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.
We all hope and pray that the writing we’ve been slaving away at for weeks, months or years is brilliant, publishable, praiseworthy.
Sometimes we’re right. More often than not, it seems, we’re wrong.
This doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re bad writers. I found two links this week that brought home the point that every writer, no matter how skilled, talented, lauded or adored, sometimes misses the mark. And some of us (God help, please no!) have only one really good book within us.
Take note of “Great Writers, Bad Novels” in last week’s Wall Street Journal. I particularly love the honesty in Flannery O’Connor’s quoted letter to a friend: “It appears that I have finished my novel [“The Violent Bear It Away”].…Just in that state of not knowing if it works or is the worst novel ever written.”
We all feel that way, sometimes afterward, but more often than not right in the midst of creation. Some days the words don’t flow. Some days they do, until we go back the next day and realize everything we thought was brilliant really was just a pile of lard!
How do any of us stack up in our earnest efforts to get our hearts on the page? As Robert McCrum muses in his column in the U.K.’s Guardian, “Writers who flourish at the peak of their powers for longer than a decade, or even two, are rare birds.”
Indeed! How many of us struggle just to get a few words on paper, to complete amidst the daily demands of our busy lives, a single short story or a somewhat lengthy essay? Wouldn’t any of us give our right arm (or perhaps more critically, each of our ten fingers) to have written one of the novels in The Huffington Post’s list of “Great Literary One-Hit Wonders“?
Writing is struggle. Perhaps that’s why I witness such incredible reluctance in some of my younger students. Writing IS HARD, especially if you have nothing particular that inspires you, as is often the case with essays that are required for school.
But some of us “rare birds” (in a less rarefied form than above), feel a literal pressure within our bodies as a story forms and pushes upward, forcing itself upon us, demanding with such force that we cannot refuse it.
So we write. We have a passion as powerful as any new-found love. If we neglect it, even for a day or two, we feel guilty as if we’ve forgotten to feed our infant. After a while, we can no longer separate the story from ourselves. We carry it around with us and listen to it, think about it even when we are occupied with something else, take notes at odd hours of the night, in the middle of meetings, when we’re chatting with someone on the train. We know we cannot give it up no matter how tired we are, no matter how bored we are with it, or how frustrated with the awareness that our love, our soul, may never find its way to a wide, appreciative audience, that we are all almost inevitable victims of what McCrum calls “the murderous cannon fire of indifference and critical disdain”.
None of that matters somehow when we’re in the midst of writing. It is creation itself that drives us. If our effort is mediocre, we know we will try again, searching forever for the unforgiving truth that something’s living inside us and we are its slave, not its master. Our stories are our essence. They inform our existence and give us our sense of self. If they were anything less, why would we bother?
We write until the well runs dry. Then we rest until we’re ready to take up the challenge again. We are grateful for our mistakes. We learn from them and slowly, with plodding certainty, we actually get better.
But no writer travels a straight or steady path. This is not a staircase; it’s a mountain. Sometimes we trip up. But that, too, is part of the journey.
In The Wall Street Journal essay, perhaps the most poignant thought comes at the very end: “No writer sets out to produce a mediocre book; sooner or later, most do. Forgiveness is in order. As Aldous Huxley once said, ‘A bad book is as much of a labor to write as a good one, it comes as sincerely from the author’s soul.'”
It’s a well-known fact that writers rarely make a lot of money at their work. OK, there are exceptions, but most of us can barely afford to buy a blouse with our royalties, never mind J.K. Rowling and her impressive Scottish mansion.
Most of us are just regular folks – OK, regular folks with an odd quirk of imagination that won’t hush up like nice, normal people. We’re just trying to get by, pay our mortgages and educate our kids.
I found this great chart on Lapham’s Quarterly that shows how historically consistent our situation is:
Even the greatest of us rarely make a lot of dough!
So why do we do it, if it’s clearly not for money? Mostly because we can’t help it, and wouldn’t even if we could. Take Janet Burroway‘s advice in Narrative Magazine. (You’ll need to log in to read it, but it’s worth the trouble for all the great work they publish.) Most of us realize after a while that we can’t write for the market. Burroway says: “The trouble is that… the muse is likely to grow dull and depart. …Writing for the masses is like marrying for money, an exhausting way to become a hooker.”
