when to give up on a story

I’m reading the novel 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami (totally recommend, though I’m starting to take issue with 800+ page novels; they’re EXHAUSTING). There’s a character in it who’s an aspiring fiction writer named Tengo. He has a revelation part-way through the book. He realizes he’s never really been passionate about anything. He’s performed well in school and in work because of people’s expectations. But when those expectations are taken away, he drifts. He writes when he can, but none of his work finds real success. This changes when he ghost-writes a fantastical novella. This story itself and the process of re-writing it changes him. For the first time, he feels for the first time a passionate need to tell his own stories.

These days, I feel very much like Tengo, pre-revelation. I either don’t have the right motivation for this fiction-writing work, or I haven’t discovered it yet.

I am starting to believe the reason you start writing is not the same reason that will sustain continuous writing.

Starting a new project is joyous. There are endless options, and the world of my imagination spreads out before me like Willy Wonka’s candy garden, all glittering jewel tones and unlimited possibilities. But as soon as I start writing, I start making decisions. I prune the paradise of options, sometimes haphazardly, and sometimes I kill the best parts without knowing. One day I realize the story isn’t working. Revision is hard work. I know it’s supposed to take a lot of drafts, but I didn’t realize it would be this many.

Beginning a purposeful writing life is also joyous. I am now a Writer. Visions of solitude, tea, coffee, rainy days, and fountain pens dance in my mind. But at some point, the solitude turns lonely. The tea is gone. And the story I’ve poured so much time into is still lying there like a corpse. Twitching now and then, but mostly dead.

In both cases, what got me sat down in the chair, pen in hand, and what prompted me to choose a writer’s life, has run out.

I don’t want to write.

Does that mean I should make myself anyway? Utilize that childhood lesson to always finish what you start? After all, Neil Gaiman said that you only learn from finishing things.

Or does that mean that this novel is one giant dead end, that I’m wasting my time on it, and my sluggishness and lack of love for it is an indication that I should just move on?

I don’t know.

I’ve been listening to Frank Zappa recently. He’s got some amazing views on art, some of which I talked about in a recent post. In order to compose (create art), Zappa says,

Just Follow These Simple Instructions:

  1. Declare your intention to create a “composition.”
  2. Start a piece at some time.
  3. Cause something to happen over a period of time.
  4. End the piece at some time (or keep going, telling the audience it is a “work in progress”).
  5. Get a part-time job so you can continue to do stuff like this.

Ending a piece, finishing it now doesn’t mean you have to be finished forever. Maybe you are. But you can always decide you aren’t finished and start again.

Zappa put out over 60 albums in his lifetime. I wish I had a fraction of his carefree attitude or determination or whatever it was that constantly motivated his art.

But I’m also afraid that what I’m really experiencing is not some deep, metaphysical need for a motivation, but my inherent flakiness and tendency to be easily bored with what I’m doing. Impatience. My own insecurities in my abilities, intelligence, and vocation as a writer. Or some such toxic combination.

So I decided I had reached the end point with my novel. For three weeks I tinkered with side projects (some flash fiction, a piece involving cyborg pirates), and remembered what it felt like to enjoy the work. And then, out of the blue,

AH-HA 

I identified an element of my novel that, whenever I try to introduce it, stagnated the story. So I cut it out, backed up, and wrote forward again. I think this may be the right (or at least a better) direction. In any case, writing new material feels exciting again. Whether that has anything to do with the story’s progress has yet to be seen.

So I guess the right time to finish a story is if you put it away and never take it out again. Give yourself permission to declare the composition finished, even if it’s not Done. It may help you to tell yourself, “I’m never touching this garbage heap of a story ever again.” Fine.Work on something else.

If  nothing in you or in the world around you calls you back to the story and you forget about it, then let it rest. You ended the piece, so it’s finished.

My novel drew me back in. So I keep writing. It’s a work in progress.

And I have a part-time job, so I can continue to do stuff like this.

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Ways to Spend Your Writing Time That Aren’t Writing

Almost every writer successful enough to gain a platform to talk about such things prescribes setting a consistent writing time. So, desiring to be a successful writer yourself, and maybe even a good one, you set aside a block of time to write. You look forward to it. You have visions of filling up all of that time with productivity, swinging words and sentences into place like a discus thrower.

Then your writing time arrives. You get your tea/coffee/water/snack and settle in to write.

Some days it goes really well and you can write the whole time you have set aside. Other days…not so much. You stare at the paper/screen and nothing happens. It’s like your writing brain switched off by itself and you don’t know how to turn it back on. Suddenly you start remembering all kinds of unrelated things, like how long it’s been since you cleaned the bathroom, or you black out and when you come to, you find yourself deep in a Wikipedia wormhole of research gone wrong, or writing a blog post.

