Friday, December 28, 2007

Writer Impossible: Distractions

7:30 p.m. The writer sits at his desk after a long day at a company where he works 40 hours a week, in hopes that someday he will be able to quit just to write. So he's limited to time stolen after dinner. Tonight, he's determined to finish the short story for a lit mag.

But there's a rattling coming from the kitchen --a noisy fridge. So he goes to give it a kick, opens it and starts to rearrange bottles before stumbling onto a cold beer. He drinks the beer, and goes back to the computer to start in on the final draft of the story, when the cat begins to mew. The cat wants to be fed, and paces around the writer's legs. The writer picks up the cat, but not before getting swiped across the face. A direct hit, one claw across the cheek. He dumps the cat in the kitchen, goes into the bathroom and washes the cut, then comes back out to find the cat demanding to be fed. He opens a can of cat food, feeds the petulant beast, and staggers back to his computer. But now, he notices it's time to watch TV. Jack Bauer is going to save the valley from nuclear annihilation (again). So he watches his show and by the time it's done, his brain is onto other things. He cleans the kitchen, puts clothes into the dryer, and gets ready for bed. He feels hollow, wondering why he never gets anything done.

My friend Frank Schaeffer told me that he wakes up in the wee hours of the morning --4:30 a.m. when the house is quiet and he can just write. He likes the darkness outside and his lamp on his study as he plots out the next chapter (Frank has averaged a book a year). It's a ritual he started when his kids were young, and now that they're grown and away, he continues because it's become a routine.

Routine. That hated word. Yet without it we are left at the mercy of a world of distractions --from cats, to thinking we should be doing something else. Admittedly, art isn't practical, it doesn't pay the bills (for most of us) and there are always more pressing things that can be done. So it's easy to think other things are more important.

But what the writer didn't understand that what the story needs in order to be finished is something only he can do. No one else, because the story is a product of his experiences and imagination.

When I write and hit "the zone," I'm enjoying the practice of putting words onto a page that help me feel lighter and more alive. It's a chance to look deeper, to learn to discern what moves me, or doesn't. Often I find my initial perceptions were wrong, and I come to a different and gentler conclusion. I make choices over words and phrases, I'll play with contrasting images. What I experience is the joy of giving myself over to the process so that one day the end results --in this case words, will move others.

So go ahead. Leave the kitchen a bit dirty. Kick the kids off the computer. Unplug the phone. Don't fret over the laundry. Remember that Jack Bauer can be seen on reruns or DVD and that he will never ever learn a foreign language because he just uses a gun. Get up early and enjoy the morning hours. Even if it's for an hour a day, you've got to write. Distractions be damned. Life is full of them.

After all, only you can write your story. And there's nothing more important that seeing writing as a chance to deepen yourself so that you can grow and give.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Writer Impossible: Addicted To Workshops

Workshop Writer 1: The writer has been taking ten-week workshops for years. He has enjoyed the weekly inspiration, finds it necessary to continue writing, loves the camaraderie of other writers, and yet, the writer has not finished his novel, in fact, still stumbles with the style, and has yet to figure out how the novel ends. When he takes a few weeks off, he quits writing, but claims that the 3 week boar hunting trip he took in Texas served as great material to be inserted somewhere in his book.

Workshop Writer 2: This writer has a 1000 page novel and has been working on it steadily for about 7 years. It is written in multiple perspectives, has a storyline that goes beyond War and Peace. He attends conferences regularly, jetting off to Squaw Valley, Maui and driving anywhere within a six hour radius. Sometimes he hears the same speakers. Often he signs up for the additional workshops and takes the same teacher. His pitch is quick and efficient because he has been pitching the same three chapters for seven years. He can say "Your protagonist does not have that... je ne sais quois," hand your paper back, while blowing smoke from a Gitane.

Workshop Writer 3: This writer takes workshops paid via credit card, a home equity loan, or by a spouse or much younger girlfriend who has it on a promise that when they finish the book, the writer will sell it, get a 7-figure advance, and they'll be swimming in money. Despite his arrears, he too finds it difficult to finish his book. He struggles with money and has mentioned that maybe a rich relative will die and leave him a bundle so that he can live the life of Henry Miller in Big Sur, with a new wife or new much younger girlfriend.

