- The high school classroom is standard issue. I’ve grown up in this mill town, but it’s really dying now. None of the students around me in this creative writing class have aspirations to become a writer. They want to go to college and get a job that they won’t get laid off from. My teacher Mr. Moore tells me: it doesn’t matter where you go to school. Anywhere you go, you’ll find great professors to work with. He says, yes, I think you have what it takes to become a writer.
- I’m in a standard issue professor’s office for my mid-semester conference in fiction 101. It’s probably the first workshop I’ve ever taken in my life. The professor looks up at me, squints, and says: The problem with you is that at some point in your life someone told you you were creative.
- I’m 23 years old and about to get into my boyfriend’s puke green Chevy. It’s parked in my parents’ driveway. We’ve stopped to visit them as we head west after I’ve graduated from the University of New Hampshire. We’ll travel across the country for months without any real destination, although we end up in San Francisco for 4 years. My parents don’t understand what in the hell I’m doing, although they wouldn’t say it that way. My dad tells me: always make sure you’re making enough money per month so that one week goes to rent, one goes to utilities and bills, one goes to savings, and one is for spending money. I follow this advice for years and in many ways it’s how I am able to write and work and live and be happy in many different places.
- My friend Pam on many different occasions: If you’re not having fun, leave.
- I’ve just met my roommate Mallory Tarses at Sewanee Writers’ Conference and by dinner time everyone thinks we’ve been friends forever. I write flash fiction, have been writing it for many years. Everyone tells me I need to write a novel. Everyone. Mallory says, or why not just get really, really good at writing flash fiction?
- At that same conference Tim O’Brien says: Don’t forget to look around while you’re in there writing the story, take the time to look around.
- My friend Jonah Winter: Knock it off.
- I’m four years out of graduate school and living in Pittsburgh with a real job working in museum education. It’s 40+ hours a week and stressful. I feel lost so I email my mentor Marly Swick (See #1) and tell her I’m ungrounded and out of touch with any kind of national writing community. She says, “Why don’t you apply to some writing residencies? I think it’s time for you to do that.”
- I’m at Atlantic Center for the Arts studying with Jim Crace and a great group of fiction writers. Armadillos rustle through the grasses below the boardwalks. Jim Crace says: “Slow down. Look at each sentence. Craft each sentence. Vary the length. Think about word choice. Avoid repeated words. Use active verbs. You already do this instinctually, now I want you to do it deliberately.”
- Pam Painter: Start with a list. A list is never intimidating.
- I’m running the Gist Street Reading Series in Pittsburgh. The writer John Dalton gets up to read from his debut novel Heaven Lake. He finishes and immediately sells out of books. Later he tells me: Summarize the novel in your introduction and then read a strong section that doesn’t logically follow from the summary. People buy books because they want to find out how the two connect.
- There’s a big round table and 21 of us sit around it. The Creative Capital retreat is like a boot camp in professionalism for artists. They tell us: Always introduce yourself using your first and last name. They tell us: Have a 1-year plan and a 5-year plan. They tell us: If you’re not being rejected, you’re not working hard enough.
The other day I ran across a video posted on social media: A man wearing a backpack stood in the middle of a valley flanked by snow-capped mountains. Animated clips flashed on the screen, emphasizing his impassioned plea to live your dream—your purpose—now. He talked about how people on their death beds are less likely to regret the things they did in life as opposed to those they didn’t.
It doesn’t matter if you’re 22 or 92; it’s only too late when you entertain regrets of the ‘could’ve, would’ve, should’ve’ variety. Here are 10 tips to help you pursue your passion regret free:
- Start where you are. Every day is a new beginning—a clean slate to embrace in all its quirky imperfections. As the narrator of the video stated: “You cannot start over, but you can start now and make a brand new ending.”
- No right way. There is no magic formula for getting from point A to point B. Your mantra might be ‘trial and error’ or ‘go with the flow.’ Modify as needed.
- Quit comparing. Joseph Campbell writes: “The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.” You’ve heard the saying: Life would be boring if everyone was the same. Now live like you believe it.
