From the Basement

July 19, 2010

On Writing, Job Hunting, & Sun Tzu

You know you’re your mother’s daughter when you sit down in the Borders Cafe with The Art of War for Writers and are joined by your mother, who is reading The Art of War for Managers. Here’s to mother/daughter bonding with Sun Tzu.

Due to a lack of funds, I didn’t purchase the book, but one message (which I’d heard before) bears repeating — write hard, write fast. Tie that with Anne Lamott’s Shitty First Draft philosophy, and you’ve got a recipe for a first draft. Or rather, you have no excuses to not write a first draft.

So — having had my ass kicked by Sun Tzu’s modern devotees, I made a goal for myself: 15000 more words by Saturday. That comes out to 2500 a day, for those who do daily word counts. That’ll put me ca. 35000 words by the weekend, which is almost halfway through an 80000 word novel.

You’d think I would have been on fire today. But no.

Today is a wonderful example of how far I will go to avoid writing when I’ve tried to set goals. I spent way too many hours job hunting. Productive! may be what you’re thinking, but trust me, it’s more like, looking at every possible company (FBI, CIA, NSA, you know, the usual) and getting more and more depressed at the lack of jobs I’m qualified for.

I did find a few to apply to, however, and I even drafted one cover letter (not for a government agency).

This always happens. Whenever I set goals for my writing, my productivity in other areas kicks into steroid-like overdrive. Which is good for those areas. Just not for my word count.

So now that I’ve got that 6-hour job hunt out of my system (and two beers in me, let’s be honest), I’ll start writing.

I think.

15000 words aren’t gonna write themselves.

P.S. Whenever the words aren’t coming, the boyfriend suggests the Jack Bauer method of torture – you know the one about how when Jack Bauer lost his keys, he tortured himself until they gave up the location? Ah, never mind.

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April 28, 2010

Doing what you love > Fearing what you love

Do you ever get nervous after you finish a project and then start a new one? That’s where I’m at right now. I just finished a multi-chapter short story (under 10K words) for an online gift exchange that I’ve participated in for several years. I think this might be the last year I do it, because I’m itching to dive into my own work.

Many of you know that I had the darndest time finishing this story. I’ve sort of figured out why – it wasn’t the story, per se. I liked the prompt and I really enjoyed the writing. What held me back was a latent fear of what comes after, a knowledge that once I finished that story, I had to stop BS-ing myself and actually sit down and take time to write my own stuff every day. This is why I so enjoy creative writing classes: built in deadlines, quick feedback, explicit assignments, and the I’m-doing-it-for-a-grade mentality. Not that I write for grades (goodness, no!); it’s just that when there’s the knowledge that I’m turning it in, the other fears are suppressed.

I have ungodly-high levels of expectation for my writing, expectations which will probably never be met in this lifetime. And if I ever come close, it will only be through that daily practice of writing. Writing is work – it is a craft, and like any craft, it requires practice. Apprenticeship. Years of toil. Everyone writes shitty first drafts (as Anne Lamott says) and they only get better if you roll up your sleeves and dig in.

Everyone has a different writing process, sort of like how people practice their spirituality/faith in different ways. I had an instructor this last year who is a self-described “binge writer” – she writes multiple chapters in a fury, and then doesn’t write for a few weeks, and then comes back to it. And then there are the folks who write every day, even if it’s only for fifteen minutes. On the faith side of things, I have friends who need daily quiet time and friends who don’t, friends for whom art or dance is their primary mode of worship, and friends who light candles at the alter in their room.

While I can do the binge writing and even the binge praying, truth is, I need a daily schedule to keep myself in the zone and focused. (This is part of why I’m keeping a blog.) I need daily prayer and quiet time, and I’ll preferably be reading a book (Angela Thomas, Katie Brazelton, etc.) along with it. Finding daily faith time is something I’ve got in the habit of over these last two years. But daily writing time… I’m not quite there yet.

I long for a time two summers ago, the time when I finished my first novel. There wasn’t fear or anxiety; it was erased by the knowledge that every day over my lunch hour, I would go to Acoustic Café, order a half hoagie sandwich and a Coke, and then sit for the duration of the hour writing as furiously on yellow legal tablets as I could. It was a daily practice, something I did to keep myself sane in the midst of a crazy internship, and I long – oh, how I long – for that feeling again. I haven’t been writing regularly (save for creative writing classes) since that summer.

A book by Barbara Demarco-Barrett has been my writing salvation for this last year. It’s entitled Pen On Fire: A Busy Woman’s Guide to Igniting the Writer Within. Her writing solution is fifteen minutes a day, plain and simple, whether it’s when the water’s boiling for dinner or when you first wake up in the morning. I took that advice to heart last summer when I worked at a daycare. I would take my legal tablets to work with me, scribbling furiously in the off-moments when the kids were reading or having free time. There weren’t many off-moments, but over the course of the summer, I completed the rough draft of the short story that became part of my honors project.

