Monday, April 30, 2018

The "M" Word


So we’ve addresses the question about making time to write, and we’ve talked about mustering up the energy to write. We’ve also brought up how these are critical factors in developing “the process.” But now we’ve reached the important part – that big matzoh ball in front of us that can’t be avoided. No, the “M” word is not matzoh. It’s motivation.

As I discussed in the premier post in this blog, my initial motivation for writing was to make my stories heard. To insure they didn’t die with me. That’s an easy motivator – probably too easy to help anyone who is healthy. But that is also the problem. My health is fine now, yet I still write. My motivator has changed, and I am changing with it. What motivates us to write rarely stays the same. It will shift around over time, it will hide itself now and then, and sometimes it will present itself in the strangest shapes. And these are all good signs that we are growing as writers.

In the previous discussions about finding time and energy, the pivotal question was “How?” With motivation, the question is, “Why?” And this is the question we have to ask ourselves not just when we start writing, but as we develop our process, as we change projects, as we discover new parts of our writing voice. And sometimes, a part of our adventure is when we can’t quite answer the simple question of, “Why?”

By the time we are full-fledged, card-carrying, secret-handshake-knowing writers, whenever we wonder why we should write something, the answer will be as simple as, “Why not?” But until we reach those lofty heights, that question will be a tough one to face. And while it might not feel as satisfying, sometimes the best way to figure out why we are writing something is to say, “Let’s find out.”

I once had this image in my head that I wanted to write about. It was a teenager driving over 100 m.p.h. down a country road in the dead of night, flying through every intersection, blowing through every sign, then coming over a hill to see a cow loose from the barn standing in the middle of the road right in front of him. I wanted to write about it, but I didn’t know what the story was. Aside from that bare-bones idea, I had nothing to follow up. If there was an accident, who cared? Where’s the story? Is it a story? Is my subconscious just mad at cows? Who knew? All I knew is that this image was stuck in the chamber, and I had no idea what it was.

Since I didn’t know the motivation to write about it, the “why” was unanswered. So I said, “Let’s find out.”

As I typed up this non-story, I got a feel for who it was behind the wheel. The mere act of typing up the incident allowed other ideas to gravitate toward it, coming together like those last few Cheerios floating aimlessly in the milk. I started seeing the character’s motive. I sensed how this could become a story. And most importantly, I identified it with a friend of mine who did similarly crazy things back in his teen years. That person shall remain anonymous, but he is now an upstanding citizen and generous contributor to society. The fact that the first car he drove after getting his driver’s license was a stolen cop car is neither here nor there.

So what was my motivation? My only motivation was to find out why this thought was buzzing around my mind. That might not sound like much, but it got me to write a rough draft of a story that might go into a forthcoming novel (forthcoming = next 5-10 years). If you want, you can read the draft, tentatively called, “Lessons of Our Youth,” which is about someone who – and I cannot emphasize this enough – is not named Matt in real life.

Searching for motivation can be a difficult part of the process, but sometimes it is the least necessary. If you give yourself permission to write things that might not be your best work, then you take the pressure off and no longer require the perfect motivation to write whatever you feel. Your motivation can then be as simple as, “I want to see where this goes.” And as it takes you to wherever, hopefully you learn a little something about yourself along the way.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Making Energy is Exhausting


Have you ever felt exhausted after working at your desk for eight hours? And then to make it worse, when you tell someone how tired you are, they answer in amazement, “How can you be tired? All you did was sit at your desk all day?”

Now that I am older and perhaps wiser, it’s easier to resist the urge to give those people a very loud piece of my mind. More importantly, I realize that energy is not as simple as scientists might suggest, especially when it comes to people. It is more than a unit of work; it is more than the thing that runs my laptop. It is one of the main things that make writers write, and often, prevents them from writing.

At work, my most energetic moments came as I sat still, eyes transfixed to the screen. The office lights around me would go into energy-saving mode because nothing had moved in ten minutes. Dust would settle around me. Coworkers would wonder if I was comatose, yet my mind burned through energy at an alarmingly high rate. And at the end of all that motionless work, I would get up, walk a lap around the floor, type up what I had worked on, and regain my energy. Yes – my stillness used energy, my motion restored it.

