“A Symmetry of Surprises” : Thoughts on Writing, Writers, and People

from Flickr user Keith Williamson

I generally write the post first, then pick the picture.  But today, I had these two great quotations about writing, and couldn’t figure out how to get there.

So I went shopping at Flickr for images using “writing” as a keyword.

I ended up with these fountain pens writing without human intervention because I think a couple of things are true:

First, writers experience an out-of-body thing as they write sometimes.  I call it going to the zone (that’s what it feels like to me: being on another plane of focus or consciousness).  I used to get the same sort of feeling when I drew from observation.  I have heard bunches of writers say that they don’t know how they do it, just that it’s compulsiveness, that they can’t stop.

Sometimes, writers even deny responsibility for their creations: they talk about it as a bolt of lightening, or as something that is received.  Stephen King talks about storytelling as excavating–dusting off an artifact into which the artist breathes life.

Though I am presently unable to access her book for an exact quotation, my friend Carolyn says that genius occurs at the intersection of the spiritual and creative, and she reminds us that we have become culturally accustomed to confusing the notion of genius with savant; Carolyn says that everyone has genius, it is not some special thing, and anybody can find her own genius.  Her book is called Awesome Your Life: The Artist’s Antidote to Suffering Genius.  I haven’t finished it myself, but it’s delicious so far, I recommend it.

I think that writing is a process of exploring genius, both the spiritual and the intellectual bits of it.

Second, every writer I know and have ever met is fascinated by other people.  This fascination is visceral.  After watching a fairly stupid TV show, I was reading a bit about microexpressions on the internet (a quick google scholar search shows that these are being studied with regard to politics, deception, law enforcement, etc), and got to thinking about my own intense fascination with other humans, and my ability to read their manner or listen closely to their language and figure out that something is bothering them or that they’re hiding a strong feeling.  I like to watch people argue, kiss, eat, discuss, dance.

While I was at the residency, something for which I have been ridiculed personally was natural in our group:  When observing people, we made up back stories for them based on how they walked or talked or ate.  We would trace them back to their childhoods and speculate about their jobs, how many lovers they’d had, what major event in their lives brought them to that point, and after just a few minutes, it felt like we were speaking truth.

I don’t know about you, but that’s exciting to me.

And that’s why I want to share these two quotations from Robert Mooney who’s one of the Wilkes faculty. He also teaches at Washington College His book, Father of the Man is on my to-read list based on the fact that on the fiction panel, he admonished us to:

“Be a deep sea diver of the human psyche.”

And said that:

“I just travel into the dark… A lot of fiction is a symmetry of surprises.”

What quotations have inspired or affirmed you as an artist, writer, person, scholar, soul?

I Got Annoyed by Stephen King, Then I Loved Him.

From Flickr User AZRainman

Right.  Until a few weeks ago, I had never read a Stephen King anything.

Don’t get pissed.  I’m just not interested.  I do want to read The Green Mile, but that is all.  I have seen a couple of the movies made from Stephen King novels/novellas: The Green Mile, The Stand.  That might be it. I honestly do not know.

It’s not in my aesthetic.

But I had to read his writing manual/memoir On Writing for the Wilkes Residency.

This was my emotional experience during the reading:  First, there was boredom. So I skipped the “I was the kid of a single mom, I want you to know that was hard” part, and started in on the section that was about writing.

Then there was utter annoyance.  The annoyance came as much from King’s arrogance as from the fact that I feel ambivalent about the usefulness of reading books about other writers’ processes.  I’m not saying that I have nothing to learn.  To the contrary.  I feel like I have tons to learn.  But I’m not going to learn what I need to learn about my process from Stephen King.  I’m going to learn that by reading and writing, and that is all I want to do, ever, basically.

Then there was indifference.  Here was my thinking: all right, King.  I know you hate adverbs.  I get it.  I hate them too.  I’m with you that more writers should learn some stuff about craft.  You’re right about the tool box, but you’re not knocking my socks off, here, buddy.  You really ought to be.  You are one of the few writers in history to actually get rich from writing.

Then there was anger.  I found some of the examples he used to be just preposterous.  The book was like barely confined King ego.

