My talented writer friend Brianne has been writing some great blog posts lately about the writing life, and it’s inspired me to do some thinking on the subject myself.
It’s been about two years since I started writing and submitting humor on a consistent basis, which has involved a long and exhausting learning curve. And it’s been really fun.
But it wasn’t until I decided to start putting lots of time and energy into writing a full-length novel, which I began doing a few months ago, that I began learning lessons left and right about what being serious about writing actually means; at least in my case—your mileage may vary.
1) Writing takes time, and it takes it away from loved ones and other important and fun activities.
When you work full time, and have a long commute, free time is precious. So using that time to write means saying no to lots of other things; often other things which seem like they might be (or actually would be, depending on how the writing is going) more fun, interesting, meaningful, and fulfilling than sitting in front of a blank word document on your laptop, or struggling through a scene in your book that you’re not sure is even going to make the final cut.
Choosing to spend your free time writing is essentially telling your spouse, family and friends that what you’re doing is as important to you (or, at that moment, more important) than spending time with them, which can make you feel like a jerk sometimes. If you’re lucky, you have a spouse, family and friends who are understanding and supportive (and have their own projects and interests to keep them busy). Also, I try to remember that writing consistently helps me feel happy and balanced, so that I am able to better enjoy the time I do spend with family and friends.
Even so, it’s still hard. Every hour I spend writing is an hour I can’t spend with someone I love (or relaxing, or watching an Arrested Development marathon for the fifth time). That’s no little thing. And it means that when I am writing, I need to make it count. I want it to justify the precedence I am giving it.
2) At least once in the middle of working on a piece of writing, you will have that moment of “Why am I bothering with this? I should just stop.”
Or, you know, multiple moments like that. Sometimes it’s constant. Sometimes it DOES make me quit what I’m doing for the day. Still, in order to fight the urge to give up, when it hits me I try to recall the many times I’ve wanted to stop while I was in the middle of a piece of writing that I ended up finishing, really liking, and maybe even getting published. It’s important to keep in mind that just because you have that feeling, it doesn’t mean that what you are working on isn’t worth finishing. And if you stop, you’ll never know, will you? So, just keep going.
3) You can learn about good storytelling from everywhere.
Now that I’m consumed by the care and feeding of a story of my own, I find myself observing the stories around me with a more critical and interested eye. When I watch a movie or a TV show, I scrutinize the dialogue, examine the plot and analyze character development. When I read a book or a long form piece of journalism, I do the same thing, and also zero in on the elements that work and don’t work in the narrative and descriptive language. Studying the good and bad, the how and why in other creative works teaches me how to improve my own writing, and also helps me enjoy those works on a deeper level.
4) Be grateful that the act of writing is cheap and easy.
In order to practice the thing I love, all I really need is a laptop (or, in a pinch, a pencil and paper). I don’t need expensive art supplies, I don’t need to leave the house to go on acting auditions or attend band practice. I don’t even have to wear pants. Whenever I feel burdened by the weird, obsessive and lonely writing life, I remind myself that I’m lucky that I can do it at home, alone and on a shoestring budget.
I’m in the thick of my second National Novel Writing Month this November, and I’m simultaneously having the best and worst time ever, which is pretty much how this project seems to be destined to go.
But really, this year has been a great learning experience for me as a writer– and I feel like I am learning different things from what I learned last year, which is especially rewarding as a second-year participant. In a nutshell, here is what I have learned so far:
1) I am not ready to write a memoir yet. I started out writing one, which is against the rules of NaNo anyway, and started to run out of steam after around 3,000 words. I think it had something to do with the fact that I had no plot. Anyway, I still want to write about what I was writing the memoir about, but I think it’s going to have to wait. It’s just more fun to make stuff up, and NaNoWriMo is all about the fun.