*clears throat*

There will always be days on which we are less likely to produce new words. A variety of factors can affect this (sleep, time of day, energy already expended, preoccupation, stress, etc.). For whatever reason you find yourself unable to write. The good news is, there are lots of legitimate alternative ways to engage with your work without actually generating new combinations of words and recording them. 

Here are some of my favorite writing alternatives for slow days:

  1. Take notes. This is a close relative of writing, but it takes the edge off, because you aren’t WRITING the real project. You’re writing ABOUT the project. I use this often to figure out what exactly I’m thinking about and then to sort through all of those thoughts on the paper. This tactic often leads me into writing the project.
  2. Draw. Sometimes words hold us back. Yes, even us writers. Sketching a character, setting, object, or map of something involved in your project is a way to get your head in the game without actually writing. I usually discover something new about an aspect of my project when I engage with it in shapes instead of words.
  3. Timeline/Outline. Starting with the beginning of what you know, outline the events of the story or the sequence of your argument as far ahead as you can. It doesn’t have to all come true. In fact, play around with different variations. See what makes the most sense, what makes the least sense, and why. The goal here isn’t to nail down all the events of a story; it’s to get you interacting with your project, so don’t be alarmed if you feel you can’t stick to the outline later on. You don’t have to!
  4. Flow Charts. This is one of my favorites. I do this whenever I get stuck on a character’s next decision. I draw the decision at the top of a very big sheet of paper, and then map all the potential reactions she could have below. Then I follow each of those reactions as far as I can based on who she is and her central desire. You could use this with anything you’re unsure about that you can see many options for.
  5. Meditate/Apply Intense Brainpower. Maybe there’s a particular spot you’re unsure about, or you don’t know what happens next, or who a character is. You’re stuck. A ton of thinking and decision making is involved in writing. On some days, it is enough to spend time thinking about the project. Turn off the lights, close the door, sit, and just think about it. Do this for a really long time. Until A) Your writing time is up, or B) You feel the urge to write. I’ve solved many a twisted plot problem this way.
  6. Take Time Off. This is the last resort. Even so, skipping one day will not end your career as a writer. In fact, scientific research about the creative process suggests that our biggest breakthroughs happen when we step away from a project to give our subconscious mind time to work it out. Time is an essential ingredient to writing. So go do the dishes, clean the bathroom, take a walk. When your brain has a solution, it’ll bring it forward for your inspection. And if a breakthrough doesn’t occur, at least you’ve cleaned or gotten exercise. Tomorrow is a new day with new writing opportunities.

I’m sure there are lots of other ways to write without writing. If I missed your favorite, let me know! I can always use new tricks.

Whatever it takes to keep us at our desks…

Frank Zappa, Art, and The Frame

I was talking with a friend about Frank Zappa’s view of Art, and started listening to his band, The Mothers of Invention. I’d heard them before, but just little snippets of songs. Today, I listened straight through the first two albums in a kind of wondrous, outraged, joyful daze.

It’s totally weird. Stream of consciousness. Avant garde. Totally free self-expression. The first track in Freak Out! has a kazoo solo. In fact, I think all the tracks in Freak Out! have kazoo… I’ve never heard anything like this stuff.

A while back, I read a short essay by Zappa. In it, he loosens the definition of Art as anything with a frame around it.

The most important thing in art is The Frame. For painting: literally; for other arts: figuratively– because, without this humble appliance, you can’t know where The Art stops and The Real World begins. You have to put a “box” around it because otherwise, what is that s*** on the wall?

For example, he writes, the sound of a man swallowing juice is nothing. But if you record that sound and call it Art, then it has significance. We start to ask questions: What about this is art? What could this sound represent? How does it make me feel? And that’s what makes it art. That we think about it and find meaning based on it.

Frank Zappa put out over 60 albums in his lifetime, and I think this view of Art had something to do with that incredible amount of work. Whether or not you like them or love them or hate them, they exist. His vision exploded into the world and remains even after he’s gone. No matter how humble we pretend to be, all of us have these pearly dreams of being remembered after we die, of our work surviving us. That kind of immortality.

Here’s the problem. We don’t let our work out. I think it’s fair to say that Zappa didn’t worry too much about whether a track was perfectly recorded. The imperfections were just as much a part of the Art as the parts that sound more like what is typically called music.

