Looking Forward

I never realized how important short-term memory was to happiness until my father began to lose his. If I tell him I’m going to visit, he forgets the moment we hang up. He’s happy when I get there, but he misses out on the anticipation. Last summer, he kept forgetting to be excited about the Indians games. We all need things to look forward to, in life and in fiction. Many of us turn to fiction for exactly that: the sense of expectation that our real lives at times may lack.

I’ve written a lot about the importance of tension in fiction. Tension involves a possible threat to or question about a positive outcome. That counterpoint is essential. We need hope. We want to see mysteries resolved, a couple united, a soul redeemed. We read on because we want to believe. Not every story has a happy ending, but we crave something to look forward to, even if instead it’s justice served or the satisfaction of insight.

The past year was a difficult one for many, and the future is uncertain. We worry about our families, our friends, our country, our planet. The future of humankind. Hope may be something we have to work at consciously. In your writing, and in your life, I’d like to encourage you to look forward. To forge a new path for your readers and yourself.



Foibles and Fixes

Creative writing requires recommitment from time to time. Not writing is much easier than writing. Curiously, what many of us find is that although we want to write in theory, we keep letting other things get in the way. If those things involve our health, family or job, then writing may have to wait. But if the problems are our own foibles when it comes to writing, then they may be a form of anxiety avoidance which these strategies may help us to surmount:

1. You love to write, but can’t think of anything to say.

The most common answer to this problem is usually to read. Immersing yourself in great books in your genre will motivate and inspire you. The only difficulty is that sometimes those great books will make you feel more lacking. What could you possibly come up with that hasn’t already been said? My suggestion is that you try reading in a different discipline than your own: poetry to get a fiction writer thinking about character; fiction to lure a poet into diving deeper inside; real-life news articles to spur novelists into creating new “what if”s. Or extend your reach further, such as to the visual arts or music. Try attending a play and jot down notes in the dark. No form of artistic expression is exactly the same in terms of what it does best. If you’re a writer, you’ll sense the holes that writing would delve.

2. You freeze up when faced with an empty page.

This is similar to the first issue, but your anxiety is more formless. You’re so swamped with self-doubt, you can barely bring yourself to try. For this, I strongly recommend Julia Cameron’s advice in The Artist’s Way. She urges writers to start every morning with three pages of free writing. The only rule of morning pages is that there aren’t any rules. You could start each entry with “I hate blank pages” and complain for ten minutes. Cameron believes all that anxious stuff needs to be expunged. You may also find that within that time, you can’t help but shift from paralyzing fear to a more writerly preoccupation with expression. You think: What a great line of swearing. I should have a character say that! And you’re off. If you don’t want to write morning pages, instead try to limit your writing commitment with a timer. Agree to write for ten minutes – how bad could that be? Most writers find themselves resetting the timer again and again. In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott reminds us that it’s okay to write shitty first drafts. Try not to be so hard on yourself.

3. You get stuck in the middle of a piece.

Sometimes you write yourself into a corner. The plot sticks or the character becomes unconvincing or the tension flatlines; you know something is wrong, but you don’t know what to do. Staring at the page in a panic only makes the problem worse. In her excellent New Yorker article, “Where Do Eureka Moments Come From?,” Maria Konnikova explains that a focused gaze works with analytic problem-solving, but when further insight is needed, we need to step away and allow ourselves to think more diffusely. In other words, try coffee first, but if that doesn’t help, then go for a walk. Or switch your attention to another project and mull this one over in the back of your mind. If you prefer to stay on task, another trick for writers is to build up the details of the scene. Convince yourself more completely of its reality. Sometimes it helps to go back to an earlier point in the story and work forward from there. You could also try to free write the scene a few different ways. If nothing else works, go out for a drink with a trusted writer friend and free talk the damn thing.

