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The Baby and the Bathwater
August 09, 2019
I've been working on a non-fiction book project for almost a year now--making outlines, focusing my thoughts on the topic by working on the introduction, reading books and research papers and drawing up lists of potential interviewees. And now I think I'm going to have to scrap much of it and start over again from the beginning.
As horrible as that sounds, I'm not sure it's a bad thing. The research had mushroomed exponentially, with over thirty books (and counting) to read and annotate, and several hundred bookmarks of background research and other articles, all stored in my browser in little file folders. In addition, the project had stalled at least twice.
The stalls should have warned me that I was doing something wrong. But I've never written a non-fiction book and I wasn't sure of my method--this despite reading books about writing non-fiction--so I tried to convince myself that perhaps I just needed to work harder and put in more hours. Yet I still felt like something wasn't quite right with the project.
Then I received several great pieces of advice at the Kenyon Review Workshops. Our instructor, Rebecca McClanahan, told us that it was best to not research first, but to write out your questions: What do you want to find? What don't you want to find? What do you hope to answer? On another day, she said that when writing, it was good to start with the following questions: What do you know? What do you expect? What do you need to learn? She also suggested we write our way into research--to write first, then plug the holes in our knowledge.
Right there, in class, I realized I'd been going about my book project the wrong way. I'd been focusing on research rather than writing. Or rather, I'd been researching to clarify what it was I wanted to write about. So after I got back, I sat down and over a couple of days wrote a short essay in which I asked myself questions and stated my opinions and discovered where I needed to do more research. The essay as it currently exists is a hot mess--I will have to go through and edit it several times to refine the questions and clarify points. However, for the first time in almost a year, I feel as if I have a "through line" that connects the entire book project. I've come to realize many of the books I'd collected for research will probably never now be used, and that there's an entirely different set of books I'll now have to find and read.
It's hard to admit--even to yourself--that you've been mistaken, and every writer has to find their own way of writing and research. I feel a bit chagrined I've spent several months at what will probably end up being fruitless work, yet I'm glad I've learned a better way of working that I think will allow me to move ahead on this daunting project.
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Some Practical Thoughts on The Kenyon Review Workshops
July 19, 2019
I got back last weekend from the Kenyon Review Literary Nonfiction Workshop. I'm still processing much of the writing-related information I sucked up like a sponge over those seven days, and it may be some time before I'm able to verbalize what I learned. In the meantime, though, I thought it might be useful for those who have been recently accepted (or are considering applying) to discuss some practical matters surrounding the workshops.
If you get accepted to one of the workshops, you'll be given an address to a web page which contains information about how to get to Gambier and what to bring and what kind of accommodations to expect, depending upon what level of lodging you decide to take--dorm room or apartment room. (I paid for the apartment room and so can only speak to that experience.) Overall, the information on the web page is quite good, yet there are a few items I'd like to add:
- Bring coathangers. There were none in my room, and some of my classmates also said they had none. Coathangers helped me keep my shirts from getting all wrinkly.
- Be prepared for the possiblility of no microwave. The pictures of the apartments on the Kenyon Review website show a microwave in the kitchen, but there was none in my apartment. This wasn't a problem for me, but it might be one for other people.
- Consider bringing some snacks/basic food items to keep in your room. Meals are provided in the College dining hall, but only at certain times. If you're in the thick of an assignment and want to skip a meal, your dining options in Gambier are limited.
- While laptops are listed as "optional," they're essential. I'm a longhand writer, but quickly realized that if I was going to get my daily assignment done and have a hard-copy to give to the instructor (she asked us to provide one for each assignment), I was going to have to work on a laptop. Bring one.
- Bring a thumbdrive, too. I found it easier to copy my work onto a thumbdrive and then use one of the desktops in the computer lab to print, rather than emailing the work to myself or using Google Docs. Then again, I'm lazy and didn't feel like having to log into both the computer and an online service.
- Your cell phone may not work. The information web page mentions that cell service can be spotty for some plans. Many of my classmates had no problem with their phones, but I had service only in certain locations on campus and then sometimes only for a few minutes in those locations. I merely sent emails from my laptop instead of texts.
- Yes, do bring a flashlight or keep your cell phone handy. I chuckled when I saw a flashlight on the packing list, but Gambier is on top of a hill and they do get pretty good thunderstorms in the summer--though the power never happened to go out the week I was there.
- Bring/Get Quarters for your laundry. There are several places on campus to do your laundry. I used the laundry underneath the campus bookstore. However, there are no change machines in that particular room. Fortunately, there's a bank next door to the coffeeshop on campus and they will gladly give you a roll of quarters in exchange for a ten-dollar bill.