At first I assumed that these were sort of first drafts of songs. Most of them sound very raw. Then The Mothers would sing in perfect four-part harmony. The parts that sound “bad” (whatever that means) were intentional. Planned. Just because something sounds like stream of consciousness doesn’t mean it popped out of someone’s brain that way.

Then again, I often fear we take ourselves too seriously. We think of our work as The Next Great Novel instead of the sound of a guy swallowing juice. If that’s the Art we can offer the world, the kind of sound effect that makes some Art-viewers uncomfortable, some Art-critics quit their jobs, the kind that’s controversial, the kind that might be considered “lesser” (whatever that means) by the general public, then we should offer it. 

Put a frame around it.

I’m not necessarily advocating for all of us to become the kind of person Zappa was, believe in what he believed in, or do the things he did. What I will say is, he got me to write a blog post I had given up on, in one sitting, with a pretty liberated feeling. His attitudes (and his music) take me outside The Box, The Status Quo. I’m thinking about how to write with his mentality, without self-doubt, without so much self-editing and -criticism. If he doesn’t do that for you, cool. Groovy. Whatever. I’m sure he wouldn’t care.

But when you stumble across other artists and work that pushes you into new territory, go there. Explore. Listen to people playing kazoos, bobby pins, and tweezers. Respect their Frame. Do your Art.

 

the in-between

I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of liminal space. The English word liminal comes from the Latin word limen which means threshold. It is the in-between. Something has ended and the next thing hasn’t started. You have left the security of what has been known, but haven’t yet entered into a new understanding. You’ve left the oasis but haven’t crossed the desert. The ship has sailed, but isn’t to the next port. You’ve left one job and haven’t gotten another.

Liminal spaces occur in every context, and they are uncomfortable.

In the writing life, liminal space is no less (and perhaps more) inevitable. Between projects, one short story is completed, and the new page is still blank. Between chapters, paragraphs, sentences, words.They feel like desolation, emptiness, and a total lack of inspiration.

…incidentally, I don’t believe in the need to feel i/Inspiration to get work done. The inspiration I have experienced is too fickle. You could make a case that there’s an inverse relationship between i/Inspiration and liminal space, but given how infrequently i/Inspiration comes knocking, this is probably a more depressing than useful hypothesis…

There’s no time limit or expiration date on liminal space. Sometimes they last only as long as it takes to remember that one word (existential, pungent, cruciferous, snafu). Often, longer.

In order not to be conquered by it, we have to figure out how to deal with liminal space in our writing lives and writing processes. Maybe first, by acknowledging that all writers experience liminal space. 

The liminal space is one of uncertainty. It is not safe. We do not know, cannot guess, what might be on the other side of it.

Some deal with this discomfort by self medicating. This isn’t a good long-term solution.

A better strategy may just be learning to be uncomfortable. Getting used to sitting quietly in the middle of liminal space. Meditating in the desert. Discomfort can reveal a lot about ourselves as writers and people. What in particular gives us the most anxiety? Why is it so hard to be uncertain?

The most common fear of the liminal space is that there may be nothing on the other side. That we’ll wait and wait, and struggle to forge ahead, sitting in our writing chairs, putting words together like blank puzzle pieces, and nothing will come of it. We’ll cross the threshold and step blindly into an abyss.

Here is something I have learned and that I believe in and cling to with (what I hope is) an unshakable faith. There is always something there. The threshold does not lead into a vacuum. It may lead to a place I do not at first want to go, or somewhere I do not expect. But there is always something to write. Words are omnipresent and until my brain ceases its electrical firing, I will have ideas.

They fill from beneath, like well water. –Annie Dillard

Liminal space is a time of testing. It takes guts, stamina, determination, and discipline to get across the threshold. You cannot rely on Inspiration. Inspiration does not enter the liminal space. It abandons you at the borders. You enter alone, and must find your own way to the other side.

There is always a way. Writing is the only way to find it.

Lay down your track of thoughts. String them into notes, lists, pictures, graphs, words, sentences, paragraphs, and watch where the engine of your mind takes you. It may take a long time to travel through the liminal space. It may feel like you’ll never arrive on the other side, but you will.

If you write.

writing, identity, and self worth

As a vocation, writing can be life-giving one day and draining the next. If we ignore the fact that it is simultaneously the best and most impossible thing, we are not being honest with ourselves. That self-deception is emotionally unhealthy and bad for our writing in the long run. So here’s my run at openness and honesty in where I’m at in my writing life.

My writing schedule has been disrupted quite a bit over the last few weeks, which has also affected my blogging schedule. (Sorry about that.)

