The joy of avoidance: what I think about when I think about not writing

Excuse number 85 to avoid writing: Spring Cleaning. I have four ASAP review books in the queue; avoidance is strong with this one.

How many believe writing is exciting and invigorating, a joy like no other? You people are messed up. How quickly the adrenaline rush fades once the review copy arrives or project is given the green light. Sitting down to the computer, I question all the life choices leading up to this moment. WTF was I even thinking. It is a misery! A scourge! Ten cups of coffee and a few days (okay, weeks, shut it) later, piece submitted and turned around, it’s only then the heart of the Grinch grows three sizes.

Show me a man who declares an undying love of writing and I’ll point accusingly at James Patterson, whore of the printed page. He loves it because he doesn’t write his own shit. I could love that, too. You write it, then give me the money. Just put my name in the larger font.

Writing sucks, my friend. Two-thirds of the furrows on my brow come from the agony of forcibly pulling words out of my brain. There are rope burns on my fingers, scratches in the corners of rooms streaked with blood from my clawing, wails of despair echoing.

Save yourselves! Fly, fools!

Thus, the appeal of distraction. The pit known as my walk-in closet has been taunting and jeering, its great dark maw exhaling humid breath, uttering guttural and menacing strangling sounds. That, or I have apnea.

In another deep storage closet sit seven huge plastic bins containing my books, hundreds of them absorbing toxic plastic odors. The plan is to line one wall in my walk-in bedroom closet with bookshelves – three six-foot tall, five-shelf units. I may stick a chair in there once it’s done, roll out a carpet and imagine it’s my stately manor house. I need only a print of a roaring fire in a stone hearth that rolls down from the ceiling. I shall loftily refer to it as my Library, gesturing vaguely and gazing into the distance like an 18th-century fop. A 21st Century bluestocking squirelled away, admiring her wealth.

Fop, looking on.

Pulling out all the clothing and miscellany from the walk-in triggered overwhelming anxiety, as nearly everything does in The Time of the Pestilence. My bed positively sagging from the weight, hangers and bags spilled onto the floor. I had to have a lie down on my grievously short loveseat, bought sight-unseen and in a rush, to plot my course. I decided to approach it scientifically. Pick up one item, decide what to do with it, then do the thing.

Brilliance.

Hanging and arranging all the clothes, I realized it wasn’t nearly as bad as it looked. I’m still doubtful I have need of so many things but, in my defense, I culled two garbage bags’ worth of clothing for donation. Once I’d hauled out the laundry, I was able to measure for a dresser and aforementioned bookshelves. Three white particle board units, one cloth-drawered and metal framed dresser.

Thanks, internet!

Small-space organizing is fast becoming my forte; I thrive in these impossibly-small apartments, not that I don’t long for space. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t covet a spare room office. But if there’s an award for cramming crap I’d run away with it. Moving from my last place was a clown car gag personified. I never studied physics but I’m pretty sure I defied all its laws.

It takes ingenuity but there are ways to fit an enormous amount of unnecessary crap into the smallest of spaces. I should start my own HGTV show, a companion series to my earlier idea for a program about decorating I called ‘Good Enough’. Screw sticking out of that shelf on your cheap-ass bookcase? Bedframe duct taped to the headboard?

GOOD ENOUGH! Filmed in front of a live audience.

I never took home repair and improvement that seriously, partly because I used to think I’d eventually find some poor sod to shack up with, a man to rescue me from Herculean tasks – like putting up curtains and leveling pictures. Now I just gouge holes in the wall and slap shit up; spackle is my best friend. Post-pandemic, the idea of pursuing a relationship shifted. Not only have I become completely intolerant of other people, my life’s settling into a fixed routine I don’t want anyone else disturbing. Ironic I’ve had relationships end for exactly that reason.

The irony boggles.

Relationships just plain suck. They’re as bad as writing, just more agonizing. In theory, two people meet and join hands then run through a field of flowers together, laughing in warm-fuzzy joy. In practice, all sours and goes south, ending in a fiery ball of hatred and resentment. The same people who believe writing is a gift from the heavens probably think the same of love.

