"Make no mistake, my friend, your pointless life will end, but before you go, can you look at the truth? You have a lovely singing voice."

-Morrissey, "Sing Your Life"

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The past two weeks as I’ve been on winter break, I’ve been busily developing a half-online introductory creative writing course for the college where I work. I’ve been spending a good eight hours a day working on the course for the majority of the break, and it has, unfortunately, eaten into my writing time, which I had been so excitedly waiting for as the fall quarter drew to a close. Still, developing the course has been an interesting and useful experience.

As I’ve been preparing lessons and activities to introduce students for the first time to the craft and process of creative writing, I’ve been revisiting the basics myself, which has actually been extremely helpful. I’ve been stressing the importance of revision and suggesting concrete revision methods (like retyping the entire draft or doing several small revisions, each focusing on one specific layer of the text). To help students understand the creative writing process, I’ve compiled quotes from various famous authors talking about how writing is a lot of work, how first drafts are usually terrible, and how writing is, as Ernest Hemingway put it, “a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”

It isn’t exactly that I forgot these basic truths, but somewhere along the line I began holding myself to an impossibly high standard. I suppose it came from my image of my creative writing career as a ladder, which I’ve been slowly climbing up, one rung at a time. Now that I’ve signed my first book contract (my book, by the way, will be released on January 15th—the countdown begins!), I’ve been feeling this immense amount of pressure to somehow move another rung up—the next step, I guess I’ve always assumed, would be to land an agent—but not only does that next rung up the ladder still seem hopelessly out of reach, I’m afraid that I won’t even be able to remain on the current rung for long.

The result has been that I’ve been seized with a sort of debilitating fear. Or perhaps that’s too strong. I was writing for about an hour a day during the fall quarter, and the only reason I’ve hardly been writing at all during the break is because I’ve been so busy with other things (this winter break, oddly enough, has kept me busier than I usually am when school is in session). Still, I’ve felt as though my writing life has been at a standstill, and whatever work I have accomplished since I signed that book contract almost six months ago has felt, well, for lack of a better word, bad. I’ve been feeling like a very bad writer, and I’ve been worrying, I may as well say it out loud (or I should say, type it out . . . inky?), that I will never be able to produce anything as good as the stories in this one book, my first, which would also, then, inevitably be my last.

But what I realized while preparing the online lessons is that most of my final drafts are being published in my book. Which means that right now, every time I sit down to work on a short story, I’m working on a fairly early draft. It all seems like bad writing to me—and it is—but so were the early drafts of every single one of the stories in Peter Never Came. It took a lot of time, hard work, and feedback from others to get them to the point they’re at now, and just because I have a published book out there now doesn’t mean that my first drafts are suddenly going to be perfect, or that the writing process is going to get any easier or less messy.

Most of the quotes I’ve come across from successful writers indicate that writing never becomes easy. Writers never reach a point where their first drafts are solid gold; writers never become skilled enough that they no longer need feedback, or that they no longer need to spend countless hours agonizing over each new draft.

Or, to put it far more concisely and eloquently, I’ll leave you with the words of Thomas Mann, in my favorite of the quotes I came across when preparing my lessons: “A writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.”

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Writer Kelly Kathleen Ferguson, of the Three P’s of Post-Montana MFA blog, responded to my goal question from a few weeks back in her own blog post. Her take on the issue of goals is fascinating and very true, and I highly recommend you have a look.

And now for something only slightly different: it’s a complete cliché to talk about someone—especially a female someone—finding that first grey hair and being thrown into a state of reflection about his or her life and what little time remains of it. Yet it happens all the time, and it’s precisely what’s been happening to me, in an extended sort of way, for the past few years.

I have exactly one grey hair—one, at least, that I’m aware of. It made its dramatic entrance about a year and a half ago, when I was visiting my parents in sunny San Diego. My parents, my husband, and I were on a walk, and I guess the sunlight hit my hair just right and my mom—who is much taller than I—caught a glimpse of that meddlesome grey hair. She pointed it out to me, and I laughed it off and tried not to panic, and then, for a while, forgot about its existence.

Every now and again since then, I’ve caught sight of it in the mirror and wondered if I should pull it out. It seems if I have one grey hair, more will follow soon, and pulling it out won’t really change anything. It won’t, after all, make me any younger. A few weeks ago, I got a haircut, and the lady once again brought the grey hair to my attention. I laughed and said, “Yep,” like it was no big deal, and secretly wondered if I’m wrong to think it seems like kind of a rude thing to point out to a complete stranger.

I’ll be turning thirty in a few weeks. Thirty. Fairly young to be going grey, if you ask me. The grey hair, really, doesn’t mean I don’t have much time left. I’m pretty healthy; I exercise and count calories; I don’t think I’m going to die at an unreasonably young age—I probably still have at least another thirty years in me, and probably many more.

Yet another thirty or forty, even fifty years doesn’t actually sound like all that much, when I really think about it.

It took me the first thirty to get my first book published. I’m sure the books that follow it will come more and more quickly and easily, but still, the fact remains that the amount of time I have to actually write all the things I want to write does have a concrete boundary. Thirty or forty or fifty more years is a lot of time, but it is not an infinite amount of time. My time will eventually run out, and whatever projects I haven’t gotten to by then will simply die along with me.

This all seems terribly grim, and I don’t mean it to. I’m not actually depressed or anything like that. Instead, I’m eager. To write this stuff now, while I still can. As of right now, I have plans for two more story collections, four novels, and six children’s books. Those are just the ones I already have ideas for. Who knows how many more will come to me over my remaining years? It seems fair to guess that I won’t get to everything before I die, so the best I can hope for is to get to as many as I can. But the only way that’s going to happen is if I (to quote that awful Nike slogan) just do it.