Then there was creeping fondness.  I promise you I fought it.  But he’s kind of funny.  And he’s earned the right to speak with authority about writing.  And he didn’t speak with any guilt at all about getting rich on writing.  I find it to be obnoxious when people feel guilty about getting rich.  I want to tell them that if they feel so guilty about being rich, they should do something useful with their money, live like paupers, and quit whining.

And by the last fifty pages of the book, I was lapping it up like a black dog in summer.  And it wasn’t really what he said so much as how he said it.  He’s frank and honest and underneath the bravado/braggadocio, there’s this twitchy, insecure artist.  The same one that lives in all of us writers.

I am alone in this assessment of King’s book, that is 80% yuck, 20% I love you, Stephen King.  Most of the other folks at the residency all louvvred the King book.  Which was sad.  A lot of them were vocally antagonistic toward the Brande book, Becoming a Writer.  I enjoyed the quiet doggedness with which Brande wrote and recommended to a writerly life.  There really isn’t a better example.

After all, we can’t all be King.

On the Road: Reflections on Ambition & Art

Painting by Norman Rockwell, Image from Cliff1066 on flickr.

As you know, I’ve just returned from my first residency at Wilkes University. I’ll go twice a year for 2.5 years and on the other side of 3, have an MA, and an MFA, an internship in teaching or publishing, and I’ll have a manuscript, a(t least one) revision of it, and all sorts of connections with the world of publishing.

If you know me, you know that I’ve always been a word nerd.

And if you were in my head all the time, you would know that at least 70% of the time, even though I make money as a writer, have publishing credits, and have a Bachelor’s degree (and am now working toward the terminal degree) in writing, I am sure that there’s nobody less qualified to do what I do, that I’m a fraud and a sham and have just been tricking people my whole life into believing that I’m a proper writer.

But know the most valuable thing I learned at the residency?

That every other writer feels that way, too.  Even writers as excellent as the ones I was lucky enough to meet and to hear read.

This is not to say that I feel like I’ve got nothing to learn.  The contrary in fact.  I’ll learn more in Wilkes’s program than I could’ve possibly predicted.

And I feel, for the first time since Pearl was an infant, that I’m both home and on the road to destination Realizing Goals.

I got permission to be constantly thinking about the stories I want to tell.  Those ideas that were bashing about in my wee noggin have grown larger, more defined.

And instead of running away from each of those ideas with some kind of fear, and some kind of narrative about why I can’t write that story now, my dilemma is that I can only pick one.

I don’t know if it is a feature of the artistic temperament or if it is that I was ingrained from a very early age that though I am welcome to try to do whatever I want, it is unlikely–statistically–that I will meet with any real success and that I should seek fulfillment in the menial, that explains my fear when facing my creative pursuits, my desire to put them off, to own any other path or career choice.

But spending a week around people who see the world as I do, in the kooky writer way, and with working writers who are generous with their insights, resources, time, and energy, well I don’t remember the last time I felt so creatively and spiritually fortified.

What about you?  When was the last time you felt creatively fortified?

Residency Day 5: Beauty, Blight, and Bombast

There’s a group of about 4 men, possessing a complementary nose for mischief, and they travel together in our “cohort.”  Our “cohort” is our group of writers entering the MFA program at the same time.  Why is it not a class?  I do not know.  These men are delightfully rowdy and goofy (they remind me of my youth) and one of them put a picture of himself on his lab wallpaper on these super sexy iMacs in the lab next to where we get our learn on.

I was so amused that I asked if I could take a picture of the picture, and then–ham that he is–he posed with it.  So here’s this week’s dose of the metaphysical:

This is a lovely view of the River Walk.

This is a detail from one of the entrances to the YMCA here.  Freaking gorgeous, but surrounded on many sides by economic depression.  This is a queer little town.

The food and coffee are bad.  I am looking forward to cooking again.

Everything else is righteous.

I leave you with a sample of some of the people I might get to have as a mentor and whom I will spend the next 3 years learning to know, like, professionally man.  I am the freaking luckiest girl in the world.  No, really.  They’ve put on readings for us every night, and there are more excellent & successful writers here than it seems prudent to list.  Maybe it’s not prudent to list any of them, but I’ve heard every one of the ones below read and I’m telling you now: go buy their books.  Delicious.

