As I prepare to attempt The Writers Circle Journal online, I invite all of you, even those I don’t know, to submit 500 words or less on your perfect writing space – real or imagined. Please submit your work to “info AT writerscircleworkshops.com” by pasting your entire manuscript and a brief bio into the body of your email. Submission deadline is April 10, 2011. I’d be grateful for your contribution and hope to “publish” a selection of the best soon. If you have an original digital photo or art, be sure to send it along.
In her brilliant essay, “A room of one’s own“, Virginia Woolf offers up this opinion: “upon one minor point — a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction; and that, as you will see, leaves the great problem of the true nature of woman and the true nature of fiction unsolved.”
Although that’s certainly been the struggle for women writers throughout history, I find these days that all writers I know – men, women and children – are hard-pressed to find Woolf’s “room of one’s own”.
We are overwhelmed by life’s necessities, the pressure to survive, to keep our jobs, to support our children, to spend – however briefly – time with our families. So few of us today, including professional, published writers, have the luxury to simply sink back hour after hour, day after day into our literary worlds. I myself, in these last months, have been drawn out of the cocoon in which I was coddled for these last few years to contend with the necessity and joy of new opportunities in my teaching.
Still I return, if for fewer hours each day, to the place where my fictional worlds were first conceived and where they continue to evolve. My novel – almost but not quite finished – takes on new shape and form, almost perfect but still with a few pieces missing, cutting an extra limb here, smoothing a lump over there, until soon – I pray! – it will take the shape that will give it full life. To be birthed into the world and become everything I’ve imagined.
Here in this space, I surround myself with objects of focus and nurturing. Ganesha, Hindu elephant god, the Remover of Obstacles, sits to my left, a gift from my dear friend Marina on her recent trip to India. Behind him cluster bits of whimsy – a Lego robot and a Sculpey penguin – gifts from my seven-year-old son. Bills and receipts are pushed to the side, hidden under a paperweight of a romantic writing desk. The walls are scattered with photos, among them one of me standing on the deck of a ship in Greenland, behind me the landscape where the fictional characters of The Thrall’s Tale lived. A towering bookshelf holds my research. On the bulletin board hang my eldest son’s first shoes. And smiling at me always is a photo of a beloved, lost mentor: glorious Peggy Harrington, herself a great writer though unacknowledged by the world, who taught me how to survive struggle and to appreciate hard-earned moments of joy.
Into this space, I center myself and cup my hands for warmth around my mug of tea. I face the screen with all its vibrating pixels. Their promise: to form the words, if only I will lay my hands. I touch the keyboard with focus and attention. For years I’ve obeyed the call until, now, the painted letters on the plastic keys are nearly illegible from so many taps, so many trials, errors, and tries again.
“Space is a symbolic boundary,” said one of our own, Lew Epstein, in a recent class. Where we write – where we claim our space – is affected by temptations and distractions. But for a moment shut them out – whether you write in your office, your bedroom, the coffee house or on the train. If we cannot create our perfect room in this imperfect, overly pressured world, then at least we can create the perfect refuge in our minds.
Check out other writers’ spaces on the Guardian’s fascinating series, Writers’ Rooms. (It ended in 2009. Too bad they’re not still doing it.)
It’s amazing, but also scary, what you can find on the web. With a little skillful searching, you can turn up treasures – whole digital libraries you can read online, video interviews and audio clips of some of the greatest thinkers and writers of our time.
Just this past week, I discovered two fantastic offerings: most of The Best American Essays of 2010, online and for free, and an honest, witty and wise video interview with British writer and actor, Stephen Fry: What I Wish I Had Known When I Was 18. All this, plus the opening of The Paris Review interview archives that I mentioned a while back just scratches the surface. And believe me, I barely have time to review half the cool stuff that comes in through my RSS feeds every day.
One really worth mentioning is Open Culture, a tremendous resource for all things fascinating. In the last couple of weeks, they’ve posted links to iTunes versions of the complete works of William Shakespeare, a Halloween tale by Virginia Woolf, free online courses, a talk by the Dalai Lama and a documentary on fractals narrated by science-fiction icon Arthur C. Clarke. Whether you’re doing research or just plain curious, as most writers are, it’s a treasure trove of inspiration – and distraction.
