Thought for Day 17 & 18: Don’t Fake It

Authenticity is one of my favorite words.  The people I get along with most are the ones that I feel like I don’t have to hide anything from.  I don’t like hiding things.

Lucinda Williams, that blues-americana goddess, is a great example of artistic authenticity.  If you want to “hear” authenticity, hit the play button.

I just want to live the life I please/I don’t want no enemies/I don’t want nothin’ if I have to fake it.

You don’t have to fake it, Lucinda. You prove that very well.

And so it goes with writing.  Especially with writing fiction, which calls us to be more authentic than ever because we have to persuade the reader that the story they are reading is true.  Not real, but true.  There is a distinction and it’s our job to search out what that distinction is, exactly.

Part of being an authentic writer is to be honest with ourselves about where our story is at.  We can’t fix its problems if we don’t acknowledge them.  This means that when we get a critique, we allow ourselves to be pissed for a few hours/days/months until that negative energy rolls away and leaves behind a constructive thought we can take to the revision.

It also means that we are honest with our drafts about the paragraphs we’ve stuck there as place-holders so we can bypass the hard scenes to write–the ones that make us uncomfortable.  Often those paragraphs are full of inauthentic sentences.

If you’ve taken a fiction workshop, you’ll know that a lot of time is spent on logic.  Our colleagues scan our work with a BS radar and look for places where it seems like we’ve bent the truth to get through a scene that we don’t feel comfortable writing. Writing takes courage, folks.  Meanwhile, our colleagues mark our drafts for the sentences that don’t convince them. (Robert Olen Butler, by the way, is a genius at this. I got to take a five person workshop with him here at FSU and he would go through our drafts, sentence by sentence, and point out where the words lost their contact with authenticity. It’s on the shortlist for best workshop I’ve ever taken.)

Part of the fiction writer’s job is to convince the reader, and that doesn’t come from learning how to lie real well.  It comes from being as authentic as possible on the page.

Oh, and being authentic off the page is good practice for nailing authentic sentences.

Thought for Day 16: Keep the Drama on the Page.

This was my favorite part of Julia Cameron’s THE RIGHT TO WRITE (which I am about to finish after I write this post). She says:

For a writer, personal drama is the drink of creative poison.  For a writer, the willing engagement in power struggles is an act of creative sabotage

(p. 41).

This is the truth.  We are living in world of crazy people–all people are crazy. It’s true! All people are self-absorbed. Especially artists. Especially talented ones. You included. Me included.  That doesn’t mean we have to contribute to the world’s craziness.  Our writing can and should bring order to this–help us process and perhaps contribute to the eradication of all hate and harm by acknowledging hate and harm, by getting a handle on it.  If you must act on drama, journal about it.  Save it for your characters’ conflicts.

We don’t have a choice about whether drama will get into our lives but we can learn how to deal with it before it takes over us and prevents us from writing. Here are three ways we can keep drama from interfering with our work:

1. Do our best to avoid it. 

We can start by being careful how we handle other people–especially in romantic/physical situations.  In all of our relationships, romantic or otherwise, avoiding drama looks like keeping other people’s best interests at heart. Pretty simple.  This doesn’t always work, though. People lie. People keep important information from us.  Even so, a lot of drama can be avoided if we go at the world with our best intentions.

2. Be aware of our own power trips.

Writing can help us acknowledge when we feel powerless.  Sometime we will. This is just going to happen.  But by acknowledging this, we can prevent ourselves from using whatever power we have  to harm others.

Do harm to your characters instead. It will make for a much more interesting story.

3. Rise above criticism.

People are going to say mean things to us, or mean things about our writing. Not all criticism is constructive.  But an important aspect of being a writer is having a thick enough skin to sort through criticism and pull out the constructive stuff.

