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When Everyone Wins

I teach creative writing at an education co-op my teenagers attend. I don’t love teaching. I do it because it means I don’t have to pay my kids’ tuition. But it’s offered more benefits than free classes, it turns out.

I hate colored pencils.

I’ve leveled up in my writing this year. Part of that is likely due to better discipline in my daily writing habits and partly to attending what I call the School of Revision. But I’ve come to believe it’s also due to grading the creative writing assignments I’ve given my students. I’ve had to explain to them how to make their stories better, how to write with more nuance and subtlety, how not to resort to stereotypes and cliches. I’ve had to figure how to say things so they make sense to kids who haven’t read endless craft books like I have. It’s helped me pay better attention to my own writing weaknesses and capitalize on my strengths.

I don’t know why this comes as a surprise–because it’s not like I haven’t heard that teaching is learning. Maybe it’s because I assume things are true for other people but might not be true for me. Whatever. I don’t care. I’m just feeling humbled and thankful that I grew in my craft while I was busy helping others. Win/win.

On Inching Forward

Today I signed with the literary agent I’d been hoping to partner with. She warned me my manuscript would need work, that I’d have to be open-minded and teachable in continuing to shape it. I’m nervous about what I don’t know, but I told her I believe in my story–and I believe in hard work. So here’s to the next stage in the process.

I need this button.

Writing (and Living) on Purpose

Those who know me well know I’m a little crazy for Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor. I’m reading a new biography of her life and work, and I’m struck by how single-minded she was about calling her creative vision into reality. She didn’t allow herself to be distracted by things of lesser importance. She didn’t mess around with drugs and experimental living. She understood what she wanted to get across, and she realized the only way to accomplish her writing goals was by being disciplined in her daily habits. O’ Connor destroys the cliche of the tortured, vice-addicted artist. She proves sober people can produce excellent work, too.

And another thing: O’Connor believed in giving herself the time to get her writing right. She worked and reworked her genre-busting novel Wise Blood several times before publishing it–both listening to, and rejecting, criticism of it at various stages. She allowed herself to work slowly and meticulously until she was satisfied with what she’d produced. As a writer living in a culture that glorifies instant success, I’m heartened when I retrace her literary steps. I’m reminded that dedication to good writing means ignoring the push to produce more and move faster.

Clarity of vision, personal discipline, and perseverance may not be sexy, but Flannery O’Connor’s short life prove that they are the keys to producing something of value while living according to one’s values. Whatever else one might say about her, she lived and wrote on purpose. That’s what I want to do, too.

On Shutting Up

I’m a talker, as my family can tell you. As a kid, I forced my younger sisters to be cohosts in my homemade talkshows (full productions, mind you, with commercials and teasers). When I wasn’t hunched in front of a tape recorder, I was cobbling together plays and giving myself the most lines or putting my Barbies between a rock and a hard place and making them talk their way out.

Oh! And I’ve always loved a good argument. I distinctly remember insisting to my mother that one thousand is greater than one million (she closed her eyes before I’d finished).

More words than bangs, even.

This kid has some thoughts to share.

Fast forward to now. While I (mostly) know how to curb my verbal enthusiasm as an adult, I still love a good debate. Or  an impassioned monologue. Or a play. I listen to an ever-increasing line-up of podcasts and dream of hosting my own someday. I explain my teenagers to death. I give my husband the backstory.

Increasingly, though, I’m convinced that the way to be a good human (and storyteller) is to be a good listener.

Of course, listening to other people carries some risk. I might hear something I don’t like, for instance. I might have to give up an opportunity to argue my point or to correct someone’s misunderstanding. I might feel uncomfortable, for crying out loud.

But it’s the only way to grow in empathy. And to become a better listener, one needs to practice. I figure it’s a skill like anything else, and one of the ways I’m developing it is by reading voices different from my own and attempting to understand where they’re coming from. It feels less intimidating than sitting across from someone and staring into her eyes while she pours her heart out (though I’m trying to do that, too). Yes, I think reading is helping me listen better. I think it is. I hope. (You can ask my teenagers).

What about you? Are you a good listener? Do you seek out perspectives different from your own and try to understand them?

Ride This One Out

I came across this poem today (thanks, Rod Dreher). I’m trying to ride out some specific things in my tiny world, so it seems especially apt. Maybe it comforts you, too?

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Ride This One Out

Ride this one out, as you have done before.
Batten down what can be battened. Reef
What can be reefed, avoid the white sea-shore,
Do not expect a rescue or relief.

Endurance is its own kind of relief.
The other ships are sinking. You must be
Hope’s light for them, the north star of belief,
Time’s substitute for lost eternity.

And so resist the onslaught of sad thoughts,
That useless, wavering activity
Of mind stretched to its raveled uttermost.
Resist the hopeless cries, the grim reports.
Resist the landsman’s way, to hate the sea.
And hold on for the final sunlit coast.

Frederick Turner

 

Stranger Than Fiction

Once again, I just got around to watching a movie others had seen years ago–this time, Stranger Than Fiction with Emma Thompson and Will Ferrell. (For the two of you who haven’t seen it, I won’t include spoilers). I’ve gotta admit, while the film has its flaws, it’s stuck with me for over a week.

The story is an unusual one. An author who’s suffering from writer’s block attempts to create a character who will live an ordinary life and then die at the end of the novel. A problem arises when the character becomes a real person who can hear the author narrating his life in third person. When he discovers he’s in a story he isn’t creating–and that he’ll most likely meet a heartbreaking, artistic demise–he must learn to advocate for his own life. He must confront his author.

