It Takes a Village to Write a Book

Writing is, in many ways, a solitary activity. Unlike music or dance or acting and other forms of art which necessitate collaboration, most writers work alone. The people and places and plots you create as a writer have to live in your head for a long time before anybody else can encounter them, and before they do there are many long days and nights spent putting one word in front of another in what often feels like a futile attempt to translate these vivid but intimate imaginings into prose. Easier said than done (and it wasn’t even that easy to say; I rewrote that sentence ten times).

I touched on this in a previous post, but living so much in your own head can make you feel (1) isolated, (2) like most of your friends are imaginary, and (3) stone cold crazy. Writing is a strange job. There’s a reason writers tend to be strange people. But the stereotype of the isolated, tortured artistic genius does more harm than good in the long run, from tricking would-be writers into relying on divine inspiration rather than revision to treating substance abuse as a key to creativity. It also conveniently forgets the fact that few writers could function without the support of other people.

If you flip to the back of any given book, you’ll likely find a list of names in the author’s “Acknowledgments” which includes publishing personnel like agents and editors as well as friends and family and sometimes other folks like fact-checkers and beta readers who test-drove the text before it went to press. Occasionally you’ll even find a “Select Bibliography” if it’s a work of non-fiction or something else requiring a lot of research. However, in my experience there are a lot of other people who contribute to the writing of a book whose names you don’t often see, and who may not even be aware of their own contribution.

The coronavirus pandemic has gotten me thinking a lot about those people. Unless you live under a rock, over the last few weeks you’ve probably watched a lot of local businesses close their doors, either due to state lockdowns or simply because the sudden drop in business made it impossible for them to keep up with operating costs. Many of these closures feel personal, not only because I miss my old haunts, but because the loss of them has highlighted just how important they are to my writing process. So in a fit of mixed sadness and gratitude and determination to do something to make this whole situation suck less, I spent last week throwing every dollar I could spare at the small businesses which have helped me write for the last five years. Helping helps me not feel helpless, even if it is in such a limited capacity.

On the off chance you would like to do the same, I’ve written the following list of local businesses without whom my writing would not happen; chances are you have hometown equivalents who need help just as badly, and I hope you’ll consider buying or donating there. This is a very small attempt to pay it back, pay it forward, and call attention to the unsung heroes of the creative process.

  1. Independent bookstores. By now you surely don’t need me to explain how corporate leviathans like Amazon hurt the book business. But since Amazon announced it’s de-prioritizing book sales for the duration, you really have nothing to lose and everything to gain by buying from an indie, and many of them have been working hard to move their operations online. A few of my favorites in DC are East City Books, who hosted my paperback launch, Kramerbooks, whose employees have talked up my book on social media, Capitol Hill Books, whose Twitter feed alone is worth a $20 book buy, and Loyalty Books, whose new location in downtown Silver Spring did not get the opening quarter it deserved. Another beloved bookstore of mine is Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, NC, who hosted the biggest event of my very small book tour, and kept me knee-deep in good reads while I was a student at UNC and working on the first draft of Villains. Besides all that, any writer will tell you that there is no writing without reading. I owe these establishments a lot. Chances are you have indie bookstores nearby who would love to deliver or ship your next read right to your door. Not sure? Check their websites or try Bookshop and IndieBound. Bonus tip: many bookstores carry a lot of things besides books which might be handy to have around while sheltering-in-place, like puzzles and board games or three famed portraits of David Bowie.
  2. Independent record stores and labels. I don’t have a TV but I have 800 records in my living room and music has always been one of the most important ingredients in my writing process. Musicians have been suffering for a long time due to streaming services’ shameful refusal to adequately compensate them for their work. (If you’re interested in facts and figures, check out this article by Galaxie 500’s Damon Krukowski, from all the way back in 2012. This has been a problem for a while. Krukowski’s book, The New Analog, would also be a great read in the time of covid-19.) With concerts cancelled and brick-and-mortar record stores shutting their doors, musicians–particularly the ones who weren’t selling out stadium tours back when that was a thing we could still do–need album sales now more than ever. I know it’s old-fashioned, but what better way to revive the tradition of the listening party than by supporting the artists who made the soundtrack for your quarantine and the record stores fighting to keep the music industry focused on the music? My favorite local spot is the Record Exchange, but you probably have record store near you, too, and they’re probably willing to ship! Not sure? You can use the Vinyl District’s record locator app to find one. No turntable at your place? No problem. Most record stores also stock CDs, books, movies, video games, and more.
  3. Bars and restaurants. I’ve literally never written a book that didn’t feature a bar. Drunk drama fueled so much of Villains that I sometimes feel a portion of my royalties (if I ever make any) should go the good people who put up with me and all my actor friends while I was working on the book. The next best thing is donating to support the staff of my beloved college bar, Linda’s, where I spent many good nights and a few bad ones, read books and wrote scenes and staged plays and drowned my sorrows when writing wasn’t going my way. If you’re lucky, some of your favorite local haunts may have adapted for delivery. (If you’re in the DMV, I would highly recommend throwing a few dollars at Quarry House Tavern, whose Whiskey Wednesday specials have gotten me through some tough times, and whose burgers might be some of the best in the region.) If you do order delivery, please tip well! Food service workers live on tips and they’re not making many right now.
  4. Performance companies and venues. Guess who’s not making money right now? Artists whose art requires an audience. Unsurprisingly, live theatre is a big part of my creative process. Many theatres who have closed their doors are now wondering how they’re going to keep their actors, directors, designers, and other staff on the payroll, and it’s that much harder to do when everybody and their mom is asking for refunds for cancelled events. If you can, consider donating the price of your tickets or anything else you can spare to the people who put on shows for you when we’re not all staying home. Consider paying a little more than you normally might to stream new movies or watch the live performances theatres all over the world are putting up online. The livelihoods of the people who made them–and their ability to make art–are probably more precarious than ever before.
  5. Animal shelters. If you’ve been following me on any social media platform for any length of time, you have probably seen pictures of my dog, Marlowe. I adopted him from Operation Kindness, a no-kill Dallas shelter, in 2017. Since then his presence in my house and my life has done a lot to keep me off the ledge. Many animals shelters operate with very narrow margins, and chances are they’ll take any help they can get right now. And if you wanted to take a step beyond a monetary donation, there’s no better time to bring a pet who needs a home into your life. You don’t need to distance yourself from dogs or cats, and when are you next going to be home all day every day to help introduce a new pet? Don’t make any snap decisions, but if you’ve been looking for a sign from the universe that now’s the time to rescue your new best friend, consider this it.

