Write What You Love

I had the great fortune of attending a talk on authenticity and creativity in Apalachicola, FL last week. The talk was given by Joe Paquet, a wonderfully gifted painter and a really inspiring theorist on the arts.

David

David

At one point, Joe recounted a visit to Florence. Lots of his friends were excited to hear about his reaction, as an artist, to Michelangelo’s statue of David, which of course we all must see when we visit Florence (I did as well, many years ago now).

But as he was on his way to see the statue, Joe passed some later works by Michelangelo, the four “Unfinished Slaves.” These works made the hairs on the back of his neck bristle, he said.

On he continued, though, to David, who, if you haven’t seen him, is perfection itself. As Joe noted, “There are even cuticles on his fingernails!”

David was incredible. Perfect.

Two of Michelangelo's Unfinished Slaves

Two of Michelangelo’s Unfinished Slaves

Still, though, Joe kept returning to those slaves. These were the works he wanted to stare at, to connect with, these statues that weren’t even finished. Prisoners in stone.

Why?

In Joe’s own words:

“The statue of David is the work of a young man trying to prove he was the best. The Unfinished Slaves are the work of an older man just trying to show the world what he loved.” – Joe Paquet, Apalachicola, FL (May 2016)

I’m not the first writer to talk about writing what you love (or as Chuck Wendig refers to it, WWYL).

So yes, it’s been done. And done again.

And yet. I think maybe I have a few points of my own.

Chuck is right. The old adage in writing is “Write What You Know.” I’ve never really been a subscriber to this. My earlier work involved quite a bit of research into cultures and events and laws that I didn’t know a ton about. If I was fascinated enough by a subject to research it and write about it, the theory went, that same fascination and wonder would be transferred on to the reader.

Sure, maybe. That can probably happen. Just as writing what you know can deliver a work full of authenticity to the reader.

And, listen. Fascination is great. Authenticity is wonderful.

Love is better. Love is always better.

Here’s the other thing. Love leads to fascination, to authenticity.

The most recent manuscript I’ve written is me writing what I love. Comic books. Baseball. A period of my youth I remember well, a time I really connect with still. I don’t know if it cracked any codes – I hope it did – but man did I enjoy the process.

Scratch that. I loved it.

Cracking the code is something we writers sometimes talk about. What’s the magic elixir that creates those mega hits, those books or movies – the stories – that great swaths of people enjoy, that, gosh, it seems like everyone connects with on some level?

I could list them out, but you already know what they are. Because you’re one of the somebodys who connected with them.

They’re the works that make the hairs on the back of your neck bristle, the ones you couldn’t look away from.

A lot of times, they come from a writer showing the world what he / she loves, is passionate about, can’t stop thinking about. They allow that writer to, in some way large or small, convey those feelings along to the reader. To create that connection. To bristle those hairs.

Does this mean writing what you know isn’t also writing what you love? Of course not. But it doesn’t guarantee it, either. You may know a great deal about some subject you don’t love. Or maybe…you did love it at one time, but no longer. You may even feel compelled to write about this subject, simply because you know so much about it.

I encourage you to consider first, though, whether you love it.

Because if you care about cracking the code, I believe you’ll only do it through WWYL.

There’s more to say about writing what you love, and authenticity, and where the magic happens, but I’ll save all that for another post.

Meanwhile, go forth and WWYL, people.

I promise magic will happen.

Possibly only in your own head, but hey, still magic, right?

Maybe even the best kind.

 

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Flash Fiction as Emotional Photography

I might never see a sky this exact color again. Which, actually, would be kinda awesome.

I might never see a sky this exact color again. Which, actually, would be kinda awesome.

I was eating seafood gumbo in Apalachicola, FL, alone in a restaurant that sat on a busy (for Apalach, anyway) corner, where 98W streams through town and turns left.

This restaurant has big picture windows, and if you’re sitting facing the corner, you can see the traffic clearly. I watched as a truck hauling cypress lumber passed by, turning the restaurant’s corner. It was distinct because when you drive from Atlanta to Apalach, you usually follow route 65S, which cuts through Apalachicola National Forest, and all that cypress is unmistakable.

A few minutes later, another identical truck passed by. Then another. And another.

The scene reminded me of a corner I pass almost every day at home here in North Georgia. If you get stopped at the light at this particular intersection, you’re almost guaranteed to see a chicken truck pass by on route 20. It always strikes me, because it’s kind of sad, watching those pent up chickens transported into town. We know their fates.

