Building the Village

Truman Capote had Harper Lee. Thomas Mann and Hermann Hesse had one another. Hemingway had Fitzgerald and Fitzgerald had Hemingway—to a point. Both had the tremendous good fortune to have Maxwell Perkins, the legendary editor at publisher Charles Scribner’s Sons , who also shepherded the work of Thomas Wolfe (of Look Homeward Angel, not to be confused with Tom Wolfe of Bonfire of the Vanities and The Right Stuff), Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, James Jones, and Alan Paton. And, of course, all those great Paris-based writers of the 1920s had Gertrude Stein.

I’m talking here about community, partners, peers, supporters. It’s a subject I’ve broached here before, often with lamentation and sorrow, and personally with a measure of ambivalence. As long as I’ve been writing—and that’s somewhere in the neighborhood of four decades now, on and off—I’ve dreamed of others with whom I could share the glories and struggles of the craft. But I’ve recently had the opportunity to test the waters once again, and I’ve learned some things I think everyone who wants to develop as writer should consider.

These discussions of writing communities are made more difficult by two factors. The first is the pervasive and pernicious myth of the solidary creative life—at least as it involves writing—the image of the writer alone in her garret while the oblivious (if not hostile) world attempts to crush her artistic soul. The second obstacle is the fiction that great writers create with ease and certainty, that they have utter confidence in their gifts and their eventual success.

I don’t mean to dispute that in our culture often only tolerates creativity if it translates into “success,” particularly money but at least fame. But no story of the writers we revere would be complete without an understanding of the role that friends, family, agents, editors, copyeditors, publishers, and patrons have played.

In part this gap in knowledge exists because so many members of the public (and even would-be writers) remains ignorant of how texts from newspaper articles to bestselling novels move from idea to draft to polished publication. Friends and colleagues have acted as sounding boards, financiers, refiners, hand-holders, boosters, advocates, defenders, and physical, emotional, and spiritual support for the writers they care for.

During the past two weeks, I participated in an online workshop put on my writer Marcy McKay. Though I graduated from a creative writing program in 1990 in which I interacted with some supportive writers (many were not), including this dear long distance friend of mine with whom I recently reconnected, and though I have made other individual writing friends along the way, Marcy’s workshop was my most intensive communal experience. It awakened in me, to a degree I had not expected, the recollection of what community can do for a writer.

Knowing that I would be in conversation with other writers every day helped get me to my desk in the early morning hours when I do the bulk of my drafting. Even though they read not a line, not a word of my work, the presence of their comments in the chatroom changed how I saw myself. I recognized again that not only do I have work to do, but I have something to contribute to other writers, wherever they may be in their journey.

About 30 years ago, when I lived in Raleigh, North Carolina, I had the great fortune to develop a friendship with a writer, David Guy, who lived in nearby Durham. We met after a lecture on writing that he gave at a small workshop, and I had the nerve to go up to him afterward. After that we met periodically and he read some of my writing. But most importantly, he took my desire to write seriously and encouraged me to believe that I have the ability to do so if I took it seriously as well. David was the first real writer I knew, and though I lost touch with him a long time ago, his generosity was invaluable to me and still is.

Every list of advice that some successful writer gives to would-be writers includes the injunction to read as much as possible. I’ve finally decided that this involves not only reading famous and long dead writers; it doesn’t mean just reading respected contemporary writers; it’s not just about reading successful writers; it’s not even limited to reading published writers. No, I’ve developed the conviction that it also includes unknown, struggling writers, those who may right now be producing mediocre work. Those who feel uncertain of their abilities.

Writers need, as much as skill and patience and determination and discipline, that alchemical mixture of generosity and honesty, of encouragement and skepticism, and most of all expressions of faith in their efforts, however great the distance we have yet to travel to become the writers we might yet be. We need communities. And what communities we cannot find, we need to muster the courage to build. It is often, though not always, the case that writers write alone, but it is not—or should not, the present opportunities for self-publication notwithstanding—be the case that writers develop and polish and publish their writing alone.

That’s what communities are for. And that’s what I’m intent on experiencing more of.

Ready

“One way of looking at this might be that for 42 years, I’ve been making small, regular deposits in this bank of experience, education and training. And on January 15 the balance was sufficient so that I could make a very large withdrawal.”
Chesley Sullenberger

Imagine that you decide to redo your kitchen. A contractor bidding for the job stops by, and when you ask how he’ll proceed, he replies that he’s not sure; he tends to show up with his tools when the mood strikes him and figure it out at he goes along.

Or suppose you go to the doctor with knee pain, and rather than examine you, she says, “You know I don’t always do examinations. Let me think a while about what you’ve told me and when I’m ready, I’ll call you in for some treatment.”

Or you board an airplane, and as you pass the open door of the flight deck, you hear the pilot tell the co-pilot, “You know, forget about the pre-flight checklist. I have a good vibe that this jet is ready for takeoff. Let’s wing it.” (Hint: The pilot is not Sullenburger.)

I suspect (and hope) you would find someone else to help you. That’s because you expect a competent practitioner to have a process for approaching the task.

Yet when it comes to writing, I have known so many writers and would-be writers who fear talking about process. I have also seen many writers and would-be writers struggle to understand why they procrastinate, encounter writing blocks, and feel dissatisfied at the difference between their aspirations and their performance. Some of them contend that since writing is an art, it can’t be planned for. It has to be spontaneous and inspired. Preparation—and any talk about preparation—only kills the creative impulse.

I’ve written about process before, as it’s something of an obsession of mine (which has been stirred up again by this blog post, which I enjoyed). Obviously any writer producing work that satisfies her desires needs no changes in how they do what they, whether or not they have an explicit process. But in decades of teaching, I’ve seen talented, intelligent students struggle to create good writing because they refused to reconsider how they went about writing. They insisted on waiting until the last minute, drafting without any plan or intention, refusing to revise, working in the midst of distractions, and yet were continually frustrated by the results the choices produced.

A process isn’t an answer. It’s a plan for how I’m going to look for the answer.

Writers vary, and each writer’s process should be tailored to that person. Some people work better at night, others early in the morning. Some prefer to plan extensively ahead of time; some do better writing quickly and then revising extensively. Some cannot create without pencil and paper, others need a computer, and still others swear by the clatter of a typewriter. Some need the noise of a restaurant or café to write; some require music; some demand silence. But whatever the individual writer’s particular approach looks like, some reliable way to deal with the challenges that writing poses can be invaluable.

Sullenberger landed an airline—with both engines out, full of 150 people—safely on a river because he was ready to do exactly that, even though he could never have anticipated that situation. And I think it was his process—the way he learned and trained and practiced and prepared each time he flew—that made him ready.

My process serves the same purpose for me. I don’t know what turn a story or character or argument or idea will take until I’m putting the words on the page. But if I have a good process, I’m ready to respond to that turn, that surprising direction or insight. Because I’ve read and learned and practiced and done what I can to make myself comfortable and confident in front of the blank page.

Each enacting of my process is a deposit in the bank, waiting for me to withdraw it when I write. It helps ensure that I don’t arrive at the page empty handed and that I don’t leave the page empty.

Precision and Movement

In the foreword to his book is 5, E.E. Cummings described the theory of his poetic technique:

 I can express it in fifteen words, by quoting The Eternal Question And Immortal Answer of burlesk…”Would you hit a woman with a child?—No, I’d hit her with a brick.” Like the burlesk comedian, I am abnormally fond of that precision which creates movement. (emphasis mine)

During the holidays, staying up later than I should, I stumbled across one of those programs you would expect to find on the third PBS channel at 10 or 11 o’clock at night: a reading/talk/question-and-answer session with poet Sonia Sanchez recorded earlier this year at a local college. I’m ashamed to say that I know her work only vaguely, from a few poems in some required English Lit survey decades ago, which, at the time, did not draw me in. But in the TV program, she hooked me immediately. Some of the poems she performed I loved, some less so. I could not escape, though, her energetic engagement with language.

In particular, she talked about her exploration of haiku—the Japanese unrhymed poetic form conventionally made of 17 syllables distributed over three lines: five syllables in the first, seven in the second, and five in the third. Sanchez discussed her combination of haiku with the blues.

But the idea I immediately tucked into my “when I’m stuck” mental folder was doing a book-length work in the form of haiku cycles. Usually when I struggle, it has to do with trying to go big in some way: in form, in idea, in theme, in plot. Everything starts to feel overwhelming, and I lost any confidence that I’ll be able to manage what I’ve started. But a haiku I can do. I can come up with 17 syllables and hone it into something work building on. Rather than try to cover the whole canvas at once, I can work on this tiny corner, that small square, getting just the right shade of that small object.

That level of focus involves working precisely, and it makes it easier for me to create that “precision which creates movement.” Just 17 syllables on one aspect of an idea I’m exploring in an essay. Just 17 syllables about a detail of the setting in a scene for a novel. Just 17 syllables about a key point in an argument.

Patience. Precision. Movement.

Romancing Language in Action: How the Sausage Gets Made

In response to this fascinating post (on what has quickly become one of my favorite web sites), which presents the daily routines of several famous writers, I’ve decided to present my own, typical day-in-the-life writing routine. A warning: This will not include, a la Annie Dillard, a writing shack set in the Virginia countryside.

10 p.m. – Go to bed with a plan to rise at 5 a.m. and write for a couple of hours before everyone else in the house is awake.

4 a.m. – Awaken to the sound of a screaming 2-year-old. Upon investigation find and change a diaper filled with a massive bowel movement.

4:10 a.m. – Send the 6-year-old also awakened by the screaming back to bed, despite his desire to turn on PBS Kids.

4:45 a.m. – Unable to sleep, get up, turn on the computer, and do 5 min. of freewriting, then begin drafting current writing project, a novel.

5:10 a.m. – Interrupted by new screams from the 2-year-old, who wants to get up and turn on PBS Kids. Coax her into her own bed and lie down with her to get her back to sleep.

5:50 a.m. – Awaken in the 2-year-old’s bed, having successfully put her—and myself—back to sleep.

5:55 a.m. – Freewrite for 5 min., followed by drafting on my current writing project, a novel.

6:55 a.m. – Informed by the 6-year-old that he is now awake and is going to watch PBS Kids.

7-8:15 a.m. – Awaken sleeping spouse so that she can get ready for work. Feed and dress the children. Prepare lunch and backpack for 6-year-old, and take him to school.

8:30-11 a.m. – Take 2-year-old to YMCA, place her in child care, and exercise for about 1 hour. Return home.

11 a.m.-2:45 p.m. – Wrangle, feed, and entertain 2-year-old. Worry about money, since I don’t make any.

2:45-5 or 6 p.m. – Take 2-year-old and pick up 6-year-old from school. Go home and wrangle, feed, and entertain both of them. Worry about money some more, since I don’t make any. Wonder about the status of my productivity vis-à-vis society’s current value structure.

6-8:30 p.m. – Along with spouse, wrangle, feed, entertain, and put to bed both children.

8:30-9:30 or 10 p.m. – Either write, spend time with spouse, or watch television (generally performing one or two of the acts while lamenting not doing the other one or two).

10 p.m. – Go to bed with a plan to rise at 5 a.m. and write for a couple of hours before everyone else in the house is awake.

The romance of language, like all forms of romance, must often survive in less than ideal environments. It bears remembering that such is often the case with life in general. This reminds me that however much love involves emotion, it turns on discipline and commitment. It grows less from inspiration and more from habit and conscious choice. A writer must be someone who learns to see the choices that language presents, and who remains willing to make those choices and face their consequences.

The Shipwrecked Writer

Many things must happen to a piece of writing before it finds its way to an audience, or at least many things should happen. The piece, whether novel or memo or poem or investment prospectus, must be made to cohere. It must find a core that binds its disparate parts together. It must know what it seeks to achieve with the reader, and it must be relentlessly shaped to work only toward that effect. It must be worked over, reconsidered, re-envisioned, lost and found.

But before all that, in the beginning, it first breathes in the atmosphere between you and language. At times necessarily reckless and wanton, illogical and impolite, inconsiderate, it will squeal, shout, cry, beg, mumble, and even try to stubbornly fall silent. It must be allowed everything but the silence. It must be allowed every mistake, every digression and indulgence. It must be allowed to fall off stairs and thump its head, to bounce on couches and beds until they break, to look at dirty pictures and try out curses.

In that first encounter between you and language, there can be no prohibitions except silence. Every emotion—fear and greed and lust and selfishness and sentimentality and tenderness and love and generosity—has a place in that encounter.

I say this because first, last, and always, this meeting with language is all I have. Everything else I have ever sought to sustain me in my writing has evaporated eventually. The desire for love, for friendship, for fame and fortune; the need for the approval of others; the hope for someone for whom reading my words would matter to them as much as writing the words matters to me, however much these forces can—and do—matter in life, as sources of writing I have found them to be vapors.

In this way, we writers are, I have come to believe, alone. Or rather, we have but one true partner: language itself. For every question, the answer is, “more words.” For every problem, the solution is, “write more; write it again; keep going.” At every moment that I want to turn away for some other inspiration, some plan, some device to guide me, I hear the sound of language swirling in my head, and I am left with two choices: to stop writing, or to listen to what language has to say.

This approach to writing reminds me of something the philosopher Kierkegaard once wrote:

And this is the simple truth – that to live is to feel oneself lost. He who accepts it has already begun to find himself, to be on firm ground. Instinctively, as do the shipwrecked, he will look around for something to which to cling, and that tragic, ruthless glance, absolutely sincere, because it is a question of his salvation, will cause him to bring order into the chaos of his life. These are the only genuine ideas; the ideas of the shipwrecked.

If I am to write, I must write as one shipwrecked. Romance is hard work.

Why My Words Never Speak for Themselves

The simple answer to the question in my title is: Because they’re not my words. Every word I know has been used by other people in other times and places for other purposes. This may seem obvious, but in the middle of talking or writing, I can easily forget. I can also forget the implications of this reality: When I borrow a word (or phrase or slogan or quote), some of its history and context rubs off on me.

If I use a term that’s come to be associated with Marxism, for example, even if I’m not a Marxist, and even if I don’t mean what Marxists mean by that term, at least some readers are likely to think I’m a Marxist and react to me as such. I may call myself a feminist, and may sincerely believe in the political, economic, and social equality of women. But if I speak to women in ways that many of them associate with sexist attitudes and behavior, I shouldn’t be surprised if they consider me sexist, whatever my intentions.

Because we often use words unconsciously, and because I tend to think of the words I write or utter as my own, I can be blindsided when people criticize or challenge the associations my words evoke rather than what I consider my “obvious” intention. I can react to such challenges as an unfair attack or an attempt to twist my meaning.

So far as I can tell, though, words always work, in part, by association and always have. Were it not for this quality, then poetry, humor, and irony in language (just for starters) would disappear.

When my associations with a word line up with those of my audience, we take that common meaning for granted as obvious. Only when the speaker/writer and the reader/listener have different associations does the ambiguity of language rise to the surface. But that doesn’t mean that these various associations aren’t always present beneath the surface of my communication.

As a practical, everyday example, let’s talk about “milk.”

I’m allergic to cow milk. If I drank it, my mouth and nasal passages would flood with mucus, my eyes would water and swell along with my face, my throat would begin to close, and the air sacs in my lungs would constrict and fill with mucus as well. Because of this, I have spent my life drinking soy milk. “Milk” then is a complicated term for me, with at least two very different sets of associations.

But my wife, Dutch, has no such allergy. She has, in fact, a deep love for milk, cheese, and all things dairy. It has been her misfortune to have to complicate her associations around milk. She has come to understand that if I say, “Could you get me some milk when you go to store?” I mean the stuff from soy beans, not the stuff from cows. We both know the common usage of that term, but we also understand that milk can mean different things to different people.

And we have bequeathed these more complicated associations to our children. My daughter, not yet three, has learned to be more specific when she asks for something to drink, specifying “Dada milk” or “Mama milk.” She attaches no value judgments to these labels; they have simply become the vocabulary of her experience. And from this, by the time she reaches adulthood, she might understand not only milk but living with allergies in a way that some of her contemporaries will not.

I draw two lessons from my example. First, experiences, both in language and in life in general, have formed the foundation for my understanding of, and associations with a word. Even when I later learn other meanings of a word or phrase, part of me remains loyal to my original understanding. Second, the wider the experiential difference between me and my audience, the greater the chance that our associations and our meanings will differ.

So here’s the kicker: If I say that I want others to understand me, if communicating across difference really matters, I have to anticipate the associations others might have with my words and I have to take those associations into account. I have to consider more than what a word means to me; I have to consider what it might mean to others.

It’s become fashionable for some to call this “political correctness,” to claim that words are simple tools with simple, common, unambiguous meanings. I call it something else: a sincere attempt to be understood by people who aren’t like me. And I think it’s an essential attitude in a world in which many of us differ from one another.

Doubts

It’s been a long couple of weeks in my writing world. On the one hand, I’ve worked more actively on specific writing projects than I have in years, especially on fiction. Last week alone, I generated thousands of words on a novel I’ve had in mind for years; this week, I’ve embarked on a new project in a genre I never even considered attempting before, and I’m excited about what lies ahead of me.

At the same time—and maybe as a consequence of the new energy—I’ve also become more aware of the writing time I’ve lost over the years. It gives me at times a sense of urgency, which I think is good. But in the past couple of days, it has also given rise to doubt. In particular, I have begun to yearn for voices of encouragement.

I’ve been fortunate to receive praise for past writing, managed to publish a couple of stories years ago, and been complimented about my ability. I know, because I’ve been told, that some people believe I’m a good writer, or at least that I could be. But for some reason, I want to hear, from someone who knows what I’m attempting—someone I trust—that they believe and expect I will do it.

Now, I have mixed feelings about this desire. Increasingly I’ve seen that, if it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a culture to create a writer, especially a productive one. But I also can’t let go of the image of the solitary writer, sitting in a prison cell if need be, isolated, all the world against her, grinding out a masterpiece with only her own voice for company. Sometimes I can’t help thinking that my “need” for encouragement means I don’t have what it takes to succeed as a writer.

I once had an email exchange with a published writer who had written in her blog that anyone who really want to write can. I took issue with her, talking about the constraints no my time and energy, especially dealing with small children, and she replied that maybe now isn’t the time for me to be writing, and that’s okay. But it’s not okay with me. When I’m not writing, I feel a hole in my life. And that, I tell myself, should be enough, that personal need and urgency should be sufficient to sustain a writing life.

Then I make my way through the day and all the choices I’ve made—choices I would make again without hesitation—but that complicate my life and make a regular writing time, not to mention time for the sleep and the self-care I need to create, difficult. The thing is, I don’t want an “out.” I don’t want a different life. I just want to hear from someone I trust, someone who loves writing and language as I do, and someone who knows me, that they believe in this foolhardy enterprise in which I literally find myself.

To be clear, I’m not expecting or requesting a chorus of generic pep talks, however well-intentioned the people providing them may be. I’m yearning for a community of even as small as one. At a few key moments in my writing life, I’ve had that: a colleague or mentor who knew me and my writing, who actively and regularly inquired about what I was working on, how much I’d gotten done—and for whom I did the same. I’ve even reached out to a few acquaintances during the past couple of years who agreed to that kind of exchange, but in each case, the dialogue has fizzled at their end.

I’m not writing this in the hope that someone who reads it will step forward or that someone will suggest a workshop or studio or class where I can network. I think I’m only writing it because it’s what I’m living at this moment, and I think it’s a real part of the struggle to write well—at least it’s a real part of my struggle. And if nothing else, I hope that others facing the same struggle will see that they have company.