Even though this defies everything we learned about thermodynamics, it makes sense because this is about personal energy. We are neither batteries nor computers, but beings made of contradictions who can find peace in the chaos, who can seek patterns in nature, and who can somehow fall asleep during The Avengers (I’ve seen it happen).

So as a writer, in order to find our energy we first have to ask, “What gives me that energy?” Chances are, it’s not always writing. More than likely, we have a few activities that bring us joy and contentment, and by doing those, we build up our ability to do other things. Obvious ones might be working out, taking a drive, calling a friend, or a little time on FaceBook (those candies won’t crush themselves). However, these activities are unique to every person, and what works for someone might not work for another.

This is where we go back to “the process.” In the last post, I talked about exploring the process as a way to figure out how to make time to write. Well, the same applies to energy. Our job as writers is to first understand ourselves. In developing “the process,” we discover those things that really charge our batteries, then use them to give us what it takes to start writing. This will become particularly important when we are not in the mood to write.

When we first ask ourselves, “What gives me that energy,” we can start with simple questions that inform us about how we write: Do I need to be calm to write? Is day or night better? In an empty house? People-watching at Starbucks? Music in the background? Once these questions inform us about how we prefer to write, we can then think about what it takes to get us from where we are to where we need to be. Eventually, we start to see how our process can help us write regularly, and how we can get more out of the time we spend on the keyboard.

– And for those who were wondering, this post was written in the main floor of the Chicago Cultural Center, early afternoon, among twenty people all quietly enjoying a late lunch and with no idea that I am about to write a short story about them. That’s part of my process.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Time to Make Time


An avid fan of this blog mentioned the three things she needed to get her writing going: time, energy, and motivation. I could not agree more. However, addressing all of those at once is throwing a lot of laundry into the machine, so it would probably serve us best to break them down in separate articles. In that spirit, my next three posts will cover those three subjects. And the one I would like to address now (if the title didn’t already give it away) is time.

First, I am not going to offer the simple adage, “If you want something, make time for it.” That’s a nice bumper sticker, but it doesn’t really tell us how. Anyone reading this blog obviously wants something as the end result, but then life steps in and takes over the show. In the real world, making time is part desire, part sacrifice, and a big part is knowing what works best for you.

New York Times bestseller Mary Kubica, author of Every Last Lie, gave some great advice about this (I met her last weekend so I will be sharing her inspiration for a while). When she started writing her first book, “The Good Girl,” she was very busy as a new mother, so her time was limited. However, she also knew what worked best with her. She carved out a little typing time by waking up earlier than her child (about five in the morning) to get in her writing before the chaos of the day started. The peace and serenity of the morning worked well for her, and the product was an award-winning novel and a two-book contract.

Before you say you’re not a morning person, let me say neither am I. A morning to me is like a few hours of Monday every day of the week. I could never use her advice word-for-word, but I did think about what works for me. And as we push forward with writing, we discover the area that works best with the development of “the process” (yes – this is where “the process” forms).

For me, my creative side functions best after spending a while being detailed, analytical, and to-the-point. As an economic analyst, I would spend my work day burrowed deeply into the comfort of formulas, theories, and mind-numbing economic debate. That kind of structure and mental rigidity served me well at work. However, when I got home, I wanted to shift gears and think creatively. The wild, abstract part of my mind needed attention: “If dragons spend their lives in caves, why are they so conversationally fluent? What would a cat have for a pet? Do ghosts and poltergeists get along?” This observation about how I function gave me a great opportunity on how to incorporate writing into my process.

I started writing after work. Yes, after all that work stuff, I would get my half-hour of writing in on the train, or put my dinner on slow heat and type up a few things. And as surprising as it may sound, after an exhausting ten-hour day of research, one-half hour of creative writing would refresh me, energize me, and give me a little boost. And if there wasn’t time on the train, there’s the before-dinner thing. And if not then, a half-hour is exactly the length of that sit-com that I didn’t really watch but it’s on between two shows I liked so I watched it anyway. And for those who relax with a glass of wine in the evening (I prefer gin as a writer, scotch while I edit), sit back with a notepad and some background music and let the mind wander around the page while the Merlot breathes.

None of these things are guaranteed to work. Mary Kubica’s arrangement worked for her, my habits work for me, and other people have their own ways. The important part is to try things to see what works. This is a process of discovery, of learning about how you function best and what you can do to get that little bit of writing in every day or so.

And ironically, it will take time to find out the best way to make time. Maybe the first experiment in making time works, or maybe it fails but reveals a little fact about how you function. In either case, part of building the process is discovery. As you reveal to yourself those things that you overlooked before, you become more aware of what you can do as a writer. And as that process develops, it shows you more about who you are as a writer, and this feeds back on itself in a virtuous cycle.

This isn’t a bumper sticker solution. It requires exploration. However, if I were to make a bumper sticker to promote this idea, it would be much simpler (and probably not a big seller). And it would apply toward more than writing, but for now, let’s just start with a prototype for those wanting more from their writing:

“Try Things”

Friday, April 20, 2018

A Good Kind of Fear


I’ve heard that often, people are their own worst critic. Maybe so, but I wonder if whoever coined that phrase ever took their first piece of work to a writing workshop. That, my fellow writers, can be a genuinely terrifying experience. And to be honest, it should be.

Fear, in my opinion, can be a good thing, and when we face the things that scare us, we give ourselves an opportunity to improve ourselves. But that means change, and we are naturally wired to approach change cautiously, if not avoid it. And the more drastic the potential change can be, the more we resist and give in to the fear.

I know a number of writers who have written poems, stories, novels, and so forth, and a few shelves in their house carry their own personal works – and you will likely never read any of them. Why? Because they have never shared this writing with anyone other than their parents, siblings, or a few close friends, and cringe at the thought of going beyond that group. That group of people is a safe space. In that space, the positive is highlighted, the negative avoided. How many drawings have we made as kids that received a prominent place on the refrigerator, regardless of the quality? The same thinking applies to the safe space. Within that exclusive area, the writer is safe, but do they ever progress? The lack of critique means that writing misses a great chance to improve. And unless those first drafts were absolutely magical, they will never get published.

Maybe that’s okay. There is absolutely nothing wrong with writing stories for the satisfaction of writing them, and nothing needs to be published in order to be an achievement. But one benefit of workshopping a piece is learning how to make the next piece more powerful. We can write amusing stories, but with some review and revision, the next story can make readers laugh out loud. And it’s even more fun when we turn a sad story into something that makes strangers tear up.

But that means facing the fear. The big fear. The workshop fear. The “I might not be as perfect as I thought” fear. That means exposing your words to people who aren’t part of your safe space, and who have no interest in putting your work on their refrigerator. For a long time, I thought… actually, I was all but positive I ranked among the best authors in my group of friends, if not the greater Chicago area. I was the hidden literary gem waiting to be discovered. Who could ever match the warmth of my heartfelt stories? Who would dare try to challenge my prose, my lyrical; poetic narrative?

A writing workshop would do that. That’s its job.

For the longest time, I avoided such workshops because in the back of my mind, I knew that once I sat in front of such a group and presented my words, I would no longer be as good as I thought. I would be forced to see the long road ahead, and it would be difficult to look at. I won’t bore anyone with the story of my first workshop in this blog, but here’s a link to a draft of the short story, Writer’s Block, that explains it all. And I never regretted it.

Once we face these groups and their constructive criticism, we start seeing how we can improve our writing, make our stories more powerful, and get more out of our words. And even if we decide that we never want to publish a thing, we build a confidence that our writing is improving, and that we deserve that place on the refrigerator.



Monday, April 16, 2018

Yes, it hurts


There are some parts of becoming a writer that nobody really talks about. It’s not because it’s some deep mystery, and it’s not like the secret handshake that we’re taught when we become official writers (more about that later). The reason for all the silence is that the secret is something very difficult to understand until we experience it firsthand. Think of it like love – everyone writes songs, poems, stories, operas and screenplays about the wonder of love. However, nobody really understands what all those things mean until they first fall in love. Then all those songs make sense and those poems come to life.

So, despite the futility I just explained, I will discuss one of writing’s secrets: Pain.

Writing requires us to explain things in whatever way is most important, and often this requires our feelings as part of the process. Not just the simple feelings either. We grow as writers when we start exploring not just the emotions within a story, but all the feelings that get stirred up as we write those simple stories. And often times we learn some truths we never expected, or even some things we never really wanted to face. That is a writer’s growing pain, and it is priceless in developing that talent.

Fortunately, I have been blessed with many friends, plenty of whom could star in their own novels. I have spent fifty years surrounded by scholars, artists, gurus, advisers, reluctant heroes, dirty angels, jokers, liars and thieves – how could I not write about them? So I did. I wrote several stories about one particular friend I met back in 8th grade. He was quite a character and we had epic adventures. And when I wrote the stories about him, well… the stories kind of fell flat.

What was wrong? My stories were honest and entertaining discussions about things we did that landed somewhere between hilarious stunts and Class C felonies, pranks we pulled, and just stupid times hanging out together. But when I reviewed those stories with other people, the most common critique was, “not exploring the character enough.” Tough review for writing about a long-time friend.

As much as I tried to explore the character, the truth was that I was actually hiding parts. I realized I hadn't faced certain truths about the situation. Those stories were as true as ever, but I was not doing justice to my friend. I was not writing his role with all the truths necessary. It hurt to dig in to those truths; into that reality that was so tough to face over the past many years. But until I dragged out that part and faced the situation and all the painful parts included, I would never really have a fully explored character.

The next story about him was simple. I wrote about the day that friend died.

Believe me, that story wasn’t the greatest thing I ever wrote, but it was easily the most honest. I faced up to the grief I carried, the guilt, the unspoken apologies and unresolved issues. I wrote a simple story about his passing, and it hurt. Horribly. And as I faced those truths, I knew just who I needed to write about. I had been holding back on writing in-depth about my friend to avoid reminding myself that he was gone. With those in mind, the rewrites were very easy, and provided some valuable healing.

Pain is never fun, but sometimes it is underrated. Physical pain comes with exercise, and we end up healthier for it. And for writers, sometimes in our stories there is pain that we need to feel. As we experience this, we grow as writers and as people. We get stronger, and we face greater challenges. And eventually we learn that secret handshake taught to all real writers.

Friday, April 13, 2018

Monsters and the Confidence Game


A part of writing is developing confidence in what you do. This shouldn't be mistaken with a false confidence where we convince ourselves that we are right even when we are wrong. Developing confidence is assuring ourselves that we are moving forward, that our efforts are building up our skills, and our errors will fuel our desire to move forward. And that means accepting that we start off imperfect. This is tough for the beginning writer who may not have a foundation of confidence. Here's a common disclaimer a lot of writers tell me:

"I wrote something, and I like it, but I don’t think it’s that good."

They are most likely right; it isn’t that good. However, it’s great.

If the first piece you write is flawless and insightful, then you clearly have a superhuman gift (and I would be very jealous). Rather, us mortals first create these bulky, unwieldy clusters of words that form some tangled thread of mutated creation. They are ugly monsters at best. However, they’re our monsters. We created them. In this regard, they are perfect to us.

One of my mentors, Newton Berry, author of Bughouse Square, explained to me the million-word theory (no, the theory is not that long). In so many words, a writer doesn’t find their true writing voice and technique until they’ve written one-million words (about ten novels or one book by John Grisham). Whether this number is accurate or not, I have no idea. But the point is that we need to spend a lot of time creating those imperfect monsters as we pursue our true identity, our real style, our perfect voice. Newton pursued that voice, as I did as well, and as every writer should. And they should be proud of them.

The first novel I wrote was a 110,000-word story of self-discovery. When I finished it, I would say I was a third of the way through that million words (but I hadn’t known about the theory yet). I was amazingly proud of this piece. I let my parents read it, my friends, and anyone who foolishly asked, “What’s in that huge binder?” And they all thought it was great. It was time for the next step: take it to a workshop and get objective feedback.

Ouch!

I heard plenty of criticisms: shifting Point of View, too much passive voice, extensive telling rather than showing, awkward pacing, transparent characters, and so on. I received some compliments as well, but hearing the upside to all of this criticism was like hearing how nice the weather was when Kennedy was assassinated – not quite enough to make up for the rest.

That’s when I received the one bit of constructive criticism I ever received. I was told, “I can guarantee you that your manuscript is better than any story that someone didn’t have the guts to write, and that can never be taken away.” And this was true – it wasn’t great; it wasn’t even good, but I did write it. I took it to the end, and I learned so much during the process of creation.

Someday, I will edit the hell out of that manuscript and publish Easier Than the Truth. I will credit Newton in the acknowledgements, and I will be proud of the ugly little monster I created, because it turned into something wonderful one-million words later.

But not right now. It’s really horrible.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Writing habits – what we need to do


They say, "If you do something you enjoy, it will never feel like work." I believe in this, but I don't think it comes that easy. I love playing volleyball, but I have never put in the work required to play more than two or three games and not collapse into a sweaty heap. Maybe a little more effort and dedication would save me from a few days of ice packs and Ben-Gay, but I never put in that time. It didn't seem worth it.

Since this blog is about writing, I will use that to discuss what I hear from a number of workshop members when I prompt them to "keep on writing."


Q: I don’t feel like writing everything all the time

A: I would hope not. Trying to become a writer by constantly writing the Great American Novel might border on the obsessive. But more to the point, it can lead to a boom-bust cycle of massive creation followed by massive burnout. Where’s the fun in that?

The best advice I was given about these habits came with a comparison to working out. I am hardly a fitness guru, and gravity is not my friend – trust me. However, when I started exercising regularly I thought I needed to dive in and work myself ragged whenever I had the chance. This gave me a great rush the first time, followed by stiff, achy joints, a sore back; and second thoughts about the whole scam called “exercise.”

And that’s when I got this life-saving advice. A friend of mine said that it wasn’t about doing as much as possible when I could, but doing something every day whether I wanted to or not. Starting to exercise wasn’t about finding limits, but first generating some discipline. So if I was feeling in the mood, I could follow a warm-up with a whole core routine, upper-body circuits, or whatever I felt I could handle. On days like those, exercise is the easiest thing. But on those days when I didn’t want to even think about extra movement, it was that much more important to spend at least twenty minutes on the treadmill.

As far as writing goes, it’s very similar. I set aside a half-hour which is my writing time. I can do more if I want, but thirty minutes is the bare minimum (finding the time is discussed in another post). When I want to write, I can step right into it. It’s simple, natural, and I don’t have to stretch as much beforehand. But the important part is that when I don’t feel like writing, I still sit down and write something. Anything. A haiku (several, actually), an idea about a character sketch, memories of the home I grew up in. It’s okay if what I write isn’t the best thing I’ve ever committed to words, as long as I create something. If I can’t seem to type something, I force myself to type anything (the problem of Writer’s Block will be covered in its own piece soon enough).

The first part of becoming a writer, therefore, is developing the discipline of a writer. It may sometimes not be as fun as we like, but as our skills improve, it becomes easier, more exciting, and we start realizing our potential as a writer is much greater than we ever knew. In short, as we develop the discipline of a writer, we start convincing ourselves that we are writers. Once we realize that, we create the mental fitness a writer.

And it’s a lot easier on the knees than a treadmill.

Friday, April 6, 2018

And why do we do this?

So we've cleared up the idea that anyone can write and that everyone should try to write. Now the question becomes "why?" When people start writing, this comes with some fear -- just like any new endeavor worth taking. But I get asked that question a lot, so here's my thoughts on it:


Q: Why should I write? I’m not a writer…

A: First – don’t write so you can eventually become a writer. Write for the joy, the adventure, the passion, the anger, the frustrating challenge of creating something new. If you do that, you’re already a writer.

As for the other part of “why,” I offer this. One of the fellow writers in my workshop refers to writing as “the cheapest therapy I can find.” That bit of wisdom alone should be enough to put a pen in anyone’s hand (or a keyboard under their fingers), but there’s something far more powerful in putting those words on the page (or screen).

When we write, we explore, and this is not just with fiction. Even if we write about fundamental truths like past memories or our personal feelings, it forces us to work through them, to understand them more deeply. If we really press into those truths, we can discover things that had long been hiding from us in plain sight.

