Tuesday, January 17, 2023

Expect the unexpected

 In the oral history We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy (Yael Kohen), Anjelah Johnson (now Anjelah Johnson-Reyes) describes how the year 2007 went for her. She'd gotten onto a TV show that was canceled; she had no money. And then a video of one of her jokes went viral, and she got a new manager, a new agent, and a role on a TV show. Eventually she was laid off from that show, but she continued with stand-up comedy.

Reading that, I thought, Wow, what a cycle! And it also reminded me of stories I've heard of some writers' careers, in terms of sudden advances and sudden reversals, and highs and lows, and unpredictability.

There's Neal Pollack's story, and this interview in which he talks about the umpteen times when he thought he had finally hit the big time, only to find it was hard to stay on the summit of any mountain in the publishing world. And how came to conclude this: "I spent a lot of years trying to turn myself into a brand because they told us self-branding is a way to success. And I kind of believed the hype. It’s just not true." 

Fame is fickle, and success in the arts is wildly unpredictable. We've all heard this. We all know this. But in the back of our minds is the idea that there will be a moment when we've "made it," a time when we achieve a sustainable level of success.

And many do, which keeps that dream alive. But I suspect it's far more common to experience waves of gain and loss and near-gain. It's also possible to decide that one has had enough of that--of publishing, if not of writing.

In 2020 I tried to publish an article updating the careers of several authors whose debut novels had appeared 10 years earlier, showing where their paths had taken them in that decade. Some were still writing; some weren't. All were doing interesting things with their lives. I had no takers from the writers' magazines and websites, which I still think is a shame, as this is exactly the kind of information that I, as an aspiring and later a newly-published author, wanted myself. What could I expect, realistically? 

If I were to answer that question now, I would say: Expect to be surprised. Expect change. Allow yourself to change what you want. And as much as possible, enjoy the ride.

Saturday, August 20, 2022

As the world changes

 Many writers have had a difficult time writing during the pandemic. It's not surprising, really, between the anxiety and uncertainty, the disruption in schedules, and wondering how ongoing plots and settings would be affected by this turn in history.

Others dug into their manuscripts because they had more time or space, or fewer distractions, or needed the escape. The two manuscripts I worked on the most during this time barely mentioned the pandemic--especially the one that occurred mostly during the 1980s!

We are still reckoning with COVID19. So much of what we've been through in the past two years, we haven't yet been able to process and put into perspective. And there is still uncertainty ahead. I remember a similar reckoning after 9/11. Not only did we have to rewrite the landscape of New York, DC, Pennsylvania; not only did we wonder what might be next (anthrax, it turned out); not only were there new airport procedures and building-security rules; most of all, we had to look at how these events affected our mindsets, viewpoints, memories, plans.

Things are always changing. But sometimes they change more suddenly, and it takes a while to absorb the new world.

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Good wishes

 As we wind down toward the end of another year and the beginning of a new one, here is what I wish for us:

-an end to this pandemic!

-healing and happiness

-good books

-a few pleasant surprises


-new friends

-an adventure or two

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Typical writing session

Buckle your seatbelts for a fascinating look into a typical writing session! (Be warned: I may be employing the word "fascinating" rather loosely.) This is how I spent my morning:

Opened the file and found the scene I was revising. Edited a few lines.

Paused. Something about this scene, and the section of dialogue I was facing, bothered me. But what?

Thought about it. Could not figure it out.

Played some computer solitaire.

Realized what bothered me about the scene and what I wanted to do about it. Cut out the sentences that were opening a tangent that felt wrong for these characters. Reworked a few paragraphs.

Filled in some character names where I had previously just used initials. (I often refer to characters by initials in a first draft, before I know what their names are.)

Reached the next scene. Made some fussy little edits. Got to a part where a character is supposedly quoting Oliver Twist. I had done this from memory, not sure if the language in question was, in fact, from Oliver Twist. Spent an inordinate amount of time looking through Oliver Twist, having thoughts about workhouses and social safety nets, the marvelous depiction of the Dodger and Charley and Sikes, the offensive cringe-worthy depiction of Fagin, the way that Oliver disappears partway through the book, ceding the plot to Bill and Nancy, and ... remembered I was supposed to be writing my own book.

Not finding what I was looking for, deleted the reference to Oliver Twist and reworked that paragraph.

Spent some time debating just how far a certain romantic relationship should progress. Realized actual scenes will be needed to explain why these two characters like each other as much as they do. Wrote myself  a note to add such scenes.

Cut out some repetitive language.

Resolved a minor plot inconsistency.

Marked where I wanted to stop for the day, then read ahead to see which scenes are coming next.

This process may be meandering, inefficient, and slow, but it gets me there eventually. It would be nice if the perfect words came quickly and surely, but they seem to prefer to percolate up from the depths of my mind, inch by inch.

Sunday, July 4, 2021

Rereading and weeding

In my last post, I talked about whittling the to-be-read pile of books. This weekend I've been dealing with the already-read books.

