Monday, June 26, 2017

The simple life

"It is clear that life does not get simpler. I learn it over and over, always with the same reluctance and regret. The notion that life could somehow be simplified has been powerful with me. I still yearn toward it."
--Wendell Berry, in Distant Neighbors: The Selected Letters of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder, ed. by Chad Wriglesworth

Me, too, Mr. Berry. I have been trying to simplify my life for a decade.

I suppose I have made progress. I have cut back on my commitments, decluttered a couple of rooms in my living space. But I still yearn toward it.

So do a lot of other people. There are entire books and magazines devoted to the idea of simplicity.

A certain amount of complication is necessary, even fun. Trying new things and going new places means uncertainty and adventure, and in my experience, that's not simple. Those are the welcome complications. My biggest difficulty is embracing, or even just tolerating, the dreaded complications: the delays, breakages, failures, etc.

Maybe I wouldn't even want a truly simple life if I had it. But I keep reaching for it anyway.

Friday, June 23, 2017

Rolling with the unexpected

I had a day stretching in front of me, and a nice list of projects to fill it with. Not too many, not too few. I looked forward to working through my list, getting things done, humming along on a predictable path.

And my day got derailed during project #1. Computer issues interfered with my ability to do #1, affected many of the other items on my list, and took time away from the whole list as my resident computer guru and I tried various things to diagnose the problem. 

I'm not a big fan of such derailments. I like things to proceed as planned. That's why I make lists in the first place. 

But I ended up spending a good chunk of the day totally unplugged. Reading. Grooming the cat. Sitting on the porch. Writing in (gasp) longhand. Tending to some household chores. I enjoyed the quiet, the time away from the screen. The little voice in my head that nagged at me about the things I wasn't getting done got answered with: "Well, I can't do anything about that right now. It's beyond my control."

And the sky didn't fall. Which was a good reminder that a little spontaneity doesn't have to hurt.

Obviously, since I'm writing this now I once again have access to the digital world. But I don't think of this as a day lost. It was a full and happy day--just different from what I'd planned.

Friday, June 16, 2017

The third book

The second book is supposed to be the tough one. Fraught with pressure and uncertainty, with the glow of first publication wearing off, it’s a notoriously difficult hurdle ... and yet it wasn’t that way for me. My second novel (Try Not to Breathe) was, and still is, one of the pieces of writing I’m proudest of. And it was, if not easy, less difficult to write than most of my other work.

For me, the third book carried all the baggage and trouble that the sophomore effort usually does. I despaired over every editorial letter. Many nights I left the computer thinking, “I quit; it’s over,” only to try again the next day. For that reason, for a long time I saw a shadow over that book. Remembering the struggle, I thought of it as lesser than its siblings. 

And then, at some point, I reread Until It Hurts to Stop. And I loved it. I reconnected with the characters, with the theme that had driven me to write it in the first place. My behind-the-scenes anguish was not on the page. The pages reflected only the outcome of the editorial decisions, not the doubts and debates that happened before those choices were made.

It reminded me that people don’t see what you leave on the cutting-room floor. They don’t see the endless drafts, the revision letters, the raw notes. A scene that took you a month to write may be gulped down by the reader in a few minutes. Its smoothness is possible only because of the trouble you took; it’s the product that counts. The reader doesn’t know that your dog died during the writing of Chapter Five, or that your kid had the flu and you wrote Chapter Eleven on no sleep, or that you rewrote Chapter Three seventeen times. The reader never saw the two characters you deleted and the twenty pages you lopped off at the end. 

The story—thank goodness—has a life apart from all that, a self-contained existence between its covers. It has been polished to its best form.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Cats' Pledge

Cats belonging to writers everywhere have taken this vow:

Where there is a keyboard, I will lie upon it.
Where there is a screen, I will stand in front of it.
Where there is a stack of papers, I will sprawl on them.
Where there is an envelope, I will dig my claws into it.
Where there is a door, I will demand to go through it.
When a writer has toiled mightily and well, s/he will be rewarded with the present of a dead rodent.
Where there is rejection, I will purr and head-bonk the troubles away.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Taking home the best part

I've gotten many things from writers' conferences: writing tips, feedback, prompts, professional contacts, books, prizes, and even friendships. And, of course, a fine collection of tote bags!

But probably the best thing I bring home is inspiration. It's not just insightful keynotes or pithy quotes or useful lessons. It's the dedication people bring to this craft. It's the feeling of sharing space with dozens of other people who choose to spend a weekend in a hotel conference room tending this essential part of themselves. It's the collective enthusiasm, the collective belief that words matter, that stories matter. 

Conferences rekindle my excitement for writing. They remind us that although writing is a solitary profession, we're not really alone.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

On suffering for art

In Sleepless Nights, Elizabeth Hardwick writes, "Tell me, is it true that a bad artist suffers as greatly as a good one?"

I marked the page because that line made me think quite a bit. We hear the advice to dig deep, to open a vein, and one thing we can always tell ourselves if we're not succeeding is that we haven't dug deeply enough, we haven't cut close enough to the bone. Maybe more hours of work will do the trick. Maybe we just haven't invested enough yet.

But that's not necessarily it. There are artists who sweat and scrimp for years, who put in the effort and the time, but never quite find an audience for what they're doing. Is it a lack of originality then, a lack of some spark that holds them back, or is it just bad luck? What is a "bad artist," anyway? 

This is the point where I sense that I am asking unanswerable questions, and I turn to the next page. The one thing I know is that effort matters, but only to a point, and suffering is no guarantee of eventual payoff. Which is why the best part of making art is often in the creation itself.