I’ve become a grumpy spinster. Does it show? I am Miss Havisham, without the rats. (Note: I’ve moved beyond High Lockdown protocol. I now shower regularly and since my hair has finally met professional scissors it’s not a knotted mess. I don’t wear the same clothing through the day, overnight, then through the next day nearly as often. And this hardly sounds redeeming, does it). I like some things a certain way and it is driving me mad not everything has its place but, as this weekend illustrates, I’m accomplishing fixes.

There are rent-a-husbands now, apps you can use to hire people to do annoying crap like hang curtains and fix walls after you’ve tunneled into the drywall, leaving gaping holes and generally making a royal of mess of things. The money you pay is justified by the satisfaction of shit getting done by someone who knows what they’re doing. Best of all, when it’s over you wave them goodbye. All the muscle, none of the irritation of stumbling over them the rest of the time.

Bitter? Me? Why yes. Yes, I am. Unashamedly and justifiably so.

I may not have actively chosen the life I have, but I do now embrace it. That’s much healthier than railing against it, trying to force fate into conforming with my idea of how things should be. Relationships don’t come naturally to me. I’m introverted, raised without benefit of an example of how healthy relationships work. Ask anyone who’s tried getting close to me – they’ll tell you gladly and with great animation. Probably swear-ily. Definitely swear-ily.

In my defense, lack of good judgement paired me with some outrageously incompatible partners. Destined for failure, each of them. I can see that, in hindsight. For better or worse, I am an introverted creative. Like a lot of introverted creatives, my early years were staggeringly dysfunctional. It’s how I came to be what I am, though I hate hearing creativity is worth the trade-off of a stable early life.

Is it? Is it really? That’s a high price.

When you’re given a set of circumstances, acceptance is the key to contentment. I don’t feel like I’m missing out. Bad relationships are toxic, far more damaging than no relationship at all. The pandemic reinforced what I already knew: I prefer the world to remain OUT THERE, to visit it when I feel like it but otherwise lock my door against it. It’s rich inside; I have all I need. Stuff gets a little crazy, often haphazard, but I built it to my own specifications.

All that matters is it has good bones.

Duty calls. I have a review that needs writing; this diversion has reached its end, like all good things.

The writing librarian and her work: plotting and paring

Good as my word, I’ve been busily hard at work getting my freelance writing endeavor up and running. I’m in stage one: panicked confusion.

Apparently, before you can get much of anywhere you have to brand yourself. I’ve been at work watching videos and reading articles on how a person does that, which so far as I can determine means you need to specialize, find a pithy way of expressing what you’re about, then set to work finding people who’ll pay for what you’re offering.

Sounds simple but oh dear god it’s not. When you’re a multi-niche specialist as I am, cutting down what you’re doing is like pruning limbs from your body. The good news is I’m spoiled for choice. This is why I could never abide people with no hobbies or interests. I’m awash with them.

So, which to keep and which to sideline?

Twinned with that, you need to market and promote, naturally, write a portfolio and get out there and flog it. The good thing about it is you’re your own boss, and the terrible thing about it is the same. You set your hours, but you’re still responsible when you don’t meet self-imposed deadlines.

Then there’s the produce on demand bit. Once you have clients, that’s the meat of the profession. That, and filling orders once you’ve pitched ideas to editors, of course.

It all gets very real, very quickly.

I’ve been less structured in my freelancing up ’til now, letting work come to me rather than going after focused, carefully chosen clients. But seeing as I’m actively working very hard getting back into the library profession and peddling my writing as a second income stream, it’s getting a lot more intense. There’s no end of work to be done, and if you don’t get a good grip on things you can easily go flying off into the ether. If you listen closely, you can hear the screams of writers ricocheting into The Deep.

There went another one. RIP.

My 2019 freelance goals are to find a stable column writing gig or two, a handful of clients I’ll produce for regularly and a steady stream of querying and filling orders. That’s as a second job, working part time alongside the mythical full time librarian position I’m madly pursuing.

They say if you want a job done right, ask a busy person. Sounds idiotic, but it’s actually true. If I want to do what you’re asking, I’ll find a way to fit it into my rotation. Once you’re used to getting a lot of things done rapid-fire, it’s easy to gauge if yes, I have time for that, or no, sorry, find another writer.

I won’t hesitate to tell you yes or no. I can see everything I’m doing at a glance, the way I’ve set up my schedule. I know exactly what slots are open, and have prioritized every detail.