It takes me a long time to find my rhythm again. To maintain and cultivate a state of mind consistently ready to write. You’d think this would be good incentive to keep up the habit…

Anyway. As I tried to find that regular rhythm, I encountered deep feelings of ambivalence toward the story I’ve been trying to write for the past (almost) three years. Reasons to put it aside (code for: GIVE UP) sprout up like weeds, mushrooms, baby rabbits: The story is dark and heavy. I want to write something that would make a child laugh instead. I’m making no progress whatsoever. I’m nowhere near finished. I don’t know what happens next. And so on.

As I straightened up my writing space, procrastinating, I found a note from the professor who gave me feedback on many drafts of this story while I was enrolled in my MFA program. She wrote,

Don’t let it go–it needs to be finished and you’re the only one who can do it.

That was more than enough motivation to get me writing yesterday, and it even carried me through my writing time today. But will those warm fuzzies carry me through the end of the book? Probably not. I’m not even sure they’ll help me tomorrow.

My work and the way I feel about my work are always tangled together. This is not a good thing. Too often, it means I measure my worth as a writer, and even as a human, by how I feel about my writing sessions. If I’ve had a good writing session (as I did after finding my professor’s encouraging note), I am satisfied, fulfilled, and the rest of my day has a golden glow. If I’ve had a bad writing session, I don’t move on serenely to another activity, I quit trying, and grouch away. The whole day feels less valuable. Wasted.

The problem is, the way I feel about the work is rarely an accurate indication of the quality of work I have accomplished. I’ve had sessions that FELT good, where all I wrote was one flimsy paragraph, and sessions that FELT bad where I’ve done really important revision work or discovered new things about major characters.

Super famous writers have said they can never tell which pages came to them easily and which were hard labor. In the end, what should count is that the work gets done. If I feel unsuccessful about the work, it does not mean I am unsuccessful as a writer/human. In other words, I am not how I feel about what I do. And, I am not what I do.

As I continue deeper into my writing life, I need to purposefully make a distinction between who I am and what I do. This is not necessarily a popular or encouraged idea. When we meet someone for the first time, we ask,

  1. What’s your name?
  2. What do you do?

By the latter, we are asking after their means of gainful employment, the thing on which they spend the majority of their hours.

Writing is not my means of gainful employment. It is the thing I can’t live without. If I don’t write, I start to feel like a shaken bottle of Coke. The psychic pressure builds. I start acting more like an unstable maniac. If I don’t write, I am not my best self.

At the same time, I am not the sum of my work. My identity is not a function of what I do. I am a human who writes, not a writer who is human.

I’d love to be able to give some practical advice about how to deal with this unwieldy seesaw of the writing life, conquer it, and become a best-selling author (REALLY THOUGH), but this isn’t something I’ve figured out how to balance. It’s a problem I’m becoming more aware of. I’m trusting that awareness will lead me in the right direction.

So,

It needs to be finished, and you are the only one who can do it.

Write no matter how you feel.

Write because you have to.

Just do the work.

You are more than the sum of your words.

I am saying these things as mantras. Eventually, if I repeat them enough times, the truth will sink in.

 

 

my writing challenge: a case study

I haven’t been seeing as much progress in my novel as I would like. Novels take time. My brain takes time to understand connections in the story or among characters. I get that. But I was slipping into a kind of stupor with the whole thing, allowing the process to meander rather than chasing the threads of the story eagerly and with purpose.

Basically, I got lazy.

While I was content in my laziness, I saw a slew of tweets from writers I follow. “Just wrote 4,000 words!” Or “Hit my goal of 6,500 words revised!”

I’m always happy when a fellow writer has met their goal, but these tweets bowled me over. Huge writing sessions like this are mentally and physically impossible for me, aside from intense burnout so bad I don’t write for days afterwards, which ends up doing more harm to my output longterm.

Everyone has a different optimal creative process. It’s important for me to remember that, so I don’t get too hard on myself. (And it’s important for you to remember that, so that if you do have the superpower of MEGA word production, you don’t think I’m a total wimp…)

Anyway. Confronted with prolific writers on Twitter and the reality of my own laziness, I set up a writing challenge for myself.

Write at least 1,000 new words a day for a week.

I wanted to see if I could push my output and the plot forward at the same time. I limited myself to a week because when I do too much of this kind of forward writing without allowing myself time to analyze, chart, take notes, etc., I tend to follow rabbit trails to alternate versions of my book’s universe that don’t work (see the novel as multiverse). I can also burn out (see 4 paragraphs back).

I didn’t set a daily start time or a length of time I had to be writing. I’d just sit there until I got to 1,000 words.

