TWC instructor and Young Adult novelist, Jennifer Walkup, shares some honest and instructive thoughts on the struggle of a first draft and the value of non-writing:
After a good writing weekend – in which I got very little official writing done, I can say I’m feeling accomplished. I realized a few things this weekend that, yeah, I’ve known for some time, but that bear repeating, because, no matter how many stories or books I write, or how many times I take this writing journey, I forget the little lessons I’ve learned along the way. So here is a list in case any of my writer pals find themselves in the same boat while drafting.
When I’m feeling stuck, I remember:
1. This is a first draft. A first draft! It does not have to be perfect. Gosh, it doesn’t even have to be that good. It just has to be words on a page that are telling the story I want to tell. I will revise and revise and revise again. I hardly ever get a story anywhere near where I want it to be until at least a few drafts in, so why am I letting myself get paralyzed over trivial things in draft one? It’s silly. All it does is halt creativity and that certainly isn’t going to get my story told.
2. What do I have? It’s easy to think of all the things I’m lacking. I’m famous for this – I don’t know the next ten plot points, I haven’t figured out a secondary character’s motivation, how does this plot thread fit into the bigger picture, etc. I have to remind myself to, yes, keep working on what I’m lacking, but also to focus on the positive. What I realized this weekend: I have my main character, I have her voice, I have developed many secondary characters, solidified my setting, outlined a smattering of plot points I want to hit during this next section, and I know the tone I want for the book. So when I sit back and think about that, I realize, hey, that isn’t half bad for first draft progress. So keep writing!
3. Thinking absolutely does count as writing. Nope, not a joke. Brainstorming counts as writing. I spent a lot of time over the last few months in the mind of my character. I slipped on her shoes, entered her world and imagined exactly what it was like to be in her mindset. I took long walks as her, thinking of how she would view things and how she feels about the world around her. Was this putting words on the page? No. Was it helping me know what those words will be when they get there? Absolutely.
4. Set goals, but be gentle with myself. Like many writers, I aim to write daily. I used to aim for 1000 words, now I typically aim for at least a scene, even if it’s 200-500 words. But, if I don’t write, or don’t hit that goal, I don’t let it stop me from moving forward. Goals are worthless if they’re only going to foster guilt. I count anything related to my story as working, even if it’s spending an entire long walk just thinking about my characters and letting them wander around in my head deciding what they’ll do next.
5. Tomorrow is a new day. We’ve all had it happen. You were determined to write. You were set. You sat at your desk, you brewed your coffee (or poured your wine), and you cracked your knuckles. And then, the words didn’t come, or life interfered with your plans. So what. Close the computer, go do something else, and come to it later, with a hopefully refreshed muse. Feeling discouraged is often nothing but counterintuitive to writing, so find something else to do.
6. Writing is fun. There is one reason I write: because I love it. I love telling stories more than almost anything in the world. It’s really easy to get caught up in the pressure or stress of writing and deadlines and all the mental anguish that can go along with the craft. But at the end of the day, I do it because I seriously could not live without it. So when I’m feeling overwhelmed or stuck, I try to remember how much I love this and how good it feels when it is working. I try and remind myself that I’ve been in this position before, but that I’ve always moved past it and through it and gotten back to that creative stride that makes it all worthwhile and wonderful.
Happy writing, friends.
(Originally posted on July 9, 2012 at http://waltzwithwords.blogspot.com/ reprinted by permission. Thanks, Jenn!)
I have been pondering the pace at which I write my novels. I’d thought that I’d been working on this latest book for five years now, until I realized just today that in fact it’s edging past six, since Memorial Day half a dozen years ago when I cried my way through a wholly unsatisfying draft of a different half-baked work and finally realized it was destined for burial in the bottom drawer.
So here I am, six years, five drafts, and a whole lot of paper, toner and heartache later, ALMOST DONE!!! If I ever had a following among readers somewhere out there, they’ve almost certainly completely forgotten who I am!
