Why do you want to write, anyway?

If Fitzgerald had my temperament, he could never have written even his first book, he would have gone straight to drinking.

Journaling with a fountain pen again …

Why do we write? I ask this of myself sometimes. The answer is obvious, for me, perhaps as it is for you: I can’t stop.

Yesterday, the yoga teacher asked us to consider that our strengths become our weaknesses and our weaknesses become our strengths.

I thought about this, and how I tend to go too hard and then despair. This goes for writing as well as yoga. There have been times, too, in my life when I quit writing: when we moved to Canada, and when I began teaching school. At these times, I had too much stress and exhaustion.

At other times, there was another struggle: I love to write but I hate being rejected! And I can’t write for publication when I’m stressed out. If Fitzgerald had my temperament, he could never have written even his first book, he would have gone straight to drinking.

But there was one time I wrote because I was stressed. It was because I needed hope when we came home from Italy. I tried to write three pages on lined paper, every morning, with a fountain pen. I did this in total silence, before the kids got up. This practice somehow lightened my mood.

There was no submissions or rejections in journaling. I was totally alone with this writing. Though I occasionally suspected Leo was reading my journal, in general I felt safe with saying what I wanted, confident that any decipherment of these papers would happen in terms of my grown children reading the words after I died, and that would happen only if they had significant perseverance and interest and patience with cursive handwriting.

When I feel better, I think about writing a novel, a memoir, a blog post, an article for publication, but when I’m low, it’s all about writing for myself. A shout into the future, saying: “I’m here.” And perhaps that’s where it all flows from. When I want to be published, it just means the pain level is lower. that I feel safe in expanding my horizons. But when I feel low, I write for myself.

Why do you write?

Writer’s Block: What to say when you think you have nothing to say

Writer’s block. It’s a dangerous amount of the time. I find myself on twitter, checking email, listening to You Tube. I see what I am doing and get serious and make myself start editing something. Then I get the email from The Common, the wrap-up on their online writing prompts program I bought in January.

I and some other writers paid $15 for this program. The editors sent us two writing prompts a week for ten weeks. At the end, you can submit your best story to a special portal for free (The Common usually charges $3). I’ve done a good job of working up the first week’s prompt, and in fact have two credible essays. But I didn’t even start on the second week’s prompts. Why?

I open the email of second week prompts, look at it. “Write about a place that makes you ambivalent?” Well, yeah, that would be my whole life. I am ambivalent all the time. Some days, I wonder if, although sure I am now alive, how much longer it will last? Will I run out of time before I’ve written something good enough?

Well, if it takes me ten weeks to respond to one week’s writing prompts, maybe.

I am getting the idea that Writer’s Block is something that happens because you psyche yourself out, you allow yourself to think that you’re not ready, you don’t have the right idea, you need to check Twitter one more time, organize your submissions list … read something for inspiration.

That’s why Shut up and Write is so wonderful. That’s where I go once a week and do nothing but write for an hour. Except last week. I didn’t go because it was snowing. That was my excuse.

An idea is forming in my mind. What is writing and what is not:

What is:

Drafting, retyping, editing, revising, submitting, to a limited degree, researching for submitting. Journaling. Blogging.

What is not:

Going on social media. Reading books. Listening to music. Knitting. Checking email. Staring at a blank screen. Deleting bad work.

So: What to do? Do the stuff in the “What is” list. Do something productive. There’s nothing more depressing than realizing you slipped off into the “What is not” territory and now the potential writing time has been used up by reading something in the New Yorker about that Assange character getting dragged out of the Peruvian Embassy. That has nothing to do with my life, and I suspect it has nothing to do with yours either.

(We interrupt this blog post to say after all that checking, I finally got some email. A rejection from a prestigious magazine. I guess this is better than a rejection from a small one. This energizes me, makes me mad. That’s it, I will go out to the library and study their journal, figure out where the confluence of my writing and their publishing may lie, wait a decent interval, and submit again.

Is this getting ready to write, or just more malingering, more writer’s block? Let’s just hope that it doesn’t take me ten or more weeks to develop this new piece. )

Scarlett and I Are Outsider Artists/Dreams of Burning Man

While Scarlett and I were on the mother-daughter artist retreat last week, I told her our art was different, because we weren’t on the inside track, did not live in New York, did not have friends in publishing, did not teach at a university, and overall, we were outside of every art establishment I could think of.