And finally, you'll be busy, very busy, during the week. Don't expect a lot of downtime. I brought both a book to read and workout clothes. I only managed to work out once and never even opened the book. One of my classmates brought a bicycle to use on the local trails and got in a total of two short rides. Kenyon prides itself on being a workshop where you produce new work and so you'll spend the bulk of your time writing--you may even loose a bit of sleep getting your assignments for the next day finished and printed out.
I hope these thoughts help. If you've been accepted to the Workshops, congratulations; if you're applying, best of luck. You'll learn a lot and the experience is well worth it.
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Ideas and Energy
June 24, 2019
Lately, I've been mulling over the difference between creative ideas and creative energy. Ideas seem to be the divine inspiration part of being a writer, and not under conscious control because they come from the muse. Having creative ideas seems to be as much about being open to them as it is about developing them yourself. There are techniques to "generate" ideas, and I've used some of them with varying success but my best ideas have always seemed to just come to me, often when my mind is engaged somewhere else. (The unbidden arrival of ideas is the reason I always carry a pocket notebook and a pen with me wherever I go.)
Creative energy, on the other hand, seems to be the thing that gets a writer from the germ of an idea to completed project. It's the drive and discipline that get you sitting in your chair, fingers on keyboard (or in my case, gripping the pen), working. Unlike ideas, I do believe that creative energy can be cultivated. Cultivated by the practice of writing every day and by honing the craft of plot and character and dialogue and description, down through the most basic tools of writing: grammar and punctuation and word choice.
It's possible I'm wrong and creative energy and ideas both come, in fact, from the same place. But if they are distinct and different, any writing project becomes a two-step process. First there's the idea. Then there's the hard work to make the idea into a fully realized story. The first part is out of a writer's control, the second well within it.
I'm not sure yet where these musings will take me. However, I promise to bring you along as I try to figure out what follows from the idea of creative ideas being different than creative energy.
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There Will Always Be a Gap
June 3, 2019
Like a lot of writers, I wish I was more productive. At the end of the day, when I look at what I hoped to accomplish and compare it to what I actually did accomplish, there's always a gap. I wish didn't exist and do everything I can to increase my productivity. Nevertheless, that gap is always there.
Productivity has been on my mind over the past few days because of an article I read last week. I'm a big fan of Austin Kleon and a recent edition of his newsletter contained a link to an article in Glamour about why Danielle Steel is so prolific.
The short answer is that she works twenty hours a day. Twenty Hours. A Day. And that's not some I-got-a-deadline or the-muse-is-puking-all-over-me writing spurt. She lives at her desk. According to the article, she survives mostly on toast, decaf and miniature chocolate bars, and only goes to sleep when "I'm so tired I could sleep on the floor." Steel says, too, that there are times she'll write for twenty-four hours straight.
Twenty-four hours pegs the productivity scale. Every minute of an entire day at the desk. No writer could be more productive than that. Yet for all my writerly desire to do more than I'm currently doing, I found myself thinking "that sounds like pure hell." Now, I admit it would be impossible for me to write for twenty hours. I need at least seven hours of sleep a night. I have a bad back that forces me to get up from time to time. And there's always plenty to keep me busy around the house. But even if I could write twenty hours a day, I don't think I would want to. It just doesn't sound like fun.
Steel says she writes as much as she does because she enjoys the craft of writing. I love the craft, too, but for me part of being a writer is also going out and gathering material by meeting people and reading (which is something Steel says she doesn't do while she's writing). By spending so much time at her desk, I feel that she's actually missing out on not only gathering raw material, but missing out on life itself.
I wish Ms. Steel well, but her writing life seems too pinched and narrow for my liking. But having seen and rejected the theoretical pinnacle of productivity, all that remains is to simply make peace with the fact that, for me, there will always be a gap.
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Hobbies and Camouflage
May 10, 2019
When non-writing people think of "writing," they generally imagine something like a scene in a movie -- the author's pen scratching across sheet after sheet of yellow legal pad or fingers dancing on the keys of a laptop. But a lot of the actual process actually has no outward visible sign, because it goes on in the writer's head. To an outside observer, the writer is just sitting there with a pen and notebook and a cup of coffee, scribbling the occasional sentence or two. Because it doesn't fit with the image of "writing" many people have, it often gets misinterpreted by non-writers as not working.
