Guest Post, Vytautas Malesh: Face Your Critics, Face Your Fears, Face Yourself.

Vytautas Malesh Bio PhotoSooner or later, we all have to deal with critics. The old chestnut goes something along the lines of “but my mom says I’m brilliant,” and so we’ll have to forego any maternal input on our literary efforts in favor of words less warm, but probably more honest. Whether we’re talking about a submission editor’s hasty notes, a mentor’s line-by-line markup, or an Iowa-style “dead author” workshop session, the writer’s job in the face of criticism is to learn from that criticism. It’s a herculean task, but one which you the writer must master since, well, go back and read the first sentence.

While it is tempting to rest assured of your own brilliance, know that you dismiss any piece of criticism at your own peril. You’ll get the occasional ill-informed vagary along the lines of “I dunno, I just didn’t like it” or something else equally unhelpful. You’ll often find this sort of criticism in low-level undergraduate writing workshops around midterm and finals weeks, or following a weekend of epic tailgating. No need to really pay that too much attention if you are not so inclined.

But I digress.

Assuming that the critic has indeed read your work, considered it, and wants to offer constructive and helpful notes, it’s important to humble yourself and to listen. Criticism can sting, badly. That’s not quite doing it justice:  criticism can make you want to curl up into a ball and never write again. But that’s what happens when you let your ego get in the way of your craft, and if you’re going to write – and, as a consequence, deal with critics – you must let go of your ego.

Some critics are relatively easy to endure – pedants checking your spelling and grammar, for example. Others are easy to dismiss if they are trying too hard to inject their own style matter into your work – the minimalist who insists you could chop your complex character drama down to about the length of a sonnet.

But other criticism cuts deeper. When you’ve had a gaping and irreconcilable plot hole revealed, or if someone should point out that your story so strongly echoes something else already in the world that no publisher would ever show it the light of day. Or that your characterization reveals you to be, or perhaps suggests that you are, sexist, or racist, or misogynistic, or homophobic, or otherwise holding a deep character flaw that perhaps you didn’t even know you had.

When faced with such criticism, it’s important to remember your service to the words – if you’ve been called out over questionable or even hurtful politics, take the time to think about what you’re doing and where you’re coming from. This is the sort of criticism that must not be ignored for both your own sake and, in a very real way, for the sake of the societies and cultures in which we find ourselves. If your work has struck a nerve and offended*, then observe the awesome power that words have in the world, and strive to use that power responsibly.

And of course, sometimes we just have to torch a piece. Perhaps the plot isn’t salvageable, or we realize we have plagiarized something we’ve never read (or at least that’s what our critics say). Cheer up – burn the failure and use the ashes like fertilizer to nourish the next piece. If the worst thing that happens after an encounter with hard criticism is more writing, then consider yourself lucky and get back to work.

*Disclaimer:  “You shouldn’t be offended,” “I didn’t mean to offend anyone,” and “explain it to me – how is that offensive?” are not appropriate in this circumstance. If you have offended someone, you listen to what they have to say. Similarly, “I’m being offensive on purpose” is debatable at best, and you’re probably not being as witty as you think you are – people’s failure to “get it” is more likely your failure to deliver it.

Guest Post, Vytautas Malesh: Always Writing

notes-on-wood-3-1315481I want to share a few favorite quotes and concepts concerning writing – no doubt, some of these will be familiar to you.  Surely someone at some point bought you a poster with a likely misattributed declaration that “[w]riting is easy, you just open a vein and bleed,” or maybe a coffee mug that praises writers as machines that turn caffeine into ideas.  I’m not here to judge your taste – it’s your office.

The quote I would begin with is uttered by Billy Crystal in the movie Throw Momma from the Train:

        “A writer writes. Always.”

Which at its core is sound advice for any would-be wordsmith, much like the plastic label I used to have affixed to my computer monitor that admonished “why aren’t you writing?” or the tacit reminder embedded in my old college email password:  PUBL15H1234.

But this sort of feverish, frantic, and desperate encouragement only works in the short-term, and for those among you saying “I’ve been saying that sort of thing to myself for years,” I would ask: for how many?  One?  Two?  At some point in your writing life, you simply must stop typing and come around to what is perhaps the most apt description of the writing process yet coined:

        “Sometimes when I was starting a new story and I could not get it going, I would sit in
        front of the fire and squeeze the peel of the little oranges into the edge of the flame
        and watch the sputter of blue that they made.”

Which, superficially, doesn’t sound like a quote about writing at all.  This sentence from Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast is shortly followed by one concerning the writing of true (nay, truest) sentences, but here I digress from the text for the sake of my own sophistic inclination and because what a writer ought to understand is that the squeezing of peels and the burning of orange rinds is, in fact, writing.  It is as much a part of writing as putting ink to paper, mapping out plots, and drinking.

There are two texts I would encourage any creative writer to pick up – texts which may be outside the required reading list of most creative writing classes.  The first is Jody Shipka’s Toward a Composition Made Whole which deals with unconventional multi-modal written performances (drawings, dance, ballet slippers) in a composition classroom. The second is Sondra Perl’s Felt Sense which consists of about 50 writing exercises designed to underscore the importance of writing as an embodied process.

These two works, taken together, illustrate what I think is most important about that quote from Billy Crystal (or Stu Silver, if we’re crediting authors as perhaps we should): “a writer writes, always” not because she devotes an obscene amount of time to staring at a blank page or searching through a thesaurus.