Some of us have commercial voices and others simply don’t. We each simply must write our own true work and stick to it, thick or thin – mostly thin, mostly for ourselves and, if we’re lucky, for a small audience of others that occasionally lets us know that our efforts have not been in vain.
More and more in this bold new publishing environment, we’re simply one pebble on the beach, shining and new just as the tide recedes. But soon enough our gloss will evaporate and we won’t look any more beautiful or interesting that the millions that surround us. As the scary numbers of books published in 2009 show, our odds of being noticed just get smaller and smaller. More than likely we’ll be left lying there in the sand and forgotten.
So why do we do it? Because we must. Because we’re destined to speak. Because there’s an essence in writing that helps us figure ourselves out that comes only from this kind of exploration and expression.
Most of us eventually accept that we might never become famous or rich or even published unless we publish ourselves (which apparently these days isn’t the vanity taboo it once was. But that’s an entirely different story – check out the links above).
Even well-published authors come to realize what they’re up against. Burroway quotes Adam Gopnik: “Every writer’s life can be summed up, in sequence, by the Four Permanent Titles: Great Expectations, A Sentimental Education, The Way of the World, and, finally, Lost Illusions.” Meanwhile publisher and editorial director at Writer’s Digest Jane Friedman tries to explain what many newly minted authors often agonize about, Why Don’t Publishers Market & Promote the Books They Publish?
With all this going against us, why do we do what we do? Because we must. Because we’re forever dissatisfied with the dull reality of our lives. Because we’re dying to know what it’s like to be inside someone else’s head. Because we’re desperate to record the fleeting wonder that comes to us in the middle of the night or in the shower or when we’re walking the dog. We do it because we hear voices and we can’t shut them up unless we listen and carefully write down every word they say.
That’s why we write. If we get paid for it, all the better. If a few of us get rich from it, God, I’m jealous! But when that rare success happens, remember again what Burroway writes, “that the joy of publication, prizes, prestige, money is never adequate and always fleeting. It is taken away every time such successes fail to be repeated…. But the moment of ecstase, ecstasy that comes usually at the end of a period of effortful and perhaps despairing concentration, and yet comes ‘out of nowhere,’ not as an apparent reward but apparently as a gift, that moment stays and is present every time I remember it or reencounter the passage in which it occurred, or reencounter the reluctance that precedes it or the grace as it descends—because this is my only religion, and it is ‘grace,’ and it does seem to ‘descend’—and these moments accumulate into an awareness of power in the sense of capacity, which cannot be taken from me—except, of course, by dementia or death.”
In the end, success is never about us or our work, it’s about happenstance and timing, the frivolities of taste and commerce. Completely separate from the power of passion, imagination, obsession, “ecstase”.
That’s why we do it. Those are the forces that drive us on.
The rest, whether we like it or not, will take care of itself.
Catharsis is a powerful motivator for writing. It is perhaps the underlying reason that many of us decide to set down our thoughts. We are working through something, consciously or subconsciously trying to figure out ourselves, our lives, fate, our beliefs, and the world.
Through writing, we have the chance to preserve, transform or obliterate our past and our pain. In this sense, we use our writing as a catalyst. By setting down our words, we can set our agonies aside.
In our Circle, we have sometimes witnessed writing that serves this purpose: stories of grief, anger, guilt, betrayal, tales of childhood horrors and bitter, untimely loss. These stories prove to me that the act of writing offers something essential. More than simple creative expression or entertainment, writing can be the writer’s path to heal.
Oddly, these efforts simply to release have resulted in some of the cleanest, most honest and compelling writing I’ve seen. Perhaps this honesty comes naturally with writing that is driven up from our very core.
It reminds me of instructions Madeleine L’Engle used to give in her writing workshops: think about the exercise all week, but only write for half an hour. It shocked me at the time. I believed then that the more time I spent writing, the more well-crafted my work would be. But it didn’t necessarily turn out that way. Those brief outpourings, mused over for the week without pen or keyboard at hand, flowed out rich, fluid and detailed almost without trying. And when the half hour was done, Madeleine told us to stop, even in mid-sentence. That was hardest of all.