And so today I suppose I’m thinking about goals in a slightly different way. My goal, right now, is to finish the current draft of the novel that was my MFA thesis, so that I can finish the second draft of my next novel, so that I can write however many more drafts will be necessary until that novel is finished, so that I can write the first draft of whatever novel will come after it, and so on and so on. Until my time runs out.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

I talked last time about how I think I’m in need of a change to my system of writing goals, and I asked for feedback on how each of you stay motivated and set goals. Your responses were fascinating and have made me completely rethink the way I look at goal setting.

Many of the people who responded talked about the importance of freedom in writing, of not trying to force yourself into a work-like routine. Others talked about setting project-based rather than time or word-based goals, and a related topic: the value of deadlines. Some of you also addressed the importance of flexibility and of not getting down on yourself when you’re simply too busy to write much—for those of us who teach, for example, perhaps we shouldn’t push ourselves too hard when school is in session, and instead, hit it hard during the winter and summer breaks. 

For one thing, learning how the rest of you are handling your own writing goals and routines makes me feel much better about those times when, for whatever reason, I don’t write as much as I think I should. Maybe the key words there are “I think.” Maybe the truth is, there is no “should” when it comes to writing.

Your responses have also made me rethink my idea of setting time-based goals. I still like the idea of writing for two or three hours a day, but the truth is, the individual projects are what matter, not the amount of time you put into them. If I throw an hour or two of my day away because I was really trying to force it, but ended up just staring at the computer—typing a sentence, then deleting it, then retyping it, then deleting it again—was that really time well spent? Yes, I met my goal, but did I really accomplish anything? Should I, instead, have just not worried about writing that day and told myself that as long as I finish X draft by Y deadline, it doesn’t really matter if I work at all today.

Over the years I’ve learned a fair amount about how I work and what tends to work best for me, and I know that I can’t go lengthy periods without writing. I get depressed when I don’t write, if nothing else, but also, I rely heavily on momentum. So I know that I need to pick goals that will effectively keep me going at a steady pace. A missed day or even week now and again isn’t a big deal, but taking a whole month—or months—off from writing simply would not work for me. 

However, I think project-based goals, which rely on deadlines for respective aspects of a project—specific chapters or drafts completed by specific dates—would effectively keep my momentum going, without the regrettable side-effect of making me feel down on myself when I don’t make the goal on any given day or making me feel guilty about doing anything other than writing—reading, grading papers, spending time with friends or my husband . . .

So I’m going to set a new sort of goal for myself for the remainder of the year. During the break, in addition to developing a half-online creative writing course for the college where I work, I’m going to focus on completing yet another revision of my MFA thesis. I’ve had a handful of partial and full manuscript requests from agents, and while the feedback has always been encouraging, I have a pretty good idea of why it keeps getting rejected. I’m going to use the idea of imposing a deadline to motivate me—I want to have this current revision ready to go by the end of the winter break, so I can submit it to the AWP novel contest in January. I’ll also work on short stories and my newer novel as the desire hits, but my overall goal will be to finish this new draft of my older novel.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

I’m thinking, again, about goals, and I’d like to get some input from you if you have a second. So here’s the thing: I think goals are extremely important. I’ve talked about this before (in my old blog). I know every writer has his or her own process, but I think it’s the writers who have worked out when and how often they should write (even if they don’t always stick to it) that end up becoming the most successful. Even though writing is rewarding, even though it’s fun and we do it because we enjoy it, the truth is, many of us wouldn’t do it anywhere near enough if we didn’t force ourselves to.

But how much is enough? That’s the real question. How much does a writer need to write per day, or per week, or per month, per year? There isn’t any set in stone answer to that question—the answer, of course, will vary from writer to writer, case to case. And that, I think, is where the trouble arises. Since there can be no concrete commandment—thou shalt write for at least two hours a day—many writers, I believe, at least at the early stages of their careers, struggle with the issue of how much they should be writing.

Some writers err on the side of overdoing it, buying into the idea that if you want writing to be your job, you should treat it like a job and write for eight hours a day. These people lock themselves away from the rest of the world and push their brains to the breaking point, and they end up having very little to write about because part of writing must come from other things—from reading, from interacting with other people, from having genuine experiences that can inform your texts.

Others, though, go to the opposite extreme, seeing writing as an art and therefore something that you must be inspired to do. These people rarely write at all. They may get lucky and pump out something good on the occasion that they actually produce anything at all, but it doesn’t matter—they don’t produce enough work to ever be very successful.

For those of us who would prefer to fall somewhere in the middle of the writing spectrum, the question remains: how much is enough? How much should we be writing?

I’ve often talked about how I have the ultimate goal (partially, I’ll admit, inspired by Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule from Outliers) of writing for an average of three hours a day. I was able to hit that goal for months at a time in grad school, although I was never able to keep it up for an entire year, and, after I graduated and entered into the real world of teaching three or four classes at a time, I’ve been struggling to keep up with an hour a day average. For the past couple of months, though, I’ve easily been logging an average of an hour a day, and I’ve decided it’s time to push myself a bit harder.

