Plumbing the Depths of Your Own Life

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In a recent chapter of Lawrence Block’s Telling Lies for Fun and Profit he talked about a phenomenon he calls “burning the raft at both ends.” By which he means, consuming one’s own life experiences in the service of one’s writing. According to Block, you can use up your life. You can run out of experiences. You can write through your life faster than you can live it.

I’m vested in believing he is wrong about this.

I write from my own life. Maybe it’s because I come out of a poetic tradition. Or maybe I was drawn to confessional poetry, in particular, out of a compulsion to use my own life experiences in the service of my writing.

Part of gaining skill in writing has been learning how to do this more skillfully—to take the emotional kernel, the essence of my own experiences, and of the social and psychological realities I know intimately, and allow that essence to sprout circumstances for my characters that are not so easily traceable to my own life. In part, I do this to avoid libel charges, sure. But I also do it—like most writers—to protect the innocent, or at least the loved.

But as I have expounded before, I write as one vehicle toward self-knowledge. Writing without explicit self-examination is impossible for me.

I happen to believe that human beings are infinitely complex. That the material in any one human life is inexhaustible and ever-deepening. I was listening to a podcast by the New York Public Library yesterday. In it the novelist Karl Ove Knausgaard seeks to dispel the rumors that people with good childhoods can’t be writers. That well-adjusted, ordinary folk have nothing to write about. He describes himself as such a person who was lucky enough—and as a writer unlucky enough—to have supportive, well-adjusted parents and no major traumas. And he talks about learning, through the works of such writers as Flannery O’Connor, that every human life is engaging and interesting if you zoom in close enough.

Frankly, I don’t trust writers who claim not to write from their own experience. Maybe they don’t write from their own experience in such an obvious way. Maybe they use persona. Maybe they write science fiction or supernatural horror or murder mystery. Maybe they haven’t  personally experienced taking someone’s life but their hero is a serial killer. I would argue that even that person is writing from their own experience—maybe from their Jungian shadow side—maybe it’s unconscious. But to write that character in a compelling way they must be in touch with the human impulse to violence (whether expressed or unexpressed) in themselves. We each have it, after all.

We each have the capacity for all human emotions and psychological experiences. The entirety of your novel must spring from your own mind, which has been shaped by your experiences. That’s part of the mystery of writing. Somehow all of that stuff is in you. “You contain multitudes,” as Walt Whitman said.

So can you burn the raft entirely before you reach the shore? I would argue that you cannot. You have no choice but to keep living while you are writing. The raft keeps getting built as you are burning it. And as you refine your craft, perhaps you are also refining your attention, and you will see things in your life you never saw before. And they will be revealed to you through the act of writing itself.

What do you think, Agile Writers? Feel free to make a case for the opposite in the comments below!

Leaving Space for the Reader

06-the-white-room-6We entered into a productive discussion last week at Agile Writers. It centered on the problems inherent in writing (or acting, performing, producing) for an audience of peers rather than an audience of. . . people.

The topic arose because we are making our way through Lawrence Block’s classic on writerly craft, Telling Lies for Fun and Profit. Block’s chapter, which served as the launchpad for our discussion last week, was entitled “Never Apologize, Never Explain.” In it, he states bluntly that the sort of temperament that draws a writer to writing–the amount of “ego” and “self-confidence” (Block’s words) needed to write– often brings with it a desire for control. This includes a desire to control the reader’s experience.

Obviously, this is fraught. Any time we attempt to control or manipulate another’s experience, I would argue, we have overstepped our bounds–we have done both too much and too little in the creation of our art. Too much in the sense of condescending to the reader, telling him or her how to feel and think about what we have made. And too little, in that it takes far more skill to master the art of leaving space for the reader’s own experience.

I am egregiously guilty of this. I find myself over-writing, particularly in a first draft, as I am explaining the work to myself as well as eventual readers. I think this is a necessary phase of mastering any craft. I’ve never written a novel before. This process is a long exercise in on-the-job-training. So I have to begin with both an absence of skill and a distrust of what abilities I do possess.

