On Writing Badly

computer

I get a lot of emails asking for writing advice, so I thought I’d try to address some of the most common questions…

Sometimes the writer has already written a book and is facing the Herculean task of trying to get it out into the world. There are a ton of resources for people at this stage of the game and I don’t consider myself an expert. Ask your writer friends how they did it. If you don’t have writer friends, you should. Get involved in your literary community. Go to readings and events and classes and meet people. Put together a list of appropriate agents and send them kick-ass queries. Remember- you’re a writer, so write an awesome letter.

More often, I get emails from people who don’t quite know where to start. Or who have started and don’t know what to do next. Or have written two scant chapters of a memoir and want to know how to get an agent with it (hint- probably don’t yet).

Here’s the sucky thing… it takes time to write a book. A lot of time. That is also the great thing about writing a book. Because all that time will teach you a certain kind of patience and mindfulness that will benefit not only your writing but your entire life.

The part between staring down the blank page and seeing your name on the spine of a book is a mess. It will drag you to the depths of doubt and will require the blindest of faith. We live in a world of blogging and posting and send buttons, and our expectations have shaped themselves around that kind of immediate gratification. Writing a book requires the opposite emotional skill set. You have to go deep and throw words into what feels like a black hole. You have to sit for hours and hours alone with your inner life, with all its lightness and shadow. You have to write stuff you know sucks and keep writing anyway and then throw most of it in the trash. My latest memoir started out as an 800 page doorstop. 500 of those pages are now gone and forgotten.

Don’t quit. A boxer friend of mine once told me that the secret to being a good fighter is not that you like to hit people, but that you like getting hit. I think of that every time I face another rejection, another disappointment, another failure. It’s not that I like it, exactly. But I do derive some self-confidence from the fact that I have learned to get back in the ring. I trust now that I will keep fighting to have a life in which I get to create stuff.

Of course, there is also a benefit from not trying– from constantly walking around with that brilliant book “all in your head.” Because that way you don’t have to fail. You never have to grapple with the thousand ways your words will inevitably fall short. If you don’t try, you can always be the undiscovered genius. It’s basically just bald fear that prevents me from succumbing to this temptation. When I wake at 3 a.m. wracked with anxiety, one of the top five tracks in my playlist of worries is that I’ll find myself at the end of my life wondering, what if I had just tried a little harder.

Demand space for your voice. It’s hugely difficult for moms to demand space for ourselves. I’m not talking about a manicure or a movie once in a while. I’m talking about real, significant, daily time. Most moms are probably uncomfortable with even the word “demand.” To carve out a space for our voice, we need to fight against a ubiquitous cultural rhetoric that values maternal selflessness above all. I got a chain letter the other day urging me to, “Tag 12 great moms you know who put their kids first!” Right now, I am in my office overlooking the Silverlake hills, watching as a rare rainstorm blows in. I rent a desk here, because when I am in my own home, the call of selflessness is too irresistible. How dare I sit around playing with my little words when my kid needs a pizza bagel stat? Or wants to read Frog and Toad? I mean, what could I have to say that’s so important anyway? So I run as fast as I can from the house, and I don’t come back until the hours I’ve committed to writing that day are done.

I won’t lie. I trade things to be able to do this. I trade time with my son that I can never get back. Sometimes I trade homemade nutritious dinners in favor of corn dogs and that one precious more hour of writing. The juggling act makes me crazy, brings me to tears often. There is never enough time for anything. In order to write, I leave boxes unpacked for months. I shove piles of crap in my closet. I answer emails late into the night when I would far rather be watching Downton. I am banking on the fact that it will ultimately benefit Tariku to see his mom creatively engaged with the world and pursuing her dreams, but I can’t even be sure of this much.

Write a shitty first draft. If I could give you only one piece of advice, it would be this. I didn’t make up- I stole it from Anne Lamott, where I get all my best material- thanks, Anne! Not everyone does it this way- some people edit as they go. But for me, this is a great way to get out from under your own self-judgment and just write straight through to the end. Sometimes I barely even punctuate my first drafts. I like to soft focus my eyes and write as if in a trance, going on tangents, allowing the most treacly sentimentality and absurd hyperbole. I breathe and write and try to open my mind to the click, the spark, the flow. I soldier on this way until The End. By that time I usually have some idea of what my book is about. It’s never what I thought when I started.

Move around. Take a walk. Stretch. Breathe. Don’t live in your head so much that you forget your body. The body is one of our greatest recording devices– a goldmine of wisdom, memory and emotion. It digests and assimilates our thoughts and experiences, taking on a perspective that is often wiser than our intellect, and more accurate.

There is no secret. To those of you who write me hopeful, confused, searching emails…I know you don’t want to hear “write badly” and “don’t quit” and “wait around” and “take a walk.” I know what you want is my schedule (here it is: mornings, at least four hours a day, five days a week), a template of the perfect outline, a recommendation to the magic graduate school, a shortcut, an agent introduction, a way to make it not hurt so much. I often talk to people who are “stuck” with their memoirs, and watch their face fall when I ask them, “Have you thought about writing it straight through to the end and not looking back?” They usually have a million reasons why they can’t or shouldn’t do that. And maybe they shouldn’t. I don’t know what they need. But I do know three over-edited chapters won’t magically transform into a book one night while you’re sleeping.

Writers are readers. We have grown up treasuring the books we devoured late at night, by the light of a stolen flashlight. We dreamed one day we’d be the name on the cover of just such a precious object. That may or may not happen, but either way it’s a worthy quest and I honor yours. I hope to meet you one day on this twisty turny path. It’s so easy to forget, while caught up in the morass of self-doubt and self-pity that can swamp our fragile writer souls, that this life of struggle is a dream come. I love it fiercely. I hope I get to keep doing it until the day I die.

