Friday, June 4, 2010

A Writer’s Life

A Writer’s Life

I’ve had some interesting emails about perfectionism, and it was a topic of conversation at lunch at Writing Friday today—wanting our writing, our creative work, our lives to be just so. That usually involves much bigger schemes and ambitions than most of us can manage, of course setting us up for failure.

I’ve been thinking about this in terms of the writing life. If the media and blogs are to be believed, today’s aspiring writer needs to have a website, a blog or two, being tweeting and facebooking daily, be commenting on other people’s blogs to build readership for her own, be active in local writers’ groups and organizations, be entering contests, submitting queries, marketing her work (whether published or not), and be writing tons of new material. All of this in addition to her day job, family, relationships, and health. This is more of the crazy busy-ness I wrote about last week at This is a sure set-up for feelings of inadequacy, even for a chronic high achiever like me.

So what’s a sane writer to do? I think the answer is simple. Keep writing. Spend as much time as possible reading and writing. At a certain point, there comes an energy lull in the creative process and it will feel right to market and pitch and query. We can easily make ourselves crazy trying to do all this. A full-time writer with assistants might make it happen, but most of us need more calm and reflection to do our best work, and that kind of frantic pandering to what experts tell us we should be doing is a recipe for disaster. Listen to the quiet voice inside and go about doing what’s best for you. That works well almost all the time.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

When there's too much information

I'm never at a loss for words, but the past several weeks I've been stuck. I've read so many blogs and articles on sending the perfect query letter, delivering the perfect pitch, writing the perfect synopsis, that I'm paralyzed.

Several of the other presenters at the Hazelden conferences I've been speaking at have given me introductions to their agents or publishers. These warm leads are much prized because like most businesses, who you know is almost as important (or more so) than your actual product.
But I didn't come home and immediately connect with them.

Why not? Because I hadn't yet perfected my pitch, my query, my synopsis. In the throes of being a relative novice in the publishing game, I forgot that I'm a great writer, a good communicator, successful at marketing my own business. I found myself flummoxed by too much information.

Tuesday I wrote a letter to one of these agents. I sent it off to two trusted writers and got their feedback and this afternoon, I'm going to complete it, pack up the copy of my book, and send it off. Since I'm not going to know the perfect letter when I see it (or write it), I can just do the best I can do and move on and trust that my book will find the right channel. And I'm going to recognize that the belief that some one piece of information is going to heold the key is a myth.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Practice with writing sentences

As I've mentioned before, many of us write very well indeed with little or no knowledge about how our language is put together. Others of us are curious and want the additional flexibility that real knowledge can bring.

I've been thinking about an exercise that I often do with writing improvement classes I teach. I ask the students to pick one reasonably long sentence from their work (3-4 lines of type) and then write three more versions of the same information. Of course, it's helpful if they know the following information:

English has only four types of sentences although we can generate an infinite number of sentences within those types.

Simple: One independent clause (subject + verb)
Jack bought a new car.

Compound: Two independent clauses (subject + verb + coordinating conjunction (and, or, for, so, but, then) + subject + verb
Jack bought a new car, but his wife didn't like it.

Complex: One independent clause plus one or more dependent clauses
Jack bought a new car although his wife didn't like it.**

Compound/complex: Two or more independent clauses plus one or more dependent clauses
Jack bought a new car although she didn't like it and she told him so.

Once you've mastered these forms and practiced them a bunch (we are all using them all the time), your writing can really open up.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

A decline in literacy?

I don't usually spend too much time worrying about future generations (except as concerns the environment and the unholy messes that we are leaving for them) but it would be easy for me to become concerned about the lack of real literacy among much of the population.

In decades past, as I see it, America operated a sort of work-class system. People who went to high school and no further (most people) went into blue collar jobs where they worked with their hands or bodies, and those of us who went to college (many fewer) took the white collar jobs where we had to read and write and express ourselves verbally. Because we knew which we were, our personal education went in one of two ways. Most of my cousins fell into the first group, for example, and they spent their summers apprenticing in jobs of interest or to make money. My siblings and I spent our summers reading from college reading lists and taking summer school so we too would be trained for our futures.

Over the last several decades in a very admirable attempt to create more opportunity, access to college courses and degrees has become much more democratic, but the preparation for it (the concentration on studies, the focus on reading and writing early and continued) isn't there. In my two decades of teaching (1975-1994), I watched many unprepared students cycle through colleges. In an effort to keep them, many institutions lowered their expectations so that they could fill the seats, graduate the numbers, get the money. The businessification of higher education.

I may sound critical of this, and I suppose I am, although that's not my purpose here. What some of my friends who are hiring administrators in organizations are finding is that the college-educated young person today can't really write or spell. Grammar, spelling, writing practice have long been out of fashion and it connotes a lack of respect for language and its many uses and its lack of emphasis on clear communication. We may laugh at a George Bush with his many gaffes and faux pas but he is a product of our culture--and a sad commentary how what we value.