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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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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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In both composing music and writing, we talk about the value of limits.

Shouldn’t the imagination be limitless, you might ask?

Well, yes and no. Without some sort of structure within which to organize the imagination, the end result tends to be disjointed, rambling, and/or incoherent. Structure tends to allow the impact of a work to be more easily conveyed and understood. Even experiments in looser structure or “no” structure are informed by their structure or lack thereof, and they are using that difference or lack to say something.

This is why in music we have different forms: the sonata, the concerto, the art song cycle, the rondo, the fugue. Each form has its rules, and the rules must be understood before some of them may perhaps be broken or subverted or played with. In a similar way, prose has different forms, common structures, and genres that form sandboxes within which we play. (And even if we leave the sandbox all together, it’s rare that our work isn’t somehow informed by that fact.)

Structure lends definition to our ideas, which in turn gives us more artistic freedom. If we literally have every single note of every single rhythmic value at every time at our disposal, there are so many possibilities it becomes difficult to think. We face decision paralysis, or at the very least spend huge amounts of time considering such a large number of alternatives, most of which wouldn’t be very effective at all in practice. Structure frees us to consider more possibilities by narrowing down the scope of our canvas.

A very structured waffle. I can attest to the fact that it was quite delicious.

A very structured waffle. I can attest to the fact that it was quite delicious.

Sometimes life feels very similar to me. As nice as all that advice sounds to “live life without limits,” if you spend more than a few minutes thinking about it, it’s simply not practical. We are constantly placing limits on ourselves and our lives: where we decide to live (or if we decide to be nomadic, because that places different constraints); what careers/education we decide to pursue; what lifestyle choices we make; how we spend our time. Because each minute we decide to spend practicing piano is a minute we aren’t going to be spending writing or cooking dinner or hanging out with family or what-have-you. Ultimately we are limited by the number of hours in the day, by the number of hours we need to spend sleeping, and by our finite life spans, as well as by a host of other individual mental, emotional, and physical traits.

While some of these limits can be frustrating (why do I need eight hours of sleep per night? why?), they ultimately allow us to set our priorities and pursue our lives according to what we value and find important. Overall this is a positive thing.

Except when it isn’t. We become so used to living within limits and imposing more limits upon ourselves, at a certain point we might stop being conscious with our decisions. Not only that, we might not even recognize there is a choice in the first place. This is when limits move from being a force of good to being a force that holds people back.

Limits help us make decisions, be who we want to be, and accomplish what we want to accomplish. But limits also exist to be questioned. It is only through questioning that we can discover which limits are useful and which are unnecessary. It is only through questioning that we can determine which limits are real and which are unconscious beliefs we hold that might not actually be true.

It is only through questioning that we can realize our full potential, whether that be in a specific creative project or the creative project that is life.

 

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I’m back from the Rainforest Writers’ Retreat, and what a lovely five days I had! After all the hullaballoo of looking for a place to live, I was even more ready than normal to have time away from my cell phone and the logistics of my life. Whenever stress would intrude (say, from an e-mail from my current landlord), I’d go outside and look at the lake–sometimes rippling in the wind, sometimes a perfect mirror of the clouds overhead–and I’d feel much, much better.

It's hard to look at such beauty and not feel something loosen inside. Photo by Amy Sundberg (me!)

It’s hard to look at such beauty and not feel something loosen inside. Photo by Amy Sundberg (me!)

While my writing focus has been much improved this year compared to last year, I’ve been noticing as February progressed and the house search continued its grim plod that it was gradually worsening. It was taking me longer to get started writing every day, and I was taking more and more breaks. By the time I actually found my soon-to-be home at the beginning of last week, my focus was so shaky I had lowered my daily word count goal. So I went into Rainforest this year worried about my ability to produce.

I’m happy to say I was as productive as I hoped to be, which gave me food for thought. Why, I’ve been wondering, am I so much more productive and focused at Rainforest than at home? And is there any way to replicate any of Rainforest’s effects?

Factors that make Rainforest work so well for my productivity:

1. It’s remote, with no phones or cell reception, and very spotty internet connection. Without much communication from the outside world, it’s much easier to focus.

2. I clear the decks for the trip, which means for the most part I don’t have real world concerns intruding on my time or focus either. (Real concerns can range from daily dog care to doing my taxes to planning this social activity to going to appointments to doing chores.)

3. The word count board builds in accountability to my peers. This works better than an announcement on Twitter would because there’s a more tangible feeling of community and that we’re all in this together. I see people writing constantly, and conversation often revolves around how the writing is going that day.

4. I have extra motivation because of the resources used to take the trip, which ends up giving me the feeling that I’d better make this time count.

5. Because I have lofty (for me) daily word count goals, I tend to engage in less general shilly-shallying while ostensibly writing.

6. My writing day is more structured with meals and activities than it often is at home.

Some of these factors are hard to duplicate at home, most notably #2. I have to spend a certain amount of time each day dealing with life stuff, and sometimes that amount of time is much higher than I would ideally want it to be. So it goes.