- Life doesn’t stop. Stuff happens. Appliances break down, illness and injuries occur and sometimes bad news arrives in threes. Do what needs to be done and then see #1.
- Change of scenery. At times it may be necessary to step out of your comfort zone in order to follow your dreams. This might include changing a routine or your surroundings. Be open to the possibilities.
- Have fun. Oscar Wilde writes: “Life is too short to be taken seriously.” Laughter provides a balm to the soul and lightens the load. Lift the corners of your lips often.
- Refuse to fear. Jack Canfield says: “Everything you want is on the other side of fear.” If fears are stories you tell yourself, then change your story.
- Remove distractions. Shut down when necessary; i.e., disengage from social media, email, etc. The world will not stop when you go off the grid to pursue your passion.
- Prioritize. Each day tackle the easiest, fastest tasks first. Then dive into your pursuit and camp out there as long as it takes. The piles of dirty laundry aren’t going anywhere.
- Delegate, ask for help. It’s okay to say ‘no,’ or to pass the buck, in order to create space to chase your passion, which is the one thing no one else can do for you.
The narrator in the video closes by illustrating how a plane is less safe when on the ground because it’s prone to rust and deterioration. When you don’t live your dream—your purpose—you clip your wings and ultimately remain grounded, much like that plane. Mired in regret. But when you put wings on your passion, you begin to take flight.
John Greenleaf Whittier states it best: “For of all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these, it might have been.”
What’s your advice to avoid the ‘could’ve, would’ve, should’ve’ mentality?
Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net.
I start out wanting to write a Blog Post for Superstition Review. I want to make it funny. Knowledgeable. Relate-able. The reader should laugh and think “I would like to talk with this writer.” All great writing is getting people to think they know you, that they would want to talk with you.
But I have no idea what to write about. I just graduated from college and that is about as boring and overdone a topic as any. I might as well write about golfing, or about the time I played flag football at a local park and discovered I am not the sort of person who should be playing flag football at a local park.
I like to write, but have written nothing of tremendous value. That isn’t fishing for compliments, just speaking objectively. Therefore I can’t offer advice to writers, though I have in the past done this very thing and, to this day, I still feel guilty about it. My writing is not terrible and has made some money in academic contests but I know, what everyone knows, but no one likes to say, that undergrad academic contests aren’t worth anything except the prize money. So I can’t write about being a professional writer, because I am not a professional writer.
I’ve had great experiences through my time as a Blogger/Non-Fiction Editor/Student Editor in Chief at Superstition Review, but others, in ways I cannot top, have written about those very experiences for this very Blog. Others, in ways I have yet to mimic, have taken those experiences and grown because of them. I have been to a writing conference but already have, in a previous post, beaten that horse to death with a very small club. I have been to AWP but spent more time touring the city than touring the Book Fair (shameful, I know, but who could have guessed I was to fall in love with cold beautiful grey Minneapolis?).
Bloggers tell you to write what you know, to relate to your audience through what you know. Good with dogs? Write about dogs. Write about how finishing a short story is similar to teaching a new puppy how to piss outside. It’s all about consistency. Go on a lot of hikes? Write something about the writing process and compare it to hiking a new trail, a harder trail than usual. It’s all about persistence. But my dog still sometimes pees on the living room rug, and the last trail I hiked ended with a whimper, not a bang. I thought maybe I could write about how to make the world’s best macaroni and cheese, but then I remembered, halfway through that ill fated blog post, that the best mac and cheese I ever had was made by a girl named Beth one drunken night six years ago at a friend’s house where we were all drinking wine out of plastic red cups and that recipe, like my connection to Beth, was completely lost after that night.
Telling me to write about what I know has always been a sort of cruel task; because I want to write about what I don’t know, and about that which makes me question my sense of authority. I am reminded of a writing professor who, in a soft rant against ‘trigger warnings’, asked our small workshop circle “Isn’t getting triggered the point?” For me, it goes like this: isn’t admitting you don’t know the point?
