Tag Archives: Writing Advice

A Writer’s Callouses

If you are struggling with the work/life creative balance I highly recommend this book by Matthew Crawford.

Working in a bookstore, I spend the better part of my life surrounded by books. It’s a great job, filled with pleasures you might expect: leisurely conversations with customers about ideas and politics, celebrating with authors on book tours, and getting my hands on the new novels coming down the pipes a season or two before they are released to the general public. When I’m not selling books, I help people edit and market their books as a part-time writing coach. These two jobs satisfy me in innumerable ways as a person and a writer. What they don’t always do is make me want to rush home and work on my own novel. It’s the middle of August and I last worked actively worked on a chapter of my own book in June. I’m telling y’all this not because I feel the need to confess, but because I think it’s something we as writers should not be afraid to discuss. Truth is: sometimes writers don’t write.

For a long time I felt like being a writer who went through long periods of not writing was a shameful secret, one that set me apart from all of my endlessly industrious writer friends who swore up and down that they wrote 5,000 words a day come hell or high water. I felt a bit like a spouse in a sexless marriage, convinced that all the neighbors are happily fornicating like bunnies. After all, if the only thing that makes one a writer is the act of putting words on the page then I was a big old fake, at least until I managed to sit back down at the desk again.

But over the last few years I’ve paid more attention to what I like to do when I’m not writing. I realized that while my life surrounded by letters is a wonderful one, it can be deafening. I find myself seeking the solace of creating things that I don’t have to talk about (or to)–furniture, gardens–and fixing things that are easily fixed–painting walls, laying flooring, pulling weeds. In my loquacious life with my buzzing brain I am so happy in these silences, so relieved by the obvious cause and effect of a project undertaken and completed. These little efforts are so unlike my novel, which is always amorphous, bulging out at the edges of my consciousness, refusing easy definition.

All of this is to say, if you’ve ever suffered shame as a writer because you weren’t writing “enough,” just stop. Think about what you are creating when you aren’t creating in your usual medium and think about why you might need that break. If you are living your life in a full way, you aren’t wasting time. I know that the breathing room I create when I make things with my hands allows me to come back to my writing with a fuller heart. My writing feels fresher, more joyful. I enter into the act of writing without guilt or resentment.

Give yourself writer’s callouses:

  • If you really are one of those people who writes 5,000 words a day come hell or high water, why not try stepping away from the desk one day a week to make something with your hands? Not handy? How about just moving furniture around in your office or living room or hang your art on different walls in your apartment. Plant something, even just a cactus. Invite movement into your physical world and discover what spaces emerge in your writing.

    Use all the tools in your creative toolbox.

  • If you’re a secret “slump” writer like me, forgive yourself, but don’t go too long without working. Make sure that you balance your desire for the instant gratification of physical creation with the longer, more private pleasures of writing. If you have a hard time getting back to your desk after a month or more, don’t think about how you “should” be writing. Think instead about how good writing can feel once you are really dug in and cranking. Promise yourself you will spend at least one day trying to get to that sweet spot and if it doesn’t happen, forgive yourself. Then begin again.
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Hard Little Happiness

In my last post, “Writing the Good Fight,” I talked about the hazards of writing conflict and how difficult it can be for us gentle readers and writers to want to jump headlong into penning some tough fight scenes. Well, as hard as it is to write down and dirty conflict in fiction, I’ve noticed that happiness is arguably even harder for my students to write than conflict.

Pain and the Novice Muse

The Muse.

My guess is that happiness is so hard to write about for a number of reasons, the first and most obvious being that happiness is elusive, subjective, fast-moving, and slippery. If you kept a journal as a teenager or if you keep one now try thinking of a time in the past when you know you were happy and go back and read how you documented that time, if you documented it. If you’re anything like me, a lot of good, joyful, things occurred during the ten or so years that I actively kept a journal and yet to read my accounting of those years, you’d think I was exclusively miserable, isolated, and angry. Why did I only document the sad things? Well, for one thing, when I was happy, newly in love or excelling in school or playing sports every day and feeling really good in my body and my life, I didn’t have time to dwell on, let alone write down, the minutia of the day’s disappointments. I tended to only write when I needed to figure something out, and writing when I needed to figure something out meant that I always had something “deep” to say. It made me feel “like a writer.”  My moments of happiness began to feel like not very important subjects because real artists wrote about pain and clearly if I only “felt like writing” when I was in pain I must be a “real writer.” Of course, writing only when you’re down can be a kind of self-perpetuating artist’s trap that extends well-beyond the narcissistic and mopey teenage years if you don’t begin to interrupt that logic. If you still believe that pain is the best muse, cut that mess out. In fact, cut out the idea of the muse all together. Lightning doesn’t strike and make you creative or profound, you sit down at your desk every day and the act of putting your hands on the keyboard allows inspiration to strike.