That juxtaposition – the chicken trucks in Georgia, the cypress trucks in Florida – sparked an emotion in me that I knew would lead to a story. I’ve been writing flash fiction a while now, and it’s starting to become easier to recognize that ignition, the feeling I’m on the verge of a new story.

Things usually happen quickly after that. The characters come into view – there was a woman who had worked as a waitress in Georgia, watching those chicken trucks out her window, and something – a guy, probably – made her move to Apalach, where her life hadn’t changed as much as she’d hoped. She was still a waitress, and she was still watching trucks pass by her window. The only thing that had changed was what the trucks were carrying, and where they were going, while her life, to her eyes, remained rooted in place.

It would’ve been a great story (if I do say so myself), but here’s the thing.

I didn’t write it.

Here’s the other thing.

I’ll never write it.

See, I didn’t write it because I had made a commitment to myself to use my writing time on this particular work-cation to finish a revision of my work-in-progress, a middle grade adventure novel I’m really in love with. I didn’t have time to write flash fiction at that particular moment, not if I wanted to keep my promise to myself.

So write it now! I hear some of you crying out. Or sometime later, anyway.

Nope.

The thing is, even though I remember the basic plot and, even to some extent, the fundamental emotional core of the story – why I thought it would make a good piece in the first place – the particular emotions I felt at that moment, emotions that had a certain color, a certain light and texture in my head, my heart and my soul, those are gone. They left me when I stood up from that restaurant and paid the bill, as those cypress trucks sped on to wherever they were heading.

I discovered this week that’s one of the secrets to flash fiction – one of mine, anyway – the emotional connection to the work has to be there. People sometimes ask me if I’ve ever figured out why my flash fiction seems to work so well, and until now, I haven’t really been able to answer.

But now I think I understand better. A little better, anyway.

It’s that emotional connection, and a lot of times – most of the time – it’s sort of fleeting. It’s like a photograph. Do you ever have a moment where the light is just right, a subject is in the perfect spot, and you know it’s going to make a great picture? But maybe you fumble with your camera, or you forgot it in the hotel room, or whatever, and you promise you’ll come back, but by the time you do, the sun has set or the sky is a different color or the horse is no longer standing there, the boat is out to sea now, and heck you can take the photo anyway, but it’ll never be quite the same thing as it was in that moment you missed?

That’s flash fiction, for me at least. It’s emotional photography, and I either write the story when I’m still experiencing that exuberant feeling, or I don’t. I say exuberant, even if the emotion is one of melancholy, because it’s having the feeling that’s thrilling. For me, out of strong feelings and emotions come truth.

And I think, too, that’s the answer to what makes very short stories work or not. A good flash fiction piece, a great piece of music, a fantastic painting – most of them are doing the same thing. They’re capturing the universal in the particular. Particular details – lyrics, words, imagery – can evoke a universal connection between creator and consumer.

We’ve all experienced the sadness of cleaning up after a loved one’s death (The Union Bank Times), or struggled with disrespect in our work life (Sometimes It Goes Down the Wrong Way), or thought about moving somewhere else before realizing how much we’d miss our friends (Winter Ball).

Good stories remind of us of these universal experiences by establishing a firm emotional connection with you, the reader, listener or viewer. I believe they can only do this (or maybe, best do this) if the creator, the artist, felt that emotional connection him or herself at the time of the production of the work.

apalach bayThis shouldn’t be seen as a loss, that I didn’t write that particular story. That’s the great thing about emotions. We’re having them all the time, because we’re human, and that’s what we do. I may never feel the exact spark that might’ve ignited that particular story, in the same way the color of the sunset may never be exactly like it was that evening ten years ago, or twenty, but I will have other emotions, and there will be other sunsets.

The key is being able and willing to let the one you missed go, and to be open and receptive to the next one you see. Because, then, all you have to do is write it down.

 

Clean

The envious CLEAN sticker

The envious CLEAN sticker

For a couple of years, I’ve been getting phlebotomies, which is a procedure in which a giant (hey, to me it’s giant) needle is stuck in my arm and a big bag of blood is drained from me.

I’ve whined about it before, I’m sure, somewhere, so I won’t go into great detail here. I know for sure I wrote a short story about it, which is called – creatively – PHLEBOTOMY. The fact it morphed into a vampire story should tell you all you need to know about how I usually feel leading up to and during this procedure.

My phlebotomies are done at a cancer facility. I don’t have cancer (thankfully), but that’s where they’re done. After I meet with the doctor, I’m led into a sunny area with walls of windows and recliners that might even look pleasant at first, but it’s not really because pretty much everyone else there is getting chemotherapy, which I’ve no doubt is a lot less fun than a phlebotomy.