The real delight and craft comes in the subsequent cullings–the adventures in trimming the fat from my work, leaving only what is essential, true and beautiful (not merely aesthetically pleasing). This is a sort of tuning process. We strike each scene, sentence, each word with a kind of internal tuning fork. We ask it “are you essential?” and wait for the answer. If not, we break it off and let it go. The more we listen, the better we get at divining the difference between the essential and the discardable. I am reminded of the famous Faulkner quote:

“I’m a failed poet. Maybe every novelist wants to write poetry first, finds he can’t, and then tries the short story, which is the most demanding form after poetry. And, failing at that, only then does he take up novel writing.”

The second place I have encountered this idea in recent weeks was while listening to an interview with the author Junot Diaz on the New York Public Library Podcast. Diaz’s assessment of the essential mistake of contemporary novice writers is that they don’t leave adequate room for the reader.

Diaz himself takes this “leaving room” principle all the way to the level of genre. In the interview, he discussed his work The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, which could be categorized as a loose collection of interrelated short stories, or a novel. It mixes languages, moves nimbly through time and space, switches from first to third person points of view, employs ample footnotes, all in an inevitable attempt to disorient the reader in precisely the way one might be disoriented as a part of the immigrant experience.

The result is lots of room for a reader to interpret and glean from the book different understandings. It isn’t anarchy though; Diaz is clear that Oscar Wao is about how it feels to be an immigrant, to live under a dictator and in a democracy, to grapple with masculinity as it is represented in two different cultures. These themes are undeniable and so vital that they could not be left to chance, even while elements as basic as genre and narrative voice are fluid and loosely defined.

What is most interesting to me about Diaz’s statements in the interview, is his diagnosis of the origin of this lack of ability to leave space for the reader. According to Diaz, who is a creative writing professor himself at MIT, the root of the problem is that writers are emerging more and more in a context of other writers. They go to conferences to talk to writers, they enter MFA programs to spend years in the company of other writers–both their peers and their mentors. Inevitably, the echo chamber this produces runs the risk of promoting the mastery of craft over originality, vitality and popular appeal. The writers of today, Diaz notes, are simply out of touch with readers.

Block outlined the crux of this more than twenty years ago: “A short story or novel constitutes a subtly different experience for every person who reads it, simply because each reader brings a different perspective and background to bear upon what he reads[. . .]The best we can do is write as carefully and as honestly as we can and let the reader make of our work what he will. If we write well, enough people will get enough of the message.”

So, who are readers, and how do we write for them? This issue strikes me as an elitist, ivory tower problem. Looking around the room at my fellow writers collected on a Wednesday evening, I see less danger of squeezing out the reader. We are not locked in higher education environments. We are chemists, teachers, parents, partners, and writers. One foot in the ordinary world, and one foot in the writing world.

Perhaps we are just putting our finger on the widening fault line between literary and genre novels. Those of us who seek to straddle the two (I would include myself here) face an increasingly difficult task. And those of us who unabashedly aim for salability and readability in our works need feel less ashamed. By shirking the masses, maybe the highest literary MFA-driven, conference-attending, adjunct-teaching, upper echelon of writers who write for other writers will go the way of the dinosaurs?

Lest I come off as too harshly critical of MFA programs, writing absolutely is a set of skills that can be taught. At their best, MFA programs are designed to do just this. To foster confidence in the execution of craft that can lead to wildness and vulnerability in the subject matter. But the ability to see and convey truth, to speak to a reader and move him or her without over-explaining and condescending, is an art. And art is stifled by closed environments and over-valued rule books. A writer, through trial and error, could perhaps land on the best crafting of stories. But given only the lessons of craft, and sealed off from the larger world, a writer risks going deaf to the murmurations of truth, the concerns and motivations of her readers.

