On the middle finger of my right hand, there’s a nice big callous at the first knuckle. This is where I hold my pen, where the plastic casing presses into my skin and bone as I frantically scribble out an idea before it vanishes like smoke.
This callous has sat there, simultaneously bumped and dented, for a long time, at least since middle school when I really began to write. I’ve always been oddly proud of it: aside from the piled notebooks, it’s an outward sign of what I do.
I thought I was the only one aware of this self-inflicted mark. Then one day, back in middle school, on the bus, a girl I didn’t talk to much (she was likely in the popular, extroverted group) pointed it out to me. “That means that you write a lot. That’s cool.”
This may have been the first time someone outside of my normal, insular life identified me as a writer. It was strange, shocking; I’d thought it was all in my head. But it wasn’t just a part of my inside world. To the world outside of me, I was a writer, someone with stories, who couldn’t stop putting them down. And she was right — that was pretty cool.
Often I go into stories knowing how my characters start out, and how they end up. Even if the beginning and end eventually change, through drafts that tends to be the more solid part of the story. It’s the middle that remains wobbly, unfocused, languishing.
In a story I hoped to be done with for now (but deep down I knew I really wasn’t) I’d had some problems in the middle, with what the characters were up to, how quickly things happened, how dramatic I made the story. I thought I’d fixed that. Then I got some helpful comments back on it that pointed out my big problems, which took place…yup…in the middle.
I’ve been working on it, and I think it’s improving. I’m trimming some fat, replacing some parts (hopefully not mixing metaphors like that). I’m going to send it out to friends, and hopefully, after their comments, I’ll craft a middle that comes out less like Jell-O and more like semi-dry cement. And then off it goes again.
What part of the story gives you issues?
Thanks to some encouraging news, I’ve been pushing myself over the last few days with some of my writing projects. I’ve reread, edited, and plotted for more hours than I usually dedicate to projects in one day, and now I’ve gotten into rewriting. Generally, a decent day of writing a story for me involves 3 or 4 handwritten pages. Rather than a stopping point, though, I’m trying to make that number a minimum, something I only finish the day at because there’s too much other life happening that there’s no real time to generate more than that. Hoo boy, is that hard.
The reason 3 or 4 pages is usually the limit is that by that point, my brain feels stretched, an elastic I’ve pulled and pulled and I can’t tug on anymore because then it will just snap. This is the point where I actually jump on the chance to do chores around the house, or leave for my job, because my brain doesn’t have the capacity to write any more.
But I can’t think of my brain as something that I’ll just break apart if I push it too far. It’s a muscle, and just like how every yoga class I’m a little bit closer to touching my forehead on my toes, if I keep pushing myself to my limit — and then a little bit beyond — I’ll be able to write more, and more, and maybe one day even pump out a dozen pages over the course of the day without feeling as if I’m about to collapse.
I’m at one of those unhelpful points in my reading where I’ve discovered I’ve started way too many books at once. Not that I lose track of what I’m reading (simultaneous stories is one of the few things I can actually compartmentalize in my brain) but it’s been taking me much longer than usual to get through each book. Here’s what I’m working through:
The Hundred Secret Senses. I’ve only read a couple other books by Amy Tan, but I’m big fan of her very character-driven stories. I’m not liking this one as much as, say The Joy Luck Club, but still enjoy seeing how all these little plot lines overlap and twist together. Almost done with this one.
I Was Told There’d Be Cake. I’ve never read Sloane Crosely before, but count me a fan. This is a book of personal essays, a la David Sedaris, and while I think Sedaris is a little funnier (so far, I’ve only read two essays) Crosley’s really winning me over with her childhood memories and paranoid overthinking of what others will think of you when you tragically die. A fun read to help buffer the other stuff.
A Tale Dark and Grimm. Just started this one, but who would I be if I wasn’t reading a children’s book?
Rereading. Yeah, I’m still working on this one.
On top of that I’ve got the book I’m currently reading for review, and two more Jincy Willett books fresh from the library (did you know Amy Falls Down is a sequel? I didn’t know that, no one told me). Not to mention all the other books glaring at me from my shelves or breathing down my neck on my library wait list. I gotta get a move on.
A friend recently posted this article by Chuck Sambuchino on her Facebook page, and the title alone had me clicking immediately: When Can You Call Yourself a Writer? He lays out when you can call yourself a writer personally, and when you can call yourself a writer to the world, basically now, while you’re writing, whether your published or not.