At the same time, I worry about what I’m seeing. So much of this material is, was or should be protected by copyright. So many of us are posting work for which, once upon a time, we might have been paid. I don’t mind giving away what I put on this blog. I see it as an extension of my teaching. But in the current marketplace, both the number of outlets for a writer’s work and what we are offered for our carpal-tunnel angst are dwindling at an alarming rate.
Meanwhile, I’m seeing interesting movement toward a new pay-model for both digital content and print-on-demand. Michael Hirschhorn summed up the shift in his aptly titled article in The Atlantic, The Closing of the Digital Frontier. Pay walls are going up almost as fast as one did in Berlin back in 1961. And some authors, even on their own, are taking advantage of the new paradigm.
Take science fiction writer Cory Doctorow. His self-publishing platform for a new short story collection, “With A Little Help”, is multi-directional and social network driven. He’s a tech-savvy guy who clearly believes his efforts will pay off. “I’m thinking $70,000 to $80,000 net,” he says in a recent NPR interview. That’s more than most authors ever see even with a contract from a big publishing house. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Doctorow already has a pretty impressive following.
Meanwhile, author Stephen Elliott has made a fine go at distributing his memoir, The Adderall Diaries, via an iPad/iPhone app. Dennis Johnson of Melville House Publishing, said in a recent New York Times article about Elliott’s technological solution, “If you publish work that is hard to sell in the American market, say literary fiction in translation, this is another format to hardcover, paperback and e-book. A fourth line of revenue.”
As much as the web is amazing and free, it has also gobbled up desperately needed income from many a struggling writer (or musician, or artist, or whatever). Now the digital landscape is offering new income options, if we are wise enough to figure out how to take advantage. Granted, most of us won’t make lots of money this way. But in a media culture that is already so fragmented that it’s nearly impossible to get traction, it’s better to stretch palms and spread fingers as wide as we can so that our works may touch just a few more spirits and minds.
It’s been a while since I wrote one of my “eBooks are transforming the world” rants. Maybe because I’m as confused as the next publishing professional. Maybe because the media world is changing so rapidly that none of us, no matter how diligent, can keep up. Maybe because I’ve given up trying to understand what’s going on.
It used to be that the concept of “reaching the singularity” was far-fetched science fiction. As futurist and author Ray Kurzweil puts it, “The Singularity is an era in which our intelligence will become increasingly nonbiological and trillions of times more powerful than it is today—the dawning of a new civilization that will enable us to transcend our biological limitations and amplify our creativity.” Honestly, his definition is more optimistic than I’d heard. I always understood the term to describe a moment when technology would evolve so quickly that it would literally leave the human race in the dust.
Does anyone feel the velocity of the tech revolution picking up speed? I do. Lately it seems many of us feel we’re hanging onto the roof of an out-of-control train by our fingernails.
And it’s not just writers. Look at anyone who has decided to buy an iPad or a new Smartphone. How do you want your media served? Personally, I pick “over easy”. A very intelligent friend recently spent a week in agony after purchasing the latest must-have device. Is it really worth wasting all that time figuring out how to make the damned thing call your mother while you read thirteen newspapers, buy a gift, answer twenty emails, and order food for dinner?
I use my cellphone only to make phone calls and it works perfectly.
And what about all that time lost for daydreaming?
OK. You all know that I’m a loud advocate for “living simply“. But a couple of recent articles in The New York Times (including the above link) seem to indicate a trend that I’m not the only one. Outdoors and Out of Reach observes a scientific study of the brain on and off “digital speed”. And an Op-Ed, Reclaiming the Imagination, presents a fascinating argument for the evolutionary value of human imagination.
Wait a minute… Imagination is a writer’s stock-in-trade. Is this really something we have to justify?
But these are the times we live in. It’s easy enough to dismiss, easy to hide our heads in the sand, but eventually we will get left behind. The singularity is coming and we’re all running to keep up, however reluctantly.