I told you I’ve been busy.

The professions of librarian and freelance writer go hand in hand, the one feeding off the other. While it’s not true librarians spend their days reading (I only wish), in every library job I’ve held I’ve been able to flex my writing muscles. I’ve been a social media manager and in-house editor in both library jobs I’ve had so far, as well as forming a writing group that’s still active more than a decade on. If my scheduled allowed, I’d be active there still. As it’s not, I’m considering pitching a start up writers group at another library, slotted to fit into my free time.

I bring my personality to my employer, taking on the role of the voice the community comes to associate with the library. And I’m damn good at it.

You may have noticed I have rather a strong voice. I use it to good effect, given a public platform. Now, I just need the library.

Once I’m installed as a librarian, I’ll be able to say yes more often to the publishers knocking on my virtual door. Yes, I’ll read and review your book. I’ll have an audience of library patrons, in addition to my reach as Bluestalking and associated review outlets. From there I generally go to work disseminating reviews, author interviews and events to the general public via the local media. It’s never far from my mind hooking up my library with writers on tour, either.

It all comes together quite nicely. Though not without an awful lot of work. But then, when it doesn’t feel like work it’s the absolute best thing on earth. I miss it, and I’m bound and determined to get back to it. And when I’m determined, very little stands in my way.

But first, the planning: The branding and the specializing and the tweaking.

2019: I’m giving you fair warning. You’re going to be my year. 2017 and 2018 were good efforts, but it’s time to put away the first draft and get on with the big work: Editor at large of my own life.

Jacob’s Room is Full of Books by Susan Hill

 

If I am asked for advice I always say, “Don’t give up the day job”, no matter what it is, because however well your first book did, however large a sum of money you may have made, one swallow does not make a summer or one successful book a long and lucrative career.

-Susan Hill, Jacob’s Room is Full of Books

 

I’m struggling to get caught up sharing thoughts on the books I’ve read in Scotland, as well as those I’ve bought and will have to ship back to the States. Because failed relationship.

Anyhoo, it’s been difficult not buying more, but I need to show restraint on all but those books difficult to find in the States. I cannot pass up select vintage Penguins, for instance, nor the occasional work by more obscure British authors I know would be more expensive there.

At least, those are my excuses. No bibliophile would bat an eye.

Jacob’s Room is Full of Books I purchased in hardcover, an irresistible volume written by a writer I respect who cherishes books, liberally peppered with anecdotes about other writers she’s known and lots of digressions into things like the weather. I’d expected more focus on Hill’s personal favorites, reminiscences about what she’s read; in reality it’s less that and more a delightfully eccentric, jumbled diary of sorts. It’s a memoir of scattered memories. If you sat down to a meal with Susan Hill, this is the conversation you’d love to have.

Writing a book like this is on my mind, relating specific books to specific stages of my life and discussing my personal iconic writers. Just as everyone’s story is distinct, mine diverges sharply from Susan Hill’s. Though nowhere near as extensively, I’ve met and rubbed elbows with writers of staggering reputation, insinuating myself into their circles, buttonholing them at events, contacting them for interviews unfazed by prizes as the majority of writers I’ve worked with have been gracious, refreshingly humble. A nobody in the literary world, my accomplishments haven’t so much fallen into my lap as been forcefully pulled. Fast talking – or typing – and sharp elbows go a very long way toward competing with writers who have more talent but less assertiveness.

Ultimately, you make your own luck.

Hill’s book introduced me to several writers I’d never heard of, like Duncan Fallowell:

 

“the author of How to Disappear and other brilliant, eccentric, quirky books by a man who Has Adventures. Duncan has adventures because he goes about looking for them – admirable trait, though one which I have never shared.”

  • Susan Hill, Jacob’s Room is Full of Books

 

Hill may not have ventured far, but I certainly have. Sitting here in Scotland, for the second time having left my American life behind for the sake of trying a relationship that’s twice failed, a roamer afflicted by wanderlust several times traveling to Europe alone, I’m clearly not of her disposition. Rather the opposite, though if you’d have told me I’d be this way as a reticent child I’d have thought you crazy. My days of traveling extensively outside the country, barring unforeseen incidents (and dear god I’ve had my share of those), are likely to be eclipsed by roaming my own country once I’ve returned home. But I never expect I’ll lose that passion.

