Last Thoughts for Revise the Novel Month

Whoa–what a month it’s been. Besides trying to understand what it means to be a writer, I also found myself embarking on a serious self-improvement overhaul.  That’s why so many of my thoughts are life-thoughts.

Writing is a life.  It’s a lifestyle.  It filters into every other aspect of who we are.  It’s an identity–it provides a certain perspective on the world around us.  Hopefully, it provides a more generous attitude towards others and ourselves; hopefully it keeps us curious and non-judgmental.  It definitely keeps us disciplined.  It keeps us persistent, a little ambitious, and resilient towards the things that seem to want to try and steal that identity away from us.

I highly recommend these month-long projects, which I’m now just starting to embark upon.  Here’s a bit of reflection on the experience:

I tend to make goals for the distant future, but by keeping the month in mind, I found myself more focused on keeping the daily routine.  I didn’t work on my novel every day (in fact, I deliberately took Sundays off from it), but by knowing I was in May, and that May was Revise the Novel Month, I had an easier time keeping a clear goal in mind. For me, it was shape the thing up to send to manuscript clearance for the MFA and to send it off to a few friends for the next time I dedicate a month to the novel.  I did this, but it was a severely bumpy ride.  I had drama to deal with (which is why you got a post about it, of course), I had a lot of self-doubt and days of flat out laziness.

It’s not done. (I didn’t expect it to be.) There are many months of work to come; as many as it will take to see this thing come to a place that feels ready to send off to agents and publishers.  I plan to keep on dividing the work into month-long projects.  I might spend a near-approaching month on character development, for instance, with short exploratory assignments.  I might spend the month writing scenes that may or may not go into the novel.  I might then spend another month shaping the first fifty pages, or the first act, or however this project unfolds.  My routine is going to change drastically because I won’t have as much time once I start working again in the real world.  This scares me, but I think the monthly plan is going to be a huge asset.

If you do the monthly project thing, I highly recommend you start with poems.  They don’t have to be good (mine weren’t especially).  But they are manageable and they help us to think more deeply about words.  And I found myself continuing to write poems, even through revise the novel month.  They are, at their most base state, a fantastic verbal exercise for the prose writer.

My next project is to take a bit of a break from the novel in order to work on music.  I did this in April, when I focused on poetry and language.  I think that the month off definitely helped me in terms of filling the well with energy and willingness to work on the book.  By the end of April, I couldn’t wait to hang with my characters again.  Hopefully this will be a repeated experience.

My last thought: You can do it.  If you’re writing a novel, you have to keep reminding yourself that.  It’s hard, but you can do it.  You have everything you need to do it well.

Thought for Day 29: Round Up Your Allies

Being a writer takes a lot of discernment about the kinds of people you let into your creative process.  I can’t imagine being a writer without friends to read my writing.

Allies are people who make you feel confident. They are your friends, first. They want good things for you.  They, like you, are on “team better world.” They are honest but never mean.  This doesn’t mean they are always nice for the sake of being nice, or don’t offer criticism.  But their criticism is always constructive.

Unfortunately, there are some competitive writers out there who want us to feel bad about our writing so they can feel better about their own.  Learn to spot them.  Put them on a list of writing enemies. Don’t let them go near your work.  That doesn’t mean they are your enemies though.  You can still grab a beer with them from time to time.  They just don’t get to be your writing ally.

Your new writing project is a newborn child.  You’re not going to let just anyone hold it.  No one has the right to tell you to kill your newborn child.

Also, ask yourself if you are a constructive critic when someone asks you to read their work.  Are you generous while you read?  Assume that there is something good about what you’re reading and look for it.  Then try to spot what’s getting in the way.  You wouldn’t publish it because … but you would publish it if …

Make a list: who can you trust with your writing? Who brings confidence to your work, wants you to write the best you can possibly write because, well, they like you?

Thought for Day 28: Strength

If you want to be a writer, you have to be strong.

I have just spent a couple years in what Iyanla Vanzant calls, “The Basement.”  It’s when you feel like a victim.  It’s when you cling to self-destructive people and self-destructive behavior. People walk all over you all the time. The “First Floor” is when you are able to recognize the destruction and start making changes.  I’m on the second floor now, which means I’m learning how be strong.

