Tag Archives: writing habits

Mile Markers and Check Points

If you haven’t heard Elizabeth Gilbert’s podcast “Magic Lessons” (based on her book of the same name), it’s an inspiring listen. Ms Gilbert speaks to creative folks who are struggling to start or re-start their work. As these fledgling artists speak to Ms Gilbert about their fears, she generously bolsters them with her experience and encouragement. She gives them assignments and deadlines. Then, she utters the six most powerful words any artist can hear: “I’ll check in with you later.”

Bringing an idea from the realm of the formless and vague into the physical world is the type of work that’s best done with some sense of urgency. A sweater stitched one meager row at at time, for example, would be deemed a useless enterprise, and discarded before it even had a second sleeve. Urgency creates momentum, powering the maker through the inevitable tedium and the challenges.

Sometimes the urgency comes from the idea itself, the sheer excitement of it, the friction as it rubs against the inside of the mind. But, other times, urgency and motivation come from those kind people who make the artist feel accountable, the ones who’ll ask questions, or say, “I’ll check in with you later. I want to see how this is going for you.”

For years, I was a Secret Writer. Only my husband and a couple of my closest friends knew that I was working on a book. And so, I worked on it in fits and starts, often losing the thread of meaning and struggling to find it again. The work never quite felt as though it mattered. In fact, it didn’t, because no one knew about it. It was like a ghost, or an imaginary friend that others were always accidentally sitting on.

The more I began to go public with my work – to share it with friends, read it to writing groups, and discuss my goals – the more it became a real part of my life. I had to get comfortable with the supremely uncomfortable act of talking about my writing. The secret was out. People were going to ask, “How’s the writing going these days?” And so, I had to have something to tell them.

Thank goodness for these people, without whom my efforts might have fizzled out completely. Now I use these folks strategically and on purpose, announcing my goals to my writing group and my friends, and asking them to please keep me honest. My goals are humble, sometimes embarrassingly so, but these mile markers along the way keep me trudging forward when I’d often like to stop. And, by the way, these folks use me, too, and our mutual encouragement makes us all feel a little less alone at our desks.

I’m grateful to Elizabeth Gilbert and the other professional artists who keep sharing their own experiences to inspire and motivate others. Most of all, I’m ever so grateful to my own personal cheerleaders, all the people who care enough to ask, “How’s your writing going these days?” Thank you for making room at the table for my imaginary friend.

This isn’t the first time Elizabeth Gilbert has inspired me. Also see my post about her wonderful Ted talk about creativity, and my thoughts on Eat, Pray, Love. And, if you are interested in creativity, her book Big Magic is… well, magical.

Adore Life, Part 2

Yesterday I posted about the album “Adore Life” by Savages. I’ve been thinking more and more about why the sentiment – to adore life, to embrace it without trying to pick off only the best moments – resonates with me so deeply.

It’s not because I’m coming up on an age at which people start thinking about their mortality. Certainly not that.

It’s not because I have regrets. Those mistakes that used to cause me pain are now slowly making their way into the “experience” column, and I try not to perseverate over them as much as I used to do.

It’s because of writing.

Writing requires me to be present, to sit in a messy, uncomfortable, difficult process, and strive to make something beautiful. It requires focus and sacrifice, by which I mainly mean forgoing evenings of television and lunches with friends. Writing a novel is the work of years, and in each second of that time there are so many other tasks that are definitely easier and possibly more critical than sitting with my pen. It’s a miracle a book ever gets written at all.

So, as I write, I have to remind myself that my time on the planet is short. It will end – as Jehnny  Beth sings, maybe tomorrow – and I my moments will be spent. Why not spend them living fiercely, loudly, and wholly? Why not adore life, even the messy and difficult parts?

Why not try and make a a miracle?

Fun with Rubrics

Author Jo Knowles wrote a blog post called “Some Things I Learned from Being ‘Judge-y'”, in which she reflects on the experience of judging writing competitions, and compiles the feedback she gave to the submissions. Looking across her feedback, I was struck by the common threads and my mind started to bunch certain comments together. I was also super grateful that she generously shared her experience so that the rest of us could learn a thing or two. Her post epitomizes the generosity of the writing community. Three cheers for writers!

