Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Writer's Dilemma

Most of my writing life has been a waste of time. I mean this in the nicest possible way.

An efficiency expert would produce a dismal report on the ratio of a writer’s time expended against her productive output. If money is factored in, the report turns even more dismal. Of the words we write, few survive the revision process, and even fewer make it into print. But then no one said the creative work was efficient. 

Efficiency aside, a common complaint is having no time to write. Years ago, when my children were young and I was teaching fulltime and I couldn’t see how writing and publishing could ever be more than wishful thinking, a colleague wisely advised me to devote ten minutes a day to my dream. Everyone has ten minutes to scribble in a journal, write a line or two of poetry, map a character.

Be consistent with your ten minutes a day, and the effort will becomes its own reward. Soon you’ll find yourself carving out more time to write. Twenty or thirty minutes a day. An hour or two, while the children nap, as Alice Munro used to do. Or Sundays, all day. Plenty of respected writers work fulltime in jobs that have little or nothing to do with their craft, like Bill Streever in his demanding job at BP.

Annie Dillard advises a schedule, saying it “defends from chaos and whim.” What makes up that schedule may come as a bit of a surprise. As one example, Dillard offers American poet Wallace Stevens. Each day Stevens rose at six, read for two hours, and walked an hour to work, where he dictated poems to his secretary. At noon he walked rather than ate. No mention is made of how he spent his afternoons, but after his hour’s walk home and a meal, he would retire to his study and would be in bed by nine.

No sense wasting valuable time pining for a secretary to take our dictation and a study to which we might retire. The point is that Stevens spent a lot of his time not writing but reading, walking, reflecting. Meaningful activities, in the right proportions. It’s not so much how much time we have as how we use it.

Think in terms of these general categories: creation/revision, reflection, immersion, community, and – as a catch-all – money-stuff.  Some might separate creation and revision, but for me they’re inseparable components of the recursive process of discovery. Reflection - composting as Ursula LeGuin calls it – results from quiet, mindful activity like walking or knitting. Immersion includes reading and research, either purposeful or general.  Community involves time spent in the company of other writers, supporting our mutual efforts, in writers groups and organizations like 49 Writers. Money stuff is anything from querying for publication to freelancing to promotion and marketing – even pre-marketing, as in the current trend of encouraging aspiring writers to establish websites and blogs and social media presence.

Given your individual ambitions and interests and stage of development, you might look at your writing activities differently. That’s fine. Once you’ve identified the major components of your writing life, consider what proportion of your valuable time you’d ideally like to devote to each. Reality has to factor in also. I’d love to spend 75% of my time creating and revising and the rest on reflection and immersion, with a little left over for community, money be damned. But lacking the financial resources to hire out the promotion and marketing chores, I have to set aside a quarter of my working time for the money stuff.

The time you devote to each aspect of being a writer is up to you. Be flexible. Purposefulness and creativity are by no means mutually exclusive. Energy and momentum are part of the mix. If your day job demands creative energy, you may need to set aside weekends and vacations for the creative parts of your work. Regarding momentum, I aspire to David Vann’s self-imposed rule: when he’s working on a novel, he schedules nothing else in the mornings, and he works seven days a week till it’s done.

The writing life may be far from efficient, but for successful writers, neither is it haphazard.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

So Many Books

There are books about how to read as a writer, but I haven’t yet read one. It’s not interest I lack, but time. Like Joshua Bodwell, author of “You Are What You Read” (Poets & Writers, Jan/Feb 2012), I’ve experienced that sad and startling revelation that I’ll never read all the books I intend to. In fact, I’m pretty sure I own more books than I’ll ever read. If logic prevailed, I’d never add a new title to my library, which thanks to the e-reader is no longer limited by physical space. But book lust goes way beyond logic.

Reading is everything to me as a writer,” says Anthony Doerr, quoted in Bodwell’s article. “It’s where I go when I get discouraged, when I forget why it is I wanted to be a writer in the first place. And books are where I go when I want to be reminded of the mystery and magic of our shared language.” That’s all the encouragement I need to go browsing and come home with a bag full of books.

