Monday, March 22, 2010

Listening to My Broccoli

Quote: “Listen to your broccoli, and your broccoli will tell you how to eat it.”
~Mel Brooks

Song: “Poison My Eyes” by Anthrax

Progress report day! But no progress to report!

Except that the house is really, really clean. Downstairs and upstairs vacuumed, bathroom (ick) cleaned, I can actually see the top of my desk, and I organized all my shiny new writing books. The only room my cleaning frenzy hasn’t reached is the bedroom, but it’s messy days are numbered.

As far as editing goes, I haven’t touched my book in a week. What I have done is think about my book, turning solutions and thoughts over in my head, but mostly just tried to be still and listen to the whispering of my characters. Or as Anne Lamott quotes it in her wonderful book, “Bird by Bird”, “listen to your broccoli. When you don’t know what to do, when you don’t know whether your character would do this or that, you get quiet and try to hear that still small voice inside. It will tell you what to do.”

So that’s what I have been listening for. And slowly, timidly, the voice of my character is starting to talk to me. I don’t have the whole thing yet, but that’s okay. I can be patient.

In the meantime, I finished reading “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott, the book I just quoted. Now, I’ve seen this book mentioned by other writers before as essential to writers everywhere, but I never felt much urge to read it. Books on the craft of writing usually appeal to me far more than books about the writing life. But I was in Books a Million, waiting for my sis in law to get off of work (she’s a massage therapist as well, and we work at the same spa. There’s a Books a Million a few stores down from the spa we work at (I know, trouble brewing for my paycheck). We work nearly the same schedule, so we commute because she and my twin are currently sharing the same vehicle after his monster of a Buick went to the great scrap yard in the sky) and I was perusing through their language arts section when I saw “Bird by Bird”. Out of curiosity, I picked it up, flipped through it, and opened to the table of contents. I saw the chapter titled “Broccoli” and flipped to that, wondering what the heck a chapter named “Broccoli” was about. The beginning is almost verbatim of what I quoted. I had a moment of recognition and clarity. You know those moments, when you pick up a book either fiction or non-fiction, when you think “Ah ha! This is exactly what I haven been looking for!”

Moments like those are why I love writing. I want to someday give people that same moment. Anyway, I bought the book, and read it in two days. I would have had it finished in a day, but that whole day job thing got in the way of my reading time. I hate it when that happens, don’t you?

Lamott also has a great chapter on publication, and how it’s not the golden calf everyone believes it to be. She talks about how we should be writing for the sake of writing, for the sheer joy of the act, and if publication happens along the way, great. But we were all writing before we realized how books gets published anyway.

It might be just me, but I don’t remember being so caught up in the publishing race when I was in high school and happily churning out first drafts crappier than you could imagine. No seriously, they were terrible. I had my moments where I didn’t beat the reader over the head with the clue bat, or “wallow in my imagery” as my creative writing teacher called it (I didn’t like her very much, and NOT just because she didn’t like my writing, it was her teaching style. She wrote these supposedly thoughtful essays about how she felt when she saw her baby on the sonogram for the first time, the rest of the class was writing stuff about their first softball game, or dance practice, and my best friend and I were writing short stories and novels about fantasy, and made up worlds, and the Mafia coming to get you. We felt very much out of place) but for the most part I made all the first draft mistakes almost as if I was checking them off a list of what NOT do to:

*Passive voice? Riddled with it. Check.

*Showing versus telling? Mostly telling. Check.

*Description filled with words I had to use the thesaurus to find? Check.

*Adverbs? Every other word. Check.

Yet somehow, when I read back over my old work, I can see the diamonds in the rough. The characters need work, but they are alive. I made a lot of mistakes, but I grasped a lot of things intuitively just because I read so much.

My point is, I wanted to be published, but that seems like a far off goal, like getting married someday and having some rugrats. Ten years later, I find myself worrying about publication more and more, especially over the last year, when I’ve really buckled down and tried to learn as much about publication and writing as possible. With so much information out there, it’s no wonder that new writers drive themselves nuts with thoughts and dreams of publication.