I thought it would be useful to apply Ms Knowles’ criteria to my own submissions, to see how my writing would fare and, most importantly, asses where it needs the most improvement. For ease, I adapted her comments into a rubric. By referring to the rubric during revision, a writer can see what he or she already does well, and which areas of the writing are weakest. And, then, by following a column, the writer can even figure out what to do to move his or her writing into the next category.

Can’t take the teacher out of the girl, I guess.

Here’s a link to the Writing_Rubric I made by adapting Ms Knowles’ comments. I tried to make it feel as universal and non-genre specific as possible. Feel free to use and share. I hope it’s helpful to others.

To learn more about author Jo Knowles, check out her website or follow her on Twitter.

 

DYI MFA: Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice, Post #2

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
I’m continuing my DIY MFA by writing about Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice and, though I’ve already discussed each book’s central relationship in a previous postmy thoughts are still on romance. I think there are two types of book romances. First, there’s the type of romance in which the author tells the reader that the characters are in love, usually from the first scene in which the characters lay eyes on each other, and the stated fact of that love is supposed to be enough to get the reader interested and invested in their love story.

The other kind of romance, the kind I prefer, is the Pride and Prejudice, Eleanor and Park variety, in which the characters develop deep love and understanding over time. By showing us how the relationship develops, the author earns our investment in that love working out in the end. I’ve noticed that this kind of romance frequently begins with the two characters actively disliking each other. Is the dislike a necessarily component of the romance? Do the characters ever feel ho-hum, just okay about each other, then fall in love?

The characters beginning with active dislike is an incredibly effective narrative device. First, it gives the characters’ feelings more runway, so they get to change more over the course of the book. It’s more satisfying for a character’s feelings to travel the long distance from dislike to love, than if they were to change from ambivalence or mild like to love.

Secondly, the initial dislike shows an attraction, and is itself the kernel of the connection that will later develop. My mother used to always say, “Hate is not the opposite of love,” which was a way of saying that a person who inspires us to love him or her can more easily inspire other strong feelings, like hate. For instance, Elizabeth’s dislike for Mr. Darcy is still a connection; he occupies her thoughts because he aggravates her. But she is thinking of him, much more so than she would be if she’d hardly noticed him, or thought nothing of him one way or another.

It might seem odd to think of dislike as an attraction, but in our own lives this is very true. Just think about when you’re mad at someone. You might tell all your friends about the unbelievable thing that person said, the way he or she betrayed you, or the way you plan to get back at the object of your anger. The person you’re mad at occupies your thoughts and energy, just as a person you’re falling in love with does.

The more books I think consider, the more I find this to be true, that two characters dislike each other upon first meeting. Furthermore, the initial dislike or distrust is often most strong on the female protagonist’s side. My hunch is that a story in which the boy’s affection is constant while the girl’s affection must be earned appeals heavily to girl readers, who are probably the intended audience in romance-heavy Young Adult novels.

Other examples of this pattern:

  • Anne of Green Gables by L.M. Montgomery – In this book (well, really, in the series) Anne and Gilbert start out as competitive and argumentative with each other.
  • The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater – In this series, Gansey is rich and entitled, and embodies all that Blue dislikes.
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins – Katniss dislikes Peeta because at first he appears to be playing along with the games, and because he doesn’t seem to have any skills that will help him survive. She questions his motives when he befriends some of the other competitors.

I still have lots to say about the narrative voice of Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice, so there will be a future post about that. It’s just that right now I still have romance on the brain. I’m going to be paying a lot more attention as I read to see which stories fit into or break this “hate first, love second” mold.

DIY MFA: Texts #2 and #3, Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
The next two texts in my DIY MFA are Elizabeth Bronte’s 1847 book Wuthering Heights and Jane Austen’s 1813 book Pride and Prejudice. I think of these texts as grandmothers to the modern Young Adult genre, and I wanted to read them through the lens of comparison to contemporary YA texts (especially romance stories).

The shape of these 19th century stories closely resembles contemporary YA narratives. Just as modern YA romances do, the older stories focus on women in their teens and early twenties, their search for love and romance, and the troubles that romance brings into their lives.

In Wuthering Heights, Catherine and Heathcliff are childhood friends, deeply connected souls who are passionately devoted to each other. Because Heathcliff has no property or social standing, Catherine knows she could never marry him, so she marries a kind, caring, though rather boring man named Edgar. Devastated, Heathcliff launches a vendetta against Edgar that brings about the ruin of almost every other character in the book. Catherine’s misery is equally destructive; she has fits and makes herself ill in order to manipulate those around her.

