Category Archives: Writing While Living

Blog entries about my life as a writer. This category is purely egotistical. All the other categories of Write Or Take a Nap? are for the benefit of humankind.

I Am Definitely Doing This, Right After I Take a Nap

geese flyingNo matter when I write, I’m distracted. If I continue to write, I become more focused and less distracted, but never entirely. When I first sit down, however, no matter what I’m writing, or when I write, even if I’m not writing late in the evening when I’m tired—which I almost always am—at first I really don’t want to do it.

I can imagine someone who isn’t a writer, but who knows I am, saying to me, “So you enjoy writing” and I would have to think Hmm, not exactly. To say that we want something is complicated. I can, for instance, really, really want to see the play that’s being performed at a theater downtown, and just as much I can want to sit quietly on the couch and not drive through the rain to the theater.

We can want many things that all contradict one another. The essayist Montaigne even refers to this dichotomy of desire, because it is, after all, a basic fact of human psychology. I want to lose weight and eat half of this apple pie, at the same time.

So if I say I want to write, that’s absolutely true, probably more true than almost any other fact about me. I do want to write. Yet I can walk down the street “wanting to write” without being bothered by the actual writing process at that moment. I can walk along thinking that the hero in my book will be good and kind except with a harmful flaw of jealousy. It’s easy to think such a thing without having to write sentences that I will then look at and think “Well, that’s stupid”.

I noticed several times in the past week that fairly often when I stood up from my desk, within seconds my mind shifted to thinking about something I was writing, either the novel or a poem. As I walked down the hall to the restroom, I was thinking about how to handle a scene in the book, and when I got back to my desk, sat down, and looked at the computer screen, suddenly I was back to thinking about what the proper abbreviation for spondyloarthritis is in the medical journal I work for.

As a general rule, during free moments in the day, it’s fairly easy to ponder what I’m writing, and to wish I was home doing it, instead of having a job. It’s easy, that is, to think about writing. I’ve known a number of people who apparently think about it as well, based on their declarations that they write, or want to write, or at least think about being a writer.

Actually doing it, though, sitting down to the cold fact that there must be a first word (Summer), followed by a second word (geese), until a full sentence has been created (had gathered on the pond, ready to head south), that’s only one sentence, and that felt like work. I mean, why geese? Why a pond? And consider all the possibilities that have been lost because of that sentence. Before it was written, everything in all of time and space was available, but now that one sentence says that we’re near a pond at the end of summer. That’s a lot less than all of time and space. The very act of writing seems to limit the options.

Thus when I say that I want to write, what I mean is something like “I’m compelled to do this, I realize that, and I accept it.” Whether I like doing it is not relevant.

So every evening, often when I’m tired, I sit down at the computer, where I tell myself I’m going to write—after I check email, read a couple of news articles, look to see where the Gipsy Kings are from because I’m listening to their music, go get a bowl of nuts for a snack, check a different email account, make a note to email someone tomorrow, and look to see which town Van Morrison was born in because . . .

Eventually, late, I do finally slip into the writing, until at last I’m in that world, the one I’m creating, and there comes a point where I do rather enjoy it. Summer geese had gathered on the pond, ready to head south. As they flew over the interstate and past the mall, they moved back through time, landing finally beside a lake where the Aztec priest had said a city was to be built.

Leave a comment

Filed under Writing While Living

It Depends on So Much

Signs saying "no"

Until they say yes

A tiered cake stood on one end of the table, and on the top tier were two figures, decorated cookies perhaps, looking a bit like cartoon characters. Written on the cake was the phrase “It all depends”. There were also other cakes on a table that ran ten or twelve feet, heavy laden with food: tiny ham biscuits, pimento cheese sandwiches, platters of fresh vegetables with dip, candied nuts, more pimento cheese sandwiches with bacon (now that’s a brilliant idea), rolled up sandwiches of some sort, and still more.

This spread was laid out to celebrate my friend, Anna Schachner, who has just published a novel called You and I and Someone Else from Mercer University Press.

The celebration of Anna’s book was sponsored by the Georgia Center for the Book, held at the Decatur library, an event that began in the small theater downstairs, then moved over to the meeting room, with the cake, and did I mention pimento cheese with bacon?

I’ve known Anna since 1990, when we were both English grunts teaching at Dekalb College, and we were both reading stacks of fiction submissions for the literary magazine Chattahoochee Review. Since then I’ve gone on to whatever in the world it is I’ve been doing, while Anna stayed at the college and eventually became the editor of the magazine. In the twenty-seven years that I’ve known Anna, I’ve watched her work and struggle, writing, then writing more, then writing more, going through multiple literary agents (you know, the people who “help” writers). It has taken a while, but her book is now out there.