The writer, if she is going to be a lightening rod for truth, and not merely a wordsmith, must trace the inevitable cycle of seers and sages of every stripe. Time alone on the mountaintop for the act of creation must be balanced by trips to the proverbial village, where the work is gifted to the world and the writer can drink in the cultural garb necessary to make her work relevant in contemporary society.

The acquisition of technical prowess is a slow and steady climb balanced by the grounding of our shared human experience. When you spend time in the world, and come to know your reader intimately, you will no longer underestimate their abilities or your own. You will leave space for their experience, and they will reward you with their readership.

The Split Climax

merging-lanes-aheadOne of the things I teach in my seminar on The Agile Writer Method is that the climax is the seventh and final turning point in the story. There is the classic climax where the hero defeats the villain and solves the main goal of the story. But there other ways to handle a climax. One of them is what I call the Spit Climax.

In most stories, we get to the sixth stage which I call “The Gathering Storm.” In it, the hero gathers their friends and makes a new plan to get the Main Goal. This usually follows the “Death or Disappointment” moment where getting the main goal seems impossible.

If you look at the climax of the Pixar film Toy Story, there comes a moment where Woody and Buzz are in the clutches of the evil kid “Sid Vicious.” Sid is known for destroying his toys and mangling them into fearsome forms. Sid has strapped a firework rocket to Buzz’s back and is getting ready to light the rocket and send Buzz to his ultimate demise.

Meanwhile, Woody has gathered all of Sid’s toys and created a plan to save Buzz. Just as Sid is about to light the rocket, the other toys break the primary rule of toy-being, and rise up like zombies to confront Sid. Sid is terrified of the approaching toys and goes running to his room to hide.

This is what I call “Vanquishing the Villain.” This is the first half of the split climax. The second half is called “Resolving the Main Goal.” Woody and the mangled toys have scared Sid straight and saved Buzz. But that’s not their ultimate goal. Their Main Goal is to return to Timmy before he moves away. If Timmy moves away before they can get home, they won’t know where he lives and they’ll be lost forever.

In the next scene, Woody and Buzz work together to chase after the moving truck. They hop in a toy car and are pulled along by the slinky dog. But that plan fails and Woody realizes the only solution is to light Buzz’s firework rocket, which is still tied to his back. When he lights it, Buzz opens his wings and flies just like the real Buzz Lightyear might. After some thrilling moments, Woody unties the rocket and the two buddies fall through the moon roof in Timmy’s car and they land in his box of toys. Timmy looks down and exclaims that he found his toys which must have been there the whole time. Thus resolving the Main Goal of returning our heroes to Timmy.

The great thing about the Split Climax is that the reader gets two moments of relief, or “catharsis.” In the first half, Vanquishing of the Villain, the reader experiences the relief that the hero is safe and the villain has been dispatched. In the second half, the hero resolves the Main Goal and the reader gets a second feeling of satisfaction. This gives the reader two cliff-hanging moments in one. It’s a great way to end your story.

But wait, there’s more. The Split Climax can also work in reverse. A lot of Marvel movies incorporate the Split Climax. In Avengers: Age of Ultron, the heroes in the story are fighting a horde of robots who have managed to raise the capital of Sokovia high above the Earth. The city is falling and if it crashes to Earth it will cause a global extinction. To make a long story short, the Avengers land the city safely back to Earth. Then the “Vision” character destroys Ultron.

In this case, the Main Goal (saving the city and hence the world) is resolved first. And Vanquishing the Villain is accomplished second. As you can see, the Split Climax works both ways.

So, the next time you plot out your climax, remember that there are other options besides a showdown with the villain that resolves all the problems in one scene. Sometimes you can get twice the bang for the buck when you use a Split Climax.

The Peril of The Pause

pauseThe wind barreled down the concrete breezeway and slapped my bare cheek as I walked through the library doors. I held a tottering stack of books flush against my chest, their corners digging into my ribs through my sweater.

Inside the library, I had felt calm, as I usually do. The dank, dusty smell and crowded embrace of so many crackling laminate spines always infuses me with comfort and possibility in equal measure. The library, for me, is a sacred space. A temple of learning. A humane gesture toward the infinite.

