Writer’s Log, June 2: Bring Your B Game!

For the first thirty years of my life, I didn’t really write. Even though I knew I was a writer from the time I learned how to read, my ideas about being a writer were so woefully misguided that I never really got anything off the ground. Sure, I was turning out tortured, plotless pages about people being lost at sea in elementary school, and tortured, abstract poetry about trees in high school (I wish I were joking), but these pages only  emerged when the urge to write became so desperate that even my worst inhibitions couldn’t get in the way.

Fortunately, life handed me my ass several times over when I was in my early thirties, and my need to write became so acute I had to figure out a way to do it more regularly. The problem was, I had two small children on my hands and was finishing up a doctorate, and even five minutes to myself felt like a miracle. Or at least that’s what I thought the problem was. I also thought the problem was that I might not be as talented as I hoped I was, or that I didn’t have as many fantastic ideas as I thought I did, and, were I to ever actually find some time to write, I’d be bitterly disappointed by what emerged. And then, just as I was finishing up my postdoc and working up the courage to quite the academic rat race, I got pregnant again. At the time, I didn’t think I could have clinically engineered a more perfectly placed nail in the coffin of my creative aspirations. But nothing could be further from the truth. In actuality, life had finally gotten through to me with the message I so desperately needed to hear and was so desperately resisting: Surrender, Dorothy!

I had been so good at following the conventional wisdom. In life and in work, I had always fought the good fight, reached for the stars, brought my A game. Yet I couldn’t understand why I had such high goals for my writing and so little to show for it. What I’d failed to realize is that conventional wisdom and creativity do not flourish in the same fields, nor do they thrive on the same nourishment. But when the possibility of bringing my A game decreased at the same rate my need to write increased, I finally managed to stumble, defeated, into the magic of the B game.  

When most people hear that I’m a mother of three as well as a novelist and manuscript editor, they assume I’m crackers or have a drug problem. The truth is, though, that all three of these endeavors blossom when you lead with your humanity, your humility, and your willingness to constantly go to bat for what matters to you, even if you rarely hit it out of the park and sometimes have to walk between bases. They respond, in other words, to knowing that if you can’t bring your A game, bringing your B game for all you’re worth is just as powerful, if not more so.

And as far as my writing is concerned, this doesn’t look like what you might expect. It certainly doesn’t look like what most people think the B game is: resigning yourself to a lack of regular inspiration and forcing your butt into a chair to meet word count goals on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis. I’ve decided that for those of us who are raising children and/or working outside jobs, this “practical advice” is both impossible and unreasonable, and has become yet another subtle way to disempower 99.9% of writers. What’s more, the true, irregular nature of the writing practice most humans can achieve might just be the best thing for our writing. Creativity thrives when you don’t beat it into a false rhythm, when you pay attention to its ebbs and flows, most of which are likely to be in lockstep with what you’re allowing to ebb and flow in your life.

What my writing practice does look like, then, is regularly checking in to see what my mental, emotional, and logistical realities are telling me about what I have to offer that month, week, or hour, and softening into working with whatever they tell me, even if it’s not what I want to hear. So, for example, instead of getting mad and frustrated because I have only five minutes on a particular Tuesday when I feel like I need 500, I do something with those five minutes. And doing something with those 5 minutes wakes up my wiser self, who oftentimes points out that just because I can’t wake up at 5:00 AM every morning and summon the muse on schedule doesn’t mean that I can’t sit in the car while waiting to pick someone up and jot down some notes, or read by the nightlight, or redirect the time I might have devoted to buying stuff we don’t really need at Target to taking a walk outside to see what a new perspective might bring. And because this B game is so much more liveable, it’s also become that much more fruitful, which means I’ve developed a depth of relationship to my writing that I never even approached when I was letting my Hungry Hungry Hippo brain do most of the talking.

So if you’re frustrated by the disconnect between what you want to do with your writing and what you are doing with your writing, it might help to redefine the former. Instead of focusing so much on what and how much you want to produce, focus instead on what you can produce, and let that production be as free from judgement as possible (you can save all your judgement for the editing that comes later). After all, we’re never less productive than when we’re laboring under our own high standards or bitter disappointments. So let yourself be surprised by what your writing wants to be, by how OK it actually is, and by how letting it become a regular, far less glamourous part of your life enables it to actually become as weirdly fantastic as you’ve always suspected it is.

Art: Pablo Picasso, La Reve

Writer’s Log, May 16: Why Metaphor?

