Go Ahead…Color Outside the Lines and Create a Masterpiece

On this, the last day of August, I find myself eagerly awaiting September 1. This year the date coincides with Labor Day and although I am not a toiler at physical labor except what it takes to keep my apartment relatively respectable, I’ll celebrate in honor of writers.

Writers are the toilers in the literary vineyard who find joy and satisfaction in our work along with the usual frustrations that make us sometimes believe that the Sisyphus story reads like our own biography. We push the boulder of writing up the hill only to have it roll back down at the end of the day.

In pursuit of publication – which is, let’s be honest here, the goal of nearly every person reading this – we writers are open to any and all advice. And there’s plenty of it out there.

You know the advice I mean. Articles in magazines and websites for writers including the annoying “lists”: “Ten Things Every Writer…” “Five Mistakes No Writer Should…” “Ten Ways to Make Your Characters…” et cetera, et cetera and so forth (as the King of Siam once said).

Along with these are the “success” stories like “How I Found My Agent” which tell you in great detail about the incredibly lucky thing that happened on the way to the publisher and landed the storyteller a nice three-book deal, oh and did I mention, my uncle is the chief editor for the publishing house? Surely you have an uncle in the business and can have the same great luck with your book.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy for every writer who finds an agent or gets published. And I have nothing against uncles in the business nor using whatever connections you may have to further your writing career. I have nothing against lists although I think they’re better used to remember what you need at the market or who gets what for Christmas.

What I am against is that these and a lot of other articles in writer’s magazines are misleading and prey on the hopes of those who want to get published, especially those who do all the hard work of writing and take it seriously. These articles remind me way too much of articles in women’s magazines that promise perfect bodies or skin or sex if you just do these five or six things.

They both lead to a lot of disappointment. And they shove the wonderfully creative process of writing into narrow little rule-bound boxes.

For me the best writing advice came from Peter Elbow, teacher and author, in his 1980 book, Writing with Power. He professes writing as a two-step process in which the writer first works creatively to produce one, two, more drafts and then works critically to revise the drafts into polished and finished work.

I adopted this idea and distilled it into my own Two Rules for Writing which I apply at Skylark Writing Studio. My students are always relieved to know there are only two rules. Here they are:

1. Get the words down.
2. Fix them.

Along with the two rules, I always provide students with the other great bit of writing advice provided by Ernest Hemingway in an interview by George Plimpton for The Paris Review:

“Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
Hemingway: It depends, I rewrote the ending to A Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, thirty-nine times before I was satisfied.
Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Hemingway: Getting the words right.”

Use writer’s magazines for what they are – a tool. Use them to learn about grants and writing/publishing opportunities. Use them to keep up with the publishing world. Take what you can from the articles, but don’t be stymied by the lists of ten or five or eight things every writer must do – suppose you only do nine or four or seven? – or the stories of other people’s successes.

They did it their way. You’ll have to do it yours.

And in the end, getting the words down and fixing them is the only way to finally get the words right.

Happy Labor Day and a toast to all you toilers in the literary vineyard!


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Woof! The Dog Days of Summer Are Here

The dog days of August are upon me and I’m inspired – to do absolutely nothing!

I have the novel-in-progress waiting for my return, and a couple of art projects – also waiting. I started a poem and gave it up. It’s been almost a month since I’ve posted anything here and my website still isn’t finished.

Do I feel guilty? Not at all.

A friend from Los Angeles, an actress/writer/director called over the weekend and lamented her lack of motivation to do anything, complicated by personal things adding to the inertia. She was in that “I don’t think I’ll ever create anything again” place that’s a very dark place for anyone in the business of creating – writers, musicians, artists and all the rest.

(I wonder – if a chef can’t think of anything to cook for dinner does he think he’ll never cook again?)

My advice to my friend was to give herself a sabbatical. And it’s my advice to you, too, if the summer doldrums have hit – or when the autumn, winter, spring doldrums catch up with you.

This is not an excuse to procrastinate forever with your creative work. It’s just a way of acknowledging that while there are dynamos who never stop for a minute, we’re not them.

