. And it’s not because we’re gluttons for punishment. It’s because that discontent is a huge part of the reward.

The way we generally speak about writing make it easy to forget that writing, at its best, is an act of discovery, both for the writer and the reader. The reader’s discovery begins the moment the book is finished, but the finished book represents the final stages of the writer’s discovery, which only can happen as the result of months, weeks, and days considering what has already been unearthed not just for what it is, but for what it might represent about what else is out there. Much as an archaeologist doesn’t consider a single coin out of context (even if it’s one of ten thousand, and looks like it was the chew toy of a particularly mangy ancient mongrel), we writers can’t get very far if we values our drafts as distinct entities. What’s more, if we do see them in this isolated way, our abbreviated journeys will feel as flat and demoralizing as our approach.

If, however, we understand that creative work is often a process of digging deeper and deeper into thought and insight, it makes sense that the first things unearthed, as shiny and sparkling and charming as they might have seemed initially, suddenly seem dull and uninspired. And, what’s more, if we see each revision as rife with clues as to where we’re going and how far we’ve come, we can see that not meeting our expectations can actually be incredibly exciting.

So as demoralizing as it will always be to come face to face with where we’ve been in an effort to find out where we can go, remember that this jarring awakening is no different than coming into new light, unpleasantly blinding though it may seem. Know that you will adjust, and in adjusting, will make yourself ready for the next level of your brilliance. And even if you never see what you expected to on the page, where’s the failure in that? Who wants to write what’s expected? Isn’t what’s to come far more inspiring?

Art: Winslow Homer, The Fog Warning