4. Remember that people are time and energy.

Avoid the ones that waste your time and energy.  That doesn’t mean you have to be mean to them.  (See #1). Be respectful.  Love everyone. Even so, loving everyone doesn’t mean handing over your time and energy for them to sabotage it. Sometimes the most loving thing you can to for a person is to leave them alone to their own devices.  Loving someone sometimes means acknowledging that you can’t fix them. It means letting them learn how to fix themselves after you’ve treated them with your best intentions. Ultimately,  you choose who you spend time with and who you think about.

Got drama? Shake it off. Bring it to God, if you are prone to do such a thing. Acknowledge when you need to ask for forgiveness from folks.  Don’t expect anyone to apologize to you when they have hurt you. No matter what, know that you are bigger, more complex, more beautiful than whatever is trying to get in and sabotage your work.  Ultimately, we decide what to worship (what to give power to).

For more information, listen to David Foster Wallace’s speech to Kenyon College:

Thought for Day 15: Find a Rhythm.

I used to be a tap dancer. Not one of those jazz-hands tap dancers.  My tap teacher’s name was Otis Brown and the last thing he let his students be was stiff.  He never told us to smile.  He is on my shortlist for favorite people I’ve ever met, though, because he was seriously as cool as his name suggests.

I’m thinking about him and tap dancing because I’ve lost my writing rhythm this week.  It’s the first time I can remember (and this sort of shocks me, given that I’ve been writing semi-consistently for about a dozen years) that I’ve actually felt the urge to have a regular writing rhythm. I’m pretty good at binge writing (talkin’ 20 pages a day during spring break blues…)  But now, without a deadline, I want to hunker down and make myself write regularly.

Here’s a few tips I’m giving you and myself about how to find a writing rhythm, inspired by my tap dancing years. (Side note: I confess I still tap out those routines I learned. I tap when I’m standing in lines or I’m alone in elevators, or with my index and middle fingers on my right hand when I’m bored).

1. Listen for the rhythm.

This translates to being honest about our schedules and finding a writing time that we can actually manage to keep.  We might have to start slow (single time step, y’all), before we can tackle more extensive routines. Nothing helps me feel more like a writer than when I actually keep the writing time I scheduled.

2. Adapt when the rhythm changes.

This translates to acknowledging that change happens.  In a tap routine, this is a very good thing because it keeps the dance interesting.  In a writing schedule, this is a very frustrating thing that makes me want to pull out all my hair.  But I’m saying, let’s keep our hair on our heads and be gracious to ourselves when we have to switch it up a little.  The most important thing is that we write.

3. If you lose the rhythm, get back on track without showing it on your face.

Nobody will ever know if you don’t show it on your face.

And now, here’s my favorite tap dancer in the whole world (next to Otis Brown, of course), for a little inspiration to be awesome.

Thought for Day 14: Means to an End

A good friend told me this recently and I’ve been trying to pass it on to everyone I know:

As writers, or people who work in any field, we have a choice to make.  Either we see our work as an end or we see it as a means to a bigger end–something more significant, something larger about ourselves and the world we live in.

If our writing is the end, a bad review can destroy us.  A rejection letter can make us skip a meal (or waste an evening of sleep on a devoured tub of ice cream–pick your grieving style). If someone tears our work apart, we might quit the work all together.

If writing is a means to an end, and not the end itself, then we can take criticism, no problem.  Our story draft is a stab at something bigger.  We write, we enjoy the process of writing, and then we close our computers/notebooks and call it a day.  It’s a better day because we’ve written.  Hopefully we’ve made a discovery or two in the process that keeps us joyful, or at the very least, inquisitive.

If our writing is a means, we don’t beat ourselves up or get discouraged because we didn’t hit a certain word count or time stretch that we’ve made for a day’s goal.  We can say, well, there’s always tomorrow. Tomorrow our work will be waiting for us, that means to a bigger end.

Of course we should write the best we can.  Of course we should put as much of us into our work as we can manage.  But we don’t do this because the work itself brings ultimate satisfaction.  We do this because the work brings us toward something bigger.

