Saturday, June 23, 2018

Four Writing Books That Have Opened My Eyes

Many of us hold two conflicting thoughts about learning in our minds at the same time. 

One, everyone best learns differently. 

Two, everyone, surely, best learns the same way I do.

Which is why I was simultaneously surprised and unsurprised at a recent Writers' Group meeting when a member stated in passing that he had never read a book on writing, that he never intended to do so, and that he just goes about writing in his own way, guided by his own lights. What's particularly annoying is that he is a good writer of both imaginative fiction and non-fiction.

Another good writer, of short stories this time, finds courses and workshops most helpful. Another likes a particular online course that includes various improbable assignments.

So, I offer this list of four books knowing (reluctantly knowing, I must confess) that not every writer will rush to read them.

I also know that another Writing Group colleague read one of these books, and recommended it for passages I could only vaguely recall - while I benefited from other parts of the very same book.

Here they are, then, all very different, each speaking to a different aspect of our vocation, so therefore listed in no particular order. I know I have mentioned some of these before, but the list has now grown to Four.

  • Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process by John McPhee
  • Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within by Natalie Goldberg
  • Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on the Writing Life by Anne Lamott
  • Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Mastery, Chemistry Productivity Community - today Productivity

Productivity is the ratio of Output to Input. In commercial enterprises, the usual productivity measure used is the amount of revenue earned divided by the number of paid hours worked. To use this traditional productivity measure for writers is not meaningful.

So, I have used Productivity to mean anything that has a number attached to it. How much? How many? How often? How soon?

My personal experience, including my experience listening to others who write, is that Productivity can be, simultaneously mind you, the most boring, infuriating, frustrating, soul-killing, elating, prideful, discouraging, ignored, fixated-upon, dismissed-as-irrelevant,or disappointment-inducing factor of the four measures of success. And the Productivity factor, depending on the writer, is either the least discussed, or most talked about aspect of writing, accompanied by either the greatest fanfare or the most modesty.

Please keep in mine, Emily Dickinson would have scored pretty close to zero on many of the Productivity factors listed below.

The Productivity notion, as with Community and the other factors, is for you to select the metrics you want to measure yourself by. And, so you may retain your sanity, ignore the rest at least for the time being.

So, for example, and in no order whatsoever:

  • Self-imposed deadlines
  • Group, publisher or other external deadlines
  • Word count specifications
  • Line length specifications
  • Number of stories, novels, poems written
  • Number of stories, novels, poems submitted
  • Number of stories, novels, poems rejected
  • Number of stories, novels, poems published - no revenue
  • Number of stories, novels, poems published - some revenue; or revenue over / under $X; or $ Advance
  • Number of speaking / workshop engagements, offered
  • Number of residencies, teaching positions, offered
  • Number of requests for coaching, mentoring
  • Number of requests for more stories, etc.
  • Number of pages produced each day / week
  • Number of pages edited / revised each day / week
  • Number of hours spent writing / revising each day / week
  • Number of words generated each day / week
  • Number of submissions per acceptance or dollar earned
  • Amount of time ignoring / sacrificing the rest of my life
  • Percentage of writing time that is mostly joyful
  • Number of forms (poems, light verse, short stories, flash fiction, biography, etc.) tackled
  • Year-to-year increase / progress in productivity

So, the writer who produces the final version of a short story in one hour, submits it to one publisher who pays her a million dollars for it, and who receives a tenured professorship from a prestigious university would have an extremely high Productivity score.

Personally, right now for me, I'm pretty happy when colleagues say they like what I have written, offer constructive suggestions for improvement and, sometimes, a magazine or newspaper says "Yes".

That's a higher Productivity standard than I had for myself a year ago. 

Thanks to everyone, you know who you are, who have helped. 