Handily, Susan Hill has included a bibliographical list of books mentioned in Jacob’s Room is Full of Books. I’d say helpfully, but it’s also dangerous as I’ve decided I need several of them, Duncan Fallowell’s travel writing included. I suspect his style is closer to my own writing, being less sweet of nature and more inclined toward snark. I’m not a mincer of words. His example may help show me the path, giving me a few ideas. Another necessary book in the Amazon cart.

I recommend Hill’s book. Some have said it drops too many names, but good lord what has she been doing all her life but consorting with fellow writers? And, while it may not be devoted solely to books, there’s enough to have satisfied me. Once you’ve finished that, she published a prior book that’s much the same, Howards End is on the Landing. They make a great pairing.

More books to go before I’ve caught up, then I’ll do my best to stumble through a year-end wrap up. No surprise I have trips both booked and in consideration before I leave the UK. The next is a one day trip to London next week to meet up with friends, then a December jaunt to Penzance for a week’s holiday spent on the most westerly tip of England. As it’s off-season – way, way off-season – it will be freezing and empty.

Are there any bookshops is my first question. If so, no promises I’ll bring back more souvenirs. I’ve just returned from pretty Perth, and will put up photos soon. No bookshops of note there save Waterstones. Not that I don’t love it, but secondhand shops reign supreme.

Back to planning the remainder of my stay. Too early to worry overly much about what I’ll do when I return. Don’t let the present be ruined by difficulties that can be saved for a later date, that’s my motto. Meantime, allons-y!

 

 

 

 

Writing: Deconstruction is the sincerest form of learning

 

 

I’ve had this argument with a friend unfamiliar with the writing process, yet interested in writing, himself: It’s not plagiairism to use another writer’s framework. Plagiarism is lifting someone else’s work verbatim, plonking it down in your own piece without attribution, pretending it’s your own. It’s not only illegal, but a moral wrong.

What’s perfectly legitimate is deconstruction, taking a well-written novel, say one in the hardboiled genre for argument’s sake, pulling it apart and examining how a writer accomplished what he did. It’s perfectly legitimate making use of what you’ve learned about structure, character development, pacing, etc., in order to create your own book.

 

Simple Deconstruction

  1. Read a book you admire at least twice. More, if you can.

  2.  Outline the plot.

  3.  Write biographies of the characters.

  4.  Study the pacing. Note when it speeds, when it slows.

  5.  Really pay attention to the dialogue. How much of the plot relies on what the characters say to each other?

  6.  What is the POV? Why does it work in this book?

  7.  Highlight favorite sentences and handwrite them. Think about what drew you to them, what are their common denominators.

  8. Once you’ve deconstructed this and everything you’re interested in, read the book again.

  9.  Write about what you’ve learned.

  10.  Consider what would work in your own work in progress.

  11.  Use it.

 

There is no need to re-invent the wheel; it’s been around since the beginning. In fact, this is how writing is taught. What’s the advice most given to novice writers?

Read, read, read. Read a lot, and widely.

Why do you think established writers say that? Because it’s only by reading that you’ll absorb good writing. Once absorbed, the advice is write, write, write without ceasing.

Take Ian Rankin’s Rebus series, for instance. He’s 30 years into it as of this year, his characters iconic. If this is a genre you’re interested in writing, I recommend ripping his books apart, studying them, and making use of his formula.

Again, this is not plagiarism; it’s using an established framework.

 

Ian Rankin: worthy role model.

 

So, how does Rankin do what he does?

Early novels in a series establish the main characters, protagonists as well as antagonists. Foils to the main character are often brought back at intervals, woven in and out with regularity, though not in every installment. Think about Sherlock Holmes. He’s a sort of early hardboiled detective whose nemesis, Moriarty, drives him mad. Always just out of reach, the nemesis is fairly untouchable. It would be a bold move killing him off, though not unusual to make it appear he’s been killed off, resurrecting him later on.

Subsequent novels in the series touch on some of the background for the benefit of new readers, but they have to tread a certain line so as not to bore dedicated readers, who already know the early history. A veteran like Rankin, more than a dozen books in, may not need to worry so much about back story. Readers who’ve followed his hero from the beginning will know it, and those new to his books can decide to go back and read his earlier stuff for context.

