On Not Writing

Can anyone out there not relate to this? Here’s a bracing dose of “how to keep going.”

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

Happy children! Loud happy children!

This is the blog post I didn’t write because it was a terrible idea. So why even start?

This is the blog post I didn’t write because the ceiling was leaking.

This is the post I didn’t write because I couldn’t figure out the coffeemaker and then I knocked it over.

This is the post I didn’t write because jet lag.

This is the post I didn’t write because the goddamn neighbor’s goddamn TV is so goddamn loud I can make out words through the wall.

This is the post I didn’t write because Facebook made me mad. And sad.

This is the post I didn’t write because I sat down and then the doorbell rang.

This is the post I didn’t write because I’d rather take a walk and self-care is important.

This is the post I didn’t write because don’t force it.

This…

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Skip It, Move On, Come Back Later

I’m forever saying, chanting, and otherwise reminding myself that “the way out is through.” This is true, but often it’s distilled down to “Just do it!,” which can be useful but sometimes isn’t.

Sometimes the way through is circuitous. Sometimes it’s so circuitous that it looks like procrastination, like when you give up in frustration, go for a walk, and come back with an insight that eluded you while you were staring at the screen, or when you take an entire week’s break from the work in progress to do something else, maybe writing-related or maybe not.

So one of my characters — Felicia, the mother of one of my viewpoint characters, Glory — just made a momentous and unexpected discovery. With each draft, Felicia is becoming more crucial to the plot, but she started off as a bit player and I still didn’t know her very well. My hunch was that she’d call Shannon, the other viewpoint character, but I didn’t know what she’d say. So I left a note to myself at that point in the file and went on.

Plenty of writers do this regularly: When a scene isn’t jelling or they need to do more research, they skip over that part and come back to it later. This is far better than getting stalled at the troublesome spot, but I’m not all that good at it. When I leave gaps behind, I feel like I’m balancing on a rickety ladder. Nevertheless, I kept climbing, looking uneasily down at the ground from time to time.

A little while later Shannon was about to fill her friend Jay in on a totally different story and what came out of her mouth was a sketch of a post-midnight call from Felicia. It turns out Felicia was furious, she and Shannon reached a détente, but at the end of the conversation her trust in Shannon was still shaken.

The actual phone conversation remains to be written, but now I know Felicia better than I did before. One reason that the first two drafts of this novel didn’t reach a climax is that much depends on what Felicia does when a major secret is revealed and I didn’t know Felicia well enough to hazard a guess. But now that I know what went on in that phone conversation, the end is getting closer.

Sometimes you can move characters around like pieces on a chessboard. Other times they want a say in the matter. In those cases the way through may be to let them have it, even if you have to wait a bit before you hear what they’re saying.

The Value of Getting Sh*t Done

One reason I’m not blogging much here is that I’m getting (other) sh*t done. Also blog posts like this say it better than I can. Meanwhile, if you’ve got any editorial or writerly questions or comments, please use the Got a Question? tab above to send ’em in.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

Gosh, is this race even worth finishing? thought no sprinter ever.

First, dedication to writing is not an amount. It’s not an amount of words. It’s not a number of days. Dedication is not measured by output.

You get to call yourself a ‘real writer’ even on the days no words appear on the page. Even on the days full of rejections, the days you think no-one will ever care. Even on the days you feel like an outsider.

Thinking time counts.

Reading counts.

Supportively going to someone else’s reading counts, even if it’s someone whose work you don’t really like but you’re trying to rack up karma points for your own hoped-for readings later and you spend the whole time imagining your own book deal while noting one point on which to ask a relevant question.

But there’s still value in completion.

Process is great. We all need process…

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Going to the Well

Here’s some inspiration for you. A good one by Allison K. Williams at the Brevity blog, which is always worth reading. I’m writing, I’m writing. I’m editing, I’m editing. Back soon.