Friday, May 4, 2018

Fearful Wise Words

From Elizabeth Gilbert's book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear
"Let me list for you some of the many ways in which you might be afraid to live a more creative life: 
You’re afraid you have no talent. 
You’re afraid you’ll be rejected or criticized or ridiculed or misunderstood or—worst of all—ignored. 
You’re afraid there’s no market for your creativity, and therefore no point in pursuing it. 
You’re afraid somebody else already did it better. 
You’re afraid everybody else already did it better. 
You’re afraid somebody will steal your ideas, so it’s safer to keep them hidden forever in the dark.
You’re afraid you won’t be taken seriously.
You’re afraid your work isn’t politically, emotionally, or artistically important enough to change anyone’s life.
You’re afraid your dreams are embarrassing.
You’re afraid that someday you’ll look back on your creative endeavors as having been a giant waste of time, effort, and money.
You’re afraid you don’t have the right kind of discipline.
You’re afraid you don’t have the right kind of work space, or financial freedom, or empty hours in which to focus on invention or exploration.
You’re afraid you don’t have the right kind of training or degree.
You’re afraid you’re too fat. (I don’t know what this has to do with creativity, exactly, but experience has taught me that most of us are afraid we’re too fat, so let’s just put that on the anxiety list, for good measure.)
You’re afraid of being exposed as a hack, or a fool, or a dilettante, or a narcissist.
You’re afraid of upsetting your family with what you may reveal.
You’re afraid of what your peers and coworkers will say if you express your personal truth aloud.
You’re afraid of unleashing your innermost demons, and you really don’t want to encounter your innermost demons.
You’re afraid your best work is behind you.
You’re afraid you never had any best work to begin with. You’re afraid you neglected your creativity for so long that now you can never get it back.
You’re afraid you’re too old to start.
You’re afraid you’re too young to start.
You’re afraid because something went well in your life once, so obviously nothing can ever go well again.
You’re afraid because nothing has ever gone well in your life, so why bother trying?
You’re afraid of being a one-hit wonder.
You’re afraid of being a no-hit wonder” 

Friday, April 6, 2018

The Weight of the Ink in Canadian Stories

I am so pleased that my short nostalgic verse - The Weight of the Ink - has appeared in this month's issue of Canadian Stories - a literary folk magazine.

The magazine is only available in print form with a few exceptions. Mine is not one of the exceptions. I encourage you, though, to have a look at the site and click on the links to a few other contributors' work.  

The editor, Ed Janzen has been publishing it for 20 years. I think it is no exaggeration to say Ed is a hero, both to Canada and to the writing profession.

Subscribe to Canadian Stories if you can. It deserves another 20 years.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Mastery Chemistry Productivity and -- today --- Community

Try this.

Round up any group of authors and poets and other writers of various descriptions, experienced, inexperienced, whatever.

Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Everyone here? Good. Now, get your collection of authors, poets and what-nots all to agree about what success as a committed writer means.

Good luck.

Bet you a fancy cup of coffee you didn’t get agreement. And that is just as it should be. You might as well ask people what a successful life looks like. One would expect, and hope, there will be a range of legitimate responses.

So, as you read below, understand I’m not looking for the answer. There ain’t no such thing. For my own reasons, I am searching for my answer.

Four Factors of Success
It seems to me there are four meaningful and useful 20,000-foot indicators of accomplishment, of success, for the committed writer. They are fraternal, but they are distinguishable. Even though, admittedly, some snuggle up against each other.

I have named my quadruplets Mastery, Chemistry, Productivity and Community.

Let's first dive in with the indicator that focuses on our membership in the writing Community. We are something like a herd of cats, so don’t look for a whole lot of conscious coordination. For all that, I have seen, and personally experienced, others enriching their writing vocation by reaching out to their companion creators.

