Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art.Andy Warhol
It’s been a long time since I’ve shared some good writing advice from an author. This piece comes from Ross Gay, award-winning poet and essayist, whose latest collection, The Book of Delights: Essays came out earlier this year. He’s also a professor at Indiana University and a big sports fan and former college football player–and what delights Gay are many and varied things, which is, for this reader, delightful.
Before I share his advice, I’ll share a story: I’m a little embarrassed to say that while I’m only 27K into my new WIP, I already have its epigraph–you know, the quote or quotes at the start of a book that suggest theme. In my WIP’s case, the working themes are around loss, sorrow, and joy. Loss we can all try to get our heads around together.
But sorrow is really loaded–especially for me as a Catholic. Funny thing, a friend of ours recently learned what my family’s parish is called. “Our Lady of Sorrows,” he said. “How depressing.” I’d never thought about the name, a common descriptor for Jesus’s mother, Mary, as depressing. For, like Mary’s, our sorrows are borne together; sometimes, they’re necessary, even life-changing, lifting us all up. I couldn’t articulate this to our friend at the time, but his words got me to thinking about the transformative power of sorrow.
That’s about when I started reading Ross Gay, and who knows if his words will stick as one of two quotes in the epigraph of a novel not even half finished, but these words of his, from his essay “Joy is Such a Human Madness,” have served as a good thematic guide:
What if we joined our sorrows, I’m saying. / I’m saying: What if that is joy?Ross Gay, The BOOK Of Delights: Essays
About the time I jotted this quote down was when I learned that Gay, like this aspiring author, is a Northeast Ohio native–making the possibility that I might one day hear him read in person pretty decent. (Joy!)
Until then, I’ll read his poems and essays and delight in learning about this inspirational author through interviews, like this one with Toni Fitzgerald in The Writer, in which Gay talks about his writing inspirations and process–our writing advice for the day:
…usually it’s thinking, reading, studying, trying to find something that turns you on and going for a bit.Ross Gay
I was weeping before 8:30 am. Not because of the cold and old pipes and our living room soaked, stripped, and drying now–like a child pulled from a furtive dip in the lake. No, I was weeping over a book about fathers and sons and the seasons of life–and wouldn’t you think my avid reader-cynicism could have borne me up better than that? Nope, there I was weeping, listening to the end of the story, as I trained my eyes on the winding roads that take me from my sons’ school to home and back, again and again.
Not a chance I could have held it together in the face of Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Gilead, narrated by Tim Jerome of Broadway fame. From the cursory Goodreads summary: Gilead presents an “intimate tale of three generations from the Civil War to the twentieth century: a story about fathers and sons and the spiritual battles that still rage at America’s heart.”
I will admit right here that it took me this long to read anything by the matriarch of the Midwestern religious novel, and I’ll tell you why. I thought it would be not just “churchy”–an attribute Robinson has said did not define her background–but preachy. After reading (and weeping), I’d define the novel as “teachy” maybe, but only in the best way–as the narrative is presented as a sort of last will and testament from an elderly father, the Reverend John Ames, to the seven-year-old son he won’t get to see grow up. In short, it’s a quiet wonder of a book.
I’m delighted that my story, “While Our Grown Men Played,” will appear in the Winter 2019 issue of Little Patuxent Review. I’m also delighted to be reading at the issue launch event. For more information or to purchase the issue–or subscribe to this lovely regional literary magazine–click on through.
There’s truth in every piece of fiction, of course–despite my penchant for writerly distance. But if there’s one story of mine that tells the tale of my mom and me, it’s this one. In it, I got to call my mom a “world-class whiner,” which she was. But she never whined about what mattered: the breasts that failed her when they let cancer in, twice; the chemo and wig; the daughter living 12 hours away by Greyhound bus. She whined about the little things we could share: overdue library book fines, our pear shapes, cold noses in winter.
“While Our Grown Men Played” is a story about being female, sure; but even more so, it’s about being together, despite distance over roads and time–and cosmos, even. As I write, she’s still with me in the way I am, the things I whine about, and in my body: our ballet bearing, my veiny hands that are hers, the accent that won’t leave me.
Maybe most stories don’t take years and great personal loss to write, but this one did. It is a bittersweet thing to let it go, to read from it in front of others, to somehow tie a bow on grief. But it is sweet, and a testament to perseverance in writing and in living. I hope my mom would agree.
So, today I urge against writerly distance. Let’s try it, together. Let’s close the distances between past and present, between the living and the dead, between fact and fiction–and mine for story that heals.