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

4679c66b8b81ea1b1b55fb3e755fa243Sitting down to write the Brevity blog today, I found myself at a loss for “inspiration.” Meaning, “that feeling when an idea shows up and you’re excited about it enough to get to work.” I felt sorry for myself and got kind of whiny, but then I remembered my writer friend Lindsay Price’s favorite saying whenever the work feels tough: “It’s not coal-mining.” No matter how hard my little fingers are typing, I’m above the ground in climate-controlled comfort and in a chair.

Lindsay’s an incredibly prolific playwright, and she’s been writing full-time for almost twenty years. Because she sits down every day. Because she keeps her eyes open on the world for what her readers/actors care about, stocks up on ideas, and makes conscious choices to start work instead of waiting for the work to start her.

As a writer, it’s not my job to be inspired–it’s my job…

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Every Damn Day

From the third week in March I’ve been swamped with work. April was already looking busy when I was offered a proofread about the Attica prison uprising of 1971. I’m going to turn that down? No way. So what if the text was almost 600 pages long, with another 100 pages of notes.

No matter how you look at it, editing and proofreading are time-intensive. You’ve got to put in the hours, and you can’t add more hours to the day. If you’re anything like me, you can’t devote all your waking hours to reading as closely as a copyeditor or proofreader has to read. Nowhere close. The brain gets tired. The eyes glaze over. The body needs to get up and move.

As March gave way to April, I wasn’t sure I could meet all these deadlines, some of which were firm, others of which were flexible, none of which were “whenever.” So I decided to give over my writing time to editing.

Travvy looks for a squirrel in a tree.

Travvy looks for a squirrel in a tree.

I’m a morning person. I write best in the morning, usually from 7 or 7:30 to 9 or 9:30. Then Travvy, my malamute roommate, and I go for an hour-long walk. I do a fair amount of writing-related mulling on these walks. Ideas, insights, and solutions to plot snags pop into my head the way they usually don’t when I’m sitting at the keyboard.

So Monday morning I gave over my writing time to proofreading. After Travvy and I got back from our walk, I checked email, played a little on Facebook, then got back to work. I did the same on Tuesday, and on Wednesday, and on Thursday. While out walking with Trav, I noticed that when it wasn’t just enjoying the sunshine or whining about the rain, my mind was occupied with one or another of my various editing projects. A plot snag was approaching in Wolfie, the novel in progress, but my mind was not interested in mulling about that.

By Wednesday afternoon I knew I was in trouble. The plot snag was looming larger and larger, so large and so daunting that I couldn’t even imagine the short transition scene that leads into the one where the snag had to be resolved. I couldn’t even imagine imagining that short transition scene.

In short order I regressed from I can’t figure this out to I’ll never figure this out to I’ve bitten off way more than I can chew here and who needs this stupid novel anyway?

This was drowning out the little voice in my head repeating two of my main mantras: “The way out is through” and “Your writing will teach you what you need to know.”

What I was having, in other words, was yet another crisis of faith.

By Thursday it had gotten so bad that I was sure I’d have nothing to take to writers’ group on Sunday. This reminded me that what I’d taken to writers’ group last Sunday was really good. It was also the culmination of an extended sequence that had taken several weeks to finish and worn me out in the process.

Aha, I thought. Maybe the well is just temporarily dry.

Right. It does happen, but you don’t know if the well’s been replenished unless you drop your bucket into it. For me this means picking up a pen and moving my hand across sheets of paper, but I wasn’t doing this because I was editing or proofreading during my best writing time.

So this morning I took pen in hand, fully ready to start with “I can’t write this scene because . . . ,” but instead there was my protagonist, sitting on her front step in the twilight, accompanied by her two dogs, thinking about the momentous conversation she’d just had with her estranged sister.

Writing every damn day really is the answer. My faith wobbles if I don’t.

This is what came out of the pen this morning, and two and a half more just like it.

ms page 3

Letting Go, Take 2

 

An editor colleague just asked what to do about a client who’s written a very good novel but wants to keep revising and revising and won’t start querying agents or publishers.