A veteran like Rankin, more than a dozen books in, may not need to worry so much about back story.

 

After a certain point, you can pretty much do whatever the hell you want.

Hardboiled detective novels don’t vary much as far as portraying the main character: he is unlucky in love – usually divorced or soon to become so; he  battles vices like drinking and smoking and is often not  in the best of health, isn’t necessarily a hermit but does spend lots of time shunning company, battles depression, and is somewhat of a rogue – going off on his/her own, getting into trouble flouting the rules. It’s not uncommon for him to have co-workers as invested in his downfall as his nemesis. Ultimately, he solves the case on his own, facing down the villain in solo combat. And the revelation of the baddie often comes quite late in the book, the story twisting back and forth on itself to throw the reader off the track.

The flip-side of this is the thriller – you know who’s done the deed(s), but it’s a matter of catching him. There are variations in both genres, but this sums up their main constituent parts, methinks.

 

It’s none of their business that you have to learn how to write. Let them think you were born that way. – Ernest Hemingway

 

 

Detective series fiction is a popular genre, and can make you boatloads of cash if you’re good at it. Ian Rankin’s damn good at it, a perfect role model. He can turn out a Rebus novel in a mere few months; it would take the rest of us years. How does he do it so well and so quickly?

He knows the formula, and practices it over and over. This is not a bad thing. Rather, it’s what draws lovers of the genre looking for another book like the others in the series, adding aspects like new characters and developing established characters as real humans are wont to do. Rebus ages, lovers come and go. Already retired at least once, fans like myself badgered poor Rankin to bring him back.

John Rebus is beloved.

The same basic idea can be applied to other genre writing. Even literary fiction can be analyzed for form, though it’s not quite as easy. Basic aspects of good writing can be learned, and the best, easiest and fastest way is studying the work of writers you admire.

I’d like to take apart a novel for illustrative purposes and show you exactly what I mean. My reading and reviewing plate’s pretty full at the moment, but this is something I can do in the background while I’m working on other stuff. Once I’ve finished, it may make for a good, short series of posts.

I’ve cogitated on this quite some time. When I read a near-perfect novel, I think to myself “how on earth did he do this…?” The best way to figure it out is dividing a work into its component pieces, outlining then delving deeper into the construction of characters, and all its other elements. With extremely complex works, it could take ages.

 

Man Booker agrees – the book is a master work.

 

One example is Julian Barnes’s The Sense of An Ending. I’ve read that novel twice; it’s a rare jewel. Relatively short, deconstructing it would still take a good bit of time. Its intricacies are delicately laced. I’ve wanted to examine it since its publication, the year it won the Man Booker.

All writers model themselves, consciously or not, on the works of others. All books  contain the sum total of their author’s experiences and everything they’ve read. There’s absolutely no reason you cannot model your own writing on that of another author.

Again, just do not plagiarise. Study, but never, ever steal. You’ll be found out, plus it’s just, plain wrong.

But do study. Do analyze. And never, ever stop writing your own stuff.

 

writing sabotage: ask the master!

 

 

I can tell you all about writing avoidance, ducking deadlines a specialty. Years spent working my arse off building creds lead to the point I’m at now, largely taking for granted review books still flowing in unabated, despite my sharp fall-off in actual production.

Ding dong! Another package, toss it on the pile. Trip over it for a month, open it, exclaim oh, cool! Throw it back down.

Someone out there believes I have the talent and influence to matter; that’s not always enough to keep me going. Is it my depressive tendencies – oddly well-controlled of late – keeping me glued to the sofa, curtains closed, Netflix blathering away while I doze and wake on the sofa?

TV: Are you still watching Stranger Things?

ME: DON’T JUDGE ME! Claws around for remote, hits OK, rolls back over.

I’m out today, in public at a charming local coffeeshop, sitting next to me an uncorrected proof of a novel shipped to me in Scotland. Its publication date in October, it’s not as if I’ve let months slip past, but I was in a position to review it pre-pub and let that deadline slip right on by.

When you review pre-pub, very occasionally you can score a cover blurb, or at least an advertising quote. I’ve seen my name on jackets, bookmarks and promotional posters. It kicks ass.