And here’s the thing: unless you spend your sabbatical locked in a closet (please don’t do that), it will give you experiences and people and ideas you can incorporate into your work when you get back to it. You might be surprised.

I mentioned something recently to another creative friend, something I do in my everyday life that I’ve never thought twice about, but she saw it as a great possibility for an odd character in my novel (okay, I’m odd). She laughed and said, “You have to put that in the book.” So maybe I will. It didn’t seem that odd to me, but hey, if it made someone laugh…

The other thing about the sabbatical is that it will end – they always do – and you’ll get back to your work. The muse is never far away. In fact, if you’re on the beach or by a pool in the August heat as you read this, your muse is no doubt on the next lounge chair or beach towel sipping a margarita and getting a nice tan.

We do have to be diligent about our work but we don’t have to put on hair shirts or whack ourselves with a two by four if we don’t keep up our work schedules all the time.

However, if you’ve received a generous advance (do these still exist?) and have a deadline, no sabbatical for you. You’d better put down that margarita and get cracking. For the rest of us, please pass the salt and the suntan lotion.

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“I’d Particularly Like to Thank…”

At some point in our writing careers, most of us want to find readers for our work, readers who can give us useful feedback and whose names we’ll generously include in the acknowledgements when our book is published.

Don’t believe me? Just look at the acknowledgements for any book on your shelf and you’ll see what I mean. Here’s a small sample from my own library:

“Among the trusted readers who’ve helped me hone this book, I want to give particular thanks to…”

“…helped restructure and refine the early draft into a much superior book.”

“It is with the grace of Providence that I was led into the company of the following people, whose generosity, enthusiasm, and good shepherding sustained me in writing this book…”

The folks who appear in your acknowledgements play no small part in the writing.

I’ll be honest – what we all want is to come to the final line of a story or poem or book and be able to sit back knowing we’ve created – all by ourselves – a masterpiece. Writing is, after all, a solitary pursuit. We don’t need an orchestra to make beautiful music. Or do we?

And so we come to choosing our readers. How do we do this to get the kind of feedback that will help us, readers we trust, readers with enthusiasm and generosity as well as keen eyes and hearts brave enough to be honest with us? Readers whose names will be included in our books?

Beyond that, how do we set aside our own egos in order to hear what a brave and intelligent reader might tell us?

I have one particular reader who has been with me through nearly my entire writing career. He is not a writer. He’s an internationally known jazz musician who loves to read. His comments to me are always astute and helpful, intelligent and thoughtful. I can’t imagine going forward with a big project without his eyes on it.

I generally also ask at least two other people to read the material and the choice depends somewhat on the material. When I finished the first “polished” draft of a novel that had a lot to do with the Vietnam war, I asked someone who’d been there and was a writer, to give me feedback. Since the novel was what is now called “women’s fiction,” I also asked a couple of women who read a lot of good books to take a look.

And I never ask anyone to give me feedback unless I provide them with a few guidelines: What questions do I have about the work? About specific scenes and characters? What do I want to know about the clarity of the writing? What’s missing? Was anything confusing?

Readers are a bit at a loss when facing a book-length manuscript without such guidance, and you’re likely to just get back general comments like, “I enjoyed it.” You’ll be glad to know this, but it won’t help you much as a writer. Or they might start editing – correcting your punctuation and spelling. This is not the kind of feedback you need until you’re ready for an editor.

More than anything else, I ask my readers to simply let me know what works and what doesn’t work.

This is perhaps the most useful strategy in making readers feel comfortable and also in steering readers away from judgmental terms like “good” or “bad.” It’s important because less courageous readers are not going to tell you something is “bad” even though it may be a chapter or a passage that needs to be fixed.

Your friends and your mother will tell you it’s “good,” but more often than not this is because they love you and not because it says anything about the writing.

“Does it work?” is much more likely to elicit feedback you can really use.

My last piece of advice about readers is this: When you get all that feedback, read through it and then put it aside. The urge to accept all suggestions or the urge to reject them as having been made by people who were not nearly as intelligent as you’d believed are both likely to take you down a bumpy road.

