Posts tagged Jillian Lauren

On Writing Badly

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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.

Friday Faves 1/23

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1. I loved Kelly Wickham’s Talking to Children about Ferguson and Social Justice post at Little Pickle press. I’ve been thinking a lot about how to approach these tough topics in a developmentally appropriate way. I don’t want to raise Tariku blind to these deeply important issues, but I don’t want to frighten or overwhelm him either. Kelly writes, “The easiest definition [of social justice] presumes that everyone deserves equal economic, political, and social rights and opportunities. Teaching children that everyone is deserving of such things means teaching them to value diversity and all people. Instead of tackling all those things at once, however, it’s best to choose themes based on the questions that children are asking.” She also suggests using art projects to explore different topics, so that kids have a way of expressing feelings that might come up. It’s a terrific post and was extremely helpful to me.

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2. Who Was Martin Luther King Jr.? This biography series for young readers covers a broad range of historical figures. The stories are clear and engaging. For a brief moment now and then, these books can help me get Tariku more interested in Rosa Parks than Spiderman.

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3. The Buddha Board is the best holiday present we got this year. It’s simply a board with a ceramic surface, a brush, and a water receptacle. You paint on the board with the water, and as it dries the image fades. It’s a great emotional release as well as good practice at creating and letting go, again and again. I’ve spontaneously used it during some difficult conversations to paint funny pictures of my feelings (ie- a head on fire). It brought some humor to a hard moment. Tariku has been practicing his Japanese characters. I have no idea where he learned them. Don’t look at me- I just paint heads on fire.

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4. This extra large, ruled, soft cover Moleskine notebook is The One. I’ve used these notebooks as journals for years. My garage is filled with stacks of them. The Buddha Board got me thinking that for the last six months, I’ve drifted away from writing in my journal. Journal writing is important to me because, much like the Buddha Board, the writing is about process rather than product. Journals have always been the place I write terribly, messily, carelessly. It’s easy to shove aside when I’m racing toward deadlines. But journaling is essential to remembering who I am, and it informs and deepens my other projects. I’ve recommitted to it and have been busting out the Moleskine again.

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5. The Empathy Exams, by Leslie Jamison. Jamison manages to combine a mastery of craft with an ability to still leave the raw emotional seams showing. These brave essays reach both outward and inward, exploring sticky things like empathy and sentimentality without wrapping them up in a forced bow. It’s awesome.

To My Son on his Gotcha Day 2015

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It was T’s “Gotcha Day” last week, which is adoption-speak for the day we finally held him for the first time. I write him a letter every year, trying to preserve for him (and me) a snapshot of who he is at that moment in time. It has been six years. Six. When did that happen? The love in my heart for this kid blows my mind every day. Here is this year’s letter to my not-a-baby-anymore:

To Tariku on his Gotcha Day:

It’s a strange phrase- Gotcha Day. The way you say “gotcha” is so cute that it has overshadowed any doubt I may have had about the name. I guess I’ve never been exactly comfortable with how glib it sounds- how completely unequal to the task of describing that transformative day when we first saw your beautiful face. I will never know that day’s equal. I’ll never forget the too-thin contours of your fragile body, the understanding in your eyes alternating with confusion and skepticism. And always, that that special joy you bring to every room you’re in, the fundamental quality of yours that trumps all else.

Here is a little snapshot of you today… six years after we first met you. Nearly seven years old. How could that be?

You are a natural musician. You have been playing drums now for a couple of years already and the look on your face when you play is somehow both expressive and serene. You often give your dad and I a hard time about practicing, but, contrary to our free-spirited nature, we’re insisting. Because if we know anything, we know that it’s all about practice. Nothing worthwhile comes magically. Or rather, it is magic. But the magic only knows where to find you if you’re practicing.

Once you’re playing, you love it. You practice with your dad. When he was getting ready for this last tour, you played the entire Everything Will Be Alright in the End album front to back nearly every day with him.

You two are even improvising your own jams now. You asked me today for a neck holder for a harmonica, so you can play harp and drums at the same time. Hang tight- it’s on its way.

On Thanksgiving, you jammed with a roomful of teenagers at the LaZebnik’s house and I was awed by your confidence. Those kids adore you. You have such a big, wonderful tribe. There is so much love for you, it could blow the ceiling off the house.

You are an incredibly social kid. You are obsessed with birthdays, particularly your own. You start planning your next party about three days after the last. You make guest lists and wish lists and play lists. Don’t worry- we’re going to throw you an epic bash. Of course we will!

You hate that I limit your time staring at a screen, which is a big conflict for a lot of parents right now. I can’t wait to see how the next generation’s brains evolve, developing new ways of processing information. But with no crystal ball, how can I be sure what’s the best way to monitor your use of technology? Technology has given a lot to my life and I am as guilty as anyone of being glued to one screen or another a lot of the time. But I worry about your brain. About how the constant, distracting information barrage might impede your ability to think and feel deeply.

But I probably needn’t fret about that. You are and always have been a deep well, with a heavy history for such a little boy. Somehow you’re able to effortlessly combine that depth with your natural hilarity and mischief. You are very funny. You just mastered the “orange you glad I didn’t say banana” knock-knock joke and I doubt it will be your last.

The one thing I don’t limit is your treasured time investigating Google maps.

“What’s the biggest city in China?” you’ll call out to me as I do the laundry downstairs.

“What is the big airport in Tokyo?”

“This is where polar bears live!”

“This is the Indian Ocean!”

Lately your career ambitions as 1. Weezer drummer and 2. airplane painter, have been supplanted by your aspirations to be a medic. You are currently running a large dinosaur hospital, where the dinosaurs are bandaged with Scotch tape and toilet paper.