I had never read the story before, but I knew of Catherine and Heathcliff; their names are synonymous with passion. So, I was surprised to find that the book doesn’t show why Catherine and Heathcliff loved each other so strongly, except for the fact that they’d grown up together and knew each other so well. Their love is stated as a fact, rather than developed throughout the book. Not only was their love not explored and shown clearly in the story, the characters weren’t shown either. Readers don’t know much about either character except that they are in love with the other. Romances of this kind aren’t satisfying. It’s not enough for me to simply know that the characters are in love. I don’t care about love as a concept; I care about love as a specific feeling between two human beings. Without the specificity, without the humanity of the characters, my investment in the outcome of their story is very low.

Pride and Prejudice tells the story of Elizabeth Bennett and her sisters, who must secure their futures by marrying as well as they can. Because Austen has created a character in Elizabeth who is warm and intelligent, it is not hard to see why Mr. Darcy becomes fond of her. And, over the course of the book, Darcy’s actions reveal a goodness and generosity of spirit. Though I’d read the book years ago, the language and characters drew me in again, and I was moved by the satisfying conclusion of this beautiful book.

The richness of the romance in Austen’s book makes me think of Rainbow Rowell’s recent novel Eleanor and Park, in which the love and the characters are believable and unique. Other books which do a lovely job of developing authentic romantic connections are Grave Mercy, The Impossible Knife of Memory, The Fault in Our Stars, Divergent, and Graceling. (This is an off-the-top-of-my-head list of recently read YA books, but they could be a good place to start for studying what make for good book romance.)

This is everything: to make sure the reader has reason to believe in the relationship at the core of the romance. It’s not enough simply to state that there is deep passion. There have to be reasons for it, and it’s better if readers see those reasons.

As I read Wuthering Heights and Pride and Prejudice, I noticed a big difference between them and their modern counterparts: the narration itself. I’ll explore the narrative voice more in a future post.

DIY MFA: Text #1, Bluets by Maggie Nelson

Bluets by Maggie Nelson
Several weeks ago, I wrote that I would pursue a DIY MFA degree, awarded to me by me, a quilt of texts that I want to read (or re-read), specifically in order to grow in my work as a writer, or at the very least to keep me warm this winter. The books that I chose were either recommended to me as exemplary examples of fiction writing, or they are well-regarded examples of the genres of fiction that I am currently writing (young adult fiction and short stories for adults).

The first text I read is Bluets by Maggie Nelson. It was an unusual choice for me, as the book is not like anything that I’m attempting to write, or even like anything that I would normally read, but it came with high praise. However, while still reading the first couple of pages, I regretted picking up the book and was grateful that it was short, so I wouldn’t have to suffer for too long.

My feelings about this books are very different now.

The text soon grabbed me, immersed me in the peculiar mind of an author in pursuit of a singular subject: the color blue. Although Maggie Nelson does not write much about herself, each word she writes, each section she chooses, points vividly to the person herself, to the writer, and to the act of writing.

Which leads me to the first question about this book: What is it? I’ve tried to describe it and struggled. For lack of a better word, I call each piece a “section,” but only because it sounds more literary than “chunk.” There are 240 of them. It’s hard to say whether they are poems, vignettes, research items, or simply ephemera. They are a mix of all of these, I suppose, collected with a blue thread stitched throughout, though the blue is more or less visible in these sections, and some feel more or less connected to the sections around them.

Each individual section is beautiful, yet it is the collection of them that is important. The book, though slim, feels like a work many years in the making. To sift through books, movies, life, and the world in search of meaningful tidbits and stories is hard enough, but to search for stories that relate to or evoke the color blue is another thing entirely. The nature of this collection suggests the writer as an obsessive person. And, it also suggests that there is something about the nature of writing that fosters (or requires) obsessiveness.

One type of section that appears throughout the book are sentiments addressed to a “you,” a former lover. In one of my favorite sections, she writes:

177. Perhaps it is becoming clearer why I felt no romance when you told me that you carried my last letter with you, everywhere you went, for months on end, unopened. This may have served some purpose for you, but whatever it was, surely it bore little resemblance to mine. I never aimed to give you a talisman, an empty vessel to flood with whatever longing, dread, or sorrow happened to be the day’s mood. I wrote it because I had something to say to you.

