It takes work to shift your focus from the smudges on the windows to the view outside. ~Heather Havrilesky
I’ve shifted my focus a bit on the social media since the start of the year just as an experiment, and so far I’m learning that “Literary Twitter” and “Bike Twitter” can be just as mean and ranty as the other networks and communities I know. The TwitterRobot reminded me to celebrate my anniversary on their platform which I joined–truthfully–begrudgingly to fulfill an EdTech graduate assignment. It made me laugh to remember how my classmates spent SO long talking about creating a “clever handle” to help “brand you in your personal learning network.” Barf me out, I remember thinking and I typed the @, my first name, and my last name, and went back to reading the New York Times. Assignment done.
I’ve made a lot of incredible friends and connections with that platform, but the mood and tone has changed a bit since I’ve started reading and sharing. I won’t quit you, Twitterz, because sometimes people share amazing things that I wouldn’t see elsewhere. The serendipity of the things you can learn and discover keep me coming back. Even if it’s the megaphone of horror and rage most days. I love, for example, this post from Porochista Khakpour: How To Be a Writer and How To Stay A Writer.
Her blog inspired me to write my own version of her twelve ideas on how to be and stay a writer, so here goes. What follows is not as charming as what she wrote, so be sure to read her post first.
Don’t Hate People
I really laughed at this one. Yes! Recently, as in this Wednesday, I realized that one of the reasons I’m significantly happier these days is because of how little I talk with other people now that my job has changed. I thought about my last jobby job, and how I would take a few phone calls on the first ring to protect a thin-skinned colleague. I was her manager, after all, so when certain names came across the caller ID, I answered quickly even though technically it wasn’t my job. It was easier to face the hot mess on the other line than it was to deal with the hot-mess-after-the-call with an upset direct report. I remember saying to this direct report, “You just have to imagine that this awful person’s dog really hates them. Like she comes home from work and the dog runs in the other direction. When she’s mid-rant, imagine that her cat purposely misses the litterbox because it hates her.” This cracked us up even though it’s totally crude, and I’m not sure I mentored that person out of being overly sensitive, but really, I see now how this reacting to one-hot-mess-to-the-next-hot-mess wears you down. It’s impossible to write on days like that.
If I’ve learned anything this past year, it’s that persisting is exhausting. It helps tune you up for long-term endurance, which is the real test of existence. In fact, writing this post helps me realize that most of what I really enjoy doing is about endurance. Somebody introduced me at a public event for my volunteer work, and they mentioned how I work for a start-up, help manage a non-profit, and I race cyclocross, so, this person said, “she must love suffering.” People laughed. The ability to suffer the longest—to endure–you have to see this as a gift. Persistence is a gift.
This one is a hard one, and I love Porochista’s response–she is a teacher after all. Since I’m not in the role of making a living teaching writers, I’ll say it. I think some people are naturally talented with some genres more than others. Let’s say, for instance, you have a creative idea that brushes up against the status quo and challenges what everyone is cozy with. If you can persist and endure to create that new idea, then you have talent. Some writers can make a forty word sentence feel like a haiku. Some writers just stop you cold with their sentences. Few people have it, and that’s okay. There’s a difference between those who really have to try and those who are naturally blessed, gifted, talented–however you want to see it. Same goes with writing.
This is fucking everything and I’ll die on this hill no matter what you tell me. You can sell me all the platitudes of being able to “build your personal brand” and “beefing up your CV” or my personal favorite seeing yourself being worthy of success and I know in my heart and soul you’re a liar. And truthfully, maybe this naiveté makes you a happier person, but I have a sneaking suspicion that it doesn’t. Luck is everything. Who you know. Who sees you. Who helps you. Which side of the tracks of you were born on. All of that magic that we lazily sometimes call “privilege” is a complex menu of circumstance and luck. My grandmother used to say that if “you didn’t have bad luck, you wouldn’t have any luck at all.” Preach! When you do have luck, I believe, then it’s up to you to help others who do not have as much as you. If you don’t, you’re a selfish asshole. There is luck that you can create for others. Let’s face it. Any word that is a noun and a verb is complicated.
Now this makes sense to me. Khakpour describes people who write everyday and those that do not. Some people believe that you have to write everyday to BE a writer, but it doesn’t always work out that way for me. Like today. I had every intention of writing the entire morning, and I got completely sucked into the novel An American Marriage by Tayari Jones. The structure of the book is so great the way she weaves three perspectives together and part of the story takes place in Atlanta, a city where I lived for nine years. Two characters bonded over a misunderstood line of my favorite Prince song, and I laughed so hard. Totally hooked to read the whole damn thing. One of the characters brought up how, when they were kids, they thought the Prince line was “I want to be the only one you cook for.” Brilliant, that whole scene.
I believe in hard work. If luck is an intangible thing that you can’t control, then hard work is The Thing that you can trust. It’s The Thing that makes you tired at the end of the day. The engine that helps you stay motivated. The Thing that keeps you getting after it. (If you are unfamiliar with that Prince song, you should listen to it. Pure soul funk on that guitar. May he rest in peace.)
