Saturday, March 20, 2010

Keeping energized about your writing

My good friend Diane and I are on a mini-vacation at my sister’s home in Mosier, Oregon, a little orchard town about an hour from Portland. I’m cat-sitting for my brother-in-law who’s headed off to the California deserts to photograph the spring flowers. Diane and I get to hang out in their gorgeous home and read and write to our hearts’ content (and play some canasta when we need a break).

Diane has just finished her first novel and is casting about for the next project. For the last year or so, her book was more work than fun as she did a lot of rewrites, got it edited, worked with the edits, wrote pitch letters, and started shopping for agents. The excitement of the plot unfolding, the characters revealing themselves, the ideas of how to move things along and what twists and turns to add, all of that faded in the seemingly endless editing and proofing.

While some of that is still going on, she is ready to turn her attention to something new. That sounds simple, but it isn’t necessarily. When you’ve been immersed in one project for years (7 for Diane), moving on seems hard to imagine.

Diane’s not one who lacks for ideas, and that in itself may be a problem. How do you focus when the possibilities are both numerous and open-ended. I suggested she begin by making a list of possible projects. It’s a fun game to play and something in particular may just say to her: Pick me!

Here’s the idea:

If you were going to write a Broadway musical, what would it be about?
An historical novel?

An epic poem?

An opera libretto?

A collection of short poems?

A memoir?

A biography?

A book of related essays?

A genre novel?

The text for a coffee table book of photos?

A self-help book?

A spiritually based book?

A daily meditation book?

A book on health?

A screenplay?

A documentary?

You get the picture. All the ideas that come are valid. You can have more than one possibility for each category. Share your list with us if you decide to play.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Jake's Place

My old cat Jake died today, moved on to whatever's next. I found this writing when I was looking through some old pieces. It's a true story and it will have to do for today.

There’s a bar in Austin called Jake’s Place. Pete, the bartender, is too young to remember Jake. In fact, no one who frequents the place remembers a Jake. There was a rumor for a while that Jake was the owner’s dog, a brown mutt with a bad ear, but maybe that was a description of the original Jake. No one knew anymore.

In Austin on business, John wandered into Jake’s late one afternoon. He usually just went to the hotel bar—it was easier to talk to other business travelers than to locals, but that day the hotel bar had been full of convention-goers and it was noisy and unpleasant. So he’d wandered a few of the streets in the old part of town looking for a convivial spot. And he ended up in Jake’s.

John drank the first vodka on the rocks by himself. Pete was a good listener—he had that bartender’s knack—but he wasn’t a good conversationalist and John found it easier to keep his own company.

After a while, he noticed another fellow a few seats down the bar. He was about John’s age, in an expensive suit and even more expensive silk tie. His body language was relaxed and approachable. John slid over three stools and started up a conversation. He turned out to be an estate lawyer in town himself on business. The recently deceased client had no heirs and his affairs were in disorder. He was on his way out to the property to see what was what.

A second drink together led to a fifth, and their conversation turned to wagers and risks.

“What say I give you all the cash I have on me,” John said, pulling out his wallet and laying $400 in 50’s and 20’s on the bar, “for whatever lies behind door #3 in the garage?”

The second man, also named John, laughed. “You sure? I have no idea what’s out there.”

“I’m sure,” my father said. And he drove that silver Jaguar XKE all the way home to Portland.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Convergence of ideas: Making meaning

A half-dozen things in my life have converged over the past week to make me acutely conscious of the meaning we make as human beings. On Valentine's Day this year, I gave up using sugar as a sedative, another step in my desire to live life on life's terms, as we say in AA. Escaping addiction is almost impossible if we don't find meaning in our lives, our relationships, our beliefs, our creative work, in something that sustains us. And so my quest for meaning in my life has taken on a heightened intensity. I'm seeking that sense of satisfaction, of contentment that comes from being engaged in the meaningful.

Adding to this is a marvelous book my spiritual director recommended, one that had been sitting unread on my shelf for at least a decade: Victor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning. Frankl talks about the existential vacuum, where nothing seems worth living for and how our current society fills that vacuum with acquisition of goods and with distractions, both technological and pharmaceutical.

The third piece of this for me are two classes I'm currently taking with creativity coach Eric Maisel, both of which are hinging on the meaningful in art-making. "What would constitute a meaningful project for me?" and "What is meaningful work?" are our two questions for contemplation this week. These are important issues for all of us, and they seem particularly important to me as a writer, creative, and creativity coach.

Jonathan Franzen noted that fiction that isn't an author's personal adventure into the frightening or the unknown isn't worth writing for anything but money. I can see how this is related to the novel I'm currently working on. I'll share more about this tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Writing and well-being

I had lunch this week with a writer friend. We talked about our current projects. She mentioned that she was having trouble staying connected with the revising of her novel, even though she was spending many hours a day. When she mentioned that she'd given up her exercise program, both through inertia and time constraints, I had to bite my tongue.

Writing of all sorts is hard work. It's not just mentally hard, working your right and left brains in coordinated fashion, but also physically hard, as most writing occurs sitting down. And often sitting for long periods. This is hard on us human creatures, who were intended to move and stretch and reach and bend and be active.

So let me put in a plug for regular exercise as part of your writing/creative life. Some early advocates of writing like Brenda Ueland and Dorothea Brande believed that any plot difficulty could be worked out in the writer's daily walk of 5 or 6 miles. Even at a good clip, that's more than an hour of fresh air, natural stimulation, movement, deep breathing, and reverence, if you're so inclined.