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The movie delves into questions about the nature of human existence and the artist’s imperative. For instance, do we own our stories, or do they live outside us? As writers, how often do we indulge ourselves by crafting stories that feel like an approximation of truth–but, in the end, rely on cynicism or well-worn tropes? Also, who’s writing the writers’ lives?

Your life?

The movie’s also about depression, about what can happen to art when an artist has lost hope. It made me think about the characters I’ve created. What would I say to them if they stood before me? Would they appreciate the endings I’ve given their stories? Would they agree that I’ve said true things? That I’ve been fair?

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I don’t know. I think so.

Stranger Than Fiction caused me to re-examine my commitment to creating worlds where both good and bad things happen, worlds where there’s danger and sorrow, sure, but also hope. It made me want to keep on saying the truest things I know how to say.

I owe that to my myself, my readers, and to those people whose stories I write down.

 

Hurry Up and Wait

I sent my novel to an agent on Friday. She’d requested the full manuscript, and I’d worked all through the holiday season to get it ready because I told her I would. I ended up making my goal just after the New Year and was ready to ship it. Before hitting send, I re-read the first few pages, just to, you know, tweak it a thing or two.

Then something happened. I kept tweaking, page after page after page. Before I knew it, the first of the year had turned into the middle of January. Then the third week (heaven help me).

I started freaking out. I was going past the “deadline” I’d given myself and the agent. But the more I edited, the more I thought, “I’m so glad I’m doing this. I didn’t notice that plot hole the second time around. How could I not have seen that??” Also, I thought, “This will never end. I’m in writer purgatory.”

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Anyway, I got through those edits and, this time, I ran spell check and hit send before I could go crazy again.

Now my novel sits in the ether, and I sit on my bed with no pressing deadlines and, therefore, no raison d’etre (kidding, kind-of). It’s true I don’t know what to do with myself now that I have nothing to do but wait.

This is how it is in so much of life–work and then wait. Work and then wait some more. Knowing this is completely normal helps me get through. I’m telling myself as long as the waiting doesn’t involve tons of Twitter, I might just be okay.

Saying Yes to We

I’m something of a loner–not a complete hermit, mind you (though I eat in my bedroom, sometimes)–but someone who, shall we say, enjoys her solitude. That’s not likely to change any time soon. And yet I’ve been thinking about the trap of spending too much time in one’s own mind. Is it possible I could get lost in my head?

My sisters had an idea of collaborating on a blog where we share ongoing, three-way conversations about life. Committing to it would, of course, mean sharing creative control. It would mean responding to something other than my own whimsy. It might be complicated. But could it keep me grounded?

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And then I watched this documentary about two people who wanted to “explore” their own minds (in, admittedly, controversial ways). One of them ended up making a train wreck out of his family life. The other managed to stay engaged in the physical world even after wacky forays into his own mental “universe.”

The whole thing felt like a giant parable: If you stay in your mind you will fail the people you love. If you never press in further than your to-do list, however, you will not truly live.

Back to my bedroom: I can only spend so much time here. I can only spend so many hours musing, writing, letting my eyes blur. I need time to think and pray, of course. But too much time in this isolated space is dangerous–not just for me but for the ones I love.

So I said yes to the collaborative blog. I don’t know what we’ll end up saying, exactly. But, at the very least, it’ll be a conversation, not a monologue. And that’s a good place to start.

The Misery of Writing For Others

I was the last person in America to have never seen the movie version of Stephen King’s Misery. Last week, my sister recommended it to me because, she said, it’s hilarious.

Remembering It and Cujo, I was a little skeptical, but I trust this girl’s judgement implicitly.

“It will not remotely push you over the edge,” she said. “There’s a little gore at the end, but it’s cheesy.”

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Good, because you know I can’t do lifelike horror, I said.

I rented the movie, and she was right. It was darkly hilarious. Also, it was a warning to writers everywhere: Write for yourself or die.

The age-old argument remains alive on the internet, though. You should

  • Write what you want. Anything else is selling out.
  • Write what THEY want and sell books for $$ (but maybe not like it).
  • Write what YOU want but don’t expect anyone to read your endless dream sequences.

Stephen King has managed to write what people like and what he likes, I guess. Above all, though, he seems to be saying, go with your gut when it comes to writing or the whole business may end up killing you (or at least breaking your ankles).

Noted, Stephen. Noted.

 

If You Can’t Write Anything Useful, Don’t Write Anything at All

It’s popular, in some circles, to deny the existence of writer’s block.

Butt in chair! Don’t wait for the muse! Treat writing like a job! they say.

They’re mostly right. Writers can usually conquer the blank screen by typing words in succession, asking ourselves what if? and then what happened? We can work ourselves out of a jam. That is, if we’re writing fiction.

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You know when this “just do it” stuff doesn’t work–at least for me? When it comes to blogging.

I think the reason for this is that the blogging world has become so crowded that, if you do have a blog  and you want people to read what you write, you feel an enormous pressure to say something useful. Give readers a takeaway, an actionable step.

Right now.

I see a lot of bloggers copying other bloggers’ “useful ideas,” almost verbatim, because they’ve bought into this idea that the appearance of added value is more important than any sort of originality or creativity. The way to get readers, they’ve been told, is to do how-to posts.

  • Short ‘n’ sweet
  • Bullet points.
  • Two picture minimum.

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I, for one, cannot force myself to say something useful. Sometimes I do, but it’s often by accident. So I stare at the blank screen. I can’t think of a single thing to say that someone hasn’t already said.

This is not useful. There is nothing to take away.

But it’s true.