On a Roll: The Value of Momentum

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Dear Writing Person,

Here’s a book I wrote a year ago but didn’t publish. It is a compilation of all my Bill and Dave’s posts on writing–basically all the writing tips I have. The formatting is wonky and all the cartoons disappeared when I pasted it in. Apologies. I had the energy to compile it but not format it. Hope you enjoy, Dave

ON A ROLL:

THE VALUE OF MOMENTUM IN WRITING AND LIFE

By David Gessner

CONTENTS

  1. STARTING TO ROLL
  2. DEMONS
  3. BLACK DIAMOND TROUBLES, BLACK DIAMOND TIPS
  4. TALKING TO GHOSTS
  5. ROLLING

 

  1. STARTING TO ROLL

 

A VERY SHORT ANSWER TO AN IMPORTANT QUESTION

 

Not long ago someone asked me for the best writing advice I had. I like to talk and could have gone on for a while with a question like that. But I kept it short this time. I said: know the value of momentum. Of simply doing. Push the rock forward, even when you are in no mood to do it. Move and you will end up in places you never expected. Stay still and do nothing and the tendency is to grow paralyzed and shrivel with terror.

 

 

 

 

A LONGER ANSWER

 

Momentum. I say the word so much that I wouldn’t blame students if they stormed out of the classroom.  But I’ll say it again.  Mo-men-tum. Sometimes it seems to me that the whole writing game–the whole of life?– is contained in that one word. How do you get in movement and stay in movement? The question. How to get rolling and, more importantly, keep rolling?

As for the “keep rolling” aspect (which, momentum being momentum, is the easier part) many people have tricks, usually some variant on Hemingway’s habit of stopping when you know what sentence you’re going to write next. That’s not for me. For one thing, if I know the sentence, I’ll write it down while I’ve got it. For another, it’s just too rational. “If I know what I’m doing I can’t do it,” said Joan Didion. That’s closer to it. Momentum, whether starting it or keeping it, is about the continued thrust into the unknown. The decision–if it even is a decision– to move forward without or beyond the aid of reason. Momentum is the march into darkness when your sensible (and fearful) side is telling you stay put in your clean, well-lighted brain.

But this is pretty vague.  Let’s get specific.

  1. You are sitting at your desk writing, or kind of writing. It isn’t going well. You started a long project, let’s call it a novel, a week ago and you are at an impasse. This morning your specific problem is that you need to get your main character, Elton, down to the farmers’ market where he can meet Lorrie, the cute single mom. But suddenly that idea seems kind of stupid. As does the whole book. Dark thoughts gather. How did you ever think that you, busy you, would have the time or energy to write a novel? Wouldn’t it be better to start next January when it will be a whole new year and you’ll have more time? That sickly feeling comes over you, that everything-I-write-seems-lame feeling. Quitting looks more and more attractive. If not quitting the whole project, then at least hanging it up for the day.

But you don’t. Not this time. Instead you somehow plow through those doubts and shove Elton into the car and get him driving down to the farmers’ market. You are typing now, though you are not initially freed from the curse of insecurity. You’re still pretty sure what you’re doing sucks but at least you’re doing it. So you keep moving, keep typing. Maybe in the back of your head you now remember that you don’t have to be in a chipper mood to write well, and that, while we all improve as writers, we also pretty much write the way we write, our sentences like our fingerprints, and this is semi-reassuring because it means your sentences come out the way they come out independent of your feelings about them. And then Elton and Lorrie meet, and you like the description of her laugh (it isn’t half bad), and you have him say something witty and then she, with little effort from you, says something witty back and…..

….and what you are experiencing, whether you know it or not, is the writerly law of momentum. You are in motion and you might just stay in motion for a while. It doesn’t mean everything is perfect and that you will now write the whole novel is one great surge, like you’re Dostoyevsky or something. But it might mean you will write for another hour or so. Tomorrow you might throw what you wrote away but tomorrow you might also feel a little different. A little more solid, a tad more confident. And, if you are lucky, you might develop a taste for this thing, this movement, this momentum, which might let you power through those doubts.

You understand, of course, that “power through” isn’t a very artistic or sophisticated term. But you are beginning to think it is an effective one. The thing is that this is how “rolls” often start. You have a crappy day but then you have a not-so-crappy day that leads to a very nice average day and then suddenly some part of you (maybe not your brain) realizes that you’ve had two not-so-bad days and then you have a good day and then, before you know it, you are feeling strangely confident…. You would jinx yourself by saying you are rolling. But you are.

  1. What I described above is momentum on a small daily scale. But for writers there is also something else, something larger, that I will call career momentum. It involves, for most of us, the creation of a book, or, hopefully, of books.

I am not saying that all our books need to be slammed together. You may be an entirely different sort of writer, one who composes in your head, and comes to the page with a vision, and with precision. But for most of us, at some point, we need to put our perfect vision of a book on a shelf deep in the closet and get down to the work of writing. Most books need to be framed out, like house, and framing isn’t finish work, precision work. Better to get in movement now and stay in movement since, as Samuel Johnson said, activity is “self-corrective.”

The strange thing is that once you are in movement, once you have momentum, you learn things you can never learn in theory. Your reasonable brain, for instance, might have ideas about plot, but it can’t know plot in a way someone who has wrestled with a book (or two) will. Likewise, you may have some general ideas about your own work habits but these are just ideas until they are tested in the fire of a book. Once you emerge from those fires, you suddenly know a lot more about yourself and are able to predict how you will respond, and, more specifically, practical things like how long it might take to finish a project or, at least, this chapter.  (I am listening to Elvis Costello’s Greatest Hits as I type and “Every Day I Write the Book” just came on.  Really, I swear. So I might as well go with the music and say that that’s another thing about momentum: once you get going you’re going to want to get that feeling every day.  Day after day…rolling….Every day you write the book….)

One final thought on momentum. In skiing terms this might be more of black diamond tip, for experts only. When you are starting out there is much to be said for focusing your energies on completing one project, one book. But once you are rolling, once you have momentum on your side, there is nothing wrong with jumping around a bit, hopping from project to project.  I read a recent interview with Cormac McCarthy where he said he was working on five books at once. Why not, if you can do it?  It’s a different kind of momentum than “powering through,” the opposite of forcing, just going with the one that’s coming. There are real advantages to this sort of method. For one thing you are rarely stuck. Often when you are working on one project the solution to another pops up. It’s another one of those things that feel different when you’re inside it than it looks from the outside, in theory. From the outside it might seem overwhelming to have so many balls in the air, to be doing so much. But from the inside it can actually be a rejuvenating way of working.  “A change is as good as a rest,” said Churchill, who knew a thing or two about variety. It allows you to “rest” certain projects while keeping an overall movement.

And movement, after all, is what it’s all about.

 

LOSE THE SUITCASE
There is almost nothing more frightening for a writer than the idea of losing one’s work. This used to mean losing one’s work physically when, say, your house burned down.  (I actually remember reading, and following, the advice of another writer who suggested placing final drafts wrapped in plastic in the freezer, where they might survive a fire.)  Of course the world has changed and now the anxiety is focused more on forgetting to hit SAVE or having your computer crash.

But that’s not the kind of loss I want to talk about today. While there is nothing more frightening than losing your work, for the development of a writer it is not always a bad thing. The most famous story in this regard was that of Hemingway and his wife Hadley. As the tale goes, Hadley was on a train to Spain and lost the suitcase containing many of Hemingway’s earliest short stories. And as the tale goes, narrated of course by Hemmingway himself, our macho hero greeted this news with stoicism. (Why is it that I imagine there might have been a temper tantrum or two?)  Of course he was devastated, but later he could look back and see this tragedy as less of one, as in fact an opportunity to grow beyond his apprentice work.

“Lose the suitcase!” I exhort my students, trying to get them to shed their earliest writing skins. It is scary advice, but it is important ability to have, an ability that allows us to finally get rid of apprentice work and trust the writers we have become. But of course it’s hard: you have written something, you think it’s good, you never grow beyond it. The problem here is that the secret of writing—if there is a secret (there isn’t)—lies in the growing part. Of course it’s human nature to cling to the suitcase, to want to “use” your old work if it hasn’t been published (and sometimes if it has) and to never want to lose it. And there are many reasons to cling to the old, indolence and fear being two. It is scary out there in the new; safe back here in the old.  Most of us hold onto our suitcase, work that is both finished and acceptable to us, for dear life.

But. Still. Lose the suitcase! Say you are writing a novel and you have gotten to the part where Mrs. Edwards throws the dinner plate at Mr. Edwards and you are oh so happy because five years ago you wrote a short story based on the same incident, which means you’ve got it and now you can rest and be confident for a while instead of living in the insecure (but thrilling) world of the first draft and instead of doing the daily impossible, uncertain work of making something out of nothing. But, lo and behold, it turns out you are a slightly different, maybe even better, writer than you were then, and the story made use of the event a little differently than the novel, and the story, after all, was a story, with a story’s shape, not a novel’s. So you suck it up and do the hard thing and make it new. You know your book, if not your mood, will be better served by writing the whole scene anew, and adding all the subtle differences that occur to you in the frenzy of creation, instead of leaning on, and clinging to, the old work.

Before I get carried away, let me be clear about one thing. I’m not saying you have to always lose the suitcase. I’m not a rigid anti-suitcase-ist, and there have been plenty of times I’ve jammed the dinner-plate-throwing scene in and it’s worked just fine. And I will admit that while we tell young writers to let go, there may be no more important tool of the trade than that of hanging on. Without it books wouldn’t get written. And yet….we writers too often err on the side of the suitcase and too infrequently embrace the scary world of letting go. It’s natural to want to hold on. But there is always something to be gained by a new draft, new writing, where all of your faculties, including, most importantly, your imagination, are fully engaged.  That is when the unexpected starts popping up on the page.

One of my favorite suitcase-losing stories comes from the great essayist Brian Doyle.  Doyle tells of how Robert Louis Stevenson had written the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in a mad rush, the way it seems he did everything, cranking the whole thing out in three days after having a dream about a Hyde-like character. When he had finished he came down and read it out loud in front of the fire to his wife and step-son Lloyd.

I’ll let Brian take it from here:

“Lloyd listened, “spellbound, and waiting for my mother’s burst of enthusiasm,” but it did not come: “Her praise was constrained, the words seemed to come with difficulty; and then all at once she broke out with criticism. He had missed the point, she said; had missed the allegory; had made it merely a story – a magnificent bit of sensationalism – when it should have been a masterpiece.”

Stevenson was livid, enraged, “his voice bitter and challenging in a fury of resentment,” said Lloyd, 17 years old at the time and frightened to see the stepfather he dearly loved “impassioned and outraged.” Lloyd fled, Stevenson stomped back upstairs, and Fanny stayed by the fire, “pale and desolate.”

Then Stevenson returned. “You’re right,” he said quietly to Fanny. “I’ve missed the allegory, which is, after all, the whole point of it.” He threw the manuscript in the fire. Fanny and Lloyd shouted and reached for it but Stevenson stayed their hands: “In trying to save some of it, I should have got hopelessly off the track. The only way was to put temptation beyond my reach.”

He wrote it again, in three days, and then off it went to be published….”

 

* * *

 

So throw it in the fire. Lose the suitcase. The thing about our early work, our apprentice work, is that we think that if we don’t use it, it isn’t good for anything. But it is good for something. It’s good for getting us to the point where we can throw it away.

 

 

WRITING THE FIRST DRAFT
I just finished spending a couple of months writing a draft of a new book and I thought I’d focus today’s advice on the routines of writing that I tried to put in place during that time. Of all the drafts the first is the most tense, scariest, most exciting and pleasurable and life-sucking. The reason for all this is it is the part where you make something from nothing. For me this means there has usually been a long period of gestation before I begin—of reading, travelling, brooding, journal-writing, osprey-watching, note-taking, outline-making, file-putting in, tape-recording during walks, anxiety attack-having—but when I do begin, I usually really blast off.

This time around my daily schedule during the draft went like this:

4:30/5:00: Get up/feed dog and cat/boil water for tea/make coffee for later/stretch back/eat banana

5:00: Start Writing

7:40: Drive Hadley to school and get Latte.

8:20—11:30/12: Write

12:00—1:30: Walk Missy (yellow lab) in woods at school or Carolina Beach State Park and talk into tape recorder: notes and sometimes spoken draft of tomorrow’s work

2:00/3:00 Read NYTimes. Bath. Nap

4:00/5:00: Beers and reading in the shack behind my house. Reading sometimes related to the book, sometimes not. Occasionally this segment becomes a third writing session, but only occasionally, and less so as I get older.

 

6:00: Dinner. Watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer with Nina and Hadley (since her school ended)

 

9:00/9:30: Fall asleep after watching first quarter of NBA playoffs.

 

A few things to note about this schedule:

 

  1. It doesn’t account for the normal obligations of life. There is always other stuff that butts in. For one thing there is usually some sort of job that has to be factored in to all this. Out of necessity, I have written these drafts in between the cracks of school and other obligations over the last decade but ideally this should be the draft where you somehow find some real time, the writing retreat or at the very least vacation-time draft.  For me this means Christmas or summer vacations.

 

  1. If you put in five hours at the desk a day it adds up. Math isn’t my strong suit, but even I can see that this means 50 hours every ten days, or 150 a month, or 300 in two months. I’ve been called a fast writer but do anything for 300 hours and you’ll get something done. Also, I sat down like this, as much as life would allow it, back when I was younger and a slow writer, and I feel like all that sitting is what has made me fast.

 

  1. Depending on your own temperament, my schedule may seem like either a) A dream or b) Dullsville. To me it is a little of both. The routine feeds the work in some way I don’t entirely understand. It also enforces boringness—you want to go out and party, sure, but then how do you get up at 4:45?  And oddly, the whole thing is surprisingly tense. Because you are doing all this stuff, controlling what you can control, going through your rituals like a batter at the plate, but at the same time at the heart of the whole thing is crazy voodoo magic: the fucking words have to come from somewhere! Where do they really come from? Who knows? But if you are smart you don’t spend too much time thinking about it and just keep writing.

 

  1. It’s tiring. It doesn’t look tiring when I write the schedule down—it looks kind of gentle and nice–but it is. More so as I get older. Basically, if you are really into it, it renders you incapable of doing much else. I can still be civil to my family, still have some fun even, but the truth is that I’m kind of a shell, useless. I stop showering or doing laundry. Okay, I never do much laundry anyway. But I do even less.

 

  1. You find yourself looking ahead at the calendar, thinking/dreaming about when you will be done. That–being done–seems like heaven. Which is kind of weird and speaks to the always-insatiable aspect of the of the human mind. After all, aren’t you kind of in heaven when you are absorbed in a first draft? No, your mind wants to be done. And then, when you are done, it wants back in.

 

  1. Another strange thing is that the more I do this the more I can predict, almost to the day, when I will be done. Tonight we are going to the Blockade Runner, a hotel on the beach out on Wrightsville, for a two day vacation of hot-tubbing and beach-going. That’s my reward before the next drafts start. I made these reservations a month ago, figuring this was the day I’d finish. I was off, true, finishing not on Wednesday morning but on Tuesday. But you get the point. I have no idea what this is about. Experience maybe.

 

When I get back I still have a series of drafts ahead, including:

  1. A Tighten the Bolts on-computer draft. That is a fast, language-centered reading of the whole ms. on the computer.
  2. A Print-Out-and-Read Big-Picture draft. Thinking of the book as a whole and how the chapters relate.
  3. An Individual Chapter Print Out/Read Through draft.
  4. A Final Read Through draft.

 

All these are important, all necessary. But momentum, and some peace of mind, have already been won through this simple fact: the scariest draft is done. From here on I will be working with something in hand. Not creating out of nothing.

 

TURN THE PAGE

 

Betsy Lerner  said this in her terrific book on writing, The Forest for the Trees : “I urge all my writers to get to work on their next project before publication.  Working on a new book is the only cure for keeping the evil eye away.”

This is sound advice, and it is grounded in the fact that the writer’s mind, when stripped of its main obsession—writing—will turn to other darker objects.

So today’s advice: turn the page. Which makes great sense but, as I learned over the last few months, is a little harder these days. Ideally, I think, all of us writers would swing from book to book like Tarzan from vine to vine. But what sometimes interrupts all the swinging is the necessity of selling the book. Reviews, Amazon, sales, slights, good readings, bad readings, victories, losses. For a while after publication all the focus is on the past book, the done thing, the dead thing.

That’s how it’s been for me at least. But over the last few days a few green sprigs have grown up through the compost.  And yesterday the new words really started coming.  Hallelujah!  Blessed relief. Suddenly things about the old book fade. The new book grips the mind. There’s no time for envy and pettiness or even indolence because you’ve got a fucking book to write! The excitement builds along with the desire for privacy.  For putting up walls. For retiring to the hermit writing cave. In other words it’s time to stop posting your status update on Facebook, and start posting it in your  journal. Time to start imagining a new world and let the old one shrivel.

This goes for books that you don’t publish too.

In his great essay, The “Siphuncle,” David Quammen writes: “I spent three years at menial labor while writing a novel about the death of Faulkner, a novel that no one at the time or for years afterward wanted to publish, and by now I don’t either. But it took much time and energy to seal that one behind a wall.”

