Saturday, March 8, 2008

The Curve

There are some things that I find it impossible to do if I think about the fact that I’m doing them.

Usually they’re things that involve some kind of muscle memory. When I was skiing all the time there were days where I felt transformed, like I was flying and I was completely present and in the moment, in that zone – unless I started to think about what I was physically doing.

Getting to the point where skiing was fun meant that I had to endure a few seasons where I was awkward, frequently frustrated and often terrified. I had to get past that learning curve so I could finally enjoy the sensation of that controlled fall through space.

Writing feels that way: reason #8,752 for writing often, even when the writing sucks.

A couple of things that flitted into my consciousness over the last couple of days scared me a little. I read some blog posts that focused on specific craft ideas. It wasn’t new information. It was the kind stuff I’ve read about many times and yet when I thought about how or if I was using these techniques, I came up blank.

I don’t know.


The reason I was scared was because I realized that the snippets of work I might feel bold enough to think have the potential to be good are the snippets that come to me when I’m in the zone. As soon as I become conscious of using words to a certain effect, it becomes obvious and the work feels contrived.

When I revise, I become more aware of sharpening certain images or ideas to reinforce what I’m trying to convey. I know that when others critique my work, they sometimes point out the effectiveness (or not) of something I’ve done and I’ll realize they’re right even though I didn’t consciously include that word or that image or that description. Oh yeah, I meant to do that.

I have a theory that the reason that Scott’s new abstract work feels so powerful is because a good abstract painting requires that the painter have a mastery of all the skills needed to do a traditional, representational painting, only he has to intuit his way through the abstract. He knows if the color harmonies are correct and if the composition is balanced because he has an innate understanding of those concepts.

If we have an underlying appreciation of the visual arts, we know the painting works when we look at it, but we don’t know why.

Books on writing craft don’t talk much about the importance of years of experience in writing, but perhaps there’s a reason for that. We want things that give us results now and there’s no shortcut to practice and experience. Perhaps it would help us to set more realistic expectations and motivate us to write more and work harder to get good at what we do if we thought of writing as a long apprenticeship. Actually, that's helpful to me, but I know it's not the path for everyone.

There are plenty of people who can write well enough to get a book published, and if that’s the writer’s goal, there’s nothing wrong with that.

I’m talking about writing well. I’m talking about my vain wish to have a reader touched by my words or to have a reader thinking about my characters even when he’s not reading the book. I’m talking about a reader losing himself in the work and entering John Gardner’s fictive dream. I keep remembering a scene from the movie, Amadeus and a monologue that the Salieri character delivers:

“While my father prayed earnestly to God to protect commerce, I would offer up secretly the proudest prayer a boy could think of: Lord, make me a great composer. Let me celebrate Your glory through music and be celebrated myself. Make me famous through the world, dear God. Make me immortal. After I die, let people speak my name forever with love for what I wrote. In return, I will give You my chastity, my industry, my deepest humility, every hour of my life, Amen.”

My aspirations aren’t quite so grand, but I can confess to a fantasy where someone, somewhere writes a review of something I’ve written and confers some kind of literary approval on it.

When I attended Carleen Brice’s book launch party for her debut novel, Orange Mint and Honey she talked about writing the book over a period of six years and she talked about completely rewriting it multiple times. I was truly comforted to learn this. I had a secret fear that good books might come pouring out of other writers at a speed and a rate that I know myself quite incapable of.

While blogging has far more advantages than disadvantages in the form of creating community, the public nature of our efforts creates a small disadvantage.

When will you finish it? When will it be published? I sense from well meaning friends a certain impatience and maybe even disappointment that I don’t move more quickly. I think about The Foundling Wheel, my Dickens Challenge work in progress and I know that my goal is to finish it. For now, that’s my only goal. I don’t know if I’ll want to rewrite and revise and edit it once I come to the end. I don’t know if that’s its purpose. I know the project is teaching me a lot about writing, but I don’t know if it’s my first book.