The Boring Underbelly of Joy

Think about the great books of world literature. Make a list of your favorites in your head. Okay, now think of how many of those books feature scenes of happiness? My guess is that it may take you a minute to think of some. It is much easier to think of the wrenching pain or even the bitter comedy than the moments of pure joy. Why should it be so hard? Perhaps because we think of happiness as a boring subject. Leo Tolstoy famously began Anna Karenina with the sentence: “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  Perhaps we think that there is no story in happiness, because there is presumably no conflict.  Literary critics go as far back as Dante’s Divine Comedy to argue that while Dante’s Inferno is a hell of a good read, his Paradiso is far from heavenly. Puns aside, critics argue that Paradiso is less admired because its focus on heavenly perfection, on happiness and light, bores us as readers. We may seek happiness in our own lives but we don’t want to read about the happiness of others. More recently Ian McEwen (for my money the best British novelist writing today) tackled the problem of writing happiness in his 2005 novel, Saturday. McEwan’s protagonist, Perowne has it all: a good job, lots of money, a wife with whom he is still in love and to whom he is still attracted, two healthy grown children. The source of conflict in the novel is all external: taking place all in one day, February 15, 2003, the day when hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets in London to demonstrate against the impending war in Iraq. The result of McEwan’s experiment is uneven at best. Perowne seems literally embarrassed by his riches yet doesn’t grow much from the book’s start to its finish. The book is not so much boring, as static, dissatisfying, journey-less.

Putting Happiness in its Place

Zora Neale Hurston looking joyful.

So if Dante and McEwan can’t write entertainingly about happiness what makes me so sure you can do it? You can do it because you are going to put happiness in its place. The problem is not with writing scenes or moments of happiness or joy–a novel feels shallow and soulless without some joy–the problem is taking happiness as the subject of your novel. So yes, it is boring to read about people who are basically content because they don’t want anything, because if they don’t want anything there is nothing to strive for and if they don’t strive then there is no story. That said, it is also really boring to read about someone who is so depressed that he/she doesn’t want to get out of bed to try for anything either.  Emotion in fiction is a matter of proportion. Zora Neale Hurston was a master of emotional proportion because she understood that to depict one end of the emotional spectrum without depicting the other is to present the reader with an incomplete version of life. In her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, Hurston writes: “I have been in Sorrow’s kitchen and licked out all the pots. Then I have stood on the peaky mountain wrapped in rainbows, with a harp and sword in my hands.” That, friends, is the emotional spectrum we all should strive for in our fiction. No one will care about your protagonist’s pain if we don’t believe he or she is capable of joy. We don’t want to root for losers, for whiners. Nor do we want to root for sappy, pie-in-the-sky fruitloops either. We want to root for characters who are capable of some small scrap of joy. They may not have experienced joy in twenty years, but joy must exist as a flickering memory or as some kind of hoped for possibility, because without the possibility of joy there is nothing worth journeying for.

Your Writerly B-12 Shot for Injecting Some Joy Up in Your Work

  • For each character you write, but especially for your protagonist and your primary antagonist I want you to spend some time creating happy memories. I can hear you now saying: “But my character had a shit childhood where nothing good ever happened. How can I create a happy memory for this character?” Or maybe you feel that way about your own childhood. My belief is that happiness is deeply subjective and exists on a very broad spectrum, but that it exists everywhere in everyone’s life. So, if your character lived in an abusive foster home as a child and is now a cop who works to protect children perhaps his happiest memory as a child was the free popsicle the church gave out in the summer after boring vacation bible school. Maybe he hated church and everyone there. Maybe he felt they were all hypocrites, but maybe that popsicle touched a special joyful place inside of him that was his, that was private, that no one else could soil. Write about that popsicle the way a rich kid would write about receiving a brand new bicycle on his 6th birthday. If your world is small and dark, so too, might your pleasures be, but pleasures still exist. They are fewer and farther between, but they exist, and they are arguably all the more important to hone in on and polish until they shine.
  • Scale down your understanding of happy moments. If you live in the U.S. you’ve likely been conditioned by our consumer culture to think there is always someone happier than you, always some thing you could buy that would make you happier, more complete. As a result, it is sometimes genuinely difficult for us to identify authentic sources of happiness in our own lives, let alone transcribe them to our characters. So, even if your character’s life is not so brutal as the hypothetical child above, do not be afraid to look for the small joyful moments rather than the giant milestones. If we look only to the culturally sanctioned “happiness bringers:” graduation, material gain, sex, love, marriage, birth, travel, we may miss much of the nuance of our characters.
  • Don’t make the mistake of thinking that pain, by itself, is more interesting than joy. It’s not. Suffering is interesting in relation to an end goal. We will watch a character suffer if we think he’s going somewhere. If he’s spinning his wheels, we’ll walk away; we can watch real people spin their wheels on the internet for free.
  • Tolstoy may be right about the happiness of families but he is wrong about individuals; striving for happiness is a source of great material because it keeps your character wanting something and as long as your character wants something your character is moving and acting. This propels your character from scene to scene and into conflicts with other characters. All great conflicts start because one person’s method of trying to be happy conflicts with another person’s method. It’s as simple as that.
  • If you aren’t happy in your own life, think about why not. What of your own pursuits of happiness can you use to animate your characters? Think about all the obstacles to your own happiness and see if any of them might work for your character. Who knows? Maybe you’ll realize you’re happier than you thought.
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Writing The Good Fight