From the second floor, I can see how living in the basement has affected my writing.  My characters tended to be passive.  The conflicts were unclear–it was hard to tell what the characters wanted.

A good story has a strong character with flaws.  Weak characters with a few glimpses of strength rarely cut it for a good story.  We’ve heard it in workshops again and again: What’s the conflict?  What does the character want? What does the character need to do in order to achieve their desire?

What workshops don’t teach us is that in order to write strong characters, we need to know how to be strong people.

What does strength look like?  It looks like knowing what game you’re playing.

It means you find out the rules for the game you’re playing and follow them.

It means going to work, no matter what.

It means that you don’t get destroyed by destructive criticism.

It means you never give up, never never give up.

It means that you don’t get caught up in other people’s drama that makes you weak.

It means you learn how to adopt a healthy lifestyle that doesn’t contribute to your weakness.

The stronger you are, the stronger your writing will be.  Don’t write characters who are victims.  Don’t be a victim.

To get started, I recommend getting to know Hedwig and the Angry Inch.  Be like Hedwig.  Especially in this song:

 

Thoughts for Day 26 & Day 27: Listen

Yesterday, I found myself in the company of some improv comedians/performers.  They were brainstorming for a writing project.   These actors were very respectful to each other, and most of them were really funny, but I noticed that they were funniest, not when they were one-upping each other or trying to impress each other, but when they were listening to each other and responding accordingly.  Comedy is timing, as they say, but guess what: so is writing.

Each sentence is a response to the one that came before it. Cutting off a subject and switching to a new one is a kind of response.  I guess the opening sentence is an exception, though I do like that writing trick of starting a story as if the reader is coming into the middle of something.  In order to pull that trick off, the author needs to know what came right before the moment on the page before the first paragraph begins–what’s on that white space that the reader can’t see. Either way, I believe good writing centers on the writer’s ability to listen.  Listening to language, listening to the tone of the characters who are playing the movie out in our head, etc.

I like writing that is language-driven (as opposed to plot-driven), and by language-driven I mean, where punctuation does more than create the meaning of a sentence.  That’s its basic function, of course, but in order to advance to Cormac McCarthy’s level, punctuation becomes a tool for making rhythm happen within a sentence.  We can’t know what sort of rhythm our sentences have if we’re not listening to them.Most of that stuff comes naturally, though.  I’m learning that doesn’t come naturally, and takes bit of effort, is listening during the revision process.  I tend to sort of gloss over the sentences I’ve seen so many times before.  Revision, though, should be the time when I’m listening extra-closely.  If it doesn’t jump off the page, it’s probably a dull sentence.  Dull sentences are probably okay sometimes, by way of emphasizing a sharp sentence, but we have to nail the ends of paragraphs. We nail them by listening to how that sentence lingers in the small space we create with the enter and tab buttons on our keyboards.

Sentences can be quiet and loud (WITHOUT CAPS).  Sentences can be abrupt, or smooth, or energetic.  For more about this, read John Gardner’s THE ART OF FICTION.  He talks about this quite a bit, and recommends poetic technique for the writer (scanning your sentences, using scansion).

Here’s another listening-related anecdote: a friend recommended, as I was putting an ending on my last draft, that I should listen to the kind of music that creates the sort of tone and mood I’m going for.  I sort of wrote to match the rhythm of the music (which was Rufus Wainwright, by the way…)  This worked pretty well for me.  I found that my sentences responded to what I was hearing from my computer speakers.

Okay, so listening to sentences and language is one thing.  There is another aspect of listening for a writer that goes beyond what’s on the page.  I’m thinking of a story Peter Rollins tells in his latest book, The Idolatry of God, where he’s proving that we impose so much onto conversations that we risk closing ourselves off to what the person speaking is actually saying.  He used an example where his friend, who was considering getting a divorce, said that he didn’t want to hurt the children in the same way his parents hurt him and his siblings when they were kids.  Peter Rollins instinctively thought that the guy was posing an argument against his decision to get a divorce–that the guy was saying that going through his parents’ divorce was really difficult.  Later, Rollins realized that the guy’s parents were still married; he completely misheard the guy because he was listening to what he figured the guy was saying, rather than what he was actually saying.

