"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, February 27, 2011

One thing that has always interested me is how much time different writers spend, on average, writing. It’s difficult to get a straight answer from a lot of writers, and few writers mention hard numbers in their writing about writing—often, I think, because most writers probably aren’t as obsessed with the time question as I am, so they don’t pay as much attention as I do to the exact number of hours they spend in the act. Still, the fact that I’ve been able to find out concrete numbers from so few writers leaves the answer to the question even more elusive, and it leaves the question feeling ever more important in my mind. If I could just figure out what that golden number is . . .
Of course, the truth is there is no golden number. The fact that so few writers can give any kind of concrete time estimate is probably partial proof that the amount of time a writer actually spends writing is not the all-important factor, after all, that determines the development and success of a writer. Time spent reading, for example, is also very important, yet I don’t bother logging how many hours a day I read. Time spent living life and having experiences also factors in, as writers must have something to write about.
I do think that it’s important to physically sit in front of your computer and write fairly often. If you do not write, you can’t reasonably call yourself a writer (and if you look up the definition of writer in the dictionary, you’ll see that that is not my opinion but a cold, hard fact). But the question of how much time should writers spend in the act of writing and how much of our time should we spend in other, equally important and relevant endeavors, remains.
What I don’t think is useful is the “if you want writing to be your job, you should treat it like your job and do it for eight hours a day” mentality. This is advice that highly successful, bestselling writers sometimes give amateur writers, and it sounds good on the surface. Yes, if I were working at an office, I would clock in and work for eight hours a day, five days a week. But this logic is actually painfully flawed.
First of all, I want to point out that the “eight hours a day” idea might be true if you want to be freelance writer or a journalist or something like that, but I don’t believe creative writing works that way. But also, let’s be honest, if I was working at an office job, I wouldn’t actually be working for that entire eight hours a day. That eight hours would be filled up with some actual work, yes, but also, with countless trips to the water cooler and chats with my coworkers, not to mention the million times a day I’d refresh my email. And that’s just me—I’m pretty honest. A lot of people would be chatting on Facebook while at work, among other things. How much of that eight hour day is actually spent doing productive work? Who knows, but certainly nowhere near eight hours.
Already, the eight hour a day argument isn’t sound. On top of that, though, is the fact that a creative endeavor is different from, say, entering data into a spreadsheet or filing paperwork. I can force my mind to do mindless office-job work for a lot longer than I can force it to work on a piece of fiction. Some days, sure, something comes over me and the words just keep coming and coming for hours and hours on end, but most days, I can write for a couple of hours or so, and then the words start drying up. My mind just needs a break, or it needs to spend time on those other important writerly duties (remember? Reading? Having experiences worth writing about? Thinking about those experiences and analyzing them for meaning?). So even if it were true that you should spend eight hours a day in your capacity as a writer, that would include those other things—it wouldn’t be eight hours spent in front of the computer typing.
So how much time to spend writing and how much time to spend doing other things will probably just always be an unanswerable question, and surely if it did have an answer, it would have a different answer for each different writer.  For me, I think I’m just going to keep trying to find the right balance between actual writing time and the other things, like reading, that are so important to being a writer.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