I have some experience with leaving behind unpublished books, having written approximately eight books that have not seen the light of day.  These were not dashed off drafts, either, but multi-draft projects that each took years, and that, if I do say so myself, should have been published. I could gripe about that, and I certainly have over the years, but the point for today is that those had to be left behind. That is, even after their “failure,” I had to turn my imagination away from them and toward the new. It’s true that it’s harder when publication doesn’t provide–dare I utter the clichéd word–closure. But the truth is that it’s hard either way.  Hard to juice yourself up again, throw yourself in, leave the thing that obsessed you behind. Maybe I don’t really have much advice, good or bad, regarding this, other than you have to do it or you will stay stuck forever to the old book and will likely die as a writer.  Move or die!

The best cure is excitement.  That is what usually helps me get moving forward.  After all, I know I only have a finite number of years and there are so many things to get excited about in this world.  So get out the plaster and grout and take Quammen’s advice: seal the old book behind a wall. Head into the new.

 

KEEP A WRITING CHART

I’ve talked a lot about momentum and getting a on a roll. Today I’m writing about a very specific tool to help you get rolling and stay rolling. Up front warning: it’s going to seem a little dorky at first. And I admit that the idea of keeping a chart where you record the hours that you write sounds somewhat un-artistic and self-help-y. But my experience keeping charts over the years reveals this important aspect of the activity: it works.

As a younger writer, I was prone to self-exhortation, to making great vows and resolutions to work more and harder, and then, when my actual writing days fell short of those vows, to plunge into despair. For a while in my twenties I kept this Isak Dinesen quote above my desk: “Write a little every day, without hope, without despair.”  But despite that scrap of paper, I was always full of both hope and despair, often within the same hour or minute, and at heart I never really did like the whole “a little” part. I was also facing an inherent problem, one that any young writer faces. Your workday is formless and you don’t know how to fill it. It isn’t just your writing voice you haven’t found yet but your work habits. If you turn to “normal” standards of work—an eight hour workday, right?—and then write for a only a couple of hours, you feel like crap. I didn’t know then what I know now, that for me a three hour stretch of writing means a very healthy day, a day that if I repeat it over and over, will soon mean BOOK, and that once that block of work is done so am I, until tomorrow.

Back then I had no real notion of what a “good” day constituted. I could write for a couple of hours and then get down on myself for not writing more, painting a bleak overall picture, and essentially nullifying the positive momentum gained from the morning’s work. I don’t know when I hit upon the idea of keeping a chart of my hours, but I do know what it did. It introduced an element of objectivity that was very healthy. The charts were not exhortations but simple records. They looked like the one above. A small piece of poster board, 11″ by 14 1/2″, on which I drew three columns across and usually about 21 down. The down columns were dates, and usually tended to be in total about three weeks, at first because that was just how it worked out but later confirmed by the fact that three weeks is a nice amount of time for a work “burst.” The across columns were the subjects, first and most importantly, “Writing,” followed by “Working Out,” since I had not one quixotic goal—becoming a novelist—but two—winning nationals in Ultimate Frisbee. The third column was usually a record of food and drink, in an attempt to be healthy, but that one never worked quite as well as the other two and is the story for the another day.

Anyway, the column we are concerned with today is the first one. Up top, after the word “Writing” there was a colon and then the name of the specific project I was working on. But there were few words in the columns below. In their stead there were numbers. The method was simple. On my writing desk I kept a small un-lined index card and on the card where I kept track of the time I spent at my desk. The exact time. When I sat down at the desk I wrote down on time on the card—7:15—and when I got up from the desk for any amount of time longer than getting coffee, I wrote down that time too—8:45.  Then I would write down the total time I had been writing in parenthesis (1:30) and when I sat down again I would re-start the process, writing down the new time. At the end of the morning I would add up these fragments of time and the number I came up with would be the total number of hours and minutes that I had kept my butt in the chair. That was the number I would write down on my chart.

It seems silly and simple, right?  But something was gained by this simple charting. I began to get an objective sense of what a writing day really looked like for me. I started to learn that “2:45” was a pretty good day and that “3:30” was a damn good one. And if I started to write a few of those “3:30”s down in a row, I knew I was rolling, and, having not entirely kicked the exhorting habit, might scribble down something like “Rolling!” on the chart too. But the non-rolling days were instructive, too. Looking back I could see that they cropped up now and then, even in the midst of a time which I would later romanticize as intensely productive. In other words they let me see that this too was part of my writing ecosystem, that the weaker days were part of a larger whole. The end result was simple: I freaked out less. In an extremely subjective business I had a little corner of objectivity to cling to.

I am not claiming that my charts, quirky and personal, are right for any writer. Just that a little dose of hard reality—numbers in this case—can sometimes do something that all the vows in the world can’t. In my case they introduced some sanity and sense into a crazy endeavor. These days I swim in chartless waters, and it’s been about eight years since I have regularly kept charts. But I still sometimes make them up at the beginning of projects, as a kind of psych-up ritual, and maybe I write down my numbers for a day or two before abandoning them. They look silly, unmarked and white, even sillier than they did all marked up in the old days. But I don’t look down on them. They have served a larger purpose in my writing life and for that I am thankful.  They have helped me get to the point where I don’t need them.

 

DIVE LIKE AN OSPREY

Late spring is a pretty good time of year if you live on an academic schedule.  Actually, come to think of it, it’s a pretty good time of year if you live on a human (or animal) schedule: plants blooming, birds nesting, green breaking through.

But back to academics. The point I want to make is that when I teach, during spring and fall terms, I get used to doing a hundred things at once. I also, naturally enough, start to long for a simpler schedule. For instance, this spring, while rushing from thing to thing, I started imagining my life once school ended: I would stop shaving and showering and hole up in some writing cave and never come out again.  Specifically, I would get to spend a couple of weeks on my Cape Cod novel—nothing else—and I would focus all the creative energy that, for most of year, shoots off in some many directions.

And now that time is here. Sure, it isn’t ever quite as perfect as in imagination. Sure, there are still irritants and bills and things that get in the way. But for the most part it is good. I am back to doing what I like most—writing—and what I think I do best. There’s a healthy obsessiveness about focusing on one thing in a culture that insists you do a thousand. Fuck ’em. Every now and then you need to blow everything else off—to let the room get messy and the recommendations go unwritten—and get back to the business of what you were put on this earth to do.

So how does this translate to giving you, dear reader, some advice? This way: let yourself get obsessed for a while. Stop being so responsible. Or rather, be responsible to the work. The world won’t fall apart without you.  Do one thing. Work on one book.  Don’t let the nagging insects of things-to-do (or other projects) get in your way.

Be like the Bolivian hunter who slipped a bone of an osprey under the skin of his arm in “hopes of absorbing hawk-like skills in hunting.” Better yet be like an osprey itself, diving for fish.  Focus on that one thing that gives you life and dive for it. Here is what Shakespeare had to say about the conquering Coriolanus:  “I think he’ll be to Rome as is the osprey to the fish, who takes it by sovereignty of nature.”

Get it? So that’s my advice. Be to your work as an osprey is to fish.

It may of course be possible that you have never seen an osprey dive.  In which case I offer this passage which describes a dive (but which, possibly, might also be about something else):

The Dive

Ospreys are the only raptors that dive fully into the water to catch their prey.  Try to imagine the physical sensation.  To skim across the sky, above the ocean, peering down with eyes that can see into the shallows from forty, sixty, even a hundred feet up.  To catch a glint or the shadow of a movement and know it to be a fish, the one thing that keeps you alive.  To hover, adjust, beating your wings so that you stay in place, like a giant kingfisher or hummingbird.  Then to dive, to commit, to tuck with folded wings and plunge downward at over forty miles an hour while still keeping your eyes on the prey, calculating its size and movement.  To adjust in mid-air, re-directing, considering even the refraction of the fish’s image in the water, before pulling in your wings and diving again.  And then, at the last second before hitting the water, to throw your wings back and your talons forward, striking feet first.  To plunge in, splash, immerse, and make contact at the same time, trapping, piercing, clutching a slippery, scaled, cold-blooded creature.

Now imagine what comes next.  Securing the fish, aided by the sharp, horny scales on the pads beneath your toes.  For a moment being out of your element and in your prey’s, feeling wet, awkward, ungainly.  Then lifting off from the water with a great thrust of exertion, soaked and heavy, hefting an animal that may weigh half of what you do.  Beating your wings furiously and rising, shaking the water off like a wet dog, already using your reversible outer talon to adjust the squirming fish, turning it so that it faces forward to reduce drag as you lift into the air, triumphant (or at the very least successful), shaking off silver flecks of spray.

To even imagine a dive is to get excited.  What a bold way to live!  To find one thing you do well and then to stake your life on it.  It’s as simple and direct as passion.  It is passion.  Peter Matthiessen wrote: “Simplicity is the whole secret of well-being.”  If so, the ospreys have got it figured out.  It isn’t hard to picture a band of primitive osprey tribesmen watching the birds and learning from them.  One thing they might have learned, and one thing that appeals to me, is how the osprey’s dive weds calculated patience to wild aggression.  He who hesitates is smart, at least if when he finally commits he commits fully.  For the ospreys the hesitation is as important as the dive.  The birds have a remarkable success rate, some catching well over fifty percent of what they dive for, (like humans, athleticism varies; a few particularly adept birds catch close to ninety), and this is due in good part to the pre-dive patience, the search for the right target.  This careful adjustment will often carry over into the dive itself.  After the bird has tucked its wings and dropped down thirty feet, it may pause and readjust, and it may continue this a time or two again as if descending imaginary stairs.  But while the pre-dive ritual demands control and calculation, the plunge itself is about the opposite of control.  It is a moment of full commitment, of abandon, and finally, of immersion.

 

 

WRITER, EDIT THYSELF!

I’ve done a lot of exhorting over the last few pages and perhaps you’re ready for something a tad more practical. Okay. You’ve pushed yourself into movement, you’re keeping a writing chart or its equivalent to give yourself a realistic sense (not a subjective impression) of what you are getting done and you’re kind of rolling. You’ve got a lot down on paper and now you are returning to it to see what you’ve got. Does the same barge-ahead, get-momentum philosophy apply to the next stage of writing? To some extent, yes, since the idea is that the more you do something the more, and more easily, you can do it.  But writing isn’t all charge and barge.

So here are a few thoughts on what comes next, editing your own work:

  1. “I hate it,” isn’t an uncommon reaction when returning to a piece of writing after a time away from it, just as “This is the greatest thing ever written” isn’t uncommon when in the throes of inspiration.  The trick is to come back to a piece with a mindset somewhere in between the two extremes.  That is to come back with a “new head,” calm, practical, aware that what you are approaching isn’t either the worse or greatest piece of writing ever produced, but something that can be tackled, re-worked, improved.
  2. It’s easier to have a “new head” when there’s actually another head.  That’s the reason that editors exist.  You simply can’t see everything yourself.  Is there another individual, hopefully a writer who knows something about craft, who can read for you consistently?   Sometimes a single external sensibility (that is, a person) can help as much as a class.  (I know this one contradicts my title.)
  3. What really irked you during your workshop/criticism from editor?  Not just stupid comments but ones that hit home…”Honesty is the first step in greatness,” said Samuel Johnson and one thing that revision is about is honesty.  It’s worth asking yourself a question you can pay a psychologist to ask you: What am I avoiding?  Other questions to ask yourself: Where am I being dishonest?  Glib?  Taking shortcuts?  Where am I inserting an opinion/generalization/idea that I haven’t really thought out?  Why did I include this?  What does it mean to me?
  4. Often our own writing is interesting to us because it happened to us.  Is it interesting to a stranger?  Don’t come to your work with an overly critical attitude–“It’s all boring”–but do ask yourself why someone else would be compelled to read it.  It never hurts to ask: Am I being self-indulgent?  (I usually answer yes, and continue on.)
  5. Make the verbs active. Unless you have a specific mood in mind, think movement.
  6. Is there a reason you aren’t turning something into a scene or at least a mini-scene?  Is that reason laziness?
  7. Use earthy details to deflate pomposity.  It’s worth remembering that for every glistening lily we see there exists a can of Alpo dog food.
  8. Smell, taste, touch, sound.  Is your piece taking place in a a sensory vacuum?  Overdo it–you can always scale back.
  9. To paraphrase Bernard DeVotto, “Revision separates the women from the girls.”  Remember revising doesn’t have the la-la nearly hallucinogenic thrills of some first drafts.  It is about work, craftsmanship, thought.  But it can be very satisfying in a different way.

 

FIGHT THROUGH THE FEAR

I’m teaching a graduate class this spring called “Just Write,” the idea being to clear away clutter and get down to the business of actually writing.

Last week, during our first class, I mentioned the “Christmas morning feeling” that early morning feeling writers sometimes get, when they go to sleep early thinking about the next day’s work and wake up excited to get to it. (I think I plagiarized, or half-plagiarized, that phrase from Donald Hall’s great book, Life Work.)

Well, suffice it to say, not every morning is Christmas morning. Over the last week I have woken up with a feeling not of excitement but dread. I suppose I could pin actual reasons on that feeling (an operation on my leg, anxiety about my forthcoming book) but it feels more free-floating than that. That creepy something-bad-is-going-to-happen uneasiness. Or, to put it more simply: fear.

I still go about my morning routine, stretch my back, feed the animals, boil tea, make coffee, and the rest. But I don’t quite sprint up to the computer as if it’s a present to open. I’m a little scared of turning on the machine, really. I worry that I don’t have the energy to deal with the bad that is coming or to make the things that I need to make. I think too much.

But generally, thanks to years of habit and, more importantly, the knowledge that if I let the fear paralyze me I will be on the fast road to depression, I start to type. Not always, and certainly not always well. But enough so that more often than not that activity itself, combined with the magical alchemy of caffeine, becomes the self-made rope by which I climb out of the abyss.

I write this out from very recent personal experience. From this morning in fact. Two hours ago I was sitting here quaking, if not on the outside than in. The first strand of the rope was woven out of a blog post I wrote yesterday on Wallace Stegner and largeness. This, what I’m writing now, is the next strand. And now that I have some momentum I think that I will turn to an environmental essay something I saw while down in the Gulf of Mexico a couple of weeks ago. Three strands will make for a pretty good morning, a way to pull myself up.

Though no guarantee that the fear won’t be back tomorrow.

(Sorry: that last line is not very pep-talky.)

 

 

 2. DEMONS

 

ACCEPT YOUR SMALLER SELF, STRIVE TO BE LARGER

 

I had every reason to be happy when I heard that Edith Pearlman had been nominated for the National Book Award. When my wife called to tell me the news she certainly expected to be happy. I am happy for Edith now, very happy, and I should  have been happy for her then.  After all, I had been lucky enough to be in the room when Emily Smith and Ben George, the founders of Lookout Books, had called to read Edith the glowing cover review of her book in The New York Times. That had been a thrilling moment, and we were all lifted up in its excitement, and news that she had now been nominated for the National Book Award should have provided me with a similar lift.

It did not. You see I had secret hopes of being nominated myself.  Maybe you did too? For my part I had written a book the Gulf Oil disaster which was really, I hoped, about much more than that disaster, about the way we will all be living soon, about certain choices we will all be making, about sacrifice, about what we are getting and what we must give up. And in writing about these subjects I had made formal writing choices that I had not seen anyone esle making: jumping from comedy to investigative reporting to essay to nature writing to farce. I understood why certain corporate swine—the publishers of big newspapers and magazines—would not give the book its due, but I dreamed (vaingloriously no doubt) that judges—fellow writers!—would see what I had attempted to do. And so when my wife called to tell me what had happened to Edith I could only focus on what hadn’t happened to me.  At the very least I should have thought immediately of my colleagues, my friends—Ben and Emily—and what this meant to them. The word was that the grad students up in the pub lab where Edith’s book was created had let out a spontaneous cheer when they heard the news. I did not cheer. Instead, I was briefly, crestfallen.

But briefly. Only briefly. Which may just be the key, or at least a key, to the writing life.  Let the ugliness pass; let the bile out; and something better may surface. You cannot expect yourself to be better than human and petulance is a human emotion. If you do expect yourself to be better you will only add more pain, in the form of self-flagellation, to the mix. There is a sort of knowledge (you might even be tempted to call it “wisdom” with your tongue only slightly in your cheek) in knowing that petty feelings fade. It is a modern fallacy to think that our smallest feelings are our truest, our most “honest.” This is nonsense that, as my friend Sam Johnson might put it, must be refuted, sir. Our moods move through us like the weather, and petulance is a brief  thunderburst, not even a full storm.  It no more represents our whole self than the mood equivalent an Indian summer day as winter closes in.  The trick, if there is a trick, is to let the weather pass through you and not call it your all. The trick is to wait it out, and not do anything stupid or mean in the meantime.

And then, once the small mood has passed, you can see it for what it was. See how small it was. See it within a larger context, and react more fully. An hour after Nina’s phone call and I was already feeling happy and proud for Edith. Edith, a woman by the way who had worked devotedly and brilliantly at her craft for many years without getting the recognition she deserved. And if I was happy for Edith, I was thrilled for Ben and Emily, who were being rewarded for not just their talents but for a year of monumentally hard work.