So here’s what I want to know from you: what’s your writing goal? How often do you write and how much do you push yourself to produce? How do you gauge your activity (weekly? monthly?), and do you log time or words? Let’s all pool our experiences, okay? I want to hear from you.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

As you may know, for the past month or so I’ve been reworking the beginning of the current draft of my current novel to get it ready to submit to the McSweeney’s Amanda Davis Highwire Fiction Award, which has a deadline of December 1st. I managed to get the first 30,000 words (a little over 100 pages) ready in time, although it’s not as “ready” as I would have liked. I did the best I could given the time constraints, and a nice thing about this particular contest is that they allow you to send two polished short stories along with the work in progress to give them a feel for what your final drafts are like. I’m sure I won’t win, but the deadline was effective motivation to get back to work on the novel, and now that I’ve reworked the beginning I feel revved up and ready to finish this draft.

I had planned on continuing straight ahead with the draft after sending in the McSweeney’s submission, but on the same day the submission went out in the mail, I received the proof for my book, which I needed to comb through and return with my corrections by Monday. So while you and yours were spending a relaxing (I hope) holiday weekend surrounded by family and friends and lots of good food, I was eating ramen and fried chicken from a box while carefully reading every word of my proof, trying to make sure no errors made their sneaky way into the published book.

I complain, but actually, it was kind of an interesting experience (and to be completely honest, I did have a nice dinner with friends the day after Thanksgiving). When I was sent the proof, I was instructed to just proofread; at this stage, there’s no time to make any content revisions. This is the first time, then, that I’ve ever been able to read something I wrote without looking for things that aren’t working, things that I should cut, add, or otherwise change. Even published pieces I read with an eye for revision, because I’ve always figured I would compile into a book-length collection many of the stories I had published in journals.

In essence, I was able to read my own work as a reader, or at least, I came the closest it’s probably possible to come. And the truth is—I really liked the book. That may sound cocky, but just hear me out. This book represents a lot of hard work. This entire collection was over five years in the making, and even though my name is on the front cover, a lot of feedback (from workshop peers and instructors, from friends, from my husband, from my brilliant editor, Sharon Dilworth, who pushed me to do better and who educated me as a writer just as much as my MFA instructors did) went into making these stories what they are now. As I was rereading the stories, I kept remembering things that had been cut from previous drafts, and while in some of the cases it took a lot of convincing to finally sway me to cut them, I was so excited to read the final versions one more time and see how much better they are this way.

I was also excited to see how truly beautiful this book is going to be. The cover art, taken from a work of art titled “Mirror” by an amazingly talented young artist named Ashley Gibson, is exceptional and PERFECT for the stories in this collection. The overall design of the book is gorgeous, too, and I just about cried tears of joy when I saw the font they used for the title page and the story titles—it’s ideal for this collection, and I would never have thought I would even care about something like font. Autumn House Press prides itself on putting out books that are physical pieces of art as well as artistic from a content perspective, and I just feel so lucky to have my first published book put out through them.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Last week I talked about how much harder it is for me to work on full novels than it is to write short stories. As I was working on the second draft of my current novel today, I figured out, at least partially, where the trouble is coming from. It seems that my writing process is very different when I’m working on shorter pieces than full novels.

When I write a short story, I often have only a very vague idea in my head, or a line, or an image that I want to put into words. When I sit down and begin typing, I rarely have anything even remotely resembling a plot in mind, but that never worries me. I know that it will either come or it won’t. If it does, I’ll end up with a full draft of a story, if it doesn’t, I’ll chalk the experience up to practice.

When I work on novels, though, for some reason I seem to feel less comfortable with the vast question mark lying before me, and before I even begin, I try to map out the plot. This, I’ve realized, is a very bad idea. For me, anyway. This is just not the way I write.

My first attempt at a novel—the first one I actually finished and revised—was stilted and contrived; it was overwritten, overplotted, and thoroughly unoriginal. When I was writing the second novel I ever actually completed, my MFA thesis, I was able to sort of break free of these boundaries. I did map the plot out before the first draft, but when I wrote the second draft I threw it all out and started over from page one, with no clear idea of where it was going to go. I ended up, I feel, with a much better novel than I could have written if I had tried to plot it all out in advance.

On my current novel, though, I have a pretty clear idea of the overall plot in my head. This is partially because this is the second draft, and in the first draft I kind of hammered out all the kinks of what I want to happen in the story. But this is causing me problems when I sit down and actually write. What’s happening is that the pace of the novel is going all wonky. Because I know what’s going to happen next, and what’s going to happen after that, I’m racing through each scene, not taking my time and reveling in the details like I should.

If I don’t know what’s going to happen, see, the only way to find out is by writing it. I have to inch my way blindly through the story by spending a lot of time in the details of each scene. If I look closely enough, they’ll begin to form themselves into something meaningful, and the next key plot point of the story will reveal itself to me. If I already know the next key plot point, though, I tend to get antsy and move too quickly to it, ignoring those details and kind of deflating the entire story in the process.

For future novels, the resolution to this problem is obvious: stop trying to plot them out in advance. If I let my novels evolve organically instead of trying to mold them into something specific, I’m sure I’ll end up a better novelist. For my next novel, I’m going to make sure I begin without a plot in my mind. For my current one, though, the resolution is a bit trickier. I already know the plot of this story, and I like the plot. I think it’s good. I don’t know whether I should chuck it out the window to free up my more organic writing style. Maybe I should. Or maybe there’s some other way, some way I can keep the plot but force myself to revel in the details anyway. 

I’m a little over halfway through the novel right now. For the past few weeks, I’ve been going back through the first 150 pages to revise them as much as possible to enter them into the McSweeney’s Amanda Davis Highwire Fiction Award at the end of the month. I’m trying to flesh out the scenes, making changes as necessary but also adding details all over the place. It’s much more forced than it would be if I had written the details in to begin with, and I’m not really sure whether it’s working.