Kaylie Jones

Beverly Donofrio

Nina Solomon

Cecilia Galante

Michael Lennon

Nick Mamatas

Sara Pritchard

John Bowers 

Kevin Oderman

Nancy McKinley

Residency Day 1: Setting

Wilkes-Barre is renowned for being a totally blue-collar city.   It feels a little like Pittsburgh: universities surrounded by middle class & slums.  A lot of queerly frightened white people.

And I am getting sick with nostalgia for proper city living.

I got here a touch early, and the first person I met was Dr. Culver, the program director.  She is nothing like I pictured, but hugged me straight away.  Then I met a guy named J.C.  I will save my questions about a potential Messiah complex for workshop.

Here’s the view from my little apartment (which is like a glorified dorm suite with a proper kitchen and a full bathroom.  It’s slick).

Here’s another view:

And here’s the funny little balcony.

And here’s a bit of nostalgia.

For the first 18 years of my life, my dad was self-employed.  He had some kind of business relationship with a guy who owned a building & business in Wilkes-Barre, PSC or Petroleum Service Company.  People here say “Wilkes Bear Uh.”  Or “Wilkes Bear.”  Dad says, “Wilkes Berry.”  So it was kind of a big deal to get to go with dad to “Wilkes Berry.”

Once, maybe twice, dad brought me here visit this cat called Ron Sims (the one who owned PSC). He had a Merry-Go-Round horse in his office, and who also owned some kind of staging company.  Mountain Productions, I think?  Anyway, this was in the hey-day of New Kids On The Block (oh gawd), and Ron Sims gave me a spent backstage pass.  I was 8, and I had no clue, and so I said to my dad, “Don’t you have to go to a concert to use it?”

What I remember is the pained look on my dad’s face.  My ignorance and disappointment hurt his feelings, you know, on my behalf. He wasn’t sure how to break my little heart while still making me understand that the dude was giving me a cool present.  If he were me, he would’ve blogged about it later. I don’t remember what he said, but he explained the concept of collector’s items and memorabilia.

I put the backstage pass (which was this crazy fluorescent green fabric-covered square of poster paper) in my desk in my room where it stayed until I didn’t care anymore, and the New Kids were fuzz on the cultural horizon.

Here is a picture of the setting of that memory, the PSC building.  I took this picture across the parking lot for the Family Dollar and thrift shop where I went to buy toilet paper and the tooth brush I forgot.

The Effort Word [sic]

From Flickr user geishaboy500

If you know me, you probably know that I have a potty mouth.

I have, intentionally, not been 100% cautious about swearing in front of Child.

Diplomacy and discretion are two skills that not enough people have.  While this is pure theory, I suspect that understanding the value of an inner life, and of recognizing that different sets of people require different sets of tactics for getting along, is tantamount to a person’s success in life.

One can accomplish almost anything if one is charming.

The Effort Word [sic]

Child was playing outside with her neighbors.  She came in and told me, solemnly, as if presenting herself to the gallows, “Mommy.  I accidentally said the effort word.”

I said, “Do you know what the effort word is?”

“Yes.”

“What is it?”

Her eyes got wide, and she said, “Fuck.”

Then she clapped both hands over her mouth and appeared to brace for reprimand.  She relaxed visibly when I started to laugh.

“I just said it to myself, Mommy.”

“So you said the effort word in your head?”

“Yes.”

Still chuckling, “That’s okay, Child.  Just don’t say it at school.”

“Okay, mommy.”

“You can go back outside to play.”

The end.  Or so I thought.

I was so tickled by the whole incident, that at dinner that night, I asked her to tell Fella about the effort word.

She started out differently.  First she said, “Well.  I just said it to myself.” pause.  “We were playing Monkey in the Middle, and I messed up, and I just wanted to say something.  So I said, ‘I’m a fuck!'” And again she slapped both hands over her mouth with a look of terror in her little eyes.

“Oh,” I said.  “So you said it out loud to yourself?”

“Yes.  And my friends told me that was very bad.”

“It wasn’t, Child.”  I was laughing again, Fella was silently chuckling, too.  “Like I said before.  Just be careful.  Don’t say the effort word at school.”

I felt so happy to have a kid who is thoughtful and responsible enough to want to admit to me when she said something that she thought would make me angry.  I felt like the important thing was her desire to come clean.

Instead of making me angry, the incident made me feel like a good mom of a great kid.