I’ve always thought of myself as a writer, but it hasn’t always been something I’ve wanted to admit to other people right off the bat. Obviously, once they’ve known me for more than a couple of weeks, it’s hard to hide the fact of what I do, or want to do. But to actually come right out and say it is something I’ve felt uncomfortable with.
When I started attending Lesley, I began telling people “I need to do homework” when I meant “I need to write.” This was a much more easily accepted excuse to family and friends to not take part in something, or duck out early. People understand homework, but they don’t always understand the need to write a story that may never leave the realm of your computer hard drive. It was a crutch, though, something I could say in order to avoid explaining to people what I was doing and why I was doing it.
I’ve also had a hard time calling myself a writer to other people, especially outside my circle, because I’ve had very little published, and for a while none of it was paid for. That’s how I realized, through a conversation during a seminar, that I didn’t think of myself as a published writer, because I couldn’t tell people I was getting paid for it and without the “authority” of money it didn’t seem right to tell people that’s what I do.
I’ve become better about this, partly because it’s become impossible to hide. All my coworkers know I’m a writer, because I had to ask for chunks of time off twice a year to attend school. This has given me the chance to learn to grow comfortable talking about it, since some of them still ask me, with great interest and no judgement, how is my writing and what am I working on. Being open about what I do has also given me more opportunities at my job, as they’ve started to ask me to do projects involving writing, like Facebook posts and newsletters. Thanks to school, a large percentage of my Facebook friends are also writers (whether they get paid or not!) so it’s just unreasonable to hide what I do on there. And even with family and friends, it’s become easier to bring it up; yeah, I have a lot of creative buddies, but even others are willing to talk about writing when I bring it up, or want to actually read what I’m doing. Whether or not I get feedback from this, it’s a morale booster.
So, calling myself a writer to other people has been an awkward process, partly because I’m an exceptionally awkward individual. But doing it, finally, has helped me to be more confident in what I do, and what I’m trying to do, and has given me opportunities and a chance to connect with other people I did not have before (even if I’m still really awkward while I do it).
Other writer! Do you tell people that you write, even non-writing friends/family/coworkers? What do you tell them? Is it scary? Easy? Impossible?
Sometimes, when looking at the “New Books” section of the library, I get a little depressed. Not because everything is so terrible — quite the opposite. There are so many new books coming out, all the time, that I want to read. What gets me down is the realization I get, that, with a backlog list a hundred miles long, I will never be able to read everything I want.
With so many things I want to read, and a list that grows faster than I can burn through books, there’s something I’ve had to come to terms with. Giving up. Sometimes you start a book, you think you’re going to like it, but then, halfway through, or partway, or after the first paragraph, you realize, this thing is not for you. I feel weird, leaving things unfinished, so usually, unless I really hate the book, or I’m only a page or so in, I’ll slog through to the end, so say I completed the journey. But how much reading time does that take away from books that I could really love, or books that I’ve been meaning to read for years? What’s the point in spending all that time — and it is so much time — reading a book if you don’t love every moment of it, if in the end you regret your choice?
So I’m learning to give up on books. I might hate them, or I might just be unimpressed, if I’m not excited to drop on the couch and crack that spine, I don’t see why I should waste another moment.
Obvious exceptions: Books I’m reviewing, books I need to discuss with friends/coworkers, I’m stuck on a plane and I only brought one book somehow.
What do you do if you don’t like a book (you’re not required to read)? Do you soldier on? Or toss it aside? Do you have any exceptions?
I’ve gone back to my recently rehashed old manuscript again, after setting it aside for a few weeks to give me a break. One thing I’ve noticed: It’s really not that terrible anymore, which is nice. Another thing: There’s still a lot to cut.
On that last go through, I didn’t quite reach my goal of cutting 10,000 words (essentially a quarter of the book) and got to the end with ~8,000 words sliced out (it sounds like a lot, and it kind of is, but it wasn’t as hard as you’d think since most of those words were so, so bad). It was a big goal, but I was a little disappointed with my failure. But, luckily, now that I’m going back again, I’ve found sentences and phrases and single, weirdly placed words to ditch, and I managed to cut out ~200 words in the first three chapters. This leaves me hopeful that there are another 1,800 overripe sentences or misguided word placements I can extract.
Lesson learned here: you can always cut more.
In interesting (and flattering) news on my ramblings on the process of this whole thing, an earlier post on all the massive mistakes I noticed was picked up by Kath Temean and reposted on her blog, Writing & Illustrating. If you want to see it again, please go here, where you’ll also see a comparison of my old and new opening pages.