Once I get through the beginning again, I’ll work on finishing this second draft, and my goal is to try to forget about the plot as I’m working on each individual scene; I only want to think about the plot when I finish with a scene or chapter and am again looking at how the pieces fit together as a whole. It may be difficult to force the plot out of my mind as I’m actually writing, though, so this is likely to be an ongoing learning experience for me. I’m nervous, but excited, to see how it goes.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

As I’ve been getting back to work on my new novel, I’ve been thinking lately about the difference between writing short stories and writing novels. I’ve heard a lot of different opinions about how to know whether you have a story or a novel on your hands, or which craft techniques are best for shorter pieces and which ones are best for book length works. I’ve heard, too, people argue that short stories are more difficult to write than novels, and I’ve heard others argue that novels are more difficult to write than short stories.

Here’s my take: from my experience, it takes a lot longer—and I mean a lot—to write and revise to completion a novel than it takes to bring a short story from inception to publication. I’m talking the difference between a few months for a 20 page story to a few years for a full length novel. Just banging out the first draft of a novel takes, I’d say at minimum, a month—and that’s if you work on it for two or three hours a day. You can throw together a first draft of a story, though, in a day or two, if you really buckle down.

But time doesn’t necessarily equal difficulty. Just because it’s more time consuming to work on a longer piece, does that automatically mean that a longer piece is more difficult? Or is it more difficult to work on a shorter piece, since every word, every single detail, must be very carefully chosen?

The answer I’ve come to recently is perhaps not very satisfying: it depends. It depends on which length the writer in question has had more practice with.

I’ve been mostly working on my novel lately, and I can say with absolutely certainty that novels are much more difficult for me to write than are stories. It’s harder for me to hold 300 pages worth of plot and character development and key details in my mind at once, to keep track of the entire thing as I work on any individual section. I’m also a firm believer in the importance of plot, and I find it much easier to keep the plot moving at a steady clip in a short work. In a full novel, I have to slow the pace down dramatically, and not every second of the story involves a plot point. It’s much harder for me to know what details to include and what to leave out, what tangents are appropriate and what ones will lose the reader?

Many of these problems are problems of early drafts, of course. Part of the reason why novels feel so much harder for me is probably because I can spend months tinkering away on a novel and still know that the final draft lies very far in my future; if I’d spent that time working on a short story, I’d probably have something ready to send out already.

But I think even more than perception, the reason why I find novels so much more difficult is because I’ve had a lot more practice writing short stories. I’ve written countless short stories, many of which were awful and have long since faded into the past. But after writing all those terrible stories, I eventually started getting a feel for how to craft a strong story, and I started publishing the stories that I wrote not long after. I still have more to learn—every new story I write is better than the stories that have come before it, which shows that I’m still learning as I go—but even so, I’m at a point in my story writing career where, when I sit down to work on something new, I feel fairly confident that it will eventually get published.

Not so with novels. I wrote, when I was younger, a handful of unfinished novels, and when I was an undergrad I wrote a first and second draft of what I call my “practice novel.” In grad school, I wrote a novel for my thesis, and have revised it and revised it (and am going to probably revise it again this winter break). And then there’s my new novel, which I wrote a first draft of in between drafts of my thesis, and I’m currently writing the second draft. I’ve had some practice, sure, and I do believe my thesis novel and my current novel have the potential to get published. But I also struggle a lot more in this form than I do in the story form, and of course, I’ve not yet had any publication success as a novelist.

But the nice thing about it is that, once I realized that this was probably the reason why I’m finding it so difficult to make this new novel gel, it kind of took the pressure off a bit. If the problem is simply that I need more practice, then that’s precisely what I intend to get. More practice. And the way to get it is by plowing ahead, by just working on the novel and not worrying so much about how good it is, or how hard it is to make it good. Because the more I work in that form, the more practice I’ll get, and little by little, the better novelist I’ll become.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Once I got back on track with my writing habits (as far as I can tell, my block has officially been kicked—I hope I didn’t just jinx it by saying that!), I was able to write a few new stories, which I then revised and am ready to begin submitting. So, while I talked recently about how I’m going to cool it a bit with the goal setting, I think I am going to try to push myself to meet the 10 submissions a month goal that has become my standard over the past few years.  

I am not, however, going to put pressure on myself to meet any sort of daily time goal right now, nor am I going to push myself to pump out more stories at the moment. The stories that I wrote recently were not the stories I had decided to write. I have a list (as most writers do, I imagine) of story ideas. I had gone through my list and selected two stories to be my next two pieces. When I sat down to work on them, though, I really had to force it. If you were to look through the files on my computer today, you’d find about fifteen not-very-strong pages of each of these two new stories, and you’d also probably note that neither one of the stories seems to be heading in any worthwhile direction. Odd, because I’ve been dying to write these specific stories for some time now. I kept telling myself, “As soon as I have time . . .  I can’t wait until I have time . . .” Yet now that I do have time, these “great” ideas are just not gelling.

But don’t worry. If you were to look at the files on my computer today, you’d also find a couple of new stories that didn’t come from my idea list, and those stories I actually feel pretty good about. It seems that my brain, rather than allowing itself to be bullied to write the stories I wanted to write, decided that it would write the stories it was interested in. With both of these new stories, I was just minding my own business, living my life and not trying to write, when the words for a first line, and then a second, and then a third, just started bouncing around in my mind. I rushed to the computer to pour the words out, and then more came, then more, and by the end, I had a solid draft of a new story I hadn’t meant to write.