So, in the spirit of running together, check out The Brian Lehrer Show’s new weekly segment, Book Futures. Topics so far have included The Rise of EBooks and The Fate of Bookstores. (Or perhaps they should just be conflated to read: “The Rise and Fall of the Publishing Empire”.) More predictions will be forthcoming from Michael Cader, founder of Publishers Marketplace and the daily industry newsletter, Publishers Lunch. (You probably should subscribe to both, if you don’t already.)
Of course, predictions are just that. No one can see the future. I’m thinking back to my blog-post, The Evolutionary Invention, that linked to “The Message Is the Medium” by Wen Stephenson, published in 1995. Stephenson argued strongly and philosophically against the effects on onscreen reading. His predictions clung amusingly to the inherent and indelible value of experiencing words in physical print. Today we’re having the same argument, but the result is a fait accompli.
Yet literature is surviving. Or is it? Either way, it’s a startling reminder of just how rigidly embedded in our own experience each of us can be. Who are we to judge this strange monster we’ve made? Whatever it is, like it or not, there’s no putting it back where it came from.
I foolishly started reading Anna Karenina this spring – twice, and then again this summer. Each time I was dissuaded by the time-swallowing responsibility of editing other people’s work. Beloved writer-friends and clients, you know I adore you. But every once in a while it is a relief just to hide in the bathroom between ream-length tomes and read something that requires neither a big red pen nor an editorial eye.
I usually pick up The Atlantic, The New Yorker, browse the photos in National Geographic, or slog through one of that large stack of articles I’ve printed from the Internet.
But the other day I stopped myself. No! Read a book – a real book with a bound cover and back-matter blurbing its praises. Stop worrying that it might get dripped on by childishly undried (but washed!) hands, or that the cats will jump up on the narrow shelf beside the toilet and send all your precious literature into the – Eew!
I couldn’t quite bring myself to allow Anna Karenina to sit there. (No, I’d prefer her sitting with stoic crossed arms on my nightstand where she’s been neglected – again.) Instead I chose Stephen King’s wonderful memoir of craft, “On Writing”. What makes On Writing perfect bathroom reading? First, much of it is presented in brief snippets. There are also longer sections that focus on the topics we all struggle with, including simple but absolute truths like, “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way around these two things that I’m aware of, no shortcut.”
How succinct! How accurate! And yet here I sit. OK, I’m reading in the bathroom, I’m editing and I’m blogging. But does any of that count? What about the hard stuff – reading classics, analyzing story structure and character development? What about hours of uninterrupted, fingernail-biting writer’s block? Are these the realms of the blessedly unemployed or the very young?
King also mentions the rationale for our hard work – joy. How often have I found myself forgetting about that, in all my anxiety about getting my novel just right and anticipating its fate in the larger world? Why struggle if not for joy? Why bother to write except for the gift that it gives us, first to the writer, then to those who read. But even if the writing stays locked in a drawer, with it goes a fragment of a soul that needed cleansing.
King says in an old Salon interview that his mother “used to say, when we were scared, ‘Whatever you’re afraid of, say it three times fast and it will never happen.’ And that’s what I’ve done in my fiction. Basically, I’ve said out loud the things that really terrify me and I’ve turned them into fictions.” In this, he and I are exactly alike. Just think, why else would a woman who hates the cold ever dream of writing a novel about Viking Age Greenland?
To face fear on paper makes one bolder. It sets you free.
So spit on the page, as I’ve said many times. Just spit. Get it out. Don’t worry. Don’t edit. You can fix it later. Don’t analyze why you write while you’re doing it. That’s the surest route to an endlessly blank page. Feel that freedom, even if for only ten minutes at the beginning of a writing session. Isn’t that a brief moment of heaven?
Did I mention I also keep a notebook and pen beside the toilet?
Read an excerpt from On Writing and hear a great interview with Stephen King on NPR.org
Just after I posted yesterday, I got a message from one of our Circle, Marilyn Zion, who recommended a computer app called “Freedom“. She writes:
“Have been using “Freedom” for 2 days and wrote straight through from 8:30-12:00 this morning. Didn’t check email or surf the net for one minute.”
Sounds good to me! I’m about to download it and start writing for the rest of the afternoon.
Read about Freedom and several other options to stop the Internet whirligig in its tracks at “Stay on Target” from The Economist.