When I say that my eventual goal is to publish a novel, I mean it. Eventually. I don't know when. I don’t know which novel that might be. I don’t know if it’s the one I’m working on, one of the two I’ve set aside or one I don’t know about yet. I just know I’ll know it when it comes to me. Maybe I’m too idealistic. Maybe this means I’m not a real writer, whatever that is.

Sometimes the lack of validation feeds the self-doubt that I and all of us have from time to time – but I also suspect that self-doubt never goes away no matter how much external validation we get about our writing. The blogging community gives me enormous validation about my emotions and about the process. For that reason, I keep coming back. I think that eventually, the only true validation about the worth of our own writing has to come from ourselves.

I once read an interview with Frank Conroy about the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The interviewer asked him if he could tell which of the writers would go on to be published and which would be successful. He said he couldn’t. Talent and potential have very little bearing on whether or not a writer can go on to finish and publish a successful book.

As time goes on, I am learning to trust myself. I feel a huge learning curve still ahead of me and I’m at peace with that. It’s my path and no one else’s. It doesn’t frustrate me. I’m in no hurry. I’ll write what I’m meant to write and learn as I’m meant to learn.

Does my lack of a sense of urgency reflect a lack of drive or of passion? I don’t think so. In the seventies, Paul Masson’s famous advertisement coined the phrase, “We’ll sell no wine before its time”.

I feel that way about my writing. It’s not time. I’ve often heard writers talk about how much bad fiction is published and how often they’ve read books and known they could write better. All true, but that’s not what drives me. I confess, I want to write something good and only time and more and still more writing will tell me if I can.

But that’s just me. Maybe I’m crazy. Maybe my expectations are too high.

For those of you both published and unpublished, how important is it to you that your work be perceived as good? Is it enough to provide your readers with escape and entertainment? Can you recognize your own shortcomings due to inexperience, or trace a path from inexperience to a gradual or sudden improvement?

Why are you writing that book?


Larramie said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Larramie said...

This post confirmed what I've always known about you, Lisa. You're a true artist who seeks to present whatever you do in the best possible light. And though your canvases are paper and/or a monitor screen, your words are the colors that offer us lingering visual imagery of truthful beauty along with food for thought.

In other words, the masterpiece will appear someday...I know that too.

steve said...

Your comment on painting reminded me of a visit some years ago to a garage sale. An older man was in charge and the song "Laura" was playing on a boom box. I mentioned that I always thought of the Spike Jones parody version of the song. He said he had actually seen Spike play, and he was amazed at the fact that Spike and his City Slickers were all topnotch musicians. Even a good parody requires a good understanding of the music he's making fun of.

I'm also reminded of Jack Kerouac's "On the Road." Though he famously wrote it on a roll of paper so he didn't have to stop to insert pages in his typewriter, he actually did a lot of revising after that initial burst of energy.
And Kerouac had written a more conventional novel, "The Town and the City," before "On the Road," so like Scott, he had mastered the basic form.

Your Dickens Challenge novel, like mine, is really a first draft, but it has more than a spark of brilliance.

As to why I'm writing that book, I'm not really sure. I wanted to write something that tied in the idealism of my generation to the spiritual world and also celebrates nonviolence. I'd like to sell it, and I fantasize about being interviewed by Terry Gross, Diane Rehm, Melissa Block, and Scott Simon (yeah, I'm an NPR junkie). But I'm also somehow driven to write it, and I'm thankful for Tim Hallinan for giving me the structure to write it and for people like you, Julie, Szelsofa, Charles, Cindy, and Usman for encouraging me.

CindyLV said...

What a great post! First of all, when I read your Dickens Challenge Chapters, I am back in the 80s, in the barracks, or out at the club surrounded by my friends. Note that I didn't say I'm "reminded of when I was there." I said, "I'm there." In addition, I've been worried about this baby since before she was born and pacing the floor waiting for her arrival. I was so relieved when Tracy nabbed her, I shouted with joy!