Workshop Writer 4: Works all day, takes an occasional workshop at night. Works on his novel sporadically, as time or inspiration permits. Has to miss some meeting because, well, life is busy. When he doesn't go to the workshop, he doesn't write. And even when in the workshop, he'll often dash off the week's pages in one sitting in an afternoon, or worse --egads! at work. When he passes them out to his peers for critique, he apologizes profusely for the quality, saying he didn't have time, dashed them out at work --as if no one else is as busy or even busier.

Yet any one of these could make it someday. Life's a crap shoot that way, innit it?

When I decided to take the jump into fiction (and long after I'd gotten my baccalaureate in fine arts), I decided to enroll in classes at the university extension writers' program. I found the experience invaluable. So I took them for years, passing through workshops on short story, literature, poetry and novel writing. It was my education, more to the point, it was where my skills were honed. But as would be expected, eventually the same things were being repeated. This wasn't a bad thing, rather it was an indication that I'd learned everything from them. It was time to write on my own. This wasn't as hard as others might think. It's how most writers write. By themselves, with the feedback of just a few other writers. In fact, I found it liberating to finally move away from the university stuff, and work on many projects, really stretching myself. I've managed to keep track of friends by helping form a group, The Writerly Pause.

Lesson learned: If you're taking workshops, do a reality check. Workshops are expensive ($500 for a ten week course, not including parking, gasoline, food, supplies and your time), so the pay off has to be not only to be in gaining the strength to do it everyday, but also improving and becoming a deeper writer. Make sure that it's not the taking of workshops that makes you identify yourself as a writer, but the reward of steadily working on your own --doing it everyday, learning, improving and finishing a piece.

Monday, December 10, 2007

"You stole my idea!"

A few weeks ago, a group of writers sat at a table mulling over ideas. Writer X was starting a new book and was trying to explain its premise. Everyone listened raptly, and when the writer asked what they thought, it was like Queen Isabella's armada crossing the Atlantic, a flotilla of ideas set forth. It was one of those moments where the room was filled with inspiration. Creativity was flowing and they had fun.

A few days later, Writer X sends out a synopsis. And she gets back a terse reply from Writer Z.
"I meant this as an idea for my novel. You can't use it," writes Writer Z.
Writer X demurred. "Of course I won't. I'm really sorry. I thought the water fountain and trailer park was out there for anyone to use."
"Use it, and you're stealing my novel!" writes Writer Z.

Read the rest here:
"You stole my idea!"

Sunday, July 29, 2007

The Critique

Feedback can be difficult to both give and receive. Finding a response to a piece of work --be it in stone, on canvas, crafted from wood or words on a page is a juggle between what I think the writer is trying to say and how it's coming across. Is it clear? Do I understand? Is this the right word? Does it wander? Is it spot-on? How can I help the writer forge the words so the meaning is deftly put forth?

I'm careful when someone hands me their work. I know all too well their hidden feelings of dread as they hand their manuscript to me. It's something like this:

Writer: "Do these jeans make my butt look big?"
Critic: "Yeah, so big and so wide you could land a 757 on it."

I was introduced to the critique when I was an art student in college. After a long night's work, everyone would come into the studio and put a drawing, painting, sculpture, ceramic up for review. Then we'd go piece by piece, talking about what we liked, what worked, how something could be a bit better. It was always with a bit of dread when you saw the progression.
5...4...3....oh shit, mine's coming up ....2.... crap...
mine's next
.... and finally 1 ...okay, can we get this over with?

Lessons learned: You can learn from other people.
Since you have to work with them, learn to give constructive criticism. There's no reason to thoroughly trash someone.

In formal writing workshops, most of the feedback is civilized. But there is always someone desperate to show that they're so much smarter --they've read more, written more. Their tirade ends up giving license to others to do the same, often to the point where all the writers are repeating clichés. Even the term "brutally honest" can be a laughable cliché.