More justification: in “The Importance of Being Envious,” an essay in Naming the WorldTom Robbins contends that for the writer, reading evokes a productive sort of jealousy that he likens to literary Viagra. “It isn’t as if I want to elbow Norman Mailer out of line at the bank or steal Louise Erdrich’s ink,” Robbins explains. “What I desire is to feel for myself the rush Mailer or Erdrich must have felt when they pulled that particular rabbit out of a hat. What I covet is to have the kind of effect on language-conscious readers that Norman and Louise have just had on me.”

If envy seems too visceral a reason for reading, consider that we’re motivated to read by an equally fundamental need: security. Some of us were lucky enough to spend our childhoods cocooned in books, sheltered in the assurance we’d one day emerge beautiful. Others came to books through a compassionate teacher or librarian. Either way, the draw of a good book is as deeply satisfying as the silky edge of a favorite blanket. Even as we aim to hone our craft with a more distant and objective consideration of text, we can’t ignore this primal attraction, the comfort of story.

We all have a history with books. When I lived in a small Alaska village – a million years ago, as I tell students now, otherwise known as 1979 – I coveted a relationship with the Alaska State Library. The nice people in Juneau sent out a print catalog; you browsed, ordered, and eagerly awaited your shipment. Later I moved to a larger Bush community with its own little library, but as I juggled a household and a family and a fulltime job, I despaired of ever again reading a whole book for pleasure.

Those pressures eased, and I did of course find time again for whole books.  Yet I still shortchange myself when it comes to reading. It feels too much like an indulgence, a reward squeezed in over lunch or at bedtime, unless it’s research for “real work.” This is wrong-headed thinking. I need to expand the book time in my day, to acknowledge that the guilty pleasure of working with words includes sustained and joyful periods of doing what I love. Besides, I do read also for craft, studying how this word works, how that sentence turns, how seamless parts create meaning even as I indulge a deep-rooted desire. Sometimes that means reading twice – once for joy, again to consider how the writer created the joy. Re-reading might seem a large indulgence when there are so many unopened books on the shelf, but new research affirms its benefits.

Then there’s the matter of which titles writers should read. Classics? I taught them for years, and while I appreciate their place in our literary heritage, I’m not especially drawn to them for their own sake. Bestsellers? In the genre I’m writing? Outside the genres I’m writing, for fear of being influenced?

“I never read anything I’m not inspired by,” says author Simon Van Booy. That works for me. Though I make lists, I’m a promiscuous reader, easily distracted from the titles I pledged to. Since I’ll never get to all those books anyhow, what matters most is the approach: purposeful, and also with pleasure.

Deb crossposts at www.49writers.blogspot.com.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Je Ne Sais Quoi

Ethereal, bewitching, seductive - thus have reviewers praised Alaska author Eowyn Ivey’s best-selling debut novel The Snow Child

If that sounds like love, so too does the way Ivey’s book was conceived. In her day job at Fireside Books in Palmer, she came upon a children's book retelling of the Russian folktale The Snow Child. “I got this funny feeling right then,” Ivey said in a recent Anchorage Daily News interview. She ditched the novel she’d been working on for two years and started in on an adult version of the tale.

That “funny feeling” sounds a lot like the “intangible something” Rebecca Sherman of Writers House brought up in a recent discussion among agents hosted by Publishers Weekly, referring to the je ne sais quoi that draws her – and readers – to certain books. I am, by the way, a sucker for French - my minor in college. The loose English translation "an indescribable something" is a poor substitute for "I know not what," which hits the mark precisely, whether you mean writing or romance.

Can you fall in love with your writing project? Should you?

Idaho farmer James Castle used ink mixed from spit and soot to make art. Though illiterate, deaf, and untrained, he kept at it for decades, his art driven by passion and empathy, the pursuit of the tangible by way of the intangible. He didn’t discern. He didn't weigh the market. He didn’t try to get noticed. Yet his creative work eventually found its audience. “As it happens, his art – produced over more than six decades – communes with many of the twentieth century’s most salient aesthetic trends, even as it seems to have been very much a private means of understand his home and family,” says Bookforum reviewer Albert Mobilio. Castle's labor of love struck a chord.