I think we should all take a collective step back, and breathe deeply. Yes, most of us want to be published. And yes, we should be knowledgeable about the process, but what about appreciating the writing for it’s own sake? It’s own joy? What about focusing on the book, the love of the craft, and let the publishing world take care of itself.

This is the only road to publication for me. If I focus on my books and the craft, if I nurture them and myself, I believe that eventually my book will speak for itself. It may not be a year from now, it might not even be ten. But I am not writing just to be published anyway, so to say I am wasting my time between now and publication time would be a lie. I am not wasting my time. I am creating worlds, breathing life into people. Bringing joy to the few people that read my work. That has merit all on it’s own.

Try this:

Try to remember the first time you felt wonder and amazement at what you could do with words. That you could tell a story. Maybe it was after reading a great book, and you asked Mom where books came from (forget babies, where do books come from?), and she told you other people made them up and wrote them down, so you went to your room and wrote a story about a man named Fred. Or a cat that could fly, or whatever you wrote about.

Or maybe the desire to write came later in life, after something profound happened to you and you wrote it all down to capture the moment, or let it go, and you read over what you had written, and like Frankenstein’s monster, you realized the words had a life all on their own.

Write down that moment, what you remember about it, what you were wearing, what the weather was like, what the room smelled like, if you were using crayons, or pencils, or a laptop. This moment along with other, are your source of confidence as a writer, this is your passion.

You could print this memory out and tape it to the world, or bury it in the deepest box, but whether you feel disheartened, or tired, or crazy, or frustration with all the rejection, go back to this memory and feel that simple joy again. Because that’s why you’re writing. Not because you want to be published, publishing is just a means to an end. Publication can make you enough money to support your writing (but most likely it won’t) or it can give you validation that you write well (although it’s not going to make your insecurities go away. If anything, it will amplify them, because now there will be thousands of complete strangers opining about your labor of love) or it can bring your novel to new readers and touch their hearts like a book has already touched your own (I think this is the best reason for publishing).

You aren’t writing for publication. It’s just part of the writing process. You didn’t go to grade school so you could go to high school. You went to school at all so you could get a job, so you could make money and live (and buy more books).

What about you guys? What keeps you going when you’re frustrated? What helps you stay focused?

Why are you bothering? Why are you bothering with writing at all? Certainly not to get rich, people who write to get rich won’t last long. People who just want to dabble don’t last long either. There must be some reason, some driving passion that keeps pushing you onward. What is it?


  1. Love to write. Absolutely love the English language. Had an obsessive passion in my adolescence to live a life that would be a good story to tell. Love hearing crazy stories from perfect strangers. Love telling good stories of my own and of others. I'd also love if telling stories were the only thing I ever had to do, because then I could dedicate my time to telling them better. ;)

  2. Robert E. Howard (creator of Conan the Cimmerian among other characters) said that he was not an author creating a fictional story, but a dictationist writing the story as Conan told it to him. The barbarian stood over him while he worked, threatening to kill him if he did not tell his story and tell it properly. Howard would write furiously and to late hours in an effort to transcribe the story and preserve his life.

    While I think this was a hallucination, and a sign of the dementia that would eventually lead him to commit suicide, I understand the concept as a metaphor. If I am not writing, I get moody and short tempered. I have horrible dreams of all the things I should have been putting to paper (or hard drive, as it were). I am tormented, if I do not write. And while I do not believe a barbarian will decapitate me with his axe if I do not, my life is pretty miserable all the same.

  3. @ M.E. (so cool your initials are me) Yes, that is the noticeable benefit of publication—it gives you more time to write! Huzzah! That, or you could marry a sugar-daddy/mommy depending on your gender/sexual preference.

    Just saying.

    @Joseph: I am the same way. Cranky and unbearable to live with until I start to work on something. And while I am lucky enough to not have characters looking over my shoulder while I write (or the delusion that they are), I feel it’s just as important to get their story right, even without the threat of decapitation.