Steve Almond Takes Us to Town

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.

He says,

…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…

Bitterness and Writing

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.

VIDA responds:

…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.

Miracles and Writing

I’m teaching Isaac Bashevis’s story, “The Little Shoemakers” in my literature class today.  In preparation, I came across this interview from the Paris Review.

It is true that I believe in miracles, or, rather, grace from heaven. But I believe in miracles in every area of life except writing. Experience has shown me that there are no miracles in writing. The only thing that produces good writing is hard work. It’s impossible to write a good story by carrying a rabbit’s foot in your pocket.

Procrastination Solution: Intentional Breaks?

Here’s what you need to know about me right now:

1) I have three jobs.

2) I am working on a novel, which is a fourth job.

3) I am tired. It’s so easy to convince me to do anything else but work on my novel when I’m not working my other three jobs.

Two of my jobs are on an academic schedule, which means two of my jobs gave a Spring Break this week. That means I have 20 extra hours to spend working on the novel.  But I also have grading to do.  Enter: discipline.

Except, not quite.

I kept saying I’ll write before I leave the house in the morning but I ended up doing other stuff and telling myself I’ll do work after I come home from the office (the job without a Spring Break).  Then, when I came home to grade or write I was so tired and I told myself “You deserve a break.” And I was right.

But then then Julianna Baggott posted on Facebook, “The work punishes you for your absence.”

 

Ugh. She is right but so am I–I should so take a break.  Breaks are ancient wisdom.

So then it occurred to me this morning that if I make a schedule that includes breaks, I won’t be able to say “I need a break” because I just took one.  Breaks are when I can play on the internet, watch True Detective with my boyfriend, blog, talk on the phone with a friend, etc. Breaks are not the same as making dinner, though. Breaks are not the same as my shower. That needs to have a slot on the schedule, too.

Today I got two hours of grading done and two hours of writing done.  We’ll see how tomorrow works, but I’m putting down today for the record. Intentional breaks, people. (They worked today.)

 

 

Sondheim Wisdom for All of Us

I’m about halfway through this HBO documentary about Stephen Sondheim. If you’re unfamiliar with his work, he is the composer and lyricist for many of Broadway’s darkest, most thought provoking and beautiful musicals.  For example, Into the Woods and Sweeney Todd (my two favorites).

I am pretty hard on musicals, to tell the truth.  I judge them according to three things:

1) Story (I’m a fiction writer, so duh)

2) Lyrics

3) Music

I think most musical lovers put music first, but to me it’s about how well the words convey the story. Many musicians and actors don’t necessarily love Sondheim because, while many of the songs are pretty, many others kind of aren’t.  And they are tremendously hard to sing most of the time. Nonetheless, Stephen Sondheim is probably the reason I have this hierarchy of concerns, and watching this documentary confirmed this — he describes his process as starting with the script (or book) on the piano and letting the music come from the rhythm of the character’s lines. Come to think of it, I attribute much of my love for story and writing to Sondheim. The first I remember of paying attention to storytelling as part of an actor’s job was when I played Cinderella in Into the Woods. I was in high school — I guess 15?

I think any writer or artist has a lot to gain from watching this documentary, which is full of just great thoughts about the creative process.  Here is a quote that I will carry with me today:

A song should be like a play. It should have a beginning, middle and end. It should have an idea—state the idea and then build the idea and finish. At the end you should be at a place different than where you began.

Sounds like a story, right?

That quote and this one came from an interview about Oscar Hammerstein, who mentored him.  This quote is the reason I decided to blog today:

One of the things [Hammerstein] told me was never to imitate him. If you write what you feel, it will come out true. If you write what I feel, it will come out false.

Amen.

Crazy Fascinating Interview with Bob Shacochis

Like August Wilson and his plays, Shacochis is a novel-a-decade kind of writer. The reviews are saying his latest is well worth the wait. I haven’t read The Woman Who Lost Her Soul yet but I certainly will, especially having heard him read from it a couple weeks ago at the local reading series.

The LA Review of Books recently published an epic-length email interview about the epic. Here is one of my favorite bits:

Q: Could you say something about how the book’s structure evolved? Every time I think you’ve pushed a scene as far as it can possibly go — you find a way to push it one step farther. In the process more layers of character are revealed. How deliberate is this?

A: The explanation for the structure is a bit dramatic — perhaps psychodramatic would be the more accurate description. The novel is divided into five interior books, and as I was closing in on the finish of Book One, I had to confront — for genuine medical reasons — the likelihood that I was about to die. Accepting that outcome, I decided to create a sense of closure around the denouement of Book One. Even though the narrative closure is misleading and downright false, Book One could still be published autonomously should I indeed croak. That sword of impending death was still hanging over me by the time I wrote Books Two and Three. If I died, Grove Atlantic would still be able to publish my unfinished work as finished. One novella — Croatia — and two small novels. By the time I was working on Books Four and Five, the medical crisis had passed, and I had every reason to believe I wasn’t dying quite yet, which means I was free to go ahead and write those last two books without fretting that they needed to close in a way that was a full stop, narratively speaking. That’s the simple explanation for why the book is structured the way it is. I was looking at eternity, trying to hedge my bets.

Whoa.

Margaret Atwood & Hope

…if you don’t value people you don’t wish to communicate with them. And any writing is a form of communication, just as any writing is a form of hope.

Because think of what you’re hoping for: you’re hoping, number one, that you’ll finish whatever it is you’re writing; number two, that it will be comprehensible; number three, that your message will somehow reach another human being; number four, that they will open that bottle that’s washed up on the shore, and they will take out the message, and they will be able to read it; and number five, that they will be able to comprehend it and derive meaning from it. And that’s a pretty long list of hopes.

This quote comes from the end of an interview Margaret Atwood gave with Michael Silverblatt on KCRW’s show, BOOKWORM. For most of the interview, they talked about her latest book, Maddaddam, the third of a trilogy.

If you are a writer and unfamiliar with this show, I highly recommend you start downloading the podcasts. You can listen to the whole interview here.

Some thoughts:

Atwood’s words remind me of what I’ve started to call the “Stevie Wonder Principle:” It’s not a religion, people. It’s a relationship.  Writing can become, quite fast, a religion.  We have our ceremonies (prizes, readings, book signings), and rituals (turning off the internet, staring at a blank page and staying put until something comes, listening to podcasts of author interviews), and there are several denominations (or genres and poetry schools). We have our leaders whose approval we might, if we’re not careful, depend on too much.

Nonetheless, like what Atwood says here, it’s important to go back to the very core of why we do what we do: to communicate with people.  Once we start to sacrifice the “relationship” for “religion,” our writing becomes self-indulgent, mean, without any sort of redemption, hard to stomach, and, you know, corrupted by the same thing that corrupts all religions: greed.

All of that aside, it was nice to hear that Margaret Atwood express a need for hope in order to write what she writes, despite the fact that in the hierarchy of writers, she’s probably pretty close to the Vatican. Writing is always a process, no matter who we are or what we’ve written.