The curious influence of art

When we create stories, we think we know what we’re doing. We invent characters, devise a plot, build a world, write what happens and what (we think) it means. But once that story is out in the world, it has its own life.

An example for me is the experience I’m having with my most recent work, The Ghosts of Beatrice Bird. For me, the novel is all about ghosts, many imagined ones and one that is all too real. But reviewers (and I’m grateful to each and very one of them!) have praised the book as a story of trauma. I didn’t think that was what the novel was about. There are some traumatic events, but in my authorial mind, those are subsumed by the ghosts that populate the story.

I’ve thought about this a lot, and remembered other times when the story I wrote was not the one some people read. I expect as a reader, I have also read novels in a different way than the author thought I would. It doesn’t affect my enjoyment, but it does leave a subjective impression. This phenomenon has been on my mind the past couple of weeks, because I heard an anecdote that really impressed me.

The teller of the tale is a new friend of mine, an amazing woman who began, in her middle life, to foster trouble and abused children. She and her husband (who must also be amazing) adopted seven such kids, adding them to their existing family of four! I have such deep respect for the work they’ve done with these children.
Foster children are usually taken from their homes because of abuse and neglect. Many are painfully young, some of them injured physically, almost all injured emotionally and intellectually. My new friend (who I hope will now be a lifelong friend) told me some of their stories. I wasn’t shocked—I worked in a home for juvenile wards of the court when I was in graduate school—but I was saddened to be reminded how cruelly some children have been treated.

The point of my sharing this with you is that my friend used a form of art to help these kids learn how to cope with their new situation. You may be surprised to learn that it’s a television show, an old one that is still being aired in thirty countries around the world— Little House on the Prairie. She and her husband sat their eleven children in front of that show day after day, a family activity. It wasn’t to keep them quiet or to occupy them. It was because in Little House on the Prairie, these kids who had no idea how a family can work could see a mother and father who cared about each other, a family in which there was no violence, no fighting, where there were rules and structure and respect for family members. The whole family loved the series so much that they’re planning a trip to the Little House museum.

Was this what Laura Ingalls Wilder meant when she wrote the children’s books? Probably not. Yes, they were stories of a pioneer family working together to survive. They have issues (you can read a lot about the author and her family and the issues with the books at pbs.org ) but I very much doubt Ms. Wilder expected her books to become a fabulously popular series, and I think she would have been stunned to see a house full of maltreated kids learning another way to live from her work, seventy years after her death. Her stories took on a life of their own, a flawed life perhaps, but a worthy one.

And I am SO impressed by the creative way my new dear friend and her wonderful husband developed to help re-train the kids they took into their home.

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Publishing as Showbiz


In recent days a self-published author has been excoriated for arguing with someone who gave his novel a one-star review online.  The author doesn’t claim the book doesn’t deserve the one-star review; his argument is that it is unfair to him for the reader to have posted it because it could hurt his sales, ruin his life.  Because, come on, this writing thing is hard!

Herein lies the great deception in the many shortcuts to publication now available.  Is the goal to see your name on an Amazon page?  Or is the goal to create something worthy of being seen on an Amazon page or elsewhere?

Before it’s my turn to be excoriated for giving indie authors a hard time, let me say that I’m fully aware, as are lots of folks, that there are some good ones who are succeeding brilliantly at publishing their own work.  They have created something that appeals to readers enough that they will spend money on it.  Some have even created a solid revenue stream.  They have no doubt worked really hard at that, because writing something good is not easy.  It takes perseverance, discipline, study, ambition, and talent.

It takes talent.  Talent is something that is scattered unequally over the population.  In itself, it is no guarantee of success, but without it, success can be all but impossible to attain.  Edison said success is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, but as others have pointed out since the Wizard of Menlo Park spoke, without the 1%, the 99% is wasted.

A nice singer I worked with tried out for the New York Yankees before turning to music.  He said to me once that baseball had been kinder to him than singing had, by which he meant, he learned early that he didn’t have the talent for a career in baseball.  It took longer for him to learn that he didn’t have enough talent for a big career in music.  (Of course, then we have to define success, which is fodder for another discussion entirely.)