This is actually the way pretty much all of my best stories were written. Rarely do the ideas I jot down in the pocket notebook I carry around in my purse end up developing into anything very good. The really good stories are the ones that I write the second I have the idea—and to be honest, they often don’t even start as an idea; they start as a line, which, once I write it down, sparks another line, which sparks another. And pretty soon, I have a full story developing beneath my fingertips, a story I didn’t even know I had inside me.

I quite like my two new stories, and now that I have something to submit to journals, the pressure to be working on short stories is alleviated. I’m now freed up to get back to work on my new novel, which, I’m realizing now that I’m becoming once again immersed in it, is what I really want to be working on right now. No amount of telling myself that my previous novel is still unpublished, or that the best way to attract an agent to possibly sell that unpublished novel is probably to blanket the journal market with as many short stories as possible, is quelling my desire to put everything else aside and live, for a while, in the world of the new novel.

And so I’m going to stop fighting it. I’m not going to worry about writing short stories. If another story comes to me, like these recent two did, that’s great, but the two stories from my idea list that I was trying to force are going to have to remain unfinished for now. Right now I’ve got (to use a cliché) bigger fish to fry.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Since my husband Damien is in the final year of his MA program at Ohio University, his thoughts are turning more and more towards his thesis, while our collective thoughts as a couple are focusing in on what we will do next year, after he graduates. Now that I have a book coming out, my friends and colleagues are urging me to begin applying for full-time teaching positions. After all, when I graduated with my MFA, I told myself that I just needed to teach adjunct for a few years, that once I got a book published I would surely be able to land a full-time job somewhere.

The things is, though, that I didn’t really expect it to happen so soon. I always thought that I would be something like, say, five years out of my MFA program before I finally got a book published, and by then I would have built up five years of experience and miscellaneous CV credits to really make myself a strong candidate for a full-time position. The book contract came so quickly—which is a good thing, don’t get me wrong—but now I don’t really know that I’ll stand much of a chance of landing a full-time job just yet. Right now I’m only one year out of my degree program. I have only one year’s worth of adjunct experience to add to my TA experience. Publication-wise, I think my CV looks pretty good. Otherwise, though . . . I’m not so sure.

And on top of that, I’ve learned a lot about my limitations as a teacher this past year. At the risk of sounding a bit over-confident, I think I’m a pretty good teacher—and I enjoy it—but I also love my writing time and am not willing to give that up in order to have full-time teaching work. I’ve found that my limit is three, or maybe four, courses at a time. I taught four last spring and was overwhelmed with all the grading—I can’t even imagine trying to teach five. And while four was possible—obviously, I managed it just fine—I hardly wrote at all last spring. I was just too busy. I always had several stacks of paper that needed grading, several student emails to respond to.

I do think that four classes on the quarter system is more time consuming than four on the semester system, because the quarter system involves the same amount of work but compresses it down into ten weeks (and then makes you do it three times for every two on the semester system), so I feel certain I could teach up to four classes on the semester system and still find time to write. Four classes maximum, absolutely no more.

Now I know that a lot of teacher/writers simply accept that they won’t have time to write during the school year; instead, they get a lot of work done during the winter and summer. But that’s just not the way I work. I like to keep a steady momentum going. I like to always be working on something, to have at least an hour or so to devote to my writing every single day. And I’ve found from experience that if I’m teaching more than three courses at a time, I have no choice but to push my writing to the side.

And so. What does that mean about my career as a college English instructor? Well, most full-time, creative writing positions don’t require more than two or three classes at a time. They have other requirements, of course, but those don’t bother me. I believe I can easily manage teaching three or four courses, plus all the other faculty duties and still have enough creative energy left in my brain to write every day. Teaching and other duties and creative writing are all different things, and I think I can fit a moderate amount of each on my plate at one time. I don’t think I can fit five classes, plus other faculty duties, plus creative writing on my plate, though. That’s too much.

But. The problem is, many professors had to put in their ten or fifteen years of a five/five comp teaching load before they were competitive as creative writing professors. It’s not that I dislike comp, or that I think I will someday find a job where I don’t have to teach comp (I expect comp will always be required, and I really enjoy the variety of students you get to work with in a comp class). It’s the five/five load that is the problem.

I’ve decided—and I hope this doesn’t sound bratty or naïve—that if my choices are teach a five/five load for ten years before I can finally land a good creative writing, three/three position, or stop being a teacher, my decision is that I will stop being a teacher. I will not continue in a career that forces me to push my creative writing to the back burner for several years as I slave away teaching five classes per semester.

I am going to apply for some full-time jobs for next year. I would love to continue in this field and am hoping that, with my book deal and what CV credits I do have so far, I might get lucky and find a job that affords me time to write on the side. However, as an alternate plan, I’m also going to apply for a few Masters in Library Science programs for next year.

I sat down for a chat with the local children’s librarian here in Athens—I’m interested, particularly, in becoming a children’s librarian if teaching doesn’t work out—and based on what she told me, I think I would absolutely love this field. I’m passionate about children’s literature, about fighting censorship, and about working with kids. Everything about the job seems perfect for me, and I think that, because my day-to-day duties as a librarian would rely on a completely different part of my brain than my creative writing does, I wouldn’t find it very difficult to write on the side.

So that’s where I’m at right now. I want to be a writer primarily, or at least keep writing on the same level as whatever day-job I work. If that means I can be a college English instructor, that will be great. But if I can’t find a teaching position that actually allows me to put equal focus on my career as a writer, then I think I’ll try to be a librarian instead. It’s as simple as that. I will give up teaching before I give up writing.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Last time I talked about my recent issues with writer’s block and how I came to understand, at least, what was causing the problem. This time I want to talk about some of the concrete things I did to help unblock myself.