4. You revise and revise, but never finish.

Many writers struggle to complete anything. As long as you’re still working on it, your novel, story or poem could always improve. You can dream and hope without fear. Rejection only happens if you finish and try to put your work out there. Unfortunately, if you never take that risk, then your work may never be read by others. You need to consider what it is you truly want. First and foremost, you should try to finish a piece for your own satisfaction. Think of seeking publication as a separate event. If you decide to pursue it, but are afraid of rejection, then you could try starting small. Send out a version to test the waters. At the same time, make a list of five more places. Some writers benefit from revising between submissions, but if this is your foible, you may want to resubmit as soon as a piece comes back. If it helps, think of yourself as two people: the creative writer and the businesslike submitter. Strip the process of emotional content as much as possible.

In a novel, when a character really wants something, we expect that to increase the stakes. Unless you have an ego of steel, anxiety is part of being an artist. Whether you’re sinking into other people’s art for inspiration or writing your morning pages or taking your issues for a walk, in every case, what you’re trying to do is block out the negative voices and let your focus return to the work. Resilience is key. Recommit as often as you need to.



Watchman: Cynicism or Hope

9780062409850Publication of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman has set off controversy on two levels. For writers, the book may represent the industry at its most cynical: publishing an inferior book by a cherished author who may no longer be competent to decide her own literary legacy. Articles in the New York Times and the New Yorker have raised issues about possible manipulation, as well as about the book’s provenance. For readers, the book presents the unsettling picture that Atticus may be fundamentally racist. As writers and readers, do we greet Watchman with depressing cynicism, or is there room for hope?

Whether or not we like to hear them, Watchman tells us a few things about the business of writing. Lee is said to have written Watchman first, even though it’s set about 20 years later. An editor guided Lee to write a new book based on her flashbacks, which turned out to be excellent advice. To Kill a Mockingbird is the far stronger book. 9780060935467It was probably also a better fit for the market at that time. In other words, the editor knew what she was doing when she didn’t publish the original book. Lee’s first instincts were not without validity: her story of the disappointment of a young Southern woman in the racism of her otherwise honorable father is complex and worth telling (with some revision). But not every story worth telling is going to be supported to market. And the kind of editorial help which Lee received as an unpublished writer rarely happens anymore. Publication of Watchman also reveals that a weak book will get published if it can be turned into a publishing event. Publishing is less about art than it is about business. That’s the reality check.

At the same time, Watchman gives writers some grounds for hope. First, that they can improve – that rejection doesn’t mean they should give up. Lee went back to work and wrote an amazingly stronger book, with better drawn characters, greater tension, more compelling action, smarter dialogue and bigger heart. That editor performed a huge service in sending Lee back to her desk. But I’d like to think that Lee would have improved even without that intervention. Like many writers, she leaves clues for herself on the page – my second basis for hope. The flashback scenes in Watchman are indeed the most vivid, and in time I believe Lee would have recognized that. She has Jean Louise/Scout ask herself: “What had she done that she must spend the rest of her years reaching out with yearning for them, making secret trips to long ago, making no journey to the present?” (p. 225) Writers should pay heed to the messages left by themselves. Finally, writers often start with something they need to puzzle out from their own lives, but art benefits from distance and detachment. To me, Watchman reads like an autobiographical story. Truman Capote once asserted with respect to Lee’s depiction of Boo Radley in Mockingbird, that “Everything she wrote about it is absolutely true.” Watchman includes long tracks of lecture – the kind of thing real people may have to learn from, but which is boring for readers. Mockingbird is more consciously crafted. Scout learns as a result of acute observation and the events of the story, and we as readers grow in tandem with her.

The building of Scout’s conscience is where the two books come together. She, not Atticus, becomes the watchman, and she’s set on his conscience. As she herself claims, somehow she got raised right. Atticus may disappoint us in Watchman, but like other children who end up seeing more clearly than their parents, Jean Louise gives us hope. Watchman is a flawed book, especially in its ending that at times seems to undermine her stand against prejudice, and I think a younger Lee chose not to publish it on purpose. But the world we have is the world we have. My advice is to write your own story as well as you possibly can, to keep learning from others as well as from yourself, and not to give up on publishing, even as tough as it is. What if Harper Lee had given up, instead of trying harder with Mockingbird? We would all be less.