A writer writes, always, because when we understand writing as an embodied practice, that’s all a writer EVER does!

Guest Post, Vytautas Malesh: Write Right Now – Write Better Later

ReadingOnce in a while, younger writers want to know what I have to say. Not always. Young writers really want to know what J.K. Rowling has to say, or Stephenie Meyer, or Ernest Hemingway. But sometimes, when they aren’t available (for whatever reason), they ask me how to get published. Conspicuously they do not ask me much about writing, or what it means to be a writer, but they have plenty of questions about royalties, riches, and fame.

What they’re really asking me, of course, is how to “make it as a writer,” which means that they are really, REALLY, asking me how to get paid exorbitant sums of money for writing “this one story [they] have an idea for.” This is such a common thought among young writers (especially teens through mid-twenties) that I don’t feel it needs much more explanation since, after all, we’ve probably all had such thoughts ourselves.

But I am not a young writer. I am 37 years old. Just about every part of my body makes a sound when I move: pops, cracks, a sort of bubbly grinding sound, and sometimes a noise so strange that I am positive it is the song cancer sings while it is growing. It’s just what happens. I’ve become very concerned with a nagging pain in my right shoulder, and when I read a nutrition information label, the first thing I look for is fiber.

I am also, on this occasion, thinking about a friend from my past — let’s call him Joe because what the hell, why not? Joe fancied himself a film maker. He shot wedding videos professionally, and he had an idea buzzing around telling him to make a short film about a lawyer. He thought we could work together on it. I was 26, he was 27.

I asked Joe why he wanted to write about a lawyer. He said that he wanted to write about people who were wealthy, successful, slick, and attractive. He wanted to write about people who weren’t us.

Let me be clear: that’s fine. Learning about other people is a big part of writing. That’s exciting! That’s the craft. If we only write about, say, middle-aged alcoholics with torn rotator cuffs and occasional bouts of irregularity, we’ll find our oeuvre painfully limited and woefully under-read.

But my follow-up question for Joe revealed a critical moment for any young writer: I asked Joe what he knew about lawyers.

Joe explained a number of tropes and prejudices with which I was already familiar from watching television: lawyers drove expensive cars and lived in nice houses. Lawyers had sexy girlfriends and paid for those girlfriends’ plastic surgery with elite, no-interest credit cards. Lawyers were also evidently all male, though that may be beside the point. Lawyers have problems that are somehow more interesting than our problems as evidenced by Joe’s plot:

“A lawyer has like a problem with his girlfriend and, like, his world is falling apart. Or something like that.”

I’ve heard worse. I’ve written worse. Hell, when I was 20 I started a science fiction novel about a young space man going off to fight a space war which left him with some sort of space PTSD. It was all nonsense because I didn’t know the first thing about space, war, or PTSD, let alone any combination of the three.

But Joe’s problem, and mine, is a fundamental and critical issue in determining whether an aspiring young writer will become an accomplished old one: is she ready to accept the ultimate humility of the observer? Is she ready to learn the lessons of the world? Is she ready to surrender the self and to remain open and receptive to the world coming to presence?

When we’re young, we’re all Go! Thrust! Jump! Run! Punch! And it’s wonderful! And then after a few years we’re a little more Sit. Stop. Rest. Listen. Wait. That’s wonderful too! For a writer, the two together give us those moments of passion and their recollection in tranquility. Wordsworth figured that out centuries ago and wrote it down, but it’s a lesson we all learn and re-learn ourselves nevertheless.

This doesn’t mean anything bad for the young writer – far from it! There certainly are breakout celebrity authors and exciting young voices, and they are to be cherished. But most of us won’t be them. Most of us will spend our 24th birthday crying on the floor of our kitchens, drunk, borderline suicidal, because we haven’t “broken out” yet, and if not our 24th, then maybe 25th, 30th, 60th…I could go on.

But we write because it is what we do, right alongside suffering, listening, living, and occasionally dusting off an old cliche about writing. The more we write as young writers, even if nobody wants to read it (and they don’t), let alone publish it (and they won’t), the more ready we are when our time comes. We’ll have gained experience and context. We will have found our voice. Best of all, we will have spent our time writing!

I thought of Joe last year when I had my own dealings with a lawyer

Stan was short and paunchy, his suits looked cheap and his waistcoat (always buttoned all the way down to the bottom) strained to contain the years that had elapsed since the last time he’d bought new clothes. He spoke quickly and told terrible jokes that I’d already heard, and he knew I was only laughing to be polite, but when a man is telling you a joke to make you feel better about your dad going to prison, you laugh, and you acknowledge that he has done you that courtesy. He squeezes your shoulder and, having told you what you want to hear, tells you what you need to hear, and it’s ugly, but he’s learned his trade and how to ply it, not to wring a few more dollars from a desperate client, but to be a better person in the world, to decide, consciously, that he will grant you an unbilled half-hour so that you can grit your teeth, wring your hands, and stare at the wall for a speechless half hour. That unbilled hour may mean the difference between a new suit and wearing the old one for another month. It may mean that he drives a Ford Focus instead of a BMW, and it may mean he stays married to his wife of 27 years instead of running around with a new silicone mistress, but life is not like the movies, where enormous problems are solved in 90 minutes. Life is life. It unfolds over years.

And there’s a story there in all of this. It’s not the one Joe wanted to tell, it’s not sexy or stylish, but it’s honest, and it’s real. I’ll probably be ready to write it when I’m a little bit older.