Or, as my long-suffering, fact-loving, sixteen-year-old sophomore likes to say: Why, metaphor?! As in, Why are the adults in my life trying to shove poetry down my throat when they know I couldn’t care less, and what’s more, enjoy wearing my self-righteous disdain like a badge of honor? Actually, that’s mostly the subtext for what he actually says, which is, “Poetry sucks, Mom. No offense.”

None taken, love. There’s no need to point out to him that his prefrontal lobe is still developing, and his ability to draw connections between feeling and cognition is a work in progress. But it’s a cruel twist of fate that when most people are first introduced to the kind of literature that really showcases all that literary devices have to offer, they’re in high school and, quite literally, unable to fully appreciate what they’re encountering. Even when I was a sophomore and fell head over heels in love with Anna Akhmatova and Elizabeth Bishop, I felt more like I was seized by poetry than that I really understood it. It was as if some hidden, hibernating thing within me uncoiled itself and came to life. Not unlike first love, I was left attempting to connect to in maudlin, ineffectual strokes that left me more frustrated than before.

Yet what’s important about both my son’s and my experiences is that we didn’t necessarily have the wisdom to stick with it, to know that more, indeed, would be revealed. Nor do most teenagers. And because so many turn away after these first, flummoxing experiences, many of us arrive at adulthood insecure around or unwilling to use literary devices in our work. It’s impossible to fully address the neglect of all these devices in one post, but to take metaphor as an example, the failure to push beyond this stunted exposure shoots just about every writer in the foot. Even those who’ve evolved enough as readers to appreciate metaphor in someone else’s work will still shy away from experimenting with it on the page, as if they don’t trust it in their own hands.

Which is a damn shame, because if we look at metaphor closely, its powers are extraordinary. Whereas literal descriptions offer a standardized, baseline understanding, metaphor weaves in sensory and experiential connections, allowing our understanding – and, not incidentally, our empathy — to expand and deepen. Metaphor, in other words, is the great connector. When used well, it offers us the chance to consider that the deepest understanding is not that which is divorced from the senses and experience; it’s that which incorporates the fact that sensory and experiential understanding – qualities of understanding humans are infused with for a reason – are not weaknesses to avoid, but vital and indispensable elements that must be brought along when striving towards the keenest possible insights.

And it’s certainly not just a way to make your writing seem prettier, the way we might decorate the margins of our high school notebooks with derivative flowers. When we choose our metaphors, we are choosing these deeper comparisons, and the context of what we are communicating is everything. Comparing the green of someone’s eyes to grass, for instance, as innocuous and simple as that metaphor might be, is vastly different than comparing that green to the color on a freshly minted dollar bill. The trouble for most, though, is knowing that you need to trust your experiential and sensory understanding to create effective metaphors; you can’t muscle through them, in other words, with the rabbitty, logical, organizational aspects of the mind you’re used to using exclusively. Doing so is ineffective and, quite frankly, lazy. You’ve got to open yourself up to what nudges at you when a description comes to mind, what calls or winks in from the edges, asking to be seen.

Art: Pablo Picasso, Violin and Guitar

Writer’s Log, May 1: Showing Up

              Show, don’t tell. Show, don’t tell. Show, don’t tell. Writers hear this advice so often, it can feel like it’s being generated by the Muse of Nagging, who smells like old soup and/or middle school lunchroom realities. She is the bologna of the muses, the one you always find between the pages of your most hopeful manuscript when you were hoping to discover filet mignon. So why do writing teachers persist in calling on her, when so many writing students seem to be tuning her out?

              I’m going to go out on a writing teacher limb here and acknowledge that while there are several excellent ideas buried within the advice to show instead of tell, as with most cutely reductionist sayings, “show, don’t tell” is neither particularly descriptive nor particularly helpful. It might be relatively easy to recognize when you’ve been showing instead of telling — or to at least recognize it when someone points it out to you — but telling is a hard habit to break, and showing is far more difficult to master than this particularly pithy chestnut would suggest.

              For most of our writing lives, we tell. In fact, every school-aged child in America gets showing pretty much drilled out of them from the time they learn to write until their last year of schooling (and for those who enter the business world, the drilling continues unabated). Dickens’ Gradgrind would be so proud of the way we insist our children stick to the facts. I’d wager that in 95% of their writing assignments from first grade through high school/college/graduate school, the personal pronoun is off limits, descriptive writing is discouraged, metaphor is looked at askance, and, poetic turns of phrase rarely make it past a smile in the teachers’ lounge. Sure, a good school will teach kids to learn about literary devices and analyze them in texts, but they’re very rarely encouraged to take them out for a test drive of their own. Why would they be? Creative writing won’t get them higher paying jobs, or earn them corporate promotions, or even publication in an academic journal.   