In this experiment, I used this cool site called 750 Words. It’s meant to help writers be accountable to their daily writing. The idea is that every day, you write 750 words, which is about 3 double-spaced pages. You type your work and the site keeps track of how many words you write, how long you write, your writing streak for the month, as well as other things like your most often-used words and the mood of your daily writing. It’s free to create an account, and you can choose to set your work to private, so no one else can see what you’re up to. It’s pretty great.

Screenshot 2017-07-13 09.12.45
Here’s a screen grab of a page.

Off to a flying start

The first day or two was easy. I enjoyed getting my characters into some action without knowing where we were headed. I had so little trouble getting to 1,000 words, I was worried I hadn’t given myself a high enough word count goal.

Days three and four proved my worry wrong. I fell into my more typical writing rhythm: I stalled out around 350 words, and again around 650. Once I hit 800, it was easier to get to 1,000, but I had trouble staying planted in the chair. If I hadn’t pushed myself through those stalling points, I probably would have walked away and not written any further.

Trouble…

I hit a plot wall. I didn’t know where my protagonist or the story could go from where I had written them. I started to wonder if my protagonist had chosen a certain response not because it was right for her or for the story, but because I needed more words to finish the day. My goal was words, not authentic decisions made according to her central desire. Losing sight of my protagonist’s central desire is dangerous. It puts the whole future of the story on uncertain ground.

I gave myself permission to back up to a plot point I had already passed and choose a different decision for my protagonist. Some of the stuff I’d written only the day before would be obsolete, but if cutting it kept the story aligned with my character’s central desire, it was worth it.

Lesson

I realized if I meant to get out 1,000 new words a day, they wouldn’t all be usable words. In fact, something like 10% of the new words I ever write are final, usable words. And that’s probably a generous percentage.

So I went back, rewrote, and passed the place I’d gotten stuck the day before, feeling more confident that I was moving with my characters rather than forcing them to march with me.

Writers and teachers often say the first draft is garbage, and that it’s important to let the first draft be garbage. First draft material is all changeable, no matter how long I spend perfecting my word choice. It carries the story so that I can start understanding it and know how to tell it better. Then, after you’ve spewed it all out, you sift through it and use what you can.

Revelation

In spite of knowing all of that, deep down, I don’t think I’m okay with writing garbage. During this exercise, I often had to force myself to let a sentence be imperfect and move on. To take the first words that occur to me and not to question them. To really commit. Parts of who I am struggle against that process: my desire for control, for perfection, or quality.

So, basically…

You have to figure out how to write, and you have to figure out how YOU write. 

Becoming a better writer involves an ever-deepening self-knowledge.

The page will teach you what you need to know about your story and about yourself.

Write. Think. Listen. Write.

(If you try this or a similar experiment out, let me know how it goes! Next week, I plan on slogging through the 7,000+ words I wrote for this experiment. I’ll definitely share any and all thoughts on THAT delightful process with you, too.)

the value of story

Confession: I’ve been dealing with some artistic jealousy lately.

I started watching the Netflix series Chef’s Table, which provides documentary-like looks into the lives and philosophies of the world’s most successful chefs. The culinary arts are fascinating to me. They’re also always in high demand. Because, well, we all have to eat.

Between jobs, I’ve had a lot of time to think about the kind of life I want to inhabit. The chefs I’ve been watching have each chosen very specific lives for themselves that support  and challenge their creativity. The heart of New York City. Modena, Italy. The ultra-remote Andes Mountains. Most can afford to do so because of the success and popularity of their art.

I think in words, not flavors. Unfortunately, creative writing isn’t very lucrative. But if I spend energy on a career in which I can support myself, in which I can be considered financially “safe,” pay rent, and eat, I find my life isn’t worth much to me. If I stop writing, I stop living.

So, if you’ll let me, I’ll just climb up here on this soapbox, for myself and for all the other artists out there who need their art to live but can’t live on their art.

Our society should value story just as much as it values food. 

maslow-pyramid
Image from https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.html

Most of are probably familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Here’s a description from “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs” by Saul McLeod (2016).

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a motivational theory in psychology comprising a five tier model of human needs, often depicted as hierarchical levels within a pyramid.

Maslow stated that people are motivated to achieve certain needs and that some needs take precedence over others. Our most basic need is for physical survival, and this will be the first thing that motivates our behaviour. Once that level is fulfilled the next level up is what motivates us, and so on.

The world you belong to, you reading these words online from an easily accessible electronic device, has a fairly stable base. You’ve achieved the first levels of Maslow’s needs: physiological (food [though maybe not the level of cuisine on Chef’s Table], water, shelter, rest) and safety. Maybe you’re lucky enough to have achieved a sense of social belonging. If you’re REALLY lucky, esteem.