Writing may be a solitary activity much of the time, but that doesn’t mean it happens in a vacuum. All art, I would argue, is collaborative: it is influenced and inspired and supported by so many different people in so many different ways that listing a few names under “Acknowledgements” feels insufficient. These are just a few examples of the people who have helped me make art. Apart from directly supporting artists in times of crisis, one way to support the creators you care about is to contribute to the institutions in your community which foster creativity. It may not seem like a lot, but in a time like this every little bit helps–and if enough people do a little bit, the little bits add up to something much bigger.

Stay safe, stay well, stay home, stay hopeful, and stay engaged with the people and places that enrich the life of your community if you want to see them on the other side.

M

Kurt Vonnegut, Coronavirus, and the Reasons We Write

This week we learned that UMD, the university where we work, is prohibiting all non-essential travel for the next 60 days. Sensible, given the circumstances. But we also learned that they’re not going to reimburse anyone who’s already paid for the travel they approved and then prohibited. If you’re a tenured professor, that might not matter much to you. But if you’re in a grad student or contingent tax bracket, $800 is an awful lot to lose. (Most grad students here make about $20k a year. The cost of living in the DMV can be 40% more than the national average. I teach English for a reason, so I’ll let you do the math.)

While all this is happening on the East Coast, on the West Coast graduate students at UC Santa Cruz have been on a wildcat strike for a cost-of-living adjustment. The university’s response to their demands for fairer wages was to fire 80 of them. (You can learn more–and lend some support–here.) But as Rebekkah Dilts and Dylan Davis put it in the Washington Post article linked above,

…the exploitation of graduate-student labor is endemic to higher education. We teach for poverty-level wages only to enter a dismal job market: Some 60 percent of university teaching jobs are off the tenure track, meaning they are typically part-time and lack benefits — yet still highly competitive. That’s why innumerable adjuncts are fighting here, too.

The reality for many graduate students is that they will spend five or more years struggling to make ends meet, and when they graduate their odds of landing a job with a greater degree of security are, in a word, long. So the cancellation, without reimbursement, of conference travel not only means that we’re losing money we desperately need, but that we’re also losing a professionalization opportunity we need just as badly for our CVs. Insult, meet injury.

If you’ve heard absolutely nothing about this, don’t feel bad. It’s a niche concern in the greater scheme of things. But you probably have heard similar stories from different sectors about the coronavirus outbreak and how it’s creating new problems and compounding others which already existed (not to mention disproportionately affecting people at the bottom of the socioeconomic food chain). Between the pandemic, the never-ending 2020 election nightmare, regular mass shootings, a permanent state of constitutional crisis, and the ever-present threat of ecological collapse, it’s starting to feel like The End is indeed Nigh. Personally I’ve been flirting with a nervous breakdown for the entire month of March. However, there are two small fibers of optimism (fiber-optimism?) which have kept my last thread of sanity from snapping, and they both have to do with writing.

As you can probably imagine, Book Twitter is a bit of a mess right now. While some are lamenting the financial impact of cancelled book tours on indie and midlist authors who can’t afford to lose that publicity, others are drawing attention to the ugly irony of the publishing industry insisting that remote work is impossible and then proving the opposite by telling everyone who can afford to live and work in New York to go ahead and work from home. Really, right now you’re just better off avoiding Twitter like, uh, the plague. Or touching your face.