So, I started over on Day 7, which I didn’t think was such a big deal because last year I only LEARNED about NaNo around November 6th, and didn’t really get going until around the 7th-8th. So, I figured that was fine, and I came up with a novel plot that I loved and was really excited about and then around 14,000 words in, around, oh, November 17th or so, I realized that:
2) I can’t write a novel that is too plotted out, because then I have no room to play around and improvise and do those little riffs that are so enjoyable and take you in new directions and that are what makes writing fun and actually good. My novel was feeling stilted and running out of steam already, and this was why. Around the time I realized that, I also realized that
3) My main character was not honest with herself, and I hated her for it. She was in denial about every major relationship of her life, she was whiny, she was lame, and she limped blandly from plot point to plot point, and I was going to lose my mind if I didn’t dump her. I learned that when I don’t respect my characters, because they are not real, and honest with themselves, I can’t write about them. I learned this because:
4) Last Wednesday night the 17th, I opened up my novel from last year. I’m not sure why, but something in my told me that I needed to do that. I honestly hadn’t read it since I finished it last November. So it had been a whole year since I’d even opened the file. I sat down and read the whole thing in an evening, and discovered that actually, it wasn’t horrible, as I’d been convinced it was when I wrote it last year. I was so sure that it was a putrid piece of garbage that I never really wanted to read it again, and when I actually did, I was pleasantly surprised. Really and truly pleasantly surprised. It was really not that bad; in fact, it was relatively entertaining and even made me laugh in certain spots, which is not easy to do.
This made me feel a lot of feelings. It made me realize that what I didn’t like about my novel this year was that the main character wasn’t genuine. It made me realize that when I think I am writing horribly, I am not actually writing horribly. It made me feel sad that I have such a low opinion of my writing that after writing my novel last year I hid it away and didn’t even bother looking at it. It’s sat there for a year, without being touched, when I could have been editing it and working on it and feeling good about it. So, that’s kind of too bad.
Anyway, I need to get over being so secretive about my fiction writing. I need to actually show it to other people so they can help me figure out how to make it better. If anyone wants to read my novel from last year, send me a note to firstname.lastname@example.org or leave me a comment and I’ll send it to you. It’s really kind of not that bad.
All right, back to this year’s novel. I have 46,000 words to write in 10 days. Let’s see how that goes, shall we?
I’ve recently begun a stint as the Raleigh Fresh Foods Examiner on Examiner.com. I’ll be sharing delicious recipes there several times a week. Check it out! (Yes, that picture may look familiar. Truth is I don’t have many pictures of myself where I’m not either eating or drinking).
There is a certain children’s book author that my company sells a lot of books by who comes out with a new 10 page children’s board book every 48 hours or so. They’re silly, and they rhyme, and they sell like HOT CAKES. I would like to be at that point in my career.
“Hey while I was waiting at the checkout line I wrote a rhyming book about toes. Now I have a billion more dollars! Sweet.”
I remember when I first learned that writing could be a fancy way of lying. I was in the third grade, and my classmates and I were given the assignment to “write and illustrate your favorite dream”. Lest the theoretical creativity of this assignment garner it any admiration, I should add that these written and illustrated dreams were assigned for the purpose of being raffled off en masse at a parent auction.
My elementary school had hit upon the brilliant discovery that they could force parents to bid for their own children’s artwork. No matter that Junior could produce an almost identical finger-painting at home at the kitchen table. The one he had produced in the fifteen minutes between Snack and Music periods was on the auction block, and for a school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, this meant that the bids flew fast and furious. The catch was that the work was offered only as part of an entire class’s ‘collection’. This meant that if you wanted to bring home your child’s sloppy, haphazard modeling-clay elephant, not only did you have to bid for it as though you sat at the kiddie table at Sotheby’s, but you had to bring home twenty-five other modeling-clay circus animals produced with varying degrees of enthusiasm and talent, by classmates of varying degrees of familiarity and obscurity to you and your child. Who wants to be stuck with twenty-six modeling-clay circus animals, twenty-five of which are made by children in whom you are not responsible for recognizing budding genius?