Another day, I’ll post about how linguistic taboos are limiting and unfortunate.  Today, I’ll let you yell at me in the comments if you want.  Or not.  What do you think?  How do you handle your kids with swearing?

Post Script

I’m a big fan of Cake.  The band, not the confection.  And I’m not one of those moms who has a CD selection of stuff that’s Just For Kids in the car.  I feel like, within reason, Child can listen to what I like.  And what Fella likes.  She’s already been exposed to more different sorts of music than I knew about until I was in college.

So she likes a few tracks from Fashion Nugget, and I generally indulge her desire to be DJ in the car because it keeps her from talking about stuff during which I space out and then she gets upset when I space back in and she has to repeat herself.  So we sing together which is good for the soul.  One of her favorite songs is, “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps,” and after we listen to it a bunch of times, I let the next song play, and I always skip Track 11, called “Nugget” because it contains egregious use of the effort word [sic].

But on the way down to my mom’s the other week (it’s a 2-hour drive), after making up some new lyrics to The Comanche Song, officially titled “Comanche” from Motorcade of Generosity,  Child asked to listen to “Perhaps”, and after about 8 repeats, reminded me during the next track, “It’s Coming Down,” that the one after that was the one with the bad word and that I should remember to skip it.  It’d been a while since we listened to The Perhaps Song.

“Thanks for reminding me, Child.”

“But mommy.  What’s the bad word in that song?  Please tell me?”

“I can’t tell you, Child.  But you know it.  You just said it the other week.”

“Is it freakin’?”

“Nope, not that one.”

“But it’s the Eff word?” (Where’d she learn that it’s not the effort word?  Dangit!)

“Yup.”

“Just tell me, mommy.  I don’t remember.”  (See, people?  Swearing around your kids will not scar them for life)

“How about we just listen to the song.  You’ll know it when you hear it.”

“Yeah yeah yeah!”

“But before we do, what are the rules about those kinds of words?”

“I can’t say them around grandma.”

“When else?”

“At school.” She thought a minute, “And at my friends’ house, or if I’m at the mall.”

“Very good, Child.  You know why we can listen to this song  now?”

“No.”

“Because you understand when it’s not okay to say words that could get you in trouble.”

“Just play it, mommy.”

“Okay.”

Then we played the song about 12 times and it was still playing when we pulled into mom’s driveway.  Child was visibly proud of herself.  I know I didn’t do anything in my last life or this one to deserve such a great kid.

What Do You Do with a BA in English?

From Flickr User MrsDKrebs

If you’re me, you spend a lot of time writing, and then go to graduate school, but don’t finish it, and then wait a few years and try again.

I’m so pumped for all of you to see tomorrow’s post.  I think you’re really going to like it.  It is about Child and it is funny.  It is funny because kids are funny, and sometimes they are funny in adult ways but they don’t know why.  It is a thing that makes being a mother a total joy.

But next week, I’ll be at the residency.  I have not posted ahead because I am hoping to make the time to write my reflections on the residency while I am there.  But just in case they keep me too busy writing (which I hope they do), I’m letting all of you know that I might not be on my regular schedule next week.

All will normalize on Monday the 25th.

I know I’m going to have billions of things to share when I get back.

 

Self (Publishing) Help: What is a Book Doctor? Do I need one?

From Flickr User takomabibelot

If you’ve been reading here, or if you grabbed one of my free eBooks, you probably know that I am 100% pro editor.

But if you’re thinking about self-publishing, or wondering if you should pitch an agent, and have done even a small amount of web research, you’ve probably also seen the term “book doctor.”

Maybe you’re wondering what, precisely, is the difference?

Sometimes, people call themselves book doctors and they are really developmental editors (meaning they are equipped to help you develop the plot of your story, your characters, the big meaty bits: they will help you with the big revisions).  But be careful!  Because sometimes, these are folks who’ve self-pubbed, who haven’t used editors, and who don’t know their hand from their face.  Sorry.  I don’t like to be a crass hater, but it’s true.  You don’t really have to be qualified to hang a shingle on the internet.  You just have to be able to figure out WordPress or Blogger, and trust me, both are doable with any modicum of tech savvy.

Sometimes, book doctors are reasonably successful genre authors who can help you with the kinds of books they write.  In my experience, traditionally published genre authors are well-informed on the demands of their particular market.  They’ve read everybody like them and can probably tell you if you’ve got something sale-able on your hands.