Baseball is, in its own way, a form of showbiz, and many yearn to be professional ballplayers who end up disappointed.  Many people long to be movie stars, too.  Only a few will make it, but for some reason that doesn’t surprise so many people.  We understand the showbiz effect, that strange system that makes Tom Cruise is a huge star and someone better looking and more talented only moderately famous.  (Greg Kinnear, not that I’m naming names . . .)  That’s showbiz, and we get it.  Baseball, ballet, sculpting, newscasting—all of these have elements of showbiz.

So does writing.

What bothers me about the anecdote I started with, a writer complaining to a reviewer that it was unfair to negatively review his work, is the sense of entitlement the writer evidently possesses.  That entitlement is not justified.  Publishing is hard, as is every creative field—or perhaps I should say, every field.  There are no guarantees of fame and money, no matter how hard you’ve tried.

We all know plenty of fine writers who work day jobs because their excellent novels and short stories don’t earn them a living.  Are they failures?  I don’t think so, because they’re doing what they love.  Are they justified in whining about that?  Nope.  And they don’t do it, either.

We can’t know ahead of time whose work will catch the zeitgeist and whose won’t.  Despite what lots of books about writing try to claim, no one knows what the next bestseller will be, just as no one knows what actress will turn out to be a top draw at the box office when another one doesn’t.

I have a hard-and-fast rule that applies here.  I learned it in my first career, and it is this:  Never, never respond to the press.  Even the amateur press.  Suck it up, know that everyone gets the occasional bad review, and move on.

In the meantime, as I’ve said to many students, let this one go and go write something new.  Try to write better with each new project.  Everything we publish is a tryout, in a way.  An audition.  And when you audition, you take your chances.

The great 19th century contralto Elisabeth Schumann-Heink said, “To be a singer you must have the voice of a nightingale, the brain of an Einstein, and the hide of a rhinoceros.” It’s true for all of us who put our work out into the public eye.  We are performing artists.  It’s our job to entertain the public, and the public owes us nothing.  We have to earn it.

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Finding the Zone: a Writer’s Guide

Nothing is headier, to a writer, than being in the zone.  Words and thoughts flow in a steady torrent.  There are no doubts, and no fears about where it’s all going.  Nothing seems to matter but getting the words onto the page, tapping into that mysterious source of creativity.  It feels powerful.  The writer believes in the work at that moment, and has confidence that her story will unfold in the best possible way.

Sadly, like other intoxicating moods, this one is both rare and short-lived.  It really is a sort of high, and for most writers, it’s not easy to achieve.  The obstacles are legion.

What obstacles?  Oh, work, laundry, kids, television, dogs, the telephone, the internet, the radio, sunshine . . . in short, the elements of life.

Who doesn’t dream of the perfect work space tucked away in the woods, or at the bottom of the garden, or the edge of a cliff, where no one is allowed to go except you?  Mine—completely imaginary—overlooks the Pacific Ocean.  It has minimal furniture, but windows on all sides, and a steep stone path down to the beach.  In this dream space, I sit at my desk with my computer in front of me and my research books at hand, and I write by the hour while gazing out at the waves, undisturbed by anyone (who would dare come up that path?)

The reality for most writers is that bills have to be paid and messages have to be answered.  Groceries have to be obtained somehow.  There don’t seem to be any brownies popping up to fix what gets broken.  We get sick, or our partners or children or pets do.  Our work space may be, if we’re lucky, an actual study or den.  More likely, it’s similar to the one the late, great Erma Bombeck, author of The Grass is Always Greenest over the Septic Tank and other marvelous books, began her career on:  a board set across cardboard boxes in her garage.  Jean Kerr, writer of Please Don’t Eat the Daisies, did all her writing on a notebook in the car while she waited for her kids to get out of school.  A friend of mine wrote most of a novel on a yellow pad while he rode the bus to and from work.

Every writer’s process is different.  Some listen to music while they’re working.  Some of us can’t.  (When I listen to music, I listen to music.)  Some work in coffee shops, where the bustle around them is nothing but white noise.  Some shut themselves into a room for hours, in a manner the late and much-missed Jay Lake called binge writing.  Some work in bursts, like a sprinter.  Others work on a meticulously organized schedule.

Whatever our process is, we need to find it, and find it regularly.  Practice, and practice on a regular basis, is key to every art form in existence.  (Please see “Five Music Lessons for Writers” for my thoughts on the virtues of regular practice.)