I don't know why writers felt so much freer with lip service than in art classes..... perhaps it's because in the studio arts, the students spend a lot of time working in the same room at the same time. Everyone sees the struggle. But writers work in seclusion. And often they come bearing every shred of the same self doubt we all have, only the words that pour out (or worse, what they've written for posterity on your pages) manage to combine banality and snarkiness.

And so it was after going through workshop after workshop, that I developed a thick hide and put my ego aside. In class, it was easy. But when it came to giving them twenty pages to take home for a week and mark up, it was harder. This is what can happen.

Every shred of self doubt comes bubbling to the surface.
Night 1 --After killing a forest of trees with rewrites and reprints, you give your work out. It will be turned back to you in a week.
Nights 2 - 3 --you compensate by eating chocolate. You try not look at the clerk when you go back to buy your fourth bar.
Night 4 --you go to yoga, but when you emerge, you're sure readers will hate it.
Night 5 --you look up airfares on Travelocity. Destination: it doesn't matter.
Night 6 -- you loathe every person in the class. You are sure they never brush their teeth, that they have body odor and drive shitty cars. If they don't, then they deserve all three.
Night 7 --Tonight, you will get your papers back. You think about getting sick --Dengue fever, but no, it's not possible. So you glide in, you smile, and everyone hands them back to you. They say nothing. For the rest of the evening you are sure you were an utter failure.

Later.... and I do recommend waiting go through their feedback.
Some is utter garbage. It's pointless, mean, and sarcastic... you learn to put those aside. And then there are those that never give you your work back. Those are the ones who are either indifferent or lazy, and not worth worrying about on your part.

But then there are those precious reviewers with the insight that helps you learn. They take you to task, but they point out things that you didn't see. They help you understand how to make your work stronger. They come through with examples, literary references, even. They ask you questions. They're the ones you want to listen to, they understand the struggle.

After reading, you put aside your cup of coffee. You turn off your phones, your modem and you flip on the computer to write again.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Writer Impossible: The Unlikeable Protagonist

In last Saturday's NY Times, Alessandra Stanley wrote an article The Modern Woman, Ambitious and Feeble, which points out the devolution of women’s roles in television comedy from competent-but-flaky into a hardened basket case. Similarly, the scuttlebutt being tossed at writers at conferences, on the web and in workshops without any further exploration is this: the main character has to be likable, even lovable.

Though quirky, compassionate , likable characters are an easier read and an easier sell, it might not be true to what you are writing. I've known writers to take off rough edges their protagonist, when in fact, the character was more resonant before.

Earlier this year, I was talking with novelist Frank Schaeffer. He said that the character needn't be likable, but it must be compelling. In other words, they need to be fully fleshed in thought.* And indeed, there's really only one character who you'd want to take out for lunch in his bestselling novel, Baby Jack. Likable is what mystery writer Marcia Talley would call a "moving target." It's too subjective.

An example of an unlikable main character that held an entire novel together was Rhoda in Joan Silber's Household Words. I didn't love this character --and neither did Ms. Silber, but Rhoda was portrayed so fully and her circumstances so well wrought, that eventually, I could empathize with her. Household Words won a National Book Award in 2005.

Rebecca, in the Anne Tyler novel, Back When We Were Grownups makes a lot of cold moves. She's a pragmatist, searching for what to truly care for, she's a handful of unrealized desires. At times she's detached from her own feelings, and most definitely, those around her. But her thoughts are so well expressed, the circumstances and settings so fully described, we follow her.

Hubert Selby, Jr. made his career creating psychotic characters, the type of people you'd watch from afar, then turn to flee. But again, his power to bring you into the machination of their thoughts was utterly hypnotic. You didn't want to read, but you also couldn't put it down. Pick up Waiting Period and read about a crazy man wanting to poison the masses, Requiem For A Dream for a glimpse of cross-generational addiction. Flawed characters, but utterly human and watchable. (Someday I'll tell you my hilarious HS Jr. story).

