Learning from Karen Russell.

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I know many writers who try to hit a set word count every day, but for me, time spent inside a fictional world tends to be a better measure of a productive writing day. I think I’m fairly generative as a writer, I can produce a lot of words, but volume is not the best metric for me. It’s more a question of, did I write for four or five hours of focused time, when I did not leave my desk, didn’t find some distraction to take me out of the world of the story? Was I able to stay put and commit to putting words down on the page, without deciding mid-sentence that it’s more important to check my email, or “research” some question online, or clean out the science fair projects in the back for my freezer?

I’ve decided that the trick is just to keep after it for several hours, regardless of your own vacillating assessment of how the writing is going. Showing up and staying present is a good writing day.

I think it’s bad so much of the time. The periods where writing feels effortless and intuitive are, for me, as I keep lamenting, rare. But I think that’s probably the common ratio of joy to despair for most writers, and I definitely think that if you can make peace with the fact that you will likely have to throw out 90 percent of your first draft, then you can relax and even almost enjoy “writing badly.”

I like this. Just keep after it for several hours. Don’t worry about how it is going. I have such a tendency to allow myself to become discouraged if the words aren’t flowing effortlessly out of my pen, or keyboard, as the case may be.

And what happens when I get discouraged? I quit.

I have had a lot of success in the past with setting myself to “word sprints;” setting a timer for a relatively short period and racing to see how many words I can fit in. While that almost always guarantees bad writing, it satisfies the competitive side of my nature. Perhaps, then, telling myself I will not be beaten by bad writing, and determining to keep at it for several hours without giving up will have the same effect. It’s like getting through holding a plank for three minutes: Yeah, this hurts. No, it’s not fun at all. Sure, my form is drooping a bit after the first 90 seconds. But ya know what? I’m bigger and stronger than this dumb plank.

I think I’m going to try that today. (The writing equivalent, not the plank hold. I already did that this morning.)


 

This post is the tenth in a series based on this article by James Clear, featuring quotes and reflections on the routines of twelve famous authors.

Against the Wind of Time.

It’s been a while since I shared a poem with you all, hasn’t it? Well, we should fix that. My brother got a book of poetry for Christmas, and we found this one together. When you read it, try reading it out loud, or out loud in your head if you’re in public, and just let the sounds wash over you, before you even think about meaning.

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I

Think that this world against the wind of time
Perpetually falls the way a hawk
Falls at the wind’s edge but is motionless—

Think that this silver snail the moon will climb
All night upon time’s curving stalk
That as she climbs bends, bends beneath her—
Yes
And think that we remember the past time.

II

These live people,
These more
Than three dimensional
By time protracted edgewise into heretofore
People,
How shall we bury all
These queer-shaped people,
In graves that have no more
Than three dimensions?
Can we dig
With such sidlings and declensions
As to coffin bodies big
With memory?
And how
Can the earth’s contracted Now
Enclose these knuckles and this crooked knee
Sprawled over hours of a sun long set?
Or do these bones forget?

III

The body of one borne
Landward on relinquishing seas,
Worn
By the sliding of water

Whom time goes over wave by wave, do I lie
Drowned in a crumble of surf at the sea’s edge?—

And wonder now what ancient bones are these
That flake on sifting flake
Out of deep time have shelved this shallow ledge
Where the waves break—

— Archibald MacLeish

I love the way he describes life, “these more than three dimensional people.” With our thoughts, our dreams, our personality, we do inhabit more than three dimensions… it must seem strange to people that in the end our bodies are all that is left behind.

For me, of course, I know that these bodies are merely shells, wonderful shells, to be sure, but in the end our souls are the real essence of us, and they continue on for eternity.

Buried with a Stake of Holly.

Friday is Christmas, in case you weren’t aware.

I tend to forget these things, honestly. I am shamefully grinchy when it comes to the holidays.

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My face when anybody says “Merry Christmas.”

However! There are a few things which never fail to get me into the spirit of the season. I will now share them with you.

The opening lines of Charles Dickens’ Christmas Juggernaut:

Marley was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of his burial was signed by the clergyman, the clerk, the undertaker, and the chief mourner. Scrooge signed it. And Scrooge’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

Mind! I don’t mean to say that I know, of my own knowledge, what there is particularly dead about a door-nail. I might have been inclined, myself, to regard a coffin-nail as the deadest piece of ironmongery in the trade. But the wisdom of our ancestors is in the simile; and my unhallowed hands shall not disturb it, or the Country’s done for. You will therefore permit me to repeat, emphatically, that Marley was as dead as a door-nail.

I mean, that is fantastic.

And speaking of “A Christmas Carol,” have you seen Jim Carrey’s version? It’s absolutely gorgeous.