Some might call this second emotion “phony.” Some might say I was pasting an old school morality over my real first feelings. I wasn’t. Not only wasn’t this the case but I’m not sure I’d like to live on an earth, or in a body, where it was.  And while we are refuting one modern cliché let’s refute another. That trying, that effort, has little to do with any of this.  “Largeness is a lifelong matter,” wrote Stegner.  Hear, hear.  (Or is it here, here?)  We must strive not to be petty.  We must understand that we are all in the same (very leaky) boat.  And that everybody’s boat capsizes in the end.

Acceptance.  And effort.

I think now of a vastly underrated essay by Rust Hills, “Pursuing Montaigne, As Against Pursuing Thoreau,” in his vastly underrated book, How to Do Things Right.   He contrasts Thoreau and Montaigne:

“Montaigne is somehow marvelously, humanly indolent. Thoreau had an exceptional, almost inhuman vitality. Thoreau kept in shape…Montainge’s indolence and sensuality seem so thoroughly human.  Thoreau did sculpt his own life and body with a fine aesthetic asceticism.”

The reason I bring this up is that it seems to me that we need both qualities as writers. Acceptance of ourselves at our worse. And an almost athletic striving to be our best.  Some combination of these two things may hold a key of sorts.  Both “Hey, this is what I am,” and “Maybe I can be more.”

 

SHOWING THE BASTARDS

 

Why do we choose to do this writing thing?  Let’s start there.

I had a critical father, a man who would reply when I got a 98 on a test with: “What happened to the other two points?”  I developed a self-deprecating sense of humor in large part as a defense against his sarcastic attacks.  I hated nothing more than criticism and rejection.

So of course I dedicated myself to a career that would guarantee a lifetime of criticism and rejection.

Leaving Dr. Freud aside, I think it was a great decision.  t has toughened me up enough so that I can occasionally laugh outright—ha!—at rejection.  Occasionally.  Of course it still stings, but I know that that sting is part of my writing life, my overall writing ecosystem. I was at a writing conference a few years ago when a young writer said he didn’t want to go to a particular party because it would be full of people from a journal that had rejected him. An older, well-respected writer overheard this and said: “If I did that, I wouldn’t be able to talk to anyone at the whole conference.”

So, for most of us, rejection—and frequent rejection—is the reality. But what do we do with this fact? This past spring term I taught a class called “The Writing Life” and many of the established writers who came to speak to the class spoke of their relationship with rejection. Clyde Edgerton described papering his wall with the hundreds of rejections he got after starting out on his writing career in his thirties. In contrast, I remember working on a novel for four years during my twenties, sending it out to five big publishing houses, and sinking into depression when I got the inevitable rejections. To my credit I didn’t quit writing, but I did quit sending stuff out for a long while. It took the example of a writer friend in Colorado, Mark Spitzer, to open my eyes to a new way of seeing.  Mark’s attack on the literary world was high speed and somewhat wacky: at the time I watched him in action he was living in the basement of the mountain house where I was staying and he was constantly writing novels and stories and poems.  Just as constantly, it seemed, he sent out his work. With an orange felt tip pen he would crank out letters to literary journals and publishers as fast as he could, scrawling self-addressed envelopes in the same orange, and sending out his stories and poems in the same sort of creative torrent in which he wrote. I was awed. His room–which featured a fishing pole with a line that reached from his bed to the light switch so that he could turn it off from his moldy mattress–filled up with rejections but also, joyously, with the occasional acceptance. He was my opposite and though I would never quite embrace his all-out style and would never buy an orange felt tip pen, he made me see that my own inaction was a kind of cowardice.  He showed me the value, above all else, of taking action.

The key, of course, is to battle one’s own perfectionism, and knowing that perfectionism almost always borders (self) protectionism.  Just as we develop our own writing voices, we develop our own styles of dealing with the publishing world.  It doesn’t matter if these styles are perfect or proper, as long as they, like my friend Mark’s, are effective and have the end result of getting your work out of your room.

Though I am not particularly proud of it, one way that I respond to being told my work is unwanted is by getting angry, rejecting my rejecters. A student in the class I mentioned above has a sign that says “Fuck ‘Em” over her desk and as far as I’m concerned that gets it about right, though I prefer the less pithy “I’ll show the bastards.” Anger, your therapist will tell you, is not healthy.  Well maybe not, if I just sits there welling up or festering inside you. But one wonderful quality of anger is that it creates energy and energy is the whole game. What if, instead of curling into a fetal position after getting a hurtful rejection, you waved your fist and sent another story out? And while you’re doing that feel free to get melodramatic about it.  Remember Beethoven had a note on his desk that said “I will take fate by the throat.”

So what do we do with this energy, angry or not? One thing we can do it write. Better, sharper stories than before. We look rejection coldly in the eye and say, “No, that’s not true,” or sometimes “Yes, maybe that’s a little true….I’ve got to get better at that.”  We write regularly, daily, with a calm fury. We show the bastards. And we send our stuff–better now and stronger and cleaner and more polished–back out in the world, knowing that we will get knocked down again and again but also that, while the rejecters still may be able to shake our confidence, they do not have the power to destroy us.  And why is that?  Because the bastards always forget one small thing:

We can not be stopped.

 

 

AVOID POSTPARTUM DEPRESSION

 

So for weeks, months, maybe years you have been pushing toward the end of the book you are writing. It has been your main goal, your driving purpose. Not a few times each day you fantasize about being done. What could be better? It sounds like heaven.

And this morning, miracle of miracle, you have finally finished. You’re done!  Maybe you will drink some champagne and tell some people and try to make an occasion of it. But maybe you also feel, instead of elation, a kind of depression setting in. Immediately. What the hell is this?

What is the root of this strange depression? It is emptiness. It turns out that all this time, even when you were griping about it and dreaming of the end, this book was keeping you full. And while you thought there was nothing you wanted more than to be done with the book, without it your life feels empty. The book has filled up your days, even if you only work on a it for a couple of hours in the morning. And even if you don’t know you are, you are thinking about it while you eat, drink, and sleep. It has kept you company. It has given you purpose. And now it’s gone. And you are back to normal life, which as it turns out seems pretty blah.

So what to do?  Accept it is one answer, I suppose. Live with it and let the feeling go away on its own accord. Do the things you have not been doing while writing like the dishes. Chalk it up to yet another fucked up aspect of living the writing life.

You can do that. Or you can do what I do and what most write-aholics do. Start on a big new project immediately. Some of us hate the emptiness so much we do this on the very same day. As you get on in your career it might not be so much that you are starting a new project as turning from one to another, moving from unfinished project to the next like swinging from one trapeze bar to the next, with only that brief moment in the void in between.

This of course does not sound like the route to great mental health. And if you have a healthier way of dealing with this problem, go to it. I’ve tried myself. I often will try to wait a couple of days but inevitably a kind of creepy, itchy non-writing feeling comes over me and I head back to writing. I don’t know what this says about me psychologically, though I’m sure it isn’t good. But it makes me feel better. And it’s a pretty good way to get books done.

 

HOLD ONTO YOUR DELUSIONS

 

When I played Ultimate Frisbee, I sometimes billed myself as “the greatest player of all time—by far.” Of course I wasn’t. It was meant mostly as a joke, an Ali-like brag and also a parody of some other Ultimate players I knew who, unrestrained by coaches or media or reality, could imagine they were the greatest that had ever played.

But it wasn’t entirely a joke either, at least not in my mind. Not that I ever objectively thought that I was the best player, either at the time or of all time. But I sure as fuck wanted to be. And I would contend that it was that desire, and the corresponding internal exaggerations of the glory that would befall me as my greatness was achieved–and, it went without saying, became clear for all to see–that was part of what drove me during those years.

It also goes without saying that lofty ambitions are painful, especially when you fall short of them. An argument can always be made for a more “realistic” commonsensical approach and that is an argument I understand.

But there is another argument. An argument for the fuming, fretting, planning, obsessing, worrying and of course constant working that is required to attain more. Obviously I am not talking about just Frisbee any more. One of the fascinating things for me about the writing program where I teach is how infrequently the idea of ambition is discussed among the grad students, as if it were a dirty word. But if they are honest they will admit that there can be no reason for them to have given up their lives someplace else, sacrificed other possible careers and a good deal of money, if not in hopes of doing something big. Big of course is scary. Small is safe. Big can be intimidating, which is why we like quotes like Isak Dinesen one I mentioned above, “Write a little every day…” This sort of thing calms us.

But there is something to be said for the opposite of calm, too. For being riled up, roiled, almost too excited to work. Just because it is embarrassing to say it out loud doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to make something great. That your swan dive off the high rock might turn into a thwapping, humiliating belly flop makes it frightening. But it sure isn’t boring.

Good advice might be to trim and prune your delusions. Today’s bad advice is to hold onto them.

 

 

BEGINNING IS TERRIFYING BUSINESS

 

Everyone can imagine a time in the future when circumstances will be better, more ideal, for tackling that big book, that perfect poem, that masterpiece.  Right now you are too stressed, too busy, involved in a family squabble, and money’s tight.  But in that imagined future life is stress-free, everyone gets along, your bank account’s flush, and of course you have plenty of spare time. No wonder you want to write the book then. If you did it now, with all this other stuff going on, you couldn’t do justice to the work of genius that is in embryo in your brain. If you did it now it would come in fits and starts; you would make mistakes; it wouldn’t be pure.

But start now please. Today. Yes, there are plenty of projects that require brooding and gestation.  And yes, there is that rare time when delaying is just what a project needs. But most writers err on the side of dilly-dallying, of procrastination, and, being writers, and therefore equipped with imaginative minds, they come up with some whoppers for why it’s right not to write. They tell themselves that if only they get to the end of the term, the end of the season, the end of the marriage, then it will be time to start. But they are usually wrong. The thing is that, in theory, life looks easier without the burden of a book on top of everything else. But in practice it doesn’t work that way. Why? I think that it has to do with the fact that creative people are creative and therefore happier when they are engaged in creating. We think it will make life more crowded. Often it makes life better and more vibrant.

And let’s face it: No matter when you start it’s going to be painful.  Beginning is terrifying business.  Even if you were plopped down on that paradisical writing island—stress-free and money-full—the first few days would be, if you are anything like me, brutal. Words would come slowly and sentences would go wrong and you would start to wonder what the hell you were doing. You might even wonder if you’d picked the wrong island, and start to think that what it would take to really write a book was some better island, some future island, where the writing would come easy. But push ahead, trudge on, do some mediocre work and something better will come, and you might actually have some easy days on the island you’re already on.

There’s a kind of corollary to the “future writing” theorem: there’s not enough time in the day. It’s true sometimes. But again we too often err on the side of not writing. The fact is that if you can learn to carve an hour or two a day for writing, out of the 24, it will not make the day more hectic, more stressful, more rushed. Usually, the effect will be exactly the opposite: energy will be created, stress released, by spending some time concentrating each day on your art.  (If your goal, however, is to create stress, then spend more time checking e-mail.)  I think it works a lot like going for a run does. You would think it would waste time but instead it creates it.

So that’s today’s advice. Short and sweet.  Take all the reasons not to write, reasons that future writing will be better, and bury them in a time capsule on that desert island. Then get to work.

 

 

SLOW DOWN

“Do not hurry. Do not rest.”  These are Goethe’s words, and I’ve always liked them. Especially the “do not rest” part. But even Goethe would admit, if he had, say, an article due, that sometimes you gotta hurry. One imagines Goethe in his book-lined study in Weimer, producing his great body of work at a stately pace. Like any writer, he must have often felt words, sentences and whole future books pressing on him, making him excitable and uneasy, but maybe, unlike most writers, he managed to keep calm and take one thing at a time.

Good for him. No one will ever call me stately. Over the last decade, or more realistically over the last two, I’ve shoved words furiously into the world, my pace more charge than stroll. When I was in Colorado this July, Reg Saner, who was once my teacher and now a friend, suggested something that I myself have thought (and written): that my bout with cancer at 30 served as a kind of starting gun for my career. Twenty years later I don’t claim to have reached any sort of finish line, but I do feel I deserve a bit of a rest. Call it, with fingers crossed, a half-way pit stop.

What does this mean for me, and, more importantly, for you (since this is supposed to be advice). It means that sometimes we’ve got to change it up. It means that travelling this summer was a sort of revelation, mainly because three things were impossible on the road: regular e-mail, cell phone conversation, and daily writing. Which should mean that the whole world fell apart, right? How wonderful when it didn’t. How nice to find my body rhythms slowing down, and to continue that slowing down now that I’ve returned home.

For a workaholic, and any kind of achiever, the concept of slowing down sounds suspicious. I, for one, believe that I can put in four or five hours at my desk and still smell plenty of roses. And I don’t plan on replacing those hours with meditation. Or maybe I do in a way, but just with a particular type of meditation called reading. My goal over the next year, in service of the new book I’m starting to work on, is to not just to read everything that Ed Abbey and Wallace Stegner ever wrote, but to read all I can about the history and environment of the American West.  I might have done this anyway, but am beholden to it now because my new editor, right before buying the project, stressed that the press she worked for expected that, as well as my travels through the West, I would do the research of a true biographer. (Twice the research really since I will be writing braided biographical essays of two men.)  This, it turns out, is a kind of blessing. It enforces a sort of slowing down. And it means—wonder of wonders—a year of reading ahead, a return to one of my greatest pleasures.

A pleasure it has been so far, but I am not quite ready for the monastery. Note that I have not abandoned the language of achievement. I used the word “goal” with regard to my new reading life, and rightly so I think.  When he was only a couple years older than me, near the end of his life as it turned out, my father started to drink less and read more.  He also numbered all the books he read each year, so that I still find the words “#73 DM Gessner 1992” in volumes that have migrated their way into my library. Reading was a pleasure, but there was also the need to satisfy some schoolboy sense of achievement, to tally up the end result. In honor of this, and of him, and to satisfy the same impulse in me, I will be numbering my books during the next year of reading. Yesterday I put the number 1 and the date in Wallace Stegner’s Wolf Willow.

So next time you see me please note my pace. I hope you will not find me charging from one place to another, though I still doubt that the word “stately” will pop into your mind. I guess it will be enough if you notice I’m moving a little slower.

 

RELEASE YOUR HATE

 

I had a big party on my 30th birthday. Eight days before I had been operated on for testicular cancer, and the whole next week I waited to find out what flavor the cancer was. I had already planned the party when the good news came that it was a seminoma, the best kind. It was a great celebration.

On the night of the party, however, perhaps retaining some residue bitterness from my week in the hospital, I tacked up a large poster that I called “The Wall of Hate.” On the poster there were a hundred blank spots where partygoers could write in their nominees for their most hated human beings. This was 1991 and some notable write-in candidates for most hated personalities included Nixon (still and always), Bill Lambier, Yakov Smirnoff, Garfield, Sinbad, Dick Vitale, The Blonde Poseur who played guitar on Saturday Night Live, Judas, and, finally, later in the night,“One-Balled Guys who Sing at Parties for Attention.”

I still have that poster somewhere, I think. The reason I bring it up today, other than the fact that I think it’s kind of funny, is that it is an example of something I have been thinking about lately: how outrage, anger, and even hate can release energy. All you need is love? Sure, maybe. But I remember how one of my best early essays, “A Letter to a Neighbor,” sprung off my pen when some jerk built a trophy house up on the bluff I loved on Cape Cod. Love was involved, but outrage propelled my pen. Not long ago I started to turn this into an exercise for my students: write about something that really pisses you off. Don’t hold back. Let it rip. It has produced some good results.

Of course no one wants writing that is all hate. But in this troubled world getting angry has its uses. It is active, for one thing.  Ed Abbey was a writer who used hate productively. He said that a writer should be, “Fueled in equal parts by anger and love.”

That’s it. Love and largeness allow us to see the world fully. Just don’t entirely forget about that other thing.

 

TRY NOT TO DIE

It’s hard to type when you’re dead.

This past March I drove up the coast, following the path of Hurricane Sandy, with the coastal activist and geologist Orrin Pilkey.

“Maybe they’ll name a building after you too if you stay alive long enough,” he said.

He was referring, lightheartedly, to a building that had just been named in his own honor, Duke University’s new Orrin Pilkey Marine Science and Conservation Genetics Center in Beaufort, North Carolina.

“The trick is to stay alive,” he added.

 

* * *

 

I am thinking lately that Orrin is right. Not that I’m angling to have a building named after me—though the David M. Gessner Jr. Creative Writing Plaza and Waterpark does have a nice ring to it—but that staying alive is a pretty key aspect of the writing life.

Hemingway said something like that too, right? That it kind of sucks to finally feel like you’ve really got some sort of mastery over what you are doing, and that you’ve made it through the spastic turmoil of youth, and then your body has to go and crap out on you. Of course he took that into his own hands, didn’t he? He failed pretty miserably at today’s advice.

This week I got an unsettling phone call from my doctor. Twenty-three years out from testicular cancer, I still get my blood checked annually. The news was that one of the tumor markers was up a bit. Nothing probably. Or everything.

