Hey, friends and other nice people, the first installment in my “Habitually Distracted” column is up at US Represented. The piece is called “Stuck in the Middle of Life: On the Value of Reading Books, Avoiding Nasty Weather, and Playing Guitar Indoors,” and you can find it here. Enjoy!
Tag Archive for writing
Quite a few years ago, when I first read Stephen King’s On Writing, I thought about how great it would be to have as many rejection slips as him, the ones he talks about collecting in a desk drawer. Submit a story, get a rejection, into the drawer it goes, out goes another submission.
Eventually, the story is published and you can look back at all the publications foolish enough to pass on it, and you can smile. Or, I suppose, you could dance, call the rejecters to gloat, or even get drunk and make the slips into some kind of papier-mâché obelisk or light them into a glorious ceremonial pyre. Don’t rule anything out, is what I’m saying.
The point is, the rejections King is referring to are not only battle scars—they’re ribbons of valor. They are proof that he is a writer: He writes, submits, edits, toils, weeps, hyperventilates, re-works, re-submits, all the things a good hard-working writer does. And yes, as part of that process, he gets rejected.
There’s a catch, though. That romanticized notion of getting turned down as an emblem of paying writerly dues only holds for a while, at least when you’re not Stephen King. We all know King got published, became famous, and was eventually able to look back fondly on all those early rejections.
For the struggling writer, though, there’s no bright ending to look back from.
Rejection hurts, at least a little bit. It needs to hurt, in fact. If it doesn’t, maybe the things you’re sending out into the world aren’t especially dear to you.
Every year is getting shorter, never seem to find the time
Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines
I haven’t been here in a while, at least not to share anything of any real substance, and there’s a good reason: I haven’t made the time to write anything of any real substance.
Sure, I could say I haven’t had writing time because of teaching, planning lessons, editing, or binge-watching Parks and Recreation, The Daily Show and BBC’s Horrible Histories (seriously, if you haven’t checked those out, do so as soon as possible, but, you know, after you finish reading this piece), but that’s all just window dressing. The truth is I haven’t been making time to write.
Usually, I follow a statement like “I haven’t been making time to write” with “but that’s about to change,” sort of like the New Year’s resolutions that claim big changes are about to happen. I stopped making those pronouncements a long time ago, not that I think they’re pointless or silly but rather because I don’t think I need to say them. They’re clearly implied. The only major resolution that ever worked for me, by the way, was when I quit smoking sixteen years ago, and I’m pretty sure that happened in October.
Not making writing time, though–I’m not going to say that’s going to change.
But it is going to change. Stay tuned.
To Do Today: Try to learn not to rush through things, even when they’re unpleasant.
For instance, there’s exercise. This morning, as I was riding the stationary bike, I found myself performing random acts of mathematics to figure out how much longer I had to go until the clock hit zero. (If you know me, you also know what a frightening development this is. Math? Seriously?) And even within my fifty minute workout, I have intervals. For every five minutes, I do two at high intensity and three at normal. So I find myself monitoring those as well. And I’m becoming good at it.
Concentration is an issue for me, and I’ve been trying—though not as consistently as I should—to be deliberate and aware during all activities, especially unpleasant or mundane ones: taking out the garbage, cleaning the cat’s litterbox, washing clothes, shoveling snow, brushing my teeth, critiquing student essays (no offense, students. It’s not you—it’s me). The challenge is to try and keep from thinking about it, to even refrain from thinking about not thinking, to live each moment of whatever I’m doing not as something to do but as something to experience.
So I’m trying to make room for the things that matter most to me, but I’ve realized I’m approaching it from the wrong direction. Here’s an idea: First, do the things that matter most. Second, make time for the things I don’t necessarily value but that need to be done anyway. Maybe I’ll eventually discover that some of those unpleasant things are only unpleasant because I’ve labeled them that way.
Maybe, just maybe, I’ll learn to enjoy cleaning the cat’s litterbox.