I can pick any chair I want, and most of them are usually empty. The only rule is the chair I pick has to be “clean” – in other words, one someone wasn’t just in – and this is notated by a strip of white paper with a block of yellow in the middle that has the black letters “CLEAN” stamped on it.

Yesterday I had a phlebotomy. It doesn’t take that too long, but I do always, of course, bring something to read or work on (though I’m deathly afraid to move my arm while it’s going on – did I mention the needle is GIANT?)

On this particular day I brought with me a printout of a manuscript I recently completed. I’m letting it “sit” – mostly – but on occasion I take a tour through it and check it out, and that’s what I was up to on phlebotomy-day.

I picked out my “clean” recliner, set my manuscript on the side table, and moved the white strip of paper off the seat so I could sit down. It wasn’t until I was settled into the recliner that I noticed I had dropped the strip onto the top of my manuscript. It rested there aslant, as if someone had given it the once over and decided it was ready to go (note that it is FAR from ready to go), that it was “CLEAN.”

And it got me to thinking.

Whether or not the recliners are clean is a pretty objective thing – there’s some procedure that’s followed, a set of defined steps, a particular cleanser that’s used, whatever. The point is, at the end of these steps, the nurse can slap the “clean” tag down and, boom…clean. Nobody’s going to argue.

I recently submitted a new manuscript to lots of people (NOT the one I was reading during my phlebotomy, a different MS). When we writers send our work out this way, it’s a real act of faith. We cringe. We worry. We fret. And we hope, above all, that it comes back with that CLEAN tag aslant across the top, some rough form of it, anyway.

In my particular case, it did – from several folks. (Well, not “clean,” exactly. No piece of writing can ever quite get that particular stamp, but “good” as in “continue revising.”) But a person or two had the opposite reaction. The MS needed a lot of work, according to them, possibly enough to give serious consideration to moving on to a different project entirely.

Because reacting to a piece of writing, unlike cleaning a recliner, isn’t objective at all.

Nope. It’s sooooo subjective.

These reactions have been spinning around in my head for a couple of weeks, causing endless confusion as to What I Should Do Next. Should I move to the next project, leaving this book I cared about and loved so much behind? Should I stick to my guns? Something in between?

I think this is the normal, constant state of the writer – staring off into space contemplating What I Should Do Next. I hope that’s normal, anyway, because, man, seems like That’s All I Ever Do.

So it was that I stared down with some envy at the white strip of paper erroneously declaring my even newer MS to be “CLEAN.” Jealous of those objective, definable steps to that status for the recliner. Wishing writers, too, could rely on a single person to declare a book or a story is “CLEAN”…as in “DONE”, that this assessment was a Yes or No question at all.

Then my envy disappeared, because I realized something else – that subjectivity (or rather, lack of objectivity) is part of the magic of writing. After all, the beauty of how different we are, while still being the same underneath, is one of the very reasons I write.

And the thing is, no writing is ever clean, is it?

  • If your critique partners love it, your agent might not.
  • If your agent loves it, editors might not.
  • If an editor loves it, not all readers will.
  • If readers mostly love it, the critics might not.
  • If readers and critics both adore it, it might get made into a movie, and maybe movie-goers won’t like it
  • Even if you’re Shakespeare, some dude will log on to Amazon and give you one star centuries after your death. Jeez.

So we must learn to appreciate this part of the process, the wonder of trying to get a story right when no one can agree on what right even is.

To appreciate that all of us have our own version of “CLEAN” and it’s different. Awesomely, gorgeously Different.

I still have no idea what I’m going to do. I probably need to decide soon. But phlebotomies, though I kinda hate them, always make me feel a little better. This one especially so.

Revision, like Sandpaper

sandingEver do any woodworking? Yeah, me neither.

Actually, I’ve done a little. One of the things I liked most was sanding. I remember my father having lots of different sandpaper, each with progressively finer grit. 180, 220, etc. The higher the number, the finer the grit.

I can remember entering a contest where I had to make a little wooden car that would race other cars down a track. The track was simple: basically just a hill that leveled out into a long straightaway. Your car had to be aerodynamic enough to speed down the hill and beat the other cars to the finish line.

My dad helped with me with the project. He liked to build those sorts of things. Before we painted it, we had to sand it, to make sure it was as smooth and rounded as possible. Sleek and fast.