I comfort myself that another dear author friend has been working on her novel for at least that long, and that Stephanie Cowell, who used to amaze us at writers group meetings by pulling out an entire, completed manuscript from her tote bag every month or so way back when, now sometimes also struggles for years on a book. (Though she as easily finishes one in a few months, which leaves my mouth gaping.)
I had started to call myself the Queen of the Ten-Year Novel, until my truly brilliant and wise editor, Carole DeSanti, revealed at a book talk the other day that her newly released and absolutely gorgeous novel, The Unruly Passions of Eugenie R., first formed in her mind seventeen years ago. Seventeen years!! If I am the queen, then she is the duly crowned empress!
No one in their right mind begins to write a novel of any scope and thinks, “Oh, I’ll whip this off in a few months, maybe a year.” Writing novels is a labor of love – emphasis on LABOR. If you value your craft, if you respect and love books – reading them, holding them, pondering them, standing in awe of them – and if you long to see your own broad spine proudly tucked beside others in one of the few precious bookstores left in this world – then you must accept that the work will be long, lonely and hard.
You do it because of that love, or because of an insane vision that shows up in your head one foggy dawn, or because of the voices that start speaking and won’t shut up or leave you alone until you have finally listened to them.
This is the writing’s tormented blessing, its muse, its terrible genius. In her recent TedTalk, Elizabeth Gilbert defines “genius” in its original sense: genius wasn’t in us, it spoke to us. We did not own it. It was separate from us and came to us at its will, not at our calling.
Let me tell you truthfully, that is the nature of this strange work. And sometimes it comes, and those days for a writer are glorious.
But they are rare. Many days for most writers are just work – hard work that requires attention, discernment, discipline, a critical mind and the patience to expect that some days you won’t get it, that you’ll stare at the screen and move paragraphs around and write three dense pages and delete them. And that’s OK. That’s part of the process. Whole drafts are scraped and thrown away. But we pick up and keep going because we have to get it right. Only then do we dare to put our work out into the world.
And yet the pressures of modern technology and the voracious consumer market seem to scoff at the deliberate slowness of both the novel and its creators. A recent article in The New York Times declared “In the E-Reader Era, a Book a Year Is Slacking“. Should this make writers like me feel guilty?
The best rebuttal to this pressure came in a comment to the article itself, that if we want our work to join the mass of forgettable fiction that’s piling up out there, feel free! Dash it off! Self-publish and start your marketing! Everyone has something to say and something to sell!
And I don’t blame you. In a world where we can reach an audience so readily, it’s all too tempting.
But in this very same world where writers can push a button and be instantly “published”, the true craft and expectation of excellence are all the more on authors’ shoulders. In respect to the larger goal – to create something memorable, worth reading at least once and perhaps even again – we must take the time to craft the very best novel we can and not regret the labor or the time involved.
As Graham Swift wrote so eloquently in his essay, “Words Per Minute“: “a benign intrusion into someone else’s life for even such a short duration seems to me quite a feat of communication, … a time-suspending experience that stays with them well after they’ve closed the book and that they might one day wish to return to, …that’s as much as any novelist can hope for.”
Every time I begin with a new class of young students, I sit them in a circle on the floor and ask them to imagine that they’re sitting around a campfire long ago. “In the ancient days, the storyteller was the keeper of all the tales – the people’s myths and legends, stories of their ancestors, heroes and history. The storyteller’s words had power. They were almost magical. And the storyteller was one of the most important people in the community.”
All of us are privileged to be storytellers, even still. But the “magic” that we use are words – written words on paper…on the screen…on the internet…on our iPads. Perhaps it no longer really matters what media we use, so long as our stories are written, read and preserved.
I came across an article in The Atlantic about Moonbot Studios which has been developing some absolutely amazing storytelling apps for the iPad. One of Moonbot’s founders is children’s author William Joyce whose imagination entertained my children frequently in their earlier years.
Among Moonbot’s projects are the charmingly poignant “interactive narrative experiences” The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore (on the web only as an animated short. You need an Ipad to get the real thing.) and The Numberlys. Both are, for me, the first proof that storytelling can indeed be enhanced by technology, at least in young children’s literature that already relies on a highly engaging visual element.