What do I think about writing? I read constantly. The commercial fiction gives me hope that one day I'll be published, too. The literary fiction I read gives me a reason to keep working, keep practicing, keep revising, keep trying to improve.

The encouragement I get from readers is exhilarating, intoxicating, and addicting. But it's effect dissipates. Then all I'm left with is what I wrote. In the end, I have to be happy with my writing, because "fans" will eventually close the book and go home.

The encouragement I receive from readers who write (yourself, Tim, the other Challengers) I tend to take to heart more than positive comments from people who love me (and feel obligated to say nice things to me.)

I think my doubts are similar to your doubts and my hopes are similar to your hopes.

Don't give up! I can't wait to see what's coming next (but of course, I'll wait til you're ready to post!)

Rob in Denver said...

Lisa... you ask such damned good questions.

What's considered "good" is subjective, yes? Besides, as a genre writer, I've already got many in the literary world looking down their noses at me without ever having read a word.

Understanding all of this, I'm more concerned with writing salable books with which I can sustain a living. I'll let someone else write the Great American Novel. Me? I'd rather write what the teeming millions are reading on airplanes and commuter trains. (Who am I kidding? I'd be happy with teeming hundreds... as long as they're reading!)

Then again, my day job's a different world of writing... one where I deal with tight schedules that can't wait for me to find my muse, or labor over whether a color is azure or cobalt or just simply blue. I routinely turn out two or three 20k- to 55k-word books every three or four months. That means I've gotta get to the nut of "the story" in a hurry.

If I don't, I'm holding up business.

Yellow said...

That was a raw post you wrote there. I was amazed and reassured to read about your insecurities as well as your ambition, and quiet confidence, all mixed in together. It amazes me how I can feel driven, yet anxiuos, at the same time. I don't want to be accepted by the masses, that's not my aim. I'm not totally happy with what I'm creating at the moment, but I know I have to continue creating. And I can 'feel' when what I've done is good. It's so hard not to over-think what you're doing when you're creating, and second guess each move. Why do we put ourselves through this? Then again, I can't living without the need to create something.

Yogamum said...

What a fantastic post.

I think there is a place for all kinds of writers and writing. It's just a matter of finding "your" path -- which it sounds like you're doing.

I have an enormous respect for genre writers who can crank it out (Rob!) and I've tried that myself (my NaNo novel was chick-lit). But at the end of the day I actually don't think I have much of a choice in what kind of writer I am or what I feel drawn to write. So I feel like you do, I'm on the path for as long as it takes.

Judy Merrill Larsen said...

Wonderful questions, Lisa--thoughtful, honest, and real. I can say that I think we see writing through a similar lens. My best writing comes when I'm not thinking about it--when I am in that zone and it flows through me and onto the paper. The characters take over. And I don't want to just write a book. I want to write something readers connect with. I don't kid myself and think it's great literature, but I have been so gratified to hear from readers who tell me, yes, that's it, that's how I'd feel, or, perhaps the best comment, "I feel understood" from a mom who had lost a child.

I like to think I'm writing more than what I call "vacation books"--the kind of books you just leave by the pool when you're done--it was an escape but nothing more.

Now that I'm starting my 3rd book, I'm going to try something new with my blog--I'm going to post about my process at least once a week--how I'm writing it start to finish. We'll see what I uncover about how I write.

Josephine Damian said...

For those of you both published and unpublished, how important is it to you that your work be perceived as good?

The only validation I seek is from a magazine editor or publisher's acceptance for publication.

Good reviews? Fan letters? Pats on the back? Respect from my peers? Nice, but don't need 'em or seek 'em.

Is it enough to provide your readers with escape and entertainment?

Yup. I have no illusion that I'm creating art or changing the world. My job is to entertain, that's it.