              The problem is that living in the 21st century requires a heck of a lot more than a solid background in number crunching and formulaic writing. It requires being creative and courageous and willing to deal with unprecedented innovation. It demands new levels of emotional fluency and the ability to communicate across massive social and political divides. It asks for us to show up, in other words, whole-heartedly. And it’s not just kids who need to embrace these qualities. We all do.

So it’s no surprise that people are seeking new ways to express themselves in a meaningful way. It’s also not surprising that many turn to fiction, which can capture and express truths that prosaic language cannot stretch to grasp. Which means that writing teachers also need to up their game, and stop delivering the same, tired advice that makes sense in theory but can be baffling in practice.  

So what is this showing that so many speak of, why is it so important, and how the heck do you go about doing it?

Showing is the act of using fictional tools to enhance a reader’s experiential sense of the story. And it’s important because showing, unlike telling, allows a reader to experience the meaning of a story on a much more intimate, personal level, which represents an opportunity to form connections, develop empathy, and deepen our understanding of the human experience. You know. Little stuff.

And while showing can take a lifetime to master, boy, oh boy is it fun to learn. I have a million-and-one prompts I like to give to help new fiction writers learn to show, but you can get surprisingly far just by trying to write as much of your work in scene, by thoughtfully incorporating as many details that involve the senses (sight, touch, sound, taste, hearing) into your work and letting them take the lead on the page, and by dissecting the best dialogue you can get your hands on and using it as a primer for your own attempts.

I could go on, but I’m not your writing teacher. So go out and find one who’s willing to unpack this for you, and dive unabashedly into as many books as you can get your hands on, setting aside a carefully cultivated selection of those that really speak to you to use as touchstones throughout your writing career. And please, for heaven’s sake, stop nodding and smiling when someone gives you the kind of guidance that doesn’t make any sense. Narrative is a human right, as is voice, and we need to show up for its potential and purpose. Even if we need to all fumble around for a while to figure out how to teach each other better, our work will pay us back a millionfold in kind.  

Art: Jasper Johns, 0 Through 9, 1961

Writer’s Log, April 15: Volume Control

Here’s what I’ve learned this week: mindfulness is all well and good, unless you’re 11, 14, or 16, and your amygdala is (age-appropriately) on the fritz. Don’t get me wrong: I love that my kids have even been introduced to the idea of mindfulness, especially since when I was their age, the closest thing we got to mental health awareness came in the form of gymnasium assemblies featuring pre-packaged “Just Say No” programs. And After School Specials. Oh, the After School Specials…

Anyway, as thrilled as I am that we live in a world where the mental health conversation is finally beginning to see the light of day, most of us who’ve already been fighting the good fight for our sanity for, oh, I don’t know, three decades or so, can tell you that it’s one thing to know how to stay on an even keel; it’s another thing entirely to convince your mind to release its death grip on its favorite slobbery, grisly chew toys.

I bring all this up in the context writing work because most of the time when I luck into being able to actually give my kids some good advice in the moment, I simultaneously realize that I could use the advice myself. Take my 11-year-old as an example. He’s in this terrible loop of having let a few tears fall at school, which led him to naturally believe that EVERYBODY noticed and EVERYBODY thinks he’s a baby, which makes him anxious about crying at school, which makes him start crying at school. Oof.

Let me just pause to say right here and now that I couldn’t be prouder that I’m raising a white male to be vulnerable and willing to articulate some of his more difficult feelings. Still, as those of us who were born ever-so-slightly-nervous and might have had a life experience or two that launched those nervous tendencies into the stratosphere, I know that ongoing anxiety is no picnic. What’s more, I also know that anxiety is a self-enforcing behavior; the more anxious we tend to be, the more likely we will react anxiously, and so the vicious circle chases its own tail.

But thanks to the fact that my 11-year-old is my third child, I remembered something that eventually worked for my first. Here’s what I told him: For most of human history, our anxiety has learned to command our attention because it usually arose when our lives were actually in danger. So while anxiety can feel like a shouty, inescapable mental bully, it evolved to assert itself that way because the messages our minds needed to give us to run when a lion appeared had to be much more urgent than the ones it gave us when a lovely field of clover might have presented itself as a nice place to lie down and take a nap. So while it may feel like your anxiety is the most important thing in the world to listen to, it’s actually just speaking in the voice it was given. And just as we know that people who are shouty bullies have nothing more important to say than people who aren’t, anxiety doesn’t actually need as much of your attention as it demands. You can turn the volume down on it.

