Writing & Reading

I’m reading two novels right now. One by Virginia Woolf called The Voyage Out which is free on Kindle…I checked and Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary, from where I snagged my blog title in complete homage to Woolf’s fabulous book for writers, is not free, darn it!

The other is an actual hardcover book, Alice Hoffman’s latest. Both of these novels have a  dreamy stream-of-consciousness tone. Both are short on plot and long on exquisite inner conflict and rich vivid descriptions of the settings. 

Since neither book is anything like what I write, I assumed it was safe to read them while simultaneously revising one of my own WsIP. I’ve read so many times, off-hand comments by published novelists that they do not read fiction while they are working on a book. I never knew how that could be possible. I love reading fiction and could not give it up for more than a day or so. And even then, I’d miss it.

I used to wonder, how could writers notread? Maybe they are scrupulous and worry they will unintentionally plagiarize. Or pick up another writer’s voice. I’ve never worried about those things. And I need novels like I need to breathe.

But this time, this revision, I can kind of understand another reason why it might be good to stick to your own work while you’re working. Maybe the kind of immersion that brings would keep me from feeling like I have to read my ms. all in one sitting, all in one day. If I don’t do that, especially after a number of revisions, I can’t remember the exact sequence of events.

I’ve tried outlining as I go but sometimes it’s the little things that get lost if a writer doesn’t keep perfect continuity. And I can see how reading a couple other novels (or even one!) while you’re working on your own might distract the mind just enough to throw a writer off her game. I kind of get that now. But also I cannot imagine going for weeks or months without reading a novel. Dilemma!

I have never been one to write all day and into the night hours. I write for several hours in the morning and then I break to attend to the rest of my life, which always includes reading. Novels, magazines, blogs, memoirs, books of essays, self-help, whatever! Reading is the way I relax. Writing is about pointed concentration. Reading is letting go.

But I get it now. Some writers don’t want to let go. They need to ride the wave of their own story to its conclusion without distraction. I admire these authors the way I admire friends who successfully finish weight loss programs. Still, for me, it’s just….guess I need the ice cream.

No More Excuses!

I am a creature of habit. I got the habit of reading self-help many years ago, when I taught emotionally and mentally troubled high school kids. Every day was a major challenge. Every day I didn’t think I could do it. Every day I wanted to quit. What got me through was a book called A Course in Miracles. The Course taught me how to meditate and how to elevate myself far above what I thought I could be and do. It saved my life.

For an entire year I got up early to read the daily lesson and religiously followed whatever obscure thought or process the Course provided. I loved that the Course didn’t require belief in its message. For a miracle to happen, I just had to meditate on the day’s idea, and that was enough. After that year, I came to depend on that morning habit of reading inspiring material, meditating, and writing about how I could apply the particular lessons.  

I’m still doing it 20 years later;-) If I don’t have a self-help book to read in the morning, I feel like my day is not starting right. Often, I’ll go back to favorites and read the highlighted passages. I also have my favorite authors, and I’ll read whatever new book they release. Wayne Dyer is one of my old faves. I finally bought Excuses Begone! and have been reading it the last several mornings.

Reading Chapter 3 today, I had bells and whistles going off right and left. So much of what Dr. Dyer writes applies to the writing life that I had to share. Here are some of the excuses I realized I use around my writing: I’m too old. The rules won’t let me. I’m not smart enough. It has never happened before. No one will help me. I can’t afford it. It will be difficult. It will take a long time. And this was the shocker: “I don’t deserve it.”

Under the “I don’t deserve it” section, Dr. Dyer lists the excuse “I try, but nothing ever comes my way.” He says that this excuse is related to poor self-esteem, which surprised me because I tend to think my self-esteem is pretty solid. But this morning I realized, not so much when it comes to writing. Because, as the good doctor points out “I try, but nothing ever comes of it.” It’s easy for self-esteem to get battered in the writing world where rejection is the norm. Selling a novel has eluded me for decades. Decades! “I try but nothing ever comes my way.” It’s like the man saw inside my head, deep into the subconscious part of my mind where these poisonous thoughts brew.

Dyer’s antidote to this unconscious belief  is to recognize it, root it out, and replace it with a positive message regarding the divine spirit that dwells within. Because I am a divine spirit, I deserve every good thing in the universe. Including a book contract;-) This is something I can remind myself of every day during prayer and meditation or even just as I sit down to write.

The other one that rang the loudest bell of truth for today was “No one will help me.” I think this resonated because my February horoscope is full of team work, finding people to help me, and progressing in my career through the support of others. This month, there is a strong theme that I should not do it alone. That I should rely on whoever and however. Since I’m an Aries, I usually like to do things on my own. To know that I may need help sort of freaks me out. 

Still, after reading my horoscope yesterday, I cast around in my mind for people I could call on to help me with my writing. I came up blank. And there it was again this morning in the book. “No one will help me.” But as I write this, I remember my critique group. How could I have forgotten them? They help and support me whenever I need them. Also, in the last few months I have gotten a ton of help from editors and agents. Did I forget that? Yes, but the act of writing this helps me remember. I do have support. Every time I post a writerly update on FB lots of my friends and family show their support with comments and thumbs up. 

I feel particularly supported by this blog. In writing this post I remembered all the help available to me. So to all of you who email,  comment, or simply stop by to read, Thank you!