Here’s what I don’t know: the value of writing and whether or not I am a writer. I have loved books from a young age and can point to moments in my life that were shaped directly by the works of Salinger (specifically his collection of short stories revolving around the Glass family), to Tolstoy’s War and Peace (one of the first books that genuinely made me want to be a better person) to Dubliners by James Joyce which made me first think about becoming a writer. There are more recent examples, as well. In Matt Bell’s Scrapper there is a scene, where our protagonist finds a stolen boy and the snow is falling overhead, and where I, the reader, was so completely transported into that scene that my heart skipped a beat. But the more I work on Social Media for my job, the more I interact with other readers, with other writers, the more new books and new styles of writing I read, the more the doubt inside me grows. As valuable as stories have been to me, how can we properly value them? There have been blog posts in the past about how writers should be paid, for their stories, their poems, and that magazines shouldn’t expect writers to be content with just getting published. But can we really make that case? I would argue the opposite. That now in this sea of media, where everyone, through so many mediums, has the ability to share their voice, the value in stories is dropping or, at the very least, leveling off in an over saturated market.
This makes me doubt my writing. Do I really just want to be another voice in the market? Is there anything I can say that someone couldn’t say better? I honestly don’t know. That’s why I wanted to write this blog post, because I have no idea. What I see, through Social Media, are countless writers celebrating the fact that they are just writing. And this gets me a little depressed. It isn’t enough that we are just writing. It isn’t enough that we can take photos of our notebooks next to coffee cups and filter the image to look antique and post it. Perhaps this is the result of working in a book store and seeing just how many books get published and how few new writers actually get read. It isn’t enough that you have a story to tell. But now I am giving advice to writers, which is something I already said I wasn’t going to do. So let me stop while I am ahead.
Here’s where the title of my blog comes from: I saw Ira Glass perform at the Mesa Arts Center a few years ago in the show “Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host.” It was one of my favorite things I have ever seen and in that performance, Ira Glass quoted a friend who said “when we choose to be with one person for the rest of our lives, we are choosing the person we will spend the rest of our lives falling in and out of love with.”
I think it’s safe to say I’ve fallen out of love with writing. Like any great relationship, falling out of love makes me think of our earliest moments. I remember the first real Creative Writing class I had, where the teacher wrote the words “blue boot” on the whiteboard and asked us, rhetorically, what we were thinking of in that moment. Of course the answer was: a blue boot. Wow, the teacher said quietly, isn’t that amazing? Just by putting two words together, an image was created in our mind. What if, instead of a boot, we did that with a town? Instead a town, a world? Instead of a world, an emotion? What if, through words, we could create the idea of love, of loss, of fear, inside our reader? Wow, all of us students quietly said to ourselves.
This is all to say I still love reading good work. There were two writers I met at Bread Loaf whose writing I loved. One of them had already published a book and I read it in a matter of days. The other one hadn’t published a novel yet, but was certainly almost finished with their first draft. I look up their names every now and then in the usual places. Linkedin. Twitter. Instagram. They aren’t there. They don’t exist on Social Media and this makes me so goddamn happy. Now I can tell myself that, wherever they are, they are focusing on their work. Nothing else. And that one day soon their next book, their next story, their next finished product is going to be put out into the world, and whatever they have created with their words will be stirred within me.
The Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing organizes the annual writers conference Desert Nights, Rising Stars. Every year they bring writers from across the country to a three-day event full of workshops, classes, and readings. This past February was my second year volunteering at the event. And once again, I felt like a groupie when meeting famous authors.
After being in the financial industry for so many years, I sometimes feel like an outsider in the writing world. But, one of the main reasons I love this industry is because everyone is interested in you–in your writing and in you as a person, not the company you represent. Being you is important in the writing world. You are the only person that is more passionate about your work than anyone else.
It is incredible to be able to meet so many writers at the same place. Being a writer sometimes feels idiosyncratic and isolated, and this event has helped me to see that I’m not the only one that feels that way. I have met wonderful volunteers, attendees, and faculty who I befriended and keep in contact with.