“Oh, you mean we’re like those Burning Man people,” she said.

“Burning Man? What does that have to do with outsider artists?”

“I’m pretty sure I read somewhere that that’s what they called themselves.”

So I read up on it. Scarlett was right. The Burning Man phenom, which I had heard described by people who’d never gone or even actually read about it, but just heard about it through the grapevine, as “a bunch of wild men and women out on the desert getting high and burning things and going nuts,” is actually described online as primarily a movement of artists trying to sock it to the man, in this case, the Art Establishment of critics, foundations, universities and traditional publications.

I read the article to Scarlett. We had to admit that we concurred with the principles laid down by the Burning Man festival regarding outsider art.

“Maybe we should go to the festival,” I said. But I had to admit, I’d be afraid to go by ourselves.

“Maybe we could get Papa to go,” Scarlett says. “Burning Man might appeal to his offbeat sense of spirituality.”

I was convulsed. “Well, it’s true,” Scarlett continues. “Offbeat is about how I would describe it.”

I think of the Sarasvatti statue in his office, and the Buddha coffee mug. The sitar playing while sitting on the sitar pillow. The entire set of works by the bald philosopher, Ken Wilbur. It’s true. Leo could take all of it straight to Burning Man and participate.

Perhaps Leo is an outsider artist as well. I went home and mentioned the idea of going to the festival to him. He went right into research mode, and after an early burst of excitement we discovered that Burning Man is the last week of August, a time when school teachers like us are generally either in the first week of class or getting ready for the first week of class. Not a time when you could get a week off.

Another hope for adventure crushed, I thought. But Leo, Scarlett and I were still all intrigued by the very idea of being there … when as the pinnacle of the festival, the entire community gets together to rebel against the arts establishment and assert the participatory and egalitarian nature of the true human community, and as a symbol of this they BURN THE MAN!

Should he give up writing? Not so fast, colleague …

ABC_man_overboard_cruise_ship_sr_140116_16x9_992I was reading Twitter last night when an unusual tweet showed up on my stream.  It was a cry of despair, it appeared, and reading it, I had the sensation of a being passenger standing at the rail of on an ocean liner, looking out over the sea and seeing someone in the water, waving frantically to be seen before it was too late.  The tweet was:

“See you later everyone. I’m giving up writing officially. It’s going nowhere. As a hobby it’s a waste of my time if I can’t survive off of it. I’ll be around for another fifteen minutes before I delete my Twitter … “

Man overboard! I thought.  I tweeted back, “I hope you’re kidding … ”

“Nope. It’s a complete waste of my time. No one besides my mom, my brother and two other people (hyperbole) have read my book or cares … “

Oh my gosh.  Yeah, I know.  It’s tough, the rejection, the indifference, the feeling that what you’re doing *ought*  to be getting more attention than it is.

I know. My ego, too, has at times been pulverized, my self-image, regularly diminished.  And yet.

I replied: “I understand.” I wrote:

“Just tonight, I was wondering: what if I just publish a couple short stories, and nothing else, what then? And I thought: well, what else was I going to do with my time? Knit socks? Ride horses? “

I mean, writing is easy and cheap compared to riding horses.  And I prefer, on average, writers as good-time companions to riders.

I tell myself I have to adjust my perspective. Writing is a lifelong journey.  I think most of us intellectually accept that there are no guarantees, in writing as in elsewhere in life, but we have to accept this emotionally as well. I have a vision of the work I want to complete, but I don’t get a guarantee that my vision will be fulfilled.  I wonder every day if by wanting to be a novelist and see my book read by thousands, I am not suffering from grandiosity of a clinical nature.

I said to my daughter, “I want everyone to fall in love with Carl (my WIP’s hero).”

She didn’t say “You’re out of your mind,” but I think her eyebrows did rise a bit. Meanwhile, I vacillate between confidence and self-doubt. A year ago I told my husband, Leo, that I was in despair because I wasn’t sure I could ever be the Writer I Dreamed of Being.

Leo, who has again and again in my life given me good answers to seemingly intractable questions, said “Look, you write, you always write, whether you journal or you direct your energy towards publication. So why not work to realize your vision? You’ll be writing anyway. Try to make something of it.”

He then went on to tell me the story of Nietzsche, the great German philosopher and classicist, who was rejected by the professors of his day because his ideas were, let us say, a little too progressive. He came up with, among other things, the idea of the Ubermensch and the Death of God, which while controversial have become worldwide philosophical koans after his death. But Nietzsche didn’t live to see his work become canonical. He never made any money out of it.  When he died, his books were published in vanity press editions only. No paying editor would touch them. There was just one professor in the entire world who was teaching Nietzsche’s philosophy.  That one man told him he was a genius but the rest of his colleagues said he was an idiot, or worse, irrelevant.

This discussion with Leo made such a mark on me that I can remember it a year later, and since then I have never stopped trying to be the writer I dream of.  I have also come to believe, as I look at the world, that as education expands, and the world expands, there are more readers than ever before, and therefore, there is room for more writers than ever before.  So I think that as I do not allow myself to quit, my twitter friend should not quit, and neither should the readers of this modest blog, almost all of whom, I think, are writers as well.

I concluded my communication with a tweet that for me is the end of the discussion:

“At the end of the day I think the majority of the joy is in the writing itself not being published.” I should qualify that by pointing out that I’ve had work published — short form only, not books — hundreds of times.  So I’m not guessing.

Now that does not mean that I don’t do everything I can to write work that will satisfy my greater vision. It does mean that I understand that as Mr. Spock said, “No man can summon the future,” and I can’t force a solution.

I noticed that this morning my fellow writer who had neared despair was back at work and wrote that he had composed another 1000 words.  I commend all writers on their many journeys. May you all be read, and far more and far longer than you expect in your darkest moments.

Nietzsche certainly was.



Online Memoir Summit from Village Writing School: Going on now, and it’s free!!!

All right, if you don’t have something to do this weekend, and you’re interested in Memoir and Creative Nonfiction, or you just want to listen to  some very cool and inspirational writing videos by some knowledgeable and admirably-published writers, MFA teachers, and industry insiders, here’s your gig.  And you don’t even have to pay for it.  Unbelievable.

What: Village Writing School Memoir Summit

When:  This weekend

Where: Your home computer

How: By Youtube video

Why: Because it’s the exact same type of presentation you get from going to a writer’s conference, without the travel time and the price tag of $100 to $400.

Marcel Proust on the writer’s creation of fiction through fact and memory, and also, incidentally, rejection

The move to Colorado has left me absolutely busted, financially and to some degree emotionally, even as I feeimg_20181104_0706181487267935.jpgl a sense of victory and liberation to relocate to “the freedom lands.”  To sooth my jangled nerves, I have taken up listening to a biography of Proust while knitting.  Although admonished by a Facebook friend that doing so was “ like [reading] a Cliffnote’s version of A La Recherche du Temp Perdu (more conventionally known as Remembrance of Times Past).” I couldn’t find a full copy of the famous memoir-novel for free online listening, so I had to make accommodations.

The act of knitting while listening to a book is both relaxing and an extreme meditation on the writing.

Important writer’s knowings from Proust:

  1. “An I that is not I:” Proust created this formula for his masterpiece. It was at the time a new innovation.  First person narrators had been used before, such as by Charlotte Bronte in Jane Eyre, but it seems that no one had yet created what I might called a semi-memoir:  A work which is partly factual, and partly fictional.
  2. Finding material: Proust handily changed a young man, Albert, into a young woman, Albertine, for the purpose of his love story.  Masking real people into characters, he combined others and renamed still others, basing whole families of characters on their real counterparts.  The anger and objections of people involved were predictable. Yet in this way he was able to write the semi-memoir and claim it to be fiction. It seems few were fooled.
  3. Rejection.  Proust was devastated when the first part of his work, Swann’s Way, was rejected by the foremost French publishing house of avant-garde works at the time.  But it seems the rejection was personal: the editor had met Proust and was offended by his social climbing and his dilettantish ways as a young man.  Thus the work didn’t get an unbiased reading.  This rejection occurred even though Proust proposed to pay for the publication. Proust was crushed and had to go with a newbie publisher.  This reminds me of how much matters extraneous to the work, such as personal impressions and thematic or subject specifics, can impact the reception of one’s writing.