This, in turn, leads to writers being interrupted at the exact moment their muses were about to resolve that one perplexing plot point that had them stalled for weeks, or just when it was about to reveal the idea that would take that half-finished essay in a beautiful and entirely new direction. "Since you're not busy, could you...?" has brought many a work-in-progress to a screeching halt. (Just ask Samuel Taylor Coleridge about that.)
One way to mitigate interruptions is to use camouflage. Scatter papers across the table--spreadsheets with lots of numbers generally look impressive--and move them around from time to time as if you were searching for something in the data. Or buy a newspaper and just turn the page periodically (though to be honest, it's easy to get sucked into actually reading the articles if you're not careful). Make it look like you're doing something else, and most people will leave you alone.
A better solution, though, is to take up a hobby, especially a handicraft. Keeping one's hands busy has two benefits: it's an outward sign that you're "working" in a way most non-writers accept, and there's something about repetitive tasks that stimulates the muse. I've met more than a few writers who knit, for example.
It doesn't even have to be a hobby--simply keeping one's hands busy is often enough to give the muse a safe space in which to work. Some of my best ideas have occurred while I was doing the after-dinner dishes. I keep a pad of paper and a pencil in the kitchen to jot down random thoughts when they appear for that very reason. (Damp hands don't smear pencil they way they do ink.)
It's a shame that writers have to hide their real work behind "work," but in an age when busy-ness is the mark of virtue, it seems to be the only way to avoid both censure and the inevitable "Since you're not doing anything right now..." interruptions.
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April 19, 2019
The 17th-century Philosopher Blaise Pascal had a section in his Pensees in which he laid out his famous wager. He argued that it was better to act morally, because the answer to the question "Does God exist?" is not knowable through reason and because the potential gains/losses (eternal salvation/damnation) were far bigger than the cost (forgoing some pleasures) if one was wrong.
So what does this have to do with being a writer? Well, it struck me the other day that many writers have made a sort of Pascal's Wager: the tradition of "paying it forward" to other writers.
Writers at all stages of their careers often help out newer and less experienced writers by giving them information, warnings, and advice. They give introductions and try to connect writers to editors/publishers who they think might have something in common. They blurb each other's books, even when the beauty of the writing in that book makes them jealous. (Though to be honest, that's exactly the book you want to blurb--the one so good you wish you yourself wrote it.) They attend each other's panels at conferences to show their support and email each other congratulations when a new story or book gets published.
Doing all this implies a belief that helping another writer doesn't necessarily hurt one's own career. It implies a world view in which writing is not a zero sum game, and one in which improving the lot of one writer improves the lot of all writers. That's not to say that the writing world is perfect--we have our furious (and sometimes pointless) feuds and hates and petty jealousies, just like any other group of people. But overall, the writing community is a great one to be a part of, simply because of all the good things that go on within it.
"Great," you say. "So what does this mean for me?" Well, if you're just starting out in writing, it means that you can and should ask questions--lots of them--and listen carefully to the answers you receive. There are many writers out there who want to help and they won't steer you wrong on purpose. If they say there's no secret handshake and that getting published is a matter of hard work and perseverance and luck and timing, they mean it. If they tell you that you should be professional in all your interactions with editors and other authors, they mean it. And if they tell you that the only way to get good at writing is to write a lot, they mean that, too.
For those further along in their careers, it means going to conventions whenever and wherever you can and talking with other writers who may come to you with questions. It means giving them the best advice as you see it, and maybe even setting aside the pride generated by being asked enough to say "I actually don't know a lot about this. You should talk to X," then doing everything to introduce the two.
So, fellow writer, pay it forward as much as you can. The costs are little but the rewards great.
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A Discussion of Q
April 4, 2019
In my last post I mentioned Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch's On the Art of Writing but only described it in passing. Yet if I could only recommend one book on writing, "Q" (as he was known) would be it.
That's a heavy weight to place upon a slim book, but On the Art of Writing can bear it. The book itself is a collection of lectures Quiller-Couch gave at Cambridge University in 1913-14 on writing and English literature. In his lectures, he is a font of advice and suggestions: writers of prose should practice verse as well, writing should be appropriate to the audience and situation. It should be accurate, and here Q suggests that a writer use the concrete word to the abstract one, use active and transitive verbs, and prefer the direct word to what he calls the "circumlocution." He's also the ur-source of the famous writing quote "Murder your darlings," meaning to get rid of that beautiful sentence that you just love but which doesn't actually add anything to your piece. Finally, he recommends writing verse and prose that could be sung or read out loud and still be pleasurable.