In non-fiction, Barbara LaSalle expresses outright desperation and outrage in Finding Ben. Perhaps hers is the most resonant voice of any book written by a caretaker of someone who has autism. La Salle doesn't want you to feel sorry for her, and while she was going through the hurdles, her circumstances were tough, her life was hard. Yet, I followed her quest to take care of her autistic son. (Having met her, I can attest she's a wonderful person).

What I've learned from all of these authors is that while the protagonist might not be likable, the writer has deftly given them a compelling inner life. Their inner thoughts resonate and their circumstances are well wrought in order to make them someone we can follow. Their characters don't make any false moves and the story told is meaningful and poignant. This craftsmanship is the writer caring very much about their unlikable protagonist.

*the feedback that was most helpful in my nine-month workshop with teacher Les Plesko was "more thoughts," and "make her less self-congratulatory." Similarly, Peter O'Toole once said that whenever he sees something getting too ornate, to go deeper, not broader."

Friday, May 18, 2007

Writer Impossible: Hammered By The Critique

Recently, I was googling a favorite author of mine, Joan Didion. Among the many articles I came across was one that had been written in 1987. It was posted because it was part of a university class curriculum. It was by a woman journalist, who loathed Didion and detailed the reasons why. She ripped her prose to shreds. She also got personal and ripped Didion too.

I looked up the woman. She died 20 years ago. This was the only piece of her writing I could find on the web. She must've done more. Yet, this venal example of her abilities is the only thing left. I just thought what a truly shitty thing to be remembered for. Something so out there, so mean, an outright rant.

In the same vein, last night I talked to an old writer friend. He's an editor of film, even teaches. For the past few years he's been taking writing classes and working on a novel. He's noticed that the feedback he's getting from peers is brutal in a way that made even him pause. In other words, it wasn't constructive. Is it the isolation of blogging, the chatter of forums, has this free for all passed into circles where trust is a necessary ingredient to helping someone become stronger, more perceptive? I knew what he meant, and frankly, I've often had the same worries.

Every writer has peers either in their critique group or in their writing programs who just can't resist putting forth vitriol at your expense. Or as an instructor once said, "Often, the worst offenders are expressing their feelings about the weaknesses in their own writing onto yours."

If I had an award to give to the world's worst amateur critics, it'd be to these two characters. One had the habit writing notes in the margin in very large CAPITAL LETTERS. I knew it was nothing personal, but it felt like shouting. He also used cheap shots, comparing characters to cartoons, bad movies ("WHY IS EVERY CHARACTER LIKE A BAD HOLLYWOOD MOVIE?"). He'd always lead in with every negative thing he could dredge up. Worse, when he got feedback on his own stuff, he'd play himself up as the victim, ("I'M SO GLAD YOU USED ME TO LEARN ON.") Feckless bore. The other was known to use arch sarcasm, indirect points, ultimately trying to make himself look smarter. Oh, here's a third: a very overweight, unhappy lawyer who'd look up over her reading glasses, shake her head, and do the "tsk, tsk" thing to the writer.

Mind you, critiques are supposed to point out weaknesses, inconsistencies, and stretches of unbelievability. If you're not responding to something as you think the author has intended, it's perfectly valid to say so. If something is dragging, you can write, "tighten," or "pick up the pace," or "you've said this before." If there's a character who isn't quite clear, you can write, "tell me more," or even "not clear." The point of this being, is that it is possible to be specific about what isn't working without being dismissive or sarcastic. It's also important to show them what is working, and if ever there's a place for capital letters in the margin, it's there! "THIS WORKS! DO MORE!"

Now, the surprising thing was this: they were the most passive individuals you'd ever meet. However, they had major streaks of passive aggression. And none of them had the writing chops to show someone how to push something forward and make it stronger.

Anyway, if any of the three have blogs, I'm sure they're absolute hell.

But mostly on themselves. Because unless there's ever a universal meltdown of servers, what they say or write will be there forever. It'll be a reflection on who they are, what they think of themselves, and how they treat others. So I guess in this age of unprecedented self expression made easy by the internet, it all comes down to this: what isn't said is as important as what is.