But I doubt any of us have dominated the pinnacle of the pyramid: self-actualization, realizing, becoming, and achieving the best version of yourself.

In this part of our journeys, story is crucial. It can help us navigate toward self-actualization, or keep us from it.

Here’s an example.

All my life, I read (and watched) stories full of characters who inspired me. People like Robin Hood, King Arthur, heroes, who fought for what was right, stood up for those who couldn’t stand up for themselves, faced and defeated evil. In my most formative stories, none of the female characters were appealing. They had boring or minimal roles, were defined by their sexual activity (Maid Marian), or did things I couldn’t get behind, like cheat on King Arthur. Who does that?

As I grew from a girl to a teen to a woman, I devoured story after story and never found a definitive female character I could fully identify with. I didn’t realize how much this had hurt me until I saw the new Wonder Woman movie.

Diana is educated. She is wise. She doesn’t allow herself to be sexualized, ignored, or talked over. She is physically, mentally, emotionally, and morally strong. Secure in her abilities and identity. Not only does she fearlessly go to war against evil, she leads others into the fray. Her strength begets strength. Her power is shared, and doesn’t diminish anyone.

During that foxhole sequence, I experienced what I can only compare to a psychological breakthrough, what one might go through in a productive therapy session. Something deep inside me recognized her. FINALLY, my heart screamed. HERE she is. THIS is who I want to be. Word for word, move for move. This is everything I needed, need, will need. I cried a lot. Every woman I’ve talked to who has seen this movie also cried. Every single woman.

That’s the value of story. We find belonging. Choose what kind of person we want to be. We travel to places we’ve never seen, meet characters we’d never otherwise encounter. The ones we sympathize with and the ones we despise give us a sense of where we belong, who we are, and who we want to be.

When story isn’t valued, when the payday is more important than the art, we get used-up, washed-out books, plays, musicals, and movies that give us the same four or five options. We get brainwashed, almost, into believing this is all life is. This is all we could aspire to. The blushing bride. The lonely old maid. The wicked witch. The stressed mother. Throw a couple of stock characters together, make a few billion dollars. It’s irresponsible at best, reprehensible at worst.

Story is also the means by which we share our experiences. It helps us understand our existence, our identities, and our choices. It is so important. Maybe the most important.

I read a biography of Oscar Wilde once called Built of Books. I believe I can claim that I, too, have grown as a result of the stories I have read, been told, watched. Whether I like it or not. I’m still wrestling to understand the part story has played in my life, and how I want it to function in the rest of it. Why, when someone dismisses my recap of a novel with, “Oh, that’s just a story. It didn’t really happen,” that all of me wants to scream back, “It still matters!”

Writer Tim O’Brien (The Things They Carried) has thought a lot more about this than I have. I’ll leave you with a few quotes from him.

Fiction is the lie that helps us understand the truth.

Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.

I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.

3 Books to Inspire Your Writing Life

The writing life is often an isolated one. Writing groups are few and far between. The internet alleviates this somewhat, but is an imperfect replacement for real fellowship.

All of us live with and through books. That’s part of the reason we got into this writing business in the first place. So why not look for companionship, encouragement, and strategy in the voices of experienced writers on the page?

I often find myself dragging to my writing time, staring grumpily at the work in progress (garbage, of course), and generally having a horrible attitude. I need encouragement to keep going. Reassurance that the daily writing grind is worth more than the sum of its word count.

Don’t get me wrong. Writing is work. But when it starts to feel like work day after day, when makes you miserable, and you start wondering whether not writing would make you less miserable, you need some inspiration. A chiropractic realignment of your writing life. Energy flowing along your meridians. You get the idea.

Here are three books I’ve found encouraging in my own writing life. Some (if not most) of what I blog about here comes from books like these.

1. Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne LamottREAL

Try looking at your mind as a wayward puppy that you are trying to paper train. You don’t drop-kick a puppy into the neighbor’s yard every time it piddles on the floor. You just keep bringing it back to the newspaper.

Lamott gives her hilarious, painful, honest take on the writing life. She confronts the anxiety, psychosis, and stress of writing head on. Yes, it’s hard. Really hard. And she admits that, using her own experiences as a backdrop. She argues we need to be kind to ourselves. Lamott gives her readers permission to write “shitty first drafts,” tackle short assignments, and imagine your inner critical voices as mice shut up in jars. It’s invigorating. And funny. Anne Lamott can be scathingly critical, self-deprecating, hilarious, uplifting, and right all in one sentence, and she almost always is.