The Community Success Factors include:

  • Forming, leading, or actively participating in Writers’ Groups
  • Furnishing emotional support
  • Demonstrating, as only another committed writer can, understanding.
  • Offering individual feedback to other writers who request it from you.
  • Providing honest courteous helpful comment in a safe environment
  • Arranging for group 'social' luncheons and seasonal celebrations. (Writing is an otherwise solitary undertaking)
  • Providing information about possible places for others to publish, or receive editing services, or locate illustration partners
  • Acting as a not-for-profit, or reduced-fee, or lose-money-every-time publisher
  • Sponsoring or attending another writer's book launch.
  • Suggesting the information and how-to websites, seminars, and books you have found personally helpful.
  • Warning others of scam sites and practices
  • Depending on how you feel about creative people competing with each other, suggesting suitable contests
  • Being at the other end of the telephone, or of a Facebook message, or whatever when another writer is blocked or overwhelmed or discouraged.
  • Demonstrating a positive influence on other writers, beyond your own pages.

As committed writers we are, each of us, entirely individual. 

But we need not be entirely alone.

Monday, February 26, 2018

February Update

Well, here is a bloggy kind of post. A 'feelings' update. What could be bloggier than that?

I have stopped annoying my Writer's Group associates. This accomplishment has involved little effort other than biting my tongue. And ceasing to insist on my own point of view. Effective, but not as easy as it sounds.

I have managed to get mostly out of my head. I simply could not get everything done I wanted to do, or even what I was obligated to do, or felt I should be obligated to do, and I finally had to admit that to myself and do something.

So, as I mentioned in a previous post, I made a proposal to a place that had happily published me twice before and did not receive even a response from them. Not even a "No" or a "You've gotta be kidding." So, after spending hours on polishing and re-formatting to fit what I felt would be better for their needs, and sending two follow-up reminders, I formally withdrew my submission proposal.

A valued writer friend suggested that, ahem, (he didn't actually say "ahem" but he might as well have) perhaps my survey of what different Writer's Groups do was more emotionally personal than scientific.  As the expression goes, "busted". So, I have abandoned that as well as (temporarily no doubt) the personality defect that requires me to be right. And to prove it ad nauseum. 

This whole notion of "Write for yourself, not others" I think I have finally come to terms with.  (See, personality defect" above.) I have drawn on many sources for this reconciliation of thought.  Thank you, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemmingway, Stephen King and, locally, Margaret Bird, John Wilson, and Mary Frost. The culminating observation for me, though, was Margaret Atwood's.  She said, "when you write any book you do not know who's going to read it, and you do not know when they're going to read it. You don't know who they will be, you don't know their age, or gender, or nationality, or anything else about them. So books, anyway, really are like the message in the bottle." To this I would add - you don't know if anyone at all is going to read whatever you have written. So, I no longer feel the need to write an article on this topic. Much to my, and others', relief.

I decided to enter the writing contest and pay the fee. I should have followed the very sound advice I received - 'when you're submitting to a contest, write to your strengths, the kind of things you know you do well.' Of course, I decided to try stretch. (See "personality disorder" above.) When I finished the umpteenth draft, I ascertained that the response would be either "An important new voice in Canadian literature has emerged" or "What a mess. What could he have been thinking?" I asked someone to provide initial feedback. The word 'important' did not appear.

Next, I am going to produce a short piece of verse that I undertook to do as a contribution to a cooperative venture between two Writers Groups.

Then, I am going to format the children's book and seek out children's' 'focus groups' at a school and a library.

Then and only then, in the words of Joel McCrea in Ride the High Country, will I be able to "enter my house justified."

At least for now. [see PD above.]

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

A Horse Walked Into A Bar

I love this book. I have no qualifications to judge "best" but if someone asked me my "favourite" contemporary novel, I would say A Horse Walked Into A Bar by Author David Grossman and Translator Jessica Cohen.

According to Wikipedia, it won the 2017 Man Booker International Prize. Of more relevance to me is this comment: The judges said they had been "bowled over by Grossman's willingness to take emotional as well as stylistic risks".

One of my favourites from the book is: "Every one of them was like a rough draft of an actual human being. . . Beleive me, out of ten of them you could put together maybe one normal person."

Don't you just want to roll around in that prose?