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.
I’m particularly proud to host today’s guest blogger, Stuart Lutz, who has been a part of our Writers Circle literally since it began.
For four years, I’ve followed the progress of his extraordinary project, The Last Leaf: Voices of History’s Last-Known Survivors. It’s been a long, bumpy road, as his blog post below vividly shares. Take heart from his experience, everyone. Today I’m honored to announce that The Last Leaf is available in bookstores everywhere!
So pick up a copy and one for all your family and friends. And be sure to join us at Stuart’s book launch party at Maplewood’s Words Bookstore on March 26 at 7:30 PM.
Thank you for the advice, John Coolidge
Over the last holiday break, I cleaned my Augean office. The first place I started was my large filing cabinet that holds all my papers related to The Last Leaf. The top two drawers have dozens of files holding photographs, audio tapes, interview notes, and drafts of each chapter. These are important files to save. The third drawer was stuffed with everything related to the publication of The Last Leaf, and this was the target of my afternoon’s labors.
I had my first interview for my oral history book in 1998. I drove to Deep River, Connecticut to meet with Mr. Paul Hopkins, the last living pitcher to surrender a home run to Babe Ruth in the Bambino’s legendary 1927 season when he hit a then-record sixty roundtrippers. A slew of meetings with other “Last Leaves” followed. I drove to Vermont to meet with John Coolidge, the son of the President and the last man to live in the White House in the 1920s. I roadtripped to Alabama to meet the last Confederate widow (though she turned out to be the next-to-last Confederate widow). One weekend, I flew to Knoxville to interview the last Union Civil War widow. She gave only two or three interviews ever, and it took me fifteen months of begging and pleading to get her to meet with me. Slowly, the book idea gained momentum as I met more and more people. In Rochester, New York, the last suffragette; in Fort Myers, Florida, the final Thomas Edison employee in Florida; in the Maryland suburbs, the last commissioner from the agency that created Social Security.
In 2004, I mailed dozens of query letters and I found an agent. He quickly sold the book to a subsidiary press of Simon and Schuster. I was delighted to receive my first advance check. I took the money and went on additional trips to meet more Last Leaves. There was the flight to Memphis to interview the real last Confederate widow in Arkansas. A drive to Fort Wayne to meet the final witness to the first electronic television broadcast in 1927 with a stop in Pittsburgh to chat with the last man to play with the country music legend Jimmie Rodgers. There was a flight to Florida to meet with the last living Amelia Earhart passenger and the final survivor of the vicious Rosewood race riot in 1923. A quick roadtrip to Chattanooga and Asheville to interview two more subjects. And a manic three day Indianapolis – Urbana – Ann Arbor – Cleveland voyage that let me meet three more Last Leaves. Sure, I had to borrow from my saving account to pay for some of these trips, but I reasoned the eventual royalties would repay me.
April 19th, 2005 was, I thought at the time, one of the great days of my life. I emailed the final book draft to the editor, triumphantly wrote about it in my journal, and went to see a Bob Dylan concert that night. Starting on April 20th, I finally told people besides my close friends and family about the book. The Last Leaf was scheduled to be out for the holiday season, and it was a great thrill to see it listed on the Simon and Schuster website. The famous Civil War historian Dr. James McPherson gave me a quotation to put on the book’s cover. Dr. Arthur Schlesinger, the dean of American historians, offered to blurb the book once I sent him a galley. Gosh, everything was lining up so well for me…
I didn’t know it then, but the publishing house was in total disarray. They went through three editors, and the last two wanted me to rewrite the book, which I dutifully did. But with the time I spent editing, there was no way The Last Leaf was going to be released for the holiday season. Then, the publisher, in one of the wussier moves in world history, made his unfortunate secretary call me to say they were not going to release The Last Leaf. Ever. She asked for their advance back (a great example of sheer chutzpah). I told them if they wanted it returned, I would see them in court since they were breeching our contract. A few months later, my agent, saying that he could not resell the book to another publisher, released me and The Last Leaf was adrift.
I read when I was younger that it was not how many times you fall off the horse, it is how many times you get back on…
I took a few months off from the book, but then got back in the saddle. I spent one entire weekend mailing out letters to a new batch of literary agents. I mailed them on Monday, and on Tuesday morning, two different agents called me. That afternoon, I sent them the entire manuscript to show them that the completed book was ready for publication. Each called back after getting the drafts and both wanted to represent me. One of them revealed that she is the literary agent for a certain rock star from New Jersey with the first name of “Bruce.” “Listen Stuart,” she said to me, “Bruce keeps me so busy that I do not take on any new clients. But I cried when I read your book last night. I really, really, really want to rep your book.” Wow – now an agent was begging me to sign with her. So I did.
This agent used all her connections at the major publishing houses to sell the book. And she found no interest in my work at all. She released me and The Last Leaf was again adrift. She did present me with a bill for $313 to cover her mailing and photocopying costs.