Apologies for being so delinquent these past two weeks. I’ve been anxiously completing yet another round on my latest novel and couldn’t think of much else until it was done.
Well, that’s not entirely true.
I’ve been desperately trying to focus on the latest round of my new novel, but have found myself distracted to the point of anxiety, pulled to pieces by too many disturbances and digressions, with too many balls juggled in the air, and lashed by an increasingly troubling new behavior that finds me clicking on “Send/Receive” literally in mid-sentence, or tapping “Ctrl-Ctrl” with my left pinkie which brings up the Google prompt that helps me instantly look up some small matter of detail that can wait, only to come alert after a good five minutes to the fact that I’ve somehow drifted completely away from my work and must close down my browser and chide myself vocally before I can attempt to dive in again.
This scattering of time and mind that has become normal in our synthetically social existence sabotages the inherent requirement of the novelist to focus only on one place, one time, one event, one conversation, one character, one emotion, one moment of transition. I have tried to reclaim this single-minded purity of creative thought, but I’ve consistently struggled, finding that “Google is indeed making me STOOPID!”
Nicholas Carr, author of the above referenced and extremely insightful article in The Atlantic a couple of years ago, recently released a book on the subject, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains” that I am anxious to read, assuming I can find the time and attention!
Last week’s New York Times article “Hooked on Gadgets, and Paying a Mental Price“, details signs I recognize in myself, particularly my increasing willingness to accept multiple inputs naturally, almost simultaneously and with the assumption of productivity which is actually “inflicting nicks and cuts on creativity and deep thought.”
Though I’m nowhere near as bad as the poor guy in the article, still I accept this growing syndrome in myself with a sharp stab of alarm. These symptoms are the death knell for the long-form writer. So I’ve instituted new practices to combat the degradation, like setting my email to check only hourly for new messages, adding daily meditation sessions, and forcing myself to read a WHOLE article online before switching to another.
Whether these will help my focus or ease my panic-seized heart, I cannot tell. And I cannot help but question if my sense of my own creativity, the formative persona that conceives these words, is not itself part of a dying species.
In a recent NPR interview, Carr points to one perspective: “Human ancestors had to stay alert and shift their attention all the time; cavemen who got too wrapped up in their cave paintings just didn’t survive… The Internet returns us to our ‘natural state of distractedness.'”
Could it be that this is natural? Then why do I feel so stressed?
Stress makes sense if you’re about to be attacked. What keeps us alert also keeps us alive. Though most of us no longer stand constantly before the jaws of the lion, no matter how the metaphor might appeal. And most great human achievements date to when we were more in control of our world; they came with the rise of agriculture, communities, civilization, language and literature… I doubt humans could have managed so much if things had been otherwise.
Yet to accept this new distraction as natural, perhaps even beneficial, seems to advocate a constant and acceptable state of “A.D.D.”, a state we simultaneously condemn, diagnose and medicate in our children. It’s as if we’ve given ourselves an excuse to fritter away valuable, keenly focused time with vaguely associative meanderings, interesting in themselves, but in the end amounting to almost nothing.
I find more comfort in the concept of the brain’s duality – of the “control tower” of the mind semi-consciously forcing the primitive, impulsive mind to choose from among its many instinctual stimuli in order to achieve great things.
I watch my nine-year-old struggle with focus, honestly agreeing that his homework is far from interesting. I cajole him, “Just focus and get it done!” Still he dawdles, asks for snacks, fights with his brother, attempts to play with a toy or turn on the TV. Finally he finishes and can turn to a project he cares about – these days, a series of fantastical mechanical imagings and sketches of brooding characters that have emerged from the depths of his as yet unbridled mind. I watch as he focuses intently. He can barely be enticed by the scents of dinner laid on the table before him.
Perhaps, then, the root of the argument is engagement, full and voluntary, in the pursuit of vision.
Are we afraid to engage? It lacks the thrill of something new, the dopamine fix that the constantly shifting mind feeds upon. Engagement is hard. It gives me a headache. It weighs down my body and sometimes my spirit because I’m trying to get things right, make my story perfect and that takes concentration, deliberation, the challenge of choice and acceptance of its consequences.