2. Art & Fear, David Balyes, Ted Orlando

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You make good work by (among other things) making lots of work that isn’t very good, and gradually weeding out the parts that aren’t good, the parts that aren’t yours. It’s called feedback, and it’s the most direct route to learning about your own vision. It’s also called doing your work. After all, someone has to do your work, and you’re the closest person around.

I’ve referenced this book in another post, but it’s worth the double mention. This little book is geared toward artists of all disciplines, not just writers (though as the authors are writers, writing does come up). Bayles and Orland define art as a verb, not an object. The text reads like a thesis against quitting art, the action. It systematically addresses and debunks the main reasons artists quit, most of them to do with fear. At the same time, the text provides encouragement not to do the most dangerous thing of all: quit doing art.

3. The Writing Life, Annie Dillard

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I do not so much write a book as sit up with it, as a dying friend. I hold its hand and hope it will get better.

This is an undisputed classic, the king of books on the writing life. If you’re only going to read one book from this list, read with this one. Dillard writes with poise and grace, perfectly encapsulating situations the solitary writer imagines she alone experiences. Writing is taming a lion, the inchworm’s struggle to find the next blade of grass, hammering through a rock canyon. Dillard balances the necessity of writing, the nobility of it, and the struggle in this slim book. I read this one every year, or sooner, if I need to.

 

There are many other books that could fit in this list, some of which I haven’t read yet (Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing, for example) but these are the ones I have on my shelf that I have and will read over and over.

I hope you pick up one of these books, engage with the writer who wrote it, and find encouragement to keep doing what you love. Even if it doesn’t feel like love sometimes.

 

writing in revision: a case study

I recently tried a revision experiment with a short story of mine, and I believe the results have implications beyond the piece. So here’s a case study on revision from my writing life…

A few years back, I wrote this short story I really loved. It felt complete, had a cool time-travel concept, and an interesting ending. I researched speculative fiction journals and started sending it out a year ago. I sent it out a lot. A lot. And it was consistently rejected via form e-mails. I know that rejection is a big part of the writing game, but I was legitimately confused about why no one seemed to want the piece.

I watched The Shining for the first time about a month ago. I know, I know, I really should have seen that one already. I’m just now starting to get into the horror side of speculative fiction, H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King and etc. I’m super behind. (All book/author recommendations welcome below!!)

The point is, as I was watching, I realized that without ever having read or seen The Shining, I had it ripped off in this short story. Not the plot, but the setup: guy takes care of ski lodge over the winter. Things happen. Etc. The similarities were undeniable.

Of course no one wanted the story. Every single person who screened it has seen The Shining. I’m like the only speculative fiction in the world person who hadn’t. And I was mad about it. How was I supposed to know I had ripped off a movie I had never seen?

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Watching The Shining like, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

I stewed about it. I didn’t want this piece to die a slow death in my Dropbox folder for such a ridiculous reason. I’ve been wanting to write some speculative flash fiction for a while. This seemed like a good opportunity. On a whim, I decided to cut it down to a flash fiction piece. I’d turn a 3,000 word short story nobody wanted into a 750-word flash piece no one would be able to resist.

I was a little intimidated. But I was also frustrated. And I love de-cluttering. #minimalism.

I slashed 1,000 words without breaking a sweat. It was amazing how much bulk the story had been carrying it didn’t need. The story could do without so many of the paragraphs I had slaved over. Without all the excess, I could see the heart of the story in a deeper, clearer way. I even came up with a new ending, one that fit the story so much better than the one I had.

At 1,800 words remaining, I started doing a lot less backspacing and a lot more staring at the screen. How on earth could I cut 1,000 more words? I’d be amputating essential limbs, cutting out organs the story needed to survive. As a last resort, I tried condensing two scenes. It didn’t work.

I left the piece alone for a while, came back to it, ready to try to squeeze it down to at least 1,000 words. It wouldn’t squeeze. So I stopped trying. I decided some stories aren’t supposed to be flash pieces.

That might sound like surrender. I didn’t meet the goal I set for myself, after all. But I learned so much about the story I had been trying to tell and so much about what is essential to it. I’m confident in sending it out again, reincarnated and slimmer.

We writers think through words. As we think, we leave them behind on the page. A great majority of this mental processing flotsam isn’t for the story. It’s for us. Terry Pratchett once said,

The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.

I might add that sometimes we need more than one draft to tell the story to ourselves. But this is a necessary step. If we don’t know the story, we can’t tell it to anybody else. So we write, telling ourselves the story on the page. This is the fun part for me. But in revision, we have to figure out what is there for us and what the reader needs, which parts of the work exist to lead us to the real story and which parts are the real story.