There’s not much you can do, I said.

Aside: “Letting Go,” take 1, was prompted by a similar query. It took off in a somewhat different direction. I suspect that writers and editors never stop dealing with this stuff.

The word “perfectionism” came up.

As a recovering perfectionist — often a recovering-by-the-skin-of-my-teeth perfectionist who wonders if she’s recovering at all — I know a few things about this. Perfectionism can mean that everything you do has to be perfect before you’ll let it out of your sight, but it can and often does mean more than that. Perfectionism is a way of maintaining control. If I do everything right, I won’t get fired, my lover won’t leave, my kids will turn out perfect, and my novel will get made into a top-grossing movie and the world will swoon at my feet.

It often doesn’t work out that way. Deep down we perfectionists suspect this. Deep down we know that once something leaves our hands, the outcome is out of our control. So we don’t let it go.

Which is what I suspect is going on with the novelist who can’t stop revising, mainly because I’ve known many writers over the years who can’t let go of their work. They tell themselves the work isn’t done — they need to do more research, or do one more draft — and nothing anyone tells them can persuade them otherwise. The problem isn’t that the work isn’t done, it’s that the word “done” isn’t in the writer’s vocabulary because “done” means s/he has to let go.

For writers, here is where it gets tricky. Letting go means you’re putting the outcome in the hands of person(s) unknown. Persons who don’t know you and don’t have any particular reason to wish you well — unless, of course, you’ve produced the sort of work that might make lots of money. The overwhelming majority of us have not done this. Competent agents agree to represent only a small fraction of the manuscripts they see. Many of the ones they reject are very good or better.

In other words, if “failure” to you means rejection by an agent, or by a dozen or a hundred agents, your fear of failure is completely justified.

So is your fear of success. Fear of success is the flip side of fear of failure. They both have deep roots in the fear of letting go. Say you do get an agent, the agent sells your book, and there’s actually a book on the market that has your name on the cover. To you it’s a huge deal, as it should be, but most of the world — including your friends, relatives, and casual acquaintances — is going to say, at best, “That’s nice,” and move on.

Am I telling you to give up? Of course not. Read on.

Here’s a little parable: A kid finds a new butterfly struggling to get out of its chrysalis. The kid pulls the chrysalis apart and helps the butterfly get out. But the butterfly’s wings aren’t fully developed. It cannot fly. Moral of story: It’s the struggle to get out of the chrysalis that strengthens the butterfly’s wings so it can fly.

I like this little parable even though some people turn it into a rationale for never helping anybody out. I like it because it applies so well to writing and other creative endeavors. In the struggle to create, we not only become good writers, we also figure out what we want to do with our writing. We create a path forward for ourselves and develop the courage to follow it.

For many of us, this involves seeking out and sharing experiences with other writers. We become better writers, yes, but we also develop two crucial skills: the ability to dissociate ourselves from our creations, and the ability to sort through other people’s comments, edits, and critiques and decide what works for us. In the process, we learn about the many options for getting our work out into the world.

To complete a book-length work without doing this — well, it’s like finding that the road you’ve been on for years ends in a precipitous drop. Or maybe like opening the door from your dark room and being blinded by the light outside.

The very first line of this blog, back in “The Basics,” was “Your writing will teach you what you need to know.”

I believe it.

In that same post, I quoted two of the truest things I’ve ever heard about writing. I believe them too. Here they are again.

”I think writing really helps you heal yourself. I think if you write long enough, you will be a healthy person. That is, if you write what you need to write, as opposed to what will make money, or what will make fame.”
Alice Walker

The real writer is one
who really writes. Talent
is an invention like phlogiston
after the fact of fire.
Marge Piercy

Restarting

I can revise, rewrite, and edit pretty much any time I’m awake, but for writing, especially early-draft writing, especially writing long and scary projects (like Wolfie, my novel in progress), I’m best in the morning, in the hour or two or three after I wake up.

