For the last two weeks, I’ve had the pleasure and honor of finishing a novel draft at this arts center in Nebraska City. I wrote more in May than I’ve ever written in my life, but a huge portion of that productivity happened in my writing studio at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center for the Arts.
I also had a great roommate, a photographer from Montana, who was fun to talk and cook with after our work days. The residency houses five artists at a time, and so I shared the facility with three fiction writers, a composer, a painter, and that photographer I just mentioned.
The arts center gives a stipend for food and the grocery stores are real close (I like to cook as part of my creative process–there is nothing like working through a scene while chopping vegetables for a stir fry). Nebraska City is also where Arbor Day began, close to the Missouri River, and so the area around the center was green and life giving around this time of year.
Residents are allowed to check books out at the library. I was impressed at how expansive that library was–I had a specific book in mind to read (The Blood of Emmett Till), and found it in their new selection area as soon as I walked in the door. Also, it was a nice place to go jogging in the mornings.
After I finished writing the novel draft, I took day trips to Lincoln and Omaha, both of which were an hour away from Nebraska City, but really easy to get to (just one straight road from town to each city).
The inner itch to “just do it” is the artist’s compass.
Although as artists we make maps, we seldom find them. An artistic career does not resemble the linear step-by-step climb of a banker’s career trajectory. Art is not linear, and neither is the artist’s life. There are no certain routes. You do not become a novelist by moving from A to B to C.
Julia Cameron, Walking in this World
The reward is in the making of the thing. Do it for that.
After about a month of training, I am two days away from my first 5k race. I don’t remember what inspired me to start, but I am encouraged to know that for many writers, distance running is a part of their creative process. Nick Ripatrazone explores the phenomenon in November’s Atlantic article, “Why Writers Run.” Joyce Carol Oates, for instance, “eases writer’s block with an afternoon run.” Haruki Murakami says he “became a serious writer, ‘the day [he] first went jogging.'” I’ve only just started, but I can see the connection: it involves the same clock-checking doom (it’s better done without checking a clock); it’s got the same accomplishment relief/joy of putting pages and hours into a novel.
One thing I enjoy about introducing running into my writing life is that it dispels the myth I once believed of the unhealthy genius. In the past, my understanding of a serious writer involved a hungover, cranky artist enclosed in a small workspace, escaping to a porch or balcony to smoke through sticky sentences or plot points. Cigarette breaks were my writing process but these days, I’m able to work for longer durations without the help of any sort of substance. It took me a long while to get here, and some days are better than others (God, I miss smoking sometimes), but it’s the best way for me to persist on what I like to call “the horrible uphill climb of writing a first book.” Literally running up hills somehow equips us for literary hills, if I may drop some cheesy wordplay onto this blogpost. Pushing through discomfort and discouragement–that’s probably the thing that separates the real writers from the wannabes. Not publications, but persistence.
Most of the time, writing requires a lot of chugging along, and a lot of resistance towards hating other people. Especially people who do well in the field. It’s because we have this illusion that when other people get things, those things must have fallen in their laps without any effort. Of course we know deep down this isn’t true (more likely, we resent the fact that we haven’t made the time to work as hard as other people), but this ridiculous idea translates into our own entitlement and prohibits us from enjoying other people’s work. Even when that work is really, really good.
In a recent article from Poets and Writers, Steve Almond tells the truth about how jaded we’ve become as writers.
…entitlement is the enemy of artistic progress, which requires patience and gratitude and, above all, humility. You don’t grow as a writer by writing off other people’s efforts. You grow as a writer by respecting the process.
The more we write, the more we understand how hard that process actually is. The more we write, the harder it is to write. It’s so easy to get discouraged, and discouragement makes it hard to appreciate what other people are writing.
(I’m speaking for myself, anyway.)
Let’s just acknowledge that we’re discouraged and try not to take it out on other people.
Grace and peace to you, other hardworking writers…
There is a lot of wisdom in this edition of “Fury”–VIDA’s advice column for concerned writers. In #15, Grateful VIDA-Lovin’ Lady complains about how her MFA program didn’t prepare her for the real world. I could sort of relate. We go to school hoping we’ll be a bit more prepared to be a writer, and that means, have insight into how to publish. Sometimes it seems like people are leaving us out so we won’t be successful (*seems* being the operative word here). Teachers are often hesitant to give details about this, and though the article guesses this is because teachers don’t want to be discouraging, I also think it’s because publishing has changed an awful lot since the early 90s, when many (most of my) professors were getting their MFAs. The writer complaining about her MFA program says she’s ditched writing poetry for Children’s books, and she expresses a lot of bitterness towards her program for not better bolstering her poetry career.
…complain about them all you want … populate forums with alarming anecdotes about your lazy teachers, but don’t stop writing. If you can give up writing poetry that easily, it was never going to be the thing you ended up doing. Writers write because they feel they must, not because they did or didn’t get a degree. Because poetry doesn’t need a time out; your feelings of resentment and frustration do! Just because you feel bitter about having wasted your time at a shitty MFA program, don’t take it out on the thing you love.
What a great reminder. I mean, why did we get degrees in the first place?
Here’s the thing about breaking into writing as a profession: there is not one path. Listen to interviews (Bookworms, especially), and you won’t hear the same story about how writers broke through. I asked each of my professors something about the writing profession and got widely different responses. Why? Because, again, there is not one path.