What is that bigger thing?  Well, isn’t that what we’re all here to try and figure out?

Thought for Day 13: Embrace the Waste

I don’t know about other MFA fiction graduates, but I think the most daunting thing about not being in a workshop, and not having a committee waiting on a draft, is the fact that we have no deadlines. I’ve already written about this (Thought for Day Three), but today I’m thinking more about how the lack of having a deadline changes my attitude towards writing.  Here’s my thought: embrace the waste.

(Just like it says on the title for this post!)

This thought came to me after reading Dorothy Allison’s interview in a book called Novel Ideas.  Allison talks about different tricks she uses in taking a fresh look at her manuscript for a revision.  She puts it down for a year.  She writes entire sections in a different perspective (character or narrative perspective, like from first to third).  She does a whole lot of writing and then tosses that writing away–none of it goes into the final draft.

I will remember my committee-chair (Elizabeth Stuckey-French) the most by one phrase she loved to say, again and again: “Try it and see where it goes.”  This is a lot easier to do when we don’t have a deadline approaching. (ESF taught a really good class about novel writing that I was super lucky to take. In fact, that class is why this Novel Ideas book is on my shelf.)

Maybe other people had different experiences as students, but I wrote with a lot of pressure to get it good the first time.  Not get it right, but get it good.  Get it good enough so it wouldn’t get slaughtered during workshop. I taught 45 students and was often taking three classes at a time while I was completing my MFA. I didn’t really have time to waste a lot of pages trying things.

Writing while a student has shaped my perspective in a bit of an unpractical sort of way: I feel like I have little sense of how much work actually goes into completing an entire book, especially a book that I want to be not only right and good, but amazing. I think a big part of writing an amazing book is allowing ourselves to try things and see what happens.

Let no possibility go unexplored.

This post, I suppose, is sort of a confession.  I suspect that if I were a better student (and I suspect that if I didn’t take the teaching so seriously, which I just could not figure out how to do), I would have made more time to waste pages.  Now, the ability to just write a bunch of pages for the mere act of discovery sounds like a tremendous gift.  Nobody’s waiting on my novel (except my close friends and family).  It feels luxurious.

It’s also really, really scary.

Being open to possibilities takes a lot of courage.  This is why, I believe, fundamentalism is closely related to fear. Any kind of fundamentalism, religious or secular.  Chin up, writers. And by writers, I mean me. Time to march into the unknown.  And by the unknown, I mean, the possibility of making a discovery while wasting a bunch of pages.

And waste is probably the wrong word.  Each sentence we write is productive, because it means, simply, that we are writing.  The only waste a writer has is the sort of muck/guilt/fear that piles up after not having written in a while.

Recommended Reading: Novel Ideas (Second Edition) by Barbara Shoup and Margaret-Love Denman, University of Georgia Press:  2009

Thought for Day 12: No Self Pity

The Miracle Worker, which I understand is the brunt of lots of our (US American) culture’s jokes, is one of the most important plays/movies for me.   The two protagonists, Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan, inspire me with their resilience.  Helen Keller’s thread is about her journey to discovering language.  Language, for her, is the door to God and freedom from the prison of her impairments.  After this deaf and blind kid made the connection that water is called water, she went on to write books and preach and have a whole public life of inspiring people.

It’s Annie Sullivan’s story, though, that is inspiring me today, particularly with a line she says in the play/movie, the best line, in my opinion: “No, no self pity. I won’t have it.”  This has got to be a mantra for us writers. We have a lot of reasons to pity ourselves but we must resist them all in order to write.