Standing in the aisle, I had scanned the strings of Dewey Decimal numbers for matches to my scrawled index card. I pulled my choices quickly. One of the children I nanny—the almost four year-old—raced around me in dizzying circles, karate chopping the air while I half-heartedly begged him to be quiet.

The day’s haul was topical. How to be a Freelance Writer, The Freelancer’s Bible, Everybody Writes: Your Go-To Guide to Creating Ridiculously Good Content, and the last, a petite red hardback entitled The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life—chosen because even I’m not foolish enough to go stomping around new territory without an ally.

But by the time we crossed the street and reached the car, my ears were ringing. A familiar, invisible vise tightened its grip on my head. Unconsciously, I was holding my breath.

I slung the books into the trunk and slammed it. I tried to focus on the way the steering wheel felt like a cool curve of skin-covered bone beneath my palms. But I could still hear the books, flinging anxious thoughts like miniature Zeusian bolts at the back of my head as I shifted the car into gear and drove away.

“Who do you think you are that you can be a writer?”

“Are you kidding—you don’t have a head for this. You’re no good at networking or promoting yourself.”

“You’ll never make enough money to survive. You’ll have to give it up and get a real job in a couple of years anyway so why bother?”

“There’s too much to learn. It’s too late. You should have decided to pursue this ten years ago. There are so many working writers out there already…how will you compete with them?”

In psychological parlance, these are known as Self-Limiting Beliefs. I label them my Inner Critic, a term I picked up from Julia Cameron’s canonical book on creativity, The Artist’s Way. There are many names for this phenomena—Steven Pressfield’s Resistance, Jung’s Animus, Freud’s Superego, the Dragon, the Demon, the Tempter.

And there’s new evidence that the engine of imagination sometimes manifests as this overthinking and worrying. In other words, the very force of imagination used to create art can be inverted to destroy the artist, as I wrote about here.

But the Inner Critic has an evolutionary purpose. Human beings are dependent on their tribe for survival and magnetized for criticism as a result. I lifted and laminated my Inner Critic’s favorite phrases in childhood. I postered my mind with them in adolescence. They helped me navigate the world, fit in enough to survive. But, over time, the phrases lost their original contexts and became so subtle I barely registered them in my conscious mind at all. They were my toxic elevator music.

And as long as my Inner Critic remained unconscious, I remained her victim. But I have made a study of my own fear over the past couple of years. I am learning the Inner Critic’s patterns. So it took less time to both recognize her presence and realize its cause.

Why was my Inner Critic waiting outside the library? I had finished the second draft of my novel about a week prior. Though I was still working on other projects, I had lived seven straight days without writing a word of my manuscript for the first time in six months. (Since the last time I experienced, and promptly forgot, this same agonizing pause after my first draft was complete.)

Every hunter knows that you shoot when the animal is still.

And the most effective way to ward off the Inner Critic is to keep working, to show up every day to my desk. That’s why the Agile Writer method hinges on the advice to “Constantly Move Forward.”

But, the pause is integral to the process. The work has to breathe. And I have to give my unconscious mind space in which to devise solutions to the lingering problems of plot and structure. I have to leave my desk and feast on the world.

What I have learned is that it is important to stay vigilant during such a pause, to protect the space you have deliberately created. Otherwise, the Inner Critic may populate it. A colony of fear may grow where you had intended only perspective, comprehension, and fresh ideas.

The temptation with that much space, with an inkling of the scope of the work, is to pass judgement on it. But, my job is not to decide if what I write is valuable. My job is to do the work as well and honestly and rigorously and thoroughly as I can and let go of the desire to control how it is received.

That is my job in the midst of writing. And that is my job in the moments of pausing.

The Night Before Agile Writers

By James Bono

Twas the night before Thursday. Throughout Martins’ store
Rishonda was browbeating us to write more.