As for style in writing, Quiller-Couch feels that it's similar to manners. A writer owes it to a reader, he says, to think of the reader's comfort and convenience, and in such a way as to respect the effort the reader is putting forth to read and understand one's writing. Beautiful prose, though, also requires an ear able to detect two things: the single, right point of emphasis in a sentence, and the interplay of vowel sounds within and between the words.
Q hates jargon, which he believes comes from two sources: an author's laziness or his timidity. Jargon is used to mask inexact thinking or to dodge responsibility, and here Quiller-Couch prefigures Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" by more than thirty years.
He also provides his own list of "working books," which is far shorter than mine. Were he limited to three books, Q feels he could teach writing using only the King James Version of the Bible, the complete works of Shakespeare and Homer. It's hard to argue with that list, because all three are gems in the crowns of both English literature and poetry.
And all this advice is given with humor and wrapped up in that luscious late-19th/early-20th-century prose style that I love to read. As a writer, reading Q's little book is time well-spent.
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A Writer's Bookshelf
March 14, 2019
I talked earlier this year about the writer as reader--that a writer should read as much and as broadly as possible. The books writers use to enrich their minds and to stimulate their art may be transient, moving onto and off of writers' bookshelves and into and out of their lives. But what about "tool" books: books that stay on the shelf for reference purposes, books that discuss the craft and business of writing?
As with any almost every other aspect of this art, personal preference affects which books the writer chooses to use, and so I can't give a canonical listing. However, I thought it might be useful to list the writing- and business-related books I've got sitting on my bookshelf, and to explain why it is I use them. Here goes:
- Techniques of the Selling Writer, by Dwight Swain -- I was fortunate to discover this gem early on in the process of learning to write. I still feel it's one of the best books on the art of fiction.
- On Writing Well, by William Zinsser -- My favorite book on writing nonfiction.
- The Elements of Style, by William Strunk and E.B. White -- This little book is either loved or hated. I love it, and try to re-read it every year.
- On the Art of Writing, by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch -- One of my favorite books on writing. "Q" discusses the creation of both poetry and prose, and provides suggestions for writing clearly and forcefully.
- The Chicago Manual of Style, 17th Edition -- It contains everything you ever wanted to know about the mechanics of punctuation, usage, proper quotation, citations and formatting.
- A good dictionary -- Choose your own. I also suggest John McPhee's Draft No. 4. After reading it, I stopped using a thesaurus.
- A good book on English usage -- I tend to be formal in my writing, so I use Fowler's Modern English Usage, but I've also heard good things about the fourth edition of Garner's Modern English Usage.
- How I Raised Myself from Failure to Success in Selling, by Frank Bettger -- I mentioned this book a couple of times in last year's blog. It's been a great help in improving my organization and tracking my productivity as a writer.
- The Success System that Never Fails, by W. Clement Stone -- This book may be hard to find, but it provides several valuable techniques to improve motivation and achieve goals.
- How to Live on 24 Hours a Day, by Arnold Bennett -- Describes how having a plan and sticking to it, day-in day-out, can add up to great achievements.
- The Richest Man in Babylon, by George Clason -- The faux-biblical language can be annoying, but it contains good advice on handling income and building wealth.
That's my tiny writer's bookshelf. If you have tool books that you use regularly and would like to suggest, I'd love to hear from you--I still have plenty of room on that shelf.
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Empty Cups and Silent Muses
February 27, 2019
I believe it was Jung who described the creative urge as a kind of neurosis, and said that it expressed itself two ways. In one, the artist filled up with energy like a cup filling with water, then emptied himself all in one burst, and so had to wait until the cup refilled before he could go back to work. In the other, the artist had a cup of creative energy that was full but the incoming energy overflowed the rim, and so had to be dealt with constantly.
I'm firmly the second kind of artist. I write every day, and have a minimum daily word count. Paradoxically, though, there are times when I--like the first kind of writer--feel my cup has run dry. So how does someone who's a daily writer deal with those times when they feel they have no creative energy, when the muse has gone silent?
One method is, of course, to take page from the first kind of artist and take a break from writing, be it for a couple of hours or a couple of days. This has worked for me from time to time. I get up and do the dishes and a couple of loads of laundry and suddenly, the problem that had left me at a dead end resolves itself and I can sit back down and pick up writing where I left off. Or sometimes, I'll purposefully and consciously schedule a day in which I don't write at all, but run errands or spring clean the house or sit on the couch and read. But so far, the longest break that hasn't been forced upon me by circumstances has been about two days. Then the urge to write overpowers me.
