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.

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.

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.

Learning to Love Shitwork

Lately I’ve seen several blog and discussion board posts mentioning the difficulties—even burdens—of editing. Some have praised the value of it; others have bemoaned or even questioned the necessity of it. Two experiences have skewed my own perspective. First, I had an excellent copyediting professor as a college undergraduate, and excellent editing supervisors during my professional work as an editor. Second, from a couple of decades of teaching college-level writing, I read, surely, thousands of pages of unedited writing, and became good at recognizing it pretty quickly. Based on that background, I learned a long time ago to take the value of editing as a given.

But editing represents a larger issue I’ve encountered in a variety of work I’ve done, and it seems especially crucial in trying to write well. That issue is how practitioners in a given field approach the shitwork related to that field.

Because every occupation has its shitwork. If you work on a farm, as some of my high school friends did in Kansas where I grew up, shitwork takes the literal form of the manure you have to shovel, step in, spread, sweep, and even purchase. If you don’t like dealing with shit, a farm is not the place for you. Nor, for that matter, is medicine. You may decide you want to become a pediatrician because you love children or like helping people, but if so you’d better quickly get used to bodily fluids in a wide variety of odors, colors, and viscosities. Doubly true if you want to become a nurse.

And make no mistake, I don’t mean shitwork as a term of denigration. I mean the grease on your hands that lubricates the machine; the networking that helps you meet people who challenge you; the slow review of rows and columns of data that confirm your new theory. I mean the sometimes tedious, line by line, point by point, beautiful grind.

Performers have to rehearse; athletes have to practice (as even basketball star Allen Iverson learned to his dismay); both have to travel. Politicians have to smile and shake hands and listen to everyone’s complaints. Construction workers have to ply their skill in unfriendly elements; entrepreneurs have to raise money. Even the pope—the man who supposedly holds the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven—has to hold audiences, smile beatifically, and keep his cardinals somewhat placated.

That kind of inevitable, ongoing, potentially grinding interaction allows for only one productive response: love.

Let me propose a correlation between competence and the acceptance of shitwork. It goes something like this: The mediocre complain about shitwork; they resent having to attend to the picayune details that are part of any craft, and they deal with them grudgingly if at all. The competent tolerate shitwork; they accept it as a necessary part of performing well at something that matters to them. The adept come to love shitwork. This is not to say they always like it, any more than a loving parent always likes being in the same room with his children. But they welcome it as the stuff you can feel between your fingers; they to relish its odor not because the scent is sweet but because it grounds them in the work itself and in what it takes to do that work well. And more than anything else, doing the work well keeps them going.

Someone said that if you want to be a writer, you’d better love working with words and sentences. That’s why, although I’ve by no means mastered the shitwork that good writing demands, I love exploring it in detail, as some wonderful bloggers I know have done here, here, here, and here, as well. And on a good day, you will find me on my knees, nose down, up to my elbows in it, as it should be.