Give yourself time to think about the suggestions and then, oh a couple of weeks or a month or two months later (this happened to me), pull them out again, decide which of them make sense to you and get started on your revisions.

In your idle moments, you can start writing those acknowledgements. Be sure you get the names right.

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Into Each Life Some Damned Annoyance Must Fall – Be Grateful!

In his poem, “Sunday Night,” Raymond Carver advises writers to “Make use of the things around you…put it all in, make use.”

Carver himself told about working on a short story when he looked up and saw a man walking down the street. The next thing he knew, he said, “the damned guy was in the story.”

Actors are told the same thing. If something unexpected happens on stage, “Use it!”

I mention this because life has a way of upsetting whatever plans we might have and those plans include working on our writing.

We carefully lay out a schedule for our writing – every day, every other day, mornings from 8:00 a.m. to noon, evenings from 7:00 p.m. to midnight, all day Sunday – a schedule that works for us and seems just right.

Then life knocks on the door. Much as we try to protect our time and our privacy, something happens, somebody interrupts, an emergency that can’t wait pins us to the wall. Even writers who live alone and feel well-insulated are not immune to these happenings.

You know exactly what your characters are going to do next and why and how and then – bingo! The knock on the door.

I’m here to suggest that you think about Carver’s advice. And the advice to actors. Use it. Use it all. Live your life like a writer and make use of the world around you.

What was it that caused the interruption, that blasted through your schedule? Who was it who ignored your “Writer at Work, Please Don’t Disturb” sign and wrecked your afternoon or evening? What was said? Who did what and why?

Yes, it’s annoying, who would disagree? But you just might have been handed the key to a difficult scene or a narrative problem you’ve been trying to solve.

I speak from experience. Recent experience. I was hearing too much about a particular person and being compared to the person (yes, you guessed right if you guessed this was some kind of romantic involvement and the person I was hearing about was an ex). I hated it.

Then I thought about giving a character in the novel exactly the qualities I was hearing about – and exaggerating them (writers get to do this). From that moment, I didn’t want to hear less about her – I wanted to hear more. I wanted to hear everything. For now, I’m even using her name in the novel. I’ll change that later to protect the guilty, but two things have happened.

1. I like what’s happening with the story now that this slightly altered nuisance is in it.
2. It’s terrifically cathartic.

So, don’t let the world impinge on your writing and drive you to distraction. Use it. Make use.

Put the damn guy in the story.


Filed under Literature, Writing

The Big Three – Choices, Distractions and Trade-Offs

I was reminded today of a couple of poems that describe a life in the arts, which of course includes the literary arts. The poems speak of trade-offs, the kinds of trade-offs serious artists, musicians, writers all make in order to do their work.

Now, I realize that not every writer or painter or guitar player wants to have a serious career in the arts, but the poems speak to us even so. Because there really is no such thing as doing art or writing or music even as a hobby that doesn’t require of us some attention to that work, serious attention.

I’ve never understood people who want to “dabble” in the arts. That is, people who want to “fool around” with writing or visual art or music or any other form with no desire to learn or get better or produce anything they want to show to another person.
What’s the point?

Life is short and we each have only so many days on the planet. If we’re going to spend our time doing something – anything – shouldn’t that something mean something to us? And if it means something to us, wouldn’t we want to do the best we can with it?

Or are we like the man I read about long ago who said he already knew what he wanted to know about things and didn’t need to learn anything new?

These two poems speak to a life in the arts, but they could be speaking of a life in any field – auto racing, baking, map making, fishing – you name it. If we are dedicated to something, we stick with it. We keep learning and getting better.

How are you doing with your writing these days? Still learning? Getting better? If not, maybe you want to think about another line of work. Or do you already know what you want to know and don’t need to learn anything new?

Here’s the thing – attention to our chosen work takes time. Time. And if we start giving away our time all over the place to this thing or that, distraction or good deed, we run out of it. I’m not telling you how to spend your time. I’m just saying think about it and make the choices that mean something to you.

Here are the poems. The poets own the copyrights.

