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“Writers don’t write from experience, although many are hesitant to admit that they don’t. …If you wrote from experience, you’d get maybe one book, maybe three poems. Writers write from empathy.”

Nikki Giovanni

When I was in my twenties, before I was taking writing particularly seriously (I was still solidly in the musician phase of my existence), I wanted to write a book fictionalizing my experiences during my year living abroad in London. It’s possible my experiences were interesting enough to warrant such a thing. Maybe. Or not.

But one problem that niggled at the back of mind, even then, was the pesky little question: what novel would I write next? At the time, I had no other ideas, a proposition that blows my mind since I’m now swimming with ideas. But all I had to go on was my own experience.

I feel like there’s this autobiographical stage that many writers go through around when they’re starting out. But I agree with Nikki Giovanni: there may be one novel firmly based in personal experience, possibly even a few, but ultimately that well is limited.

Empathy, on the other hand, can be an infinite resource from which to draw. Empathy allows us to see other perspectives and imagine reactions to different situations.  And when we consider those cases of outstanding writers with a very limited life experience–Emily Dickinson and the Bronte sisters spring to mind as the usual examples–we can posit that these writers possessed a very well-developed sense of empathy that allowed them both to glean as much as possible from the experiences they did have and to write so far beyond that experience.

Photo Credit: Paul Worthington via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Paul Worthington via Compfight cc

However, I do think empathy can be developed through experience. This can include experiences of the imagination, whether that be solely our own imaginations set loose or a collaboration with creators as we read novels, see plays, or watch movies and TV series. It can include our own experience navigating through the world. And it can include the information we come across that informs our understanding of how the world works.

The key, then, is to avoid writing solely through experience, but instead to use experience as a practice ground for developing the empathy that can potentially last through an entire career.

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My friend uses the phrase “having a literary life” to mean, as far as I can tell, having a traumatic childhood. You know, the kind that would feature in a literary short story or possibly even form the foundation of a brilliant autobiographical debut novel with a two-word name, like White Rain or Sublime Bodies or Orchids Burning. (Maybe I’ll call mine Broken Magnolias, after the magnolia tree branch in my backyard I accidentally broke when I was six or seven. It would feature a call-back to Duras’s famous Moderato Cantabile, although in my novel the magnolia would symbolize a loss of innocence instead of female sexuality.)

Carolyn See wrote a book for writers called Making a Literary Life. It concerns establishing a regular writing routine (I think this is the first place I read about having a daily word count), becoming okay with submission and rejection, and writing charming notes to writers you admire.

By both of these metrics I have a literary life. But I would like to offer a third metric.

When I think about leading a literary life, I think of the way writing pervades every aspect of my existence. And don’t think I’m exaggerating; it really does.

When something bad happens to me: well, at least this might come in handy for my writing someday.

When looking for a place to live: does this feel like the kind of place I could write? is this part of my story of myself as a writer?

When engaging with the world: I am curious about all the things because you never know when I might need this knowledge or experience for a project.

When being impulsive: It feeds my creative well when I’m leading an exciting, romantic life. Plus this will make a great story later.

When not being impulsive: I need to focus on my work.

When wallowing: Tragedy! I am experiencing tragedy! Now let’s pour this all out into a cool creative project.

When socializing: If I understand people and their behavior and motivations more thoroughly, then think of the interesting characters I can create.

When out and about: People watching. More people watching. More people watching.

When appreciating the small, the mundane, the ordinary: This vividness of experience will translate so much more strongly on the page. Telling details for the win!

When making decisions: I want to lead the kind of life I wouldn’t be bored to write about, and be the kind of character I wouldn’t be bored to read about.

Such is my literary life.

Books books books!

Books books books!

 

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Last week I wrote about this gem of an article on differences between amateurs and professionals. But I left my favorite item on Bob Lefsetz’s list for today. If I were compiling a list of things about life I wish I’d known as soon as freaking possible, this would go near the top.

Amateurs, he says, believe what people say. Professionals believe what people do.

Which is to say, talking about something is all fine and good, but if subsequent actions don’t line up with the words, it’s generally the actions that point to the deeper truth about what’s going on. This is true not just in professional life, but across the board.

I suffer from a vein of serious gullibility, crossed with a strong desire to believe the best of people, so I still need to remind myself of this lesson. Noble intentions are wonderful to possess, but until we follow through on them, they remain intangible. Similarly, words matter, but if they aren’t backed up with fact, action, or experience, they remain hollow. And words can create false expectations about what will happen in the future.