So I’ve been trying a sort of experiment for the last couple of months, where I haven’t been setting myself any kind of strict writing goals. Ever since I started taking writing really seriously, back when I was in my first year of my MFA program, I’ve been setting monthly writing goals—which I sometimes don’t meet, I admit, but which always seem to push me to spend more time actually writing than I probably would without the goals.
This past December, I decided that I had reached a kind of writing slump and needed to try to push myself out of it with some new type of goal setting. I posted here, asking for other people to talk about what works for them personally. The response was unexpected and made me completely rethink the idea of goal setting—many writers, it seems, don’t set goals at all. In fact, many people mentioned that they feel strict goals would have the opposite of the desired effect, making them want to rage against the “have to” of writing.
After reading and thinking about all the responses I received, I decided to switch my goal system from concrete hours per month spent writing—a system that had actually worked quite well for me in the past, having seen me through my first publications and even the publication of my first book—to more general project goals. I wanted to finish the millionth revision of my thesis novel (which I did) and to finish the current draft of my new novel (which I haven’t hardly touched at all in the past few months). I also wanted to work on some new stories, if the ideas came—the ideas did come, and I have been working on some stories.
But I have to say, the amount of work I’ve put into my writing ever since I chucked the idea of concrete time goals out the window has dramatically decreased. I mean dramatically. In November of last year, I spent roughly an hour a day writing. This was less than I would have liked, which is why I felt I needed to change my goal system—to see if I could spice things up and push that number higher. At my most productive, I average somewhere around three hours a day, and I’ve always held that number as my golden ideal. But instead of writing more, what happened is that in December, the number of hours I spent writing dropped to about half an hour a day, and it’s remained there ever since.
It’s time to accept the fact that this was a failed experiment. I’m glad to hear that other people don’t need to set such concrete goals to keep writing, but I do. If I don’t keep track of how much I’m writing, and keep an overall goal number in mind, I just don’t write anywhere near as much as I want to. Then I feel depressed. Then I feel like I’m a fraud—I’m trying to convince people to buy my book, and yet deep down inside, I don’t even believe I should be calling myself a writer.
The fact is, I’m not happy if I’m not writing a lot. I need to write, or else the weight of the world starts pressing down on me. The only way I know how to make life feel meaningful is through creating meaning where there wasn’t any before. And the only way I know how to do that is by writing. So I’m giving up on this idea of expecting myself to just automatically do what’s good for me. It’s like eating healthy, exercising, or even taking anti-depressants. It’s not something that most of us would really do if we didn’t decide we needed to, but it’s something that we do, indeed, need to do.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

I recently watched George A. Romero’s Survival of the Dead, which is an awful, awful movie, in case you haven’t seen it yet. I kind of figured it wasn’t going to be any good because Diary of the Dead was so lousy, but I make sure to give all of Romero’s “of the dead” movies a chance. This movie was awful not just because the plot was boring and uninspired (much like Diary of the Dead), but also, it just used a lot of cheap gimmicks and amateurish writing stunts—the sort of thing I would expect to see being submitted to an introductory creative writing workshop.

How is it that the person who co-wrote Night of the Living Dead, and single-handedly wrote Dawn of the Dead, could go on to write crap like this? In my opinion, since Dawn, Romero’s “of the dead” movies have gotten progressively worse: Day had some good things about it, but overall, it’s kind of boring; ditto Land, which was a little worse than Day, and then Diary and Survival are just so bad they’re really not worth watching unless you’re a hardcore fan.
It calls into question my entire view of how people become good writers: that if you practice, you’ll get good, and eventually you’ll theoretically get good enough that readers (or in this case, viewers) will be able to consistently count on you to always put out good stuff. Romero’s first feature length film, his very first, was the one that has gone down in history as the movie that defines zombie movies (prior to Night, let’s not forget, the word “zombie” meant a body—living or dead—whose mind is being controlled by a master). We could have perhaps assumed that John Russo (co-writer of Night) was the one that made Night so brilliant, except for the fact that Romero went on to write Dawn, which is, in my opinion, even better than Night (and is waaaaaay better than Russo’s version of follow-up to Night, the Return of the Living Dead movies, although some of them are fun and definitely worth a watch).
So the practice makes perfect idea did seem to apply to Romero’s career early on, but how do I make sense of the gradual decline of the series since Dawn? If it were true that you get better and better as you write more and that eventually you should reach a point where you can be counted on to always write good stuff, then Survival should be the best of them all. It just doesn’t add up.
And Romero here isn’t the exception that proves the rule. Many writers, if you look at their progression from early career forward, do not consistently put out good stuff, or perhaps it’s that they’re not able to always recognize whether something they’ve written is good enough to publish. Either way, there are many more besides Romero who do this (and I would also point out that there is a difference between the subjective nature of work—where I might think something is lousy but another, equally discerning reader might disagree—and the fairly universal state of “badness.” I’ve never met anyone who thought Diary of the Dead was good, and in fact, even though many of my friends are avid horror movie fanatics, I don’t know anyone besides myself and my husband who even gave Survival a chance; many people have simply given up on Romero’s zombie movies by now).
So it seems that my theory of practice getting you where you want to be is flawed, or at least, I think it’s partially true but is too limited. Something more is needed to explain how some people (usually the writers who only put out one book every several years) do seem consistently brilliant (and I wonder if those writers are writing other things inbetween, things that are not brilliant, things that we readers never see), while others can put out something amazing one year and something absolutely terrible the next.
The truth, I think, is far more complicated than that if you just keep at it, you’ll eventually get really good. I think even the best writers are still capable of writing crap, and maybe even very bad writers are capable of hitting on something amazing, by chance. Which means that writing will never get easy. There’ll be times where you have a great idea and it comes together perfectly, and times where, after several drafts, you just have to junk a piece because it will never work. But hopefully, knowing that will help staunch the pain of those failed pieces, and it might help us make sense of why sometimes the words seem to come so easily, and other times, inexplicably, we feel like we don’t really know what we’re doing all over again.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