Can you recognize your own shortcomings due to inexperience, or trace a path from inexperience to a gradual or sudden improvement?

Totally. After 20 years I've developed what I think is the most important trait of all: the ability to self-edit, to look at the work with a cold, cruel eye and eliminate what's not working.

Doesn't mean I don't want or need outside editorial comment, just that I recognize that I'm creating a product, and for that product to sell it has to be at a certain level of craft and professionalism.

Did I have that ability when I started out, or even five years ago? Nope.

Why are you writing that book?

Money. Pure and simple.

Lisa: Whether your at the start or height of the learning curve as a writer, no matter what, you've got to finish every novel. I think one reason people don't is that they start writing as soon as they get a half-baked idea and then fizzle out because they just haven't thought it through.

I liked your "we will sell no wine" quote (I'm old enough to remember Orson Welles in those ads) - whether it's having the story fully formed in your head before you write, or submitting a polished and edited MS to an agent, I think patience is the ritual a writer can practice.

Lisa said...

Larramie, You are the most supportive blog pal a writer could have. Thank you.

Steve, I didn't know that about Jack Kerouac, and your anecdote serves to reinforce my thought that even (and maybe especially) people who are doing things out there on the fringes of experimental fiction had to learn the basics of craft/the rules, before going on to break the rules. Aristotle was on to something.

You're on to something with Things Done and Left Undone and I am confident you'll succeed with it. You're doing something I've personally never seen before and it's wonderful.

I love the idea of the NPR interviews and like you, I will be eternally grateful to Tim and our DC readers and writers. I think the DC has broken something loose for me too. Thank you for always reading and for your thoughtful and very kind comments.

Cindy, You have a great approach and a great attitude and your writing is incredibly clean and polished, even in first draft form. I feel exactly the same way that you do about outside encouragement. I take it all in stride, but in the end, it's me that I have to please. Thanks for always reading and commenting. It helps a lot and don't worry. I'm never giving up. :)

Rob, I don't think genre gets far more respect than many genre writers perceive. There are masters writing in all areas and my theory is that since academics and literary scholars tend to make up the critical community, we only see serious reviews of the work they gravitate toward. It would not surprise me to see literary criticism branch out at some point so that individual genres get more critical attention and the good, the bad and the ugly in each are more clearly distinguished.

Writing for income is a perfectly honorable purpose. In fact, I think that it's important that all writers can be honest with themselves about goals since the reason we write must dictate how we approach our craft.

It's all about business for the publishers and none of us can ever forget that.

Yellow, I feel pretty comfortable in revealing myself here. The pursuit of any kind of art is an incredibly difficult thing and I think it's important to constantly revisit and analyze our motivations and our goals, as well as our insecurities (so that we can figure out how to lessen them) and finally, our expectations. The path to all pursuits in life is much more difficult and heartbreaking is we don't have realistic expectations. My insecurities lessen every day as I accept my limitations and work toward understanding and overcoming them and as I learn to trust my own ability to judge my work. I think you answered your own question. "Why do we put ourselves through this?", because we can't not. Keep painting. Scott and I enjoy checking in on you and watching you grow.

Yogamum, I believe you're right. I think the thing that has alleviated much of my anxiety is recognizing that each of us has her own path and with the help of, or in spite of outside input, we simply need to stay on that path.

I also admire any writer who can consistently write salable work and in particular, those who are able to make a living doing it. I'm pretty sure that's not in the cards for me, but I'm content with where I'm going.

Judy, Yes, I do think we have very similar goals. It's that desire to connect through words that's most important to me.

I'm excited about your plans to post about process. You and Carleen both seem to have taken a similar length of time to write your first novels and have subsequently followed up with second novels in a much more compressed time line. Of course, I think you were both able to also segue to writing full time after novel number one, which certainly had to help, but I think your posts on the process of writing novel number three will been fascinating.