Still, in the midst of this madness I’ve seen quite a few writers step up to offer tips and tricks and resources for staying sane and staying on task while working from home–something most of us have a lot of experience with. (My tip: buy yourself a big dishwasher-safe water bottle and keep it in reach at all times. Hydration is easy and improves your quality of life in a lot of ways.) It may not sound like much, but for someone who’s never had to manage their own time in their own space when the kids and the neighbors and the dogs and 25 household chores are all vying for their attention, it might just be a lifesaver. It’s reassuring to see people offering what little they can in a time of crisis. And it doesn’t surprise me that this is an impulse many writers seem to share.

pity the readerThis week I also happen to be reading a book devoted to Kurt Vonnegut’s wisdom on the craft of writing, compiled by his onetime student and longtime friend Suzanne McConnell. It’s an anecdotal, idiosyncratic book likely to appeal to people who enjoy Kurt Vonnegut’s anecdotal, idiosyncratic style. My favorite nugget of wisdom so far appears in surprisingly early chapters–seven to twelve, to be exact. They’re short, like most of Vonnegut’s own chapters, and, like most of Vonnegut’s work, they prove that length is not necessarily proportional to importance, as these things go.

The overarching thread of these four chapters is what the point of writing (and art more broadly) is. It’s perhaps best summed up by the title of Chapter 12: “Agents of Change.” In Vonnegut’s philosophy, the prime mover of the artist is care. When asked in an interview after the runaway success of Slaughterhouse-Five, “Why do you write?” he answered,

My motives are political. I agree with Stalin and Hitler and Mussolini that the writer should serve his society. I differ with dictators as to how writers should serve…. Writers are specialized cells in the social organism. They are evolutionary cells. Mankind is trying to become something else; it’s experimenting with new ideas all the time. And writers are a means of introducing new ideas into the society, and also a means of responding symbolically to life…

…We’re expressions of the entire society… And when a society is in great danger, we’re likely to sound the alarms. I have the canary-bird-in-the-coal-mine theory of the arts.

McConnell goes on to quote a different interview:

I would not be interested in writing if I didn’t feel that what I wrote was an act of good citizenship or an attempt, at any rate, to be a good citizen. What brought my ancestors over here from Germany was not oppression over there, but simply the attractiveness of the United States Constitution, and the dream of brotherhood here. And also plenty of land. They were attracted materially too. I was raised to be bughouse about the Constitution, and to be very excited about the United States of America as a Utopia. It still seems utterly workable to me and I keep thinking of ways to fix it, to see what the hell went wrong, to see if we can get the thing to really run right.

Vonnegut undoubtedly succeeded, if not in achieving an American Utopia, then certainly in inspiring his readers to become Agents of Change. McConnell mentions one who followed his example by majoring in anthropology and then went on to work in international conflict resolution, helping to provide shelter and safety for people displaced by civil wars, borders disputes, and natural disasters. But this is also true on a much smaller scale.

Last semester I had the happy accident of teaching a class on 20th century science fiction. As an early modernist, this was way out of my wheelhouse and a result of the usual vicissitudes of course assignments at a large university. However, because I’d been working on a book set in the age of New Wave sci fi for the better part of two years, I’d been reading a lot classics in the genre and felt up to the task. Cat’s Cradle was one of the first things I put on the syllabus.

catscradleI knew it would provoke interesting conversation, but I didn’t fully consider the impact it would have on a group of students who (mostly) hadn’t encountered Vonnegut before. Being (mostly) STEM majors, many of them had never even taken a literature class, and signed up for this one because it seemed like the least painful way to satisfy their (meager) humanities requirements. Many of them freely admitted that it had been years since they read a book. Just as many told me, when the semester drew to a close, that they wanted to read more. This is the best outcome you can ask for as an English teacher.

Much of what I know about being an Agent of Change I learned from Vonnegut. The same might also be said of those 24 students. Cat’s Cradle not only introduced them to a bizarre and darkly funny genre (our first day of discussion was more an hour-long collective outburst of confusion and delight) but also forced them to confront some big questions they’d never considered. For instance: When does a tool become a weapon? Does it depend on the intention of the creator, or the tool’s potential use? A shovel is a weapon in the wrong hands, but we don’t place the blame for murder by trowel on the man who made the trowel. Should the same ethics apply to something like ice-nine? The science that enables biological warfare? The atomic bomb? What are scientists’ ethical responsibilities to the world they live in? How would the world be different if we considered all the possibilities of new technology–not only the desired outcome and intended use?

When I first posed these questions, nobody answered. Usually, silence is last thing you want in the classroom. Usually, it means they’re bored, or not paying attention. But not always–sometimes it means they’re thinking. 

This is only one example of the the Big Questions Vonnegut got my students thinking about. It might not seem like much, but knowing how bright they are and what else they’re learning, I’m not so sure that’s true. What of Vonnegut’s reader who went on to save lives around the world? Last semester a class of 24 had a strange encounter with Cat’s Cradle and, hopefully, they’ll take the lessons they learned with them into their careers in chemistry and biology and engineering. If our later conversations about Jurassic Park were any indication, in a few short weeks their awareness of the importance of ethics in scientific inquiry had already been raised. I didn’t need to ask these kinds of questions anymore: they asked them on their own. Thanks to Kurt, they know that none of the work they’ll do after the classroom will be uncomplicated or apolitical–and if they take that knowledge with them into the workforce, the ripple effect could be significant. That’s change, baby.