And yet I cannot agree more with the February 12 article in The New York Times, The Beauty of the Printed Book, which began: “Some things seem designed to do their jobs perfectly, and the old-fashioned book is one. What else could be quite as efficient at packaging so many thousands of words in a form, which is sufficiently sturdy to protect them, yet so small and light that it can be carried around to be read whenever its owner wishes? The pages, type, binding and jacket of a traditional printed book do all of the above, as well as giving its designer just enough scope to make the result look beautiful, witty or intriguing.”
My heart wrenches at the thought that the precious object called “the book” – in fact the only objects of any real value in my personal possession – will be no more.
One medium does not supersede another – at least not entirely. Most people no longer go to theater, opera or ballet often. Though all have become more rarefied, more specialized, people do indeed go. If picking up a book – one made of paper – becomes a rare privilege, has culture really lost? Or is it simply getting its stories in another way?
Creations like The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore and The Numberlys are more like movies or video games. But they do tell stories, create characters, and share rich thoughts and experiences. They may not be “books”, but does it really matter?
These digital forays won’t replace the tomes that fill my bookshelves double-deep or the experience of actually reading “Pride and Prejudice” or “War and Peace”. Those experiences are unique, composed in their original form because that was the form of their times and creators. And I have clearly expressed and demonstrated to my sons that reading the book is almost always better than watching the movie.
But this strange new amalgam of story, game and video is SOMETHING – something powerful, something memorable, something intriguing. They’re the beginning of a new kind of storytelling – the kind that knocked the storytellers off their pedestals while creating entire new realms of learning and creativity.
They are also the only things so far that have made me regret buying an Android tablet (and saving $300) instead of springing for an Ipad.
Everything is illusion, the Buddhists tell us – our lives and loves, our fears and troubles, the very earth and air and we ourselves. None of this is real. This concept is intended to help us let go of our attachment to longing, hunger, desire. But to fiction writers, it is almost a validation of our work. If everything is illusion, then the fictional world has as much significance as any.
Think of the word “fiction” – something feigned, invented, a made up tale. And yet, in fiction we often discover and express the most profound human truths.
Fiction functions to create its own reality and, through it, to reflect on mankind’s foibles and trials, and to touch the human heart. There is power in this experience for both writer and reader. There is also freedom, sometimes learning, and often pleasure. Some novels are entertainments – escapes. We enjoy stepping out of one illusion into another, and for those brief, shining hours, we exist within them completely.
What does this say about the nature of reality, so easily created, so easily left behind? If anything, fiction serves to confirm the illusion of maya, as it’s called – as insubstantial and yet convincing as life itself.
In a recent conversation between Jeffrey Eugenides and Colm Toibin published in The New York Times, Jeffrey Eugenides said, “There is something about reality, and especially about human consciousness, that can be accurately described and the novel is the best way to do it.” Toibin added to the discussion, “The essential impulse [to write] is to rehaunt your own house, or to allow what haunts you to have a voice, to chart what is deeply private and etched on the soul, and find form and structure for it.”
In the illusion that is life (“real” life), there is rarely form or structure. Life comes to us randomly and it is up to us to make sense of it in whatever way we can. Only in the distilled, premeditated fabrication we call the novel can we cut away the tangles, straighten life’s many nubbly threads and look at our illusion from a tenuous (and somewhat safer) distance.
That distance doesn’t promise perfect clarity. It offers the same challenge as middle-aged eyes. If we hold the paper a little far, a little close, somewhere in between, we will see and understand what was there all along, that we couldn’t quite make out before.
This is one of the the great challenges of fiction – both reading and, more importantly, writing it. Well-wrought fiction should not be wooden, predictable or definite, even though we’ve learned to trust that good fiction should, in the end, make sense, more or less. As writers, it is our obligation to give the reader that sense of inevitability, as we emphasize themes and craft motivations for our characters, consistencies of purpose that in “reality” are rare, but in novel writing are inherent and essential.