NOT my car

NOT my car

I remember using that sandpaper, starting with a lower number until it was as smooth as I could make it with that grit, then graduating to a finer paper, sanding more and more, each time increasing the grit and making that car smoother and smoother still.

It’s a lot like revision.

Revision is complicated. It has lots of stages. Sometimes, very early, you’re not sanding at all. You’re still building. You’re taking the back of the car and putting it in front, changing the wheels out, re-thinking your whole approach.

But, hopefully eventually, you’re sanding.

The other day I was reading the Revising chapter in The One-Hour MFA by Michael Kimball, which is a great little craft book that zeroes on the essence of certain aspects of writing. He includes a bunch of quotes from various writers on how they approach revision. I really liked a couple of them:

“If I reach a point where I am glazing over, or replacing, one day, a comma I omitted the day before, then I let the story go, for better or worse, and move on.” – Noy Holland

“A work is finished when we can no longer improve it, though we know it to be inadequate and incomplete. We are so overtaxed by it that we no longer have the power to add a single comma, however indispensable. Whatever determines the degree to which a work is done is not a requirement of art or of truth, it is exhaustion and, even more, disgust.” – Emil Cioran

I think both of these quotes are saying a similar thing – you revise and revise until you’ve used the finest grit sandpaper you possess, until the work is as smooth as you are capable of making it, until you’re almost disgusted by it.

Then you let it go.

Finish LineAnd it doesn’t mean it can’t get any smoother. It can always be smoother. You might still run your hand over it and get a sliver. Such is the nature of art. It can always be better.

But learning “smooth enough” is as big part of understanding revision and being able to do the thing some writers never achieve. FINISHING – you have to finish.

It’s Alive!

young-frankensteinHappy Halloween, 2015!

So I’m reading The Sunlit Night by Rebecca Dinerstein, and I’m really enjoying it.

Some books have these passages that strike you. You know the ones – they speak to you in a way that makes you put the book down and stare off into the distance for a few minutes. This morning I ran across just such a passage in Ms. Dinerstein’s work:

===========================

Halfway between the asylum and the town, Nils pulled over and turned off the car. “It’s blue,” he exclaimed, pointing down to a rocky lake beside the road, and also up to the sky. “Blue and orange. Are complementary colors,” Nils said urgently. “If you look at something orange, a paper, for fifteen seconds, and then you look at a white paper, your eye makes blue. The same with yellow and violet. I use yellow and red, and the eye wants violet, so it is living.”

“It is living,” I affirmed, and Nils restarted the car, looking relieved.

–  Rebecca Dinerstein, The Sunlit Night

===========================

One of my favorite concepts in writing is “the reader is your final collaborator.” I’ve probably talked about it here on the blog before. It thrills me that a person can read a piece of my writing, anyone’s writing, bringing with them their own life experiences, and the words can mean something new and unique to them. And the next person, reading the very same passage, may interpret it in his / her own way and completely differently. And that both unique interpretations may be different from my original intention but entirely valid nonetheless.

Having readers brings your writing to life. It completes your writing.

Songs are this way, too. I’m always saying that if I ever told certain artists what their songs and lyrics mean to me, they’d probably laugh because it would have nothing to do with their original intentions.

And so, just like paintings and colors live, as Ms. Dinerstein’s character Nils says, because the viewer’s eye creates a color that isn’t there, or has an expectation that needs to be fulfilled, stories come to life because of the interpretations and experiences and perspectives of their readers.

I think this is so great. I’m really looking forward to the day when I can have that final collaboration with more and more readers. I hope those future readers can look at the white pages with their black words and that their minds create endless colors.

That would be really cool. Because then it would be alive.

It's Alive!

 

 

Changing Point of View

point of view

“Damn you, France!”

In writing, changing point of view can be risky. Sometimes, however, it’s just plain necessary – to move forward, to gain a new perspective, to move past doubt in your writing.

September 2015 will not go down as my favorite month ever. I suffered through some career-changing revelations that rocked my confidence and reduced my trust in the path I had set myself upon.

At the time, I thought if it had to happen, it actually happened at the best possible time. I had just handed off the first draft of a new manuscript to my critique partners. I wouldn’t get feedback for another month. Sure, I had planned to work on some short story ideas over that time, but I could table those. It wasn’t a bad time for a little distance – from my new MS, from writing in general.

But September’s news brought with it not just disappointment. Some unwanted “voices” tagged along for the ride. These voices, and the words they speak, are by no means particular to me. As writers, I’m willing to bet we’ve all probably heard them.

“You’re pathetic.”

“No one wants to read your work.”