I've been going to the gym four or five times a week for many years. I do the treadmill, back and abdominal exercises, life weights for arms and back and shoulders. I have a buddy and we go. Do I enjoy it? No. But I always feel better for going. When I'm away on writing retreats, I talk a walk or two on the beach or through the country nearly every day. There's something "sortative" about walking. It's a chance to think and resolve issues, to sort things out. And it makes sitting easier to handle. I always come back with a renewed spirit.

So whether you write (or paint or sculpt or pot or weave) for long periods of time or briefly each day, I recommend paying attention to the body's needs for food, rest, and exercise.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Do it every day

Geoff Dyer: “Do it every day. Make a habit of putting your observations into words and gradually this will become instinct.”

Several weeks ago, I wrote about my resistance to writing every day. And the truth is I do write every day. Every morning for years and years, I’ve been writing for 30-60 minutes in my journal. It’s mostly stream of consciousness, morning-pages meditation à la Julia Cameron. My day feels off without it, my day is centered with it. It’s a way to discharge feelings from the day before, record bits of events and ruminations, and if I ever chose to reread any of them, it probably holds some important clues to the patterns I’m stuck in. But it’s not creative work, not the writing work I want to be doing more and more of. It’s not keeping my characters and their struggles foremost in my mind as I go through my day.

Other advice says to carry a small notebook, jot down words, phrases, ideas for stories, for characters, for plots. Keep the writing going all day long. And I do this when I’m on writing retreat, when writing is my only life. Maybe I’m wanting writing to be my only life.

From Anne Enright: “Remember, if you sit at your desk for 15 or 20 years, every day, not counting weekends, it changes you. It just does. It may not improve your temper, but it fixes something else. It makes you more free.”

Monday, March 15, 2010

What to do with input

From British author Neil Gaiman: “When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

I concur 100 percent. When readers or listeners to my work have a sense that something is off in a passage or a chapter but they’re not sure what, I listen carefully and make a note. Most often, I’ve had the same sensation myself, and their perception is a good confirmation. Other times, it alerts me to something that is landing wrong or is unclear or “clunky” and when I go back, I find that that is so. Seldom is that advice wrong.

However, when readers land on a word or phrase they don’t like and want to suggest a remedy, I listen politely, give it a moment’s consideration, and then, most often, I just let it go. I assume they have some other idea in mind for that character or that bit of a dialog, and they can use that in their own book if they want to. A good friend heard me read a chapter from my current work-in-progress and she got absolutely stuck on the word “duvet” in this sentence: “Out the window, a duvet of fog had moved into the garden.” She thought the word jangled with the simpler language I’d been using earlier in the chapter. So I gave it some thought, took it out, rewrote the sentence. But then it nagged at me. Fog is a central image of this book, and its “duvetness” was important to me. So I put it back.

I’ve gotten more and more savvy about taking feedback. I take notes when people talk to me about my manuscript or respond to a reading I’ve done in a support group. I love their praise and I also love their ideas. That’s really what I want—ideas I can spark off of, not minute changes I can make to wording. I need to trust my own word choices but other people’s ideas, they can send me into a reverie of imaginative creativity that I wouldn’t have gone to otherwise.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Giving feedback

Yesterday I wrote about getting input on your writing. Here’s the flip side: giving input, especially to friends and writing colleagues, the most likely people to ask you.

There are few things more fraught with tension in the writing world than to be asked to read a friend’s manuscript—and it turns out to be awful. In my post of March 11, I wrote about non-writers trying to tell their often fascinating stories in poorly written books. You may well know some of these folks who’ve had amazing lives, amazing experiences, and have no clue how to create a book about them and are doing it anyway. And sometimes they want you to read those no-clue-how-to-do-it books. You want to help, you want to be kind, and you don’t want to lie. What’s a friend to do?

First, be sure you are a good reader for the story. Just because you’re a writer doesn’t mean you’d ever pick this book up off a bookstore table. Is this genre, this story something that would interest you? If not, say so. “You know, I never read memoir. Just doesn’t really interest me. You’ll do better with a reader who is into that genre.”

Second, are you distanced enough from the friend to be able to provide feedback? If no, again excuse yourself. “I’m just too close to you and this story. I can’t bring any objectivity to the reading.”

But if you are the right kind of reader and your friendship won’t get in the way, ask for specific questions. What exactly does the writer want in terms of feedback? Is she interested in a sentence-level text edit? If that’s an area of expertise for you and you’re willing to volunteer your time, go for it; if not, suggest she hire a professional editor. Is she interested in what could improve the story or argument, the exercises or characters, the activities or dialog? You can make a list of gentle suggestions. But I don’t advise going into it without clarifying with the author what would be most helpful.

The most delicate issue is around encouragement. Each of us has a right to use our ability with words and ideas to express ourselves. Writing is a wonderful exercise in self-expression and many stories deserve to be recorded and told for the sake of family and friends. But not every story is well enough crafted to make it independently in the world. There’s no harm in suggesting that the author might benefit from a workshop in fiction writing or a tutorial with someone successful. Craft and skill can always be improved.

Most of us, new in the game or old-times, want our readers to think this is terrific, fabulous, sure to hit the NY Times bestseller list. If you can’t say that, then focus on the positive encouragement you can give—“you really captured the description of a ranch house in the 1970s” or “I loved the character of the little boy; you really seemed to get inside him” and then add, “I’d love to see you bring the rest of the book up to that level of intensity/detail/completion.”