That’s what I’ll be doing anyway.
Out where? Well, there, and there, and there.
I’m talking about getting the creative writing out there, into the great wide open–beyond the blog, and into news outlets, magazines, and journals–and so are a lot of other bloggers. So, I thought I might start a convo here, where we can collect some pros, cons, and lessons learned.
Sound good? I’ll start with a disclaimer. I am no expert. I have an MFA in Creative Writing under my belt (along with a lot of Xmas cheese); yet we rarely discussed in short fiction and novel-writing courses what to do with our pieces after we’d written them–past the Sisyphean process of write-edit-trash-revisit-rewrite-edit, that is. Really, a piece of writing may never be “finished,” but eventually, it’s good to let it go. How do you know if your writing might be ready to submit?
“One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book or for another book; give it, give it all, give it now.”Annie Dillard, American author
This felt like appropriate writing advice for the season, so I thought I’d re-post this gem from Annie Dillard today.
Over the past few days, my writing energies have been poured into Christmas cards. (Yep, I still do those.) It’s the one time of year I connect across the many miles with family and friends who don’t do social media (which was me, too, until just a couple years ago).
It’s the one time of year I “give it all”–braggin’ on my boys and sharing declarations of affection, longing, and even shared loss that might feel sappy at any other time.
Which gets me to thinking about something a friend of mine posted (on social media) about not being afraid to speak of those we’ve lost over the holidays. This is my twelfth Christmas after my mom’s death. The cynical and deflecting part of me thinks I could make up a funny song about my grief–to the tune of “The Twelve Days of Christmas…” (Or maybe something along the lines of “Goodly Mom I lost looked out on the feast of (what rhymes with Stephen?)” Instead, I share her stories with my boys, carry on tying the family ties, and speak her name.
“…give it, give it all, give it now.” That seems like good writing–and living–advice, during this and every season.
All the best and sincerest holiday wishes to you and yours,
P.S. Pics from my family’s “Thanksmas” celebration: the obligatory sister and me in the kitchen selfie; a nearby beach looking not at all Christmas-y; and one amazing elf.
Yep, that’s my writing advice for this luckiest of days during NaNoWriMo (at a point when my word count is stalled at 8,237).
Last night, I finished the novella (remember those; they’re having a renaissance, I hope) titled Camp Olvido. I could have been writing or plotting (ha, that’s a joke), but I needed to recharge. So I read.
Written by Lawrence Coates, Camp Olvido is set in a Depression-era migrant workers’ camp in California and will remind you of Steinbeck’s work, but this 2015 book is its own rare and wonderful gem. Read it for the compelling history, story, images and language that will leave you awed. It’s that good.
So, I wrote the author to tell him. OK, maybe it’s two pieces of writing advice today: No. 1: read. No. 2: respond to what sings true and clear for you on the page.
Happy reading and writing. Happy NaNo!
How’s it going, if it’s going? No NaNo for you this year? What are you reading and loving right now?
I am home.
When my husband and I found our house on this street in the best little riverside village we didn’t even know existed, that was it: we were home.
However, there’s more than one way to go home; just as there are so many wonderful and varied definitions of what home means to different people. Check out Christine’s take on this week’s Gin & Lemonade With a Twist writing prompt, Home, at I’m Sick and So Are You: “My Body is My Home.” And another blogger friend posits home as a feeling.
What is home to you?
Ever get olfactory déjà vu, and you think: this place smells like home? Or, a person’s accent takes your mind to the street where you grew up? Or the way a loved one squeezes your knee or tucks your hair behind your ear ignites your primitive brain and takes you there, wherever that is, home.
I write fiction to get my characters–and by extension me–home.
I generally start writing when I have that first, budding image of my main character. Before I sit down to write, I feel a sense of unease, even anxiety, rising as I begin to imagine this character’s problem. (There has to be a problem.) Sometimes, I’ll also imagine the final image, problem righted, character home (if not in geography, in body or mind or spirit.)
Between the beginning image and the end is the journey–home.
Wow, when I write it out like this, it sounds simple. (It’s not simple.) But maybe thinking about the fiction-writing process in this way can ease the actual writing part just a little bit, whether you’re doing NaNoWriMo or not.
And here’s a writing advice gem in the The Guardian from an author with quite a few books under her belt, Kate Pullinger. So, she’s reached home a lot. This quote speaks to so many aspects of my life, really:
Writing is a kind of confidence trick – you have to con yourself into thinking you can do it, into thinking that what you are writing is the Real McCoy.