You Want a Social Life, with Friends
Kenneth Koch

You want a social life, with friends.
A passionate love life and as well
To work hard every day. What’s true
Is of these three you may have two
And two can pay you dividends
But never may have three.

There isn’t time enough, my friends–
Though dawn begins, yet midnight ends–
To find the time to have love, work, and friends.
Michelangelo had feeling
For Vittoria and the Ceiling
But did he go to parties at day’s end?

Homer nightly went to banquets
Wrote all day but had no lockets
Bright with pictures of his Girl.
I know one who loves and parties
And has done so since his thirties
But writes hardly anything at all.


The Art Of Disappearing
Naomi Shihab Nye

When they say Don’t I know you?

say no.

When they invite you to the party
remember what parties are like
before answering.

Someone telling you in a loud voice
they once wrote a poem.
Greasy sausage balls on a paper plate.
Then reply.

If they say we should get together.
say why?

It’s not that you don’t love them any more.
You’re trying to remember something
too important to forget.
Trees. The monastery bell at twilight.

Tell them you have a new project.
It will never be finished.

When someone recognizes you in a grocery store
nod briefly and become a cabbage.

When someone you haven’t seen in ten years
appears at the door,
don’t start singing him all your new songs.
You will never catch up.

Walk around feeling like a leaf.
Know you could tumble any second.
Then decide what to do with your time.

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The Flowered Cow Revisited

Following up my last post on the fine art of revising, I’m re-posting here something I wrote for an earlier websketch/blog called The Flowered Cow. (You can still read the old posts on that site at http://thefloweredcow.wordpress.com if you’re interested.)

Posted on November 2, 2012

Today, working on revisions to my novel, I decided to play a little “Let’s Pretend.” Let’s pretend it’s not the Age after Typewriters.

Let’s pretend I’m not writing on a computer but on my old red Selectric. Let’s pretend that I can’t easily fix a typing mistake. Let’s pretend that every time I make an error, I have to either start over or make a messy erasure and let’s pretend I’m making two carbon copies at the same time, so I not only have to erase the original, but the error on both those copies.

Writing a novel on a typewriter is nothing at all like writing a novel, or anything else, on a computer. I know. I’m old enough to have done both, beginning with the manual Underwood I used in Mr. Haase freshman typing class at Walla Walla High School and moving forward to the classy Selectrics we used in the law offices of a large corporation years later. I was good. I could type 100 words per minute with no errors. It was a highly marketable skill in those days.

Then we got computers.

A lot of things changed when PCs became the standard in offices and for writers. Studies have been done about the quality of writing (or lack of) that accompanies the use of computers. I know all about that, so today I decided to go back in time as best I could. I don’t have a Selectric any more and I gave my old Royal manual to the son of a friend a few years ago. He was more interested in the mechanics than the quality of the typing, but I was fine with that. I liked the kid’s sense of curiosity.

I began a complete rewrite of the novel today. I’ve been picking away at it for weeks now and making good progress. Today, I wanted to start from the beginning and come up with what used to be called “fair copy” – clean, error-free copy, beginning with a clean white page.

Without a typewriter, I can only play Let’s Pretend, and I’ve been at it all day. I’m retyping the entire novel. Yes, there are sections I could cut and paste, but that defeats what I’m after.

In the Age of Typewriters, the complete retyping served many purposes not the least of which was giving the writer an opportunity to re-think the entire project, start to finish, in one whole piece. And that’s no small thing.

This business of computer cutting and pasting, moving single lines or big clumps of lines from one place to another is creating too much fragmented, error-filled, redundant writing that never quite recovers. You see it all the time in newspaper stories and online. I’ve seen it in my own work when I’ve tried to delete a few words but the computer takes out an entire line instead or I’ve repeated myself without hearing it.

We can do better, and on behalf of my novel, I decided to do better. So I’m retyping start to finish. I’m not cutting or pasting anything. I’m completely revising some sections. I’m seeing problems that I didn’t see before. I’m noticing places where I was overwriting and places where I need a little more detail.

I’ve got 300 more pages to go, but I’m already seeing the result, and it’s just what I’d hoped for – a tighter, cleaner manuscript that flows smoothly and will, as John Gardner advises, keep the dreamer dreaming.

