Sunday, March 08, 2009


On writing

First up, something skimmed from the lovely and talented Cassandra, who attended the Asilomar conference a week or so ago. She reports having heard Jim Averbeck say this, and I have to say that the longer I work at being a writer, the more I understand the truth of this remark:

"You have to love writing, but more importantly, you have to love learning to write better."

On taking risks in your writing

Laurie Halse Anderson, whose new novel, Wintergirls, comes out in about 10 days' time, took time to answer some reader questions earlier this week. I know her blog is named "Mad Woman in the Forest", but I find nothing crazy at all about most of her posts. She talked about taking risks with her writing, and somewhere in the middle of her wonderful blog post, she said this:

"There is no way you can please everyone. Neither can you write a book that will appeal to everyone's tastes. First and foremost, you need to write the book that is in your heart."

And then, in closing, she said this:

"We cannot control how people react to our books. Our job is to write; write honestly, write with passion and compassion, write the true."

On reading poetry

I was fortunate to catch not one, but two, John Green live chats this week. On March 4, 2009 at about 11:53 p.m. ET, while in the midst of reading some poetry selections to his viewers, John said this, which is, I think as good a reason to read poetry as any other:

"One of the things I like best about poetry is that it allows us to be quiet and contemplative."

On what to write about
The next evening, John hosted a vlog featuring poet extraordinaire Katrina Vandenberg, whose debut poetry collection, Atlas, appears to be out of print, but I will nevertheless persevere and track one down, based on the loveliness of the poems I've heard John Green, and now Katrina herself, read. During the live interview/reading, Katrina read a poem about records (of the vinyl persuasion), the title of which I cannot recall. Afterwards, in conversation with John, she said:

"I like writing about things you can't get back to – [writing about] the thing that you get rid of, and you later wish you hadn't."

It occurs to me that a lot of us write about just such a thing, whether it's a feeling or an object or a person, and whether we write fiction or poetry or memoir or songs, or whether we make visual art.

On the life of a writer

Last night, I read a novel entitled Gods Behaving Badly, which I found extremely diverting. It was witty and clever and amusing, and I liked the way the author, Marie Phillips, envisioned the Greek gods in their modern-day incarnations: Artemis is a dog walker, Aphrodite runs a phone-sex line, Athena is an academic, and Apollo is trying his hand at television psychic. At the end of the paperback edition of the book (which is what I purchased), there is "book group" material, including an essay by the author called "Marie Phillips on her approach to writing fiction". I commend the entire essay to you for its entertainment value and its truth, but here is a quoteskimmed version:

When I meet people at parties and I tell them that I'm a writer, the first question is always the same. "Are you very disciplined?" "Oh yes," I say. . . . And it's almost true – about the discipline, I mean. My approach to writing is like improvised acting: I lose myself in my characters and let them do all the work. So I can write large amounts over long stretches of the day. However, I try as far as possible to avoid conscious thought while I'm writing, because it interrupts the flow and pulls me out of my characters. Before I start on a novel I have to do a huge amount of thinking, for months on end, without writing a word. I don't like to begin until I have a destination in mind and at least a vague idea of how I'm going to get there, otherwise I am liable to write around in circles.

I'm not a comfortable thinker, however. What am I supposed to look at while I'm thinking? What should I do with my hands? Research is my favorite way to think, as it gives me something tangible to do. I like spending the entire day reading, and then sounding like a harassed intellectual to friends in the pub ("God, I've been reading all day, I'm knackered").

. . . But reading is ultimately distracting as I'm dealing with other people's thoughts, so sometimes I have to put the books down and just think. I think in the shower, doing the shopping, tidying the house, and I get vast amounts of thinking done on the bus. I think in bed, last thing at night and first thing in the morning, because being half asleep pushes open the door to my subconscious just that little bit wider. Mostly, though, I lie on the sofa and think (I have a special sofa in my study for this purpose – chosen by stretching out on all the sofas in Ikea to find out which one was the thinkiest). This causes untold problems in the pub ("God, I've been lying on the sofa all day, I'm knackered").

I think until I can't bear it any longer and then I start writing, but it's never long enough. I get myself stuck and have to take weeks out in the middle of drafts just to think some more, and then I get furious with myself for "not doing any work," force myself back to the computer too soon, and end up with writer's block, which is basically just thinking plus self-loathing.

. . . What made sense when I was thinking can make no sense at all when I'm writing, as once I'm inside my characters' heads I discover that there is no way that they would behave in the way I have so carefully set up for them. So the writing takes me in a new direction and the thinking falls down like a game of Jenga after the rash removal of the wrong brick. And then it's back to the sofa to start over and build all my thoughts back up again.

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