Here’s my favorite line from what I wrote last night:
“Despite the ups and downs (mostly downs) of Joey Havens’ life, he’d always managed to maintain a cheerful expression on his face. My mother had occasionally wondered if it was a reflex of the facial muscles or perhaps a betrayal of an inner simplicity, but who knew, really? Maybe Uncle Joey had actually been happy.”
From Dead Uncle Joey
(Spoiler Alert: This piece talks about the endings to two James Joyce stories from Dubliners, “Araby” and “Eveline.” So if you feel your life will be ruined by learning the endings of these tales, well, you should still read this piece, but you should also consider yourself forewarned.)
This week, I’ve been working on a story called “Dead Uncle Joey” and actually have six rough pages, the opening scene. Wonderful. But as usual, I’m having trouble moving on from that first scene. My first scenes, by the way, are usually quite good, and the close to one hundred unfinished short stories on my laptop sit in silent support of this truth. The trouble I have is fulfilling the promise contained in those openings.
Occasionally, I deliver a lecture on audacious beginnings in literature, in which I talk about stories that not only contain sock-knocking beginnings but also go on to deliver on them in a big way. My beginnings aren’t as audacious as some of the ones I talk about there—Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Kafka’s The Metamorphosis, Camus’ The Stranger, to name a few—but they’re good nonetheless. And I rarely praise my own work.
Yes, I know I need to work on that.
One of the reasons I have problems moving on is that I grew up reading and enjoying stories that were largely plot-driven. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. In their most extreme cases, I call these stories Twilight Zoners, tales with twist endings that often turn the stories on their ears, usually surprising the protagonists and by extension, shocking readers. In its milder form, this kind of twist has more to do with the character, where the protagonist is the focus, he or she finding it necessary to change before the story ends. I still enjoy the first variety when they’re done well, though many fall into the trap of being formulaic and predictable. But, as I’ve said many times, and at the risk of sounding subjective, a good story is a good story. More on that elsewhere.
When I first started writing fiction, these Twilight Zoners were the kinds of stories I wanted to tell. The trouble was I wasn’t very good at them. I could easily come up with premises for fifty stories, every one of them interesting enough to attract a reader, but when it came time to follow through, I fell victim to a wicked case of writer’s block. In order to be a jaw-dropper, I needed the perfect ending, and that turned out to be a problem.
As I grew older, my reading tastes changed somewhat, and my writing style transformed right along with them. I began to develop an appreciation for stories in which a larger part of the action occurred within the character. These stories usually ended with the protagonist experiencing some kind of realization or other life-changing event, often coming as the end point in a gradual character arc. The main similarity between this type of story and the Twilight Zoner variety is that the change is drastic, whether it occurs externally or internally.
For instance, in James Joyce’s “Araby”–not a Twilight Zoner, by the way–the unnamed young protagonist (dubbed Araby by some of my lit students) ultimately feels foolish for even entertaining the thought that he could gain the attention of a beautiful neighbor girl. What causes him to realize this? A young man talking to another girl at a carnival. Okay, maybe this doesn’t sound like a drastic character change. As adults, even though we might feel sorry for the boy, we’d probably say “Get used to it, kid. That’s life.” However, if there’s any of the teenager left of us, we may recall just how earth-shattering something like that could be at that age.
In another of Joyce’s Dubliners stories, “Eveline,” there is the marked potential for change. Eveline can remain in Ireland with her alcoholic father and care for her family, or she can leave on a ship with her potential savior, Frank. The interesting thing about this story (and the part that infuriates many of my students) is that we never find out whether she stays or goes. Yes, we’re given clues as to what she might ultimately do, but Joyce gives us no definitive answer. I have my suspicions, but I’ll leave it to you to read and decide.