But book doctors take the temperature of your manuscript or your ideas and asses their marketability, saleability, and they’ll be your book or proposal doula, too–they’ll be on hand to talk you through block, or help you slash darlings.  They can give you tips on leveraging social media, blogging, author plarform.  They can help you pick software for accounting.  Maybe some of them would even make you a sandwich.

Book doctors–good ones–are the first stop before trying to publish or self-publish.  Sometimes, before even developing a full draft.  But make sure that the book doctor you hire is legit, and has experience with what you want to do.  Ask for references or testimonials or both (if there aren’t any on their website, and even if there are).  Ask for a copy of their resume or CV.  Legit people won’t balk at the request or feed you a line about confidentiality agreements.  They will comply happily with they information they may provide while satisfying the demands of heir confidentiality agreements.

I’ve read a bit lately about the success (or lack thereof) of self-published novels, and across discussions, blog posts, infographics, the more money a self-published author spends pre-publication, the better the book does in terms of sales.  Here’s an interesting piece about Fifty Shades of Grey, and here’s something from Jamie Chavez, a happening (and experienced) independent editor.

Do You Need One?

But here’s a little quiz to check.  Answer Yes or No, and tally each answer.

1.  Do I have experience with writing book proposals?

2.  Do I have experience with writing books?

3.  Do I have experience with hiring editors?

4.  Do I have a complete manuscript that I have already pitched to several agents or editors?

5.  Have agents been interested?

6.  Do I have a bachelor’s or master’s degree in the  field of writing or in the field about which I hope to write?

7.  Have I networked with any editors or agents?

9.  Am I writing the book for work or to serve a specific, narrowly definable population to which I have access?

10.  Have I started building my author’s platform?

Assessing Results:

7-10 Yes – You are probably okay without a book doctor, but if pitching at least 30 agents and editors doesn’t yield any results, perhaps consider a consultation with a book doctor.

4-6 Yes – You would probably benefit from a book doctor.  You could probably muscle through  without, but your job would be easier with one.

0-3 Yes – By all means, get on the horn this instant.  Maybe even reconsider your authorial aspirations before you’ve done a little more work or research in that direction.  Check out a conference in your field or a writing workshop or both.

Why I Love Facebook, After All.

From Flickr User SeanMacEntee

I was not an early adopter of social media.

I didn’t have a MySpace until Facebook was already a thing.  My MySpace account was under the name of my Misanthropic Internet Doppleganger, Georgette Magillacuddy.  If we were friends in college, you might’ve heard me tell people (men) that was my name at bars.

I thought social media was stupid and time-consuming and–like Television–threatened to rob me of all of my proper thinking muscles if I let it.

My friend Sharon talked me into getting a Facebook.  She also showed me Project Runway.  I was on board with Project Runway immediately.

And, yes. I am aware of the way in which Facebook is collecting information about me in order to be able to sell demographic info to companies who will try to sell things to me, but frankly, I’d prefer smart marketing than stupid marketing. I do not like watching ads about sports equipment or hearing aids. If I liked sports or was hard of hearing, I would.  Sure, the way in which it’s not a terribly far leap between April the demographic and April the person is a touch scary.  But all new developments in technology are a touch scary.

I still think Facebook could rob me of my thinking muscles.  But I figured out how to block users and apps, so now, If somebody posts only sentimental quotations and quips about Christ, I say, “Please, Facebook.  Don’t show me any more of that.”  I also ask it not to show me stuff from Farmville or Sims or any of the games.

Facebook can be a benevolent master.

It can also be a sneaky time-suck.

But as with every other guilty (and lately gleeful) pleasure, we have to exercise self-control.  I have a policy where I shut Facebook down after every time I check in on it.  I used to let it up all the time.  But whenever I do that, I get nothing done.

As recently as eighteen months ago, I still professed to being confused about Facebook.  I remember being kind of stymied when one of the smartest people I know, my friend, mentor, and fellow-freelancer, Katney B., said, “I totally get it, and I love it.”

But first when I sold cell phones, and then when I went full time as a freelancer, and it occurred to me that Facebook could be my ally.