We wish our own lives could seem this way. On our deathbeds, perhaps we imagine that it will all make sense. Or perhaps this is clinging too much to samsara, the Buddhist term for the eternal state of suffering. In good fiction, we treasure ambiguity, complexity and a sense of “chance” that the story may not go the way we expect or the way we want it to. This reflection of “reality” makes fiction all the more believable, and therefore relate-able – all the more authentically approximating the uncertainties of life itself.
Whether we are creating it or experiencing it, our fiction becomes our reality. Any writer will tell you that, when we are deep within our work, real life and real time completely fade. We are operating on a different plane, literally smelling, tasting and feeling our created world. Our characters become living, breathing people. They wake us up at night with something they just have to tell us. And yet, they only exist in our minds.
“You’re alone in a room with the stuff that won’t go away,” said Eugenides. As writers, we experience that stuff – those memories of the past, those concepts and characters – like whispers in the dark. They are as real to us as the life we wake up to each morning, so powerful that we fixate on them until we become possessed, obsessed enough to finally sit down at our keyboard or with a pen and try to make this other level of illusion real.
The job of the fiction writer is to create a completely believable illusion. And, if we work hard enough, if we’re really lucky, someone else just might one day find our words and choose to enter our illusive world.
No, this is not an announcement. I am not even thinking about giving up on my novel. In fact, revisions are going rather nicely. Though I’ve been inundated with other obligations over the last two weeks, when I return to my manuscript, I see that my vision is becoming clearer and the suggestions that I fought against back in the fall are resulting in a much better story overall. I am, for better or worse, in sickness and in health, married to the long, slow, sometimes torturous process of completion, even if it – and sometimes it threatens to – kill me.
Nonetheless, over the last few weeks, a couple of writers have come to me at wit’s end. Exhausted, they’ve announced that they’re ready to give up, or at least to shelve their half-formed creation for a little while. (Subtext: maybe forever!) Their frustration is thick in their voices, in their carefully worded emails, in their slumping body language and their labored sighs.
Believe me, I do understand!!!
In class I’ve often referred to my unpublished novel, my first, the one that “belongs in the drawer”. I’m truly grateful that it never made it’s way to print, though I labored over it for four years.
Some of you also know that, right after The Thrall’s Tale was accepted for publication and while still in the throes of nursing my second son, I charged ahead on new novel, what the industry would call my “sophomore attempt”.
The term “sophomoric” comes to mind when I look back at those pages now.
Several months of research and about a year of writing went into that work – about 120 pages of stilted language, over-weighted plot, and characters who whined so much, they annoyed even me.
I knew something was wrong when I kept going back to the beginning. The first few chapters just felt stiff. Though I tried to move ahead, I felt their tug like something icky stuck to my shoe.
After well over a month rewriting a particular chapter, I paused, printed out all the pages so far, and sat out on my deck to read. By the time I finished, I was crying (and not because I was moved). I didn’t stop for several weeks, as I knew with all the crushing weight of Jovian gravity that that book was headed “into the drawer” with my first. It was going nowhere.
I’m not sure what the real problem was – writing under the influence of post-partum hormones, dealing with the challenge of having an infant and toddler on hand, or simple the very real effort of letting go of The Thrall’s Tale’s voices that had occupied me for so many years. Whatever it was, the writing sucked! (And you know I don’t use words like that often or lightly.)
A recent New York Times article, “Why Do Writers Abandon Novels?“, details how other authors have faced the same hopeless end of their fraught labors. It’s a frightening moment, a step that no writer takes blithely after months and even years of sweat, agony and pages crumpled and torn, especially in this high pressure publishing environment where all authors feel the breath of oblivion at our necks, demanding another book soon or be forgotten.
But in that moment when I finally let go, there came a very real, if very painful, release. And not long after, out of the deep darkness of writer-ly defeat, there shined a glimmer of hope. As so often happens to me, I received a sort of “sign”.