Beginning writers often hear that “conflict makes good fiction,” it’s right up there with “show don’t tell” in the pantheon of oldie but goodie writing advice. It’s true that conflict, or more broadly, issues between two or more people that cause tension are the meat and potatoes of good fiction. Lately the issue of how to write more literal conflicts– fights, arguments, brawls–has been popping up again and again in my writing class and with my individual writing clients so I thought it might be valuable to share a little bit about how I think about weaving literal conflict into a narrative.Image

In my experience beginning writers behave in writing as they do in life, meaning if they are nice, reasonably well adjusted people, they often find it difficult to send their protagonists headlong into a painful argument or physical confrontation with another character. Often these well-meaning writers lead their characters right up to the edge of the nasty comment, the thrown punch, the terrible cruelty, and fade to black, leaving the reader to flounder in a vague or unsatisfying dénouement. The exceptions to this rule are the nice, well-adjusted writers who have spent a lot of time for one reason or another thinking about how people fight. These folks have often survived hard things and are ready to dive right in to the heart of darkness and expose the nastiness of life in all its gory details. What this style of writer occasionally neglects is the ambivalence of conflict, the messiness that can dance in the gray areas of right and wrong and good and bad. In either case, one thing is true: writing interesting conflict means truly and finally writing fiction, which means separating the self from the narrator, and the self from characters and their unruly and occasionally delightfully ugly actions. Sorting out one’s own ideas about conflict is not always as easy as it might immediately seem but it is an important step to understanding how your characters might respond to tension in a given situation.

Conflict, like most things, is so deeply culturally defined that we sometimes can’t see its parameters or the way our individual experiences shape our understanding of what constitutes “appropriate” or “inappropriate” behavior. We like to imagine that we share a universal good and bad. We imagine that there are some things for which anyone would fight and some things which would incite even the calmest person to rage, but no emotion is universal in that way; right and wrong are often far more relativistic than any of us would like to admit. We learn first about what constitutes conflict from our parent(s) or the people who raise us. Some people grow up in houses where their parents never raise their voices above a whisper to disagree but the animosity and bitterness is as palpable as a knife blade cutting down the center of the family. Other people come from homes where their parents yell about everything from politics to peas, yet the parents remain a team, a unit, and consider themselves happy. Our race, ethnicity, religion, region, socioeconomic class, education, and any other number of cultural factors may or may not blend into our formulation of what separates say “a disagreement” from “a fight.” I believe it is dangerous to draw broad conclusions about how any single aspect of culture might determine how one defines conflict, especially when you are imagining the inner life of someone completely “other” to you, but I think it can be useful to think about how each aspect of your own experience taught you lessons about conflict, tension, and when it is socially acceptable or unacceptable “to fight.” Once you’ve spent some time making your own subjective values around conflict more visible to yourself you may find that you are better able to enter the world of your fiction with fresh eyes.