There is some sort of magic in being able to talk with the author (Manuel Muñoz) of that book you read a semester ago about craft, endings, and the struggles of being a bilingual Latino writer.
There is some sort of magic in reading aloud your work in front of excellent writers like Alice Eve Cohen.
There is some sort of magic in being able to see that behind a published book there is a person who is not too different from you. And that they were once in your role; they were once an aspiring author learning the craft of writing.
There is some sort of magic in listening to real literary agents share their wisdom on the world of publishing and learning to“never pitch over the summer” and “never send query letters on the holidays.”
There is some sort of magic in eating lunch with the people you aspire to be like: award-winning writers who just signed their book for you; writers who just told you that success is a mix of hard work and a lucky break; writers who told you that they hope to get your book signed one day.
There is some sort of magic during these three conference days everywhere you want to see it; you can even find it in the delicious afternoon snacks.
The most important element of this kind of conference is how you feel at the end of it. How you feel during these three days would be worthless if you do nothing about it. If you feel inspired at the end, then it was worth it; you know can go back and keep writing. If you feel discouraged because you learned the toughness of the writing and publishing business, then it was worth it; you know can go back and keep writing. Between MFA readings, panels, conferences, and classes, the magical key that everyone agrees with is that the only way to be successful is to sit and write your best work.
You got to know that you know what you know.
“The Company Proficiency Test Average”
Beginning fiction-writers usually start with the short story–for the obvious reason that at least on the surface of it, shorter seems easier. But most story-writers also aspire eventually to write novels, and the conventional wisdom is that writing short stories is the apprentice work for writing novels. A stupid way that it’s often phrased is that writing short stories is for children, while writing novels is for grown-ups. However, the occasion of trying to write a novel turns out to be so intimidating for even accomplished story-writers that they can forget to use their most highly developed tools and most valuable habits of creative thinking. Something about all those pages, all those characters, and all that narrative time to be covered can make a would-be novelist panic, forget what he knows, and make unfortunate decisions he’d never make in writing a story.
This was the case with yours truly. I’d published five story collections and a novella before I managed to write a publishable novel. And it wasn’t for lack of trying. In the old computers asleep in my attic two complete novel-manuscripts have found their final resting places. The good news is that recently I’ve written a couple of novels, one of them in three months, the other in six months. Like everything else in writing, this productive phase was mostly just a matter of luck, but I also believe that I’ve finally come into possession of things I knew perfectly well forty years ago. I had the knowledge and the tools all along, but the monster that a novel appeared to be when I was trying to write one scared me out of using my strengths. Instead I tried to rely on my weaknesses–big thinking, abstractions, philosophizing, tricky plot moves, high drama, far-fetched characters, etc. What follows, out of my experience, is a brief discussion of some story-writing tools that I now understand to be even more well-suited for novel-writing than they are for story-writing:
1. A veteran story-writer learns when to leave off, i.e. when to tease, to engage the reader’s imagination by way of omission, to motivate the reader to keep going–in the story or in his or her imagination–in spite of frustration. This applies especially to story endings, but it also applies to sections of stories. Or even to sentences in the middle of a paragraph. E.g., the teasing withholding of how Curt Lemon died in Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried” makes a reader understand the deep significance of that death to the members of Lemon’s platoon.
2. A first principle for story-writers–often so much an assumption that the writer him- or herself is no longer conscious of it–is that it is crucial not to be boring. “Leaving out the parts that most people skip” (as Tony Hillerman phrased it) is pretty natural for a short-story writer, but a beginning novelist will often foolishly feel compelled to fill in a lot of blank pages. The novel occasion can persuade one that one must throw everything into the narrative rather than judiciously leaving many things out.
3. A story-writer often discovers both the pleasure and the narrative effectiveness of withholding something of narrative importance–of simply not overtly revealing a basic fact. E.g., the narrative of J.D. Salinger’s “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes” refuses to say straight out that the woman in bed with the gray-haired man is the wife of the poor fellow who calls the gray-haired man to ask if he knows where his wife is. Everything in the text points to that being the case, but the absence of a factual assertion infuses the story with ominous possibility and tension. John Irving employs a similar strategy with the death of a beloved child character in The World According to Garp.