In this case, it came in the form of a PBS documentary about Central Asian burial mounds, a topic that probably fills none of you with awe. (Sorry, but I’m fascinated with long-dead things.) In fact, the docu was about a burial I’d read about long before, but filed away for down-the-line when I wasn’t in the midst of a 500-page project.
There I sat, watching as archaeologists uncovered warrior-priestesses of an ancient nomadic tribe. The gruesome faces of the burials grew flesh and blood in my mind. In that moment, I felt the weight lift from my body and a new adventure opening before me.
What I learned was that, through those wasted pages, lost time, and frustration, I had cleansed myself of all that had come before: the voices I had served for so many years, the baby-hormones, the mommy-chaos, the elation and despair that are unavoidable steps on the author’s first publishing journey. All of it. I was reborn, ready to begin anew.
The next day, I went to the library and chose my first book to begin my research. Holding it as preciously as a baby in my arms, I went home, sat on my deck, and began again.
For me, the older the better as far as reading tastes and research go. For my latest novel, I’ve nearly memorized parts of Herodotus’ Histories. (Book IV is fascinating – really!) I’ve regularly perused Pliny the Elder, Strabo and Tacitus. OK, maybe I’m just a little weird, but I love hanging with the ancients.
I recently returned to 2360-year-old roots for a clearer understanding of the elements of good fiction. Aristotle’s Poetics details six critical pieces: Plot, Character, Diction, Thought, Spectacle and Song.
In our many discussions about writing, particularly on Thursday nights, we have argued over terms like “character-driven” and “plot-driven”. Both are essential and inextricably intertwined.
Aristotle calls Plot “the first principle” and “the soul of a tragedy.” For him, character held second place, as he compares it with painting: “The most beautiful colors, laid on confusedly, will not give as much pleasure as the chalk outline of a portrait.” In other words, we need to know the structure surrounding our characters’ existence and what’s happening to move them forward. The most beautiful, poetic, well-observed characters must be propelled by a reason-to-be, something that answers the ever troubling questions, “What’s happening here?” and “Why should I care?”
Aristotle perceived Character as “objects of imitation… personal agents, who necessarily possess certain distinctive qualities both of character and thought…. These – thought and character – are the two natural causes from which actions spring.” (Part VI) So character causes action. And action, or plot, affects character. Some stories are propelled more by external forces (plot) than internal forces (character). But you absolutely need both. Otherwise, per Aristotle, you end up with a lot of beautiful colors but no form.
Of course, we live in the post-modern era. We’ve seen Jackson Pollack splatters and monochrome canvases. In literature also, we’ve grown to appreciate writing that intentionally veers from Aristotelian parameters. But at least when starting out, we are wise to attend these ancient guidelines. Before Picasso played with Cubism, he painted quite a few realistic works. The same should be true for new and developing writers.
Aristotle continues with Thought, essentially the story’s big ideas and thematic motivations. According to Poetics, Part XIX, “dramatic incidents should speak for themselves without verbal exposition; while effects aimed at in should be produced by the speaker, and as a result of the speech.” Thus the hackneyed literary adage, “Show, don’t tell.” Show the inherent themes and motivations, don’t explicitly tell them through long winded explanations. Easier said than done.
Next comes Diction, which he defines as “the mere metrical arrangement of the words”. In Part XXII of Poetics, Aristotle speaks about the perfection of style. He goes on at length about parts of speech (Part XX), the use of meter (Part XXIII) and metaphor (Part XXI). After more than 2000 years, the questions and tools remain the same. Well-crafted language is an vital overlay, bringing uniqueness and specificity to characters, and musicality to plot and exposition.
Aristotle also wrote that Song - literally music – “holds the chief place among the embellishments.” Of course, he was writing primarily about drama and stage craft, not prose; but it doesn’t hurt to imagine a soundtrack to your writing. I’ve been known to play certain music to bring the mood of a scene more strongly into my thoughts as I write. Song or music express emotion, excitement and energy that can subconsciously infuse your prose.