But it takes effort. E-F-F-O-R-T: something I’ve avoided with great success most of my life.

I’m fortunate to work for publications with fluid submission dates. I can lazily toss over a review of a book a month after publication and fear no retribution. As long as the piece is well-written, all’s write with the world.

Write with the world. SNICKER.

(It’s abundantly clear why editors are still willing to work with me.)

 

I’m not exonnerated from having such a lax approach toward deadlines by grace of kind editors. In the case of this review piece it may be fine, but my creative writing sits and simmers from months to years. I could have had a novel finished in the time I’ve spent lolling on the sofa – at the least, a solid first draft of one of the four or five half-hearted stabs at fiction flopped on the sofa that is my hard drive, digging around for the remote in a Property Brothers coma, giving up on me long ago.

Applaud me that I’m working today, but don’t give me a pass. Don’t encourage me, no matter how charmingly rumpled. The sofa pattern in relief on my cheek is no substitute for a big chunk of manuscript that hits the table with a THUNK.

I WANT A THUNK. I WANT IT SO BAD.

Deep down in my heart of hearts, I do.

I don’t know a single writer without avoidance issues, though a few are disgustingly disciplined compared to me. I smile to their faces, but give them the finger behind their backs. Goddamn you.

I’m petty. It’s a failing. But I’m not alone. One time I read a piece written by a braggy writer crowing about how she’s up at 5, goes for a 500-mile run then home for a nutritious breakfast of real foods that grow in the ground and not a laboratory, showing up at her computer writing – not so much as checking her effing email WHAT KIND OF MONSTER DOES THAT – around the time I’m generally rolling over, reaching my arm back to give my alarm the finger – pretty much the only stretching I do all day.

Though in a national publication any freelancer would sell their best friend to write for, it had NO COMMENTS.

NO.

COMMENTS.

Every other writer in the world effectively gave her the finger by virtue of shunning. No one wanted to give her the satisfaction of either praising her industry or admitting themselves incapable of such revolting dedication.

Take that, bitch.

Today, I pat myself on the back. I’m producing. I don’t expect to get as much done every day as I have today, but striving for a modicum of effort beyond zero is no bad goal.

Atta girl, Lisa. Way to earn that ass on the sofa time.

TV: Why aren’t you still watching Stranger Things?

Not today, temptress. Not today.

 

Aaaaand 2015’s in full swing

So much for my rumored post about my 2014 reading. As it will do, life has had its way with me, keeping me away by throwing annoyance after annoyance my way, rapid-fire. Screw you, life. Thanks for very little.

In lieu of a summary of much value, I did enjoy Donna Tartt’s long awaited (and long winded) The Goldfinch. It could have used some paring but I’ll give her a pass. Loved it, otherwise. Also, Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch was the sort of dark book I love so well. Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing impressed me with its originality. It wasn’t to everyone’s taste but I found it interesting how much she made me feel by her stylistic choice to pare down her words almost beyond sparingly.

2014 was extremely light on author meetings. In fact, I have only two to report: Colm Toibin and Sebastian Barry – by sheer chance, both Irish. This year promises to surpass that number in the first quarter alone, with upcoming visits by Irvine Welsh, Seth Grahame Smith and Nick Hornby on my calendar in January and February. So look out, literati. Watch me limp out of the gate like a true champion.

May and June’s mother/daughter trip to Ireland and Wales dominated the best of my experiences this year. Both captured my heart, for different reasons; each has been calling my name as long as I can remember. Turns out I have ancestry from both countries, plus in all my European travels I’ve never managed to make it to either. Neither disappointed. And because my daughter and I are so similar in personality and traveling style, the whole trip was a riot of foolishness and misguided adventure. We both decided the Irish are the most genuinely kind people on the face of the earth and Wales enjoys the most historic beauty per square mile. Not that Ireland’s any slouch, where beauty’s concerned.

I had my first book review published in the Chicago Tribune in 2014, signing on as a contracted writer. So, there is that, plus bits and bobs elsewhere.

It was a slow year, by some standards, but all was of high quality in the grand scheme of things. My reading was mostly stellar, and writing distinguished by previous standards. What do I expect in 2015? Well, hopefully more blogging about books, as I’ve been letting the reviews slip. More author interactions are anticipated, and as for writing, I’m looking to do more of my own, in the creative realm. Less examining of others, more putting myself out there to be examined. GULP.