Watch this scene and see it as a metaphor for certain days of the writing life:

You, the writer, are Annie Sullivan.  If you’re going to be a writer, you have to have that kind of resilience.   You are not allowed to give up when you get your fifth rejection letter in one week.  You are not allowed to give up when somebody breaks your heart and you don’t feel like writing. You have to write when you’re tired.  You have to finish your current writing project, even when it seems like your writing project is scrambling up the chimney to get out of the room. You have to chase after your writing and sit your writing down to eat, even if it’s darting towards the door and collapsing beneath the dining room table kicking and grunting.  Sometimes writing feels like force-feeding a spoonful of eggs to a deaf and blind girl who is just about to spit the eggs in your face.   Writing, no matter what the form, is going to feel like this on some days. Be like Anne Sullivan. Deal with it.  And no self pity.

Thought for Day 11: Pay Attention.

This is my dog, Woody. He’s really good at paying attention.

I just finished The Day of The Locust by Nathaniel West, which is an example of telling a story through great details  (in this case, of faux-everything-Hollywood).

Next he came to a small pond with large celluloid swans floating on it. Across one end was a bridge with a sign that read, ‘To Kamp Komfit.’  He crossed the bridge and followed a little path that ended at a Greek temple dedicated to Eros.  The god himself lay face downward  in a pile of old newspapers and bottles.

–Chapter 18, page 126.

The book is full of descriptions like this: semi-cold language with stark images to carry the emotional weight.  The protagonist (Tod Hackett) is so out of touch with his feelings. He’s got strong feelings but no clue what to do with them.  He sort of reminds me of Pete Campbell from Mad Men in that regard.   It’s descriptions like these that really get the job done in terms of portraying the amount of despair this dude actually has in his life.

Strong sense of setting is of particular importance to me in my own writing.  Stories usually come to me first, not in terms of “who” (like we’re trained, usually, to start with), but more in terms of “where.”  I get a place, and then I try and figure out who is in that place and what they want.  I cannot separate people from their places.  I am only sharing this in order to acknowledge the fact that not every writer works this way and I get that.

Even so, I think we writers can benefit from emphasizing place in our stories because in order to do that, we have to train ourselves to pay attention to our surroundings.  Paying attention is an enormous part of being a writer, of course.  Listening, we hear about often.  Watching, not so much.  Or maybe I’ve just not encountered too much from writers about the importance of being watchful. Maybe being watchful just sounds creepy? Whatev.

I have a grandmother who is a painter. She painted until she was near 90, or maybe she painted after she was 90, I can’t remember–she actually might have started up again. It’s been a long time since I’ve been home.   She is pretty awesome for a lot of reasons but one of them is that when I used to drive her places, I’d be telling her about something and then she would interrupt me to point out cloud formations, or the amount of birds hanging out the telephone wire.

Now I’ll admit, I don’t pay attention as well as she does.  I think it was Flannery O’Connor who suggested writers take drawing lessons. That is a great idea.

(Ooh! If you know me and would like to buy me a gift, I would love another copy of Drawing from the Right Side of the Brain… I left mine in Bangkok with a friend because it was too heavy to take back to Detroit.  My birthday is coming up, you know. :D)

And I think it was Natalie Goldberg who offered the following meditation for connecting to our surroundings:

While traveling–walking, driving, riding along as a passenger–pick a color, say red. Next, note all the objects you see in red.  

So simple, right? But it definitely works wonders for helping me connect to a place. I did this a few times while I was working and living in Thailand and I recommend it to anyone traveling.  It’s especially useful when you are tired of wherever you are, or homesick, or just don’t want to be in a place. It cultivates appreciation, however bland a way it seems.

This year, I came up with a point distribution game for my walks to school (I live 19 minutes away walking from the campus where I got my MFA).  It goes like this:

While traveling–walking, driving, riding along as a passenger–allot a certain amount of points to everything you notice.  For instance, the coke can you you step over on the sidewalk might be worth two points but the Porky the Pig graffiti on the side of the gas station might be worth five.  

This second game is particularly nice for getting you out of your head if you’re battling some louder-than-comfortable thoughts.