Now my kid is pretty smart, and he’s been around the block more than once with his mother’s analogies. “I can’t turn the volume down,” he insisted right away, “that’s impossible.”

Yes, it can feel that way. But his mistake lies in thinking that he needs to know how to turn the volume down all the way, when life has taught me that even being able to turn the volume down a little can shift the balance away from being ruled by anxiety to learning how to live with it.

This has been so true in my work. When I sit down to write, I necessarily have to open the floodgates to the less tame aspects of my mind. And when I do, LOTS of beasties want to come walking through. This can be enormously defeating, but it doesn’t have to be. The trick, I find, is not to expect them to go away. You just do what you can to work around them. Throw them a steak or two while you sneak around behind their backs. Find some music that puts them to sleep, or white noise. For some reason, mine hate recordings of nature sounds, particularly rain. They must be tropical beasties. The point is that even if you light on a way to get them to roar at your knees instead of straight into your ear, you might just free yourself up enough to shift your focus toward something you care about. And even if you can only steal a few minutes to tend to the voices in your head that really matter to you, you will strengthen them. And their strength, being substantive and meaningful and sustaining, is all you need to move forward, with or without the shouting matches in the background.

Art: The Beast of Hollow Mountain, photographer unknown

Writer’s Log, April 1: The Nervous System

Usually, when we talk about the challenges of writing, we focus exclusively on the challenges of working with words. And while I’d be the first to say that working with a medium that is both abstract and concrete (not to mention elusive and pervasive) cannot be understated, I firmly believe that the work we do with words pales in comparison to the work we have to do with our primary instrument: ourselves. To put it in simpler terms, the words usually come only after we’ve done some serious wading through our own shit. And no matter how hippy-skippy-trippy your life has been, you’re still going to need your galoshes, because a mind rich enough to want to create and communicate is going to have come out the wrong side of more than a few wackadoodle rodeos.

At the same time, writing tends to draw reflective souls, and it can be all too easy to get mired down in the stories we create about our own shit long before we even begin to set words down on paper. Believe me, I know this particular tendency all too well, having ensnared myself in more navel-gazing procrastination than I’d care to admit. I have so many delicious, slightly Victorian storylines about how I can’t get to my work because of how tragically compromised I am at the very deepest levels. But you know what? Those storylines get really boring and repetitive after a while, and I came to this work in the first place because what makes me feel alive is wondering my way through new stories, not wallowing in old ones.

So, what’s a girl to do? The trick, for me, has been to fully recognize that usually, when my mental angst is getting the better of me, it’s usually because I’ve forgotten, once again, that the nerves that are fueling all that angst are part of a nervous system. The mind, in other words, does not exist in an inorganic vacuum. This might sound relatively obvious, but it’s all too easy when you’re investing in creative and conceptual work to neglect anything that doesn’t take the form of a beautifully packaged idea. It can also be hard for those of us who might have spent our childhoods (or, say, first three decades) behind books and snacking on Devil Dogs to get up and go outside and eat something that is not first enrobed in sugar and fat before arriving on our plates. Those books and carbs are brain food, in other words, and we need to feed and care for more than our brains if we want them to function optimally.

I know, I know. It may seem self-indulgent and counterproductive to go for a walk or try to get a better night’s sleep or invest in less and higher quality food in order to jumpstart your writing, but it’s actually some of the most practical work I do. When I neglect the system that supports my mind my creative work tanks. Unfortunately, I learned this the hard way. I consider myself to have been a faithful product of my elitist New England upbringing, where I was raised to believe that it’s far more sexy and intellectual to stay up all night talking and drinking, or to be seized with so brilliant an impulse that you forget to eat and sleep and work yourself into a state of metal or physical disorder, or to sit all day within the four walls of an educational institution and spend all night behind the pages of a book in order to dedicate yourself to your craft. I faithfully lived the life of the mind, which is a nice way of saying I spent a little time writing and an inordinate amount of time worrying about how good my writing might or might not be, who might or might not read it, and how it might or might not be received.

On the other hand, what actually got me moving on my writing practice and to complete a handful of books was a far more kaleidoscopic approach to life. It involved having three children and slowly realizing two critical things: one, that I had been wasting an extraordinary amount of my precious time, and two, that I was encouraging my kids to live the kind of life I had never even considered for myself. A simpler, more obvious life. A life filled with good food and laughter and movement. A life that leads to the kind of richness my work had been begging for all along.

Art: Andrew Wyeth, Master Bedroom