Josephine, I have no doubt that you are on the cusp of becoming a very successful writer. You know exactly what you want and you've worked to figure out exactly what your path must be to get there.

Great insight on the reasons people leave so many novels unfinished and I think you're exactly right. I put my first two attempts aside because I really didn't have a clear idea of where I was going with them. I started with a premise for the one I'm working on now, so even though it's unclear to me right now exactly how it will end, I had much more concrete ideas about where I was going with it than I did with the others and I think it's because those other experiences taught me a lot about what the bones of the story had to have.

I'm also glad to have summoned the ghost of Orson Welles for you! As I observe the world and read the agent blogs, I can't help but believe that far too many writers are sending out half-baked work. This journey will be extremely unpleasant and unsatisfying for those without the patience to revise, edit and polish and without the proper expectations about the industry.

Lisa said...

For Rob -- I meant to say that I think I think genre gets MORE respect than people perceive.

And I meant to also tell you that all these months later, your MC and the female character (I forget her name) have very much stayed with me. I've always loved that she smells like nail polish and cookie dough and has a penchant for retro in her fashion sense and decorating sense, and there were expressions you used about the bad guys and the MC's mom not knowing her like he did that have really stuck. I read a LOT and that so much of what I read in your manuscript stayed with me speaks volumes.

Charles Gramlich said...

I don't believe the self doubt ever leaves you. I'm still attacked by it at times, sometimes even to the point of near paralysis. But at times when I've stopped for a while writing I can't stay away.

It is most important that people read my stuff and are entertained. I believe if they are entertained they may began to be sympathetic to my messages about life, but the most important point it to touch someone.

Steve Malley said...

Your post: powerful and moving.

Your doubts and fears: normal and human.

My goals: tell as many stories to as many people as possible before I die.

Critics, etc: I guess I have my hands full trying to tell the story. I'm happy to let those who hear it decide how they feel.

Thanks again for that post - wonderful!

Lisa said...

Charles, I'm coming to believe that if we weren't plagued by doubt about writing, something else would take its place. I think it must just be part of who we are -- people driven toward creative pursuits.

Making that connection -- I think no matter what we believe our purpose is, that's at the core of it somewhere.

Steve M, What a fabulous goal. I'd never considered the aspect of telling many stories, but your comment has made me think about how many stories we all have within us. Perhaps it's a good thing for me to keep in mind -- that despite the enormity (at least in my mind) of the novel -- that it's only one story. There are so many more.

Usman said...

Lisa, let me add to the chorus. Great Post.
It has me thinking and about so many things, the zone, isecurities, wishes and so much more.
I'll have to end up reading it again.
For me writing is art. I haven't mastered it, but hope to one day. I want to be published, at the same time I want to be remembered for writing something good.
Amadeus is absolutely my favorite movie. The part where Salieri says the words you wrote; that was a great part of the movie.

Julie at Virtual Voyage said...

Fascinating post.

Love the analogy with the skiing, and also with art.

Guess its a truism that a writer is a person who writes. A writer is also primarily a person who thinks - and thinks through what they are saying (in a subconscious zone sense if need be.)So there's a Primary need for 'awareness' in good writing....?

Patti said...

"Talent and potential have very little bearing on whether or not a writer can go on to finish and publish a successful book."

Man, this could be tweaked and used for every goal one has in life. I have often told Boy that while talent plays a part, determination plays the larger role in getting what you want.

you have articulated all that has been running through my brain lately. TO do the good work. To be happy with the end result regardless of the time.

to answer the question of why, for me it is simple: i am compelled to get the stories down. they demand a page and their voice. but, to get it right is the tortuous act...

it's like running. just start and even though towards the end you think you have no more to give, somehow you make it home.

or maybe it's not anything like running...

Billy said...

I really enjoyed this post and think you have a really sensible attitude toward writing. I guess it's nice to get a big paycheck, but I have always been content to take my time and get published by small presses. At least someone is reading the novels and poems.