I’ll be happy to have my computer when I do the final edit, I know that. I’m as attached as anyone else. But for the process of revising, I suggest you give the “fair copy” idea a try. Start at the beginning and retype the entire novel or story or play or article. As my old auntie would say: “It’ll do you good besides helping you.”

If only I could pull those clean pages out of the typewriter and stack them neatly again, one by one, on the table beside me. What a great sense of accomplishment. Despite the advertising and the hype, computers really can’t do everything.

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The “Flowers of Afterthought”

A writer friend does something she calls “book divining” (I’ve forgotten exactly what she calls it but that’s close enough) in which she opens a book to a page at random and finds something of value – a poem, a line of prose, anything.

In one of my favorite movies, “Next Stop Wonderland,” Hope Davis, the leading character does the same thing, a trick her late father taught her. The trick plays a major role in how things turn out, but that’s a different story (and one you might like, especially if you like Brazilian jazz).

This morning I pulled a book from my long shelf of books for writers and tried the trick. The book is from the Modern Library Writers Workshop series and is A Guide to the Craft of Fiction by Stephen Koch, former chair of Columbia University’s creative writing program.

This is one of my favorite books for writers – straightforward, encouraging even as it calls on writers to be serious about their work and pay attention to the meaning of the word “craft.” Koch invokes many well-known writers and offers their own words of wisdom about the process. Koch has been described as a “benevolent mentor” and, judging from the book, I’d guess this is exactly right. Even on paper that benevolence comes through.

When I opened the book at random, I found myself in the middle of a discussion about “working and reworking.” Two paragraphs on the page offered thoughts by two writers whose work I admire: Bernard Malamud and Raymond Carver.

Reworking a piece of writing is not something a lot of writers enjoy, but Malamud and Carver offer insight into the particular pleasures of reworking, revision, redrafting – call it what you will – that many of us, myself included, like best about the process.

Let’s be honest. Any fool with a wordprocessor at hand can spew out words and call it writing. But it takes a serious mind coupled with a love of language to turn those words into something anyone else wants to read.

Malamud says the first draft of a story “…puts the story in place. The second focuses, develops, subtilizes. By the third most of the dross is gone…First drafts are for learning what your story or novel is about…” He concludes his thoughts with this line which I might just have to put on a bumper sticker or tee-shirt:

“I love the flowers of afterthought.”

Brilliant! Anyone who’s ever wished he or she could replay a conversation and respond with a “flower of afterthought,” a perfect bon mot (“I wish I’d said…”) can do just that as a writer. We call it reworking the material.

Raymond Carver is known for the number of drafts of his short stories, some of them very short indeed. He believed his “real work” began only after the first draft was finished and then he went on to do three or four revisions. He hurried with the first drafts and left space for material that didn’t come quickly.

“Some scenes I save until the second or third draft, because to do them and do them right would take too much time on the first draft.”

Koch writes about fast and slow drafts and suggests that if you are a fast first-drafter, your second draft should go very slowly. Work on every sentence and paragraph and choose carefully the second time around. If you are a slow first-drafter, you’ll be able to move much more quickly through a second draft with a deeper understanding of your story from the get-go.

There’s no right or wrong way to work on our writing. The critical thing is to work on it.

Over the years, many writing students have presented me work that “just came out finished.” I’m always skeptical. I’m skeptical for two reasons.

First, I don’t believe there are many writers who can produce work that just “comes out finished.” I know there are a few exceptions but they’re rare, really rare, and neither you nor I are among them.

Second, I believe deeply that real writers love language. They relish the opportunity to play with words, to write and then re-write. Not to the point of never producing anything – that’s a different problem. But because the first draft is like a lump of clay that begins to take the shape of something beautiful. It’s the reworking and molding and tender attention that turns the lump into what it was meant to be. And writers who want to get the words down and be done with it (damn it!) are not real writers at all.

If I’m stepping on any toes, I apologize, but don’t expect apologies from Bernard Malamud or Raymond Carver. Or, I expect, from Stephen Koch.

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