Now imagine the same thing, but multiply by the millions of people who have read Cat’s Cradle outside my class. The potential impact of a work of literature is huge. That is, make no mistake, a huge responsibility. Thank God Kurt Vonnegut had a conscience as well as a sense of humor and wove the two together so wonderfully. Of course, none of the rest of us inkslingers are ever going to be Kurt Vonnegut. But we may was well do our best to make him proud by making art that really matters. This is not to say that every work of fiction needs to be a social crusade. It’s simply to reiterate what Vonnegut said already: we write because we care.

Here’s the added bonus: your writing is going to be a lot better when you write about stuff you care about, whether it’s graduate students on strike or nuclear war or just the strange experience of a young Shakespearean actor (hi). Art is how we process things–as creators and consumers. Stories are how we make sense of the world.

Even more importantly, literature is a bridge to empathy. Really–we’ve got the science to prove it. “Controlled experiments,” McConnell writes, “prove Vonnegut right on this most important count:

Our brains do know reading is good for us. Especially literary fiction. That’s what the scientific journals NeuroImage, Brain and Language, and the Annual Review of Psychology report.

One study found that ‘after reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, people performed better on tests measuring empathy, social perception and emotional intelligence.’ Literary fiction improves social skills. Why? Because it leaves more to the imagination, activating inferences about characters and sensitivity ‘to emotional nuance and complexity.’

Researchers discovered other particulars.

The brain, it seems, does not make much of a distinction between reading about an experience and encountering it in real life; in each case, the same neurological regions are stimulated.

Fiction–with its redolent details, imaginative metaphors and attentive descriptions of people and their actions–offers an especially rich replica. Indeed, in one respect novels go beyond simulating reality…: the opportunity to enter fully into other people’s thoughts and feelings.*

(153)

Not such small potatoes after all. In a time when our political leaders are refusing to take the necessary measures to keep people safe and refusing to take responsibility for the gross mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis, and when the situation is being exacerbated by individuals who are hoarding supplies they don’t need which won’t reach the people who do need them or putting others at risk by not taking appropriate precautions, it sure seems like we could all use a little empathy.

So this is why we write. And this is, I think, what’s going to keep us writing even though the world feels like it’s on fire. We’re going to keep writing because the world is on fire, because literature literally makes us better people, and because better people are more likely to help put fires out. Sitting down to type or even just to read might seem useless and futile when disease is spreading and people are dying, but just because you’re a writer or a reader instead of an epidemiologist doesn’t mean that what you’re doing doesn’t matter. Write on.

M


*From Annie Murphy Paul’s piece “Your Brain on Fiction,” published in the New York Times on March 17, 2012.

So That Still Didn’t Work

If you read my last post or any of the posts linked therein, you’ve probably come to know me as a demented workaholic who is so Type A she pencils things like errands and showers and taking out the recycling into her planner (and then color-codes them by category of activity. Really). However, as you may also know if you’ve been following the saga of M-struggles-to-find-a-work-life-balance, the freakish level of organization with which I have learned to manage my life, while useful when it comes to meeting deadlines and juggling responsibilities, often makes me miserable.

Over the last week and a half my entire planner was blocked out in pastel shades of Academic Work and Writing Work and Housekeeping and Social Obligations and Stuff I Don’t Really Have Time for but Agreed to Do Anyway Because I’m a Chronic Over-achiever Who Doesn’t Know How to Say No. It was a mixed bag of excitement and exhaustion. I saw a lot of friends and did a lot of work and absorbed a lot of new information. I was also so burned out after twelve straight days of sunup to sundown stuff that last night when I finally reached that 5-o’clock-on-Friday finish line, all I could muster up the will to do was lie on the couch and stare at a screen and let its soothing blue light numb my brain into momentary hibernation.

This morning, this glorious Saturday morning when I had nothing–nothing!–scribbled in the relevant column of the ubiquitous planner, I sat down to fill in my day. Then I stopped, snapped the planner shut, and said to myself (sorry, Mom), “Fuck it.” Why am I planning my first free day in two weeks down to the minute with stupid things that don’t need time stamps, like reading a book or writing a blog post or running the dishwasher? Folks, my brain is BROKEN.

This is not exactly news. Obsessive tendencies have been my dear companions since middle school and are largely to credit/blame for the number of plates I manage to spin on a regular basis. But it has occurred to me recently–and with surprisingly sharp clarity this morning–that some of the anxiety I feel is entirely self-generated.

In college I realized that I was much more likely to finish things I started when I only worked on one thing at a time and stuck to a schedule I figured out based on how much I wanted to accomplish by what date and how much work I had to do each day to get there. It was such a successful formula that I banged out like five novels and two theses in about six years, which is to say nothing of all the other stuff I managed to fit in in between. Because it was working, I didn’t question it–until now.