4. Because short stories are such a specialized and highly refined literary genre, their practitioners assume that their readers are adults who have little patience for the obvious. Thus, story-writers take pleasure in challenging their readers. People who aren’t serious and skilled readers are not inclined to read contemporary short stories. Those who do read them are literary gourmets. George Saunders, Tobias Wolff, T.C. Boyle, Amy Hempel, and Alice Munro expect their readers to bring background, imagination, a deeply ironic sensibility, and linguistic alertness to the reading occasion. But the high-end readers a story-writer wants are the exactly same readers he wants for the novel he might write if he is lucky.
5. Because the main characters of short stories are almost always “outsiders,” story-writers learn to trust their own strangeness, quirks & kinks, improper thoughts, obsessions, etc. as “the good stuff” of a narrative. This is not traditionally the case with novelists who are most often concerned with mainstream or regular citizens. (In The Lonely Voice, Frank O’Connor argues that “the short story more than any other genre involves a protagonist who is an outsider and operates on the periphery of society.”) Contemporary novels, however, are more and more inclined to “involve” oddball protagonists. Story-writers rely on the oddball protagonist who lives within them, but all too often they think that weirdo can’t possibly help them write a novel.
6. You do not become a short story-writer unless you possess a natural inclination to narrow the scope, to rely on a very small picture to bring authority to a big picture–to use mostly detailed accounts of scenes as the stuff of narrative. In fact I’m certain that the little-picture method of composition is the path story-writers take to discover whatever truth their work has to offer. Story-writers become synecdoche specialists. However, when they attempt the longer form, they can lose faith in this sophisticated and long-cultivated talent. My experience has taught me what now seems obvious–that the impulse to focus minutely is of as much value in making novels as it is in story-making.
7. Story-writers become geniuses of narrative transitions–or the writing of transitionless narratives–stories that use white space to represent time-gaps instead of conventional phrasing like “A week later,” or “In the days that followed.” Dead space, or lifeless language, in novels is just as deadly as it is in stories, but the beginning novelist may not think so. By the way, my all-time favorite transitionless moments in fiction occurs in Flannery O’Connor’s “Parker’s Back:
…Sara Ruth agreed to take a ride in his truck. Parker parked it on a deserted road and suggested to her that they lie down together in the back of it.
“Not until after we’re married,” she said – just like that.
“Oh that ain’t necessary,” Parker said and as he reached for her, she thrust him away with such force that the door of the truck came off and he found himself flat on his back on the ground. He made up his mind then and there to have nothing further to do with her.
They were married in the County Ordinary’s office because Sarah Ruth thought churches were idolatrous.
8. After Hemingway, “show, don’t tell,” became the story-writer’s mantra. Contemporary story-writers (most extravagantly and brilliantly, Harold Brodkey), however, have shown the way toward both showing and telling. The show-don’t-tell template, though, never leaves the story-writers’ thinking, whereas it often doesn’t show up at all in the efforts of a beginning novelist. And story-writers making early attempts at novel-writing–because they don’t believe it applies to making narratives ten or fifteen times longer than a short story–are all too often inclined to switch off that useful little interior mantra that never stops whispering “show, don’t tell.” They explicate too much of what they should dramatize. I advocate both telling and showing, but I think I do a better job of telling because my habit is to err on the side of showing.
9. The dynamic nature of the interior lives of individual human beings is the bread and butter of fiction-writing. The interior life is what fiction brings to art that the other forms either can’t manage at all or else have to try to accomplish in unnatural ways–e.g. voice-over in movies. Both story-writers and novelists understand this perfectly well. What a story-writer brings to the novel-writing occasion is a refined sense of interior-life management. Which is to say that the story-writer is less inclined than the apprentice novelist to indulge a protagonist in pages and pages of soul searching and mental noodling. Naïve novelists can be wildly indulgent when they open up their characters’ thoughts and feelings, whereas story-writers bring speed, agility, and tact to their rendering of their characters’ thoughts and feelings. Novel readers may want more pages, but they also want narratives that intensely engage them from beginning to end. Which is to say that just because they’re reading a novel they’re no more tolerant of literary fooling around than a story reader is. They want what we all want–the dream that is so compelling we don’t want to wake up.