  1. Turned the publishing demon off for a while. I mentioned this last time, too, but the first and probably most important step I took to break free of my writer’s block was to stop setting submission goals for myself, as well as to stop worrying about the fact that I wanted to get some new stories out there. I decided, instead, to just start writing the way I used to write back before I ever started getting published: to just put an idea down on paper for the sake of seeing where it would go. Period.
  2. Listened to music.  I’m a big, big, big music fan, and have probably spent thousands upon thousands of hours in my life just pacing back and forth in a room by myself listening to some CD or other. The older I get, though, the less time I seem to have for things like that, and I think my writing is suffering as a result. MANY of my ideas have come unexpectedly when I’m just listening to music and letting the song lead me deep into my imagination. In fact, most stories that I’ve written that have turned out any good have had their own, what I call, “soundtrack,” which consists of the music I was listening to as I was writing them (and which I imagined would make up the film soundtrack, if the story were made into a film). I’ve seen the idea of listening to music as a way of breaking from writer’s block before, and I often see it pointed out that you should listen to music without words. I say screw that. I get some of my best ideas from music lyrics, and I tend to be way more inspired by other writing  (like lyrics) than just sounds.
  3. Paced. This goes along with step two, but I think it’s of equal importance to the listening to music part, so I thought I’d include it as its own step. Normally, when I clock in writing time, I count only the time I spend directly in front of the computer. I’ve decided that’s ridiculous (at least when I’m getting over a block, it is). Some of my most vivid ideas come to me as I’m pacing and working a story through in my head, or even just letting the sentences form themselves with each new step. I don’t know why, but stepping away from the computer and just pacing around the room opens my brain up like nothing else, and after fifteen minutes or so I usually end up rushing back to the computer with a new sentence pushing out of my brain.
  4. Read fiction and watched movies. Again, this is nothing new that I’m coming up with, but reading the sort of thing I want to write and watching movies that tell the sort of story I want to tell are excellent ways of getting new ideas. (And before you ask me, isn’t that stealing?: I am not the writer who wrote X book or the filmmaker and cast and crew who made Y movie what it is. I am different, and I see the world in a slightly different way, so what I do with the idea will be completely different from what they did. The idea for my short story “The Number One,” for example, which was nominated for a Puschcart, came to me when I was watching Little Miss Sunshine. I wanted to write a story about that same theme—that people should not be concerned with being the number one—and yet my take on the theme ended up being completely different from the movie’s, and I don't imagine anyone would be able to figure out where I got the idea.)
  5. Read articles/books/blogs on writing. One of the best ways to get inspired is by reading about other people who got inspired. Sure, it’s just the same thing over and over again. Writers go through the same sorts of struggles; our success stories are often very similar. But you know what? My fingers still itch to dance across the keyboard every time I read one of those success stories, or when I read about a writer talking about his process or how she came up with the idea for X story. When music isn’t doing it, and pacing isn’t doing it, and watching Little Miss Sunshine isn’t doing it, then flipping through the latest issue of Poets & Writers might be the answer (or reading other writers’ blogs).
  6. Blogged. That’s right. Part of the reason I have a blog, my friends, is because writing about writing, working through my current issues and unprocessed thoughts here, helps to free me up to do the fiction writing that I really want to do. Often, when I sit down to write and I find the blank page instilling me with terror, I switch to my blog document and write something there, instead. The end result is usually that I’m good and inspired by the time I switch back to that blank document.
So there you have it. I certainly haven’t reinvented the wheel—none of this is in any way new—but these are the exact tricks that helped (are still helping?) me get over my most recent, lengthy span of block.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

First of all, a quick note: my website is up and running. I'm still finishing up a few final tweaks (and haven't added any discussion questions to the discussion board yet), but, regardless, it's all ready for you. Check it out!

Now onto a less happy topic: writer's block. Yes, I’ve written about writer’s block before, and so has pretty much every other writer with a blog, but the sad truth is, the problems that writers face tend to arise again and again. It seems the best you can ever hope for is a temporary solution, a short term cessation, before the problem pops up again. And so. Another post about writer’s block. Although, to be fair, this is the first time I’ve written about writer’s block in this blog. Now bear with me here, because I have a lot to say. This is going to be a long one, maybe even a  two parter, as perhaps I’ll follow my writer’s block confessional with some concrete things I did to eradicate it.

So here’s the thing: I’ve been pretty well blocked up for the past four months now. Ever since I found out that my first book was going to be published, I’ve had a hard time really feeling any particular piece of writing. Before the book contract, I was flying through a new draft of a new novel. I was about 50,000 words in, about the halfway point, and well on track to have the draft finished by the end of the summer when, BAM! Everything screeched to a halt. I had to put the new novel aside to edit the book that would actually be published soon, and on top of that I became almost paralyzed with the fear that this book—my first book . . . so much rides on that first book—wouldn’t be very good, and my career as a writer would die at a tragically young age.

While I was working with my editor to get the book in by the deadline—and working on other small tasks such as building a writer’s website, hunting down blurbs, writing my bio, etc. etc.—I became so caught up in the career side of writing, that the writing side of it seemed to get left behind altogether. When I finished the edits and sent the final manuscript in, I foolishly told myself that the block would surely end soon. I hadn’t been too worried about it before because I had sort of been writing during that time—revising still counts, after all—and because it was a happy predicament to be in, anyway: having no stories to submit because all of my ready stories were going to be published together as a book.