I’m revisiting this topic as much for myself as for any of the rest of you who might find something of worth here.  2014 was a year of enormous events for me and my family:  moving house, losing a family member—yes, he was a dog, but he absolutely was one of us—celebrating a wedding, taking an extensive overseas trip.  For the first time in my publishing life, I fell behind on my writing goals, and I know—as the veteran of two different careers in the arts—that I need to rediscover the zone in which I do my best work.

I’ve been thinking back on the times in my life I’ve been most productive, and about the projects which seemed to flow most smoothly.  There are some similarities.  There are some things I can do to put myself in the zone, and I think they’re worth noting, and noting in order of importance:

1.  Eliminate distractions.

Yup, that means turning off the wifi.  It means going where no one will talk to me, whether that’s in my study alone or a coffee shop where no one knows me.  It means letting the telephone go to voice mail.  It means—gulp—putting my cell phone out of sight and out of earshot.

I think turning off the television and the radio are fairly obvious, but the internet is insidious.  How many times do we break our train of thought just for a quick look at our email or Facebook or Pinterest or other lovely, entertaining, time-sucking creation?  I remember, in the midst of writing The Glass Harmonica, discovering eBay for the first time.  Talk about distraction!  It was irresistible.  I had to give up my membership, delightful though it was, for the good of my Art.

2.  Prioritize projects.

Most writers, despite what many in the nonwriting public seem to think, have brains teeming with ideas.  We don’t need folks to tell us theirs!  We have plenty of our own, needing only the time and the energy to develop them.  As an example, I have two sequels in different series simmering in the back of my brain.  Boiling along next to those is an idea for a cozy mystery, something I’ve wanted to write for a long time.  I also have a brand-new book, two-thirds finished, which my agent is eager to see, and a short story due in a terrifyingly small amount of time.  The problem, as each day’s writing begins, is choosing which of these possibilities to work on.

Some writers excel at compartmentalization, and can work on more than one project at a time.  Others can’t.  Every writer has to find what works best for her.  The important thing is to be able to focus fully on the project in hand at any given moment.  Jumping from one story to another, or spinning in circles because we can’t decide which should come first, doesn’t get the work done.

Deadlines are great for prioritizing the list of ideas.  If there doesn’t happen to be one, however, there are other ways of determining the order of importance.  The best is when a story is burning inside you, demanding to be explored.  Another is when you feel the need to take a break from, say, a long-running series, and play in another space for a time.  It can be energizing to spend time with different characters, different scenery, different plot lines.

I keep files of ideas on my laptop.  If a great line of dialogue or twist of plot occurs to me that’s not in the current project, I make a note in the appropriate file (having learned long ago that otherwise it could be lost forever) and then put it out of mind.  If something occurs to me when I’m out walking, or shopping, or riding in the car, I make a note on whatever comes to hand, and transcribe it later.  I keep a notebook beside my bed as well, to write down anything useful that comes to me when I’m reading or trying to sleep.  Ideas will keep until the time is right to put them to use.  They don’t need to distract us from the work-in-progress.

3.  Don’t abuse the muse.

This is a quote from the great Greg Bear, who I was privileged to study with.   Most artists are a bit obsessive.  That’s a good thing, because it gets the work done, but it won’t help the work to pump the well dry.  Work, and work hard.  Then take the time you need to recharge.

For me, this means exercise.  I walk, I do yoga, I get up in the middle of a writing session and stretch.  For some writers, it might mean coffee with a friend, a ramble with the dog, a visit to the library.  Everyone needs their own way to unwind, and, as the wonderful Anne Lamott says in Bird by Bird, to fill up again.  (And by the way, if you haven’t read Anne Lamott, you’re missing out on a rare treat.  I think every contemporary writer should read all her nonfiction.)

Jay told me once that although he was a binge writer, after a session—which could run for many hours or even days—there would be long periods in which he wouldn’t write at all.  That wouldn’t work for me, but it did for him, clearly, because his bibliography is extensive.  I always imagined Jay’s idle periods as his unwinding time, his chance to let the well fill up again.

We wouldn’t expect a ballet dancer to practice only when she felt like it, and still turn in beautiful performances.  It’s no different for writers.  We have to go in search of the zone.  We can’t wait until it finds us.

Do you have any other tricks that work?  Feel free to share.  Me, I’m going to go practice these until I learn some better ones.

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