For inspiration, Here are my favorite books about writing:

Bird By Bird, Anne Lamott
The War of Art, Steven Pressfield
The Tools, Phil Stutz and Barry Michels
The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop, Stephen Koch
Still Writing, Dani Shapiro
The Situation and the Story, Vivian Gornick
Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg
The Hero’s Journey, Joseph Campbell

Here are some terrific book coaches and resources:

Claire Bidwell Smith
Shawna Kenney
Meredith Maran
Samantha Dunn
Antioch’s (my alma mater) Inspiration to Publication program, which has both classes and coaches.

Waving Goodbye

helen and me

us n helen

My friend Helen died a few hours ago. Her daughter just called me sobbing as I was headed back into the house from my barre class.

Helen was our next door neighbor at the old house. She was there waving from her porch the day we moved into our beloved little home on tree-lined Mt Royal Drive. She had lived there for nearly sixty years.

Helen was quiet and always accommodating to a fault, but once you got to know her she was wisecracking and fiery. She remembered everyone on birthdays and holidays. The kids on the street called her Grandma Helen. She loved Tariku and never once looked askance at him, even at his most challenging moments.

Helen was ninety-one. For the past few years she’s been in an assisted living facility and I would sometimes go there to hang out and hear her stories. She once showed me a photograph of herself perched on the back of her husband’s motorcycle when they were first married. She raised four kids and then decided to go back to work as a cook in the cafeteria of one of of the local public schools. This was back when they actually cooked fresh, healthy food on the premises. She showed me pictures of huge pressure cookers filled with rice, stainless steel counters lined with trays of golden turkeys. She was so proud of that job.

On the weekends, she and her husband (now long-gone) used to go dancing. She loved to dance.

I often talked to Helen about my worries. She would laugh and say, “You sound just like I did.”

The hardest thing for me wasn’t coming to terms with the fact that Helen was going to die. She was eighty-two when I first met her, so it’s not like it was a surprise. But I was devastated when my witty friend began to fade mentally. It deeply saddened me that she seemed frightened and confused near the end. A few months ago, I went and visited her and we just held hands and cried.

I called the family into the living room this morning and told them the news. Tariku was so uncomfortable. He wouldn’t sit down. He rolled his eyes and fidgeted and said some really weird stuff (about graves and corpses). I suggested some appropriate things we can say to people who are grieving and then I kissed him and let him go out with his Auntie Jo for the day. I did my best not to shame him or correct him too harshly.

He is incredibly uncomfortable around loss, which makes sense, given the history of loss in his short life. He also tends to freak out when I express strong emotion. I think it makes him feel unsafe. This is the first major death in our lives that he’s really old enough to grasp. I’m going to try to give him a lot of space to have his own reaction to this, rather than the one I deem suitable.

My dear friend Claire Bidwell Smith is a writer and grief counselor and we talk often about death. We talk about how we might want to die, which is, of course, more a conversation about how we want to live. We talk about what might happen to us afterward. We talk about how to approach the topic of death with our children. I’m so glad I recently read an advance copy of Claire’s new memoir After This: When Life is Over Where Do We Go (you can pre-order). It gave me a vocabulary for approaching the topic of death with Tariku. It made me realize that I don’t have to have all the answers. Or even any of the answers. I just have to have a sense of what it means to lead a meaningful life.

In school, T learns that when people die, they go to be with Jesus in heaven. It’s not exactly my personal belief, but it doesn’t have to be. I tell him that it might be true, but no one really knows. That the Beatles may have said it best: And in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make. Helen gave so much love and compassion– to her family, to her neighbors, to everyone around her. And that’s what remains. That and a really cool black and white photograph of her on a motorcycle wearing a thick ponytail and pedal pushers, her arms wrapped around her husband’s leather jacket, a wide, sweet smile on her face.

I will miss you, Helen. I will always miss that time in my life, when you stood waving hello from your porch and Scott and I first walked through our doorway, our life together still so hopeful and new.

Here is another door. You are walking through it. I am waving goodbye.

sunset

Nerd Prom

Authors’ kids took over the green room this weekend at the LA Times Festival of Books. Here’s T-Bone with Claire Bidwell Smith’s Vera and Samantha Dunn’s Ben. They’re starting a band, which is way more sensible than a literary journal.

There was a party on Saturday night at the Main Library downtown. Scott and I made a date night out of it and went for oysters at The Water Grill on the way. In front of the Biltmore Hotel, we passed a bunch of kids on the way to their prom. The girls swished by us in sequined mermaid skirts, teetering on their heels and hanging on the arms of rented tuxes. It occurred to me that the Book Festival is like a grown-up nerd prom, with less slow dancing and more panel discussions.

It’s kind of nice of the world to give me a second chance at this prom thing. I’m doing much better this time around. Here I am at the awards ceremony with Rachel Resnick, Janet Fitch, Elissa Schappell and Carolyn Kellog.

It’s heartening for an author to spend a couple of days in this swirl of enthusiasm for books. I felt grateful for the chance to mingle with readers and colleagues.

And for the last dance of the nerd prom, I got to see Amanda Fletcher, my mentee from the PEN Center Emerging Voices fellowship, kick so much ass at her reading at the Hotel Cafe that I got a little tear of pride in my eye. Watch out for her. She’s about to conquer the world. Or at least make homecoming queen.