I just got back from the AWP conference in Washington DC, and while I had a lot of fun, I’m utterly exhausted—there was just so much to do and so many people to see. I did a book signing for Peter Never Came at the Autumn House Press table; I went to tons of awesome, interesting panels (and a few flub panels, but that’s just the way it goes, isn’t it?); and I got to spend a lot of quality time hanging out with people I don’t normally get to see.

The sheer volume of people in the industry was a bit overwhelming at times, and many people at the conference seemed to have one of two opposing viewpoints about how it felt to be surrounded by thousands of other writers for four continuous days. Some people talked about the sense of community, how nice it was to get so many people with similar interests and career goals together in the same place. Several people, though, said that they knew they should feel that way . . . but they didn’t. Instead, they found it kind of depressing, having such a tangible, concrete reminder of just how many people are submitting to the same places, how unique we each absolutely are not. 

I lean more towards the former opinion, and there are a few reasons why:

  1. Even though a huge conference like this is a cold reminder of how much competition you have, it’s also a reminder that people do make it in this field. Many of the writers in the sea of people had books out, had published in a variety of journals, had won awards, had landed agents—and most of them are not any better or doing anything much different than the writers at the conference who hadn’t yet reached those achievements. The breaks, they do come; you just have to stick with the game long enough to start getting noticed.

  1. The book fair reassured me that there are many, many possible venues for publication. I’ve been researching, submitting to, and getting published in journals for so many years now, I sometimes feel like there are probably no journals I haven’t heard of—but there are. And being new to the book publication game, there are also many small presses that I either am not very familiar with or haven’t heard of at all. There are tons of places I can send my work out to, and I suppose I say this in part because I’ve had enough small-scale publication success to feel confident in my abilities as a writer, but just the knowledge that there are so, so, so many options available makes me believe that anything I try to publish, will get published eventually—I just have to keep sending it around.

  1. Even though I understand the complaint I heard from many other writers at the conference—that it got to be grating being immersed in this limited world where everybody you see is in the same field and everywhere you go people are having the same conversations—I really like talking about writing. Talking writing, even when it’s nothing new, even when it’s just the same conversations I’ve heard or the same panel discussions I’ve sat through hundreds of times before, still gets me going. I leave this kind of thing feeling totally keyed up and ready to write.

That’s not to say there aren’t depressing things, too, for example, the stark contrast at the book fair between the people working the tables, who were mostly trying to convince people to buy their books, journals, and paraphernalia, and the people stopping by the tables, who were mostly looking for places they could submit their own work. I have to admit, I find it disturbing that unknown authors who publish with small presses don’t always seek out and read other work published by unknown authors through small presses; likewise, people who want to publish their work in journals don’t always read journals. I would be a hypocrite if I only read work published by major publishing houses and famous authors—if I don’t even read unknown authors like myself, how can I expect other people to give me a chance?

This has been especially on my mind because I did see one such hypocrite up close at the book fair. She was an editor from a small press (I won’t say which one), and she was a bit curt with an editor at another small press table for trying to tell her about some book she had never heard of. “I believe you that it’s a good book,” she said, “but I don’t know who this author is. There are probably tons of good books that I’ll never read. I want to buy something I’ve heard of.” How did she live with herself when she returned to her own small press table and tried to sell the unknown authors and books her press publishes?

Still, overall, I found the conference far more encouraging and motivating than depressing. I left the conference exhausted, as I said, but also anxious to get back to work. I had a ton of fun, went to some cool panels, and bought some new books I would probably never have heard of anywhere else. I could definitely see doing this every year if I could afford to.