To be clear, I do not regret cultivating this kind of discipline. Without it, there’s absolutely no way I would be able to juggle writing-as-a-career with the demands of academia. However, the time seems right to entertain the possibility that there is a limit to how much hard work can help you. My solution to every setback has been to work harder and work faster and hope like hell that it all pays off. Some of it has. Much of it hasn’t. And in the meantime, I’ve become such a basket case that I need four hours of binge-watching the TV I’ll never catch up on because I’ve got work to do, damn it, just to recover from two weeks of normal.

One definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. With that in mind, the way I’ve been trying to solve problems looks not just dysfunctional but downright delusional. And the closer I look the clearer it becomes how much of the stress I experience is partly self-inflicted. Working harder and faster has made little material difference in how much sooner I reach my goals, and may even be part of the reason I’m not reaching them sooner. Which raises another question: what’s the point of pushing myself to accomplish these things if I feel more like a hamster on a wheel than a person chasing their dreams?

It sounds corny because it totally is. We could blame Western culture or Walt Disney or the Founding Fathers who instilled in us the desire for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. But it’s so easy to get caught up in the pursuit you forget about the happiness part. To be fair to myself, it’s not entirely my fault. I work in two industries where it is notoriously, demonstrably difficult to succeed. Getting ahead feels like sheer fantasy, when the reality of every day is a race to keep up. But it’s equally real that I am making things worse for myself.

Looking back through the first pages of the planner to the beginning of 2020, it’s obvious I’ve crossed the border from dedicated to delusional. What sane person plans to write a conference paper and a dissertation chapter and the first draft of a new novel and a series of articles and reviews while working full time and a half and still trying to sell the last novel she finished, all in a matter of three months? It’s objectively insane, and yet it was something my January self not only fully intended to do but had calculated down to the daily wordcount.

Today is February 29th, which feels like a liminal space, an unreal day of unusual possibility which we only see on the calendar every four years. Something about today made me stop and think and decide to break the cycle. Of course, old habits die hard. I will never be a person who flies by the seat of her pants, but that doesn’t mean I need to run my own life like a helicopter mom, either. So this morning I loosened some of the straps on the psychological straitjacket.

I can’t throw out the planner because I do need to keep track of what day it is and where I need to be, but I made some other changes. I deleted my Goodreads challenge so I’m no longer getting guilt-tripped by the internet for not reading fast enough. I scrapped the writing plan I made in January that had me trying to bang out 1,000 words a day on a novel on top of everything else in favor of something more flexible. I said no to a job that I probably would have said yes to yesterday because I knew it would be more stress than it was worth. I decided not to try to cram travel into the month of March just because it’s spring break so maybe I should. I want to leave more room in my schedule for spontaneity and relaxation and exploration and enjoying moments of this life I’ve worked so hard to build. And maybe, paradoxically, that will actually bring me closer to all those long-term goals. Maybe part of the reason I’ve been struggling to do good work is because I’m just trying to do too much–even if it is, like all those things I mentioned in my last post, positive. Maybe all work and no play really does make Jack a dull boy. And maybe a little time to breathe won’t make me brilliant, but it might make me healthier and happier, and that’s not bad as consolation prizes go.

So that’s my suggestion for Leap Day. Cut something loose. Self-sabotage might just be a great place to start.

M

So That Didn’t Work

I’ve said this before, but I don’t set a lot of stock in New Year’s resolutions. So far the only one I’ve ever done that worked was in 2017 when I resolved to listen to at least one song every day without doing anything else at the same time (a practice I would highly recommend for anybody trying to find a quiet moment in the midst of 21st-century chaos or reconnect with art in a meaningful way).

However, this new year happened to coincide with a series of circumstances which have forced me to reconsider the way I operate from day to day. The short version is that the class I was supposed to teach was cancelled due to insufficient enrollment, a glitch in the Matrix which might be attributable to an uninspiring–and apparently immutable–course description, the structure of the undergrad English major, the general devaluation of the humanities in American culture, my own lack of appeal as a person, or some combination of all four. The downside is a significant cut to my insignificant paycheck. (There’s no such thing as job security as a graduate student.) The upside is that this leaves me with a more flexible schedule than I have had in the last six years.

As you may have heard me say elsewhere (by which I mean Twitter), I don’t do well with unstructured time (hence the sharp upswing in my Twitter activity of late). As a result I’ve gotten to be very good at structuring my own time when there isn’t an institutional schedule in place to do it for me. But one of my objectives this year is to become less of a slave to structure. If you’ve been following this blog awhile or already clicked on that link at the top, you know I’ve been down this road before. I tried it last year. It did not work.