I find this useful in thinking about writing.  I’m a more mystical type of writer, and by that I mean, I believe that writing is more like uncovering something that’s there than filling up an empty void with words. That’s why, again, I like to think of writing as an act of discovery. Sometimes this uncovering takes a few drafts to get it right.  Once we know what’s there, then we can tweak the language to suit it best.  The language then, its nuances, rhythms, serve the work and the work itself is what we are uncovering.

I blame Madeleine L’Engle for these crazy ideas.  And Julia Cameron and Steven Pressfield, who I’ve been reading lately.  Listening is how we tap into whatever is inside urging us to write (the child of a few posts back).  It’s also how we connect our story to a larger conversation.  We have to listen to what’s in and outside of us, paying close attention, if we want to write great works.

I was listening to this song while I wrote this post, which happens to mention listening in its chorus.  Coincidence?

Thought for Day 25: What to Write About

This thought comes, again, from Steven Pressfield’s THE WAR OF ART.

I have noticed two major terms writers like to use when insulting other writers:  hack and precious.  I’m not exactly sure what precious means, except I get the impression that it has something to do with the kind of writing one associates with greeting cards.  I’m positive that it is always a matter of taste and opinion because I heard someone call Italo Calvino precious and Italo Calvino is a god.  See what I mean:

Precious, again, is a matter of opinion.

Hack, I understand, especially because Pressfield lays it out for us at the end of this book:

A hack writes hierarchically.  He writes what he imagines will play well in the presence of others.  He does not ask himself, What do I myself want to write?  What do I think is important? Instead he asks, What’s hot? What can I make a deal for?

(152).

Hacks sound pretty smart to me but I still don’t want to be one.  Hence, my poverty.

I found, during my MFA, that I can’t commit to a project that makes me feel like a hack.  I wrote about 200 pages of a novel and then stopped because I let someone see it who said that the writing was unimaginative.  That scared me, because imagination is a pretty big part of my (and your) identity as a writer.  If he was wrong, which I don’t think he was, I think I would have felt that and persisted.  I knew instead that he was right, that I wasn’t at all connected to the language in the book I was writing because I wasn’t really writing it from that, “I must write this!” place.  I didn’t care that much about the characters.  The situation, though interesting, was not really something that I felt like my life’s journey has given me authority over.

Today’s thought is about what to write.  Your intro to creative writing class taught you to write what you know.  I don’t like that phrase much.  Instead, I think “write what you’re obsessed with” is better advice.

If you’re obsessed with something, if there is a sliver of a narrative that you overheard one day and think about once or twice a week, you know enough about it to write about it.  You don’t have to know everything about what you’re going to write.  That’s why I don’t like the advice to write what you know.  Writing is an act of discovery, by gosh, and nothing is more dull than reading a narrative from the perspective of a “know-it-all.”

No. Write what you’re obsessed with.

Write what you need to know more about.  Write about what makes you curious.

My novel that I’m working on now came to me when a mentor asked, “What do you wish you could find on the shelf at a bookstore? Write that.”

There was a time when I only wanted to read the kind of novel I was writing, but due to personal experiences/circumstances/tragedies at the time, I knew that the book I was working on was the last thing I’d go to the bookstore to read.  I needed something funnier.  I needed something more triumphant, more strange, more delightful than what I was working on.

I spent a day grieving.  Deciding to put a novel down for a while (or perhaps drop all together) that you’ve worked on for 200 pages feels like taking a puppy into a field and shooting it in the head because it has some strange disease that you can’t afford to cure.  It’s awful.

I’m guessing that there will be a time, or five times, this current project will seem like a diseased puppy to me.  But I’ve already written a draft, so I am more confident that I have what I need to cure the puppy.  I have more in stock now, I mean. More tools to fix it.*

Plus, I have made it through a full draft so I know that enough about it works to keep going. (I ditch drafts a lot.  A LOT. I don’t recommend that, necessarily, but I also won’t say it’s something I don’t do a lot.)

*That paragraph is for the record.  Please remind me of this post when I start talking about my novel like it’s a diseased puppy.

Thoughts for Days 23 & 24: Your Inner-Artist is a Child & Don’t Flake

Today’s two thoughts are related.