“Ten pages are sent every Sunday by peak
agile writers. So how was your week?”

Elevator pitches graced those who would dare,
in hopes that Saint Gregory soon would be there.

Each writer was nestled all snug in his seat
while visions of publishing contracts loomed sweet.

And Bill with his laptop, Suzan with iPad
knew what it was like, because published they had.

When out in the parking lot rose such a clatter
I sprang from my chair to see what was the matter.

Away to the window I flew like a geek,
pushed sideways the curtain and I took a peek.

The mercury vapor lights lit up the cars
all silently parked on the asphalts and tars.

When what to my wondering eyes should appear
but a miniature sleigh and a herd of friends dear.

With a little old driver as agile as myth
I knew it a moment it must be Greg Smith.

More rapid than eagles his coursers they came
and he whistled and shouted and called them by name:

“Now Sharon, now Ursula, Kevin and Ken,
On Kristen, on Lisa, on Elsie and then
There goes Larry and Anthony, Whitney and Grace,
And Jackie and Jane and old what’s-his-face.
Run Katie, run Sarah, Marlene and Michelle,
gain altitude Glory, we’ve stories to tell!
Go Catherine, go Christine, go Angel and Paul,
A great Hero’s Journey awaiteth you all!

“From the handicapped parking, to the tow-away zones
now all pay attention and silence your phones.”

While some of them entered and made for the stairs
others bought dinner to bring to their chairs.

So up to the second floor room they all flew,
with their heads full of tales of a hero or two.

And then in a twinkling I heard through the door
the sounds of their footsteps plying the floor.

As I drew in my head and was turning around
to Martins’ conference room Greg came with a bound.

He wore business casual from his head to his foot
and his pockets were places where pens he had put.

A bundle of gizmos he wore on his back,
the latest electronics thence to unpack.

His eyes how they twinkled, with intensity stared,
so not meeting their quota of pages none dared.

His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow
but the beard on his chin he refused to let grow.

Since Martins’ wi-fi did not always connect
Greg’s smart phone as hot spot was there to correct.

He spoke many a word, not a duty did shirk,
reviewing his movies and publishing work.

Then at 8 o’clock sharp the main meeting did end;
half the group he would keep, half away he would send.

But I heard him exclaim as I left to critique,
“Which of your stages did you write this week?”

MERRY CHRISTMAS TO THE AGILE WRITER FAMILY!
MAY THE NEW YEAR SEE YOU ALL PUBLISHED!

Authorpreneur

imagesConfession time. Half of this word really scares me. Also, it makes me a little angry, a little frustrated, and a little unsure about my ability to succeed as a writer.

Here’s why: I’m not so sure that the skills needed to be a successful writer can cohabitate with the skills necessary to be a great entrepreneur, brander, marketer, social media mogul and sales executive.

I’m afraid I only have the former set of skills. I like to be alone, I like psychoanalysis, probing deep questions, imagining alternative realities, crafting language, and communicating my most dearly held truths.

The following things, on the other hand, make me feel icky: self-promotion, money, too much time on the internet (especially social media), strategizing, marketing, thinking about the salability of my most dearly held truths.

Am I doomed in the new arena of writing and publishing?

I hope not.

But I worry that developing the skills to hold up the entrepreneurial end of this equation will take place at the expense of the author end. Time spent in strategizing, marketing and social media blasting is time not spent writing, after all. And I only get the same 24 hours in a day as everyone else, unfortunately.

The alternative, of course, is to hire others to do the parts of the business that I don’t have an affinity for. This upsets me for an entirely different reason. Are we kidding ourselves about the great egalitarian wild west of self-publishing on the web? If time and money must be invested now by the author, instead of by the traditional publisher, aren’t we empowering some kinds of authors (those with an abundance of time and/or money) over others even more than we were before?

This troubles me. I don’t have the answer.