I also like what you said about books on writing. I am not a big believer in such books to begin with since, as you point out, the only real way to learn how to write, imho, is to read a lot and write a lot. (It's what Stephen King said in ON WRITING.) I take all the other advice with a grain of salt.

The one exception is Ray Bradbury's Zen in the Art of Writing. It's a marvelous book, filled with a more practical "sit down and don't overthink what you're doing to the point where it becomes agony." His premise is that when you relax, the words begin to flow.

You have a lovely site. I'd like to link your site to my Chapter and Verse blog if that's okay.

Sustenance Scout said...

Another one for the TBR pile from Billy. Gotta love Mr. Bradbury.

SO MUCH to read and think and write about on this topic, Lisa. All I know: I read your first ten chapters Friday morning while en route to Boston and almost called you to cheer you on! Can't wait to read more. I'll be happy to offer more details along the way but for now just keep plugging for the love of it; I guarantee your readers will love it too. K.

Lisa said...

Usman, I think we're on the same page (pun intended). I love Amadeus too! I think there are a million lines in that movie that are brilliant and sometimes I quote them and people have no idea what I'm talking about so they think I'm nuts. I suppose I am. :)

Julie, More excellent food for thought. Thank you.

Patti, I think just about anything is achievable with enough hard work and persistence. And actually I think your running analogy works very well, especially when thinking about novel writing, which many have compared to a marathon that requires a lot of endurance.

Bill, I am so glad you stopped in! I have been enjoying your insights at Charles G's site and keep meaning to check your blog -- which I now have and it is wonderful. I would be honored if you linked to me and I'd like to add Chapter and Verse to my sidebar too.

Thank you for the Ray Bradbury recommendation. It sounds like just what I need to read at this stage.

K, I'm so happy you read past chapter 1! Thank you so much for the encouragement. I was thinking after hearing Carleen's talk that I'll bet the final story has only passing resemblance to what I have so far, but that's probably a very good thing. Maybe when I get back in town later this week we can shoot for having "not coffee" :) Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Ello said...

What an excellent post! So very thoughtful and well done! I can tell you I have been working on my two different books from the year 2000. While I consider myself a professional writer in the sense that my professional life was all about writing for business and legal reasons, I still feel a rookie when it comes to creative writing. I've been working on it for so many years now, I think I can actually see improvement. My first attempts were pitiful. Now, I can see how much better I've become, and yet I am still not there yet.

Lisa said...

Ello, I know what you mean about professional writing and fiction writing. Of course I'm in sales so some might say that my professional writing might occasionally border on fiction :) But it doesn't! I feel very much like a rookie, but if I go back and look at things I've written even three months ago, I feel like I'm getting better. Lately I have it in my head that if I learned a bit about poetry, perhaps my prose might become a bit more...lyrical? I'd like that. A seed has been planted.

The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

At the beginning of this century, I started writing a small, funny novel. Twelve thousand words in, life happened to me, and hasn't stopped since. I've never written another word of it, but the story resides - fully-formed - in my frontal lobes. The characters follow me like mute shadows. I think about them all the time, as if they were real people. The question for me is not 'why are you writing that book?', it's 'why did you stop?'.

Lisa said...

Orchid Hunter, Why did you stop? Going on eight years -- that's a long time to be followed by these characters. I truly envy you that the story is all there, just waiting to be written. What you've said reminds me of something I read in a book about Woody Allen. He writes very quickly, but before he begins the physical writing he thinks and he takes walks and he thinks some more. By the time he actually begins to write, he's worked the whole thing out. It's all there -- why not start again? Your posts are brilliant and I imagine that any story you've been carrying around with you for that long is one I and many others would love to read. I hope you pick it up again. Maybe this is a sign to YOU.

Melissa Marsh said...

I loved your post, Lisa, and there's great discussion here in the comments. I'll try and chime in with my two cents.