1. Your Inner-Artist is a Child.*

*If you are one of those people who hates children but likes puppies, please free to think of your inner-artist as a puppy instead.

2. Don’t Flake (on your child).

Okay, so number one comes from Julia Cameron’s philosophy on being an artist.  She says that you need to treat your inner-artist (the writer inside) like a child.  Like a child, your writing needs to be nurtured, not just yelled at sometimes.  You must find ways to make corrections without hurting the child too much.  You are aware that you can abuse the child and that the child can grow up all messed up because you let someone else come too close to and abuse it. You have to protect the inner artist child. You also need to have fun with the child. You are aware that your child needs time to play. You need to let the child be funny sometimes and serious at other times. You are also aware that sometimes your child is crabby but that time-outs are a little more civil than beating the child up for punishment.  You must feed the child.  You must give the child a nap to reboot. 

Most of all, you acknowledge that your child is growing–it’s not right now where it is going to be one day.

Once we have that idea down, it’s really important that we learn how not to flake on this child.

This is thought two, by the way. 

Maybe we shouldn’t make promises to our inner-artists.  Maybe we shouldn’t say, “Just you and me, we’re going to work together all day Saturday” if we are going to something else all day–like play with Facebook instead. But the better case scenario is that we teach the child that we can make promises and keep them.  That teaches the child to trust what we say.

Imagine if you had a child who was waiting for the two of you to interact and you were just getting drunk every time you said you were going to hang with them, or just hanging out with your friends all the time instead, saying, “I’ll get to you next week! Next week! I promise!”

I have a special sensitivity about flakes, which comes from the facts that a) I’ve dated a couple and they drove me up the wall and b) my dad taught me to hate flakiness as a profound statement of disrespect.  My dad is always, always on time.  He was also a fireman for thirty years.  In Detroit.

Anyway, in grad school it’s really very easy to be a flake.  We all, from time to time, say we’re coming to something and do not show.   Maybe we just forgot, but we probably didn’t.  We’re just too busy and stressed and too lazy to give the host of the party a heads-up that no, we’re actually not going to make it over.  Again, thanks to my dad, this drives me up the wall.  I hate feeling like anyone is wasting my time.

(I have learned, however, that bringing a book wherever you go is a really good antidote to feeling like your time is wasted while you’re waiting for someone or something to happen.)

I do my best not to flake.  I really do.  I try not to say I’m coming unless I know I can be there.  I try to apologize to those whose readings I’ve missed.  If I change my mind about whether I can go to something, I try to let the host know as soon as possible.  If I have to pull out of an event, I try to set up an appointment right away.  I really try to be where I said I was going to be at the time I said I was going to be there. 

Unfortunately, I do have a gene from my mother’s side of the family that gives me a poor sense of time. Great sense of rhythm, poor sense of time.  Several of us on that side are naturally late to everything–especially the ones who dedicate more time to their artistic side (we are all artists on that side of the family, although not everyone puts that art into practice. Ebbs and flows for most of us.) 

It’s like a war against my genes inside–I feel awful for being late but then, ah! I can’t help it! I’m late! 

It’s stressful.

All of this is to say that I had a pretty humbling experience this week when I came down hard on someone for being a flake and then realized that I am a flake to myself.  To promise myself I’ll do something (like start jogging this summer and quit smoking, or to stop eating sugar because it destroys my mind and makes me crazy) and then not do it is the same as flaking on myself. 

I promise myself I’ll write and then I don’t.

If you’re a writer, I think you understand what if feels like to neglect your writing.  It’s more than guilt.  It feels like this kid is inside:

He’s ready to go. He’s got his cape on and everything.

Our inner artist children are also probably quicker to forgive us than most grown-ups.   If we do neglect the child, we can apologize, move on, and recognize that our pattern of behavior is deeply going to affect the child.

But we can change the pattern. We can always change the pattern.

Thought for Day 22: Surviving

Sometimes we don’t feel like writing because life gets in the way.  It is precisely for this reason that we have this song:

Push play.  Shake it out.

Laugh at this lyric: “I’m not going to diss you on the internet because my momma taught me better than that.”

Now get to work.