I can see it. I can smell it. I can feel the book in my hand. Seeing the book in my mind and in my imagination is easy. Getting the thing done has proven to be the challenge. I just completed another 10,000 this month (woot!), so I’m feeling like I’m at a good place to stop and spend some serious time revising. I have one more chapter to write, and then I’m going through the whole thing page by page. Bird by fucking bird. I made it to 40,000 words this morning despite Jones’ novel, and my hour-long discussion of that Prince song with my Mister. He had never heard it. Wut! He’s not much of a fan, and I’m sure if he was shocked that I knew all the words. We have these momenets, where he’s like “How the hell do you know all of the words to this song?” and I’m like, “Where were you in the [enter year/decade here].” I sometimes marvel how we grew up in two very different parts of America.
I have a lot of friends who read and journal and write, but I’ve struggled in this department–keeping up with my actual we-care-to-publish-our-work writer friends. Keeping up with a lot of my friends, really, is sometimes a challenge. Tryna be better in 2020.
Make Up Your Own Rules
This has been one of the most liberating things for me, and I’ve written so much about this that I should prolly create a tag on this blog. Over the last ten years, I’ve stopped caring about the grammars, the semantics, the rules, whether I sound smart or not, and if my sentences make sense. On my free time, that is. On the clock, I care quite a bit.
One of the hardest parts of the class-like group that I’ve been involved with this past year has been commenting on other people’s work. It feels like grading. Ugh. Sigh. Deep breath. It’s a reminder of how much I burned out on teaching because of all the grading. I’m struggling with the commenting-on-other’s-people’s work part. I owe three people four months of comments on their work, and I just really can’t bring myself to do it. I didn’t know that working on other people’s writing would be part of this gig. I missed that part of instructions until it was too late. It’s all done in March, so I’m gonna really think about whether a community of writers is what I need. Dunno. Last post I was feeling it. Today? Maybe I’m just grouchy.
Sigh. This is entirely hard for me. I loathe editing my own work sometimes, and other times I love it. The word revision means to see again, and it’s a way to polish up what you’ve created. It’s necessary, but so hard. I know some writers who just sit down, bust it all out, and they never revise a damn thing. They never make a mistake. Words just flow beautifully and it is all gorgeous.
What gets left behind in the editing process can become something else entirely someday, and I’m embracing that constant sifting and sorting of words and stories.
I love this, and I agree. I do this when I when I workout, and I think of my journal as warming up. Though truly, I’m fine sometimes with warming up and warming up and warming up so much that I never actually get started. This past year was learning about this tendency of mine and being honest with myself about why I never really got started. But that’s a story for another day.
Read out loud
This is really hard to do when you live a small space with another person. I love my little condo ski chalet, but it’s not a place where you can pace and read out loud like the wonderful huge house we used to rent up by Lake Whatcom. Gosh, I loved that house. Me and the Mister had our own offices, and a gigantic sprawling yard. Someday I’ll have that space again (hopefully), and until I do, I’ll keep riding my bike or running and thinking about my writing. Reading aloud on the regular just isn’t possible right now.
I really laughed out loud at this one. Yes. YES! And I think this is a smart way of accepting the reality of a soul-craft like writing. It’s not going to pay the bills. Some of the writing I do does pay the bills, so like oh my frickin’ gosh that’s a miracle, and I know a small select group of people make a fine living as writers. I once accepted a gift certificate for a pair of pants in exchange for an article, and I remember thinking, “My writing is putting clothes on my legs but not food on the table.”
The most important question that I learned to say this past year after a stint of writing is: “How does this connect with my book?”
Sometimes what I’m writing doesn’t connect at all to that project. Yes. Sometimes it’s so spot-on. Sometimes it pure drivel. Sometimes it’s the same story told differently. Sometimes it’s another book brewing. This is a really lovely way of seeing for me. A helpful revision of my perspective.
Before I suit up, and go for a run, (too rainy and winny for the bike) I want to take a minute to reflect on where I am with this process. Maybe this is a wish for a bit of luck.
If I have twice the words that I have now this time next year, then I’ll be in good shape with finishing with this book. I’ll have a manuscript.
After reviewing my notes, I think my best process is to capture the early hours of the morning for just my writing. Before the work. Before looking at my phone. Maybe each week it changes, but I have to figure it out at least four days a week. At least. Four days a week, I’ll prioritize being a writer in the early morning. Three days a week, I’ll prioritize being a bike rider/racer-in-training. Both make me extraordinarily happy, and both are extremely hard. Lucky me.
For now, this quote:
Being an artist means: not number and counting, but ripening like a tree, which doesn’t force its sap, and stands confidently in the storms of spring, not afraid that afterward that summer may not come. It does come. But it comes to those who are patient, who are there as if eternity lay before them, so unconcernedly silent and cast. ~Rilke