In any event, my written and illustrated dream was due. I was eight. I didn’t have that many dreams that made sense. The ones I managed to remember were hazy, meaningless fragments involving eating breakfast, sticker collecting and the Babysitter’s Club. They were no help. I needed a dream, and fast. I could drag my feet no longer. Quickly I came up with a concept, which may or may not have been quite blatantly based on a book I liked at the time, “Black Beauty”.
“At night, when I go to Sleep, I dream that I ride a black Horse through the Woods,” I wrote painstakingly in pencil. “My Horse and I gallop together all night through the forest, and I am not afraid.” That was only two lines. I needed more. What else could I say about my fake dream to make it believable? “I love my black Horse,” I went on. “After I ride my Horse, she goes in her stable.” This was some fairly sophisticated horse knowledge here, and I was proud. After all, what did I know about horses? I was born and raised in New York City. The closest I had come to horseback riding was the carousel in Central Park.
I illustrated my falsehood. I spent a good part of my time drawing horses anyway, as an eight year old girl, so the illustrating part was criminally easy. At the end of the period, I wrote one last finishing touch. “Each morning when I wake up, I can’t wait to go back to sleep and dream of my black Horse again.” Although to the observer it read like an earnest and wistful phrase, for me, it was one last jab of insincerity at adults who would never know that I had completely put one over on them.
The truth, although I didn’t realize it at the time, was that it didn’t matter what I said. What adult was going to question the legitimacy of my dream—particularly given its innocuous subject matter? Besides, my teachers were busy coaxing twenty-five other illustrated dreams out of my classmates to pack up for that evening’s auction. My glib lie went unquestioned. And the lesson, that if you’re gutsy, you can create your own reality in words and make it believable to others, was a good one to learn.
I don’t want this to get around, but I wasn’t on campus over Reading Week. I wasn’t doing any reading during it, either. I’d like to think I’m of the sort who call a spade a spade, and when a spade is a week of school during which there are no classes, I call it a vacation.
Designating a week-long vacation as a time to read guarantees that I will forget how. I’ve been doing my best to escape the prison of literacy for the past week, and I’m proud of my success. Never mind that I’m going to have to relearn the alphabet in time for my 10 AM class on Monday, and not to mention the fact that I have to dictate this column to my younger sister and am taking her word for it that she’s writing down exactly what I say N’SYNC RULZ! To make matters worse, I’m working on a different computer than I’m used to, and I use ‘different’ in the old-fashioned sense of the word, meaning not as good. I tried to use the thesaurus feature just now, but it took forever, so I can’t rely on it this week to make me sound smart and big-word-knowing.
I am becoming more aware of my tendency to abuse the computer thesaurus whenever it is available. Oftentimes, when writing difficult papers, I will search idly for synonyms I don’t need, hoping that finding just the right word to describe my opinion on a Russian novel will disguise the fact that I haven’t read it. I skimp on researching for papers, secretly hoping that I’ll find first-hand quotes about the suffrage movement hidden in the list of suggested words for ‘oppression’. Perhaps it is the ease with which I am able to use the computer thesaurus that is the problem; it’s much easier to select a word and click on an option on the screen than to have to find, pick up and hunt through a book with both hands. Actually, I like flipping through a real thesaurus now and then, because, though I’ll be looking for one word, other words often catch my eye along the way. Looking something up in a paperback thesaurus always leads me on tangents and searches for other kinds of words, the sheer spontanaeity and variety of which a computer thesaurus can’t offer. As a kid I discovered that while the dictionary held the thrill of looking up dirty words, the more subtle but ultimately more satisfying thrill of the thesaurus relied on the power of suggestion. Filled with an enormous range of intriguing, evocative words, but with no rules on how to use them, to me it was the Kama Sutra of language. Maybe next year I should give this “Reading Week” idea a chance.