“Why don’t you go do something else with your time, because you’re obviously not very good at this.”

At the end of the month, I had a trip to France for my day job. This would keep my mind and hands busy for almost two weeks. When I came back, I figured, I’d get the feedback from my critique partners, roll up my sleeves, and get back to work.

And this is pretty much what happened. Almost.

As usual, my partners did a bang-up job of providing me feedback. It was constructive, important, and well-thought out. I would even go so far as to say they were complimentary of my work. Excited, I made a revision plan based on their comments. As I’d planned to do, I rolled up my sleeves and started executing on that plan.

There was just one problem. The voices were still there.

Distance hadn’t helped. Compliments hadn’t helped. Not even France had helped. (Damn you, France!)

The voices still spoke, especially when I tackled new writing, as opposed to just edits.

“You’re pathetic.”

“No one wants to read your work.”

“Why don’t you go do something else with your time, because you’re obviously not very good at this.”

Silencing voices like these isn’t easy. I daresay I still haven’t achieved complete success. But here are five “Change Your Point of View” tips I’ve found valuable in the past few weeks.

  1. Move Around (part 1) – if you’re luckily enough to have a few rooms in your home you’re able to write from, try ALL OF THEM. Most of us have offices we work from. This is probably where you were sitting when you got whatever bad news sent you spiraling and opened the door for those voices to walk through. Now, when you sit in that same spot to work, you hear the voices again, don’t you? So get up! Work somewhere else! It really helps to change your point of view in this way.
  2. Move Around (part 2) – get out of the house. Work from coffee shops, the library, restaurants. Anywhere that, like in #1, breaks the rhythm and rut as to how you’ve been working so far. Recently I’ve been rotating between three of four coffee shops that are each about 40 minutes away from my house. This is far enough to provide me a new perspective and prevent me from falling back on the home office because I’m close enough to run back there when I feel its pull.
  3. Talk to Mentors – the publishing industry is trying to do something really difficult – meld the artistic pursuit of writing with the actual rubber-meets-the-road task of selling a product, as in, books. I admire everyone involved for the attempt. The results, however, are often less than desired. Okay, that’s being nice. It’s a train wreck. If you’re fortunate enough to be connected with folks from “normal business.” take advantage of their guidance. At the very least, when you describe something that happened that felt odd to you, and they confirm your opinion, it’s great to realize you’re not the crazy one, because folks connected to the writing endeavor tend to sometimes rationalize the irrational.
  4. Read Different – all writers know we need to be reading as much as possible. And we all have genres or types of stories we enjoy, ones that usually related directly to the genres we write in. Try something else – anything else. Get back into a genre or medium you once enjoyed but have fallen away from. For me, I had stopped reading as many comic books as I used to. Recently I started reading a lot more again, and it’s been comforting to dive back into the panels again.
  5. Let Go – most of us had certain goals when we started writing. Or, probably more accurately, as we progressed, we started to see “being published” as a goal. But, honestly, the chances of that happening for most of us are so minute. There are so many forces at work that can equally help and hinder the effort. So I’ve found it’s more productive to be sure I’m writing for the right (to me) reasons: that I thoroughly enjoy my creations and the knowledge that I created them, that I enjoy the process of receiving critique and feedback and expending the effort to make each and every story the best I can make it, regardless of who’s eyes it’s for. These things, for me, are the true satisfaction. I’ve allowed myself the grace and freedom to let go of other goals that are mostly beyond my control.

What do you do when you’re fighting your way through writing doubt? How do you tell those voices to shut up?

Italics-gate

Italics?!? Are you mad?

Italics?!? Are you mad?

Today I want to talk about italicizing internal dialogue. Because everyone seems to want me to do it, but I keep refusing.

Because…dammit, Jim, I’m a writer, not a typesetter!

I should explain why I feel so strongly on this point. And I should also acknowledge that I’m expecting a lot of writers to disagree with me on this one. Hoping for it, actually.

It’s all good.

I’m calling this possibly controversial topic Italics-gateItalics-gate comes from some feedback I’ve been getting lately on my own writing and also a consistency I’ve been noticing in the writing I critique for other folks. Some writers – not all, certainly, but some – seem to adhere to an as far as I can determine unwritten rule that goes something like this:

(1) If a character is having an internal thought, it must be italicized.

(2) If you can’t italicize, you must include “I thought” (or similar) to make sure the reader knows it is a section of internal dialogue.

In fact this “rule” has been regurgitated to me in a critique group meeting recently, with a clear tone that said, “You’re doing it wrong.”

Respectfully, I disagree.

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