I’m not trying to be a drama queen here. As I say, it’s probably just a little blip on the screen. But you have to admit that any of us on any day can walk out the door and not come back. My own response to the news has surprised me: it’s been mostly a philosophical one. One thing I’ve thought about a lot is how lucky I was to catch that tumor early back in 1989, and how grateful I am for the time since. Most of all of course for my wife and daughter, but so much else as well. This sounds cliché, but I think it’s cliché for a reason. I have lived a whole life between then and now. An extra life. A bonus life. I feel lucky.

But this is supposed to be writing advice so I want to return to writing. While there are many human and emotional responses to contemplating our own mortalities, I want to bring this back to how death affects your writing. In short, it really gets in the way of it. I’ve written and lectured a lot about the importance of a daily routine and as it turns out it gets in the way of that too. The enemy of this sort of necessary daily work is distraction and there aren’t too many bigger distractions than the Big D. I’m only partly joking here. Among the thoughts flitting through my head about the downside of expiring is this one: I won’t be able to get my work done.

This may sound somewhat cold-blooded, but I need to stress that it is not the first thing I think about when I think about not being around anymore. But it’s not the last either. In my journal I occasionally sketch down a list of “Future Books.” These are not whimsical titles, but books that I either have thought quite a lot about or have already done substantial work on (in some  cases, worked on for years). A few of these are books I have all but completed and will return to. Not apprentice work but books that have not published for various (sucky) reasons. Anyway, the point is that there’s a lot of work to do here, and any sort of early expiration date would get in the way. Of course I don’t have control over that, do I?  Which is annoying, to say the least. To have the tools to do something, and the drive and the desire, but not the time.

But now, after bragging about being so calm, I am getting morbid. It is important to remember that these things always seem more tragic when they are about you. Think of this happening to someone else and you can say, “What’s the big deal, they wrote enough books already anyway.” Look at Updike: Was he worried that he wasn’t going to complete number 73 before he died, afraid he would deprive the world of one last spurt of genius?  Ed Abbey had another more practical approach to the end of his life. He saw it as a deadline and got his last book, Hayduke Lives, done a week before that deadline came up. It was a bit of hack work but with a noble goal: money for the wife and kids he would leave behind.

 

* * *

 

It felt good to write this. To articulate some of the perhaps insane things I’ve been thinking over the last week. The health scare is a minor one, I’m sure, and I’ve been through a bunch of things like this before. It’s the kind of thing we all have to go through on planet earth if we live long enough. For now I’m just not going to think about it and as it happens I know a good way to achieve that goal: I am going to sit down and do some writing.

 

 

III. BLACK DIAMOND TROUBLES,

BLACK DIAMOND TIPS

 

THE WIRED WOODS

 

A few years ago I ran into a fellow nature writer whom I deeply admire. When I suggested that we exchange cell phone numbers, he told me he’d resisted buying one, and then he quoted Henry David Thoreau: “It is best to avoid the beginnings of evil.” His tongue was partly in his cheek, as was Thoreau’s when he wrote those words, since Henry was referring to his decision not to buy a doormat for the cabin on Walden Pond. But when I saw my friend again the next summer he had a cell phone in hand, “for emergencies.” And so we all, even the most resolute, slide down the slippery slope. First a doormat, then what?

Like Thoreau, I have traveled a good deal in Concord. During my trip to the town last fall I was in the midst of a book tour, which consisted mostly of waving my arms around and yelling, “Hey, look at me,” and which required almost constant updating of my all-important status on Facebook and Twitter, not to mention my blogs and my website. It seemed of vital importance that everyone know what I was doing at every second. If not… well, if not, then what? Oblivion?

Despite my electronic commitments, I did manage to make it to Walden. I also made it to Emerson’s house—where a fellow member of the house tour, a man with a prow of a nose, turned out to be Ralph Waldo’s great-great grandson!—before strolling down the street to The Wayside, where Nathaniel Hawthorne once lived. There I found a sign at the bottom of a steep hill announcing that up above was the Larch Path where Hawthorne “trod daily… to formulate as he paced to and fro upon its summit his marvelous romances.” I hiked up the hill, kicking through the humus of the previous year’s leaves topped with that fall’s lighter layer, and thought about how, for many people, walking is linked to creation, our minds working better in movement.

Inspired, the next morning I left cell phone and computer behind and headed out to Flint’s Pond, a favorite haunt of Thoreau’s. As I walked, I thought of those great nineteenth-century writers and found myself envying their homes, their space, their periods of solitude, the slower pace of their days. And I felt, in a small and un-malicious way, accused. Felt that the way I’ve been living lately, with all my high-speed gadgets and fast-twitch thoughts, is flawed in some profound way. As if I had forgotten the importance not just of privacy but of deep retreat.

What does it mean if we wake to check our messages, if we walk with phone in hand and plugs in ears, not leaving time to ruminate, time to let our thoughts progress the way thoughts do in one’s own quiet brain? Will we get to the point where doing anything for a long time—going for a walk, sitting alone, reading a book, writing a book—starts to feel unnatural and, worse, boring?

Maybe boring is necessary for creation. Walking, for instance, can be awfully dull.  But it can also be the time when our best thoughts come. What is forgotten is that despite the boredom, or perhaps because of the boredom, something is gained by periods of both uninterrupted concentration and unfocused mulling.

Which would be a fine way to conclude this piece, the Puritan minister declaiming from his Concord pulpit, if not for one other small detail I remember from that day. Walking around Flint Pond had done its work, legs spurring mind, and the words were coming. I said I had left my electronics behind, but there is one device I’m rarely without. I pulled my microcassette recorder from my pocket and proceeded to record most of the thoughts you have just read. This is my preferred way of capturing my words, though I know it belies my role as a critic of technology. After a while I turned off the machine and stared up at a row of blazing yellow beech trees, but near the end of my walk I felt more words coming. These were shorter sentences, and when I clicked the recorder back on I recognized them right away for what they would become. As I spoke to myself, I already suspected what I would confirm when I got back to my car: the cluster of words was approximately 140 characters long.

Later I tweeted thusly:

            Some things do not come fast. These things we do in quiet. We do them by ourselves. We work at them long and hard. We hope they will endure.

 

TAKE A ROAD TRIP
Over the last week I have been traveling the country with my daughter. Since my Kickstarter campaign fell through, I have supported us mostly by selling bibles to recently deceased widows and other scams. Wait, no, that’s a movie. Let me start again. Over the last two months I have been roaming the country, hopping trains and hitching rides, and staying up late snapping my fingers and smoking grass and having visions with my beatnik friends in Denver and San Fran. Or was my travelling companion a poodle named Eddie?

As you can see, I’m tired and confused. But also, really, quite happy. I think that this whole on-the-road thing is good for my Art, but I know it is good for my Life.  A few years ago I wrote a book called Soaring with Fidel, about following the osprey migration from Cape Cod to Cuba and beyond. It was the beginning of a phase where my nonfiction, which until then had usually focused on one place or subject, took its show on the road. I found I enjoyed living the story in this way, throwing myself into an adventure and talking to whomever I bumped into. The story revealed itself as I went and I, armed with journal and tape recorder, took dictation. My various journeys have had the effect of taking me out of both myself and my comfort zone. And if you simply talk to people–something my nonfiction students are sometimes loath to do–they often give you all you need. Finally, a journey gives a project shape, a natural beginning and end, though often the shape is not the one you imagine when you start.

For instance, I pictured the trip I’m on right now as moving from north to south, a simple and clean trajectory. It has been anything but, and instead what has presented itself is a crazy zig-zag line that first sent me, on my own, out to Boulder, Moab, Vernal, Salt Lake City, Page Arizona, Flagstaff, Santa Fe, a week on the San Juan River, and Grand Junction. Then a bomb back to Denver to pick up wife and daughter and a great three days in Boulder, followed by another Western lap that included Crested Butte, Durango and another trip down the San Juan. That trip was the first time my daughter Hadley, who is nine, had ever camped anywhere other than her backyard, and certainly the first time she had seen Anasazi ruins, big horn sheep, or a gray fox (with a silver face) scrambling straight up red canyon walls. Then we dropped Nina off at the airport and it was up to Fort Collins to survey the fire damage andthen on to visit Yellowstone and Doug Peacock, who let us sleep in his trailer. Then it was up to the Stegner homestead in Saskatchewan, the province where I’m now typing from.

Another unexpected aspect of the trip is that I have not been writing much. Mostly it’s just recording stuff on my tape recorder or scribbling in my journal. I want to take this all in slowly. I’ve enjoyed being out of cell phone and e-mail range.  Enjoyed blowing everything else off except the journey.

So that’s today’s advice.  Take yourself on the road.  Get outside of the house, and yourself.

 

PLAY WITH TIME

 

I guess it should not be much of a surprise that as I get older, and have more of a past to play with, I increasingly enjoy playing with time on the page. I have a colleague who tells grad students to avoid flashbacks at all costs, and I understand where he is coming from, pushing them to reveal all through active scenes. But for me the constant layering of time is one of the greatest pleasures in both what I write and what I read. For instance, I have been reading a lot of Wallace Stegner of late, and almost all of the fiction he wrote after fifty, which is his best fiction, follows the model of a protagonist experiencing relatively brief present moment scenes that in turn spur reflections that send him spiraling back into much longer and fuller scenes from the past.  (This holds true of Angle of Repose, Crossing to Safety, The Spectator Bird, etc..)  This allows for a kind of active reflection in between present and past scenes, a telescoping in and out of time, and gives a sense of depth and texture to the writing. It also frees one from the fetters of what I call play-by-play, that moment by moment purely scene-driven style of writing that so predominates the workshop writing I have encountered.  It allows a sense of layering that for me rings true to life, or at least true to the sort of life that is reflected upon as well as lived.

The novel I have been writing, on and off for over twenty years, has this kind of frame. The present moment “action” is that of the narrator cleaning out his old family house on Cape Cod.  Not the sexiest of plots and one that would be hard to pitch in New York. But one that allows for sharp present moment descriptions of the weather–both natural and human– while also allowing for an entire family history to emerge from those surroundings.  The danger of course is potential sluggishness of plot, but the advantage is that sense of scope, of temporal depth, through which one can move not linearly but impressionistically. Which I like.

As a young writer I was almost entirely beholden to the present tense, and my first three books were written that way. It has the obvious advantage of immediacy, and seemed to me a better vehicle for describing both the natural world and my own confused but evolving state. By my fourth book, as my own past tense grew, it began to make inroads, and by my fifth the past tense had taken over. The first line of that book, The Prophet of Dry Hill, reads like this:

“It was on Cape Cod during fall a few years back, after the century fell but before the towers did, that I began paying a series of visits to the writer John Hay.  I had it in mind to write a biography of the man, whom I had always admired from afar.  That book has long since been abandoned, joining a growing mulch pile of old papers.  As it happened, I also abandoned the Cape itself and am no longer the permanent resident I once imagined I would be.  Stranger still, John has also now left Cape Cod, a place he long celebrated in print and the place where he lived for close to sixty years.”

By way of contrast here are the first lines of my first book:

“Fall.  The best time on the Cape.  Today one of those cool, almost cold, mornings when the wind gets things going…..”

I won’t copy in the whole first paragraph but I think the point is made. A different choice, a different shape to hold the sentences, and so different sentences.  And different tone, texture, everything, right?  I should add that despite how I started this little essay, I am still a fan of the present tense, and am still wrestling with the decision over which tense I’ll finally use for my next book.  But even if I settle on the present it will surely serve as a springboard for much past tense writing. I now like pinning little  –ed  tails on my verbs. Of course I still like fooling around in the present, but, older now, I have grown to rely on my own past tense.

 

HAVE WAY

As a writing teacher, my favorite joke is one of Steve Martin’s.

“Some people have a way with words,” he said famously.  “Others…not…have…way.”

This point, as you can imagine, is fairly relevant to a class full of people who want to be published writers. If you are going to try and be a professional athlete it’s helpful to be relatively athletic. And if your goal is to be a writer it helps to have an innate gift for words.

But why bring this up to a bunch of people who are already determined to become writers?  Isn’t it potentially cruel to point out that some lack this gift? I prefer the word “realistic” to cruel.  One thing a writing apprenticeship is about, on top of putting in thousands of hours of writing sentences and producing work, is finding out who you are, or at least who you are on the page. This process of discovery is not often started with clear eyes, but it better be ended that way. As full-fledged writers, we had better have at least a passing acquaintance with how our own minds work, with our particular quirks of imagination, and with a general sense of our strengths and weaknesses.

So take, for instance, a writer who does not have way, but has everything else. Work habits, a sharp mind, a ready imagination, determination, a great subject. It is still entirely possible that this way-less individual will become a great writer. Her words may never  dance and skip over the page, but that doesn’t mean she can’t write with power. But she better be aware of this. Better know that she is at her best when she is a word middle linebacker, not a word ballerina.  Maybe “wisdom” is too loaded a word, but I think that if you do anything for long enough, you start to see patterns, possibilities, and potentials, and you see these things with a relatively calm, if not cold, eye.  In short, you get to know your self and how the self you are works.  (By “works” I mean both labors and operates.)

When Wallace Stegner was asked how to determine if someone had potential as a writer, his answer was not so different than Steve Martin’s.  He said: “One, looks for signs of gift: obviously perceptiveness, alertness to the observed world, a feel for language.”  But then he added in the next sentence: “It is not easy, different kinds of writers display very different stigmata of gift.”

He mentioned Dreiser as an example:

“If you looked only at the feel for language, you would never predict that Theodore Dreiser, say, would become an important writer.  The fact is, Dreiser had everything a novelist needs except the feel for language.  He became an important novelist without having the ability to write an English sentence.  So, prediction is a dicey matter.”

Which says to me: be realistic, but don’t despair entirely if you never told the wittiest joke at the ball. It doesn’t mean you can’t write a short story. Being a writer without verbal felicity isn’t quite as tough as being 5 feet tall and trying to break into the NBA (and Mugsy Bogues even did that), since there are so many types of writers and writing that we want to hear. And not all of them have way.

 

RESEARCH CREATIVELY

 

It was right before the 1981 NBA finals, Larry Bird’s first. The Celtics were playing the Houston Rockets, which meant that they were facing two giants, Hakeem (then Akeem) Olajuwan and Ralph Sampson. Sampson, at 7’4”, would sometimes be guarding Bird and, as I remember it, the sports writer Bob Ryan reported that one day he walked out to find Bird taking dozens of baseline jumpshots over the team’s trainer, who was holding a broom up as high as he could. The broom, of course, was meant to simulate Ralph Sampson’s outstretched arm. The takeaway from the story, according to Ryan, was that Bird even practiced more creatively than other people.

Why did this pop into my mind?  Not only because I like to use sports metaphors. But also because I have been in the research phase of my new book, and I have been thinking about ways that I can research more creatively, and effectively.  I have heard stories about writers who see research as a period of happy procrastination, who love to hole up with their notecards and files and new pens and spend hours in the library reading every book and manuscript they can about the development  of the cattle industry in southeast Texas.  If these stories are true, I am happy for the practitioners and envy them their serenity.  But for me that kind of work leads to a kind of intellectual sluggishness, a state of mind where writing the actual book begins to seem impossible.

Instead I prefer to have someone hold up a broom. That is I prefer to research creatively. How so?  Well, by varying things for one. By not building a wall between RESEARCH and WRITING but by allowing for a book I read to spur a morning or two of writing (usually in my journal) even if that doesn’t fit in the Great Master Plan. Or, if enervated by the need to read another 500 page book on the history of the frontier, allowing myself to spend a morning conducting phone interviews with other human beings. The point, for me, is to keep the juices flowing, even when the work is dry. The point is to not make a bunch of rigid rules that I know I’m going to break. (Though the making and then breaking of personal rules actually can create a lot of creative energy.)

Let me give a more specific example. Central to the book I’m now working on is the need to do deep biographical research on two writers, Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner. That means reading what they wrote, what people wrote about them, reading their letters and journal notes, interviewing their friends and relatives.  All that is vital, but all that is really just preparation for an imaginative act, an act that is just as creative as creating a character for a novel. All that preparation is bolstering, readying for a sustained act of empathy.

So.  The other day I was driving in one direction and a woman was driving a station wagon in the other direction. She had a look of consternation on her face, and might have even been talking to herself. I found myself wondering “What is it like to be inside that person’s mind?”  What is her subjective experience of the world?  What neurotic circles does her mind turn in?  What habitual patterns reoccur?  How does she break from them?

Can we ever understand what the world is like for another person? Can we ever experience their particular daily flavor of their mind?  I came home and turned those same questions on Abbey and Stegner. I didn’t look at books or turn on my computer. I just sat down in my writing shack with a drawing pad in my lap, trying to imagine myself inside their heads. Words did not pour out. But a few feelings did. There was something slouchy and melancholy about being inside Abbey’s mind, while what I felt inside Stegner was a briskness, a sense of movement, as if he needed to keep in movement to stay above or away from the same sort of melancholia. I tried to remain inside them for a while but it wasn’t easy.

Now it’s back to the books. I’m not ready for the larger act of empathy yet.  But it gave me a hint of things to come. And though I didn’t take a note or learn a single fact, I still consider it part of my research.

 

 

WRITE LIKE ROTH

That notorious slacker, Philip Roth, decided to take a day off from work recently. Actually he decided to take them all off. At seventy-nine, with thirty one books under his belt, he claims to be calling it quits.