But once I had the final manuscript turned in, I felt that I needed to pump out some new stories, and fast. Ever since I got my first publication, I’ve published a minimum of two stories per year. I didn’t want that to taper off, book pub or no book pub. So, if I wanted to get two stories published in 2011, I needed to get some serious work done in the remaining months of 2010.

It seemed like an attainable goal, but every time I sat down to write, it felt like, I don’t know, doing math homework or something. Working on something that you don’t really feel like doing, and having a difficult time of it, besides. I kept telling myself if I just kept forcing it, it would come. I just needed to get my momentum back up. That’s pretty much always been true of my writer’s block in the past, but this time, it just wasn’t coming.

I finally decided that, rather than trying to steamroll over the problem, I should actually sit down and analyze what is happening to me and see if I could pinpoint the reason why. That way perhaps I could come up with a more effective solution than just keep writing, keep writing; ignore the block and maybe it will go away.

The nice part about this particular case is that, since the beginning of the block coincided exactly with a key event in my life—landing my first book contract—I was given a strong hint as to the root of the problem. In fact, the problem seemed pretty obvious as soon as I started really looking for it.

I think I have two desires which are, though it might seem strange, very disparate. I want to be a writer, as in make money off of writing, publish . . . a lot, build up a readership, be, in other words, a success. But that is a very different thing altogether from the desire to write. The verb. To get lost in the words, to become so removed from the physical world around me that the story feels like reality, reality like a story. To think only about the language, the characters, the plot, and not which journal I will submit to, what sort of audience the piece might reach, and how I can use the final product to take another step forward in my career.

Don’t get me wrong, you do have to think about those careery things sometimes if you actually want to get your stuff out there. You can be writing the most beautiful, moving, creative stuff ever, but if you’re not submitting it, no one will ever get to read it. And once you start getting published, it’s natural to want to move forward. Of course I want an agent. Of course I want to reach the widest possible readership.

But none of that really matters if I’m not enjoying the verb side of writing.

I haven’t been able to get sucked into my own stories, and in addition to the fact that it’s quite uncomfortable—I’ve spent too much of my life in a state of blissful distance from reality, thinking through some story or other, that to have that other world closed off to me leaves me in a hazy sort of mental discomfort—it also renders the career side of writing pointless. Yes, I want to be a writer, but then, only because I like to write. If the latter ceases to be true, the former should, too.

No, no, I’m not saying I’m giving up (although the other day, I was wondering, what if I did? What would my life be like if I just decided, eh, I got one book out there. That’s enough. How empty would it be, I wonder? Or would it actually be a strange sort of relief?). What I am going to do, though, is stop worrying so much about publishing. My friend (and writer extraordinaire—she writes poetry, fiction, non-fiction, screenplays . . . is there anything this woman can’t do?) Jayme Russell suggested to me, oh about a month ago, that maybe writing things just to write them and not for the sake of publishing would help break through my writer’s block. I listened to her advice, knew it was good, and yet continued to obsess over getting some new stories out there for the sake of submitting them. 

But now I’m finally seeing the wisdom of Jayme’s words, and I’m going to stop worrying about whether 2011 will be a dry year for me, journal pub-wise. I’m not going to rush to get back into setting goals for submissions, and the goals I did set to get me through the end of this year, well, I’m not going to break my back trying to keep them. I don’t know that I’ll have anything to submit to the Narrative contest by the end of this month, and that’s okay, because it’s worth it if it means stopping forcing the story I was trying to write for that contest and instead working on whatever story successfully carries me away. Regardless of publishability.

I think what I need right now is not motivation through deadlines and that carrot of furthering my career as a writer. What I need right now is to unlock the door to that mental chamber deep inside me, which is growing dusty, I’m afraid, from disuse. I’m going to air it out, clean out the cobwebs, and close my eyes and let it take me wherever it takes me, just like the old days when I wrote because my head was bursting with words and I would go crazy if I didn’t pour them out, and not because I was worried about pub credits and marketability and Ashley Cowger the writer rather than the daydreamer.

Of course, that’s all easy enough to say. What did I do though, to unlock the block? Stay tuned, my friends, and next week, I’ll tell you.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

I have a long commute to work, and recently, to fill the time, I’ve been listening to an audio book called Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. The book is about cognitive dissonance theory, and it is fascinating.

As I’m learning about cognitive dissonance, I’m beginning to understand why people sometimes act in ways that seem so totally baffling. Cognitive dissonance occurs when our vision of who we are—our sense of identity—is called into question by something that happens or something that we do. For example, if I see myself as a nice and reasonable person, but one day I snap and do something mean and unreasonable—say, flip somebody off for accidentally cutting me off in traffic—that action creates a feeling of cognitive dissonance in me. I’m a good person, why would I do something so not good? To get rid of that uncomfortable feeling of dissonance, I make up some reason to justify my action—well, it was that other jerk’s fault. He cut me off! And really, I’m helping him to learn from his mistake—so now I feel better about my action, and my sense of identity is once again intact.

See how that works?

Well, among many other mind blowing realizations (forgive the hyperbole, but this book is truly awesome), the book has helped me to understand a couple of common things that I often see writers do. The first is a bad thing, the second, just sort of an interesting thing.

First off, the bad news. Follow along with my scenario for a second: You see yourself as a very nice, caring person, right? You’re not the jealous type. You’re a good friend, and you want good things to happen to your friends. But then one day, your friend Writer McWritey-Well calls you up, ecstatic to share the news that he just got a publication acceptance, or won a contest, or was picked for inclusion in one of the Best American anthologies, or . . . Your first reaction? Jealousy. Bitterness. Maybe even the feeling that you’ve somehow been wronged. Why don’t good things ever happen to me?