I’m braver in the morning. I’m less easily distracted by the voices chattering inside my head and by whatever I’m supposed to do that day.

For several recent weeks my early-morning writing time was taken up by work, editing for pay and on deadline — my livelihood.

Another thing: When I’m working on a long and scary project, my mind is usually mulling it over while I’m out walking with my dog, or dropping off to sleep at night, or waking up in the morning. Mental logjams break up when I’m nowhere near my pens or my laptop.

During those several recent weeks, the jobs I was working on took up semi-permanent residence in my head. That’s what my mind kept mulling when I was out walking, or driving, or dropping off to sleep.

Blank paper is scary, but it's full of potential. (That's the scary part.)

Blank paper is scary, but it’s full of potential. (That’s the scary part.)

In short, for about three weeks I did no work on the novel. I barely even blogged.

How to get back in the groove?

Starting is easy (ha ha ha). Blank pages are scary but they’re full of potential.

I’d recently started a second draft. The not-quite complete first draft is more than 225 pages long. (First draft = first draft prime: the real first draft is in longhand, and I always do a little revising as I’m typing it into Word.) When I tried to recall it, it was like looking through the wrong end of a telescope.

More to the point, I was sure that if I actually looked at it, I would realize it was crap. I have had this problem before. It’s why when I’m working on a long and scary project I look at it every day. Five minutes is enough. I don’t have to write anything. I just have to open the file and look at it.

Once I’ve opened it, I always find something to fiddle with, and after I’ve done a little fiddling, I nearly always write something new.

Wolfie‘s title character is a dog. So far the only cat in the story is Schrödinger’s, and of course I don’t know if that cat is alive or dead, real or unreal. Schrödinger’s famous thought experiment hypothesized a cat in a closed box with a vial of lethal radioactive material. The vial may or may not have broken; the cat may be alive or dead. I, outside the box, don’t know what has happened inside the box until I open it. Is the cat alive or dead?

I, sitting at my laptop, am dead certain the novel in progress is crap. If I actually look at it, I will know for sure it is crap and then what will I do with the rest of my life?

But it never works that way. It’s always

looking -> fiddling -> writing

After I’d read a few pages of my second draft, the seed of a new scene took root in my head. The scene comes much later in the novel. I sketched it out in longhand then went back to reading.

So why the dead certainty that the writing has turned to crap in my absence? Interesting question, but it’s going to have to wait. I’m writing.

The moving hand writes and a scene takes root.

The moving hand writes and a scene takes root.

 

 

Wrung Out

The end of draft #1 of novel #2 is in sight. Not close exactly, but I can see it on the horizon. Plot lines are converging. Things are getting, shall we say, tense.

For instance — two main characters meet by chance in a hardware store. They’re kibitzing about the complexities of modern lightbulbs, though neither one is all that fascinated by lightbulbs. Amira notices that Shannon looks preoccupied. A few moments later Shannon blurts out that she’s just had bad news.

The hardware store aisle isn’t a good place to have this conversation, so they adjourn to a nearby café for coffee (Shannon) and lunch (Amira).

This is the scene I wrote this morning.

Shannon has just learned that her dog has inoperable cancer. She is starting to beat herself up about her failure to (a) notice this earlier, and (b) prevent it.

Amira doesn’t want Shannon to go there. She recounts the story of how her father, visiting his other daughter and her family in Florida, went to the neighborhood convenience store with his four-year-old niece riding on his shoulders. A robbery was in progress. The robbers run out shooting; the niece is hit and dies two days later. Amira’s father never stopped beating himself up with what ifs and if onlys. He has since died.

Amira started down the what if / if only road herself but friends helped pull her back to the land of the living.

I knew this scene was coming but I didn’t know how or where it was going to happen.

I was totally wrung out when I laid my pen down this morning. Could not write another word. So Travvy and I went for our morning walk. With sunshine, brisk air, and steady steps my energy returned. It always does.