I do think it takes a certain self awareness and ability to adjust to line up words with actions. And words by their nature sometimes lack the required precision. Which is why the actions themselves are so important. They cut through the potential for misunderstanding. They also help us better understand ourselves and what we care about.

I spend a lot of time thinking about my priorities and then developing plans around them because I don’t want to be a person who regularly expresses desires but then does nothing to make any of them happen. And it is so easy to be that person. It’s not as interesting to be that person, but it does, in my experience, take a lot less effort.

It also takes less courage. Because acting on words makes them real, and it also makes the possibility of failure or success real. And both failure and success can be terrifying because they cause change and require adjustment. As long as we don’t act, we can hold on to our fantasies about what could be true.

In writing, this manifests as the person who professes to want to write or want to build a career as a writer, but who doesn’t write or pursue this seriously. I’m not talking about people going through rough patches–times when life ruthlessly intervenes or we have to take some time to work out how to deal with a particular demon. But ultimately a writer needs to figure out a process that works, a way to actually write and produce, and ideally a way to write that doesn’t solely depend on the occasional burst of inspiration.

Saying we want to be writers or we wish we could be writers is certainly not uncommon, but it is the actions we take in pursuit of this goal that demonstrate how committed and serious we are. And professionals can tell the difference a mile away. This is, I believe, one reason why going to Clarion and other such workshops can be such a door-opener; spending the time and resources on a residential workshop shows a certain level of commitment that professionals respect.

What we do–the actions we take-becomes a large part of who we are.

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I ran across an excellent article on an economics blog I follow called “Amateurs versus Professionals.” It very much applies to what I’ve observed about writing, and I imagine it holds true for many other pursuits and professions as well. I thought it would be fun to expand on some of the points made. (Yes, this is totally what I do for fun. Welcome to my mind.)

After reading this list, it occurs to me that much of the difference between an amateur and a professional is a state of mind. This means that even during the earliest stages of a career, we can aspire to professionalism. And I believe this state of mind will make it much likely to eventually find success.

Here are some points I find particularly relevant:

Execution: Amateurs don’t see their work through. They don’t finish. They don’t find the time, or they get distracted by other shiny ideas, or they allow themselves to be held back by their own fears. To a professional, execution is paramount: “Sure, they occasionally abandon a project when they see further effort is fruitless, but the mark of a pro is someone who begins and ends.”

Image: Amateurs are concerned with image, whereas professionals are concerned with their work.

It can be fun to be involved in the industry, to network and name drop and know “important” people. And knowing writers definitely livens up my social life. But it doesn’t matter who you know if you’re not doing the work. It doesn’t matter how connected you are if you are not finishing any of your projects. The work trumps everything else. And professionals know this in their bones.

Confidence: This one is interesting, because if there is any profession in which professionals are insecure, it’s writing. But professionals tend to express it differently. They are less likely to express their insecurity publicly on the internet. They are less likely to make extreme self-effacing remarks in public. They are more likely to be matter-of-fact about their insecurities if they happen to come up. And they are more likely to deal with their insecurities with their close friends instead of with whoever happens to be around.

A writer must have the confidence to envision entire new worlds in her mind. Photo Credit: h.koppdelaney via Compfight cc

A writer must have the confidence to envision entire new worlds in her mind. Photo Credit: h.koppdelaney via Compfight cc

 

Empathy: Professionals recognize we all have to pay dues, we all have to navigate a series of “breaks,” and we all have our own set of problems.

I wince whenever I hear one writer talk about a professional difficulty, only to have another, usually less experienced writer say, “Oh, I wish I had your problems.” NO. Just NO. First off, problem comparing is not helpful. Second of all, that other writer just passed up a golden learning opportunity. Who knows when this “coveted” problem might be your own? Third, the writer sharing the problem is going to notice the lack of empathy offered and the relationship might be weakened as a result.

Talking/Listening: Amateurs interrupt; professionals listen. Amateurs tend to go on and on with a minimum of prompting. They talk for twenty minutes straight about their current project and then never ask about yours. They inadvertently reveal ignorance because they are so busy filling the space with themselves.

One of my favorite things to do in a professional setting is find someone whose knowledge and opinions I respect and get them talking. And then I sit there asking questions and soaking up everything they say like a super-absorbent sponge. The amount of information I get from doing this is priceless. I already know what I have to say; I want to learn about what other informed people think.

What do you think are important marks of a professional?

 

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I recently read an article by PZ Myers about how silence is political, and it gave me pause. While I do place a lot of importance on having a voice, I am frequently silent. In particular, I often remain silent about the controversy du jour of the science fiction community, of which I am firmly a part.