This is not the way you would have expected yourself to react. He’s a good writer, and he works hard. You should be happy for him. You know you should. And yet you aren’t. But why? You’re not that kind of person, not at all. This feeling goes against your image of yourself. So you justify it. You tell yourself, the reason I’m upset is not because I’m jealous. I’m upset because ol’ Writer McWritey-Well is bragging. He’s so full of himself. What a jerk.

Voila. Your image of yourself as a nice, caring, good person is unharmed. The problem is, your friend McWritey is left wondering why you’re acting like he’s a jerk for wanting to share his good news. He didn’t do anything wrong. You’re his friend. He just assumed you would want to know. He assumed you would be happy for him.

And sharing good news with your friends is not bragging.

I think cognitive dissonance is just a part of the human experience. It’s probably not something we can just turn off. The same is true of jealousy, I would guess. But maybe being more aware of what’s going on in our brains can help us to be a bit more rational about things. I don’t think it makes you a bad person if your first reaction to someone else’s good fortune is jealousy. Those feelings just happen. What matters is what we do with them.

Well, let’s not end on that sour note, so here’s a benign thing that I think can also be traced to cognitive dissonance: have you ever noticed that many writers claim that they’ve always wanted to be a writer? That they were born to write, that they’ve always felt called to this profession? Here’s what I think is happening: being a writer is such a part of so many of our identities that it’s difficult to accept that there are any number of other paths we might have taken and that it’s partially luck, partially just small steps we’ve made in this direction along the way that have turned us into writers. When we’re faced with that reality, the result is cognitive dissonance.

So when we tell ourselves (and other people), “Even when I was a little kid, I always wanted to be a writer,” I think what’s happening is we’re closing that dissonant gap by ignoring the fact that we also wanted to be a movie star when were little, and we wanted to be the president, and an astronaut, and a fireman, and . . . When I was a teenager, I kind of wanted to be a fashion designer. And a filmmaker. But sometimes I tell myself, “Nah, I always wanted to write,” because I wanted to do that, too. I wanted to do many things.

I bet you did too.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Well, hello there; fancy seeing you at a blog like this. Which is to say, welcome to my new and improved, three-in-one blog! This new blog will combine and replace my two previous blogs (The MFA/MFYou Newletter and The Process IS the Product), while also being a general writer’s blog as I enter into a new stage of my writerly life: book publication!

First of all, the website: I’ve been working for the past few weeks on building my very own writer’s website, which I expect to have up and running in another week or two. I’m pretty excited about the way it’s coming together.

I’m making the website interactive by creating a virtual book club discussion forum. This is not really anything new (I noticed, for example, that Stephen King has one on his website), but I’m hoping that having an online place where readers can discuss the stories in my book will encourage people to visit the website regularly and—dare I say it?—motivate teachers to adopt the book in their classes (although, to be honest, I’m torn on whether I think that would be a good thing, since, as a teacher myself, I’m well aware that most students tend to hate anything they’re required to read for school).

Now, on the writing front: Ever since I signed the book contract, I’ve been busy (and sometimes mildly stressed) with getting the book ready for publication. I haven’t, in other words, been doing much writing. Revising, some, but mostly proofreading, along with other, essentially non-writing tasks, such as seeking out blurbs, writing a description of the book for promotional use, putting together my website, etc.

Once I sent in the final draft of my manuscript, though, and completed the other tasks I had been assigned to do, I did start working on some new stories. For the month of September, I made the tentative goal of getting back on track by spending an average of an hour a day writing. I didn’t quite make it, but I only fell short by a few hours, and I did finish out the month with a handful of working drafts of new stories that I can revise and, hopefully, begin submitting soon.

My goals for the next month are fairly straightforward: I’d like to make another go at getting back in the habit of writing for an average of at least an hour a day (I average, by the way, the time over the course of the entire month, so if I miss one day, I can make it up on another). I think I can do it. I think I can; I think I can. I also am using some contest and submission deadlines as motivators to get some things ready to submit. I’m going to submit to places with deadlines falling on or around the end of the month, for the next three months (to finish out the year).

For October, I’ll use the Narrative 30 Below Contest as a deadline (since this is, after all, the last year I’ll be eligible . . . wow, am I really almost 30?). At the end of November, I’d like to have a solid second draft of my new novel together, or at least a really solid beginning, to submit to the McSweeney’s Amanda Davis Highwire Fiction Award (another contest that I’ll only be eligible to enter for a short while—until I’m 32). And by the end of December, I want to have a submission to send out to Fast Forward, a journal that only accepts submissions until the end of the year, and one that I really, really like and would love to appear in again (I had a story in their Summer 2010 issue).

I have to admit, there’s something kind of frightening about openly admitting that I’m submitting to these contests/places. I usually keep these sorts of specifics to myself, so as not to feel any embarrassment when I don’t win/get accepted. But screw it! This is a new blog, for a new era in my writing life. Why should I be ashamed of not winning contests, when it happens to the best of us, when winning really requires as much luck as it does talent? Why should I only talk about my successes, when my failures have played as much or even more of a role in my writing life?

Nope, from this point forward, I’m going to hold my head up high and admit it: I get rejected. A lot. Way more than I ever get accepted. The only writing contest I’ve ever won (and mind you, I’ve submitted to plenty) is the one that is resulting in my book publication. The only reason I have the number of publication credits that I do is because I submit so much—if you could see the actual ratio, you’d see that for every one acceptance, I get something like 50 rejections. And you know what? There’s no shame in that. No shame at all.