My money says he can’t do it. My money says the habits of imagination are too ingrained. My money says that his quitting, described here to Charles McGrath in a piece in the New York Times, sounds a whole lot like another person’s writing: “Mr. Roth hasn’t given up writing entirely. He is collaborating on a novella, via e-mail, with the 8-year-old daughter of a former girlfriend, and he has been writing lengthy notes and memos for his biographer.”

Roth goes on to say that these notes and memos have begun to fill up boxes.  Hmmm… Collecting elaborate notes on one’s biography so that they can later be integrated into a book. Sounds kind of familiar. But if he thinks that is quitting, then good for him.

So what else has he been doing during this downtime?

“I sat around for a month or two trying to think of something else and I thought, ‘Maybe it’s over, maybe it’s over,’ ” he said. “I gave myself a dose of fictional juice by rereading writers I hadn’t read in 50 years and who had meant quite a lot when I read them. I read Dostoevsky, I read Conrad — two or three books by each. I read Turgenev, two of the greatest short stories ever written, ‘First Love’ and ‘The Torrents of Spring.’ ” He also reread Faulkner and Hemingway.

“And then I decided to reread my own books,” Mr. Roth went on, “and I began from the last book forward, casting a cold eye. And I thought, ‘You did all right.’ But when I got to ‘Portnoy’ ” — “Portnoy’s Complaint,” published in 1969 — “I had lost interest, and I didn’t read the first four books.”

“So I read all that great stuff,” he added, “and then I read my own and I knew I wasn’t going to get another good idea, or if I did, I’d have to slave over it.”

And what else?

He told McGrath that, for the first time, he’s been having a lot of guests.  No longer the monastic writer, living a life “almost exclusively devoted to fiction,” he has filled his house with other people, people who, by his own lights, came in second to work for fifty or so years. Sounds good. People. Reading. Almost a summer idyll.

And in contrast to that idyll stands the old writing life:

“Writing is frustration — it’s daily frustration, not to mention humiliation. It’s just like baseball: you fail two-thirds of the time.” He went on: “I can’t face any more days when I write five pages and throw them away. I can’t do that anymore.”

This is in line with how Roth has described writing throughout his career, strange for someone for whom prose seems to flow out of as if through a fire hose. But no, he assures us, that fire hose effect was an illusion, an illusion born of drudgery and daily labor.  Frustration has reigned all along.

 

* * *

 

Teddy Roosevelt exhorted us to live lives “in the arena” but the life that Roth has lived is emphatically the opposite, “in the monastery,” and the god he worshipped there has always been clear. It may sound boring, the idea of sitting, or in Roth’s case standing, at a desk for fifty years. But to some of us, strange sorts perhaps, it sounds thrilling. Exhilarating. To be focused on one object.To marshal one’s energies toward a goal. To strive daily to make great and beautiful things.

And there is an added benefit.  Life–shabby, unruly, unpredictable, painful life–takes on a kind of order when this sort of near-fanatic commitment reigns. Boredom, one of the great enemies of the restless mind, all but vanishes. Discontent and pain are not routed, of course, but they are to a certain sense put in their place.

It would be hard to argue that Roth’s moments and even days of frustration have not added up to a life of deep satisfaction. That sort of satisfaction is summed up well by Donald Hall, in his great book Life Work, when he first claims that the great goal of work is “absorbedness.”  He means of course when you are so far in it that you don’t know where you are for a while. Later in the same book Hall asks the sculptor Henry Moore, tongue half in cheek, what the meaning of life is. Moore, taking the question seriously, answers:

“The secret of life is to have a task, something you devote your entire life to, something you bring everything to, every minute of the day for your whole life. And the most important thing–it must be something you cannot possibly do!”

What a thrilling idea.

What a hard thing to quit.

 

 

EXTRACT RAW MATERIALS

Yesterday I flew from North Carolina over the Rockies and my new favorite city, Salt Lake. The snow cover in the mountains was weak, which might spell bad news for next summer’s fires, but visually it was stunning as we crossed from Colorado into Utah.  I stared down at alternating streaks of white snow and red sandstone—that red which always does something to me inside, something good—with rivers, first the White and then the Green, carving snake-like through the landscape. A three hour drive east from Salt Lake and here I am back in Vernal, the town where I spent some time this summer and where I flew the path marked on the map above.

During that trip earlier this summer I charged into town, hit the Dinosaur Brew Haus, met a few river rafters and frackers and anti-frackers all in one night. Part of my working method these days can be described this way: A man walked into a bar. I find drinking beer with the locals an essential part of taking the temperature of a place. Coffee helps, too, and the next morning I talked to everybody I could at my hotel, at the diner where I ate, and at the Chamber of Commerce.  My plan is usually to have no plan. As with writing, I make a lot of lists, and then I throw them out and just trust my instincts. Today’s bad advice is not to do as I do but to evolve your own method of going to a place and learning about it. These places, I keep telling my students, tend to be a lot more interesting, and certainly more surprising, than our own minds. You don’t need to use beer as your social lubricant: maybe sipping green tea and being a wallflower, eavesdropping, is what works for you. But get out there into the world.

Of course I was not there just to visit, not just a tourist. I was there to make something out of my visit. The visit then is raw material, and my job, much like the oil workers I am interviewing, was to extract raw material. My tools are slightly different than theirs: journal, micorcassete recorder, camera, a sometimes unreliable brain. Like my fellow workers (I can hear them right now through the walls of my Econolodge room, getting up and heading out to their trucks right now) I sleep less and work harder while I’m on the job. It’s tiring but fun, lots of adrenaline pumping. Last night I returned to the Dinosaur Brew Haus, and, tired from fourteen hours of travel and a little let down that the guy I was supposed to interview couldn’t meet that night, I decided to have a quick dinner and crash. But that was before a guy named Rich came in. Rich is a former ski instructor who now works in the oil fields both driving rigs and instructing workers how to drive ATVS. We talked for a long time, mostly he talked and I listened while deciding that it would be okay after all to order one or two Hop Risings IPAs, and by the time he was done I had learned not just a decent chunk of his life story but the fact that tomorrow–today that is–is his day off.  And so it turns out that Rich and I are going to meet in about three hours so that we can show me how to drive an ATV.  I’ve been critical of the machines so the least I can do is try to understand the appeal. In short: more raw material.

Below I’ll paste some material from the summer I happen to have on my computer.  I’m sure I’ll send up using it all in one way or another:

 

UNWORKSHOP

I’ve grown pretty weary of teaching workshops in recent years. There’s a rhythm to them, a sameness, that has started to wear on me. On the other hand, I have a job, and when I am assigned to teach a grad workshop I can’t really say: “I’ve grown weary of teaching workshops in recent years.”

So I’ve tried to un-workshop it a little. Below is my rough syllabus, an attempt to come up with a new model, or at least a brief break from the old. I suspect other teachers and students are trying to mess with the old model. I think some messing is long overdue.

Non-Workshop in Creative Nonfiction

Overview:

           This workshop is going to be a bit of a strange beast, really only half workshop, half something else. You will only have one traditional workshop each and therefore only one complete piece required. All of these traditional workshops will occur after the break in the first week in March. The rest of the writing you do will be a series of assignments in different forms during the first half of the class. These will be work-shopped in small groups in the classroom, groups run on more of an editorial model.

This is an experimental class, but it is an experiment with a purpose. For a long time now I have come to believe that the traditional workshop is a pretty limited thing, and that it doesn’t focus enough on really teaching new possibilities, new modes, new types of writing.

Forms, Shapes, Modes:

             When you write a letter of condolence, a Facebook post, an editorial, or a journal entry, you are writing in a form.  You are also doing this any time you are writing an essay or section of memoir, not just as a whole but within the piece, operating in different modes: scene, condensed scenes, explication, thought/idea sections, lyric descriptions, etc… My goal with this class is to challenge you to become aware of your own prevalent modes, and to perhaps prod you toward not just more awareness but more variety. We will do this through specific assignments, through our reading, and through one-on-one conferences.  

 Jan 15-Feb 19: First half of class:

             You need to complete the short assignments. And you need to do the reading. Neither will be onerous, but the class doesn’t work if you don’t.   

            We will discuss the pieces in groups of four within the class.

            For each piece reviewed by each group of four there will be an editor, a heavy, and a civilian.

            The editor’s job: to get the piece ready for publication, to come in as a professional and suggest changes, deletions, thoughts.

            The heavy’s job: be critical.  Don’t be scared about being mean. Everyone knows it’s your job.

            The civilian’s job: regular bland workshop participant.

            The roles will shift with each piece.

           

WRITE ABOUT ANIMALS

 

This morning, on the drive to school, my daughter Hadley issued a complaint.

“One thing I don’t like about third grade is that they say a noun is a person, place or thing.”

I asked her how this was different than earlier grades.

“It used to be a noun was a person, place, thing, or animal.”

We talked about it for a while. Apparently, someone somewhere had decided that third grade was the time for animals to lose their noun-ness, to be reduced to mere things. We agreed that a better definition of a noun would be an animal, place or thing, with humans taking their correct spot as a subset of the first category.

After I dropped her off, I thought about animals, how they are not only nouns but absolutely vital to my own writing life, and to the writing lives of many other writers I know. To prove the latter all I had to do was take a sampling of my last sixteen hours: the afternoon before I had taught a workshop that featured a beautiful, funny and ambitious essay on pelicans by my grad student, Lucy Huber. Then, seven hours later, struck by insomnia, I spent some midnight hours reading and editing a chapter of John Lane’s brilliant forthcoming book on Southern coyotes. In my own house the daily evidence was compelling: not a day passed without my daughter writing a story about dogs or wolves; my wife’s first book was called Of Cats and Men, and my breakthrough book was my third, Return of the Osprey.

So today’s advice is simple: find an animal, watch it, think about it, empathize with it, read about it, study it, write about it. If you do this, it will in turn do something to your writing. Writers, along with primitive people, understand that animals have magic in them. They have the power to transport. I mean this practically, not mystically. When a writer starts looking beyond him or herself, something happens to the work. It becomes less claustrophobic, gets outside of itself, gets out of its own way. It airs itself out. I can think of no better single way of jolting your own writing out of habit than by spending time focused on some of the non-human creatures we share the planet with.

I don’t mean you have to dress up as a shaman, take peyote, roll bones, sniff scat (though these things won’t hurt). I mean simply observing, taking notes, seeing what’s up with your local birds and mammals, for instance.This is fairly easy where I live: we have dolphins aplenty, and foxes, and the birds are already coming back for the early spring. Bald eagles have returned to our neighborhood, an event that deserves an essay in itself.

I should say I was skeptical about the idea of writing about animals at first. I’d always liked birds but my relationship changed about twenty five years ago in a nature writing class I took in Colorado with Linda Hogan.  The assignment she gave me was the same one I just gave you: go outside and study an animal. I rolled my eyes. But, okay, I decided, I’d do it. I took my art pad down to the creek and watched a great blue heron for a while, sketching the bird. I’d had no idea there were so many heron postures: head down in a hunch, then periscope up with stretching neck, then poised to hunt, the whole bird leaning forward. I spent hours watching and went back the next day. And the next. The next thing I knew I was writing books about birds. It seemed I couldn’t stop myself.

I’m not saying you have to go that crazy. But maybe give it a try. Spring is almost here. It’s a good time to take a break from your brain, from the human, and step outside and take a look around. The results may surprise you.

DON’T FORGET SUSPENSE I

 

Back when they built the fence between literary and commercial fiction someone decided it was a good idea that Suspense should stay on the commercial side. Oh, an occasional stray would wander over into the literary hills, but for the most part we here in fancy town look down our noses at creatures so craven, so obvious, so vulgar. You mean our readers are supposed to care about what happens next? But then how can they pause and admire our beautiful sentences?

These thoughts came to mind while I was laid up in bed with an infection over the last week. With my body ping-ponging between cold and hot, and my energy level barely allowing me to get to the bathroom, I watched a whole lot of TV. And I read. At first I tried to dip into the more language-oriented books that I’d assigned for a class, but after an attempt or two they remained on the shelf for the rest of the week. Instead I picked up Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, a book that someone had put on one of those top ten lists on Facebook (and a movie that I had never seen all the way through but had seen small parts of about a thousand times). I am not ready to put the book on any lists of mine, and I found it far from perfect, but Jesus Christ there were sections of that book where I was close to ripping the next page off, so excited was I to find out what was going to happen (even though I kind of knew due to the movie.) As my health got a little better, I would sit down for sessions of almost a hundred pages. And then I would just stop to close my eyes for a while, hungry for more. It brought back memories of the marathon reading sessions I had as a teenager—gobbling down Lord of the Rings, science fiction, Kurt Vonnegut. It was fun.

The last literary book that I’d gotten so caught up in was Possession by A.S. Byatt. Like Cloud Atlas, it was smart, well-written and sharp. But that wasn’t the engine that drove the book. The engine was what happened and what might happen. The engine was whodunit. It occurs to me that it would not be a bad thing for a young ambitious writer to read and re-read sections of these books and break down exactly what it is that pulls us forward with such excitement.

So I guess today’s advice is “don’t fence out suspense.” I think literary writers fear it, worrying that a book can be too fun to be considered great. But the opposite is death. There has been a lot of talk recently about Hemingway and the racism in The Sun Also Rises. Those are legitimate reason to debate the book’s place on the curriculum, but one reason it is off mine is that it is so boring. Yes, I love Hemingway’s sentences and the short stories can still give me chills. But I simply don’t care about what happens to Jake Barnes.

How fun to read when you care so much.

 

DON’T FORGET SUSPENSE II:

WATCH THE MOONING ABOUT

 

My wife, Nina de Gramont, is also a writer, and not long ago, the world came knocking at her door. Marvel Comics hired her to write a sort of new origin story for the X-Men character Rogue, and she did so under the pseudonym Christine Woodward. She took the job for the obvious reason, the one Samuel Johnson said we all write for: We needed the money. While this may sound crass, we both learned something from the experience. She wrote what she thought was an action-packed draft, trying to follow the dictates of genre. The editors liked what she came up with but reduced the length considerably, explaining to her that they had “cut out all the mooning about.” Mooning about! We laughed long and hard at that one. I suggested that it could have been the title of any of my early books. It has since become a watchword in our house for when either of us does too much lyric lounging in our work. And it goes without saying that much of what I read as a writing professor could go by that title. But before we bare our cutting knives, we should remember that this quality is something we also need to protect in our work, something threatened by the bullies of mammon, word count, and blogs.

Still: beware mooning about!

 

And also: BEWARE YOUR OWN WORDS

 

You know how it is. You have returned to something you wrote long ago, a novel let’s say. You are eager to revise and make it great. But then something suddenly stops you like a wall. Something you didn’t expect.

What is this impediment? This great blocker?

The odd thing is that it turns out to be your own old words. The sentences and scenes you once, in some past writerly life, committed to paper. You have a new vision for the book: you now see, for instance, just how you are going to revise that scene when the brothers carry their father down to the beach in that rigged-up dining room chair. But shit. Look at this. Someone has already written that scene and it turns out that that someone is you.

And here’s the real problem. You read it and it turns out that the scene you wrote long ago is pretty good. Which adds to your trouble. You had planned on flipping the brothers’ ages, making the older one the younger one and the younger one older. That would change a bunch of subtle things about the scene. But now you read this not-half-bad scene, a scene that by the way has the virtue of being already finished, and you start to ask yourself if maybe it’s okay to not mess with the birth order of the boys.

It happens all the time to writers. It is happening to me this week as I return to The Thing Itself. I came to the revision full of resolve, and full of fire and passion. I would burn down the old house and build me a new one. But now…. Now I am that guy who wonders if it isn’t okay to just cheat a little. To throw in a few of the old scenes, old sentences, old jokes.

And the truth is that it is okay. With common sense as the guiding principle (as it always should be, coupled with artistic instinct), there is no reason that I shouldn’t save a few of those scenes. It’s not like I was a crappy writer when I imagined them, at various stages five, ten and fifteen years ago. But, as Neil likes to sing, there comes a time. Comes a time when something new is required. Comes a time when you should not even peek at the old stuff. Comes a time to not take the lazy route and make it new.

It’s a hard thing to do. Making stuff up is work intensive (and extensive). Your laziness gene will swim over to your rationalization gene and chat him up. And together they will convince you to just cut and paste that huge block of print, even when you know it would be better if you created it fresh.

So today’s advice is twofold.

First, trust yourself. Read the old thing and decide if it fits, really fits. It can be tweaked of course. Genders and ages and clothes can be changed and it might still be able to work. And if it works, that’s fine.

But if it doesn’t work some part of you will know it. And if it doesn’t work hide it, burn it, tear it up, delete it. Or, less dramatically, just don’t look at it. Instead look at that scary animal, the blank page. Then fill it, but fill it knowing you are not going it entirely alone. Somewhere, in some part of you, is that old scene, and that old scene, if left behind as what it was, can help the new one become what it will be.