Finally, we come to what Aristotle calls Spectacle but that we’d describe as special effects. Lots of shooting, explosions and chase scenes are eye-catching and exhilarating, but they’re better when compelled by reasons inherent to the plot and characters. “The Spectacle has, indeed, an emotional attraction of its own, but, of all the parts, it is the least artistic, and connected least with the art of poetry…. Besides, the production of spectacular effects depends more on the art of the stage machinist than on that of the poet.” (Part VI)
The elements are all there – one through six. Simple, right? Not! As we each struggle to cultivate a voice, we should think of Aristotle’s “Diction”, striving for the sense of music in our words, even if they are never meant to be read aloud. We should validate the use of spectacle, without getting carried away. But we should lean most heavily on the dual elements of plot and character. One without the other cannot really exist. Both together, well wrought and intricately tied with language, music, spectacle and rich ideas, we can only hope and pray will result in a story that’s completely engaging, able to hold our readers’ attention for, say, a couple of thousand years.
Special thanks to The Internet Classics Archive for access to the S. H. Butcher translation.
My son pulled a book from the bookstore shelf the other day that he thought might be good for my writing students: The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers.
It is written for screenwriters (which I’m not – at least not so far), so I’d never noticed it before. But I was immediately drawn to the hedge labyrinth on the cover for its symmetry and symbolism, recalling my days at the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine and my early search for my writer’s voice. It all began with the exploration of myth.
I hadn’t thought of it in a while. I had long ago learned how to create a story without a distinct, preordained template, but as I paged through the book, I saw that it turned on the theme of some of my earliest writings: The Hero’s Journey.
I’m probably showing my age here, but I remember distinctly when the freedom and daring to write a long, plotted novel came to me. It was while watching Bill Moyers’ fantastic conversations with Joseph Campbell, “The Power of Myth”, on PBS.
In that series of insightful interviews, Campbell embellished on the classic structure of the heroic “monomyth“: the hero’s call to adventure that takes him out of the ordinary world; his descent into darkness, enduring terrible trials and ordeals; and his eventual return, usually older or almost certainly wiser.
It was such a strong and obvious journey – one I knew I could follow. And I did. My first novel was based on it; and in some ways perhaps all that has followed has fit some version of that mold.
It brought to mind a saying that there are only three basic plots, but infinite variations. I looked it up online and found infinite variations on the saying itself, and exponential granularity in the distinct central themes of those supposedly limited plots.
It made me think of a fractal, which is a geometrical structure that expresses itself with ever increasing complexity, creating endless and fascinating variations. They are everywhere in nature: in microscopic strands of DNA, in the unfurling of a fern, in the staggering structure of a giant redwood tree, in the jagged contours of the Himalayas.
Can it be that our play with words is part of that same unfolding magnificence? Are we simply following the natural path set out for us, but taking our own route? Each step and story leads us farther on our own writer’s journey, which can be heroic indeed.
I have no doubt that there’s much to be learned from Christopher Vogler’s “The Writers Journey”. Though I haven’t read it yet, it’s been added to my towering, ever more precarious pile.
In his insightful essay, Found in Translation from last Sunday’s New York Times, author Michael Cunningham peels the many-layered onion of the authorial relationship.
His initial premise is translation, which one immediately assumes means language to language. And it does. Every book is re-formed into something completely new when it is translated, effected by the subtle shifts of meaning and even comprehension that come from refocusing through a different cultural lens.
But the layers of translation go deeper than that. Cunningham points to the truth that all of us are writing works in translation – that our conception can never be wrought in concrete form without undergoing a kind of transformation. It is never pure, never precisely what we’d original felt or witnessed in that perfect vision that lives in our minds. Writers learn to accept that we can never quite midwife our imagination into existence here on earth as it is in heaven.
And then there is the translation of our words by our reader. How many of us have discussed a character or scene we’ve enjoyed, only to discover that another reader envisioned the moment quite differently?