So imagine a story that has been burbling for years. Imagine a tale so vivid and private that it has lived and been relived in a writer’s subconscious. Then imagine letting it lose in all its brooding, painful glory. The explosion would be breathtaking, magnificent and perhaps even dangerous. A volcanic eruption.
An old friend of mine used to advise writers to write “as if everyone you know is dead.” It’s excellent advice to relieve the guilt of betrayal that inevitably comes with writing like this. It’s frightening. It goes against our best societal indoctrination. Show the world a happy, well-adjusted face. Keep your anguish hidden. To reveal your most painful secrets is taboo.
So at moments when writing like this is brought forth, we sometimes choose to drop the role of critics in order to bear witness to the pure and unadulterated outpouring on the page. We join together to live through the moments with each writer, step by step sharing the suffering through their words. No detail is spared or lost. These stories are inevitably stark, unembellished in their honesty. The sieve of true emotion sifts away all affectation. We listened dumbfounded, in anguish and in awe.
At the end, whether these stories find their way to print doesn’t really matter. It is up to their authors to decide. Some stories find their own best purpose in darkness, folded up and placed carefully in a box, tucked away to gather dust in a drawer or closet, destined forever to hold their truths in a sacred space of remembering.
Perhaps it was a mistake to read James Patterson Inc. back to back with Michael Cunningham’s A Writer Should Always Feel Like He’s In Over His Head. For James Patterson, writing doesn’t seem very hard. Of course, I wouldn’t dare disparage him. Honestly, I’m impressed. He has created a literary empire and sells more books than any other author including Stephen King, John Grisham and Dan Brown COMBINED! His output is extraordinary – the article says, “nine hardcovers a year are really only the beginning”! Either he knows something I don’t (obviously he does), never sleeps and writes absolutely perfect first drafts, or he delegates the difficult task of execution to others who are able to imitate his speedy style to a T (which he does).
But these days it doesn’t sound like he’s doing much writing – at least not what you or I would call writing – that meticulous drafting and re-envisioning of characters, scenes, setting and plot, carefully crafting words to flow out elegantly from a page. I’m sure he works hard, but to me what he’s doing sounds more like producing or directing. He has a stable of co-authors who flesh out his outlined plots. In television that’s called a writers’ room. I’m envious, believe me! Plotting is the fun part. It’s the hard effort of what I call “putting flesh on the bones” that makes most writers want to pull their hair out, open the refrigerator, drink, or occasionally contemplate suicide.
Patterson is impressive – no, remarkable. A true literary machine. But for the rest of us without the budget, power or inclination to let someone else write our words, writing is a slow, difficult, sometimes unbearable process.
Nevertheless, in the last few decades, publishing success increasingly requires not artistry but sales. In A Writing Career Becomes Harder to Scale, Dani Shapiro reminds us of another essay, “Writing in the Cold: The First Ten Years,” (Sorry, I’ll have to find it at the library and get a copy to you – ooh, how old very fashioned!) by legendary editor and founder of New American Review, Ted Solotaroff. The title tells it all – in the cold… the first ten years…. I took ten years. Our own fellow writer Stuart Lutz took even longer. So many of us struggle, trying to fit the difficult craft in between the necessities of life. Even if we could write full time, would we satisfactorily complete our task in, say, three months? Six? A year?
Shapiro writes, “There now exist only two possibilities: immediate and large-scale success, or none at all. There is no time to write in the cold, much less for 10 years…. The emphasis is on publishing, not on creating. On being a writer, not on writing itself. The publishing industry …has the same blockbuster-or-bust mentality of television networks and movie studios. …How, under these conditions, can a writer take the risks required to create something original and resonant and true?”
She is right, whether we like it or not. Things have changed radically. And the James Patterson article gives the most succinct summary I’ve read of exactly why:
“Thirty years ago, the industry defined a “hit” novel as a book that sold a couple of hundred thousand copies in hardcover. Today a book isn’t considered a blockbuster unless it sells at least one million copies.