It’s my belief that cultivating this kind of awareness not only gears us up for better writing, but an overall better quality of life, too.  If nothing else, it cultivates a nice amount of mischief.

(Yes I am aware I used the word “cultivate” three times in this post. Cultivate! See, that’s five…)

Thought for Day 10: Be Transformed

Writing is scary.  If you’re a writer, you know this.  Part of the reason it’s scary is because we always feel like we have to justify why we care about our work so much.  We have to be nuts to call ourselves writers and say writing is what we choose to do. Writing is hours of work that, to everyone else, goes nowhere.  But not to us. And if we keep at it, not to everyone else, either.

Here’s another reason writing is scary: it transforms us. In order to tell a good story, we have to create characters who transform by the end and we, the writers, are transformed in the process of creating our characters’ transformations.  Our readers must transform in order to fully grasp the story we’ve told.  To transform is to change and we resist change.  We want to be comfortable.  We want security.  We must resist these desires if we want to write down the masterpieces we’ve got spinning through our thoughts.  Writing makes us uncomfortable, if we’re doing it right, because we grow and change during our writing practice.

When we sit down to write, we have to be open to transformation.  We’ll never be the same as we were in those moments before we sat down to write.  But writing is good.  Change is good.  This transformation, ultimately, is the best thing our writing can offer us.

Thought for Day Nine: Mischief/Curiosity/Fascination

Mischief is one of my favorite things in the whole world.  I love mischievous characters.  (Amelie is one of my favorite movies for this reason among many.)  Mischief, in my definition, is when a person throws a bit of harmless havoc on the world, shakes things up a bit, in good fun.  Woody Guthrie, who I sometimes call St. Woody, has mischief all over his music. For instance, this line from his most famous song, THIS LAND IS YOUR LAND, that my elementary school music teacher (conveniently) left out when we sang it in her class:

As I was walking, I saw a sign there/and on that sign it said, NO TRESPASSING./  But on the other side, it didn’t say nothing./  That side was made for you and me.

As famous actor, Joel Mitchell would say: It’s funny because it’s true.

Mischief is funny because it’s surprising, and that surprise brings out in us a deep sense of truth while we’re caught off guard.  This, ultimately, is why I think mischief is good for stories.  We want our characters to surprise us while they are on the path to their MacGuffins. One way to make that happen is to give them a mischievous streak.  This is why Huck Finn is one of the greatest characters of all time, in case you were wondering.

My friend Bethany used to (don’t know if she does any more) have a magnet on her fridge from Thailand that read: Make yourself laugh once a day. Or something like that.  Super Jane Austen Scholar, Susan Morgan, recommended that we (her students) try to pull off a joke within each of our academic articles–one of the greatest and most fascinating pieces of advice I ever heard. (I think about the things Dr. Morgan said in her class at least twice a week. She definitely has a streak of healthy mischief in her pedagogy). I am crazy about both of these tips (Dr. Morgan’s & the magnet’s) because I think they foster a certain amount of healthy mischievousness.

Also, from my understanding, there is a fine line between mischievousness and curiosity. Writers need to stay curious all of the time.  If we don’t, our work becomes unbearable.  Also, people who aren’t that curious are pretty unbearable, amiright? Without curiosity, we have no fascination, and without fascination–in people, in our work, in the enormous floppy ears of our dogs we named after mischievous folk singers… Without fascination, what is the point?

Thought for Day Eight of Revise the Novel Month: All We Need…

Writers say this all the time and when they say it, they are so right:

… writing is best broken down into a one-day-at-a-time, one-page-at-a-time process. We do not need the courage to write a whole novel.  We need the courage only to write on the novel today.  We do not need the courage to finish and publish the novel all in one fell swoop. All we need is the courage to do the next right thing.  Today’s pages may yield tomorrow’s editing job and next month’s design job, but just for today, all we need to do is write.

Julia Cameron, THE RIGHT TO WRITE (191).

For more information, read this again: