Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Enjoying the Silence

When you write a book, publish a book, sell a book, and wait for the book to start selling itself, you know what doesn't happen automatically? Reviews. That's what.

My small publisher and I have sent out review copies of Magnificent Mistakes to various publications, and thus far we have landed precisely one review. Four months: one published review. No complaints on the review itself. It's very kind.

But where did the other copies go? Did anyone look at them? I just don't know. It's all kind of mysterious, this business. I'm not taking it personally--not at all--but I would like to get the book in front of a few more eyes before it dies.

Ah well. Heavy sigh. Chirp chirp. All that.

Meanwhile, the novel gestates.


PS If you want a signed (or unsigned, or inscribed) copy, I'll sell you one, cheap. I've got a boxful, and one is anxious to meet you. Drop me a line. 

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Summoning the Writing Angels

As prelude to teaching a new course with the same title, I am rereading Annie Dillard's The Writing Life this weekend. It has been at least fourteen years since I last read it, possibly twenty, and I had forgotten how this book bristles with metaphor. It can be overwhelming, at times. But the advice is priceless and abundant in these pages. Consider this:

To comfort friends discouraged by their writing pace, you could offer them this: It takes years to write a book--between two and ten years. Less is so rare as to be statistically insignificant. One American writer has written a dozen major books over six decades. He wrote one of those books, a perfect novel, in three months. He speaks of it, still, with awe, almost whispering. Who wants to offend the spirit that hands out such books? Faulkner wrote As I Lay Dying in six weeks; he claimed to have knocked it off in his spare time from a twelve-hour-a-day job performing manual labor. There are other examples from other continents and centuries, just as albinos, assassins, saints, big people, and little people show up from time to time in large populations. Out of a human population on earth of four and a half billion [as of 1989], perhaps twenty people can write a serious book in a year. Some people lift cars, too. Some people enter week-long sled-dog races, go over Niagara Falls in barrels, fly planes through the Arc de Triomphe. Some people feel no pain in childbirth. Some people eat cars. There is no call to take human extremes as norms.
Full stop.

(Blogger would not let me properly break the paragraphs therein. Sorry. Too lazy or busy to figure this one out, so I lumped them all together.)

I am also re-watching Jane Campion's brilliant film adaptation of Janet Frame's autobiographies, An Angel at My Table. I feel richer today than I felt on Friday, by far. My next big challenge will be to figure out how to manage my larger-than-usual course load this semester in a way that allows for time to write. No, that sounds too passive. My challenge will be to carve out time to write from my larger-than-usual course load. Nope. Still not quite right. Here: My challenge will be to carve out time for teaching three courses, instead of the normal two, from all the time I am going to devote to writing.

In the dark days of their careers, writers have to be their own cheerleaders. 

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Advice to Young Writers

I am often asked to give advice to young writers who wish to be famous and fabulously well-to-do. This is the best I have to offer: While looking as much like a bloodhound as possible, announce that you are working twelve hours a day on a masterpiece. Warning: All is lost if you crack a smile.
- Kurt Vonnegut, in Palm Sunday

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Writing Space

My biggest challenge, as a writer, is making the time and finding the space in which to actually write. With two small children, the only quiet place left for me is my office at work. But the office is, of course, where I work. I can shut the door. I can drown out nearby voices with the air conditioner in summer. But in winter, quiet solitude does not come easily or predictably. But it does come.

And when it does, I struggle to find the discipline to disconnect from email and Facebook and the constant stream of news, politics, and entertainment. I'd blog more about this, but I'm trying to break away today (without much luck). So, quickly, I want to share this link, which came to me via the wonderful Oklahoma performance poet and activist Lauren Zuniga. From What Happened to Down Time?:

There has been much discussion about the value of the “creative pause” – a state described as “the shift from being fully engaged in a creative activity to being passively engaged, or the shift to being disengaged altogether.” This phenomenon is the seed of the break-through “a-ha!” moments that people so frequently report having in the shower. In these moments, you are completely isolated, and your mind is able to wander and churn big questions without interruption.

However, despite the incredible power and potential of sacred spaces, they are quickly becoming extinct. We are depriving ourselves of every opportunity for disconnection. And our imaginations suffer the consequences.

Read the rest here.

Friday, December 17, 2010

"The Writer at Work"

Don't miss Tom Gauld's "The Writer at Work" series, reproduced here. The Emily Dickinson is my favorite:

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

"It's a way to make your soul grow."

You can read the transcripts of two riveting discussions between Kurt Vonnegut and Lee Stringer in the book Like Shaking Hands with God: a conversation about writing. Early in the book—no, the talk, the talk—Vonnegut addresses the effects that writing has on the writer:

There's a swell book that's out of print now. Maybe Seven Stories will bring it out again. It's called The Writer and Psychoanalysis by a man who's now dead named Edmund Bergler. He claimed he had treated more writers than anyone else in his field, and being that he practiced in New York, he probably did. Bergler said that writers were fortunate in that they were able to treat their neuroses every day by writing. He also said that as soon as a writer was blocked, this was catastrophic because the writer would start to go to pieces. And so I said in a piece in Harper's, or a letter I wrote to Harper's, about "the death of the novel": People will continue to write novels, or maybe short stories, because they discover that they are treating their own neuroses. And I have said about the practice of the arts that practicing any art—be it painting, music, dance, literature, or whatever—is not a way to make money or become famous. It's a way to make your soul grow. So you should do it anyway.
Vonnegut mentions the bounty on Salman Rushdie then jokingly offer a million-dollar reward for the killing of Microsoft's Bill Gates:

Gates is saying, "Hey, don't worry about making your soul grow. I'll sell you a new program and, instead, let your computer grow year after year after year..."—cheating people out of the experience of becoming.
Rilke wrote about the dizzying effects of urban commercialism and consumer society a few decades earlier, and in jest I've suggested Rilke had warned against the effects of Facebook. You can read that here.

But you shouldn't. Instead, quit surfing. And write.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Call and Response

I write fiction because I am a bad poet. When I was much younger (in my mid twenties—so, young but not terribly young), I stumbled into fiction only after I got lost and wandered for years in the maze of poetry. Which is to say that when I admitted to myself I was no Rilke, no Rumi, no Mark Strand, no Mary Oliver, no e.e. cummings, only then did I notice the clear strands of narrative woven through the bent architecture of my ramshackle poems. I quit thinking of myself as a poet and became a fiction writer. And fiction felt good. It suited me in a way that poetry never had. I knew in short order that fiction was my calling.

Torre del Mangia, Siena
Yet I still turn to poetry when I want to kick myself into fiction writing mode. Perhaps I feel compelled to somehow relive the journey that brought me to fiction. Perhaps I have to blast my ears with poetry before I can properly hear the calling of fiction. More likely, though, I have learned to use the jolt from a good poem to jumpstart the engine of my fiction. (Clearly I need no prodding to start wildly mixing metaphors.) Whatever the reason, this works. When I don’t know how to open a story or get started on another long day of revision, I reach for a poem. I steer clear of fiction. When I read a gripping, unsettling story, I want to write a story just like it. A good story triggers my impulse to imitate. A good poem compels me to write my own gripping, unsettling story in response.

At the risk of echoing the prejudice Charles Baxter reveals in the passage I quoted on Wednesday, I will generalize. Fiction writers take time to lay out the subtle intricacies of their art, and poets—at least the poets I read and love—seem to be more consistently and immediately in touch with the extraordinary, the intense, and the fantastic. No doubt, there are countless exceptions. What matters is only this: Reading poetry works. It works for me. It focuses my thoughts and energizes my intentions. Poetry calls, and I respond with fiction.

For you, this may not work at all. If you want to write—if you have no choice but to write—then listen for the bell that calls to you, and answer it. Find what works, and do it.

Now write.