It can be scary to look down the road and see that the writing is leading you toward a scene that’s going to wring you out. I’ve been known to do other things — aka “procrastinate” — until I feel ready, even though I never feel entirely ready. Just ready enough.

But those wrung-out moments tell me that I’ve been writing well, and true, and deep. My pen has tapped into something I can’t reach any other way.

What Makes a Real Writer?

Stacey, who follows Write Through It and blogs at Diary of a Ragamuffin, posed this question: “What makes one a real ‘writer’?”

She added:

My reason for asking:  After 15 years of teaching, I decided to change careers and have begun a job as a reporter for my small-town newspaper (that is owned by a not-so-small-town corporation).  They knew I had no journalism experience when they hired me.  After four  months, I’m beginning to wonder if just anyone could do the job I do.

I’m not sure if what I do each day is what I had hoped it would be.  Often there is not enough time to write reflectively, and when there is, there’s no one qualified to critique it (in my opinion).

The answer is that there’s no answer, but you know I’m not going to stop there, right?

First off, I worked eight years for a small-town newspaper, the Martha’s Vineyard Times, in a succession of overlapping capacities: proofreader, features editor, features writer, theater reviewer, copyeditor. Reporting wasn’t my forte, but I did a little of that, mostly covering stories when no “real” reporter was available.

So I’m here to assure Stacey: The job you do can’t be done by just anyone, or by just any writer either. The fact that you’re wondering probably means that you’re good at it. You’ve got the knack. You learn fast. You’re able to apply your experience in other jobs to your journalism job.

Been there, done that. I wasn’t a journalist either when I got drafted to fill in for an editorial typesetter who was going on sick leave. I was scared to death I’d screw up, but I needed the work. I could type, I could proofread, I could write, and I had several years’ editorial experience. Short version: I loved it, I was good at it, and pretty soon the paper hired me as a part-time proofreader.

The tricky thing about job description “writer” is that it covers so many different kinds of writing. Reporter. Novelist. Columnist. Essayist. Poet. Diarist. Blogger. Biographer. Academic. Copywriter. Technical writer. And so on and on. No writer does all of them. No writer I’ve ever met wants to do all of them.

I know some crackerjack journalists who won’t cop to being writers. In their minds, writers write books, or fiction, or literary criticism. What writers don’t do is write for newspapers. You see the paradox here? If real writers don’t write for newspapers, then the writing in newspapers isn’t real writing.

Of course it is. If it isn’t, what the hell is it?

That's me, long before I knew what an editor was.

That’s me, long before I knew what an editor was.

In my teens and twenties, I assumed that a real writer had to know grammar and punctuation backwards and forwards and be a world-class speller besides. So I developed those skills. It wasn’t until I got a job as an editor in the publications office of a big nonprofit that I realized that in the real world these skills made me an editor. I hadn’t even known what an editor was. Some editorial skills belong in every writer’s toolkit, but you don’t have to be an editor to be a real writer.

Poets & Writers is a venerable organization that publishes a bimonthly magazine of the same name. Doesn’t the name imply that category “poets” isn’t included in category “writers”? It does to me. Plenty of poets either don’t call themselves writers or are semi-apologetic when they do: “I just write poetry. I’m not a real writer.”

Same deal as with journalists: If what poets write isn’t writing, what is it? And if the people who write it aren’t writers, what are they?

About her journalism job Stacey noted: “Often there is not enough time to write reflectively, and when there is, there’s no one qualified to critique it.”

This is true. Journalism means writing to deadlines, and deadlines don’t stand around waiting for the writer to get it perfect.

Deadlines don’t wait for editors either. Accuracy is more important than a perfectly crafted sentence. Spell a kid’s name wrong and her parents and grandparents will remember it forever.

Me, checking the boards at the Martha's Vineyard Times. You can tell it was back in the Pleistocene because the paste-up was pre-digital. October 1993.