Muppets notwithstanding, this is absolutely my favorite version. Besides being delightfully funny (I mean, duh, this is Jim Carrey we’re talking about), the animation is stunningly beautiful. It makes me tear up a little every time I see it.

Then of course there are Owl City’s Christmas songs:

 

And now… (drum roll please)…

THE BEST THING EVER TO HAPPEN TO THIS SEASON OF GOOD CHEER:

The best trilogy ever created.

You’re welcome.

Merry Christmas.

Learning from Nathan Englander.

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“Turn off your cell phone. Honestly, if you want to get work done, you’ve got to learn to unplug. No texting, no email, no Facebook, no Instagram. Whatever it is you’re doing, it needs to stop while you write. A lot of the time (and this is fully goofy to admit), I’ll write with earplugs in — even if it’s dead silent at home.”

I started out feeling rather smug about this. I mean, I’m the girl who literally HATES communicating directly with humans, so this is no problem, right?

But… butbutbut… but… Instagram? I’m not aloud to take a five-minute (ten minute, half an hour) Instagram break?

Well what about Tumblr? He didn’t say no Tumblr, did he? Loophole! Snigger snigger snigg… aw, man.

Sigh. Okay, fine.


 

This post is the ninth in a series based on this article by James Clear, featuring quotes and reflections on the routines of twelve famous authors.

 

Once We Are Real.

“…once you are real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

-Margery Williams, The Velveteen Rabbit

I remember reading The Velveteen Rabbit when I was little, but I don’t remember much of the actual story. I just remember putting it down after I was finished and thinking, “Well, that sucked.”

Needless to say, I was too young at that point to appreciate the beauty of this quote.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about authenticity, and the nature of “coolness.” It seems to be more and more common for people to hide their true natures in an attempt to seem “cool” at all times. There is a generalized fear of showing passion and enthusiasm, and any statement we make has to be cloaked in qualifiers.

But what’s so cool about that?

The coolest people I know, the most genuinely interesting and inspiring people to spend time with, are the people who aren’t afraid of showing their “realness,” with all their lovely incompleteness and dorky tendencies.

The only people I know who laugh at enthusiasm, or put people down for their passion, are the people who have become so good at sublimating their own enthusiasm and passion that they no longer know who they are.

So don’t be afraid to let your enthusiasm hang out. To be real about your passion is to be beautiful.

Learning From Barbara Kingsolver.

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I tend to wake up very early. Too early. Four o’clock is standard. My morning begins with trying not to get up before the sun rises. But when I do, it’s because my head is too full of words, and I just need to get to my desk and start dumping them into a file. I always wake with sentences pouring into my head. So getting to my desk every day feels like a long emergency. It’s a funny thing: people often ask how I discipline myself to write. I can’t begin to understand the question. For me, the discipline is turning off the computer and leaving my desk to do something else.

I write a lot of material that I know I’ll throw away. It’s just part of the process. I have to write hundreds of pages before I get to page one.

For the whole of my career as a novelist, I have also been a mother. I was offered my first book contract, for The Bean Trees, the day I came home from the hospital with my first child. So I became a novelist and mother on the same day. Those two important lives have always been one for me. I’ve always had to do both at the same time. So my writing hours were always constrained by the logistics of having my children in someone else’s care. When they were little, that was difficult. I cherished every hour at my desk as a kind of prize. As time has gone by and my children entered school it became progressively easier to be a working mother. My oldest is an adult, and my youngest is 16, so both are now self–sufficient —but that’s been a gradual process. For me, writing time has always been precious, something I wait for and am eager for and make the best use of. That’s probably why I get up so early and have writing time in the quiet dawn hours, when no one needs me.

I used to say that the school bus is my muse. When it pulled out of the driveway and left me without anyone to take care of, that was the moment my writing day began, and it ended when the school bus came back. As a working mother, my working time was constrained. On the other hand, I’m immensely grateful to my family for normalizing my life, for making it a requirement that I end my day at some point and go and make dinner. That’s a healthy thing, to set work aside and make dinner and eat it. It’s healthy to have these people in my life who help me to carry on a civilized routine. And also to have these people in my life who connect me to the wider world and the future. My children have taught me everything about life and about the kind of person I want to be in the world. They anchor me to the future in a concrete way. Being a mother has made me a better writer. It’s also true to say that being a writer has made me a better mother.

This certainly a long quote, but I think it has some nice stuff in it, especially for writers who have ankle-biters running around. I’m not a mom, so some of this was a bit eye-glazing for me, but there is the distinct possibility that I will have kids at some point, so it’s nice to read something from the perspective of someone who has managed to successfully balance both careers.

One nice thing about being a writer is that it allows mothers to stay at home, which might be doubly important for me, since unless my kids turn out to be wildly social animals, I am planning to homeschool them. I was homeschooled until I started taking college classes in my senior year of high school, and I’m a big fan of it. It allows the education to be more closely tailored to the individual child, rather than allowing them to become little assembly line products of the system. I’ve always been enormously grateful for my offbeat upbringing. Middle-class white girl I may be, but I’m also part of a minority group that, honestly, includes some of the most genuinely cool people I’ve ever encountered.

But I digress.

I think the most encouraging part of this quote, at this point in my life, is this bit:

I write a lot of material that I know I’ll throw away. It’s just part of the process. I have to write hundreds of pages before I get to page one.

It’s so good to be reminded that this is a completely normal and useful part of the process. Sometimes it feels like if I don’t sit down with a fully-fledged plot line in my head, I must be doing something wrong. So far I have never had to write hundreds of pages before I get to page one, but I like knowing that it would be perfectly okay if I did.

 


 

This post is the eighth in a series based on this article by James Clear, featuring quotes and reflections on the routines of twelve famous authors.

Shut Your Mouth.

“Shut your mouth; open your eyes and ears. Take in what is there and give no thought to what might have been or what is somewhere else.”

— C.S. Lewis

Thank you, Clive Staples. I don’t remember this often enough. I spend so much of my life thinking about how things might have turned out differently had I been a different sort of person, or wishing myself in some other place.

And you know what? This clutter in my brain makes me miss stuff. So much stuff. Sometimes you just have to quit all your chatter, vocal or otherwise, and look at everything around you. Accept it for what it is. There is beauty in it all if you just stop to look for it.

Learning From Maya Angelou.

Oof! Today I (finally) updated to Windows 10, but a glitch happened that caused a blinking screen, leading me to allow my computer to be taken over by a lovely guy from Microsoft. I’ve never dealt with remote assistance before, so it was fun to see my computer being taken over by another person from who knows where. Such excitement.

All is well now, however, so without further ado, lets begin the long-postponed seventh post in my twelve-part “Learning From” series.

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I keep a hotel room in my hometown and pay for it by the month.

I go around 6:30 in the morning. I have a bedroom, with a bed, a table, and a bath. I have Roget’s Thesaurus, a dictionary, and the Bible. Usually a deck of cards and some crossword puzzles. Something to occupy my little mind. I think my grandmother taught me that. She didn’t mean to, but she used to talk about her “little mind.” So when I was young, from the time I was about 3 until 13, I decided that there was a Big Mind and a Little Mind. And the Big Mind would allow you to consider deep thoughts, but the Little Mind would occupy you, so you could not be distracted. It would work crossword puzzles or play Solitaire, while the Big Mind would delve deep into the subjects I wanted to write about.

I have all the paintings and any decoration taken out of the room. I ask the management and housekeeping not to enter the room, just in case I’ve thrown a piece of paper on the floor, I don’t want it discarded. About every two months I get a note slipped under the door: “Dear Ms. Angelou, please let us change the linen. We think it may be moldy!”

But I’ve never slept there, I’m usually out of there by 2. And then I go home and I read what I’ve written that morning, and I try to edit then. Clean it up.

Easy reading is [dang]* hard writing. But if it’s right, it’s easy. It’s the other way round, too. If it’s slovenly written, then it’s hard to read. It doesn’t give the reader what the careful writer can give the reader.

While her story about having her own hotel room is lovely, and there is good stuff in the idea of having one space for sheer creation and another one for the work of editing, the real “craft” of writing, the thing that really grabs me about this quote is her idea of the Big Mind and the Little Mind.

As a person whose mind runs on about eight different tracks at any given moment, which can be interesting, but very often exhausting and frustrating, especially when I’m trying to fall asleep, I think I know exactly what she means. While one part of my mind is working hard on the big things, like plot problems or moral themes, another part (or parts, in my case) is frittering around the edges of all sorts of things, like my plans for the rest of the day, the fact that somebody is chewing noisily in another part of the house, or digging a specific groove in my brain for the Oompa Loompa song to spend eternity in.

So, the Little Mind’s job is to keep all those other parts occupied with some little chore. In Maya Angelou’s case, with mindless games or puzzles, and in my case often with music, knitting / crochet, or some kind of low-pressure art project. Anything, really, that provides my brain with a focus, but not an all-consuming one.

I’m not procrastinating, people. I’m letting my Big Mind work on the problems of the universe.

 

*No, “dang” was not the precise word she used. Yes, I am a confirmed Bowdlerizing prude.


This post is the seventh in a series based on this article by James Clear, featuring quotes and reflections on the routines of twelve famous authors.

Practice Art.

To practice any art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow. So do it.

-Kurt Vonnegut

As a growing writer, a halfway decent… um… draw-er? and a passable dancer, I can vouch for the truth of this statement.

Also, may I recommend some artistic cross-training? If you’re a writer, go doodle something. If you’re a painter, write down the thoughts that come to you while you work.

And if you’re a human being, dance.