After allowing my novel to rest for half a year, I launched back in to make some major changes. I restructured the first hundred pages, shifted the personality of the main character, and changed her reasons for making a pivotal decision. As I revised, I experienced the complicated joy of being fully immersed in a project. The sensation is one of absolute concentration—I move into the cosmos of the book and see nothing beyond its boundaries—coexisting with absolute rebellion. I squirm, I want to get a glass of water, and then ice, then a coaster. I need to clip my toenails. When these powerful, contrary forces rise up, I know I’m in the heat of writing.
This discomfort reminds me of meditation, how part of me is drawn into the vast oblivion of silence and another part fights mightily to maintain the dignity of selfhood. (more…)
New writers are often surprised to learn that the main drama of memoir is not what happened in the past but what happens when we consider the past and allow ourselves to be changed by the consideration. “What happened to the writer is not what matters,” Vivian Gornick writes in The Situation and the Story. “What matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.”
In other words, memoir is a discourse with memory. It is conversation between past and present—the self you were and the self you’ve become. This sense of exchange happens in fiction as well and is why Nathanial Hawthorne called writing an “intercourse with the world.” (more…)
Jim was a thoughtful, retired pastor who came to me for writing support. Because of prolonged wheelchair use, a wound had appeared at his sacrum that proved difficult to heal and challenging to his faith. Jim wrote personal essays about the struggle while enduring multiple surgeries and long periods of immobility.
Then his project stalled. He had expected the wound to close and provide neat closure to his essays. When it didn’t, he couldn’t finish his essays.
I told Jim (rather crassly) that a physical healing would be a clichéd ending to his story. (more…)
When my partner Emily teaches a traditional circle dance to a group of newbies, they go through a predictable progression. First, they’re so uncomfortable they trip over their feet. They talk nervously, drawing attention away from their awkwardness. Sometimes they give up. But Emily’s a patient teacher and her dances are simple, ancient, and usually repetitive, so those who stick with it eventually fall into a pattern and begin enjoying themselves.
Then, if the dancer repeats these steps over weeks and months, he or she forgets the steps entirely and enters the dance. I’m not much of a dancer but even I have experienced my self-consciousness release into consciousness and then fall away entirely.
I’m interested in how this happens for writers, too. Seamus Heaney describes it as “walking on air”: “We must teach ourselves to walk on air against our better judgment.” (more…)
If you want to write, here’s the most important bit of advice I can give you: The best reason to write is for the love of it. Love is literature’s essential ingredient. If you are concerned with the quality of your writing, striving for publication or recognition, you may think this sounds simplistic. But listen to David Foster Wallace in an interview with Larry McCaffery:
I’ve gotten convinced that there’s something kind of timelessly vital and sacred about good writing. This thing doesn’t have that much to do with talent, even glittering talent… Talent’s just an instrument. (more…)
A book composed in her head but not yet written, Ann Patchett says, is like an oversized butterfly of indescribable beauty, “so wild and loyal in its nature that my love for this book, and my faith in it as I track its lazy flight, is the single perfect joy in my life.” Ah, yes. Isn’t this the tremendous joy of an idea? Who doesn’t love the pleasurable secrecy an unformed creation?
And then we begin. (more…)