I remain silent because it is the easy thing to do, and it is my privilege to be able to choose to do so. I remain silent because I want to be liked, and I usually have friends on both sides of the issue. I remain silent because it takes a lot of energy to produce a well-crafted statement of opinion, and sometimes I don’t have that energy to spare.

The choice to remain silent is, however, inherently political. I am choosing not to rock the boat. I am choosing not to expend the energy. I am choosing what is important enough that I’ll brave the inevitable conflict for speaking about it. I don’t know that this is incorrect in that I have finite resources, but it is an act of privilege that I feel I can afford to stay silent, that I even have a choice at all.

Photo Credit: _Zahira_ via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: _Zahira_ via Compfight cc

It is with this in mind that I’m going to talk about my recent decision involving SFWA. For those of you who don’t know, SFWA is the professional organization for science fiction and fantasy writers. My membership came up for renewal last month, and I was quite torn about whether to renew. Much of this, I confess, came down to the mundane fact that I didn’t particularly want to spend the $90 required, but I’ve also been disturbed by the controversies regarding sexism that have been rocking this professional organization for the last year or so. What to do, what to do?

I was speaking about SFWA to a friend of mine who stated he didn’t think he’d join once eligible. He talked about how all the scandal has tarnished SFWA’s reputation and how they don’t behave like a professional organization. He criticized organizational decisions and responses and behavior. He made several valid points.

And to my surprise, I found myself defending SFWA. When an organization is striving to make large and systemic changes, it is bound to be messy and slower than we would wish, I argued. But if I support the intended changes towards more professionalism and less sexism, can I in good conscience abandon the organization before giving them time to correct? The latest revamped Bulletin (the organization’s newsletter) is an excellent example of something deeply positive and helpful coming out of all the controversy of the last year.

Ultimately I feel that my decision as to whether to remain a SFWA member is also political. And this year, I chose to pay my dues and stay a part of the organization.

I believe that communities cannot change without experiencing growing pains. And a lot of the controversy of the last year and a half is happening because people are no longer staying silent. Having people speak up about difficult issues almost always causes a push-back. Just as some people in my life were unhappy with my decision to leave my people-pleasing days behind me, so some people in SFWA have been unhappy with those members who have chosen to speak out against the sexism of the Bulletin, among other issues. Change is hard and painfully slow. But the only way the change will stick is if the people invested in the change hold the course.

So yes, sometimes SFWA does not act like the professional organization it is striving to become. Sometimes its officers make errors of judgment. Sometimes it seems like its responses are ridiculously slow. But I believe it is on the course to becoming more professional. And I’m willing to give it some more time to see if it’s able to continue to transform itself into an organization of which I am proud to be a member.

Next year I’ll probably go through the same mental gymnastics in order to decide whether to renew. But for now, I’ve put my money where my mouth is, and I’m speaking up about my decision.

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Today I’m taking part in the “My Writing Process” blog tour. I was invited to participate by my friend and last-name sister writer, Ingrid Sundberg, who posted about the same topic last week. (And can I just say, the novel she’s working on right now sounds INCREDIBLE and I want to read it. A steampunk retelling of Peter Pan? Awesome!)

What are you working on?

I buried the lede in last week’s post, but I just recently finished the rough draft of my latest novel, which has the working title Beast Girl. It’s a contemporary YA retelling of Beauty and the Beast from the perspective of a female beast.

“Now what?” many people want to know. This week I’ll be going back through the manuscript, checking the places I marked with brackets and going through my list of notes on things I wanted to fix. Then I’ll print the whole thing out and read it, taking more notes as I go. Once I’m satisfied I have a basically cohesive novel, I’ll send it out to my first reader for his feedback.

How does your work differ from others of its genre?

A lot of fairy tale retellings fall into the fantasy genre (ie they have some kind of magical or secondary world element) and/or the historical genre (they are set sometime in the past). Mine is set smack in the present with no magic whatsoever.

Other than that, I have no idea, given that I haven’t actually read the thing yet.

Why do you write what you do?

This question has caused me some existential angst, from which I may never recover.

But seriously, I write YA because the teen experience speaks to me. It’s such a rich time of life, filled with possibilities and discoveries and confusion and emotion. Fiction that grabs me often involves tough choices, and there are so many tough choices to be made when you’re a teenager…and often the first tough choices you’ve ever had to make.

How does your writing process work?

I like to have things planned out and organized, and I like to have a schedule. But I also recognize that during a creative process, things aren’t always going to work out the way I’ve planned. There has to be room for flexibility and taking advantage of what is uncovered. That being said, I generally have a daily goal of some kind, whether that be word count, page count (for revising), or time spent. At the beginning of a project, my goals tend to be a lot fuzzier, but once I start on the rough draft, things get real.