Back at it…
I hope you’ll join in.
Lorna’s Gin & Lemonade With a Twist writing prompt for the week: Home.
NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, for the uninitiated (and sane).
Give me a painting of a shipyard over a regatta, a work boat over a pleasure cruiser. Give me the smell of diesel, sweat, and fish. Might not be pretty, but it works.
For me, art that works–that shows scenes of toil and industry, of creating and crafting–appeals more than art that features placid scenes. Sorry Manet, Monet, and pretty much anything on a rou de someplace.
Why? Well, there’s the Rust Belt influence, the legacy and lore of waterways that sustained the heavy industry that built places like my native Cleveland, Ohio, along Lake Erie, and like Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with its three rivers.
And, like Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where the late artist, Donald Stoltenberg, was born in 1927. Stoltenberg was new to me, until a recent visit to nearby Annapolis.
While I gravitate to industry and toil in art, I look for the same in the literature I read–and write. To me, a character is never more him- or herself than when working. Why? Simple. Work breeds conflict and conflict drives story.
Some of the best advice I received as a writing student was to introduce characters to readers by showing them at work. This gets the characters out in the world, acting and reacting–and soon (as we all do) facing big problems, problems that will need to be, ya know, worked out.
So, as I think about the characters of my current WIP*, I’m putting them to work, testing their mettle, and seeing what they’re made of. Works for me, and I bet it’ll work for you.
What are you working on right now? A blog post? A story? A piece of art? What works for your characters? For you?
*Speaking of my WIP, I’ll be taking much of the month of November off from actively blogging to focus my attention on research and work for my WIP, as well as submitting to journals and agents before the end of the year. But I will be back! In the meantime, please see my categories above for writing advice, author interviews, publishing journey woes and successes–and keep on reading and writing (the Rust Belt and everywhere else).
This is not an inspirational blog.
By that, I mean you will find no images and taglines here that you could use to make into a poster for your conference room. No cute kittens of mine will ever tell you to “hang in there”–or anywhere. (That’s my kid, above; my arms hurt just looking at him.) If I were to make such a poster, it might say, “Bitch a lot, and hope for sympathy–or at least free coffee.”
Still, I am not totally, cynically immune to pep-talks, or at least subtle reminders that bitching gets us nowhere, usually not even heard. But perseverance can get us writers, bloggers, and do-ers of all kinds off the starting block (or whatever tired motivational metaphor you prefer).
Call it perseverance. Call it stick-to-itivness. Call it sisu, if you’re in with the Finns. Please just don’t call it grit. (Am I the only one sick of that word? People: meet thesaurus; thesaurus meet people.)
All that’s to say, sometimes one (me) has to stop bitching and start working, which for this story writer looks like: composing, revising, editing, more editing; and lastly, the dreaded submitting.
The tale of my most recent story submission goes like this. (Here’s hoping it’s mildly inspirational.)
It was a story that I had to tell. While I generally enjoy a football field-sized writerly distance from the characters I explore in my fiction, this one hit much closer to home. Call it cheap therapy, but my mom was battling breast cancer and I was a 12-hour Greyhound bus ride away and English major-angsty. What to do with all that anger at the plain meanness and stupidity of cancer for targeting the one person who “got” me?
I wrote about it. I framed my confusion into a story about going home to be with the fictional her at the end and about how a cancer death–the coagulating of so many errant cells–made the fictional me dream of growing another kind of ball of cells, which would turn into a kid (or kids, as it turned out) of my own.
Like much fiction, there was truth in this story (along with much artifice). And it felt good to get my truth on the page, and then into the ether, and maybe even under the nose of a literary journal editor–or 58 (yep, I just counted).
Fast-forward a dozen years or more, and a much-revised version of this story will see the light. I received the glorious email with “acceptance” in the subject line a week after logging three rejections of other stories.
Some stories come easily; some take just a couple revisions before I’ve deemed them to be editor-ready. Not this story of my mom and me and breasts and death as beautiful as birth.
My story of writerly perseverance, by the numbers: revision No. 15; story title No. 3; 1,200 additional words since first draft, written for English 666 (no joke); and 1 fewer mention of the show, Friends, and also 9-layer dip, since that first draft (phew).
You get the gist. The story grew with me, and I with it, but I didn’t let it go–just like my little guy up there on the rock wall. I could have, but I didn’t.
More to come on my story’s new home, journal information, and issue launch.
Want more writerly advice? I’ve got a category for that.