Quite a nice crowd showed up to fill the theater on Tuesday, and it was good to see Anna get such recognition. Other writers also came, of course, and on the stage with Anna were two writers who some people will recognize, Joshilyn Jackson and Karen Abbott. As it happens, Anna, Joshilyn, and Karen have helped one another as a writing group, and—here’s an interesting little factoid—Anna and Joshilyn are planning to each a class together at a prison.

For the book event, Joshilyn introduced Anna and Karen, and Karen then interviewed Anna about the novel that has just been published. They both had microphones, which were totally not working, and I wondered how it was the people running the event were looking at the stage without making a move to fix that.

So I couldn’t hear that well, but I was gratified to hear Anna describe some of the creation of this book, which went through multiple iterations over fourteen years. She described it beginning as multiple short pieces, which then turned into connected short stories, and finally into a novel. The book that I’m now revising (which I first began twenty years ago) has done some similar things, also gradually drawing together more and more tightly into a coherent story. I felt a little justified to hear Anna describe her long-birthing book that is now before the world.

After the interview we all stood up and mingled a bit. I was surprised to see my friend Lamar York, who started the Chattahoochee Review, as I knew Lamar had driven four or five hours down from North Carolina, where he now lives. I knew quite a few people, mostly faculty or former faculty from the two schools I used to be associated with, who had come to help Anna celebrate.

I also took the opportunity to introduce myself to Joshilyn Jackson and talk to her for a minute, something I had intended to do if I ever had a chance, as I reviewed one of Joshilyn’s books for a local arts website a few years ago. In addition, I had a brief chat with Karen Abbott, so I was rubbing shoulders with the gentry, and I offered to go outside and watch their horses if they wanted me to.

For the kind of literary fiction that I write, Anna is the only person I know who does that type of writing as seriously as I do it. After watching her try so long and hard, I’m glad I was here in Atlanta to see her sit on a stage and talk about her book. You go, girl.

Leave a comment

Filed under Giving Birth to a Book (That's Why I'm Screaming), Writing While Living

Somebody Get That Dog a Bowl of Water!

A dog

Sono un cane parlante

A week ago a friend sent me a link to a site where a writer was talking about his writing process, about how he arrived at the final text through a somewhat random process of discovering things, but definitely not a process based on having a clear plan in mind from the beginning.

Writing random stuff? No plan in mind? Don’t really know where you’re going?

Hey, I have the same writing process!

I wonder if that writer’s process also includes going to kitchen every evening to get dark chocolate. And if so, does his writing process involve stopping in the kitchen to look at the dirty dishes in the sink and think, “Goddamnit. Who’s gonna wash this stuff?”

Because that’s how I write. I mean, you can’t just sit and push on computer keys while you’re writing. Who would do that? You’ve got to walk around some, go look in the mirror to see if you’ve changed in the last few hours, get out the vacuum cleaner and leave it standing in the middle of the living room, as a guarantee that you’re definitely going to vacuum within the next week.

I also think about the plot when I’m writing, things like “What reason does this character have to go to New York?” or “Maybe I’ll add a talking dog, people like dogs,” or “Do I want this book to be about trying to find the light of reason in the existential darkness of life, or about a man who finds a kitty?”

Being the observant writer that I am, I’ve noticed that people really like kitties. Or . . . wait a minute, I could have the kitty meet a talking dog. Hold on while I write that down.

Boy, that next novel is practically going to write itself. Sometimes it’s just a joy to be a writer.

Then there’s all those other times. I’ve mentioned on this blog, just last week, if your memory goes back that far, that I’m revising a novel I finished writing back in 2000. You understand that the word “finished” in that sentence means “wrote a piece of crap”. Which is disappointing, because at the time I didn’t think that, but now I do. So what if at some point in the future I look back at what I’m writing now and think “Oh, my God, why didn’t you just blind yourself before you wrote that?”

That’s a spooky thing about art, of any sort. What if it’s terrible, but while you’re doing it you don’t know that? What if it’s like being insane and everyone knows it but you? “No, I’m fine. Really. Here, did you read my novel?”

I’ll tell you something about the last two books, that is, the one I’m on now, plus the one before (The Invention of Colors). Both of those books at one point had four main characters, two male and two female. Over the course of floundering through both of them for years, like a really drunk mud wrestler, I came to the point with both books of taking the male characters and reducing them down to either background or secondary characters, focusing on the females. In both cases, the novel finally came together and started to make more sense. It wasn’t easy to throw away so much writing that I had worked on so hard for so long, but the books got way better, which did provide some compensation.