But, if I may be permitted to play devil’s advocate against my own argument for a moment, I can see some of the proclaimed advantages of this new author-centric system of publishing. For one, authors have greater creative control over the final form of their work than ever before. If you don’t want to listen to a bossy editor or publisher, you don’t have to. You want to write an 800 page debut novel? Knock yourself out. “We don’t see a market for that” is no longer a full-stop for writers seeking publication.

Authors stand to take home a greater slice of their profits than ever before, too. People are not writing novels in the hope of becoming millionaires by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s nice that the time and energy vested in such a long project can be rewarded by a higher percentage (if not all) of the profits of the book’s sales.

And I do think that for some, the skills used in the writing process are transferable to the realm of entrepreneurship. After all, entrepreneurs must also be highly creative to be successful. Blogging is just more writing (a good place to put all the ideas in your brain that don’t fit into your novel!). And many writers also have a knack for the visual arts, making designing their own covers a fun challenge, rather than an overwhelming chore.

I’m still hoping to be picked up by an agent and a traditional publisher. But, in the meantime, I’m learning how to build a platform, generate blog posts, and talk about my project to any willing listeners. Dogged determination, after all, has always been a part of the writer’s toolkit.

Agile Writers, what do you think? Are you as ambivalent about the term “authorpreneur” as I am?

We are Not the Best Judge of Our Own Work

free-clipart-gavel-judge-gavel-pictures---clipart-best-picturesI think there are times when attempting to judge our own work is detrimental to the process. True, we must be discerning. I am in no way advocating that we sit down and type out the first 60,000 words that pop into our heads, self-publish it and wait for the accolades and zillions of dollars to come pouring in. On the contrary, for me, the worthiness of writing as an endeavor is inextricably bound to self-discovery and evolution. You can always improve your craft as a writer. You can always dig down to another layer of understanding.

So, there is a place for self-reflection. However, self-judgement—it’s more toxic iteration—is not helpful, in my opinion. Americans in general, and writers in particular, tend to judge ourselves frequently and harshly. That includes our own writing, which occupies the precarious liminal space of being a part of ourselves—our work is not us, exactly, but it is of us, certainly. It is easy to conflate the appraisal of our work with the appraisal of our selves.

In particular, there are two times when judging our writing is detrimental to the process:

Judging a work before it is written is the first stumbling block to our own creativity. We may have an idea for a novel or a short story and before we can make it to our keyboards, the Inner Critic pipes up to let us know that our idea is stupid, it’s been done before, it’s boring, unoriginal, unsophisticated, blah, blah, blah.

If we have learned anything from Joseph Campbell, it is that all great stories—every great myth in every culture studied by modern man—is telling the same story. The Hero’s Journey. That’s what we all purport to want to write here at Agile Writers. Originality is something more nuanced than “this story has never been told before” because the bones of every story are universal. What is unique is our own voice. That, if we learn to trust it, is what will set our work apart.

So the Inner Critic will show up. At least, I haven’t gotten mine to be quiet yet. I just don’t put as much stock in what she has to say anymore. She’s the voice of Fear. And, as the writer Elizabeth Gilbert is fond of saying, “your fear is the most boring thing about you.” The most boring part of myself is probably not the part most capable of creative endeavors.

The second place where the  judgment of our own work can impede the process is during the writing/rewriting phases. We write something and immediately reread it and we are incapable of judging its goodness. We can clean it up somewhat, true, we can tweak the language, but the idea is still so fresh in our minds that we are inevitably projecting what we think it says over what it actually says. Our brains will literally trick us into reading words that aren’t even on the page.

It’s better to have distance. Write, correct for grammar and punctuation, make a few changes, but don’t belabor the work right away. Give it space to breathe, show it to your critique partners, sleep on it. Greater clarity and objectivity come with a bit of time. Because time engenders distance. And distance grants perspective.  And perspective is the closest we will get to objectivity about our own work.

For now, stay with the work of writing. Anything else is just an obstacle.

Agile Writers, are you good judges of your own work? Do you find self-evaluation useful or detrimental? Does it have an appropriate place and time in the process?