I dusted myself off again. As I got back on the horse, I felt a couple of horseshoe prints on my tuchus from this last experience. My wife, who had been completely supportive of my writing efforts during this entire time, claims I am one of the most determined or stubborn (depending on the context, of course) people alive. I knew I had an interesting book concept and I was not going to let it die. Not after I put in all that money, time, sweat, typing and mileage. Not after Dr. McPherson wrote a blurb and Dr. Schlesinger offered to compose one too. Not after I told people that The Last Leaf would be released.
While the book was in publishing hiatus, I did more interviews, including meeting America’s last World War I soldier. I sent out letters again to literary agents and not a single positive reply. Those are the letters that are now sitting in my filing cabinet awaiting recycling.
I then tried a different tact. I wrote to some academic publishers, including my alma mater’s publishing house, the largest one in the country. The Johns Hopkins University Press editor told me that he thought the book was “too commercial” for them, and every other academic press rejected The Last Leaf too. I also wrote to some medium-sized publishing houses. One day, I came back to my office and I had a message from the editor at Prometheus Books in Amherst, New York. He said they were very intrigued by my book. He was concerned, however, because he saw an old internet listing that I had already published The Last Leaf in 2005. I painfully explained the entire tortured history of the book and I assured him that it had not been published. Prometheus bought it.
On that December afternoon, my wife took my son out on errands so I could clean the infamous third drawer, as well as the rest of my office. As a perverse form of entertainment, I read some of the literary agent rejection letters. Some were impersonal third generation photocopies, some were photocopies but the agent wrote my name at the top. They went into the blue recycling bin. Others told me that the book was not focused enough and one wrote to me that, while an interesting concept, the book was simply not saleable. “Ha ha sucker!” I yelled at that letter as I put it into the bin. A few agents wrote back kind and encouraging letters, including one man who said that I should start by doing a series of magazine articles on the final survivors and then turn the concept into a book. Into the bin with the other rejection letters. I also recycled all my earlier drafts of the book.
I opened the top drawer, the one with all my important book files, and I flipped through them. I saw the folder for John Coolidge, son of Calvin, and I pulled out the paperwork. He was one of my first interviews, and he invited me in 1999 to visit him in Plymouth Notch, Vermont, one of the most placid areas of the state. I went into his private house where no one who visits the Coolidge Homestead was permitted. He was in a wheelchair at that point, and I gently rolled him onto his sun-drenched porch on a beautiful early spring day. He recounted his boyhood memories of seeing the charred attic timbers in the White House (remnants of the British torching the mansion during the War of 1812) and discussed the death of his brother at age sixteen from blood poisoning. As I was leaving his home, he wheeled himself over to his desk. He opened a drawer and handed me a small card with a quote from his father, the President:
- Press on: nothing in the world can take the place of perseverance. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.
It has been eleven years since Mr. Coolidge handed me that card. Neither of us had any idea how prescient the quote was.
Stuart Lutz owns Stuart Lutz Historic Documents, Inc., a firm that sells rare letters and manuscripts. He has written for American Heritage and Civil War Times Illustrated, and appeared on National Public Radio. He has a B.A. in American History from Johns Hopkins. Learn more about Stuart and The Last Leaf at www.TheLastLeaf.com
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.
You may have noticed that I don’t often blog about technique. For me, this forum is more about sharing the experience of writing.
The truth about craft is that it’s all in the doing. We each confront the blank page or screen time and again. We learn to accept struggle, failure and critique, then go back to do it all over again.
How utterly true!
But we all learn from each other. Certainly in this Writers Circle, we’ve done that week after week, sharing our perspectives, making suggestions, taking them as often as we throw them out. Then trying again.
We can also learn from writers more experienced than ourselves. We’ve all heard grateful praise for Natalie Goldberg’s life-changing Writing Down the Bones. It’s a terrific book of freeing prompts and exercises whose goal is not to produce finished work but to express and observe moment to moment both the outer world and the inner life of the writer.
There’s also Anne Lamott’s classic Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. I love her metaphor – taking it word by word, step by step. It reminds me of that hiking piece I wrote for all of you a couple of years ago. I’ll post it here, since not everyone was around back then.
Stephen King’s book On Writing is supposed to be excellent though I’ve only read it in excerpts so far. And of course, Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer nudges me to link to several lists of Best Books:
- The New York Public Library’s Books of the Century
- Modern Library’s 100 Best Novels
- and Time Magazine’s 100 Best English Language Novels from 1923 to the Present
Reading the finest writers with a critical eye to how they manage to create their prose is perhaps the very best way to learn the literary craft.
But if you must ask for a holiday gift this season, what any spouse, child, parent, boss, friend or neighbor should know is that the #1 choice any writer would ask for is TIME.
Writing well truly doesn’t require an MFA, a trendy concept or even particularly abundant talent. What it needs more than anything is exorbitant amounts of focused, uninterrupted time.
Happy holidays, everyone. I hope you all get the gift you most desire. I look forward to hearing from or seeing all of you in the coming year.