Here’s a little brainstorming for the next book. What if the talking dog and the kitty form a musical group? How great does that sound? Then they’ll have a reason to go to New York.

2 Comments

Filed under How We Create Magic, Writing While Living

Tetra Lives

Aborignal painting

Dreamtime

The world that we call “real”, with its molecules, pine trees, utility bills, and vast expanses of dark matter, is where I spend most of my time. Same as you, probably. Then again, I don’t know where you spend your time. In terms of that world’s ability to put an end to our nonsense and disperse our molecules, it’s certainly real enough.

In some ways, however, that real world happens in our minds, depending on how we process it. Think of someone who is extremely sensitive to sensory stimuli, for instance, who finds soft sounds painful, or someone who has synesthesia, and can see colors with different sounds. Whose world is real—yours or theirs?

I’m advocating the idea, if somewhat abstractly, that what happens inside our minds is real. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve spent time in four worlds. The other three all came from books, one that I was reading, one that I was writing, and one that I was critiquing. I’ve been like a literary Luke Skywalker, leaping from world to world.

The novel I was reading was Ripper by Isabel Allende, who is by far one of my favorite modern writers. The book is set mostly in San Francisco, and it is dense with interesting characters. The novel I’m revising takes place mostly in Atlanta, although I’m starting to expand that out a little, as I’m just now putting a scene in New York City in 1958. Also in the last two weeks I’ve been critiquing a novel for a friend, and that book takes place in Boston for the most part, partly set in the 1930s and partly in our own time.

Thus I’ve moved in and out of various worlds, all of which, at times, were as real in my head as dark matter. Actually, they were a lot more real than dark matter, as I don’t even know that that is, though physicists tell me there really is such a thing.

More real for me was two high school girls going into a warm bagel shop in Brookline, just outside Boston, where a young man was working making bagels. I followed those girls into the shop, picturing them, one tall, one short, I saw them sit down at a table, and I watched the young man come out from the back and catch sight of them.

At other moments, I was in San Francisco with a policeman going to question suspects in a murder case, saw him approach the house of a man who was killed, and I was standing there as he inspected the body, then went to talk to the murdered man’s indifferent wife. I could feel the policeman’s attraction to the widow, as well as his sense that he should treat her like a suspect.

In my own book, during the last two weeks, I watched one of my heroines wake up with a man she spent the night with, and I was there with her (I don’t even blush to say so), when they turned toward one another the next morning and began caressing and kissing. Later in the chapter, I sat with her and looked through her eyes, down at the ground from an airplane window, to see how it felt for her to be on a plane for the first time in her life.

Although most of my time has been here in the world of dark matter and utility bills, I’ve moved between these four worlds every day, so that I might spend the morning thinking about how to format tables in a medical article (my real job world), then at lunch time I would no longer be in Atlanta, but in San Francisco with a woman who gave massages and worked with aromatherapy, sitting with her and her daughter in a cafe. That evening I may have gotten on an airplane to go to Toronto to an art history conference, or else I attended a baseball game in Boston, with a hotdog.

Inside my head, all four of these worlds were real. Moving in and out of such worlds is how I live, and sometimes they are more interesting than the one where my body lives and needs to wash the dishes sitting on the kitchen counter. I wish dark matter would just make those dishes disappear.

I’m sending out a wish to you this week, that you have more than one world worth spending time in.

Leave a comment

Filed under Writing While Living

I Checked All Your Adverbs

woman drinking a cup of coffeeThis seems like a complicated point to make. When we write, at least in a subconscious way, we imagine a reader who is reading it, and as we imagine that reader, we picture them understanding our text exactly the way we want them to. If it occurs to us that the imaginary reader will not understand something, then we change it.

Sometimes, however, when a real reader actually reads what we wrote, holy Jesus! how did they come up with those ideas? That’s not at all what we meant. The fact is, as a writer, you really don’t know how a reader will perceive what you’ve written. Until a reader, or multiple readers, see what you’ve done (and tell you), you’re guessing whether or not it works. After all, writing is not merely about writing, it’s about being read. We do not write just to admire the alphabet.

As hard as writing is, as much blood as you have to leave behind while doing it, when you finally have a finished manuscript, if you can get the opinion of some readers before you hand it out to the world, you can feel more confident of what you have. You don’t necessarily have to change anything based on what the readers say, but if three people are all confused at the same point, would you pay attention to that? I certainly would.