I don’t have any particular writing ritual: no beverage I need to have, or a specific place I need to write, or the right mood music. I do prefer to write in a quiet place without interruptions. And I have to have a place to write that works for me ergonomically-speaking. I also like it when my dog is nearby. It can be a struggle to focus on what I’m doing, but so far I haven’t found any rituals that are particularly helpful for improving my focus. I still experiment from time to time with these sorts of things, though.

I also like to have something I’m concentrating on improving while I’m writing. This varies from project to project and even within the same project. For example, in Beast Girl I was paying a lot of attention to character and voice. For Academy of Forgetting, I spent a lot of time honing in on structure and plot. And within these larger aspects, I try to drill down to smaller specifics that I’m working on. I think targeted practice is important for improving oneself as a writer.

And the tour goes on….

My long-time readers know how much I fail at these kind of blog memes, and especially at tagging other people to participate in them. So it should come as no big surprise that I didn’t ask anyone to do a similar post for next week. I encourage you to go ahead and do it if the questions sound interesting to you.

I often use my lack of tagging as an opportunity to talk about other blogs I’m reading right now, but I have a confession to make: I haven’t been reading many blogs lately. It’s been way too busy with the move and the novel and life. So the few blogs I’ve kept up with are the ones I mention again and again: the blogs of Rahul Kanakia, Theodora Goss, and Ferrett Steinmetz. They are such good blogs I made time for them! I’ve also been following the Youtube show Emma Approved, a modern-day adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma, produced by the same people who did the Lizzie Bennett Diaries. It’s on sabbatical for the month of May, so now is an excellent time to catch up if you’re interested.

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I was talking to an old friend this weekend about the meaning of life. You know, the way you do. It wasn’t even ridiculously late at night, and we didn’t take the morbid side path that’s usually an option in such conversations. The next day I happened to read Theodora Goss’s “Feeling Alive,” and so here we are, delving back into one of my favorite topics.

One of Dora’s main points is that there is the Frankl theory about meaning (projects, connections with people, and attitude) and then there is the Campbell theory that it’s more important to have the feeling of being alive than to know the meaning of life. (Does this make anyone else think of Sondheim’s song “Being Alive?”)

While there is an overlap between these two, many of the little things in life that I appreciate so much fall into the “Feeling Alive” category. Feeling alive can be a very physical experience, even hedonistic, whether we’re talking about having an amazing foodie experience or jumping out of an airplane or traveling around the world. Waking up after a good night’s sleep, sitting in the sun, hiking in the hills: all of these experiences remind me that I’m alive.

Photo Credit: Spencer Finnley via Compfight cc

And then there’s art, which in my experience falls squarely into both categories. Because art makes me feel more alive AND it is often through art (both creating and appreciating) that I find my own meaning. And I think those things that do fall into both categories have particular resonance for many of us.

What I don’t think is that every category like this is going to have the same resonance for everyone. And I also reject the notion that there is only way to find meaning for all of us. Finding meaning through art isn’t going to be right for everyone. Finding meaning through having kids and raising a family isn’t going to be right for everyone. Finding meaning through saving lives isn’t going to be right for everyone. (For example, I am sadly way too squeamish to ever have made it through medical school.)

But when we find something (whatever that something is) that works concurrently to make us discover our meaning and feel more alive in the process, then we’re onto something important.

I feel lucky because from a young age I realized art and meaning were intimately connected for me. For a long time I envied other people who had practical aspirations and knew what career they were going to pursue, especially when the career in question had a relatively straightforward path to success. Art isn’t like that. Art isn’t usually straightforward, and art is never a sure thing. But art has always been my personal pathway to fulfillment, and now I realize how precious that really is.

I’m saying art instead of writing because I was a musician before I started writing seriously, and my connection to my music felt much the same. I had a short period of time in my 20s in which I wasn’t engaged in any art whatsoever, and even though I’ve lived through much harder times, that period of time stands out in my memory for its relative bleakness. I realize now that is because that has been the only time I’ve been without much connection to meaning. I just kind of did things to do them, with most of the passion leached from them. Without my meaning, I also felt less alive overall. It was an eye-opening experience for me, and one I’m not eager to repeat.

What did I learn from it? That art makes me happy to wake up in the morning. Art inspires me and challenges me and keeps me from getting bored. As long as my relationship with art continues, I have meaning built into my life. It is a very intimate experience, one that both encompasses outside influences and all the people I’ve met and one that excludes them because the art goes on with or without them.

Which do you think is more important: finding meaning in life or feeling alive? Or are they linked, as they are for me?

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