“The story of the blockbuster’s explosion is, paradoxically, bound up with that of publishing’s recent troubles. They each began with the wave of consolidation that swept through the industry in the 1980s. Unsatisfied with publishing’s small margins, the new conglomerates that now owned the various publishing houses pressed for bigger best sellers and larger profits. Mass-market fiction had historically been a paperback business, but publishers now put more energy and resources into selling these same books as hardcovers, with their vastly more favorable profit margins. At the same time, large stores like Barnes & Noble and Borders were elbowing out independent booksellers. Their growing dominance of the market gave them the leverage to demand wholesale discounts and charge hefty sums for favorable store placement, forcing publishers to sell still more books. Big-box stores like Costco accelerated the trend by stocking large quantities of books by a small group of authors and offering steep discounts on them. Under pressure from both their parent companies and booksellers, publishers became less and less willing to gamble on undiscovered talent and more inclined to hoard their resources for their most bankable authors. The effect was self-fulfilling. The few books that publishers invested heavily in sold; most of the rest didn’t. And the blockbuster became even bigger.”
Like the world of the stage, where I once attempted to survive, creative writing attracts different breeds – the entertainer (e.g. James Patterson) and the artist (e.g. Michael Cunningham). There is certainly a place in the world and an audience for each, just as there are some who like Golden Retrievers and others who prefer Portuguese Water Dogs. (Thank you, Stephanie Staszak!)
Personally, I admit that I strive for the more challenging, less popular brand. Though I envy the sales and luxury that entertainment brings, it’s simply not who I am. I’ve even tried to pull back my style, to simplify my plots, to speed up my pace, to add more sex and violence. (Well, not too much more, for anyone who’s read The Thrall’s Tale…) Even when I do, my work only feels “right” when I add lyricism, description, metaphor, complexity and rich, difficult characters. So my attempt at a 300 page draft quickly becomes 500 challenging, dense pages!
Some of us have the facility for different styles; and we should all work to try new and different things. But at our core we all are who we are and we write what we must write. Perhaps it’s best if we discover what breed we’re born to be, embrace it and nurture it as best we can. Not everyone can be James Patterson, and not everyone wants to be. But each of our unique talents should be used to bring us the immeasurable gift of satisfaction in our work and, if we are lucky, a few readers who will appreciate it.
So often I dwell on the unavoidable truth that writing is hard. Every day as I face the blank or unrevised page, I feel the dread that I won’t be able to fill or fix it, that somehow the difficult work is simply beyond me.
But in this terrific short interview from Oprah Magazine, Toni Morrison reminds me of something I somehow forget. In the face of inevitable struggle, writing is also magical. It has the power to transcend time and space and to bring to the fore the unquestionable gold that all of us are human.
That is certainly why I write historical fiction – to discover the humanity in times, places and people who are entirely different from those I know. I love to dig into that past to see life through a very different lens. I try to understand worlds where beliefs and values are utterly unfamiliar and yet, for those who live them, utterly true. Through this imagining, I find my compassion for humanity broadens and deepens. I can be less critical of others. I can smile at the foibles and quirks that might annoy me, and I can try to accept the many horrors that have always shook the world.
Writing allows us to step into one another’s shoes, to understand each other’s thoughts and lives in ways that, by ourselves, we might denigrate or condemn.
Writing gives us a window into the past and a way to imagine possible futures. Writing gives us the power to control things we cannot. It gives us a place to set down our greatest hopes and fears.
And though each of us struggles to give proper form to our invention, the effort to do so ties us to the magical self that can envision perfection.
Finally, for me at least, life without words would be hollow. When Morrison mentions her melancholy after finishing her first novel, The Bluest Eye, I can utterly understand. Without writing – without a project calling me, giving me purpose, without something to explore beyond the everyday world, without people – characters – talking to me in my head – I am only half a person, only half-present in this world. Strange as it may seem, that other dimension makes this one richer for me. It gives context and relevance to my life’s otherwise sometimes frustrating, formless meanderings.
Somehow the work of fiction gives my life shape. It transforms random experiences into plot and direction. If I occasionally interpret my own story as a novel, expecting an exciting climax and praying for a rare happy ending, is it the fault of my life’s work? Or do we all have a story to live – maybe one that one day will deserve to be written down?