Below are some suggestions to get you started and enliven the conflict and tension in your stories:

  1.  Put it all on the body. Far too often I notice that when the hard emotions hit, characters suddenly become strangely disembodied, floating in la la land discoursing on just how darn ticked off they are. This disembodiment is the exact opposite of what generally happens in real life when you are angry, humiliated, uncomfortable, heartbroken, etc. You feel hopelessly embodied. You feel your heartbeat, you feel heat rise on your skin, you feel sweaty, you may not be able to stop moving in a certain way, or you may not be able to move at all. You may be terribly immobile, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t stuck irrevocably in your body, so talk about the prison of your body. Talk about pain and bile. Talk about being scared to throw up or cry or piss your pants or bleed. I know there are many people who do completely disassociate from their bodies in times of violence, stress, trauma or fear, but I would argue that there is a way to write an embodied disassociation. Toni Morrison is great at this, so is Dorothy Allison.  Whatever you do, don’t tell us how mad, sad, or bad your character feels, put us in his body and let us claw our way out with him.
  2. Slow it way down. If you think about the truly traumatic things that have happened to you, you probably remember them with a kind of horrible precision (that or you don’t remember them at all which is a different can of worms). Our brains can remember bad things with alarming clarity, recalling the lines around a mugger’s eyes, or the smell of a violent ex-lover’s breath till the day we die, but good days are as fleeting as sunshine and fluffy clouds. So write the way our brains work. Slow down moments of fear, horror, anger, betrayal and let us feel them with that horrible clarity our brains possess. Wring every detail out of a scene of conflict. You can always cut it later. For now, act like your character’s trauma is your own, and this fight is the one you will always remember.
  3. Don’t let a fight be a “clean win.” Too often I read stories where folks have one terribly unambiguous conflict where the bad guy is so bad and the protagonist is so deserving of the victory that the story quickly becomes so boring. The fact of the matter is that we rarely get clean victories in real life. It’s the Rolling Stones principle of conflict, “you can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes you just might find you get what you need.” Although, perhaps your character might not even get what she really needs without also sacrificing something else she needs or really, really wants. Put your character in a situation where winning is also losing. Your protagonist finally gets the chance to audition for Alvin Ailey’s dance ensemble but she has to leave the same week her beloved twin brother is shipping out to fight in Afghanistan. Should she stay or should she go? What if instead of her brother shipping out, he’s coming home in a body bag? Does her choice change? What does this do to our notions of “right” and “wrong?”
  4. Overwrite conflicts in first drafts. You know that moment when you have a bad interaction with someone and they totally best you but you are so taken off guard that you can’t properly respond in the moment, so you go home and hours later you think of the perfect comeback to really hit ‘em where it hurts? Well that moment sucks, but the joy of being a writer is getting to change all of that on some micro level by writing your comebacks into your novels. So rather than pulling your punches and fading to black next time your characters need to get into it, really get into it, I mean dig deep, and go nasty. Forget that anyone will ever read this particular draft and go hard. Say the meanest thing that your character could feasibly say in the situation and say it well. Hit below the belt. Shock the other characters with your protagonist’s moxie. Just try it. It might not work. You might feel dumb and throw it all out in a future draft, but best case scenario, you’ve unlocked some fighting spirit that you didn’t know you had and worst case scenario you’ve brainstormed some new witticisms for the next time some entitled business man cuts you off in the supermarket checkout line.
  5. Fights, both physical and emotional, usually occur in fits and starts. It’s not uncommon for a fight to build in dramatic tension over the course of several hours or even several days. Depending on your taste, here are two totally stylistically different movies that illustrate the timing of fights between close characters. The first film is the “The Deer Hunter.” You don’t even need to watch the whole movie. Just watch the first hour as these guys get ready for a wedding and then a hunting trip and then prepare to ship out to Vietnam. The tension in that movie is almost silent for the first third of the film but it is always there and the first dramatic arc culminates in a fight about whether or not one friend can borrow another friend’s hunting boots, when really the viewer understands they are fighting about growing up, and being terrified of growing apart and leaving home and dying. It’s brilliant. Sometimes you fight about shoes because you can’t fight about the things you actually fear. The other film is “Crimes of the Heart” which is about three over the top, kind of crazy Southern sisters whose mother committed suicide when they were girls and who all have secrets of their own as adults. The women love each other desperately and sometimes can’t communicate at all. Their fights, when they do finally have them, are the unleashing of twenty years of pent-up good Southern lady rage. It’s admittedly a little cheesy and rife with Southern stereotypes in places but the dialogue is great because it’s based on a play and the tension is strong throughout. The films couldn’t be more different but they both have much to teach about unspoken feelings and resentments among groups of friends/siblings.
  6. As a final exercise, consider writing a scene in which two characters who are good friends or even close family members interpret a negative interaction with a third character in completely different ways. (For example: a store clerk blatantly follows two young men around her store because she suspects them of shoplifting, how do they each react? Why?) The goal of this exercise is to get at what shapes your character’s understandings of what is “okay” in the world and what is not. This exercise also has the secondary possibility or triangulating the tension between the two close friends who might object to each other’s reactions to the source of the original tension.
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