How does an ending like this make a reader feel? Speaking for myself, I can say I’m far more tolerant of this kind of wrapup than I was twenty years ago, and for a number of reasons. For one, the ending forces me to re-evaluate the story. Whereas I originally suspected Eveline might leave with Frank, the more ambiguous end shows me this is not what the story is about at all. It is about Eveline’s life and the factors contributing to the decision she must make. Initially, I read the story in anticipation of the does-she-stay-or-go ending, but I soon discovered that the actual meat of the story was Eveline, her dreary life, and her inability to decide to whether or not to leave.
We can speculate, of course, as to what she does. Perhaps she decides a mere three seconds after the story ends, or maybe she stands on the dock, unable to move until she eventually dies. Maybe she’s carted away by dock workers. These are interesting ideas to ponder, but as far as the story Joyce wrote, they’re wholly beside the point. In another story, they might not be.
So here’s how this relates to my writer’s block: As a reader, it’s rather simple to analyze these kinds of stories and discuss why they do or don’t work for me. As a writer, though, looking at a story in progress, trying to force myself to commit to a follow-through, I sometimes feel like Eveline as she stands at the dock trying to decide whether to leave and face an uncertain future with Frank or remain and stay with what she has:
[Frank] rushed beyond the barrier and called to her to follow. He was shouted at to go on but he still called her. She set her white face to him, passive, like a helpless animal. Her eyes gave him no sign of love or farewell or recognition.
Yep. That’s me, writing a story. Every time.
This, dear ones, is my manifesto.
Okay, that sounded ominous and pretentious. Maybe a more apt way to phrase it is to say this is my writing contract with myself. Hey, at least I didn’t invoke the dreaded words “mission statement,” right?
The problem is I’m dissatisfied with where I am as a writer. I know, I know. Alert the media and break out the sandbags and buckets.
Seriously, though. Day before yesterday, when I went to the doctor, the medical assistant was entering my information, and she asked me my profession.
I replied “Writer.”
She looked around at me and asked “Do you do anything else?” to which I answered “I also teach writing.”
“I’ll put that down,” she said.
This certainly didn’t make me angry. It didn’t really even bother me. It just made me think, and here’s why: I don’t talk about my writing that often, especially with non-writers, not because I’m a snob (I’m not), but rather because I don’t think people are all that interested in it. Along with that, it’s a difficult thing to talk about, and not in a crumply “it’s so emotionally close to me that I can’t bare my soul” way, either. It’s more that I sometimes find it difficult to articulate exactly what it is I’m working on at any given time.
As a result of this, the only people who call me a writer are usually the ones who don’t know me. Those who do know me, on the other hand, usually say things like “He used to work in music production,” or maybe “He’s a teacher.” Sometimes, if I’m really lucky, they might say “He’s a writing teacher,” or, more often than not, “He works? Really?”
Look, I’m fortunate enough to be able to hold a job that allows me to pursue my writing. I’m also lucky to be able to get side gigs writing, editing, reading, reviewing, and coaching, and I’m glad to be able to help friends and students with their own writing. These are all things, by the way, that I intend to continue doing. But if you’d told me twenty years ago that I’d have this level of freedom, I’d have said you were insane. I might have also asked you for a cigarette, too, but that’s another story. The point is that I’m fortunate, and I know it.
What some folks may not know is that I’ve actually been published. Not in any pubs that people would kill to get into, necessarily, but still a few good, solid magazines and journals that I can pick up and carry around with me. I’ve ghostwritten a couple of books and nearly won a big contest. Okay, even I have to admit that last part sounds silly. In my defense, though, it was big.
But I really do want to continue to be published. Really published. I’m trying to get the other areas of my life in line–exercise, nutrition, time management, and attitude–so I want to get my writing straight as well.
And now that I think about it, there are other similarities between writing and exercise. I’m good at bingeing on them: I can exercise like a pro for weeks and sometimes even months at a time, just like I can develop an alleged writing habit for short lengths of time. Same goes for eating well. As long as I can remain focused on it, I’m fine, but once my concentration wavers, it’s all downhill from there.