This last month, I’ve been at home – both at Mom’s and at Dad’s – and I’ve got some writing done, sure. I’ve been writing this blog. But I’ve been lazy about my fiction because I’m so darn afraid of what’s going to happen when I get in that schedule. Part of me is afraid that I’m not going to want to let it go, that embracing my writing means acknowledging that grad school is on the back burner.

It might seem like we’re switching gears here, but I promise we’re not. Let me put it this way: my boyfriend wants to be a professor because he honest to goodness loves teaching physics – and he’s really good at it, too. Me, I love the material. I enjoy literature and lit analysis, lit theory … I never want for research subjects. But when the BF asked me about my ideal job in academia, I said that my ideal was a position where I taught part-time, thus having time for writing. (Because I hold no illusions about professors at liberal arts schools; they work their asses off and are lucky if they get their own research done.)

It’s not that I’ve put writing and grad school into binary opposition, that it’s one or the other. But it’s hard – so hard – to keep writing while you’re in grad school (unless you’re in the MFA program). I have it on the authority of those who know. And writing is not something I want to sacrifice for a life in academe. It’d be great to do both, but I’d rather write.

All this to say, the answer that I gave should have been a clue that the Little Girl Downstairs was alive and well, and that maybe the Big Girl Downstairs was ignoring her strongest desires. The LGD is that six-year-old who declared to her parents that she would be a writer someday and who never relinquished that dream; she is the ten-year-old whose poem about the Titanic was published in the local paper after winning a contest and who realized how wonderful it was to write things other people actually wanted to read – that little girl has never gone away. That little girl longs to write for the rest of her life, and preferably to get paid for it, too. But that little girl is also afraid of what it means to realize her dream.

I think that what our biggest dreams can be the things we’re most afraid of. Funny how that works.

There are only two things I can do at this point: first, pray, because love casts out fear. And second, get my butt in a chair and start writing. Confront the monster head on. Get back in the saddle. Get back to doing what makes me feel more alive than anything else on this earth.

And then, keep doing it.

April 25, 2010

Writing What You Know (& family)

“Write what you know” is one of the “classic” bits of writing advice that I feel pretty okay about disregarding. If people only wrote what they literally knew, we wouldn’t have fantasy, sci-fi, or most of the mysteries and thrillers that dominate the market. Hell, we probably wouldn’t have most romances, either, let alone your stand-alone bestsellers like The Lovely Bones (which I still haven’t read and don’t think I could handle). Not to mention one of my favorite genres, the dystopian novel. 1984, Animal Farm, The Handmaid’s Tale – gone.

Emotional honesty, though – now, that’s something else entirely. In On Writing, Steven King tells us, “The heart also knows things, and so does the imagination. Thank God. If not for the heart and imagination, the world of fiction would be a pretty seedy place. It might not even exist at all.”

If we take “write what you know” literally (as too many writing instructors do, especially in those formative years), we cripple ourselves. But if we are to take it as a mandate to write from the heart, to be as emotionally honest as possible, to write with the integrity necessary to telling a truly good story – well then. Write what you know, indeed.

I think there comes a point in time where most writers understand this. We say, yeah! I can write whatever I want! Boo-yah! (or whatever you yell in moments like that)

But then comes the Oh, Shit Moment when you realize that writing from your heart is freaking hard. To write honestly, you have to be honest with yourself, and not only about yourself, but about your relationships and your job or your classes and, most of all, your family.

I’m writing about this because I’m struggling with this. Today, on this grey, wet Sunday morning, I got an idea for a novel. A big novel. It would be big, that is, in size. I’m thinking about the characters, the arcs, the complexity, and – well, it’s inspired in part by my family. Not based on my family, but some of the themes are ones I’m taking from personal experience.

And the struggle is – okay, I can write it. But what if my mom ever finds out? – which she would, if she was alive when it was published (though a heavenly confrontation is not above her, I’m telling you). Not because I based a character on her, because I’m not about to do that – characters should walk and breathe and become and be their own people – but I know that if certain situations or themes or emotions made it into the novel that relate to my family (as they’re bound to at some point in my writing career)… well, of course she’ll recognize it and know where it comes from, even if Jane Smith on the street is reading going, “Oh my gosh, that’s my family!” having absolutely no idea where I got the inspiration.

You see the dilemma? So, on this business of writing what you know. How the hell do you write what you know when you’re afraid of hurting the people you love? I’ve read the writing manuals on disguising characters, making them physically and geographically as separated from the person (people) you’re basing them on as possible. Also, according to Anne Lamott, you’re supposed to make them anti-Semitic and give them a tiny penis so that they will never recognize themselves.

But let’s face it. The people we’re closest to, the people who live with us, the people who raise us – they know where themes come from. Ideas. Certain scenes, and whatever else you decide to plop in there.

Everyone says you have to free yourself from the fear of hurting your loved ones. You can be honest and respectful at the same time. I get that. But in the back of my mind, there’s still this nagging sense of “what if?”

That’s just something I’ll have to work on. And I’ll start writing the story anyway. Because really, if you don’t write the story you want to tell, why are you writing in the first place?

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