Ah ha!  A practical use for Facebook.  Potential generation of capital.  And so I began to tinker in earnest, and without guilt.  That bit was huge for me.  I have to give myself permission to do things that are enjoyable, or things that I view as unproductive.

And in so doing, I started to get it. I could check in on people about whom I am curious, but have no need or desire to spend hours in conversation with.  People for whose success I am hopeful.  And people whose work I admire.  And if I am feeling particularly nosy, I can know what the weather is like where they are, and I know if they switch jobs or cities or S.O.s.

And in the last few months or year, I’ve re-connected with some people in my past who I missed!  Two of my dearest friends ever and I now swap emails outside of Facebook. Child and I made a sweet visit to NYC via a Facebook connection with a friend from long ago.

Since I’ve been blogging and building myself a business of my thinking and writing muscles, I’ve loved the way Facebook allows me to show my work to 541 of the people with whom I’ve become acquainted along the way, personally, casually, professionally.  It’s even safe to be friends with ex lovers.

I have Facebook friends who are fellow writers, authors I admire, literary journals.  And in a couple of instances, the literary journals have reminded me to submit to them.  Now I belong to the group Submission Bombers.  If you’re a writer, check it out.

People who live where I do invite me to cool stuff.  People who have kids post pictures, so they don’t have to email them to me.  I appreciate that.

And while it’s utterly practically meaningless to the business, I enjoy being able to go click the big thumbs up on businesses I live near, or whose owners I know, or places I’ve been that are cool.  I like that I can categorize myself as “person who likes The Nightmare Before Christmas or Mad Men,” even if it does mean that Facebook will tell other people to sell me 60s vintage shoes or vaguely creepy stop-motion movies.

And this is kind of weird, but I get a little competitive about the number of friends I have.  I view it as an absurd measure of success, especially since the second most traffic on my blog is drummed up through facebook.  

So what about you?  What do you love about facebook? Or do you hate it?

Writing Out of My Depth: Why You Should Challenge Yourself Professionally

this image is from Flickr User brendahallowes

Today is the last day I’m writing at Adotas.  My (incredibly brainy) friend from college, Brian LaRue, is Managing Editor there, and he posted on facebook last weekend that he would be taking a week off, and needed a fill-in writer.  Adotas’s subject matter is technology and marketing.  I offered my services post haste.

I may be a bit better informed than the average end user, but I’d position my know-how at the top of the bottom tier of tech-savvy.

So writing for adotas was challenging.  Even when writing about the changes in TV Marketing.  Also, it’s really hard to be interesting in jargon.

I am an artist.  Writers are.  People forget that, I think.

A thing about being an artist who practices writing is that I’m curious.  About everything.  So I spent my week learning terms like pre-roll and verticals and SQI and exploring concepts of which I had, really, peripheral awareness, like the role of analytics and how ad-based marketing and branding are changing.  I looked up a lot of initialisms, too.  That world slaps initialisms on everything.    And I loved it.  It was like being 22 again: looking out over a vast expanse of possibility and the unknown, and recognizing that there is so much I don’t know, will never know.

So yeah, it was harder than it strictly needed to be, but it’s really important to step out of your comfort zone once in a while.

Here’s Why

1.  Diversity in work history is good.  Employers look favorably on people who are willing to do or learn what the job demands, regardless of their expertise or experience.

2.  Learning new stuff feels good.  It’s good for your brain and your self-confidence.

3.  When you challenge yourself professionally, you remember that the world extends beyond your purview.

4.  You get to meet new people who you would never meet in any other context.  I talked on the phone with the CEO of Share This. While he was on a plane. How cool is that?

5.  As an artist or other sort of creative person, stepping outside of your comfort zone demonstrates your ability and desire to make unexpected solutions, and it can also help your potential clients or employers think creatively about how to put you to use.

6.  Getting your name in front of more people is always positive.  When you step outside of your zone, you position yourself for relationships or clients you wouldn’t have had access to otherwise.

7.  You refresh your awareness of your own resourcefulness.  The ultimate death blow in any career is comfort and stasis.  Especially in our world that is constantly changing and being niggled into unfamiliar spaces by technology and its capabilities.

8.  It reminds you how to admit you’re fallible and how to ask for help and where to look for help you can give yourself.

How about you?  Any great stories from stepping outside of your expertise?  Any other reasons to do so?