Given my chaotic schedule these last few weeks, I’m relying on the wisdom of some good friends in the extended network of writers in our area to fill you will some hope and guidance to move forward with your writing.
From my friend Christina Baker Kline’s blog, here are Thirteen Tips for Actually Getting Some Writing Done from Gretchen Rubin who blogs at The Happiness Project.
They’re good tips that I’m using myself. I particularly like #2: “Remember that if you have even just fifteen minutes, you can get something done!”
Let’s all keep that in mind when life tries to suck every minute from us like sweat in the desert. I’m headed for my fifteen minutes now. How about you?
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.
I’ve been cleaning off my desk. It took longer than I thought, but these few weeks since I sent my manuscript to my agent have been fraught with minor illness and unexpected delays. Among the piles I found several half started articles, a couple of nearly finished essays, and a bunch of handwritten, spontaneous fictional sketches that I never even bothered to type into the computer. Most of them will never get farther than they are. Or perhaps in a fit of inspiration, I’ll finish them one by one and then pray that they’ll be read one day beyond the light of my office window.
There’s something seductive about that first inspiration, the idea for a story or essay or novel that comes to you in a flash. It shines in the mind like a brilliant, newborn star, or hangs just out of reach like succulent fruit waiting to be picked.
It is an illusion. Beware.
Those first words rush forth from you, brilliant, masterful. Then there’s the delving into research, all the planning, all those outlines for characters that will soon spring to life. But then, the blank page. How to become God on the last day of creation? All the supports are in place – the sun has risen, the moon set. The land and sea have been parted. The animals all roam among luxuriant forests or grassy, verdant plains. But how – how, indeed, to create a man? Or a woman? Or a child? Or a dog for that matter, someone or something that has light behind its eyes? That has thoughts and feelings and reasons for their words, if they have words at all? But then, you’ll need reasons for that, too, and a unique way of expressing them.
Slowly, I say. Slowly. Take your time.
About thirty pages in – or fifty, if you’re lucky – that first flush of momentum starts to slow down and the blank page doesn’t fill quite as smoothly as before. You discover on page 54 that indeed, the main character CAN’T come from a religious family because his attitudes are all wrong. Unless he’s a rebel. Yes, perhaps he’s a rebel. But then, you’ll have to go back and fix all that stuff about his blind devotion on page 27.
It goes on like that until somewhere around page 150 or 200, you start to understand the underlying themes of your own work. You’d written down ideas like that before: the overarching purpose, the inner life that drives your characters. But now you see that all of that was misguided, and the basic premise was both much simpler and much more complicated. So you start making notes, long notes, often incomprehensible, about what you must change, and ways to fill in the gaps you never even realized were there. And those notes fill a document or a wire-bound notebook, so you know you’ll have to go through them and think them out again. And while reviewing them one day, you’ll notice an uncomfortable number of brilliant contradictions.
Writing is not like life. It doesn’t roll forward of its own accord, any which way, whether you want it to or not. It must be wheedled and cajoled, shaped and fashioned to serve the vision of its master.
So if God’s really up there revising that epic book for the 5769th time, then take heart. He or she hasn’t gotten it right yet. So why should you, or I?
I began my professional life not as a writer, but as a dancer. From a very young age, I learned to forgo my favorite Saturday morning cartoons (the only time they aired when I was young); and whether I was tired or not, whether the day was scented with spring or a brewing snowstorm, I would put on my pink tights and tie back my hair and go to my morning ballet class. There the endless repetition of pliés, tendues, and ports de bras were a ritual I accepted without question. From this seemingly dull routine I discovered a subtlety of form and interpretation, a relationship with movement and music, and a strange, particular purpose that filled me utterly.
Though I no longer dance, I draw upon that discipline every day as I sit at my computer to write. There’s never a question of whether I’ll be there, or if I’ll blow it off to go shopping or do the laundry or make a lunch date with a friend. It is only very rarely that I allow anything to distract me from the precious time I have set aside to work. And it is work, filled with the often mundane, frustrating, despairingly bad writing that I have learned is a necessary path to something good.
In those ballet days, I often struggled with my balance in arabesque penchée or stomped off the floor after moving too slowly in petite allegro, only to discover a morning when my movements were sparked with brilliance, when I sailed through grand allegro or pulled perfect quadruple pirouettes – yes, once upon a time, I could do quadruple pirouettes! – or when my ever favorite adagio was centered and serene.
Now, instead of pulling on tights and tying my hair in a bun, I make a cup of tea and answer a few emails, then set to work on the slow, focused practice that will hopefully, with daily effort and frequent failure, raise my writing from competent craft to something approaching art. These days I measure my accomplishment in well crafted paragraphs, in polished scenes whose beginnings, middles and ends cohere not only to themselves, but to the greater shape of my story. But I know those good paragraphs and pages must be built on the slow, hard chore of daily practice.
Right now my tea is almost finished, and this writing – like a dancer’s preliminary stretches – is almost through. I can almost hear my favorite ballet teacher saying, “Dancers, take your places. It is time to begin.”