Amazon ebook sales topped traditional hard-copy format. The future of the book is so precarious that it requires a think-tank to monitor its demise. And nearly everywhere I look are blithe predictions about what reading and writing will and won’t be in years to come.
In a recent New York Times essay, Kathy Roiphe opens with, “For a literary culture that fears it is on the brink of total annihilation”. How can anyone committed to the work of writing avoid complete paralysis when we are regularly slapped in the face with words like these?
Years ago, back when The Age was New, I learned to read Tarot cards. One of the most startling cards in the traditional deck is the Death card. Death in most developed societies is something scary, ominous, to be avoided as surely as the plague itself. Indeed, the Death card shows a classic image of the Grim Reaper.
But Death in Tarot and in many mystical traditions is not a sign of ending but of transformation. It is far less a card to fear than a card to accept with girded courage knowing that learning comes through change.
Right now there’s no denying that the literary world is experiencing a dramatic shift. The bastion of commercial publishing is as hopelessly unstable as an alpine snow cliff in spring. For those rooted in these institutions, the ground is no longer safe to stand on, no longer certain to hold the weight of our hopes, expectations or needs.
But if we can step back from ourselves just a little, we might also realize that we are witnessing a birth. Something new is growing out of the impending rubble.
I have no idea what that something is or where it will lead any of us. I’m not in the business of making predictions and, honestly, tend to get bogged down in anxiety myself. But somewhere amidst the panic, I’m reaching to embrace this half-formed creature that will lead us all slowly, word by word, creative thought by creative thought, forward whether we like it or not.
I’m looking at this transformation with the kind of speechless admiration a mother bears as she watches her child. As parents, we can either stand aloft and criticize every move that our young one makes, intent to crush its spirit and mold it to our expectations. Or we can nudge gently as we observe our child’s natural instincts, helping to navigate pitfalls and avoid dangers, but still encouraging the child’s desire to explore, examine, create. The first method certainly helps maintain the status quo and preserves an established line of power and control. But it also squelches and malforms. The new creation, like a sapling caught beneath overcrowded trees, grows twisted.
Creativity in whatever form needs a bit of light, room, and air to grow. Maybe I can’t understand it. Maybe I’m one of those grand old trees. But I’m trying not to panic, hoping not to strangle this new life to save my own. I’m lucky I’m not a tree. Loosely rooted where I stand, I’m willing to move aside and leave a little space for the new wonders growing around me.
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.
In a fascinating look-back on the way things were, publishing icon Joni Evans muses on simpler times in her article, When Publishing Had Scents and Sounds. Her descriptions of the editorial office of the 1970s completely suit my romantic notions. But oh, how things have changed. Darwin, indeed!
Evans writes, “We were a small community of authors, editors and agents, and we were on fire.” It was a time when enthusiasm, insight and belief had power. The world of words seemed tactile and immediate back then. That the sheer enthusiasm of an editor and a house could send an author from obscurity to renown simply by placing the anointed work in Doubleday’s front window is simply amazing!
Today, even with the hard push of a publisher, it seems there are absolutely no guarantees. What lights the world on fire is media attention, and grabbing it amidst the constant noise of a 24-hour news cycle cluttered with both serious issues and inanity is beyond my understanding. Add to that the digital disco of social media where everyone is his or her own publicist, hocking their works and wares on friends and family (and so on, and so on, as the old shampoo commercial used to say). How can anyone hope to stand out in this invariably deafening entrepreneurial clamor?
We authors in this modern moment are also on fire, pursuing our passion for better or worse, seeking out the deep expression our imagination and our understanding of the world. The simplicity of our work never really changes. We come to our desks each day with a cup of coffee and an idea. We open a file or set a pad of paper on our desks. We breathe deeply, then begin laying out the story that’s been churning in our minds.
But when the truth is finally wrought on that stack of sheets (virtual or otherwise), we still long to lift it up and share our effort with the world. Today we must face the whirling storm of multi-media – a drenching cyclone into which we hurl our creative sparks, mostly to watch them quickly quenched by the over-stimulated, over-crowded, super-saturated media world.
As Ms. Evans writes, Charlie Darwin is sitting in the corner office. So much is changing in publishing right now that even insiders are uncertain where the next steps will be. And it’s not just in publishing. The entire world, rocked by economic and technological upset, is trying to find new footing on uncertain ground.