Nelson writes several sections that acknowledge the difficulty of pursuing such a project. She refers to failed attempts to gain interest for her work among scholars and grant committees. And then, at the end, rather than feeling satisfied with her final product, she says she feels surprised about how small the finished project is, “an anemia,” she writes, “that seems to stand in direct proportion to my zeal.”

Nelson’s choice, the specific choice to write about the world through the color blue, reminds me that there is an immense power in the particular. It’s a great paradox in literature, that the more the writer succeeds in expressing the specific, unique details of her experience, of her story, the more universal and affecting her story will be to the reader. That is the true beauty of this text, that Maggie Nelson has managed to depict all the world, not in a grain of sand, but in a color.

Other thoughts and resources:

 

Meditations

I’m not good at meditating. The balance between mental focus and emptiness eludes me. My mind races toward distractions with a quickness that is almost eager, as if any escape hatch is preferable to simply being alone and quiet with itself.

And yet, I keep trying. I’ll admit, part of my motivation to meditate has to do with the widely held belief that it is “good for you.” Meditation is the kale of the creative world. But it’s a frustrating endeavor. Sometimes, when I realize that my mind is coming up with new combinations for pizza toppings rather than focusing on my breathing or the space between my eyes, I want to stop the timer, turn it back, and start it over again. But, I don’t. My theory about meditation is that it is precisely this coming back to stillness after wandering away, that makes it so valuable. My goal when I meditate is not to have consecutive minutes of perfection; my goal is to notice when I’ve gone astray, and to keep bringing myself back. Over and over and over again.

And as I was engaged in this practice of self-correction, and trying not feel too bad about it, I realized that it’s not just in meditation that I feel the urge to go back in time. I long for do-overs when I spend twenty minutes browsing celebrity pictures on the computer, or when I feel sick after my second helping of ice cream.

The do-over that I most yearn for has to do with my writing.

When I was younger, at the age when I was told I should decide what I wanted to be, I wanted to be a writer. I had always been a writer, in practice. But when it came time to “go public” with my career choice, I chickened out. I told myself that there was no way that I would ever be published, not with all the aspiring writers out there. I believed myself, too, and laid my dreams aside with hardly a word of protest.

I’m thirty-seven years old, and I’ve finally allowed myself to say these words: I’m a writer. I’ve finally allowed myself to carve out and protect the time and space I need to work. I’ve finally articulated (publicly) my wish to be published.

Writers much younger than I are published many times over. They’re winning awards and gaining readers for their work. And there are so many days that I just want to cry with longing to turn back the clock and start this career when I am just eighteen, or twenty, or twenty-five. I want to go back and convince my younger self to stop insisting that the writing is a hobby, just something I do “for myself.” I would encourage myself to put my writing out into the world as soon as possible. But in life – as in meditation, as in anything – do-overs aren’t possible. We can’t erase what’s come before, no matter how much we regret our actions (or lack thereof). All we can do is gently bring ourselves back to the path, and move on.

Does part of me fear that it’s near impossible to get published? Yes. Does part of me think I don’t deserve to get published, since I didn’t believe in myself enough to pursue my dream? Uh-huh. But, the timer is still going, and each moment rises before me and provides me with an opportunity to do the thing I love. So, I pull myself back, gently, but firmly, to the writer’s path, which, as far as I’m concerned, is the same as saying to the path of my life. And I’ll do the only thing that I can, which is to start now.

Continuing Education


I’ve been thinking about an MFA a lot lately, and not just because it’s something that I can’t have. Since moving to Portland, I frequently daydream about creative writing programs because I’m struggling to build my community. In New York, I knew people who would read my work, critique it, and support it. Here in Portland, I barely know any kind of people, much less writerly people. I’m building a local community slowly, brick by brick. But it’d sure be a lot easier with an MFA program.

Another reason that I think about an MFA more often these days is that, as I become more serious about my writing, I become more aware of what I do not know, and hungrier to expand my knowledge of writer’s craft. Always a voracious reader, now I’m reading with heightened attention to the writer’s choices. And, while I consider myself well read, there are major gaps in my reading experience. An MFA would help me fill those gaps, certainly. But, in this, too, I’m going to have to go it alone, at least for now.