I recently finished reading Amy Falls Down, a novel about a writer that I really enjoyed. Now, for obvious reasons, I enjoy reading books with a writer as the main character; whether or not the character is a representation of the author it’s fun for me to get an insight into other writer’s brains. But do other people even care?
In the story I’m working on the main character’s magic comes from her ability to parse words and craft stories, so this is coming from someone who does it herself. For people who like to read, but are not writers, is it actually interesting to read about a writer’s life? I’d like to think it could be, in the same way I’m interested in stories about detectives and athletes and factory workers. These are lives that are so different from my own, and I love to see how they are lived and how they can relate back to my own. But, there does seem to be an inordinate numbers of writers in fiction (I just finished Flora and Ulysses, and the mother is a writer). Am I just noticing it because I’m a writer, too? Is it excessive, or self-indulgent, for writers to place more of their kind within fiction? Do Readers (with a capital “r”) enjoy it — do people who only read occasionally enjoy it — or is it annoying?
I don’t know why I’m thinking about it so much, but I’m interested in what other people have to say about it.
Because of a list of great books about introverts I found (forgot to bookmark it, can’t find it, darn) I took Amy Falls Down by Jincy Willett out of the library recently. Amy Gallup is a 60-something writer living in California. She hasn’t written anything for 30 years, since her husband (her gay best friend) died, though she does teach a writing group. When the book opens, Amy has an interview coming up, but before that can happen she falls and gets a nasty whap on the head, resulting in a concussion and temporary memory loss. During one of those periods she gives the interview, and has no idea what she said, and later discovers that not only did she sound crazy, she managed to make herself popular again. Soon she’s going on the radio, making lecture tours, and, best of all, writing stories again.
While I sometimes wonder about writers writing about writers (next post) I really enjoyed this story. I just loved Amy, who was pretty curmudgeonly and no-nonsense, but in a wonderful kind of way. Her whole life attitude, where she sets herself up for failure, is something that I worry about with myself to a lesser extent, so I sympathized with Amy the whole way through. And Willett’s side characters, of which there are many, are pretty complicated, too, even the full-of-herself popular writer Jenny Marzen has buoyant attitude and a thick skin in the face of Amy’s super dry humor and even accidental insults.
There are two portions of the book I want to focus on here. First, at the end of the first chapter, when Amy falls down as she carries a potted pine tree:
All was not lost at this point, they said, but a fall was possible, and Amy, over-thinking as usual, realizing that in such a fall the pine might suffer irreparably, focused on cradling it in such a way that it would not suffer, as though she were sixteen years old and lithe and presented with a smorgasbord of landing-position selections, none of which would injure her in the slightest, whereas what she should have done was jettison the damn plant and save herself, but no, and then she had actually lost balance and was pitching forward, her legs and feet heroically striving to speed, and, seeing that all was lost, she began to twist around in order to land on her back, and then her bare left heel slammed down on a sprinkler head and she heard her ankle crunch, but felt nothing because within the time it would have taken for the pain message to arrive in her brain, she had knocked herself out on the birdbath.
The first thing you might notice is that this is all one single sentence. While I don’t believe Willet employs this technique anywhere else in the book, it works wonderfully at showing the fast, jumbled thoughts barreling through Amy’s head in the one or two seconds it actually takes to fall and knock yourself out. It just carries you along like a cart on a track, until you crash into the end along with Amy. Plus, it’s funny, much like the next bit I want to look at.
Willett has a lot of meaningful moments for Amy through the book, and some beautiful writing, but she manages to stave off seriousness with Amy’s bluntness, and Willett’s own sudden bursts of humor. In this bit, Amy has just given a speech at a conference, and the crowd is applauding right before the moderator goes to the audience — and the Internet — for questions for Amy and the other authors:
“They love you,” said Jenny Marzen.
“No,” said Amy, “they just love that I shut up and sat down.” Already she was picturing that silver morning train, the Chicago Limited, that wonderful three-day lie-down as her bed clicked and swayed past cities and farmland and through scrub and desert and mountain all the way back home to her dog and her house and her own life. She was done.
“And now,” said Tom Maudine, “let the tweets begin!”
“Goddamn it all to hell,” said Davy Goonan.
And then the chapter ends. I laughed out loud.
I open my freshly checked out library book and prop it flat on the table. A few pages in, a chocolate stain appears, like a light thumbprint smeared across the words. Disgusting, I should think, annoying that someone should be so careless.
But I’m too absorbed in the words. Absently I eat my brownie, flicking crumbs off the stain and away from the crease of binding and paper, giving the book a light cleansing shake before returning to the story, and my snack. I think I’ll like this book.