Why should we insignificant writers escape? As I sit at my desk, the pile of pages on my left are my anchor in the storm. I’ll hang onto them for as long as I can, forever if I must, gazing at them with gratitude and trust that somehow they will save me – if not in any professional sense, then perhaps in the honest effort that they represent. They are my offering to myself, my interpretation of this strange experience called life in a chaotic world.
We’re probably all familiar with Marshall McLuhan‘s phrase “the medium is the message”. McLuhan writes that the medium “shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action”. In the world of creative writing and journalism, we’re seeing that more clearly every day. Words have migrated from print to screen, and with that shift have come new forms of communication, both more free and more wild. Blogs, Facebook, Twitter tweets and more have completely transformed journalism, knowledge transfer, social interaction and even politics.
Increasingly the world of creative writing is being affected by this shift. Digital readers like the Kindle and Sony Reader are becoming more commonplace. I believe the economic pressures on publishing will eventually force the full adoption of print-on-demand and other virtual solutions.
Meanwhile creative writers are experimenting with new online forms: serialized stories told in blog format in 350 word bites or, even more dramatic, cellphone novels and “Twitter fiction” in which each entry is only 140 characters long! (See “Call me Ishmael. The end.” by Barry Yourgrau on Salon.com.)
I confront this truth every day in my own writing. Even from the start, when I was toying with short stories, I realized that writing was much easier on a computer. As I grew to take my work more seriously, I questioned how I could write at all without the ease of revising and saving countless drafts. It’s a strange thought for someone who wrote long hand in journals and notebooks for years. I have a box of them in my basement, representing mostly early hopeless attempts that never quite got finished. Somehow the flow of typing on a computer without worries about making mistakes freed me to create in ways that the thick slog of pen and paper or an old, clunky typewriter never had.
But as I’ve progressed, I’ve also noticed a downside to that freedom. Though I compose mostly on computer, I end up editing in hard copy. Somehow the words simply look different in print, even when I change my page view to “Print Layout”. My rhythms change in hard copy; my scenes that had been rich online read more flatly, or sometimes they seem overlong or over the top. I’ve come to rely on a hearty stack of pages for final editing, much to my environmentalist soul’s chagrin.
What am I seeing that wasn’t there before, when all the words remain exactly the same? It’s Marshall McLuhan’s message embodied – the medium does matter, innately and inextricably.
I found this article on the topic particularly intriguing: “The Message Is the Medium” by Wen Stephenson. It is a commentary on “The Gutenberg Elegies” by Sven Birkerts that explores, as Stephenson writes, “the relationship between a reader and an imaginative text at a time when serious literature is increasingly marginalized by the communications technologies that are transforming mass media and mass culture.” Both article and book were written in the mid-1990s. They are a fascinating time capsule of the world that was.
We’re now living increasingly in the world as it has become, a world where the written world is less frequently printed, less frequently held in hand. The written word is less private, more public, more virtual, more immediate, more dynamic, and yet more ephemeral. How we process information online – where we go in our minds and souls – is immediately in question. Is it possible, both as writers and readers, to descend into that quiet place inside a story as we once did tucked into a comfortable chair with a book? How difficult is it for any of us to avoid checking our email or going online while we’re in the midst of writing? Are we able to escape, or has our attention span and our time been so truncated that the experience of depth and perception is getting more and more elusive? It reminds me of another article I shared with some of you last year, also from The Atlantic, “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” by Nicholas Carr.
Overall my question is: what precisely is this transformation and where will it lead us? I’m fascinated by these new fiction forms that are growing like viruses online. Some I’ve barely peeked at; others I haven’t begun to explore; and some honestly, I probably don’t want to. I’m the first to admit that I’m a traditionalist, if perhaps not quite a Luddite, about my literary work. I mean – come on – I do write historical fiction about people and cultures where sometimes even writing itself hasn’t been developed!
Still I’m drawn by the urge to trace this strange path, not only to the past, but to the future. It’s evolution in its purest form – as we watch the human mind transformed by human experience. Our own invention is altering culture itself. And culture is perhaps the most inherent aspect of what makes us human.