Me, checking the boards at the Martha’s Vineyard Times. You can tell it was back in the Pleistocene because the paste-up was pre-digital. October 1993.

Working for the newspaper made me a better writer and a better editor in more ways than I can count. I learned I could write and edit with phones ringing off the hook and people bringing me press releases 12 hours after deadline. I learned that endings don’t have to be perfect because the last two or three inches of a story would often be lopped off when a late ad came in. I learned that writers who can turn out prose like yard goods may write sloppy sentences but they sure come in handy when a scheduled story doesn’t show or an ad gets pulled. I learned that in the work of novice writers the lead paragraph is often buried a third of the way down. I learned that I can turn out a coherent theater review even when I haven’t a clue what the play was about. (It was Beckett’s Happy Days, in case you’re wondering.)

I learned that “good enough” often is good enough, and it’s actually pretty damn good, though for sure you could do better at a writers’ retreat. For a congenital perfectionist like me this was huge.

So what makes someone a “real writer”?

Marge Piercy nailed it in “For the Young Who Want To”:

The real writer is one
who really writes. Talent
is an invention like phlogiston
after the fact of fire.
Work is its own cure. You have to
like it better than being loved.

 

That’s the last verse. Read the whole thing. Read it often. You don’t have to be young.

Listen to Those Blocks

Creative blocks in rearrangement mode

Creative blocks in rearrangement mode

Ever notice how most of the stuff you learn about writing is stuff you already know?

I’m not talking primarily about grammar, punctuation, spelling, and all the nuts-and-bolts basics. I’m talking about the “how to keep going” part.

Last winter the novel I was working on, The Squatters’ Speakeasy, wasn’t coalescing or developing any momentum. I wouldn’t say I was blocked exactly, but the writing sure got sludgy. I procrastinated a lot before I sat down to write, and fidgeted a lot when I got there.

I also started this blog, and wrote an essay about a controversial statue that was in the news at the time. As I blogged back in April, in “Course Correction”:

 When I got up in the morning, I couldn’t wait to sit down in my chair and start writing. I finished the essay. I kept going with the blog. Whenever I thought about waking Squatters from its winter snooze, I was overcome by an irresistible urge to play endless games of Spider solitaire.

Procrastination was trying to tell me something. Finally I got the message. I put Squatters aside. About a year before I’d written a scene about a dog named Wolfie, a kid named Glory, and Shannon, a character from my first novel, The Mud of the Place. It didn’t fit in Squatters, so I put it aside. Now I pulled it back onto my lap and had another look. My imagination woke up.

Long story short: This blog now has more than a thousand followers. The novel, working title: Wolfie, passed the 50,000-word mark three days ago.

Here comes the bit about how writers keep learning what we already know.

Or, to put it in a slightly less flattering light: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” However, for some strange reason, it’s always easier to catch your friends doing the same thing over and over again than it is to realize that you’re up to your old tricks again.

Who, me?

Short version: My other blog, From the Seasonally Occupied Territories, was wilting. Running out of steam. I was thinking of wrapping it up, or at least putting it in the indefinite deep freeze. At the same time, there were so many things I wanted to write about that I was thinking of starting another blog.

Sheesh. When I type that, it looks so obvious. I really must have been nuts or in denial or just plain dense not to see that I could do the writing I wanted to do in From the Seasonally Occupied Territories.

If you’re curious about the longer version, you can read it here.

Writers talk about writer’s blocks and procrastination all the time. Most of us have at least a passing acquaintance with both. Many of us have had long-term relationships with one or the other. We dread them, we hate them, we do endless rituals to keep them at bay.

I’m here to remind you — because I know you know this already — that often the blocks and the procrastination are trying to tell you something. Sometimes the back-seat driver is right: Either you’ve missed a turn or you’ve taken one you didn’t want.

The road you want is the one that keeps your pen moving across the paper or your fingers on the keyboard.

Creative blocks, rearranged

Creative blocks, rearranged