Projects with real staying power feel different in the same way that deep love feels different from a crush. That “funny feeling” has to carry us through the long process of perfecting the work.

In solidarity with the students I taught in various classrooms during a recent writer’s residency, I wrote fifteen times from the same prompt, in ten-minute spurts. It was a lot like speed-dating. Though the prompt quickly became redundant, significant flashes emerged here and there – images, slices of character, snippets of scene. Some may find their way into a project that's emerging out of one of those funny feelings that disarmed me, out of the blue. You never know where you’ll find love, or a taste of it.

How can we know for sure that a project is not just viable but the one? In the initial rush of inspiration, our brains spin wildly, as they do when we’re in love – a dopamine high, fueled by norepinephrine that keeps us up nights spinning characters and plotting twists and chasing research. It’s only when we settle into a relationship with a project that we’re able to judge the depth of that first woo-woo feeling, to tell whether it has the staying power to carry us over the long haul, to determine whether our inspiration is not just attractive but unshakable.

Of all the emotional clichés, tough love is most apropos to the work of the writer. In revision, we must be brutal, objective, and tough - none of that warm fuzzy stuff. Yet it’s that funny feeling, the intuition, the passion, the je ne sais quoi that carries us through, that makes up for the trials and the pain and the risk.

Faithful and loyal, we can spend years with a project born out of feeling. But if we find ourselves married to it, we risk all. Not that we can’t commit wholly and completely, but if and when things get stale, when the writer’s no longer growing or discovering or excited, when the feeling is gone, gone, gone, then it could be time to break things off, to shove the manuscript under a bed as Ivey did with her first novel. In doing so we must believe fully and resolutely that nothing is wasted. The years spent with a draft that we ultimately ditch teach us about writing in the same way that failed relationships teach us about love.

We do fall in love, and we must.

Deb cross-posts at www.49writers.blogspot.com.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Push-ups and Poses

Isn’t it wonderful, being a writer? The joy! The freedom!  Anywhere, anytime, inspiration may strike.  And we’re ready, with our notepads and laptops and smart phones, ready to spin our ideas in whichever direction they want to go.  That snippet of dialogue, that flash of insight, that exquisite image – from any of these, an entire poem or essay or novel can grow.  We just have to run with it.

But run where?  So many possibilities. So many directions. Freedom, it seems, is also a curse. What is a novel, after all, but what UAA’s David Stevenson once described as a million ways to go wrong?

If brain research is any indicator, poets have the right idea when they work within forms.  While the rest of us run freely, poets quietly and mindfully hold the writer’s equivalent of a yoga pose, enjoying the broader creative perspective that paradoxically comes from constraint.
“We break out of the box by stepping into shackles,” Jonah Lehrer says, citing a study led by Janina Marguc at the University of Amsterdam which shows that obstacles of form force us to think in a broader, more interesting ways. Want to broaden your perception? Open up new ways of thinking? Find the connections between ideas that seem unrelated?  Find a roadblock, or as poets call it, a form.
Calling the brain “a neural tangle of near infinite possibility,” Lehrer explains that without constraints, our brains zero in on what not to notice, and as a result creativity suffers.  “The artificial requirements of the sonnet are just another cognitive obstacle,” he says, “a hurdle that compels the mind to think in a more holistic fashion. Unless poets are stumped by their art, unless they are forced to look beyond the obvious associations, they’ll never invent an original line. They’ll be stuck with clichés and banalities, with predictable adjectives and boring verbs. And this helps explain the stubborn endurance of poetic forms: because poets need to find a rhyming word with exactly three syllables, or an adjective that fits the iambic scheme, they end up uncovering all sorts of unexpected associations.”
This is why writing exercises can be so effective, even for experienced writers.  Cognitive push-ups, mindful poses – these actually nudge us toward originality, not away from it.  Plus the stakes are low, and that never hurts.
Blocked? In a rut? Stuck in the forever-middle?  Indulge in an exercise, ten or fifteen minutes of writing push-ups and poses, and see what creative ways of thinking you unleash. Then as O’Connor suggests, start looking for the limitations imposed by your work as it unfolds.