Because I reread books, I keep them for a long time. This has resulted in a collection of a few hundred. And over time, I've noticed that some old favorites have dropped out of my rereading habit. Maybe I've read them enough. Maybe my view of them has changed. Maybe I'm in a phase of life where I need something different from books than I used to.

So I've been letting go of some books that I once cherished. They have been succeeded by newer favorites. I once thought a favorite book would be a favorite for life--and for some books that's been true, at least as far as midlife. But for others, not so much.

A book doesn't have to be a favorite for me to want to reread it. I also own some books that I've read once and want to read again, but I think one or two more reads will do it for me. Then I'll want to let them go. 

For most books, my favorite reading pass is the second one. The book is still fresh enough to delight--and even to surprise with the things I've forgotten--but familiar enough that I have less anxiety over how the plot will go, and I can notice all sorts of details I might've missed before. These include foreshadowing, symbolism, and the fates and concerns of secondary characters. 

Happy reading. Or rereading, as the case may be.

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Whittling the book pile

When the pandemic first hit last year, my local library shut down for a few months. While I missed it, and I am very glad it has since resumed online reservations and curbside pickup, I knew I wouldn't lack for reading material in the meantime.

Aside from being a re-reader, one who's happy to dip into my collection of shelved books over and over, I also had That Pile. You may know the one; you may have your own version of it. The pile of books picked up here and there--at sales, book swaps, and so forth, or maybe received as gifts. For me, they're books I want to read, or at least wanted to when I first got them, but wasn't in the mood for right then. Or at any time since, though I believed the right mood would eventually arrive. That pile's existence never stopped me from acquiring new books, most of which I read before dipping into the older pile.

Over the past few years, as I've made a conscious effort to declutter, I finally faced the pile. I was even able to slowly dent it. But 2020 would be my chance to make real progress, I thought.

I'm not sure how many books were in that pile when I first started decluttering--maybe 50? Definitely more than 30. It wasn't even really "a" pile, but a few stacks. 

I'm happy to report that the pile is now down to eight books.

I made progress in three ways. One was by facing the fact that I was just never going to read some of them, and I let them go to better homes. For book cherishers, this action can seem impossible at first, but it got easier the more I did it. For the remaining books, I decided that their reading time had come! It was easier to pick up one of these long-unread books if I reminded myself that I could always put it down if I didn't like it after all. (After years of compulsively finishing books whether I wanted to or not, I've reached the point of allowing myself to abandon a book that isn't working for me. Life is short, and there are plenty of books out there.)

The other way I shrunk this pile was by making an effort not to add to it. To bring home only books that I wanted to read soon. Part of my decluttering involves keeping a list of new items that I bring into the house. I don't track perishables like groceries and toiletries, but only things that are meant to hang around for a long time, and that includes books (though not library books, which of course rotate in and out quickly). I don't have any special rules about numbers of items I want to acquire or get rid of. I don't have a one-in, one-out rule. The only reason I made the list was to be more mindful of what I get, to be more aware of what I acquire, to make sure I really want or need it. And that has been happening. I'm not reading fewer books; I'm just storing fewer unread ones.

Happy reading, whether you're tackling a new book or a not-so-new one!

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Small goals, and one thing Twitter is good for

A few years ago, when I was in a writing slump, I decided to set some very small, manageable goals. Goals that would be fun rather than onerous. One was to write at least 100 words a day in my journal. They didn't have to be special words, good words, interesting words. The point was just to keep my writing habit going, and to set such a low-pressure goal that anxiety and judgment and other obstacles couldn't get in the way. 

The other was to participate in Creative Nonfiction's #cnftweet challenge once a week. The challenge is to tell a true story in one tweet, including the hashtag #cnftweet. The Creative Nonfiction magazine publishes selected tweets in its newsletter and magazine. For me publication was a bonus but not the primary goal; for me the writing itself was the main thing. I'd been veering more and more toward nonfiction, and I have always loved flash and micro lengths, so this was a timely exercise. I also enjoy reading the other cnftweeters' contributions; it has become a sort of loosely defined, fluid online community. And it was a thrill to have several of my tweets make it into issues of the magazine.

With the #cnftweets, unlike with my journal, I did concentrate on quality, seeking the telling detail, the vivid image, the apt turn of phrase. I see a micro story as one that delivers a specific concrete image but suggests a much larger story beyond the frame. And if it produces a laugh or a gasp as well, so much the better. 

My goal has been to come up with two #cnftweets per week, but I don't let myself agonize over this. Sometimes I've done three or more, sometimes one, sometimes none. I also don't agonize over the responses. I'm always delighted when others like them, but you don't always know what will strike a chord. I suspect every regular cnftweeter has had a carefully crafted tweet, one that makes them proud, draw few likes, while another tweet they'd thought of as almost a throwaway, the tweet they almost deleted, gets wild applause.

From these two practices, I regrew my writing habit. I have indeed written more and more nonfiction in recent years, although I've also been working on a long fiction project. The most important thing these practices did was to reconnect me with the joy of writing, the stability of having a steady flow of words. The words themselves sometimes snap and leap with life, and other times lie there limp with triteness, but that's the way the way writing goes. Finding the flow was what mattered.