However, I am nothing if not stubborn, so here we are again. I’ve accepted that a reasonable work-life balance is an unrealistic goal for me, just because of who I am as a person at this particular point in my life. But that doesn’t mean I can’t make some changes to the way I work. In addition to feeling generally burned out and overwhelmed, a lot of the joy that writing used to bring me has been replaced by fatalistic dread about what it will (or won’t) amount to in the end. Is this really worth my time? Will it be worth a publisher’s money? Will it grab a journal’s interest? Worry about that sort of stuff for long enough, and it’ll make you hate something you used to love.

This is not to say I hate writing. This is to say I hate the anxieties that come with writing for publication. Unfortunately, if you intend to make a career as a writer (which I still do, with characteristic stubbornness, despite trying and failing to grab a new editor’s interest for the last four years) marketability isn’t something you can afford not to worry about. But perhaps you don’t have to worry about it all the time.

My abstract and belated resolution for 2020 is to worry less and write more with no other end goal in mind than the writing itself. I want to write about stuff I want to write about without worrying whether anybody wants to buy it. To be honest, I want to write without even worrying whether anybody wants to read it. Over the last few months, I’ve been taking baby steps in the right direction. I’ve been following whims and interests which are largely unrelated to my usual fields and genres, and some of those things have been hugely rewarding.

For example:

I’m writing reviews and interviews for The Vinyl District, an online music mag with a pretty wide reach where I have pretty free rein. If you’re curious you can find links here (and keep an eye out in the coming weeks; I have a long interview with one of my favorite cover bands and a piece on Brian Wilson in the pipeline).

Years ago, I was doing record recommendations based on followers’ favorite books. Demand got so out of hand I had to stop doing it, but now I’m back at it, in a more manageable way. I’ve told nobody about this until now. For months it was a sorely needed creative outlet with absolutely zero stakes. If you want, you can find that here.

After teaching a science fiction class last semester, I’ve taken a much deeper dive into space exploration. I applied to participate in the upcoming State of NASA event at the Goddard Space Flight Center, and–to my surprise as much as yours–was actually selected. On February 10th I’ll be touring the facilities (as Cake might put it) and sharing some exciting stuff about the Artemis program, the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, and future missions to Mars. If you want to follow along with that, you can find me on Twitter and Instagram.

These are just a few of the proverbial irons in the fire. I may not be teaching again until September, but I still have conference papers and a dissertation to write and a novel to sell and an admin job with my university’s MedRen society. All of that keeps me pretty busy. But finding time to write just for the sake of art and curiosity and the craft itself has helped me remember why I wanted to do this in the first place. To that end, I’m hoping to also start posting writing more regularly here. (Don’t worry, it won’t be enough to be annoying.) I’m not sure yet what form that writing will take or if it will find a consistent form at all. The point is to follow my own creative whims and write without worry.

For anyone else feeling burned out or bummed out or just demoralized by how little real reward there often is for the many hours we spend working, I hope you can find time in your life to chase a few butterflies. Indulge yourself. Take a risk. Waste some time. Resist the urge to map every hour of your day or your month and let life catch you by surprise. 2020 promises to be a rough year. If we don’t want to go crazy, we might just have make our own rules and make our own fun and find the things that remind us why we’re toughing it out in the first place.

Good luck and godspeed.

M

Once More, with Feeling

I never shut up about how important revision is, which is something you probably already know if you’ve been following me on any platform for any length of time. This is partly because that’s a hill I’m willing to die on and partly because it’s a part of the process I don’t often see other writers talk about, which I think contributes to the myth that the first draft is 90% of the work–which has been, in my experience, pretty much the opposite of the reality.

In my last post here I talked about the daunting prospect of the first round of revision, and about how you have to find a way to live in that strange liminal place between the disaster your first draft is and the terrific thing it has the potential to become. So let’s say you’ve gotten through that second draft. How do you approach the third?

This is where I am right now. Over the last three weeks I’ve worked through my shitty first draft, working about three hours a night with the exception of my “spring break,” which I spent locked in an AirBnB in a very small town in Pennsylvania where there wasn’t much to distract me from the work. And despite all that time spent and work done, if someone besides me were to look at the two drafts I have now, they might have a hard time spotting the differences. The most obvious one is probably that the second draft is about 25,000 words shorter, but besides that it looks more or less the same. So what the hell was I doing for those 100-odd hours I spent turning Draft 1 into Draft 2?

Reading through the ugly first draft of any manuscript is the first chance you have to meet the story as a whole, to see the shape it takes when all the pieces are finally in place. It’s a bit of a mixed bag emotionally; there’s certainly a thrill at seeing the whole thing come together, but that enthusiasm is necessarily dampened by the realization of how much work still remains to be done–a realization it’s really not possible to arrive at until you have a complete draft of, well, something. Calling it a “book” might be generous at this juncture. Whatever you want to call it, it can be hard to know where to start. Figuring that out is what I was doing between Draft 1 and Draft 2.

I’ve you’ve been following me anywhere long enough to know how much I love revision, you’ve also probably heard me harp on about how much I love outlining. So it will probably come as no surprise to you that I love nothing more than smashing those two things together. Yes, I’m that much of a creative control freak: I outline revision. This is actually a habit I picked up during a writing workshop at Iowa about five years ago. Our workshop leader, responding to a question about his own revision process, explained that in each draft he only focuses on one thing. One draft to fix plot and pacing. One draft to look only at character development. Another to look only at dialogue. And so on and so forth.