I was sharing the experience of a young adult novel, called Fish by L.S. Matthews, with my son. It’s a fascinating, simple story of a family’s escape from a nameless, war-torn village in Africa. What’s interesting is that the narrator is also nameless. About fifty pages into the book, I asked him how he imagined the character. “Oh, he’s a boy, about 7 or 8.”
“A boy?” I said. “I saw it as a girl!”
We both had shared the same words, the same journey. Yet our experience, our translation of the author’s intent (which was, no doubt, a translation of her own archetypal vision) was markedly different.
Our best hope in the struggle to achieve the purity of our vision, is to paint our tales with all the lushness, distinction and visceral truth that we can. Though we cannot create our perfect world here on earth, or in the minds of our readers, the vision they each experience as they read our words is the perfect merging of our imaginations and theirs.
None of us can deny that day jobs eat up valuable time for writing. We accept but resent them, knowing that bills do pile up and, unless we are fortunate recipients of the largess of a trust fund, inheritance or a well-padded spouse, most of us have little choice but to forfeit some portion of our soul’s calling to fulfill the need for shelter, clothing and food.
Many writers, especially those young or idealistic enough to believe we will one day “break out”, take on (intentionally or otherwise) dull jobs that eat our souls, but supposedly keep our minds clear for our literary vocation.
I spent years as one of those naive hopefuls, accepting underemployment as a logical consequence of a life dedicated to the pursuit of art. Besides, I was used to it. Having started as a professional dancer and then an actor, it wasn’t much of an adjustment to carry over the sacrifice-for-art theme into my underemployment as an aspiring novelist.
I had already worked as a waiter, a make-up artist, and one of those annoying people who squirt perfume in your face when you walk through Macy’s. I honestly found some comfort when I finally discovered that I could work as a temp, filling empty desk space to answer phones and type memos at corporate offices all over New York City.
In fact, I turned to writing in part because of those very dull days when there were no memos and all those stiff business suits were stuffed into a conference room down the hall. In those spare, odd hours when I was required to “look busy”, I turned to the voices whispering in my head. I started writing stories, poems, scenes from plays that would never be produced. Most of them were terrible. (Trust me, I still have a draft or two in boxes in my basement.) But they reminded me that I actually enjoyed playing with words and, in contrast to being the interpreter of someone else’s choreography or script, I enjoyed being the master of my own creation. When one of those stories grew too long and complicated to be stopped, I followed it down the path to becoming my first (and thankfully unpublished) novel.
Whether writing is our original passion or something that comes to us by accident, the way we spend our time deeply influences our work. “You are what you do,” says author Winston Groom (of Forrest Gump fame) in a recent NPR interview about a new collection of essays, Don’t Quit Your Day Job. “Experience in life is informed by all the things that you do, and work is most of it.”
The longest and worst of my day jobs was a soul-crushing stint as a legal secretary in a corporate law firm. That job inspired the theme of slavery at the core of The Thrall’s Tale. Why I accepted this torture for eight – yes EIGHT – long years is, at this point, completely beyond me.
But then I remember how it all began – how I used to write fiction between memos and briefs. I was an incredibly fast typist, motivated by my desire to get back to my own work; so they kept me on and paid me reasonably well. Yet I was plagued by paranoia that I’d be discovered and fired, and by certain co-workers who clearly resented that I wasn’t “one of the gals”. All this fed the drama that was growing in the password-protected document that was my manuscript. Read the first chapter of Thrall and you’ll see just a touch of how it all got intertwined.
So when I think back to those years of self-imposed torture, I feel a sense of gratitude equal to my relief that I’m no longer there. These days everything I do has something to do with writing. Yet I’ve learned more from my “real life” experiences than I ever could have learned locked up in a room all alone with those psychotic whispers.
In an excerpt from Don’t Quit Your Day Job published in The New York Times last week, John Grisham relates his sweaty trials with manual labor and the humiliation of selling men’s underwear at Sears. Somehow the path for him, as for so many of us, in the end led to writing success: “I had never worked so hard in my life, nor imagined that writing could be such an effort. …Writing’s still the most difficult job I’ve ever had — but it’s worth it.”
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.