For example, in the piece I slashed, I originally started with a phone conversation in which the protagonist is interviewing for the job taking care of the lodge. That scene functioned to get me into the story. It helped me understand who my protagonist was and how he got to the place where the story could start. But it wasn’t the heart of the story. I cut the whole conversation.

It’s not often easy to figure out what parts are for you, and even if you have, it’s not often easy to cut them. Annie Dillard devotes the beginning of her gorgeous book The Writing Life to throwing work away.

The part you must jettison is not only the best-written part; it is also, oddly, that part which was to have been the very point. It is the original key passage, the passage on which the rest was to hang, and from which you yourself drew the courage to begin.

The part you must jettison is not wasted. Getting caught up in that mindset can be dangerous and disheartening. No work is ever wasted. It served its purpose.

In her best-selling book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo says something similar to give clients permission to give away unused gifts. It’s acceptable to give them away because that item has already served its purpose: you received it, and along with it, the love or appreciation it conveyed to you from its giver. Be thankful, and then let it go.

Work you jettison has served its purpose. It got you to where you are. So appreciate it, thank it out loud if you need to, and throw it away.*

 

*It can be easier to delete if you save a backup copy of the document in another file. That way, you know you can go back to an old version if what you cut turns out to be a horrible, horrible mistake. In my experience, something once cut never finds a place in the work again. You decided it could be cut for a reason, after all…

imposter syndrome: writer’s edition

I am not very kind to myself or my writing. It’s a funny thing. I am kind when offering feedback on other’s work. I always try to give their work in progress the benefit of the doubt. I don’t extend this courtesy to my own writing.

I’m never really satisfied with my work, and it takes a lot to convince me something I have written is successful. This lack of kindness is especially present for me in the revision process, when I am forced to assess what I have done on the page. Garbage. Unfortunately, because what I write feels like an extension of who I am, of my mind and my imagination, I also assess myself in the revision process. Garbage.

Writers also feel inadequate when writing first drafts. Staring down that blank page. Aren’t I supposed to be a writer? So why can’t I write? And then, after eeking out a paragraph or two, garbage.

Imposter syndrome sets in. Hard.

Self-criticism leading to self-hatred will not help us. In fact, habitually patronizing those mental states may keep us from being successful writers. A successful writer is: someone who keeps writing and never quits. 

In their wonderful book Art & Fear, David Bayles and Ted Orland write,

Quitting is fundamentally different than stopping. The latter happens all the time. Quitting happens once. Quitting means not starting again — and art is all about starting again.

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What separates artists from ex-artists is that those who challenge their fears, continue; those who don’t, quit.

One of the fears I believe I share with many other writers is that my work isn’t good enough. I read amazing writers like China Mieville, Kazuo Ishiguro, Susanna Clarke, Jeff Vandermeer, and it’s very clear to me (as an English Literature major) that the sentences I have strung together in NO WAY compare. It’s like I’m using a lesser version of the English language.

I stumbled across this quote by Ira Glass a year-and-a-half ago in video format. Here’s a link: https://vimeo.com/24715531. It’s about 2 minutes long.

Here’s a transcript as well. I’ll add some bold lines for emphasis, but it’s worth reading the whole thing.

All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take a while. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.

Bayles and Orland also write,

vision is always ahead of execution — and it should be.

On an early spring day last year, I sat in a patch of sunlight with a growing kitten. The window gave me a good view of the vines growing on the fence outside. It’s an old network of vines, and an old fence, and the strands of it wind in an inextricable knot through the wood. And then, there are little branches dangling loose into the air. One tendril in particular was reaching out for the house. It bobbed on the wind. I could almost see it straining.

The vine stretches, reaching for where it wants to be. It will get there, eventually, but only by growing. So slow, imperceptible from day to day. Vines are patient. They know they will get there. It’s a matter of preparation, growth, and time. When it can touch the house, the fence, the pole, and grasp it, it is ready to do so. It is thick enough to support the weight of its branch.

You may see where you want to be as a writer so clearly, but you can’t get there. It’s like the chasm between the fence where you started to grow and the house where you can flourish, climb all over the walls and windows. You can’t jump. There are no shortcuts. We grow into the writers we will be slowly. By doing a lot of work.

Nothing in life is a sprint. Even literal sprinting competitions take years of training. You can’t do it all in a day, or a week. Do your work for today. Trust the work you are doing. That 1/8 inch you grew will one day exceed your expectations. You’re reaching for the house? Reach for the sky. You will get there, but only if you don’t quit.

So don’t.