Last week, in the end, I did complete my latest round of revisions. This draft is finished, for better or worse. Perhaps my current obsession with distraction also reflects the stress of taking a break, the luxurious limbo of a few days to clean up my office, and the anxiousness inherent in the large emptiness in the center of my desk.
It won’t be there long, one way or another. Already I’ve cleaned up large piles of scattered scraps. It’s too soon to know what any of them will form, but I’ll need the full capacity of my once prodigious focus before I can find the courage to fill up that space again.
As an addendum to my last post, Shouting in a Crowd, be sure to read the wise advice of literary agent Nathan Bransford about, yes, promoting your work, but also knowing when enough is enough, focusing on what you’re best at and, most of all not, driving yourself absolutely crazy!
In my holiday post, I wished for all of you the gift of time. But time is, as they say, what you make of it.
These last few weeks, between the holidays, family commitments, several articles I enjoyed writing, and preparing for my new schedule teaching a series of classes for children, my own time has been well spent and simultaneously frittered away.
In some ways I’m grateful. The break has given me new perspective on my work. When I finally returned to my new novel for a few solid hours this afternoon, I saw it distinctly more clearly.
But as far as finishing anything (and I’m revising now, not even creating new pages), the progress has been slow to none. So I was thoroughly inspired, chided and comforted when I came across Ann Patchett’s essay, Resolved: Writing is a job.
Each moment that we choose to do everything else – no matter how engaging or critical – is one more moment we’re not doing what we love. Why are we so reluctant to buckle down and write? (Why am I blogging right now instead of opening the draft and picking through another chapter?) I can come up with a hundred logical excuses, but the most honest one is that writing is hard. It takes the kind of time and concentration that requires girding loins and pulling up bootstraps and getting down to business and bucking up, sucking it up and getting things done.
Somewhere in all the procrastination, our neglected love waits. I resolve to do better, to get back on track. I will ignore all those easier, less fulfilling distractions because the story I’m dying to tell is only half told and almost no one has even read it yet.
My husband and I have been rebuilding our front porch stairs this week – all week literally pouring concrete, measuring and cutting wood, drilling, screwing and nailing. For any of you who’ve seen my house, you’ll know that this was a very necessary improvement to replace the rickety, sagging, tippy, paint-peeling hazardous ascent that’s been there for God-only-knows how long.
I’ve neglected my writing almost entirely. In fact, the only time I’ve been able to steal has been before bed when I sit with a few printed pages, carefully editing by hand. More often than not, I’ve dozed off still holding my pen. I’m feeling monumentally guilty about my neglect, but I also know that this time away will help me see my work more clearly.
Life is full of distractions, some more necessary than others. For most writers the hardest thing is simply to find the time. But even when we find it, we’re as likely as not to squander it at least a little, often doing almost anything to avoid facing the blank page.
I see this “wasted time” as a sort of preparation. Most writers need to “rev up” in some way – by reading, jotting down notes, picking off dead plant leaves, making a third or fourth cup of coffee…. There are also times mid-work when we pause to stare out the window, check our email, search the Web. These are definitely distractions, but sometimes they can be productive.
Years ago, when I used to sneak my writing in between slow moments at office temp jobs, I learned to appreciate the frequent interruptions when I had to answer a telephone or type someone’s memo. They required little mental effort on my part, allowing my semi-conscious mind to muse and sift through the thoughts I was forming. More often than not, when I returned to my own work, I’d found the proper path through my scene.
Life gets in the way, but sometimes it’s refreshing. I’m doing my best to embrace this week-long distraction when physical work and the intricacies of carpentry are opening new pathways and experiences in my body and brain. I can feel the rising hunger to return to my desk, my characters and my creative world. But I’m not starving this week. In fact, I’m quite satisfied. Besides having nice, safe new porch steps, who knows? I might write about a character who’s a carpenter one day!
Meanwhile, for a little inspiration, check out this interview with Junot Diaz, author of “The Brief Wonderous Life of Oscar Wao”. His literary journey certainly took him along the long path of struggle and dedication. Take heart that even the best writers rarely find it easy.