So without stopping to choose my way, in the sure and certain knowledge that it will find itself—or if not it will not matter—I begin the first memory.
— Virginia Woolf “A Sketch of the Past”
One of the earliest writing lessons I learned (I refer to creative writing, not elementary school writing) is this: that I should allow my writing to guide itself instead of beginning with my conclusion already in mind. This is common advice, something you’ve likely heard yourself, but I repeat it here because I can remember how I struggled with it, how I tried to believe it in theory without putting it into practice. And I see again and again student pieces that seem to be transcripts (sometimes elaborations) of a predetermined narrative and meaning with no room for detours from “the point.” The writing in these is sometimes very clean, even beautiful, but it simply serves the goal, without being part of the process.
Now I would not say that I have arrived at any fully formed writing abilities, but I have learned to trust in the notion that I should write without knowing where I’m going. Whereas I once tried to express in words the lessons I’d already processed from highlight-stories I’d experienced, I now attempt to find or create connections between seemingly dissimilar things that flit into my consciousness coincidentally. The act itself is as fun as it is rewarding, and even when it fails, it gives me good exercise.
One recent example, among many, came to me as I was sitting in Montevideo’s Estadio Centenario watching the Uruguayan national team play a World Cup qualifier match against Ecuador. I knew I wanted to write something about Uruguay’s improbable and, frankly, amazing soccer tradition, going back nearly a century and including two Olympic championships followed by two World Cup championships, and I wanted to tie this to the team’s recent resurgence as a FIFA powerhouse. Soccer is a great source of pride for Uruguayans, and I, who’ve lived in the country for four years and who’ve married a Uruguayan, share the sentiment. But I did not want to write a straightforward narrative (“I went to the stadium to watch Uruguay play against Ecuador… It was a 1-1 tie… Let me tell you about Uruguayan soccer history…”). So I kept my eyes and ears open in the stadium for other entry points to help me essay the theme instead of simply writing the story.
I thought I found my hook when I was startled by a loudspeaker promotional jingle playing all through the stadium during the middle of the match. It was hawking ball bearings. How strange, I thought, that someone would think it worth their advertising pesos to blast such a commercial to a stadium filled not with auto mechanics or race-car fans, but futbol aficionados.
But just as I didn’t understand the advertising strategy, I couldn’t see how ball bearings and soccer could work together in my essay, other than in a superficial way (the one happened during the other). So I began to write. The sentences themselves suggested what might come next, and from the process of stringing words together I got to what I think is a halfway decent connection. I’ve not achieved literary brilliance, but I’ve discovered something I didn’t see before, and my essay is a new creation that never was in the world before. In any case, it’s reaffirmed the lesson about letting the writing find its own way, which I took so long to learn.
NOTE: The essay I refer to can be read at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, along with others I’ve written, at this link: http://www.mcsweeneys.net/columns/dispatches-from-montevideo
As many writers will tell you, one of the hardest parts about being a writer is writing every day. If you don’t force yourself to write every day, even for a couple of minutes, then you may find that weeks have gone by without you having written a word. But sometimes the hardest part about sitting down to write every day is coming up with something to write. Trust us, we know. So, here are some prompts to help you put pen to paper. Happy writing.
What do you do when you procrastinate?
Describe what happens when a pacifist and a passive aggressive get into an argument.
Describe the first place you lived when you moved out of your parents’ house. What was the first thing you did after moving in? What did it smell like? Was there traffic outside your window or chirping birds?
Complete: He stood in front of the mirror for a moment. He adjusted his tie. A long thread was poking out from the end of his cuff and he carefully pulled it loose. He stood in front of the mirror and smoothed the front of his jacket. He frowned into the mirror and began taking off his jacket. He was halfway in to a new pair of pants when there was a knock on the door. They were early.