It is impossible to say what I am most proud of in you, but if I had to pick one thing it would be this kindness and caretaking, which doesn’t stop at dinosaurs but extends to your friends and family, too. Compassion is something that you’ve had to work on over the years. When you came to us, you were such a fierce, self-sufficient little thing; it was every man for himself. It seemed every move you made was meant to convey the sentiment: “I got this. Don’t bother, bumbling big people.” You still screech whenever anyone tries to help you with homework. But slowly you are learning to give and receive help and trust. Until very recently all the dinosaurs did was fight each other and then get shoved under the couch. Now they’re healing in your hospital.

You like math and science. You like the earth and the sea and the animals and the stars and the plants.

You still love your airplanes as much as ever. You go to the airport every Saturday and watch those giant beasts take off and land, take off and land, over and over. You never tire of it.

It is these things that captivate you these days: healing and flight. Because you, my wild and glorious boy, go straight for the miracles.

As I say to you every night before bed… I love you to the moon and back a thousand million billion times. You’re the best thing that ever happened to your dad and me. I can’t wait to see what this next year reveals to all of us.

With big crazy love always,

Mom

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Five Friday Faves

I’m trying out this new curated Friday faves thing. Totally not because my book editor asked me to do it (ok, she did, but she didn’t have to ask twice) but because I love having opinions! And this is my blog so I get to! These picks aren’t sponsored at all. They’re just random stuff I like, both fluffy and serious. I’m not sure how long I’ll be able to keep up the fashion-y recommendations because my interest sort of stops and ends at good lipstick and great boots, but here goes…

Here are five things that worked for me this week:

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1. Marcus Off Duty: The Recipes I Cook At Home. Tariku and I love to cook together and we’re obsessed with Chef Marcus Samuelsson. I love all of his cookbooks, but this one is particularly cool because it includes a section about cooking with kids. Not to mention awesome music playlists. Chef Marcus is a great role model for T. He was adopted from Ethiopia as a toddler by Swedish parents, and I use his recipes as teaching tools not just for how to make incredible fish sticks, but also how to honor and integrate different cultural influences in order to create something with an incredible flavor all its own.

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2. MAC Syrup lipstick. Where have you been all my life?

3. Lily Burana’s Letter to My Possible Son, in Dame Magazine. The suicide of transgender teen Leelah Alcorn caused my friend Lily to reflect on faith, parenting, and the possibility of raising her daughter as a son. “The First Commandment of child rearing is to parent the child you have, not the child you wish you had.” I can’t get it out of my mind.

4. Jamelle Bouie’s newsletter. This writer/photographer is a columnist at Slate Magazine, who writes brilliantly about politics and race. Plus his last issue had a killer tomato sauce recipe!

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5. These Seychelles boots. Heel not too high to walk around but high enough to make you feel tall and sassy. I have these in two colors and wear them all day long every day.

Who Do You Think You Are?

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It’s my last day in New York and I have pink eye, which is a complete mystery because Tariku doesn’t have it and it’s not like I’ve been walking around Sephora shoving dirty mascara brushes in my eyeball. Now I have to throw out all my makeup, which is about enough to make me have a nervous collapse. Farewell, dear MAC eyeliner. We had a good run, you and I.

It’s been a whirlwind few days. I was mostly here to meet with my team over at Penguin. Because you know that memoir I’ve been working on for the last couple of years? Well, it’s coming out May 5. I kind of can’t believe it.

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Here I am with my agent and good friend Alexandra Machinist and my wonderful editor Becky Cole.

The limbo between finishing and publishing can be a scary thing for a writer. Actually, it’s all scary- the first blank page; the mid-point, when you’re sure you’re creating a steaming pile of doodoo; and the end, when the doodoo has magically transformed into a precious beautiful baby in your arms. Most of the time, I feel like I’d rather go take this baby and lock myself in a closet with it for the rest of my life than release it to be judged by the cold cruel world.

But that’s what we do if we want to connect- we allow ourselves to be judged. Sometimes it’s awesome and you find yourself in front of a studio audience chatting with Whoopie Goldberg. Sometimes it sucks and the slut-shaming trolls go bananas on you online, or the mean girl from high school says something shitty about you to your mom at the grocery store.

But the advantage of having done this a couple of times before, is that I now know that even at its worst moments, to put these words on a page and have people actually read them is one of the great privileges of my life.

This is my third book, and I still look over my shoulder every time I walk through the big glass doors of Penguin offices because I’m sure that I’m about to be revealed as the big faker I truly am. I’m convinced I’m going to be arrested by what Amanda Palmer in her inspiring The Art of Asking calls The Fraud Police.

Stop right there, Ma’am. We have it on good authority that you have been masquerading as someone with something to say in this world. Who do you think you are?

I share this with you because I know that the fear of being exposed as a fraud is a very common experience. I might even venture to say universal, if my writing students are any indication.

As Scott likes to say, “Just what exactly needs to happen before you’ll finally feel successful?”

The real question is, “Just what exactly needs to happen to make you feel worthy?”

Worthy not of my success, even, but of the few square feet of sidewalk I’m standing on. Worthy of this ordinary human experience, with all of its joys and suffering.

The answer definitely doesn’t hinge on this book. It’s a far deeper issue. But the fact that I have finished something, in spite of being hotly pursued by my imaginary fraud police, is a start.

Who do I think I am?

It changes all the time. A snapshot of this evening’s answer, as I look out over this dazzling city, looks something like this:

I think I’m a child of God. I think I am both animal and spirit. I think I am you and you are me and we’re all part of the same buzzing electrical generative crazy planetary thing. I think I’m a mother and a wife and a daughter and a friend. I think I’m a writer.

Who do you think you are?

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