Getting this kind of help is one reason people seek out and attend writing groups. For a novelist, however, there are two potential problems with such a group. One problem is inherent in any group, the difference between critiquing and copy editing. Critiquing is seriously considering the content in a piece of writing as well as how it is presented (style, structure, and so on). Copy editing is only looking at what is written to see whether it has any mistakes, without much attention to the content.

Many people who attend writing groups, in their “critique” of someone’s writing, will merely copy edit, pointing out a mistake here and there, or talking about some feature of style they personally like or don’t like. This slight copy editing, which requires little effort, creates the illusion that they are taking part in a writing group. It isn’t serious, and it isn’t much help.

The second problem with a writing group applies particularly to novelists. Even if the members of a writing group are both competent and willing (and you’re damn lucky if you find both of those things in a group of people), the group members necessarily read only in bits at a time, so if you have a novel, then you eventually need a critique of the whole book, and you can’t get it there.

Thus, when you finish the draft of a novel, you’re fortunate if you can find someone who is capable and willing to give you a critique of the book. It’s quite a lot of effort, and a lot to ask of someone. And yet . . . it’s incredibly, incredibly helpful to a novelist. I’m jealous of writers who have a circle of writer friends who gladly expend the effort to give critiques. I mean, I assume such a situation must exist, although I’ve never encountered it.

With the last book I wrote, The Invention of Colors, I found two people who were willing to give me a critique. One of them even went so far as to ask if she could do it. I felt lucky to find two very smart, well-read people who would do this. I felt lucky, that is, until they both fell off the earth and disappeared, and six months later I have heard literally not a word from either of them.

I’m currently critiquing a novel for a friend, and my focus is on two things. First, I’m thinking about overall plot flow and whether I see problems in the logic, in plot, or in the flow from section to section. Second, I’m focused on the psychological reality of the characters. One point I’ve found to criticize, which I’ve seen in other books, is when a character does something not because that character would actually do such a thing, but only because the author needs for it to happen in the plot. That’s weak writing, and I’ll always jump on that like a bulldog on a wedding cake, or . . . anyway, you get the idea.

But whatever I say, the book doesn’t belong to me. I will offer advice, and then the writer decides. The writer should always own the writing.

Leave a comment

Filed under Giving Birth to a Book (That's Why I'm Screaming), Writing While Living

Rocks, Thorns, and Cheese

Cerberus

In sixty seconds, what is your book about.

Similar to normal people, writers have their peeves. I have not made pets of mine, because I don’t want to feed them. But wait, let’s switch metaphors. In the swirling stream of life, we all have the rocks that we smack into before we are washed limply downstream.

Of course, like anyone else I smack into the rocks for the usual common reasons, such as one of my relatives calls me about something. (As a side note, do you have people in your family who are REALLY fucking crazy, because . . . it’s not just me, right?)

Anyway, here in the world of writing, which normally sparkles with rainbows of creativity and fulfillment of the soul, and sometimes cheese toast, I also have weeds that grow thick with thorns in the literary garden. Oh, I’ve switched metaphors again. OK, I’ll do this, as I describe a few of the irritations of the writing life, I’ll try to come up with a new metaphor for each one.

Stage Four Cancer

I guess that one was kind of obvious. You knew I was talking about Microsoft. It isn’t possible for a human brain to hate anyone or anything more than I hate Microsoft. More hatred than that would begin to disintegrate the quantum particles that make up the universe.

I don’t hate Microsoft because they think they have a right dominate the world with their software. I don’t even hate them because they charge so much for a product that is duplicated on a piece of cheap plastic that they’ve become billionaires. No, I hate them because every day I have to use their stunningly horrible software.

Both in my job as a medical editor and in my real life as a fiction writer, I spend my days and evenings at the computer, and after years of doing it, I find myself still astonished at the new ways Microsoft Word mysteriously, and pointlessly, does things that make my work harder. I’m truly not exaggerating here.

Cerberus: the Three-Headed Dog Guarding the Gates of Hell

You’ve heard of literary agents. Those are the people who “help” writers find a publisher and get a book published. I’ve heard stories, sitting around smoky fires with roasting mutton, a blanket across my shoulders against the night chill, listening to old men talk about the golden age, when an agent might take a writer on because a book was well written, and the agent would work to sell the book to publishers, who, in those days, would still listen.

Who can tell whether the memories of old men have distorted the past. Was it ever really that way?