I thought of this question - why am I writing this book, or rather, why am I writing? - the other night when I sat in bed with a hard copy of my manuscript, taking notes and writing down character changes, etc. I asked myself, "Why am I doing this? What if no one ever reads this? What if it's never published? Do I care?"

And there's a complicated answer. Yes, I care if it doesn't get published because that's my ultimate goal. But if nothing I write ever gets published, well, I don't care - because I'll still write.

I like how you've slowed down in your process - I've done that, too. I HAD to do it - yet I didn't realize it at the time. I was so focused on getting published that I had a hopeless sense of urgency that completely exhausted me. So I stepped back and realized that I needed to refocus on the writing itself. And boy, was it ever the right decision to let go of that monkey on my back, the "you need to get published now, NOW, NOW!" I can't tell you how much better I feel - and I'm definitely enjoying the writing process now. LOVING it, in fact!

Jennifer said...

So much to think about here, Lisa!

I think your theory is spot on: You can't know how to skillfully bend or break a rule until you understand what happens when you obey it. You can't write a good metafiction until you understand how to write good fiction to begin with.

I think writers often write the kinds of stories they like to read, and the kinds of stories they like to read often determines what the writing and publishing process will be like for them. While I love to read many different genres (and hope to be able to genre-hop once I understand how to tell a good story to begin with), I am drawn primarily to literary fiction, both as reader and writer. I love stories that come packed with ideas and philosophies, so it seems like the logical thing to want to create in this vein. Sometimes I think it's a crazy thing to aspire to, and I feel like a bit of a snob in a way.

I think I may have blogged about this, but one of the things I've always found strange and upsetting is that practically the first question out of someone's mouth when they find out that I write is, "What have you published?" It sort of lets the air out of the conversation. It's difficult for them to understand that publication may be the yardstick of success for some writers, but it's not the yardstick for everyone. Publication is my goal, but I honestly don't see it happening for a long time (except, perhaps, for short stories or essays).

Not too long ago, a friend of mine told me that reading Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet made him realize that he'll probably never be a published literary artist, and I wanted to argue him into having more faith in himself. He says that he doesn't have it in him to devote himself solely to learning the craft of fiction writing; his interests are wide and varied, and he makes his living through business. And he doesn't, I don't think, want to publish for the sake of being published. I think I understand him better for reading your post tonight.

I earn my living through other work, so I don't need to publish for money; that frees me up, I think, to publish when, where, and how I want to. If I ever put my name to a manuscript and sell it, I want it to be the best it can possibly be at that point in time.

This isn't because I'm craving critical or commercial acclaim, although I doubt there's a writer alive who would honestly dismiss these things (or the advantages they provide). A long time ago, I made a vow to myself that I would try to limit competition to myself alone. That's helped me a LOT as I've read manuscripts by other apprentice writers who I know are more skilled than I am, especially when those writers are also friends.

Rejection letters and negative reviews will still sting, I know, but I want to make sure that, when everything's said and done, I can sit back and say that I've improved, I've outwritten myself.

I consider myself an apprentice writer, and I don't see myself dropping that appellation in the next decade or so. I have loads to learn. Sometimes it seems an insurmountable task, but as you say, that's all the more reason to break it down into daily chunks and keep on plugging away, every chance you get. None of us know for sure how far we'll get, because none of us can be certain that we won't get hit by a bus tomorrow (sorry to be completely morbid, but you know what I'm saying). And so the only thing to do is write, and then keep writing.

Lisa said...

Melissa, It is a complicated answer for me too. I do want to be published but only when I've written what I think is the best book that I possibly can and I know I'm not there yet. And you're right, once I had more clarity on what I truly wanted to accomplish, my anxiety level went down and the writing became much more fun -- er, maybe fun isn't exactly the right word, but it feels more natural and comfortable. Maybe that means I'm starting to find my voice.