 

IV.TALKING TO GHOSTS

STEAL FROM THE GREAT

As I’ve mentioned earlier, I teach a class called “The Writing Life.”  Before each class we have gotten in the habit of reciting a little benediction.  Specifically, I read a couple passages from Mason Currey’s book,  Daily Rituals: How Great Minds Make Time, Find Inspiration And Get To Work.  It’s a terrific book, full of short passages that describe the routines of some of history’s greatest writers, artists, and scientists. You can learn about Balzac gulping down his fifty cups of coffee, or Margaret Mead getting up at 5, or, conversely, Jackson Pollock starting each day bright and fresh at 1 pm. Read a few of these and you will discover they are contagious. they all convey the excitement–the thrill really–of doing creative work.

 Oliver Burkeman, in a review of this book in the Guardian, admits that there is great variety among the lives and habits of the great, but then aptly boils the book down to “six lessons from history’s most creative minds.”

 

  1.  Be a Morning Person (With exceptions)
  2. Don’t Give up the Day Job (You know that free time you’ve been longing for? It might kill you. Or at least drive you crazy.)
  3. Take a Lot of Walks (duh)
  4. Stick to a Schedule (ditto duh)
  5. Practice Strategic Substance Abuse (Coming in at number 1, the once and forever champ–coffee.)
  6. Learn to Work Anywhere (Best line: “Get over yourself.”)

 

Not a bad list, right?

 

Never Surrender!

I have been sick the last few days and have spent most of my time, not with my family or on my work, but in bed with Winston Churchill. I’m on page 742 of The Last Lion, the third part of the great Churchill biography begun by William Manchester, who wrote the first two volumes and did the research for the third, and finished up, quite ably I think, by a journalist named Paul Reid.

It is always fun and inspiring to hang out with Churchill. I love that during WWII when he is flying on a plane with no heat or oxygen, he has the crew design a special oxygen mask so that he can still smoke his cigar. I love that he snorts when someone offers him tea and says that his tea is yellow (whisky). And I love that when he is monologuing while steaming across the Atlantic, and Lord Beaverbrook dares interrupt him, he pats the Beaver on the knee and says “You don’t talk anymore.”

But I am not here to just pass along Churchill quips. You are hungry for advice after all! And it turns out that Winston has come for you:

“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

And:

“Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in except to convictions of honor and good sense.”

These quotes might seem, at first glance, a tad extreme to scribble on a note card and tape above your writing desk. I don’t think they are. For a young writer it is always England in 1940. You are under siege and you stand alone and your enemies are trying to destroy you. No one is going to be at all surprised if you call it quits and run up a white flag, just like everyone else in the world is doing. And don’t expect to have too many allies, at least at first.

Anyone who has read these pages knows that I believe a certain martial, or at least disciplined and athletic, attitude toward one’s work is, if not necessary, at least helpful, in particular when tackling larger projects. But if that’s all you have going for you you will likely end up turning out propaganda or self-help books, not literature. It starts with energy, with pushing yourself out of inertia, but it had better not end there.

With Churchill it didn’t end there. Those who just think of him as a symbol of massive will-power and war-like resolve don’t know the half of it. The other half was an artist who, like Keats, was able to live comfortably in uncertainties. In fact, he flourished in uncertainty, had a genius for it, which is why he drove more logical minds like Eisenhower and Marshall and to some extent Roosevelt, so crazy.  Flexibility and opportunism were his watchwords.

Paul Reid writes:

Churchill later reduced the differences in strategic thinking to a few choice phrases. The Americans, he wrote, “feel that once the foundation has been planned on true and comprehensive lines all other stages will follow naturally and almost inevitably. The British mind does not work quite in this way. We do not think that logic and clear cut principles are necessarily the sole keys to what ought to be done in swiftly changing and indefinable situations.” These ideas informed Churchill’s strategic thinking.  Its essence was, “to assign a larger importance to opportunism and improvisation, seeking rather to live and conquer in accordance with the unfolding event than to aspire to dominate it, often by fundamental decisions.”

In other words, be firm in resolve but flexible in practice.

WRITING TIPS FROM ANNIE DILLARD AND RAFA NADAL

 

There are those who think it’s hard to write every day. Maybe. I’m of the camp that it’s harder to write once in a while. The rituals of daily-ness are built to contain a writing life in a way that the formlessness of the occasional is not. And for most of us who have chosen to make knocking words around our life, there are rituals a-plenty. Mine include getting up early, stretching my back (chronically bad since I was a teenager), drinking a cup of tea for calm before starting in on coffee for intensity (I am currently on day 11 of no coffee for the first time in many years so I apologize if my prose is sluggish), keeping note of my hours at the desk on a chart, listening to music (different albums for different drafts—The Talking Heads Stop Making Sense, for instance, for rolling along on first drafts), and, later in the day, long walks by the Cape Fear river armed with a microcassette recorder (and later still, notes in my journal armed with a beer.)  Right off I notice that there are a lot of liquids involved in my rituals which seems right since there is an element of communion, and ablution, in the whole thing.  Like most daily rituals mine was never planned but rather evolved, and did so for the single purpose of getting words on the page.

At the moment I am teaching a graduate class called The Writing Life, and the class starts, fittingly, with Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life. As I re-read that book I noted that her rituals were more extreme than my own, and seemed geared toward creating an intensity far beyond the everyday. She writes:

“…writing a first draft requires from the writer a peculiar internal state which ordinary life does not induce.  If you were a Zulu warrior banging on your shield with your spear for a couple of hours along with a hundred other Zulu warriors, you might be able to prepare yourself to write.  If you were an Aztec maiden who knew months in advance that on a certain morning the priests were going to throw you into a hot volcano, and if you spent those months undergoing a series of purification rituals and drinking dubious liquids, you might, when the time came, be ready to write.  But how, if you are neither Zulu warrior or Aztec maiden, do you prepare yourself, all alone, to enter an extraordinary state on an ordinary morning?

“How to set yourself spinning?  Where is an edge–a dangerous edge–and where is the trail to the edge and the strength to climb it?’

A couple of pages later she answers her own question in practical terms:

“To crank myself up I stood on a jack and ran myself up.  I tightened myself like a bolt….I drank coffee in titrated doses.  It was a tricky business, requiring the finely tuned judgment of a skilled anesthesiologist.  There was a tiny range within which the coffee was effective, short of which it was useless, and beyond which, fatal.

“I pointed myself.  I walked to the water.  I played the hateful recorder, washed dishes, drank coffee, stood on a beach log, watched bird.  That was the first part; it could take all morning, or all month.  Only the coffee counted, and I knew it.  Now I smoked a cigarette or two and read what I wrote yesterday….”

This seems a tad extreme, even for me. But I get it.  It’s close to trying to work oneself up into a berserker’s state of mind, and reminds me, not of my own rituals or those of other writers, but of the pre-game routine of the tennis player Rafael Nadal.  In his autobiography,  Rafael writes of his preparation before playing Roger Federer at Wimbledon:

“I was withdrawing deeper into myself, isolating myself from my surroundings, settling into the routines—the inflexible routines—I have before each match and continue right up to the start of play. I ate what I always eat. Pasta—no sauce, nothing that could possibly cause indigestion—with olive oil and salt and a straight, simple piece of fish. To drink: water….Forty five minutes before the game was scheduled to start I took a cold shower. Freezing cold water. I do this before every match. It’s the point before the point of no return….Under the cold shower I enter a new space in which I feel my power and resilience grow…Nothing else exists but the battle ahead….[Next] I stood up and began exercising, violently—activating my explosiveness…”

No writer I know prepares for battle with quite the intensity of Mr. Nadal (of course no writer has ever had to type against Federer ). But if the preparation described is too extreme for our more sedentary profession, it isn’t too far off. Here is Nadal stating his goal on the first page of his book: “Because what I battle hardest to do in a tennis match is to quiet the voices in my head, to shut everything out of my mind but the contest itself and concentrate every atom of my being on the point I am playing.”

Tennis, Nadal says, is a sport of the mind, and the best player is the one who has “good sensations on the most days, who manages to isolate himself best from his fears and from ups and downs in morale…”

Though he is talking tennis, this  does not sound entirely irrelevant to the writing life.  Nor does his conclusion:

“And of one thing I have no doubt: the more you train the better your feeling.”

 

JAMES ON WILL

Does such a thing as willpower even exist? Or are we humans genetically predisposed toward a certain amount of trying, with the oomph we put into our endeavors as predetermined as our height or eye color? Anyway, don’t most of us try more or less the same amount, with some of us making more of a show of it, like grunting tennis players?

I grew up with a man who was a great believer in effort. Let a basketball bounce out of bounds without diving after it and you found that out pretty quickly. Trying was everything and he liked to spell out the word that he believed held the answers to most of life’s questions: “W-O-R-K.”  At the same time he abhorred what Red Auerbach called “false hustle.” If you asked him “Is effort predetermined?” he might snort (or maybe, if he were too busy working, just wouldn’t answer).

But I have been chewing over this question since I started reading Robert Richardson’s wonderful biography of William James. James–philosopher, teacher, author of the Varieties of Religious Experience, father of modern American psychology–was a contradictory mix of soft and hard, a Harvard professor who attended séances because he didn’t want to exclude any aspect of life, even the possibility of the supernatural, from his thinking. James, born in 1842, invented the phrase “stream of consciousness,” and one of his gifts was for describing certain eddies and backwaters in that stream which we all live in. For instance, Richardson quotes James on the subjective experience of trying to remember a name we know but have forgotten: “There is a gap therein: but no mere gap. It is a gap that is intensely active. A sort of wraith of the name is in it, beckoning us in a given direction, making us at moments tingle with the sense of our closeness, and then letting us sink back without the longed-for term.”

A subtle and playful thinker, James seems at first glance an odd choice to be a great believer in will or effort, and in fact this advocate of habit was surprisingly habit-less himself, taking twenty years to write his first real book. Meanwhile his brother, Henry (whose bio by Leon Edel I am reading concurrently), embodied the notion of effort, focusing in on the task of becoming a great writer like a bulldog (though an effete, Anglophile bulldog), cranking out book after book.

But in the end William James, perhaps because he spent so long brilliantly brooding on the notion of will and perhaps precisely because that for him, unlike his brother, concentrated effort did not come naturally, gave us some of our most profound insights into will. Surprisingly, after all sorts of mental gymnastics, he came around to a philosophy not entirely unlike my father’s. The effort, the act, the gamble, the thrust, was everything. He writes: “We measure ourselves by many standards. Our strength and our intelligence, our wealth and our good luck, are things that warm our heart and make us feel ourselves a match for life. But deeper than all such things, and able to suffice unto itself without them, is the sense of the amount of effort we can put forth…He who can make none is but a shadow; he who can make much is a hero.”

It would be easy to say that Henry James was a maker, while William was a thinker. But William was no slouch as a maker himself, creating books that have lasted, and he also had what Richardson calls “a great experiencing nature.” In his thinking he never strays far from what experience has taught him. Experience has taught him that effort and will are not myths, that at some point ideas and theories must be put aside and a great un-nameable lurch must be made. We feel this on a small scale when we begin anything new. It is a hurling of oneself into the unknown. An effort. Can we control it?  Perhaps not but sometimes it feels like the only thing we can control. And it is that feeling that James zones in on. Perhaps it is not true that our effort can have an impact on events, or that we can have an impact on our efforts, but it certainly feels true.

Richardson quotes James: “The deepest question that is ever asked admits of no reply but the dumb turning of the will and the tighteneing of our heart-strings as we say, “Yes, I will even have it so!’” And: “’Will you or won’t you have it so?’” is the most probing question we are ever asked….’”  The implication is that the answer “I will” is vastly preferably to “I won’t,” and that we have something to do with which it will be.

If this sounds too vague let me end with this advice from Mr. James:

“Sow an action, and you reap a habit; sow a habit and you reap a character; sow a character and you reap a destiny.”

 

ANOTHER SYLLABUS

 

CRW 580—THE WRITING LIFE

Course Overview:

This class will focus on all aspects of the writing life.  What does it mean to live a life of writing and reading books?   The course will be broken down into two halves.  The first will focus on the spiritual aspects of the writing life, as well as work habits, and the second on more practical aspects, the brass tacks, from writing a cover letter to a book proposal.  But while we will end on a practical note we will keep our focus on the larger picture, and the philosophical aspects of choosing to be a writer in today’s world.  Our reading will include books on writing, biographies, and more practical writing guides.

Requirements:

The main requirement of the class is keeping up with the reading. You will demonstrate that you have done this by:

  1. Writing short reaction pieces that are due each class.  These are answers to pre-assigned questions on the reading that I will hand out the week before we discuss each new book.  The reactions should be short and creative, and are really meant to get you thinking about the reading so we can have a lively and engaged class.  I will collect the reactions to check at mid-term and at the end of the semester.
  2. Class participation.  Everyone is expected to engage in our discussions.  If you have shyness issues please come and talk to me.

 Everyone will be assigned to be a co-leader for one of the books and expected, with their co-co-leaders, to run the discussion that day.

  1.  Everyone in the class will be asked to give an oral report. 

Please focus on a writer who has influenced your work.  Please describe the ways in which your work has been influenced by the writer.  The report should also show some awareness of the author’s work.  But for the purpose of this class the real focus should be on how the author works: work habits, statements he or she has made on the writing life, overall arc and effort of career.  Please try to engage the class—-poke, prod, stimulate.  A great source for this, highly recommended but not required, is the Paris Review interviews: http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews 

All books are available at Pomegranate Books.  I’ll e-mail you the ISBNS since it’s essential we have the same copies for page numbers.

BOOKS:

Part I: SPIRITUAL UNDERPINNINGS

  1. The Writing Life by Annie Dillard
  2. Life Work by Donald Hall

3 . Winter Hours by Mary Oliver 

  1. First We Read, Then We Write by Robert Richardson
  2. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
  3. Aspects of the Novel by E.M. Forester

 Part III: GETTING PRACTICAL

  1. Changing My Mind by Zadie Smith
  2. The Art of Fiction by John Gardner
  3. The Burden of the Past and the English Poet by Walter Jackson Bate
  4. The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner
  5. On Teaching and Writing Fiction by Wallace Stegner

 

WALLACE STEGNER ON LARGENESS

                  I’ve spent a lot of time over the last few years in the company, or at least with the mind and words, of Wallace Stegner. It has been a bracing experience. One thing I’ve noticed about his thinking is that there is always a movement toward the general, an imperative to think more broadly and openly, a preference for the long view over the short, the large over the small. This was not just an intellectual commitment, but a spiritual, or at least a personal, one. “Largeness is a lifelong matter,” he once said. The goal was (and is) magnanimity.

            The “largeness” quote is contained and given context below by Stegner’s answer to this interview question: Should the teacher, in the process of instruction, consciously try to shape a student’s personality or enlarge him or her as a human being?

            Here’s his reply:

           Well, I have some fairly strong feelings about that. I do not believe I can teach anybody to be a bigger or better or more humane person. But I do subscribe to the notion that, in order to write a great poem one should be, in some sense or another, a great poet. This suggests that any writer had better be concerned with the development of his personality and his character.

           I don’t believe, with Oscar Wilde, that the fact that a man is a poisoner has nothing to do with his prose. It does have something to do with his prose. A poisoner will write a poisoner’s prose, however beautiful. Even if it has nothing to do with his private life, personal morality, or his general ethical character, being a poisoner suggests a flaw somewhere—in the sensibility or humanity or compassion or the largeness of mind—that is going to reflect itself in the prose.

            Most artists are flawed; but they probably ought to make an effort not to be. But how do you teach people to enlarge themselves in order to enlarge their writing? It is a little like asking them to “commit experience” for literary puprposes.

            Largeness is a lifelong matter—sometimes a conscious goal, sometimes not.  You enlarge yourself because that is the kind of individual you are. You grow because you are not content not to. You are like a beaver that chews constantly because if it doesn’t its teeth grow long and lock. You grow because you are a grower:  you’re large because you can’t stand to be small.

            If you are a grower and a writer as well, your writing should get better and larger and wiser. But how you teach that, the Lord knows.

            I guess you can suggest the ideal of it, the idea that it is a good thing to be large and magnanimous and wise, that it is a better goal in life than pleasure and money and fame. By comparison, it seems to me, fame and money, and probably fame as well, are contemptible goals.

            I would go as far as to say that to a class. But not all the class would believe me.

 

This interview, and a whole lot else can be found, in Wallace Stegner’s On Teaching and Writing Fiction.

 

 

TRY THIS LITTLE EXERCISE IN EMPATHY

The other day I was re-reading Robert Richardson’s Splendor of Heart, a short and wonderful memoir of his (and my) teacher, Walter Jackson Bate. The second half of the book consists of an interview with Bate, conducted by John Paul Russo, in which Bate compares the temperaments of Samuel Johnson and John Keats, both of whom he had written biographies of.

“Johnson is so psychologically snarled up in ways and had a much rougher life than Keats,” Bate said. “Keats had a tragic, early death, but Johnson was by far the unhappier person.”

Of course I loved the phrase “psychologically snarled up” and underlined it. But later I got to thinking about the idea of comparing what it felt like to be in two different writer’s, two different people’s, minds—that is what it felt like to inhabit their inner worlds. And I started to play a little game. I thought of five of my friends and began to kind of rank them from whose mind would be least pleasant to inhabit, on a minute by minute level, to whose would be more pleasant, or healthier.

Obviously this sort of listing is superficial. But what came along with it was less so. I found I was actually imagining how one of my friends dealt with anxiety, how she sometimes gave into it and sometimes kept it at bay, the courage required as well as the failures of nerve. In other words what started as a game led to a deeper imagining of what it felt to be inside someone’s skin, something that, I think you’ll agree, is good for a writer (and human).

So that’s today’s advice. Try a little exercise in empathy. Take five people you know and rank them in any order you like. Perhaps from how comfortable to uncomfortable in their skins they are. This will require some imagining of course as you try to go inside them and see them through their own eyes.

 

LET POLITICS IN

I don’t mean editorialize.

I don’t mean sound like you are on Fox or MSNBC.

I mean don’t erect a wall that separates the political from the rest of your writerly world. I mean don’t think that just because it is the current fashion to think that “literary writing” should be kept clean and separate from political writing doesn’t mean it should be.

Not long ago I wrote a book that was partly about Edward Abbey. “Mr. Abbey writes as a man who has taken a stand,” said Wendell Berry of Abbey in his essay, “A Few Words in Defense of Ed Abbey.”

This stand of Abbey’s was both instinctive and the result of a thought-out philosophy.  “It is my belief that the writer, the free-lance author, should be and must be a critic of the society in which he lives,” is how Abbey begins “A Writer’s Credo.”

He continues:

“Am I saying that the writer should be—I hesitate before the horror of it—political?  Yes sir, I am…..By ‘political’ I mean involvement, responsibility, commitment: the writer’s duty to speak the truth—especially unpopular truth.  Especially truth that offends the powerful, the rich, the well-established, the traditional, the mythic, the sentimental.”

Speaking the truth was how the fight started. It was an author’s first duty. But it didn’t end there. On one level Abbey was your grumpy uncle who wrote constant letters to the editor. But he went further than your uncle: he wrote his letters, sure, but then he went ahead and did things, pulling up surveyors’ stakes, dumping sugar in the gas tanks of bulldozers, cutting down billboards, and perhaps even blowing up a thing or two up.

Docile as we have become, we gasp at the idea of taking actual action. Especially with the NSA looking on. But it is possible, still, to do things that matter, and it is possible to mix the literary and the political. It has been done before, and done well, and can be done again. Perhaps even by you.

I will end with these words of Abbey’s:

“A literary career should not be a career but a passion. A life. Fueled in equal parts by anger and love. How feel one without the other? Each implies the other.”

 

V.ROLLING

MOVE AROUND

By now you get that I talk a lot about momentum. Getting yourself into movement, keeping yourself in movement. I talk about it because I believe that’s how books get started and how books get written and how books get finished. Making a book isn’t an easy thing to do. It takes drive sure, but what it really takes, in my experience, is an initial push. Earlier I have described how Rafeal Nadal might be a good role model for the writer in the midst of making a book. What I didn’t mention is that Nadal’s own rallying cry—“Vamos!”—isn’t a bad self-exhortation for any writer facing the morning’s work.

But enough about that. Today I want to talk about another, less metaphorical type of movement. I want to talk about the virtues of working in different places. If you are the sort of writer who can sit down in a library carol and crank out ten pages a day of the novel every day, then read no further. But if you are like me, and require variety and stimulation, then consider the value of working in different places at different times.  The most beautiful evocation, and example, of this sort of work that I know of is Donald Hall’s description, in his book ,

Life Work, of the working day of the sculptor Henry Moore. Moore came into fame and money relatively late, but when he did he bought some land in the English countryside, and on that land he built several studios. Hall writes: “All day he rode a bicycle over his acreage in the rolling farmland, patrolling his studios to work on different projects.” In this way he could turn to a new project—large sculptures, bronze casts, pencil sketches—when the one he was working on ran dry.  And he could re-charge while moving between.

“Well, I don’t own ‘acreage’ in the English countryside,” you might say.  I don’t either, I promise, though I have tried to create the poor man’s equivalent. I do most of my writing in the study in my house but during the course of the day I also work at my writing shack out in our backyard (see picture above) and my office at school, letting the time it takes to move between them serve as a kind of palate cleanser between projects. I also, as of January, started renting an art studio above a brake shop with a friend who has lately taken to painting as a creative outlet to complement his writing.

If you are a young writer reading this, my own multiple offices might seem as unattainable as Henry Moore’s country estate, but my own instinct to move came long before I had the means to have work places, plural. For instance, the woods and the beach, which have always been and still are an important part of my work day, cost nothing. Since it has been my experience that words come easily in beautiful places, I am shocked by how infrequently most young writers make use of the natural world.  If I were going to list the places where I currently write, for instance, I would have to include the “Dinosaur Bone,” my daughter’s (and my) name for the fallen fossil-like tree with the perfect butt-shaped seat that looks over the Cape Fear River down at Carolina Beach State Park. Stuck in one place, my home study, say, I head to another. Different words come in different places. Maybe I just head to school to print out the third draft of the essay that I’ll read down at the Dinosaur Bone or maybe while reading in the shack I’ll come up with the right sentence to use the next morning at my desk in the study.  The point is movement, jostling, changing places while staying always in the main place you want to be: the place where the words are.

 

CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE
Adventure! Sex! Daring! Fun!

Well, I’m sure those qualities are out there somewhere but not in a lot of the nonfiction I read. Granted, the stuff I read is of the literary, and sometimes apprentice, sort, and tends to be concerned mostly with the thoughts, feelings, and memories of the writer him or herself. But I am consistently confused by how little adventuring occurs in most of the work.  Haven’t these writers heard that great books have been written by climbing mountains, spending some time in prison, hopping trains, or even taking drugs and driving to Vegas? It is true that going down this road presents dangers of its own, chiefly, aside from physical danger, the dangers of superficiality and gimmick. If you are just being bold to be bold it usually doesn’t fly. But what if you matched up your own personal obsessions and ideas, and yes, even your important memories, with an appropriate adventure or quest? What if it turns out that getting out of your room for a while is the answer or at least the beginning of the answer to some of the stuff that’s been bugging you?  (Our minds, John Hay once reminded me, are not the best tools for getting out of our minds.)

If I were a young nonfiction writer I would think long and hard—or maybe not long and hard but fast and spontaneously—about this possibility. For one thing, doing things out in the world can prove lucrative, and can help you straddle the literary and commercial worlds. For another, it’s a lot of fun. And to get you started I will make it simple. I will help you choose your own adventure.

Here’s how you begin. Get out a pen and paper and get ready to write. For each category be prepared to write down 5 answers. Write them fast and without much thought. The idea is to get the brain moving. Okay….

 

Category 1: Obsessions/Ideas

Think about what you think about. What obsesses you? What problem do you want to solve? What chews at you or what do you chew on incessantly? What bugs you? What delights you?

Example:

I’ll use the handiest personal example. Not long ago I wrote a book called Soaring with Fidel. The book grew out of a delight in and obsession with birds—ospreys to be specific—but just as much out of what the birds meant to me, which tied into another obsession. I have always been obsessed with the idea of finding home, of finding the right place on earth. What is home and how can I find it?  I thought I’d found that home on Cape Cod, where I had watched the birds nest and fish and rear their young, but had recently moved a thousand miles from there. So what did that mean?

 

Category 2: Journeys /Adventures/Places

Write down five places where you would love to go. Not just to lie on the beach. Places that have significance, that might uncork something in you. Where are your ancestors from? Your favorite writers or literary characters?  Where is the birthplace of some of the ideas you wrote down for category 1?  What place might be a blast to travel to?

 

Example:

I’ll continue with my example from category 1. Having moved to North Carolina, I was delighted to find ospreys everywhere, which seemed to connect me to my former home on Cape Cod. It took a while for the lightbulb to go off: why not follow the birds from Cape Cod to my new home? And why stop there? If I was now a migrant why not follow the birds on their migration? A little research and I learned that after the birds flew south from the U.S. many of them headed to Cuba and South America. Hmm…..

 

Category 3: Characters

Usually in this place you choose to go there will be people. One of the real pleasures of writing and travelling is simply talking to people wherever you land and then seeing where those conversations go. It’s amazing how smart and funny other people are, and how much stuff they know. But of course this is spontaneous stuff and you can’t write down the names of five people you want to bump into. So instead write down the types of people. If you start to do this you will naturally include a certain type of person called an expert. It will turn out that in your area of interest there will be someone who has dedicated their life to what you care about. And, if your experience is anything like mine, these people will be eager to talk to you.  “Sure, turn on your tape recorder,” they will say.

 

Example:

No sooner had I decided that I would follow ospreys to Cuba (where of course I would have to sneak in) then I heard the name Freddy Rodriguez. Freddy was a young scientist in Cuba who had dedicated himself to the study and preservation of ospreys. It also turned out that he had a theory that water-loving ospreys, unlike other raptors, mainly migrated through his home island, not through Mexico like other birds. And it turned out that there was a giant rock in eastern Cuba where he had one day seen hundreds of birds migrate right above him in a kind of osprey river……And it was at that point that I thought I might like to stand on that rock too.

(It was hard to contact Freddy, but a few e-mails and a brief phone call convinced me to get on a plane, and, sure enough, he met me at the Santiago airport.)

 

Category 3: Memoir

Don’t worry, we haven’t forgotten about you, dear memoirists. Now that we have something going on out in the world there is no reason it can’t spark things that are deeply personal to you. A recent example of this is Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, but there are hundreds of other examples. In fact it is a perfectly natural human reaction when, far from home and deeply moved, we think back to the things and times that were and are most important to ourselves.  And the reader, having been relaxed and perhaps even a tiny bit exhilarated by being out in the air for a while, won’t mind spending some time in your head.

 

Example:

My trip to Cuba would jar free many memories of both rootedness and being uprooted in my life: my many moves, my father’s death, my daughter’s birth, our leaving Cape Cod…..well, you get the point. Your own memories may fit your story or it is possible they will not and you will jettison them, leaving a perfectly good adventure story full of ideas, obsessions, characters and places. That’s enough for starters.

I could go on, could add other categories, but I think you get the point. Scribble away. Connect your external to your internal. Makes plans and then a list. Buy a pith helmet and a plane ticket. Then go before your brain gets in your way. Good luck! Bon Voyage!

 

 

GET UP THE HILL
I’ve always thought that long, steep bike rides are good metaphors for writing a book. But yesterday, as I pushed and slogged up a ride that once seemed everyday but is now monumental, I thought that what I was doing was also a fairly apt metaphor for a writing career.

It seems to me important to make a clear distinction between the writing itself and the attempt to get the writing out in the world. Obviously, both skill sets are needed to become a published writer in the first place, and also needed to publish books over the course of a career. The writing itself is what we usually talk about here, but for today let’s stick to this other thing. Unless you are insanely lucky, the getting of the work into the world takes almost as much persistence and commitment as the work itself. This is understandably frustrating to a young writer—“But my writing is good”—and remains to some degree frustrating to many published and not-so-young writers. I will not go as far as to say I am in control when I am at my writing desk,but I almost never feel as out of control as I do when I try to negotiate the world of publishing.

Of course the hill seems steepest from the bottom. I am full of admiration for the young writers I know who have been trying for years to get published, working at it every day despite the world’s indifference. By extension this means I’m full of admiration for my younger self, since I labored without any positive feedback, let alone publication, for over twelve years. At the time I didn’t regard what I was doing as heroic, but now, seeing others doing the same thing, I understand that there is at least some heroism involved.

The hardest part of yesterday’s ride was a section we used to call The Wall. It’s brutal and goes on forever. But having conquered it you pretty much feel you can do anything. It would be easy to suggest that The Wall represents that early unpublished stage of the career-ride. Easy but not entirely true. Because, while a young writer might not want to hear it, there are many Walls ahead. And while you may feel indomitable one day when you get up it, you still have to get up it again the next.

One thing you do gain, however—as my wife has pointed out to me—is the knowledge that it is possible to climb the thing. And those past climbs do give you some toughness, mental and otherwise, that will come in handy during the next ascent.

This admittedly has not been the most uplifting piece of advice. But I think I can muster a positive, if not ringing, conclusion. Because there is a sort of strange pleasure in trying to do the impossible, or at least the very large, on a regular basis. My former teacher, Reg Saner, a poet, essayist and mountaineer, calls it “the pleasure of the difficult.” As pleasure goes, it may feel a lot like pain. But it is if not a good pain then a necessary one. Without it there is no movement forward. Without it there can be no ascent.

 

LIVE ON OSPREY TIME

In 1999 I set out to write a book about ospreys. As a kid on Cape Cod I had never seen the birds; they had been all but wiped out by DDT. When I moved back to Cape Cod as an adult I found that the birds had moved back too. I spent six months watching four nesting pairs of ospreys, spending several hours each day observing them in the way I’d watched the heron.  I did this because I had come to love the birds—their enormous and sloppy nests, their daring dives, their flashing wings—but also for another more practical reason. I had sold a proposal for a book to a publisher about the birds and their comeback from DDT, and so watching ospreys became my daily work, my job, my sod-breaking.

But even though I was getting paid to do it, sitting still was not easy.  “You’ve got to learn to live on osprey time,” said Alan Poole, the osprey expert who served as my adventure’s Obi Wan Kenobe.  “It’s a good life the birds lead,” he added. “You’ve got to watch them do nothing. And they do a whole lot of nothing.”

In April of my osprey year I tried a small experiment at one of the nests. I stowed my watch, pens, tape recorder, and journal in my backpack, and hiked out near the nest, sitting on the bank above the creek. My goal was to see the place, and nothing but the place, and not let the mosquito-like hum of worry interfere. I hunkered low, out of the wind, and watched the nest. Two Canada Geese came in for a landing in the creek in their silly way, like awkward puppets held up by wires, and as I watched and thought–wanting desperately to grab a pen and write down the bit about “awkward puppets”–I realized just how ingrained was my need to scribble. For a short time my experiment seemed to work, until, after a while, the old sensation of uneasiness replaced that of peace. I got antsy and cold. I forced myself to sit still. I got up and sat back down. Finally, after a seemingly interminable period went by, I gave in. I walked over to my backpack, took out my watch, and stared at it. Seven minutes had passed.

But over the course of that year, I–gradually, grudgingly–got better at sitting still. And along with my new skill came rewards. At the beginning of my six months I couldn’t tell an osprey from a gull. By the end, after many hours of watching the birds fly, eat, raise their young and, yes, do a whole lot of nothing, I felt I had started to really know them. In fact, I later bragged to a friend, if a giant osprey was hurtling toward earth, and Bruce Willis had to assemble a group of experts to save the planet, I might be included on the team along with Alan Poole and the other scientists.

 

OBSERVE, DO, THINK, MAKE

 Observing. Doing. Thinking. Making.

The big four.

This is my fairly simple, and perhaps oversimplified, philosophy of creativity.

It’s not perfect but discipline yourself to do these and odds are, if you have some talent to start with, you will not suck as an artist.

Observing for me means active watching, often with pen in hand. Looking for longer than you would look if there was nothing at stake.

Doing springs from observing. Hey, that osprey just dove in the water. Maybe I should dive off a pier and try to catch a fish with my hands? Or maybe I should follow these birds when they fly to Cuba?

Thinking means brooding and active problem solving.  Almost everything in writing comes down to “This is the problem” and then “Here is a creative way to solve it.”  (Walking by the way, lots of it, is a great way to think.)

Making is the act of creating itself. A risk, a gamble, a jump, a connection, a spark. Everyone has these moments. But it’s the artist’s job to give them a consistent place, a regular time, and, with luck, a new form.

But, you say….

How could I possibly forget talking?

And what about drinking?

I would argue that drinking is an aid, not an essential, an aid in the same way that walking, running, smoking, meditating, napping, tubbing, snorkeling, etc. are.

Loving?

Well if what I am proposing here is a philosophy of creativity then all the other activities together add up to something like the big L.

And fucking? Hey watch it buddy, this is a PG establishment.

 
A shorter, tighter version of this just appeared in the craft issue of Ecotone:

 

 

 

 

A LETTER TO AN APPRENTICE

 

I am writing to you at the beginning of something.  As someone who has been through many beginnings, some more successful than others, and who is now somewhere in the middle of the way, I can confirm something you may be starting to suspect: there is nothing harder than beginning. The problems that come later, the loss of energy and direction, the potential for bitterness, the sense of time running out and time already squandered, are very real problems, but I believe they pale next to what you are feeling now. Beginning is a time with no maps, where meaning and shapes shift, and habits–those dear, reliable, necessary things–have not yet hardened, and the smallest questions—how much caffeine to drink?  What kind of chair to use?  What hours of day to work?—have not yet been answered. Beginning is a time when one’s imagination is prone to run wild as if every hour were an insomniac midnight hour, where phantoms have not yet been revealed as what they are. Beginning is a time with no foundation because the very task you are involved in, but have not begun, is the laying down of rocks below your feet. And without those rocks the ground is both slippery and insubstantial, a quicksand of changing muck ready to pull you down.

If those words sound dramatic, then they fit the experience. The terror of any real artist’s life is the same as the joy: the territory where you are heading is uncharted. Think of that: when a person goes to med school he or she knows that, however brutal, all-consuming and occasionally demeaning the process may be, they will, if they don’t quit, end up a doctor. A young would-be writer has no such guarantee. In recent years more and more of us have chosen to go to writing school, but school is only a small part of a writer’s education. The real education will come in the wrestling match, different in every individual, between you and the page, the sometimes torturous and occasionally tortured effort to make sentences, and to turn those sentences into paragraphs and, with some luck, turn those paragraphs into essays, stories, poems, chapters and books. And that will only be part of it. There will also be the more than slightly daunting task of having a life and making a living, and doing so on fumes while you focus most of your real energy, your best energy, on this obsessive wrestling match with words.

If you are like most writers, part of you will long for a monk-like life, while part of you will want anything but. That is because the work itself, while absorbing and joyous and wild, is always arduous, always difficult, always pressing.  It’s no wonder young writers are constantly threatening to quit writing and run away to start a so-called normal career. It is that instinct to flee from what is hard and uncertain that is currently sending so many college graduates with writerly ambitions directly into graduate programs in writing. They seek protection, solace, a type of work—school work!  homework!  grades!—that the world, and parents, understand.  Since I teach at one of these programs this is a good thing for me from a practical standpoint, but I am not sure it is always such a good thing for young writers. Let me stress that I believe that there is much that is beneficial, healthy, and useful in these programs (more on this to come), and that I am also retrospectively envious of the mentoring they offer, just the sort of mentoring I wish I’d had. But while I think these programs are ultimately beneficial, they work best when they are returned to after some strenuous solitary effort. With a few exceptions, my advice is this: hold off on school. Sure, go back, but wait a while first. Remember that there is something worthwhile about working without a net. Something worthwhile, about being tested and seeing how you fare.

Granted this might just be rationalizing on my part, since I never intended to return to school myself and did not in fact return until I was thirty, and I hope this advice is not a hidden, sadistic urge to inflict some of my remembered pain on you. Just last week I spoke to a successful author in his mid-fifties and his experience echoed mine. “For years my father said ‘What the hell are you doing with your life?’  But then when I got into grad school it was suddenly okay. I had the stamp of the world’s approval. School sanctified my apprenticeship.”  Which is both the blessing and curse of school. It makes things easier, but easier is not always the point.

It is the other apprenticeship, the unsanctified one, that I would like to discuss for a moment. This apprenticeship requires continuing to work at your sentences while, in Hawthorne’s words, “the incredulous world assails him [you] with its utter disbelief.” Those words are known to have inspired Herman Melville, and Melville’s may not be a bad model for apprenticeship. First the years at sea—lucky him, literally at sea, not metaphorically—followed by the writing of  travel books, followed, at last, by the writing of something else.  “I love all men who dive,” he said. What was the writing of Moby Dick if not the taking of a deep breath followed by a diving under?  The diving metaphor will be particularly apt when you are working on your first book, or first books since you may simply toss out your earliest attempts, when you will have to hold your breath so that you can stay under for a long, long time. It isn’t easy to dive, of course, isn’t easy to stay under, and one of the hardest things about diving is that you are absolutely on your own. Without approbation, you need to retain confidence, and maintain energy, while creating this thing that no one asked you to create. Who is to say that what you are doing is not delusional?

In fact when you are done, flush and wrung out from the creating, that is most often exactly what the world will tell you, usually in the form of direct rejection. Publishers and editors, you will discover, are like goalies, seemingly intent on keeping your work out of print, particularly if your work does not fit the current modes and molds. I say this with all due respect for the editorial profession: it isn’t just that editors won’t coddle you; they will only rarely understand what you are trying to do. And, of course, they will reject you again and again. How many professions have as direct a way of telling you that what you have done is not up to par, of slapping you in the face? Like the rest of us, you will receive hundreds of rejection letters, all telling you, in polite and couched terms, that what you have done is not good enough.  And then, letter in hand, it will be time to get back to work.

Every writer develops different strategies for dealing with rejection. Mine was, and remains, getting angry. Perhaps this is not the most psychologically sophisticated response, but anger has the advantage of producing energy, which trumps depression’s inertia. “I’ll show those bastards,” is still one of my habitual responses to rejection. It is bombastically comical, I know, and kind of 19th century, but it seems to work for me. As a basketball player my one great strength has always been grabbing offensive rebounds, and offensive rebounding is a vital skill in the writing game, too. You miss and grab the rebound and put it up, miss again and put it up again. If there is something healthy about this attitude there is also something necessarily defensive. Rather than accept that you are the deluded one, the one without talent and judgment, you assume that they are. “I’ll take fate by the throat,” said the Beethoven quote above my desk, but the reality was that I was taking nothing by the throat, that I had very little control over any situation that didn’t involve typing. Still the illusion of control was helpful, too, as was anything that created energy. My own admittedly overly-aggressive responses to failure may not work for you, but my larger point is that we all have to cope with fairly constant rejection—not the subtle rejection of other professions but the point blank rejection of being told the thing you have thrown your life into isn’t up to snuff—and so, whatever your strategy for coping, it should be one that creates more energy, more determination, and that doesn’t allow you to accept what they are telling you about your work. Of course this does not mean you shouldn’t accept certain aspects of what editors tell you, since that, after all, is one way you grow. A part of this metaphoric offensive rebounding is adapting, learning, and coming back differently, and we needed to be always listening, searching for hints to find ways to improve.

But what you should not accept is the larger rejection, that is you should not stop believing in your work because others do not believe. To me it is this ability to come back from failure, to be willing to change and learn but to hold to the essence of your self and your work, that forms the very core of being a writer. Sometimes I wonder what writers who made it big early in their careers draw on as their source of power. For my part I know I have the luxury of failure to fall back on, the knowledge that, after being told so many times that my work is no good, I still haven’t stopped.  Or, to put it another way, one upside of being hit repeatedly in the face is that you develop a certain toughness (not to mention calluses.).

But to jump metaphors, let’s go back to Melville’s diving for a minute. That’s one of my gripes with grad school: it isn’t built for divers. For one thing the work that garners the most successful reactions in writing workshops is usually made up of small, self-contained pieces, short stories and essays, and not chapters of larger works that are understandably harder for the class to digest in one sitting.  For another grad school is built for a well-balanced, healthy life—a life of taking and sometimes teaching classes, going to readings, and parties—and does not easily lend itself to deep Melvilleian immersion, the necessary monomania required for a large project.  I think of a student in the graduate program where I teach who turned his back on the usual balanced life of grad school and holed up down in the honky-tonk beach town of Carolina Beach, pouring all of his energy into his first book.  He was a bad grad student, in the traditional sense, but his book was a good one, an unusual and vivid memoir of the hazing he’d endured in college. Of course social maladjustment is not a prerequisite for being a writer, and I’ve also had students who managed to do many other things, including teaching and working on a literary magazine, while devoting consistent hours each day to their work. One benefit of this second, non-obsessive model is that it provides a template for how one has to write once evicted from the garden of grad school into the so-called real world, where very few of us can support ourselves by writing alone. But while this balanced way may be healthier, the counterpoint is that you need to embrace those periods of obsession wherever you can find them, especially when you are starting out. Novels, memoirs, full length old-fashioned books require full concentration over a long period. Especially first books.

I don’t write this last part to intimidate. In fact, while a large project has the potential to paralyze, it can also stimulate and provide energy. There are those of us who like our challenges steep, and who find their imaginations engaged by the idea of writing a large book in a way they wouldn’t by something smaller. “The pleasure of the difficult,” is what my old friend and mentor, the writer Reg Saner, called this, referring both to writing and his own passion for mountaineering. This pleasure involves taking everything you have and marshalling it toward the achievement of one great thing.  It is a deep, if sometimes grumbling and fleeting, pleasure.

I know I am somewhat romanticizing the solitary aspects of the writing life, but I do so in part because in most quarters the emphasis has lately swung toward the communal. But  I don’t want to sell the communal short. One of the benefits of writing school, and of any writing group, is that it can break you out of solipsism into community. God, when I think back to my own solitary start, how I would have liked to have been drinking beers and talking, not with carpenters or Ultimate Frisbee players, but with other writers going through the same struggle. How I would have liked to have been assured both by my peers and teachers, that what I was doing was not completely insane, and how I would have liked to have found out that working on a project for two years, then ditching it and moving onto the next, was not a massive failure–as both my own voice and my father’s voice said it was–but a necessary step in my growth.

Writing programs also provide something that is analogous with a good sex education class. The most terrifying parts of sex, for a young teenager, are the simply practical things, even down to where do you put what and when. The same terrors revisit many young writers: what the hell is a self-addressed, stamped envelope? How did you send these things out? What is an agent?  An editor?  What the hell is this thing called simultaneous submission? I would have loved to have someone explain how you went about these things in simple English. What a relief that would have been, what a joy.

It has often been said that one of the goals of grad school is to find one or two readers who can really understand and respond well to your work. I was lucky enough to find my wife, who became and has remained my primary reader. But be wary of determining too quickly who your best readers are, and be wary of your criteria for deciding this (for instance, “She likes my stuff” had better be balanced by something sterner.)  Also, don’t worry too much if your work does not pass workshop muster. One danger of grad programs is that the readers of your writing may not be real readers themselves. When they question you, this is worth questioning: what have they read? Who do they admire and emulate?  Have they read beyond the restrictive realm of their own time? What are the aims of their work? If what they read and what they aim to do are worlds apart from your reading and aims it will be no wonder that they don’t understand what you are attempting to do. I have a friend who, when she has reaches a certain point on any project, sends her work out to five or six fellow writers. She is a masterful writer herself and a good reader of others’ reactions, and you can be sure she picks those readers carefully, knowing that she will get something a little different from each reader, knowing their strengths and weaknesses as readers just as they may have begun to know hers as a writer. The question for you is “What minds and what voices are you echoing your voice off?  Who are you listening to?”  The ability to react to these reactions, to listen in places and ignore in others, becomes an art in itself.

It’s hard to show your work at first, hard to share what seems so private. For my first eight years as a writer I, out of perfectionism and fear, hid my work from others, including the woman I lived with. When you are starting out, perfectionism can be a killing disease, particularly if you are ambitious. We conceive of a masterful book, a book that is pristine in form and meaning, and we also imagine the delighted reaction with which the world will greet the book.  But the inchoate sentences we first start to scribble—caveman sentences, ugly sentences—fall so far short of what we imagined we could do that it is possible to react by becoming paralyzed or by wanting to run away and hide. I know, because I did both. For almost a decade I wouldn’t let anyone see a page of what I’d done.

In fact I doubt I would have had the courage to bring my work out into the light of day if I had not read Walter Jackson Bate’s biography of John Keats. Let me recommend that you run out and buy the book right away. To vastly oversimplify, the effect of that book is to get the blood pumping. Moreover the question that Bate poses is this: how did a writer who started late and died earlier–at 25!–and who therefore had only about a four year window to produce, ascend to write what some consider “the greatest condensed poetry since Shakespeare.”  He did this in part because he was blessed with a particular genius, a genius beyond his control. But he also did it because he approached his work with courage and “innate common sense” and developed work habits that any young writer should study. Keats followed two basic instincts: the urge to create something long, and the unembarrassed desire to crank out the pages, almost in the manner of a hack writer. In the end Keats dismissed the whole adventure of writing Endymion, his first (and bad) book, as “a gymnastic exercise” but by then much had been gained from the exercise.  Bate stresses, again and again, as I have stressed again and again in these pages, and do still to my self and my students, the value of momentum. The simple fact, as true in writing as in physics, that once something is in movement it is likely to stay in movement, and that once it is still it is likely to stay still. How to get in movement then? Annie Lamont has made a name as a writing guru with her notion of “shitty first drafts,” and what was Endymion if not that?  As it turns out, bad writing can lead to the good, and bad writing, more often than not, is better than no writing.  Of course good work habits will not turn you into Keats. But it’s a place to start.

The larger point is that a young writer can not think and plan their way to their destination. They can only try to get there through movement, knowing they might end up in unexpected places. But to immediately contradict myself, I should emphasize that I’m not suggesting that you don’t need to plan and scheme. Planning and scheming, and plotting and organizing, are a big part of the process, a big part of moving forward, and while all this planning is often mere static, it sometimes sparks creativity in unimagined ways. I, like many writers, keep hundreds of folders and files, and, the more experienced I get, the more often I feel my plans actually end up somewhat coinciding with reality. So I’m not knocking planning, simply saying that there is a large unplanned aspect to any book or any career. There are just so many things we can’t rationally account for, so many uncharted elements.

Maybe all this stress on movement comes off sounding too athletic, even military, as if mine were the exhortations of a drill sergeant, or worse, a junior high school gym teacher. But even the most subtle of literary writers needs to find a way to launch themselves into movement.  My friend and colleague, Rebecca Lee, who is a very different sort of writer than me, both on the page and in her habits, puts it this way: “I read every morning in hopes of jumping the track.” Jumping the tracks. That’s it. However we do it, we need to get on those tracks and get moving. And each writer will do this in different ways. While “finding your voice” is deservedly paid a lot of lip service in writing books, finding one’s style as a worker deserves equal billing. Not just what your words sound like on the page, but how you go about the process of putting those words on the page in the first place.

The problem of creating momentum is usually particularly thorny at a project’s beginning. We all respond to the terror of beginning in different ways.  As you can see, I sometimes respond in an overly macho manner, with bluster. I fake it. I try too hard.  I write badly. There are those, like my wife, who do things differently. They think things out in their head; they ease their way in.  My way may not be the best way, but it is the style I have settled on just as my wife has settled on her style. Another difference is that I am forever jotting things down, distrustful of my patchy memory while she, with almost perfect audio recall, is content to play it out in her head, knowing she won’t forget much of anything. In contrast to my wife’s style of creating, mine sometimes feels unwieldy, but while it has flaws, it at least sets me in motion. The point then isn’t to write in her way or my way. The point is that to discover your own voice, it pays to listen to what you say on the page, and that to discover your own work habits, it helps to notice what you naturally do.

 

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In the old days many of us carried the old Thomas Wolf/Max Perkins template around in our head. The road to glory! We would write our work of genius, carry it down to New York in a big crate, drop it on an editor’s doorstep and he or she would cry; “Eureka!” and so the sleigh ride would begin. That fantasy was never very plausible, and it is less so these days. Of course you will do what we all did and equate the publication of your first book with the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow or with heaven or with virginity’s loss or marriage or whatever your idea of the happiest, most perfect thing is. And, of course, unless you are one of the lucky six per decade you will be disappointed. You will feel some bitterness, everyone does, but the trick will be to manage that bitterness and not let it take over. The challenge will be to move ahead, to maintain momentum, to not lose faith.

And here is where your apprenticeship may hold you in good stead. Because what you are learning now isn’t just how to find your voice, and it isn’t just how to put words on the page or even to develop the style of work. You are learning about struggle, and not just metaphorically. You are learning that struggle is really all there is, even when it, very occasionally, doesn’t feel like struggle. You are learning habits you can hold to when panic threatens to overwhelm, and you will find you have habits you can use again when you find out, “Hey, its not really getting that much easier.” And so you get to work, push ahead everyday, jump the tracks in your own way and find a way to keep moving.  Moving on, moving forward, struggling forward.

Perhaps, from your point of view, the place where I am, the place where any published writer is, seems far down the path. Or perhaps not. It could be that your ambitions are large enough that you believe you will soon zip past where I am. Whichever way you feel, I can assure you that the two of us are closer than you think. Each day when I get up, stretch my back, pour my coffee, is both the same and different as it was back when I began. The same because I still work inside uncertainty, the same because I can never clearly say, in the manner of a carpenter, “This is my work for the day: I’ll lay the wood flooring in this hallway and then frame that door.”  But different, too, since all those years at the desk, going on thirty three now, have given me tools with which to face uncertainty.

It would be nice if there were shortcuts to gaining these tools, and I’m certain they can be gained more quickly than I gained them. But the work of gaining, of claiming the tools, is the work of becoming, and that is the work that you are in the middle of right now. It is no consolation to you at the moment, but as it turns out the work of becoming is, I’m pretty sure, the best work a human being can do while on this planet. We live in an age of relativity, so what exactly do I mean by “best”?  I mean the most creative, the most exciting, and the most ultimately pleasurable–the very deepest sort of work. You are doing the nearly impossible, after all. Transforming yourself into something you can’t yet imagine.

This is not your goal at the moment of course, not the cheese you hold out in front of yourself. The goal is usually glory, fame, magazine covers, all that. Which is fine: we need to exaggerate our rewards to devote all the time and energy necessary to the making of books.  And I am just as superficial as you are—I want fame and glory and money too—but, and you will have to trust me on this, the greater unknown reward is the work itself.

So flail away.  Dive in.  Don’t listen to me, or anyone else, when they call you an apprentice. You shouldn’t. No one spends years working on a project they consider a warm-up. Write whole books that you deem failures or books that you love that no one will publish.  Show the bastards. These early works may or may not win you eternal fame but at the very least they will do this. They will give you the tools you need to create yourself.  As you hammer away every day, you will be hammering out the mettle of who you’ll become. You will be tested again and again, but it is the testing that will make you, the testing that will forge you. And while you may not yet know where you are going, you can at least be reassured by this: you know you have begun.