So, I’m putting together a syllabus. It’s a work in progress. I call it Shannon’s DIY MFA, the beginner knitting project of the literary world. Despite the dropped stitches, I think it has a certain homemade charm.

My syllabus could use a little rounding out, and I’d like it to have at least twelve books. It could probably use a little male-ness for comparison’s sake (though, with all the syllabi that have suffered a lack of female-ness, I’d much rather have this problem). It’s a hodge-podge of a few books that I’ve always wanted to read, plus a few books I think I should read, plus one book (Austen’s) that I would like to read again, with the writing central in my mind.

Poetry
Poems, by Elizabeth Bishop
Leaves of Grass, by Walt Whitman

Short Stories
Bluets, by Maggie Nelson
Boysgirls, by Katie Farris
Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, by ZZ Packer

Novels
Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston
Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K. Le Guin
Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
Wuthering Heights, by Emily Bronte

 

 

Possible Magic

Each project teaches me something.

When I wrote Weaving the Sea, I learned to go to my writing every day. That one lesson took me a long time to learn. About four years. Over the course of that time, I lost momentum, I lost my bearings, I lost hope that I would ever finish the story. But, then I found myself a writing group, and they inspired me to pick up the thread. I re-read what I’d written, I got myself excited again. And I began to write. I pushed myself to write every day, even for a little while. After some time, I didn’t need as much pushing. It was just habit, and the practice of daily writing kept me profoundly connected to the world of the story in ways that paid off in the quality of my writing.

Now, I’ve just finished Nana’s Bikini. It’s a draft, and to call it rough would be like calling a roller coaster curvy.  It’s ROUGH. Flimsy and thin, too, in parts. But that doesn’t bother me, because the story is out of my head and onto the page. A story in my head, that’s hypothetical, that’s what-ifs and half-remembered dreams. But a story on the page is something I can work with.

I finished the draft of Nana’s Bikini in nine weeks, over the course of a writing workshop at Literary Arts, taught by Emily Chenoweth. The workshop was key. Knowing I had to share work with a bunch of writers kept me accountable. I divided my story outline by the number of weeks in the workshop, and came up with my weekly goals. Before the workshop, that would have sounded like an overly analytical approach. Shouldn’t I write because I’m inspired? Yes, and no. I am inspired, but writing is hard. So I decided that I would write like it was my job. It worked for me. I kept going back to the story, kept plugging away. Enough of that, and eventually there are thousands of words in a document. About 50,000.

I’m exhilarated and proud. And, I’m eager to begin on the work at hand. Because now I know that I can do this one kind of magic, I can create a story where there was none before,  and I have to learn the next spells. I have to take these rough, flimsy words, and tease and polish them into a story that matters, that has the power to move my readers. It sounds like magic, but I know now that it’s a possible kind of magic. Here goes.

 

Acceptable Forms of Cheating

A novel is a big project, is what I’m learning. Overwhelming. Unwieldy. And, sometimes, wickedly elusive.

I suppose this is why, until I finished the draft of my first YA book, my notebooks and hard drives were a graveyard of half-baked ideas, fragments of scenes, and chapters that never saw the light. I didn’t have the stamina to see a novel through to the end.

In finishing the draft of Weaving the Sea, I learned a couple of things. First, I learned to write, even when I didn’t feel like it. Even when I was 100% certain that everything coming out of my pen or keyboard was pure, unusable garbage. This was harder than I thought it would be, but my critique partners helped. They were my cheerleaders, and believed in my project even when I did not.

Another thing I learned is that sometimes, when my novel gets particularly cantankerous, I have to put it away and do something else. I admit it: I cheat on my novel.

There are unacceptable forms of cheating, distractions that become almost irresistible when my mind is grappling with a story problem. The Internet calls – loudly – to me in those moments, and that is a dark form of cheating that takes all the wind from my writing sails, and robs me of precious work hours.

Other forms of cheating do the opposite. Doodling, painting figures, writing a short story, writing a poem, writing a blog post, and playing with an idea for another project all give me new energy, new oxygen so that I may submerge myself back in the world of my novel.

I cheat with a deadline. After a few juicy hours (or days) of cheating, I feel warm and fuzzy toward my novel. I can be kind toward it (and myself) again.