A huge part of being a writer, and I’ve probably said this before, is figuring out what you have control over and doing your best with that small portion of your career. Trust me, that small portion is a lot of work. Writing grants, submitting stories, working to pay for writing conferences, etc. Also, consistently trying to improve our craft.
Write your best, keep growing, and keep seeking. Maybe I’m too much of a mystic, but I think that if we put forth the effort, our work will find a way to reach people.
The Fury writer (response from VIDA) was correct in naming luck, talent, and perseverance as the magic ingredients for a writing-success-cocktail. If you are thinking of getting an MFA, remember that nobody is going to persevere for you. Nobody is obligated to make you famous or show you how to be famous. If we approach our writing and careers generously, we will probably have a better chance at laying out a path to publishing. Bitterness is probably the thing I’ve seen kill most writers. Not a realization or feeling that they aren’t good enough, but a feeling that someone else didn’t hold up their end of the bargain.
Here’s what bitterness is: feeling bad because you didn’t get something you feel entitled to.
Here’s the way to avoid bitterness: Feel entitled to nothing.
Understand that if you’re writing because you feel entitled to have the world acknowledge your words, chances are, you’re probably not writing anything the world really needs. Write because you want to contribute to a conversation.
Ben Marcus say some good, practical things here in this interview from Knopf’s “Writers on Writing” series.
I appreciate, especially, his reminder to write what we’d want to read. It sounds so obvious, but it’s easy to get bogged down with irrelevant /tension-killing information while we’re in the middle of a paragraph. It’s more than just thinking about communicating to an audience when we write; it’s about choosing phrases that captivate, challenge, and entertain appropriately according to the moment we’re writing.
Marcus also draws our attention to the fact that those of us who learned to write in college/university workshops are used to having audiences that must finish our work. I’m glad he mentioned this, because I am teaching a summer college workshop at the moment and I think it’s good to keep in mind what school-habits my curriculum formulates and propels. I’m teaching seniors, so they are about to go into the world and adjust to writing outside of the classroom.
Marcus reminded me to think about what happens when my audience becomes someone that doesn’t really like to read that much, but thought my book sounded interesting so they read the first paragraph in the bookstore? Or before that, I’m going to have to get that first paragraph (and entire book) past an agent and hopefully editor. The solution? I stated it yesterday but I’ll state it this way today: Learn to recognize what it is I’m reading, how it impacts me, what it can teach me about writing.
Books are the best teachers.
If you’ve taken a writing class (especially one with me because I am obsessed with this idea), you’ve probably heard the Flannery O’Connor quote about how endings should be simultaneously surprising and inevitable. Tall order? Yes.
I once heard Ira Glass speak about how important the element of surprise is in the stories he and his crew choose to air on This American Life.* I don’t remember the exact quote, just that he alerted me to the fact that writing has to be surprising, at least on some level, to sustain interest. The worst thing a friend can say after reading a draft is, “the ending was too predictable.” (Clutch my heart and fall over.)
I’m thinking about how hard it is to write surprise in stories and essays. It’s just easy (and dare I say, lazy) to be predictable in our writing. I don’t know who said it to me, but I think surprise happens on the page when we explore options; when we don’t just go with the first idea. Sometimes our first idea is great, but often, our second idea is even better.
This is the opposite of taking a successful standardized test, by the way, because standardized tests are the opposite of art.
Exploring options means understanding what our options are, which means reading a lot. That is what it means to “read like a writer”–we’re picking up options, techniques, interesting ways of telling a story, from people who took those risks before us. Often that means we have to read things twice (once for plot, once for technique). It also means we have to read slowly, asking the question, “what is the writer doing right now with this sentence/paragraph/chapter?”
Surprise is harder to accomplish when writing creative non-fiction, because we’ve literally been there and done that and now we’re writing about it. I’m wondering if maybe surprise in a creative essay is more about what you do with what happened–how you reflect upon the facts–than writing the facts themselves. That is a major difference between fiction and non-fiction. The latter must not only tell a story but make meaning out of that story, and the quality of the essay, I think, has more to do with how the writer reflects than how the writer narrates.
In fiction, we need to sit back and let our characters do surprising things, often terrible, horrible, disturbing things, but not always. Mostly, things we don’t expect them to do but when they do them we say, “Ah. That makes sense.” Hence, inevitable surprise. Watch Mad Men or The Wire for example after great example of this.
*I take writers less seriously when they tell me they’ve never heard This American Life. If you love storytelling then you love this show. Period. (Ha. Feeling a little sassy this morning.)
Recently, my friend Paul and I started a super writing challenge. We both have books we want to finish by the end of summer, so we decided to meet at our favorite brewery once a week holding the chapter (15 pages min) we wrote that week. Whoever doesn’t finish the chapter has to buy the other a beer. We’re meeting tonight and happily purchasing just our own beers.
As someone who’s taken a lot of workshops, my biggest challenge as a writer has been getting out of binge-for-the-deadline mode. Basically, if the story was due Tuesday, I’d start working on Friday and put in 18 hours before Tuesday to finish it. This writing challenge with Paul has graced me with the blessed deadline, but I don’t have stretches of six hours to binge like I used to. Besides, I can’t really binge-write a novel. I have to write every day.
This reminds me of something I learned when I took a Tai Chi class in college (for credit!):
If you do it every day, you’ll be able to.
This applies to playing the guitar (calluses build), and running (lungs strengthen), but surprise! It also works really well for writing.
Added bonus of writing every day: we have the luxury of getting into it by going over the pages we wrote the day before.