Three fiction-writing goals

little-boy-writing-a-letter-1920.jpg!Blog

“Little boy writing a letter” by Norman Rockwell

1. Spend extra time line editing

I’m starting with the most boring goal first because I believe in getting the most-dreaded task out of the way. And, between you and me, I’m not a good typist. I’m creative, and I get the work done, but I use about four fingers to type. I need to learn to type for real — I even started an online course before Christmas. But you know how it goes: Life is busy, we all have to make tough choices, and while proper typing would be a great skill to have, it’s not at the top of my to-do list.

Admission No. 2: I’m not a great speller. I peaked in third grade with “monotonous” during a spelling contest. Because I’m a Francophile, I can usually pull off “hors d’oeuvres.” But in editing my own work, I find TOOs that should be TWOs, and more than once I’ve signed off an email with “Brest” instead of “Best.” I really don’t want to wish any future potential literary agents All My Brest.

2. Spend less time worrying about if it’s done or not.

I was at an Elizabeth Gilbert talk once when someone in the audience asked how she knew a project was finished. Her answer: “When it’s 84 percent done.”(She might have said 79 percent or 92 percent, but you get the picture.) I like that because stories (and novels) can be endlessly tweaked. If you hang onto one long enough, you’ll find all sorts of things that could be changed, honed, improved. This is what I believe: I’ll be a different writer in two years from the writer I am today. Hell, I’ll be a different writer in two weeks. But that doesn’t mean the writer I am today isn’t creating worthwhile work. If I keep waiting for my knowledge and skill to catch up with the ultimate potential of today’s story, I could be working on the same 3,000 words until I’m 95. I hope I’m still writing when I’m  95. I hope I live long enough to be utterly embarrassed by what I wrote in my 40s. But for that to happen, 1) I need to live at least 50 more years and, 2) I need to finish some stuff and move on.

3. Find ideas in the strangest of places

I used to think — as many of us do — that I needed to wait for an idea to hit me over the head. It’s the romantic ideal of writing, that inspiration comes in lightning strikes. Luckily (because who really wants to be struck by lightning? And also, theoretically, it doesn’t strike the same place twice), I realized I could seek out ideas. Eavesdropping, people-watching, morning TV shows, parades, the mall — all of these places/things/bad habits have inspired plots or characters. Family can be a rich source of material. Riding a bus while on vacation in another country is hard to beat. I recently got a story from the gym locker room (that sounds weird, I know). As I type this, I’m listening to my co-worker read from a press release about a food tour in eastern Tennessee during which there’s a stop to sample Dolly Parton’s favorite hamburger. Fiction is often just the truth with the names changed to prevent the guilty from Goggling themselves.

My point is that hunting for stories should be less like standing outside, in a rainstorm, holding a metal rod, and more like going to the weirdest, most colorful jumble sale and seeing what treasures you can score for $20.

Top tips for being a rockstar

This essay was originally posted at Booker Like a Hooker.

Stage setup

Stage setup

I probably can’t (or at least shouldn’t) advise anyone on being a rockstar. I realize this might come as a surprise since I just published the novel How to Talk to Rockstars, thus asserting my own expertise on the subject. That, and the book is based in part on my own experience as an arts and entertainment writer and editor. This August will mark 12 years officially interviewing touring musicians in a full-time-employment-with-official business-cards capacity.

If you subscribe to Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours rule (that’s the number of hours of “deliberate practice” it takes to become an expert in any field), then I’ve got more than twice that under my belt — even after you subtract lunch breaks and watching back episodes of “Castle” at my desk. (For the record, I do not watch back episodes of “Castle” at my desk. Who would do that? Not this girl.)

But a 2014 Princeton study supposedly debunked Gladwell’s theory. I’m no expert on rockstars with or without Princeton (or Gladwell) — not on being one, not on talking to one. How to talk to rockstars (the idea, not my novel … well, maybe my novel, too) is actually an enduring mystery in my life. And I’m OK with that.

Birdhouse

Birdhouse

In fact, one of the things that keeps me excited about my day job, more than a decade in, is that the creative process in its many genres remains mysterious, elusive, wondrous and inspiring. It’s the wilderness in this world of instant accessibility, constant contact and utter disconnect. Art is the one place where we’re way off the map and, at the same time, completely connected to our source. It’s the antithesis of social media without being antisocial. It’s where we’re most vulnerable, most human, most true.

So maybe that’s what I would say to any would-be rockstars out there. Be more human. Be more of a conduit to that wilderness. Be more authentic; be a beacon to those of us seeking authenticity.

Diali Cissokho & Kaira Ba performing at LEAF

Diali Cissokho & Kaira Ba performing at LEAF

I would also say I know that’s terrifying. Creativity is a scary prospect. Writing a book sure is. To be alone with the blank page is to stare into the abyss. That’s actually thing I’ve said dozens of times for dramatic effect. And I’m probably not the first person to have said it — it sounds suspiciously like something I probably heard from one of my MFA professors and managed to co-opt by virtue of a foggy memory. But lately looking into the abyss is less dramatic and more … something. Not quite comforting but, like, what’s so terrible about an abyss? It’s not necessarily a black hole or dark matter or one of those “Star Trek” anomalies. It’s just the unknown. And life experience, 20,000-plus hours in, has taught me that most unknowns, once addressed, are completely navigable.

Music, however, refuses to be completely navigable. It remains — at its best, at its richest — unexpected, emotional, surprising and overwhelming. It’s a shot to the heart, a jolt to the psyche. It’s a time machine back to who we once were, a post card from past selves and a missive to future versions of ourself. It has the power to render us, in the moment, undone. It contains the ability to recast us, for the length of a song, cooler than we really are.

Sculpture park at Punta Sur, Isla Mujeres, Mexico

Sculpture park at Punta Sur, Isla Mujeres, Mexico

I would say to future rockstars, go there. Go farther. Dare into the abyss, into the wilderness, into the world beyond the world. Lead the mission; strike out on a hero’s journey; lean out over the precipice and don’t fear the fall.

The world needs rockstars. Not big egos. That’s not what I’m talking about. But seekers, seers, those who walk on stage, larger than life, and remind us of our own inner starpower. And, for that matter, I’d say that anyone who accepts this mission — to be more true, more human, more creative and more of a light into the dark heart of our collective artistic source — is already a rockstar. No tour bus, logo t-shirts or fan base required.

Living with heart (or why I don’t chase happiness)

Living with heart (or why I don’t chase happiness)

According to the tag on my Yogi Tea bag, “You will always live happy if you live with heart.” And it’s a nice (if vague) idea, but I have to disagree. Here’s the thing: while I prefer terms like “soulful” and “an examined life,” I suspect that they share DNA with living with heart. And none of those experiences is particularly happy. Horizon broadening, mind-expanding, life-changing and growth-inducing, yes. All of which can lead to a better quality of being, a greater capacity for love, understanding, and even heartfulness. But growth is hard and challenging and often real soulful living makes the heart ache more than smile.

That’s not a bad thing. Personally — and I realize this is not going to be a popular opinion — I think happiness (along with fun) is overrated. It’s a wonderful side effect, but should never be the goal. And yet there’s this kind of first world idea that we all deserve unlimited quantities of happiness (and fun) and anything that is not happy-making is to be avoided. That might be oversimplifying the situation, but I feel like our collective march toward 24/7 entertainment, gadgetry, consumerism, single-use, throw-away, increased stimulus, newer, faster, louder, shinier and more is a kind of kid-in-candy store approach to being.

Being a kid in a candy story is fun! And then you have a sugar crash and everything gets really ugly.

I’m not against social networking. I don’t crochet my own pants out of recycled earbud chords. But of all the apps I’ve installed on my phone, my favorite is the Insight Timer I use for the mini-meditation sessions I squeeze in between the obstacle course activities of my daily to-do lists. The app does nothing but count down from 10 or 15 minutes and sound a soft chime when time is up. That, and it tells me how many other people around the world were meditating with me, using the same timer. That’s pretty cool, to think that for 10 silent minutes I’m in community with 500 or so complete strangers who share my goal of stilling my chattering brain and carving out a little space among the clutter.

Meditating hasn’t made me happier (though I’m pretty sure that’s a major selling point of the current mindfulness trend). It has given me some tools to calm down, take account of my current situation and ditch a few to-do list items that maybe don’t really need to be done. It’s given me a little perspective and, more importantly, a kind of shelter in the storm of changes, excitement, discouragement and other swells.

Publishing a book hasn’t made me happier, either. That’s been a dream of mine for nearly 20 years and to finally realize it has been pretty incredible. It’s been a roller coaster ride — thrilling, rewarding, and a great sense of accomplishment. But it’s also come with an intense amount of work that I never could have predicted, and its own kind of hard knocks. Anyone who’s ever attempted to learn anything knows that success/defeat ratio. Very few people get good at anything without sucking first, and it takes a special kind of courage to persevere.

Perseverance is its own reward. Again, it’s not necessarily a happy thing. Summiting a peak is a triumph — often at the cost of scraped knuckles and utter exhaustion. Most marathoners, upon crossing the finish line, look more like they want to vomit, die or punch someone than do a happy dance. But no one ever ran a race to get happy. We run to get healthy, to prove it to ourselves that we can accomplish a goal, to compete, maybe to win, but mostly just to finish.

I understand why my tea tag doesn’t say, “You’ll probably finish more stuff if you live with heart.” Or, “You’ll learn more in life if you put yourself out there, risk defeat and care more about the process that what kind of selfie you can post on Facebook.” The bubbly quick-fix of “Happy” makes better marketing sense than the dogged determination of “Hang in there.”

But hanging in brings better results. Hanging in gets us all closer to the finish line, and — more importantly — it keeps us on the journey. Plus, sometimes (many times!) happiness happens along the way, like a good tail wind, like a cheering section, like a double rainbow out of a storm-dark sky.

Sara Gruen on writing

These quotes were gleaned from an interview I did for a story in Mountain Xpress. You can read at article on the launch of Sara Gruen‘s new novel, By the Water’s Edge, here. Gruen is also the author of the bestseller Water for Elephants.

Photo by Tasha Thomas

Photo by Tasha Thomas

• It’s an extremely intense process for me, writing a book. It takes a lot, emotionally and physically. I get almost obsessive about the characters. I can’t sleep at night, [or] I dream about them. Sometimes I wake up and I’ve been working all night on a problem in the book; sometimes I’ll wake up and I’ve solved it.

• One of the things I love about the job is I get to find something that interests me and then spend a couple of years living it, researching it and finding out more.

• If it’s possible, I’ll go and immerse myself completely [in a place]. I like to approach my research sort of like a language immersion class. When I was in the [Scottish] Highlands, after I was finished for the day I’d park in the corner of the pub with my laptop. …I would eavesdrop. I’d pick up phrases. I’d be listening, absorbing the accent and the the turns of phrase because it’s a very distinctive dialect and I really wanted to capture that.

• Obviously I can’t live in WWII, but I did extensive research. The newspaper archives were helpful but equally helpful were the pamphlets that told women how to create new patterns for reusing the material from old dresses, or what to use if you can’t find shampoo. I got copies of the [Ministry of Food] cook books. I knew the rations so [my husband] and I tried to live on rations for a month. I think we lasted two weeks.

• I try not to let anything affect how I’m writing. Then I would be writing to please an audience and if you’re doing that, you’re second-guessing everything.

• I have to lock the door of my office and close the curtains. Everyone in the family knows that unless the house is on fire, don’t knock on the door. It takes me about an hour and half to get through my creative portal. That sounds weird. But to [get to] a point where I actually feel like I’m there, as opposed to here. Then I feel like I’m recording it rather creating it. I feel like I’m not watching a movie, but in a movie. That’s when I know it’s working.AT THE WATER'S EDGE_final jacket

• Starting the book, I have a vague notion of who I want to characters to be and what sort of roles I want my characters to play. Then I write them, and eventually they come to life. And then they take over. Any idea I had for them, they throw away. They change the plot, they turn out to be different people, they have different backgrounds, they fall in love with other people. Invariably I have to go back and throw out the first third of a book. That’s absolutely a given.

• I hate when I have to throw 30,000 bleeding, screaming words on the floor. I have a leftovers file, because if I had to delete things, I would never do it. The theory is I could recycle. I’ve never recycled anything, but it allows me the freedom to get rid of things.

• When I’ve finished a book, I have what I call a springboard book. It’s my second-drawer book. I start working on that book again and eventually, so far, and idea will hit me from the blue. Clearly [the springboard book] doesn’t have the same pull on me, because I’ve never finished it.