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

Writer’s Log, November 18th: Defining Your Audience

One of my favorite sayings is that a book is not finished until it is read. I find so many helpful insights woven into this statement. First, it reminds me that all this toiling I’m doing behind closed doors is not because I’m antisocial and unwell, but because I’m willing to go deep and long if it will help carve out more meaningful lines of communication. Second, it helps me to contextualize the need to define my audience, a task I think many writers find baffling.

The first few times I was asked to define what kind of audience I was writing for, I had no idea how to respond. I don’t know, I would think, a big one? In super-mature fashion, I came up empty handed so many times, I started to feel a little self-righteously indignant. Wasn’t I supposed to be doing my best to write according to my own sensibilities and unique voice? Weren’t artists supposed to create without caring what anyone else might think?

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was repeatedly hitting my head against one of the biggest paradoxes of a writer’s approach to her work. We absolutely should be writing in our own voices and drawing on our own experiences, but we cannot forget that, ultimately, writing is an act of communication. Most art is, really. And going too far in the direction of writing for oneself can be just as dangerous, creatively speaking, as trying too hard to pen a bestseller.

As with any piece of writing advice, there’s an art to working with it. In this case, I find the idea that a work needs a reader to be complete particularly appealing, because rather than placing the emphasis on how others might judge our work, it places it on the fact that writers and readers need each other in order to experience the best the written word has to offer.

What’s more, the fact is that 99.9% of us are myopic about our work. If we give it any kind of close attention, it’s all too easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees, and having someone look in on our imaginary playgrounds from the outside can give us invaluable perspective on how well they’re really holding up. I think, in fact, that we should hope and strive to have readers in our lives who compassionately point out flaws in our writing that we never saw, not because revealing what we didn’t see shines light on our technical or imaginative shortcomings, but because we know that, without an outside perspective, we’re robbing ourselves of the ability to see our work fully. The writing, in other words, might be done in private, but the awareness of the writing simply cannot be generated alone.

So when I think about defining an audience, I start with people I already trust to give me valuable feedback on how I’m presenting myself to the world. My sisters. My best friend. My husband. They’re always in the front row. And seated next to them are their friends and trusted advisers. I have a few critics in there, sure, because I’m my own worst enemy, but I try to introduce a bouncer who regularly checks to be sure that most of the remaining seats are filled with people who love the books I love, people who care and wonder about the same things, people whose books I’d want to read, should they offer them to me. Eventually, my audience becomes people who would be keeping literature alive for me anyway, even if I never chose to write another word.

Art: Rembrandt, St. Jerome Reading in a Landscape

Writer’s Log, November 5th: Pretend Everyone You Love Is Dead

The longer you hang around writers, the weirder the conversation gets. Usually, this is a good thing, as long as alcohol isn’t involved. If alcohol is involved, gird your loins and take notes.

But when the conversation is good, it is, at the very least, though provoking. Years ago, after an agonizing, two-hour workshop discussion on how to handle the fact that our own truths, in print, might not sit particularly well with those we hold dear, our beloved instructor cut us off. “Just pretend everyone you know is dead,” he said. “Nothing is more important than the writing.”

I get why this might seem, at first pass, terrific advice. First off, it’s hard to forget. Second, it speaks boldly to a universal difficulty so many writers have. Many of us get our best material from our worst experiences, and some of us even become writers because we were silenced or denied our truths from an early age, and we find it ever-so-slightly therapeutic to put them in print and distribute them as widely as possible, preferably nationwide. Still, no one wants to actually throw Uncle Henry under the bus (no matter how much he might deserve it), not least because Thanksgiving is coming up and we’d rather eat pie in peace than navigate his seething fury for an afternoon.

But that’s not the only reason why I’m not a huge fan of this advice. In general, I’m not a fan of writing advice that smacks of desperation, ultimatums, or wishful thinking. I used to find such extremes liberating, but, like most extremes, their charms are limited and short-lived. Pretending everyone you love is dead might startle you into more ballsy material, but it takes a helluva lot more work to figure out ways to write about our truths without resorting to the kamikaze method of airing your dirty laundry.

This is because fiction wants to be created, not appropriated. It doesn’t want to be shocked alive; it wants to be nurtured on a solid base, one that represents the best you have to offer, including your integrity. As food for thought, around the same time I heard the above advice, I started to notice that one thing most of my favorite authors had in common was kindness. Not Disney Princess kindness. Unflinching, unapologetic kindness. Kindness in how they delivered tough truths, so they could actually be swallowed. Kindness in refusing to allow even the most minor character to come across as two-dimensional. Kindness in how they developed their voices without artifice, knowing that, while contrivance and design might seem more sexy or thrilling, the most touching thing a writer can do is stay honest.

Even if you don’t share my tastes, I think you will find that your favorite authors offer something deep and lasting, rather than something quick and shocking. And, if anything, they offer us the chance to see that we can navigate the world without having to pretend everyone we love is dead. Instead, they show us how to bring them along, flaws and all, and how doing so can make us feel more whole. Not because we are free of all responsibility and worrisome care, but because we flourish anyway.