Revision, precisely because it is so important and so unwieldy and because most first drafts are a holy mess, can be really intimidating. So sometime in the intervening years I figured out my own way to make it manageable. While I don’t follow the same one-thing-per-draft approach described by that workshop leader, I do like to approach each draft with a finite list of tasks to keep it from feeling overwhelming. That, largely, is the task of Draft 2: to suss out what needs to be done in Draft 3. After the last three weeks of work, I’ve got a list with ten or twelve items on it, which range in intensity from “Write those two scenes you never actually put in there” to “Cut every word you don’t absolutely need.” (For me, cutting down on the clutter is always a high priority, but since this MS clocked in at 210,000 words I’m going to have to Marie Kondo the crap out of it.) Once I have a list, I tend to favor a top-down approach and do the heavy lifting first: fixing plot holes and character development and anything else that’s a macrocosmic problem. Then I move on to the smaller stuff that only affects one scene or one page or one paragraph. Once I get to the bottom of that list, I’ll call it a draft, then start the process over again. Lather, rinse, repeat.

No doubt about it, this is a lot of work. But what I like about working this way is that you can really see the progress from draft to draft and know exactly what you did to get there. And by the time you’re on draft ten or twelve the items on your list have shrunk from mountains to molehills and it’s starting to look like a book. The best way I can think to describe it is that it’s a bit like finding the statue inside a block of marble. You have to chip away at it, slowly and carefully, bit by bit, until you find the last graceful shape of the thing. Will it ever be perfect? Of course not. That’s art. Even Michelangelo’s David has some proportional irregularities. But if you can carve something like that from a dull mass of stone, you’ve accomplished something worth being proud of–and most people won’t even notice if his head’s just a little too big.

M

Tyranny of the Mind

I’ve always been a sucker for a melodramatic title. You’ll have to forgive me for this one, which jumped to the tip of my tongue this morning as I reviewed the work I did yesterday and considered my half-formed plan for today. I stuck it in the title bar of this post as a placeholder, but the more I thought about it the less I wanted to change it, because it’s a prime example of exactly what I wanted to talk about. Why was this phrase bouncing around my brain in the first place? Because I’ve spent a lot of time with mid-century reflections on the failings of the democratic system lately, because that’s what the characters in my current WIP are doing. “Tyranny of the masses” is something they’ve talked about in the context of political protest and opposition to the Vietnam War. Certainly relevant to the current political climate, but the more mundane truth is it’s on my mind because it’s on their minds, and writing a first draft is like the full immersion approach to a foreign language. If you want to be able to speak it, you’ve got to live in it.

This “full immersion” approach isn’t unique to writing (other artists and professionals can certainly attest to a similar sort of monomania) but rather characteristic of it–at least for me. It’s a bit like method acting. You have to climb inside a character’s head and crawl back out through their mouth and that’s about as intimate as you can get with another person, fictional or not, so it isn’t surprising that the writer rarely emerges unaltered. At the risk of sounding like a crazy person, I’ll admit that when I’m working on a manuscript (which is always) my entire life revolves around it in a way which might be undetectable–not to mention uninteresting–to friends and family, who probably interpret it as just another peculiarity of my personality. In a way, it is that, but the ubiquity of it is hard to explain. What book or even what chapter of it I’m working on dictates not only what I’m reading, but what music I listen to, what drink I make when five o’clock rolls around, even how I get dressed in the morning. As obsessions go it’s a bit embarrassing–kind of like the unpleasant recollection of that awful band you were in love with in your middle school emo phase–so I don’t talk about it much, but neither can I turn it off.

Two weeks ago I explained how and why I’m making it a priority in 2019 to find a better work-life balance. I have made some small progress in that regard; I have checked my own impulses to get back to work when I’ve been “idle” for longer than fifteen minutes and made a pact with myself that I won’t do academic work on Saturdays. But the fact remains that work is my default setting. Yesterday I obeyed the ban on academic work, but instead I sat down and wrote for ten hours. I got 4,000 words down on paper, re-configured the end of my outline, took a break to eat dinner, and finally turned my computer off in an attempt to mark the end of work for the day. Then I scribbled out four more pages by hand. When I went to bed it took me three hours to fall asleep because I was rolling over every ten minutes to jot down notes and ideas and phrases too good to forget. (In the morning some of it doesn’t even make sense–for instance, the note which simply says “blanket”–but in the moment it all felt terribly urgent.) Today is another snow day, and I would be lying if I said I won’t spend it doing more or less the same thing.