Goals will be kept to a minimum; last year taught me life has a way of sneaking up behind you, and I’m tired of setting goals I can’t possibly reach. I should resolve to buy less books, to cut off my Buy It Now finger, if I can summon the necessary fortitude, and keep Half Price Books visits to under 1,000.

Disheartening is the descriptive I’d award  2014. Disheartening and humbling, so much I’m still walking on eggshells while I wait for things to heal. My sagging spirit is propped up with sticks. Hopefully it will become trained and blossom, if barely. The corner is still being turned; the good thing is I’m in motion.

Writers: On routine

A Short Compilation on How Writers Write

Geoff Dyer

I always have a nap sometime between two and five in the afternoon. Beyond that, we’d have to talk about each book in turn and what stage I was at in a particular book. Which means, I suppose, that the answer is no. I find it incredibly difficult to settle and I have very limited powers—if we can dignify it with that word—of concentration, so at first I’m up and out of my chair every few minutes. Later on I can stay at the desk for longer periods until eventually I don’t even have to force myself to stay there. The general process is just to splurge stuff out, without being particularly worried about the spelling or anything. Just splurging to make sure there’s something there.

Martin Amis

You try to think about where you are going, not where you came from, though what sometimes happens is that you get stuck, and it’s really not what you’re about to do that’s stumping you, it’s something you’ve already done that isn’t right. You have to go back and fix that. My father described a process in which, as it were, he had to take himself gently but firmly by the hand and say, Now all right, calm down. What is it that’s worrying you? The dialogue will go: Well, it’s the first page, actually. What is it about the first page? He might say, The first sentence. And he realized that it was only a little thing that was holding him up. Actually, my father, I think, sat down and wrote what he considered to be the final version straightaway, because he said there’s no point in putting down a sentence if you’re not going to stand by it.

Italo Calvino

In theory I would like to work every day. But in the morning I invent every possible excuse not to work: I have to go out, make some purchases, buy the newspaper. As a rule, I manage to waste the morning, so I end up sitting down to write in the afternoon. I’m a daytime writer, but since I waste the morning I’ve become an afternoon writer. I could write at night, but when I do, I don’t sleep. So I try to avoid that.

Simone de Beauvoir

I’m always in a hurry to get going, though in general I dislike starting the day. I first have tea and then, at about ten o’clock, I get under way and work until one. Then I see my friends and after that, at five o’clock, I go back to work and continue until nine. I have no difficulty in picking up the thread in the afternoon. When you leave, I’ll read the paper or perhaps go shopping. Most often it’s a pleasure to work.

Robert Frost

Well, there’s more than one way to skin a cat. I don’t know what that would be like, myself. When I get going on something, I don’t want to just—you know . . . Very first one I wrote I was walking home from school and I began to make it—a March day—and I was making it all afternoon and making it so I was late at my grandmother’s for dinner. I finished it, but it burned right up, just burned right up, you know. And what started that? What burned it? So many talk, I wonder how falsely, about what it costs them, what agony it is to write. I’ve often been quoted: “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” But another distinction I made is: however sad, no grievance, grief without grievance. How could I, how could anyone have a good time with what cost me too much agony, how could they? What do I want to communicate but what a hell of a good time I had writing it?

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 Simone de Beauvoir, Emma Goldman, and Rosa Luxemburg smoking pipes, 1930s.

Why can’t we leave writers alone?

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“Why does the writing make us chase the writer? Why can’t we leave well enough alone? Why aren’t the books enough?”

– Julian Barnes

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Yesterday I worked selling books on behalf of the library where I work. Our tent was set up at a local festival featuring food, drink, art and handicrafts, that sort of thing, our purpose to remind the public we exist and sell a few books to help offset costs of library programming, etc. I sold 14 books in the hour I was there, only one to myself, which is sort of amazing. The book I bought:

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A Writer’s Commonplace Book by Rosemary Friedman

A commonplace book, in case you’re unfamiliar, is a collection of quotes and thoughts about books a reader keeps. It’s a jotting down of memories or striking quotations, facts about authors, etc. I’ve always meant to keep a commonplace book; instead, my thoughts are spread out in at least a dozen journals, here on my blog and all over the web. Maybe when I’m old(er) I’ll compile them into one place.