Keef & Things

I’ve been writing every day, polishing Luke’s #1 Rule to a glossy shine. Not that I think I’m going to hear anything soon about it or the other manuscript I’ve got in submission. Still, I keep writing because it’s the way I ease myself into the day. I once said Luke’s #1 Rule was the book that wrote itself, and while it isn’t perfect, the faults and fixes are obvious and relatively easy, too.

Then there’s school. Despite my scroogy post last week, I’ve got a good group of students this term. And I’ve loved teaching elective lit courses instead of required composition. However, I am stoked about my sabbatical which starts next week and goes until at least May 2011.

And last but not least, when I get a free moment, I’ve been reading Life by Keith (his friends call him Keef) Richards. I recently finished Clapton and I gotta say the two books, by two great guitar players who led similar lives (rock star) at the same time (60s London) and had the same addictions (heroin & alcohol), treasures (country mansions), and pleasures (blues music by black Americans), the books are really different.

I liked them both for their own reasons. Clapton describes the scene in London in the 60s, just the sheer numbers of rock and roll bands who started up and played together and supported each other and gigged together–from Hendrix to the Beatles–that was really fun, to see Clapton become a part of that.

Both Keef and Eric worked hard at the guitar, but Keef goes a bit more in depth about how he developed his songs (Mick wrote lyrics, Keef wrote the music and came up with the original spark, often the title or first line). Keef gets really technical about open chords and early recording methods and acoustic vs. electric. I played guitar ten years so I find it fascinating but I think anybody who isn’t a guitar player would be a bit lost, frankly.

What I love most about Life is its sound. A friend asked me if I thought KR used a ghost writer. Really, I don’t. He includes letters he wrote to relatives early on (in one he says “I met this guy named Mick Jagger…”) and the voice and tone has the same irreverent irony as the rest of the book.  

*Note added 12/14: At the end of the book, in “About the Authors” a guy named James Fox is mentioned. I didn’t see his name on the cover, and I am reading a Kindle edition, which typically takes you to the first page of the first chapter. Now that I searched through the opening pages, it does say on the inside cover page in tiny letters “With James Fox.” Turns out Fox interviewed Richards extensively and then wrote the book. He maintained the flavor of KR’s voice IMO. 

And also, there’s the holidays. Mine are great so far and hope yours are too.

The Perfect Writing Environment

This morning, I’m sitting at my dining room table writing this post, waiting for the Maytag repairman. When my husband told me he’d made these arrangements the first thing I thought was “damn another writing day wasted.” Because distractions tend to wrestle away my limited ability to concentrate.

Like Jonathan Franzen, I have my routine. But that’s where the similarity ends. Franzen did  not mention taking a break every hour to stretch his back and throw a load of laundry into the dryer. He works in an office without access to the internet. He wears noise-cancelling headphones. His office is cold, no frills.  

My home office has a big cozy chair as well as a desk chair. I use both. (I don’t think the word cozy is in Franzen’s vocabulary.) The cozy chair is for handwritten stuff, first drafts, morning pages, revising hard copy. The desk chair is for getting down to business, transposing my edits onto the computer. When I’m really in the thick of a book I will write directly onto the computer at my desk. My day is pretty evenly split between the cozy chair, the desk chair, and the laundry.

So today I’m out of my comfort zone down here in the dining room. I have a four hour window of waiting for the repair guy. 8-noon. I’m hoping he gets here sooner rather than later so I can slot myself back into my routine and my writing room. Aisha wonders how I deal with the internet. On good days, I don’t turn it on until after I finish writing. On good days, I open Word first in my computer. Much of the time, I find the world of my story more compelling than the real world. At least for those few hours a day I give over to writing.

I even save blogging until I’m finished writing. If I get a good idea, I put it on a post-it note. Blogging is my reward for working hard. It keeps me motivated. How soon would I run out of things to say if every day I had to post “Didn’t work on the novel today”?

When I’m waiting for a response from an editor or agent, all hell breaks loose. I check my email obsessively and that leads to distractions like looking at the latest cat video and checking in with my friends on Facebook.

JF is probably not on Facebook. His writing routine seems like a study in seriousness while mine is cozy and combined with housework. Plus he took nine years to write Freedom. He wasn’t working on it that whole time. He worked on other things that didn’t turn out right. Once he got the general idea of Freedom he wrote it in less than a year.

I love what he said about getting ideas for writing by thinking about the things that make you upset/angry/afraid. I can see how that would make the wonderful kind of cultural critique aspect  of Freedom and The Corrections.

For me, sometimes my best writing comes from remembering something in my past, some blunder or stupid mistake I made. Some humiliation I suffered. It’s usually funny when I give the situation to a character. Yearning is my other rumination. I think of all the times I yearned for something or someone and that goes into my story.

Okay it’s 9 am and the Maytag guy is still not here. Good thing he’s fixing the dishwasher, not the washing machine. Time to throw in a load of laundry.

Franzen on How He Writes

Jonathan Franzen, author of Freedom and The Corrections chatted with Oprah about a bunch of stuff, but just for a minute about how he writes. He says he shuts out the million things going on all the time all around. He works in a spartan environment without outside stimuli. Just him and his keyboard in an office. He thinks about what scares and concerns him the most about life right now as we (he) live(s) it. And why these things scare and concern him. He tries to get a really good handle on just a few things and ignore everything else and then he writes about whatever has distilled in his quiet mind.

Anyway, that’s what I got out of it.