This sort of obsessive-compulsive service to a story can sometimes engender an uncanny feeling that your life is not entirely your own. It’s a strange limbo to live in, but I’m often hesitant to talk about it because of how melodramatic, how ironically self-important it sounds. (Indeed, how many of you have had that thought while reading this post? Probably more than a few. I know and I’m sorry.) In my defense, this hyperfixation on my own work has nothing to do with delusions of grandeur and skewed expectations of how important to the larger world it actually is. If anything it’s the opposite; I’m fully aware that nothing I’m writing will ever matter as much to anyone else as it does to me; I’ve spent entire years of my life (not to mention money) working on manuscripts that will never be published and never earn me a dime, so I have no illusions on that score. That’s precisely why it’s so hard to come to grips with this particular obsession. In the greater scheme of things, I know exactly how little it matters. The worst thing that happens if this book doesn’t get written is that the book doesn’t get written. Even if it does, it’s quite possible nothing will come of it and I will have nothing to show for it except a few more lost years and spent money and a weirdly encyclopedic knowledge of a cultural moment nobody else is particularly interested in. And yet, at the same time that it feels vaguely depressing and pointless, it also feels tyrannically important and impossible to refuse.

At the risk of sounding, once again, melodramatic, I truly don’t remember what I thought about in otherwise unoccupied moments before I started writing. That could be because I started writing rather young and the gray matter which stores my story ideas has simply sloughed off everything inessential from those awkward early years in a psychological self-defense maneuver. But the question remains: what the hell do people who aren’t living with one foot in a fictional world think about when they’re walking the dog, taking a shower, folding laundry, doing all those normal human things which require little enough attention that the mind is free to wander? This is what I mean by work being my default setting; it’s my brain’s automatic screen saver. When there’s nothing else to occupy it, that’s where it goes; it chews on plot problems and tricky bits of dialogue and wonders which darlings to murder to drive the wordcount down. Perhaps more alarming, without the several dozen novel projects which have obsessed me at different intervals over the last fifteen years, I have absolutely no idea who I would be.

Yesterday, besides chipping away at a first draft for the better part of ten hours, I also found some time to finish the book I was reading, Hermann Hesse’s Journey to the East. (Why that? Because it’s on that list of books the characters in my WIP would probably be reading. All roads lead to Rome.) Like the rest of Hesse’s books, it’s abstract and baffling and disquieting precisely because you never know quite what he’s getting at but you’re not sure you’d like it if you did. However, Hesse does have a helpful tendency to repeat the important ideas, and one of them struck particularly close to home: “We had talked about the creations of poetry being more vivid and real than the poets themselves” (123).* I flipped back to the earlier conversation this morning and felt a flutter of déjà vu, because the suspicion that “however animated and lovable the personalities of these artists were, yet without exception their imaginary characters were more animated, more beautiful, happier and certainly finer and more real than the poets and creators themselves” was uncomfortably familiar (32-3). It’s a strange experience to pick up a book and find an unflattering portrait of yourself inside.

So, what’s the point of this post? I don’t know. What do you do with the realization that your creative workaholism is the sum total of your personality?

You get back to work, I guess. But maybe that isn’t as depressing as it sounds (or maybe I just want it not to be, and what follows will be a transparent justification of my own neuroses). Maybe it’s simply proof of the human hunger for a better version of the world–something more exciting, more colorful, more important than what we encounter in our daily lives. That’s one of the reasons we read and it’s certainly one of the reasons I write. Believe me, I see the irony: in order to satisfy that craving for something exciting and profound I sat on my couch and typed for ten hours? Yes, laughably ironic. But I suppose one of the things I’ve never grown disillusioned about is the magic of what words can do, what a skilled writer who’s spent ten years at the desk can make them do, how they can cut you to the quick if you read them when the time is right. I don’t pretend to be one of those writers, but it’s not a bad ideal to chase.

I’m still working on the work-life balance thing. It’s hard to do when you’ve realized your life and your work are more or less interchangeable. But so long as writing remains a labor of love, I won’t worry too much. I don’t mind who writing has made me, even if it confuses the hell out of every MBTI test and Google algorithm trying to figure out how to categorize me. Joke’s on you. I contain multitudes.

M


* Herman Hesse, The Journey to the East, trans. Hilda Rosner (New York: Bantam, 1972).

Guest Post

This week I had the opportunity to share some thoughts with Superstition Review about politics, writing, what I’m working on, and making art in the age of Trump.

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The full post is here, and I hope you take a few minutes to read it.

–M

Wise Words on Writing and Hard Work from David Wong

As anybody who’s familiar with my reading habits probably knows, I love David Wong. His books are wild and off-the-wall and appeal to my sometimes infantile sense of humor and always fervent love of the macabre. I can’t say enough good things about his books. And having seen what he posted on Goodreads today, I think it’s pretty clear why.

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I get a lot of questions about writing and revision and most people seem to think it’s a sort of hobby I pursue in my off hours, but that’s not at all the case. Last night I spend three hours fixing one paragraph, and that’s not remotely anomalous. Art is hard work, and I think consumers and aspiring artists forget that sometimes.

Let David Wong be an object lesson. Writing is a craft of the ‘glacier’ class: only ten percent is creative inspiration. The rest is hard, hard work.