As I’ve said elsewhere, knowing what needs to be done is important; remembering what needs to be done is crucial.
But rather than complain about my dissatisfaction (please ignore the previous paragraphs, nothing to see there), I’m going to try my best to do something about it.
Here are my problems, as I see them:
- The past four or five years have been disorienting, to say the least. In 2007, my mom died after a three-month battle with melanoma, and in 2011, my wife Shannon and I moved from Alabama to Colorado. So my life, to some extent or another, has been in flux for a good deal of time now. Of course, it’s not as if either of these changes is on my mind twenty-four/seven, but they have caused my life the be much different than it was five years ago. For that matter, though, it was different five years back than it was ten or twenty before. The point is, for whatever reason, these two major life events–one bad and the other good–have changed my creative perspective in ways I have yet to fully consider.
- I’m terrible at self-promotion. No kidding, I would have made one of the worst salesmen in human history. I’d sooner take a beating than ask someone to buy something from me. In fact, I couldn’t sell talcum powder at a grandmother convention. As a kid, when my school would sell candy or other items, I usually ended up selling it to people who couldn’t possibly say no: my parents. (Thanks, Mom and Dad.) I can, however, pitch other people’s talents all day long. Maybe it’s something in my genes. Who knows?
- I have issues with concentration. Nothing new there. For as long as I can remember, I’ve found it difficult to stick with a project through its completion, though I eventually found ways to work around this. Don’t mistake me, though. It’s not as if there’s a physical magnet in my head that makes me gravitate toward certain shiny things. Yes, it may feel like that from time to time, but it’s an illusion. If I become distracted, it’s because I’ve allowed myself to become distracted.
- I lack a community of creative people with similar goals. Probably the most productive writing time for me was during my MFA. No big surprise, but my output consisted of more than the impressive amount of writing I was doing for school. In those two years, I also finished numerous short stories and a novel-and-a-half. Part of this was also due to two excellent writing groups I had the pleasure of joining, one directly after the other, successes I’ve yet to replicate. What both of these things have in common is that finding a well-fitting writing community is a lot like getting married, other than dealing with the communal property issues. MFA programs only last for a limited time, and locating that perfect writing group requires you to get out there and look around. As with dating, sometimes you have to sort through some duds before you find The One.
The thing is, I really do love writing when I’m doing it. It’s like exercise. Thinking about it inspires me, believe it or not, but gearing up to do it leaves me flat. When I’m actually in the middle of it, though, and immediately after I’m done, I experience full-on euphoria, or at least as close as I’m going to get. With writing, I like writing jokes, mostly because they’re snippets. They’re begun and done quickly, and I can move on to the next one. Writing longer pieces, though, takes more dedicated concentration, so perhaps that’s where I’m falling down.
What to do? I’ve sort of tried everything. I say “sort of” because I get lots of great ideas for becoming more disciplined about my writing, but few of them ever seem to pan out, primarily because I never implement them, or when I do I don’t stick with them long enough to actually judge.
Still, I need to find something that works for me, and the only way I’m going to do that is to try methods and see what works. Try them every day. There’s an interesting article I need to read–or I think it’ll be interesting, anyway–on working out writing schedules. I suspect that my best bet may be to mix it up.
All that to say that the writing contract I mentioned is not just with myself. It’s with you as well, my friends, family, colleagues, readers, postal carriers, and anyone else who has an interest in what I do.
As far as the concentration, that’s my bug to work out, but regarding the other two, you’re going to be hearing a lot more from me regarding what’s happening in my writing life. I’ll try to (shudder) promote myself more often, and I’m also going to become more proactive about finding writers interested in sharing work.
Oh, and also this:
To everyone who’s ever taught me.
To everyone I’ve ever taught.
To everyone who’s ever sat across a workshop table from me–you know who you are.
To the people who made me want to be a writer.
To my wife, who reads everything I write.
To Mom–I miss you.
Thanks to you all.