When I started my novel, The Book of Cain, I knew exactly what I wanted to write. I knew the characters, I knew the plot, I knew the whole three-act arc. All I needed to do was type out about 73,000 words and it’d be done. Simple, right? Well, not so much. As I turned my thoughts into words, something felt… wrong. Something was missing. And the more I created, the more it confirmed that I didn’t actually know the purpose of the story. I knew the events, but not the meaning, and it felt hollow. So instead of hitting the shelves at Barnes & Noble, it hit the shelf in my home office, still half a manuscript away from completion.

I continued to work on other projects, but I also used this tool of writing to explore what was missing. I wanted to know why this novel, so clear in my head, made no sense when put to words. Years later, as I wrote about my father’s unexpected death, the feelings I explored showed me what was missing from Cain’s story. The feelings of loss and abandonment – feelings I only began dealing with after my father’s passing – were exactly what was missing. Cain didn’t feel genuine because I never gave him the feelings I could not face at the time. I went to my office, dusted off the binder, and reread it. Before I reached chapter three, I knew exactly what needed to be done. At that point, the words could not come out fast enough.

So, why write? Obviously if you enjoy it, that’s the best reason. However, it is a very powerful tool for understanding the world around us and the world inside us. The more we use it for exploring our experiences and lives, the more we will discover.

That’s not a bad reason, is it?

Monday, April 2, 2018

Starting off as a writer

Hello. To start off this blog, my first few posts will be simple. Each will be a personal answer to some of the more common questions asked by members of the Writers' Workshop I facilitate and the other groups where I am a member. These questions are surprisingly common, and while many people have quietly pulled me aside and asked these questions in a hushed tone saved for their personal secrets, I am sure many more felt them but stayed silent. When I started my mission to be a writer, those very same questions came to my mind. Now I offer these answers in hopes that they move someone further along in being a writer and developing their process.

Different answers may be more personal, more revealing, or more wordy than others. The only consistent part will be these discuss something important to me and my development as a writer. Enjoy:




Q: What prompted you to really get into writing as something more than a hobby?

A: A sharp, stabbing pain in my right side.

It might sound like I’m joking, but in all seriousness, that was the thing that pushed me to pursue the art of creative writing. Here’s how:

By my early thirties, I was settled into a career in economics. Like most people, I dabbled with writing in high school and in college, but I never really took it anywhere (also like most people). My job involved writing, but this was research-oriented, which was intellectualized, grounded in a foundation of theories, data, and calculations, and written in a straightforward manner.

And it thrilled me.

It may sound strange, but at my core I am all about structure. Mathematics, calculation, the dependability of rigorous science. My mind is built to follow paths, and they never let me down. Solving a formula never breaks from the rules with a surprise plot twist. In that way, hard science satisfies me. Reliable. As dependable as my favorite shoes. And this rigid, structured career also gave me at the time a corner office, a certain amount of respect, and a paycheck that lasted longer than needed. Everything was set.

Then I had a sharp, stabbing pain in my right side.

Inexplicable, unprovoked, and out of nowhere, I stood up at my desk and the pain pushed the breath right out of me. I staggered, my legs weakened, and I braced myself from falling. It felt like a rib stabbed me through my right lung. I caught my breath after that brief attack and tried to figure out what happened, but after a few short breaths, the pain hit again. And again.

I went to the hospital, and a battery of tests indicated trouble with my liver. And not the “sometimes these things happen” trouble. This was serious.

Over the next month, I lost thirty pounds and only ate medication. After more than a few nervous nights, my condition finally stabilized. I regained my strength and returned to my corner office and respectable job. However, I started thinking about things other than work. I thought about my story. My many stories. Every single life event that moved me, shaped me, changed me – all these stories that would’ve vanished if my liver story hadn’t ended well.

In my world of calculations, life events didn’t really have a place. But now my mind demanded these stories be given a place – a big place. Those stories needed to be recognized, to be heard. They needed a voice; something more than the language of fitting situations into formulas, assembling worlds across a spreadsheet, or plugging experiences into databases. No amount of numbers and functions could ever express my story. Such a task required words. A lot of them. And not neat, operational, sterile words such as “equaling,” “factored,” or “correlating.” I needed feelings, emotions, metaphors and similes, insights and speculation to do justice to any of my stories.

And that’s what prompted me to get into writing.