Ha. Yeah.

The point is, I came across the above quotation by Julian Barnes in the book I purchased. Honestly, it felt a little hurtful. I’m not sure if he was speaking of himself – as in, leave me alone – or if it was more a general thought, but it stung because I would love to meet Julian Barnes, the man behind the words that have moved me. Depending on the circumstances, I now know he may find that intrusive. Should I have the honor of meeting him I’d feel discomfort not knowing his true meaning, though I wouldn’t turn down the opportunity. I’m not that big a fool, discomfort or not.

Translating this to my little world, I’ve received the occasional reader email thanking me for bringing up the topic of depression, bipolar II level depression, which includes suicide ideation. The admission I, too, suffer helps spread the understanding there is no shame, that it’s a chemical imbalance which can be brought about by horrific life events. It’s also genetic, coming down via my maternal family line. By mentioning it I’m aiming to both help others understand what bipolar depression is, how it differs from the up and down nature of bipolar I, and to help reassure my readers they’re by no means alone. I’m always flattered when someone reaches out, never annoyed.

Julian Barnes I am not but I have no trouble sharing with my audience that I hold the thought of suicide as an “out” (the ideation), should life become too much. A lot of creative people do. Is suicide an answer? No. My thinking is skewed and I understand that. It is treatable but the sword above my head will always be there. Not everyone knows this about me. Fact is, you never know what others are suffering, what chains they drag behind them, like Dickens’s Marley in the afterlife. I don’t think most people intentionally harm others but the marks left by unintentional hurt are just as dark.

I’ve  learned the hard way authors can be abrupt, feeling devastation upon being rebuffed. When a writer is off-putting, or downright rude (I’ve had little personal experience of this), it colors the way you look at his or her work. The knife twists in your belly, the stark realization the connection the writer made with a very deep part of you now rings false. What a lot of writers do not understand is their audiences are, speaking on behalf of lovers of deeply literary writing, generally highly sensitive people. The same is so of many writers. The more deeply sensitive you are, the more attracted to literature that plumbs the depths of humanity. And when you come across someone who gets that, who moves you in a way so visceral, it’s difficult not equating the writer with what touched you.

Julian Barnes, no animosity intended, does this make a bit more sense? I hope so. It sounds trite saying “let’s be kind,” but you can’t know what another human being has suffered, nor how you helped lighten a load. You can never go wrong taking the route of graciousness but certainly can by turning away. It takes so little, a few minutes only. A few minutes to show humanity doesn’t ask much. And the difference it makes could be more profound than you could dream.

To answer your question, this is why.

 

 

 

chicago tribune review: Michael Cunningham’s ‘The Snow Queen’

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It’s published, friends. My review ran while I was away traveling. All 800-ish words of it. And though I can partially attribute this gig to a tremendously long stretch of time spent givin’ it away for free: reviewing and writing and blogging and reading about reviewing and writing and blogging, I owe a huge debt of gratitude to this guy for giving me the guts to query The Chicago Tribune:

 

AJ-Jacobs

 

A.J. Jacobs, Editor at Large, Esquire Magazine

 

Author of:

The Know it All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World

My Life As an Experiment: One Man’s Humble Quest to Improve Himself

The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible As Literally As Possible

Drop Dead Healthy: One Man’s Humble Quest for Bodily Perfection

 

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Because this guy? This guy believes in me. When I’m all down and dejected after suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous life, he’s there with a kind word, a “‘You can do this.”

You can do this. Powerful words when you’re lying on the ground, wallowing in despair in a manner most unbecoming a professional.

A.J. gives me unconditional support and for that I don’t have words enough to say thank you.

Except a simple “Thank you, A.J.”

 

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Aaaand, put some clothes on before you freeze to death.

 

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Here is the link to my review of Michael Cunningham’s latest novel The Snow Queen, published in the Chicago Tribune.


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He’ll say it isn’t true, that I had it in me to click my ruby slippers and get home all along, but don’t believe that for a moment. Few writers who’ve made it have time to worry about those of us who struggle. The ones who do are gems without price.

Thank you, A.J. Can’t say it enough.

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 Kindness, I’ve discovered, is everything in life.

– Isaac Bashevis Singer

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