Recently I wrote to a literary agent, not simply as one of the crowd of barefoot beggars dressed in rags and clutching the manuscript of a novel. Instead, I wrote because someone I know had recommended me to her own agent. Supposedly, this connection means the agent will pay more attention. And maybe that happened. I did receive a hand-written note, on a card measuring two inches by four inches. It said “I appreciate this query—and the book sounds interesting.”

Oh yeah? So if the book sounds interesting and I come with a recommendation, that means . . . “Alas, this type of fiction is so hard to place these days, I’m afraid I’ll have to decline.” What? Wait, without even looking at it? Yes, it might require actual work to sell a novel of literary fiction, so drop dead. And we wish you well.

I pull my blanket tighter and listen to the old men talking.

Dancing Naked with a Clown Nose

Now if it were literally true, I might be just fine dancing naked while wearing a clown nose. I’m sure I’ve done worse, and after a few beers, that doesn’t sound all that bad. But alas—alas—I’m speaking of something not nearly as fun, the general process of promoting writing.

I know, I know, it’s just how the world is. It’s not enough that we stand up gaunt-eyed and traumatized from writing something in the first place. Then we have to smile on the telephone, go to bookstores and readings and small conventions where no one knows us or cares if they ever do (that’s if we’re lucky and allowed to go), pretend that we’re happy to be there, post stupid shit on Facebook, invent a constant stream of drivel for Twitter.

You get the idea. Or do you? Of course it’s worse than I’m making it sound. But I’m a writer, and I feel a responsibility to write about positive things. Like cheese toast made with Gruyère. If you come over, I’ll make you some.

Leave a comment

Filed under Writing While Living

Let’s Make a Thousand Years of Art

young girl sitting on a bedI’m pausing the writing blog this week to ponder a question that does involve writing, but not writing alone. Last weekend I visited several art galleries, to ask when they are having openings, as I wanted to go and meet some of the artists. In one of the galleries, I got into a discussion with the woman working there about art and civilization. I’m not sure exactly how that conversation got started, but that’s how I am. I’ll talk about stuff like that.

In the conversation, I told her an idea I’ve mentioned before on this blog, that I think human beings could become civilized some day, and if we do, it will be because of art. Whether art could be the path that leads us there, for her, was a moot point, as she declared a belief that we are not capable of being civilized.

Her view was something along the lines of “People are too inherently bad” to ever really be civilized. I can’t disagree about human capacity for badness. The physical nature of our existence, with all its discomfort, pain, and distress (and that’s if you have a good life), combined with our spirits that rebel against those things, can lead us—very easily—into abusing one another as well as ourselves. It is as though, just because we are born, we thrash about angrily: “What the fuck is this? I don’t want to be sick! I don’t want to be lonely! I don’t want to grow old!”

That basic dilemma cannot be changed. Does it mean, then, as my art gallery interlocutor said, that human beings will not ever attain civilization?

I replied that in the long run, I think we can. I don’t say definitely will, but can. And when I say “long run” I mean something like a thousand years from now. That sounds impossibly distant to us, but after all, such a time will come. I do believe that art will be the path, by which I mean real art, not propaganda produced by government or corporations, but creations from the heart.

Some forms of art we’ve known for centuries, even thousands of years: epic poetry, songs, dances, theater, sculpture. Based on some of these early forms of art, other forms have been invented in recent centuries: novels, opera, symphonic music, graphic novels, movies. There certainly are artforms yet to come. And of course there are things like architecture, gardening, interior design, clothing, that can be art as well. A joy of creation can be expressed in many ways.

If we can become civilized (which we so obviously are not at the moment), what would that be? I can’t see a thousand years ahead, so I don’t know all that might be done. This is a good spot to use a quote I wrote down a couple of nights ago, lying now on my desk, from a song by Ryan Adams: “You can’t see tomorrow with yesterday’s eyes.”

I have yesterday’s eyes, but one thing I know absolutely, that the most basic aspect of civilization will be that every human being is valued for who they are born to be, that every human is allowed to express their nature and feel joy in their own existence. So much of the stupidity that litters our own society at the moment, in our bigoted attitudes toward what we call “race”, toward ethnicity, toward gender, toward sexuality—a civilized people will have to look at us with pity for the darkness we live in. As long as we live in that darkness, we don’t care that some people are poor, that some people are hungry, that some have no health care, that some are afraid others will harm them.

I have hope, however. I will say it in an art gallery. I will say it on a blog. Because of art we will get there. If you have an urge to create, then do it, and don’t wait. Paint a picture. Plant a garden. Decorate your living room the way you really want it to look. And encourage your children.

2 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized, Writing While Living