Jennifer, Okay -- you need to get out of my head immediately :) I'm drawn primarily to literary fiction too and I find myself admitting it as if it's a bit shameful for some reason. Maybe I feel like people perceive my taste as snobby -- but I guess I can't worry about that. I love those books too and I've just finished one by J.M. Coetzee and one by Martin Amis and the skill they have makes me both incredibly awed that human beings are capable of such things and rather than make me frustrated, it steels my resolve. I know I'll never write like they do, but I also know there is a groove for me and eventually I'll discover it.

I've called what I'm doing alternately my DIY MFA program and my apprenticeship, but I'm actually pretty happy with where I am right now and I'm content with my journey.

In my business life, (sales) I found a book a year or two that encapsulated some of the frustration of working in a start-up environment. It's called HOPE IS NOT A STRATEGY. I was so taken by its message (mostly because it confirmed all of my ideas -- does that make me a narcissist? If not, something arrogant I'm sure), but it applies to every goal in life.

Hope, for me is something to cling to in desperate times. It can't be an integral component for reaching a goal. Plugging away is part of the plan. Reading and reading and writing and learning from others are all part of that.

I find incredible peace with knowing I'm doing the best I can. So glad to hear from you on this!

devonellington said...

Excellent post.

The first draft is when I lose myself in the story. The second and subsequent drafts are about applying the craft.

I believe writing is like a muscle. If you don't use it regularly, you lose strength.

Unfortunately, in this day and age being published and being a good writer are not always the same thing. We strive to do the best we can with each book and then apply the business knowledge we accumulate along the way.

More and more, authors are now expected to churn out 2, 3 books a year instead of one, to fill the publisher's coffers. AND handle all the other promotional tasks publishers can no longer be bothered to handle, dumping it all on the author's shoulders.

Regarding painting -- I use gazing at paintings as fuel for my writing. It refreshes me when I'm tired. Also, the book LIFE, PAINT, AND PASSION was more relevant to my writing than most books on the craft of writing.

Regarding those who doubt you, are disappointed that you don't publish "fast" enough for them -- I've instituted a zero tolerance policy. I ask, "How much have you published?" Answer: "Nothing".
Me: "How much do you know about how the publishing business works?" Answer: "Nothing". ME: "Then shut up until you do."

They can throw crap at you, but you can always step back and let it land on the ground instead of on you.

Lisa said...


Thank you so much for visiting and commenting. You've offered some very wise advice and insight that will stay with me. I'll have to check out LIFE, PAINT, AND PASSION (ZEN IN THE ART OF WRITING -- Billy's recommendation -- just arrived today). You've got a great blog -- hope you don't mind if I add you to my sidebar. And I'll definitely let the crap land on the ground :)

Jennifer said...

I read Zen in the Art of Writing about six years ago, and I remember it being one of the most unique books on the subject I'd read thus far. (Time for a re-read, because I can't remember much except one exercise that I use quite a lot.)

"DIY MFA"--I like that!

It's definitely a process, isn't it? And one that I really think is best when it's tailored for the individual writer. I'm fairly certain that an MFA program would have made me want to give up on writing had I enrolled in one when I first started this apprenticeship thing.

I will have to check out Hope Is Not a Strategy. Thanks!

Therese said...

I never set out to write award-winning fiction; my original goal was to be a professional novelist, i.e. writing full-time for a living wage.

That goal was altered, a little, by my time in grad school--and by reading John Gardner especially. The more fiction I wrote, the more I recognized what I was capable of. I couldn't write purely commercial fiction because it didn't satisfy me personally. The challenge, then, was to find my niche.

I want readers to rate my work highly--so I aspire to write at the top of the genre of my reading roots (women's fiction). I think I could write literary fiction, but not as well as the best of 'em, and certainly not quickly enough to make a living from it (IF I could publish it at all).

So yeah, for you I say "just keep writing." I have no doubt you will uncover all the answers you're looking for in the process.

Simple, right? :)

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf