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.

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.

Reconsidering Writing Production

Filmmaking fascinates me in part because all creative processes do, but also because film’s collaboration forces its makers to explain their decisions to others. This can be a handicap because to succeed the various participants have to get on the same page. But it can also be an advantage because there are others present to at least theoretically contribute to creativity and question errors in judgment.

I’ve wondered, as a writer who performs alone the tasks that many people perform in a film production, what insights the dialogue of making films could teach. For example, what does the back-and-forth between film actor and director suggest about how specifically I should make my characters in early drafts?

Today, for no other reason desperation, I started experimenting with drafting my novel in somewhat the way a film production operates. Routinely, I never draft chronologically, but I have generated the setting of my scenes as I’ve written them. Same, again for the most part, with the way my characters look in terms of physical stature, dress, hairstyle, mannerisms, etc. In other words, I came up with the setting and costumes at the same time that I put the character in them.

This morning, I flipped that. In film production, the construction of the world the characters will inhabit and in which the story will take place precedes the filming of the story. The locations, the set design and decoration, the props, the costumes, even the hair designs, are planned and in place before the actors show up. Partly because I tend to struggle with plot and I didn’t know which events to take up next in my drafting, I began to design and draft the settings for my story. I made a preliminary list of some of those settings: places where the main characters live, bars and restaurants they frequent, an important music club, workplaces of some of the main characters, and landscapes in which some key scenes occur.

Two things happened:

First, I realized that I don’t need to know exactly what’s going to happen in the setting in order to create it, any more than I need to know exactly what’s going to happen at the restaurant or grocery story I decide to visit on my way home. All I have to do is show up—or provide a character—with an intention. A scene happens when some obstacle to achieving the intention emerges, either from the setting itself or from another character with a contrary goal. Of course, in the conflict that ensues, I may discover that a few different details will make the scene work better. But for the purposes of drafting, I only need the place and the people. They make the plot happen.

Second, almost immediately I feel more confident about generating the plot and subplots. The cast of supporting characters has begun to expand as the specifics of each setting emerge, and the qualities of each place—which ones which characters will find familiar and which ones certain characters will find alien or threatening—are already suggesting the shape and even outcome of what might happen. Of course, it helps that I have a good sense of the main characters, and a general sense of the overall shape of the story. But as I worked today, I became much more comfortable with not having more than that.

But most importantly, I feel very differently about the entire process. The idea of creating the world of the story ahead of having the story spelled out in detail, which I have always liked but which really hit home when I listened to this podcast a few weeks ago, has suddenly burst on me with an unexpected energy. I’ve never written stories “from the outside in” because for me the “outside” was plot and I preferred to start with the characters. But now I find the “outside” to be much richer than I had ever imagined. I’m excited about working on the costume design for the characters—what they would wear in different season, situations, in formal or casual settings—and I’m learning about what these characters value and even how they move and occupy space.

This has implications not only for fiction but for something like memoir, biography, history, or even social science writing. How would it help me clarify what I want to say if I spent time early in my process delving into the settings? What would the landscape and clothes signal to me and to the reader about what’s most significant? How can this enrich the way I see what I’m after in a piece?

I don’t yet know, but I’m eager to find out.

Found in Translation

How do I know what I think till I see what I say?
E.M. Forster

On discussion boards, I occasionally see writers present their process as something akin to transcription. They plan every detail of a scene before drafting, and then execute that plan virtually without deviation. These writers focus on efficiency. Who needs writing as discovery? Why meander when you can take the most direct path possible? It presents the essence of writing as an act of will and control.

Of course, I plan my writing too—if not before I draft, then certainly during and after. But I write on more shifting ground. I invariably say something I did not know I was going to say. My characters end up in unanticipated places; the essay subject shifts, altering the trajectory of the piece; the voice of a poem takes a turn that colors the experience of reading it. I have celebrated when this metamorphosis easily improved the writing, and I have despaired when it meant extensive revision. But as I’ve learned more about writing, I’ve come to believe this happens because of the mediating nature of language itself.

So often we speak of mediating in terms of position. A mediator stands between entities—people, experiences, world views—translating each to the other. Writing mediates between writer and readers. We complain when a medium (or the media) doesn’t translate verbatim. “They’re leaving out what he really said,” we say. “That isn’t what really happened.”

This comes from our mania for the “real”: reality television, films “based on real events,” and memoirs that will reveal, at last, the real story behind so-and-so’s life. The more neutral the mediator, the better, and what could be more neutral than “indisputable video evidence”? In sports, we want to see the replay before we believe that the winning basket left the player’s hand in time, or that the soccer ball fully entered the goal. We’ve become addicted to video clips that, unlike written representations, present what happened “unfiltered.” Or so we think.

But I’ve stopped thinking of mediating as neutral. Language has a long history all its own. Each word comes into being at a particular time for particular reasons, and as time has passes, so do the echoes and nuances of that word. In addition, each person’s encounter with a word differs from everyone else’s. Because of this, every reading of a text leaves some elements untranslated. The shift from one way of making meaning to another is always incomplete. To write and to read are like trying to reach through an opaque curtain to grasp an object I can’t see, that I can’t be sure even exists.

I can lament this as language’s failing or celebrate it as language’s power to redirect what it touches. The reader and I meet at the dual surfaces of the text: the side that I experience as its creator and the side that the reader experiences as co-creator. The reader doesn’t receive my writing; s/he creates it with me, in response to what I’ve written. The written text hovers between us, drawing us into collaboration.

The electric circuit between reader and writer that flows through words, syntax, content, and structure gives writing its power over us. It provides the energy that can make reading a book one of the most significant—even transformative—events in a human being’s life. Words have altered my values, my perspective, my actions, and even my identity. Sometimes I’ve encountered those words in the works of great writers; sometimes I’ve found them in the works of writers unknown or forgotten; I’ve even encountered and been surprised by them in my own prose and poetry. That is what keeps me reading and writing.

8 Essential Writing Lessons Journalism Taught Me: Shape the Experience

I’ve left shaping, the most ruthless writing lesson, for last.

In essence, it’s simple. Shaping means ensuring that every detail of the text contributes to the experience I want the reader to have. Whatever fails to meet that test—be it a word, a comma, a bit of content, a phrase, a sentence, a structural device, or an organizational strategy—has to be fixed or has to be cut.

When I shape, I take myself by the nape of the neck and methodically excise the excesses lingering on the page. That includes those unnecessary flourishes I performed purely to announce my talent and the prettiness I can create. Instead of showing the reader that I can bend words to my will, while shaping I bend my will to what the writing demands.

To shape is to peel away the writer’s ego, leaving only that which executes my intention.

Sound difficult? It is. It would hurt when an editor told me that a word didn’t work or a sentence sounded jarring in the paragraph or my beautiful turn of phrase contributed nothing to my overall story. Not infrequently, I felt a sense of loss deleting the metaphor I had labored over but still sounded clunky. So why suffer through what can be a bruising process? Because, to paraphrase a saying, good writing reads better than mediocre writing looks.

The ruthlessness of shaping gives me the freedom to play and the courage to draft. It is my safety net. I can make a complete ass of myself in the draft—take all sorts of risks, allow myself wild tangents that lead to dead ends, indulge in verbosity and obscurity and all manner of useless showing off—because I know that when I shape I will surrender my ego to the specific demands of the writing, to the experience for the reader that I’ve committed myself to create.

To that end, and as the discussion here explains so well, shaping goes beyond proofreading or copyediting, correcting mistakes or cleaning up problems, important as those activities are. It clears the clutter so that a more powerful and coherent voice can emerge from the text. When I identify what doesn’t belong, I can accentuate what does belong; when I eliminate what impedes my reader’s experience, I can develop the elements that will enhance that experience. Shaping externally makes manifest the internal animating spirit of a given piece of writing.

Journalism taught me that shaping, like the other lessons I learned, happens best as part of a conversation. I can have that conversation with myself by setting my writing aside for a time, then returning to it later with a fresher, more detached perspective. But ideally, that conversation includes others: an agent, an editor, a mentor, writing friends. I’ve come to see the pervasive myth of the isolated, genius author is just that: a myth. We borrow our language from our culture, internalize it, develop it with the help of colleagues, then send it back out into the world for readers to experience. At every step, the work of writing connects to others, and that may be the most important writing lesson of all.

8 Essential Writing Lessons Journalism Taught Me: Reconsider

The work I did for newspapers was by far the most collaborative writing I’ve ever done, though generally I didn’t think I was collaborating at the time.

Every day, I reported my story, I thought about it, and I wrote it down—or I wrote it down and thought about it. I polished it up nice and shiny and minded my factual as well as stylistic p’s and q‘s, then turned it over to my editing and copyediting colleagues to put their fingers into it.

When the rooting around worked, it worked because those colleagues made you reconsider everything in the story that mattered. I reconsidered it when I sat down beside the desk editor and she questioned this lead paragraph and that quote and this comma and the use of that term. When, perhaps, she questioned whether my story was news at all rather than just the same old, same old. Or conversely when she questioned whether the run-of-the-mill story I had composed might instead be a significant crack in the wall of some institutional edifice.

I reconsidered it when, after I had left work and stopped to have a few beers and arrived at home to have a few more and watch something insipid but entertaining on television, or god forbid that I had gone out with my wife to a movie or dinner with friends, and someone on the copy desk interrupted my insipid entertainment, or I came home from the movie or dinner and found a blinking light on my answering machine (picture a time before cell phones when people were not constantly available).

At each reconsideration, you had to defend the decisions you made. And with each defense, if you had anything mentally going on, you had to ask yourself what the editor was asking you: Had your choices been the right ones? Had you left something out that you shouldn’t have? Had you gotten the essence of the story or had you missed it completely? And sometimes you discovered that the answers to at least some of those questions did not comfort you, but that this discomfort made the story better and made you a better writer. And then you realized that whatever the quality of your decisions, the act of reconsideration itself made you a better writer because it taught you the kinds of questions to ask yourself whether there was a copyeditor at the other end of the phone line or not.

You learned that what a priest I once interviewed said about his faith applied equally well to writing: that finding appropriate moments to question our choices makes our choices better.

In an earlier post, I wrote about the need, at some point, to make conscious decisions about your intentions for a piece and what means you would use to carry those intentions out. A simpler word for that decision-making is design. I would choose an experience I wanted my reader to have and design the writing to achieve that experience.

The collaborative experience in journalism helped me see the equal necessity of reconsidering my design, of being willing to chuck it all and start from scratch if I found my design to be wrongheaded. I have always found this reconsideration both terrifying and liberating. It scares me because it means that hours, days, weeks or more of labor can end up junked. But it frees more than it frightens because however wrong I get it, I can always give myself the chance to recuperate my writing, so long as I’m willing to tell myself the truth about the work I’ve done.