Today, though, my first day back writing at home, I experimented with #5, otherwise known as the Shilly-shallying problem. And lo and behold, since I am now less accustomed to shilly-shally after a few days of better writing habits, I was able to cut down a great deal on the procrastinating that can accompany writing. And this on a day when I had a great many stressful life concerns piled up and demanding attention. Key to this, I think, was encouraging the belief that I could write my words in spite of what life was throwing at me, as well as remembering what it felt like to take those concerns and put them off to one side for a while and very deliberately doing that during my writing time.

I’m going to keep playing with that, and soon I’d like to experiment with #6 and see if adding a little more structure might help my productivity as well.

What has helped you become more productive?

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Some of you will remember that after many tribulations, I decided to leave last year’s novel unfinished, at least in the short term. So a question that I’ve been necessarily invested in is this: What do you do after a failure? How do you move forward?

Luckily for me, I knew exactly what project I wanted to work on next, and I spent several weeks brainstorming, researching, and outlining. But making the leap to actually putting words of the novel on the page took a surprising amount of discipline.

So I was fascinated to read Megan McArdle’s recent article in the Atlantic entitled “Why Writers are the Worst Procrastinators.” While the article ends up waxing on parenting techniques, it also postulates that the reason writers procrastinate so much is because the fear of not meeting a deadline has to become greater than the fear of having the end product suck. Basically, we procrastinate because we’re afraid of failure.

I’ve definitely noticed that I’m more afraid of writing than I usually am. As a consequence, I’m allowing myself longer periods of time to get the writing done (building procrastination time into my schedule, as it were). I’ve also begun listening to music while I write. I’ve always preferred silence while writing, but now I’m trying to distract myself from worrying that the writing won’t go well, and music helps divert my focus from thinking about failure to thinking about the work.

The funny thing is, for all that I’m worried, the writing is actually going just fine. I’m writing a rough draft, so there are going to have to be many revisions, as always. But I finished the first act earlier this week, and so far I feel like I have a good handle on what I’m trying to accomplish. There is none of that feeling of floundering around in the dark that I had with last year’s novel, but instead simply a striving to write to the best of my abilities.

Apparently, this is the way to go, embracing the challenge instead of obsessing over how the end result will turn out. As with so many things in life, staying in the present seems to be a helpful idea to keep in mind.

What to do differently… Photo Credit: Mufidah Kassalias via Compfight cc

So what really happens after a failure? We figure out what went wrong. We decide how we want to go about the next attempt differently. And then we go for it, all the while knowing this could be a failure too, but trying to stay in the present and revel in the process.

Because this could also be the time that everything clicks together and we create something that works.

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Now that I’m back home from ConFusion, and after talking a bit about impostor syndrome, a few of you might be wondering how my panels went.

Short answer: I had a great time!

Longer answer: Once I was at the convention, any nerves I had melted magically away. I had been afraid I’d be that panelist who sits there silently while everyone else talks, but that didn’t happen. I always had a lot to say, and most of the panels went by very quickly. Plus I had the great fortune to share the panels with a lot of intelligent and well-spoken people, talking about subjects that I am very interested in.

My favorite panel was “What Does Rejection Mean?” Not surprisingly, I can talk about the psychology of being a writer (or more generally, being an artist) all day long, and I also really liked what my fellow panelists had to say. I moderated three of the five panels, having only prepped to moderate one of them. I’m a planner so the idea of moderating on the fly is one that filled me with a certain horror, but as it turned out, I was able to improvise without too much difficulty.

Getting ready for battle

Getting ready for battle

I decided a couple of months ago to set myself a few goals that I could have confidence in my ability to complete while definitely still stretching myself. So many of my goals are long in duration, very challenging, and involve a lot of me stumbling around and making mistakes. This is necessary; I am ambitious. But sometimes it’s good to balance all the striving with achievement I know I can reach quickly if I commit myself to it. Participating on these panels at ConFusion was one of those short-term achievable goals, and it was a welcome change to try something that made me nervous but that I knew I had the skills to do. (I have another of these goals coming up in a few weeks, so more about that soon!)

More generally, I always have a great time at ConFusion, and this year was no exception. I was struck by how much value I receive when I have the opportunity to spend time with my fellow writers, whether they’re just starting out, have been around a few years like I have, or are at more advanced stages of their careers.

I’d been feeling a bit bummed out ever since my last novel fell apart, operating under a cloud of discouragement. I didn’t let this feeling stop me from planning my next novel project or continuing to query agents, but it’s been there, and it hasn’t been pleasant. For lack of a better way to describe it, I haven’t been feeling writerly. ConFusion reminded me of who I am and what I’m trying to accomplish, and talking to other writers about our projects and our processes has given me a renewed sense of focus.

Being writerly at the ConFusion barcon. Photo by Al Bogdan

Being writerly at the ConFusion barcon. Photo by Al Bogdan, 2014

More generally, I’ve been thinking of how important my writer community is to me. As a consequence, I’m bumping a Seattle visit up the priority list this year and considering the possibility of scheduling some Skype writer dates. Too much creative isolation does not a happy Amy make.

All in all, it was a very successful and productive weekend.

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