The most common method I use is to simply just continue writing. Sometimes I stick with my current project, knowing that the muse will take what I've written and return it back to me in a better form later. Sometimes I pick an entirely different project--or no project at all--and write, knowing that even if the muse isn't around, the writing I do do is practice that will make me a better translator of her inspiration into words, and that the pages I've written will become the raw material of some later story or essay. This is the writerly equivalent of scales on the piano or a bit of noodling out a new melody.
As for you fill/empty-type writers, I'm afraid I don't have any practical suggestions for what to do when the muse doesn't seem to come back as rapidly as you'd hoped. Perhaps try writing "dry," since I believe it's possible to go back and forth between the two types of writer (or even to be both types, depending on the project and genre). In any case, have confidence that the muse will return and that the cup will fill up again. Because it will.
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February 13, 2019
I can't remember exactly where or when, but I vaguely remember once being told by an older, wiser writer at a convention, "I have two hobbies: writing and submitting." I remember, too, the shock of realization. My conversational companion was right. Writing and submitting are two entirely different things, with different processes and procedures. Yet both are required to be a published writer.
Submitting has its own rules, based on the genre and the markets themselves, personal preferences, and even the law of averages. This last rule is the simplest and easiest to define. It's this: more submissions means more publications. This isn't an absolute rule, but it's generally true. I can attest to its validity, though--the years in which I've made the most submissions have also been the years in which I've had the most publications. So the more often you submit, the more likely you are to be published.
As for the middle rule, personal preference determines which markets you're going to submit your piece to. All writers have certain magazines and websites that seem to share their sensibilities, and which they enjoy reading. Naturally enough, those magazines should get preferential treatment when submitting.
Personal preference also determines how many and what tier of magazine to submit to. Some writers will only submit to their four or five top-tier markets, and if the piece doesn't sell, into the trunk it goes. Other writers submit until a piece sells, no matter how small the publication. One kind of writer ends up with a short, but more "impressive" bibliography, while the other has a longer list of publications in smaller or possibly less well known venues.
The markets and genre also have an impact on submitting. Submission guidelines are editors' statements of what kind of stories they publish, what they like and dislike, and how (and when) they want you to submit to them. Follow those guidelines. Follow those guidelines even if you're convinced the New Yorker will be so impressed with your sword-and-sandals story that they'll bend their guidelines just this once for you. Editors are busy enough people as it is--don't annoy them with stories that make it obvious you didn't read (or willfully ignored) their guidelines.
If you're a writer who hasn't yet sent out any of your work, think about your favorite magazines and websites and what kind of publishing history you want to have. Then make a list of places to start submitting your work to and begin your new hobby. Good luck!
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What is a Classic?
January 23, 2019
In my last post, I recommended reading classic books. This, of course, raises the question: What is a "classic?"
Naturally, each genre has its own set of classics, so some of what a writer should read depends on what they write. This isn't to say that one should only read in one's own genre, only that a mystery writer, for example, would likely read a slightly different set of classic books than a literary novelist or writer of Westerns. If you're not sure which books are classics in your genre, ask another writer or try that endless font of information, the internet.
The other kind of classic is harder to define, but generally it has two characteristics: age and universality. Classic works are often older works, ones that have survived the winnowing of time. Nothing is better for blowing away the light chaff of books than a few decades. Pick any time period from antiquity to fifty years ago and you'll find many books that are still recognized by name, while a thousand others have passed out of all memory. If the title (or author's name) of an old book still brings a shock of recognition, it's quite possibly a classic.
The other characteristic is universality. A classic book speaks not only to one individual's experience, but to the human condition in general. For example, Homer's Iliad describes events of the Trojan War, and of Achilles' experience in particular. However, it also speaks to the entire human experience of war; of fate and of anger, of revenge and grief. Reading the Iliad twenty-five-hundred-odd years after its creation, I still found myself shocked by its familiarity and nodding in agreement at the echoes of things that happened when I was in the military. And the universality of Shakespeare's works is perhaps the biggest reason why they're considered classics.
So, having talked with others, looked for books that have both age and universality, and come up with a list of potential classics, how do you choose which ones to read? That I can't tell you. It depends on your personal interests and inclinations. Everyone's picks will be different. So choose a few titles that look interesting, or that you've always wanted to read but somehow never got around to reading. And pick a few more you know nothing about for the serendipitous joy and insight they might bring. Then get reading.
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The Writer as Reader
January 10, 2019
A very happy 2019 to everyone! New years bring New Year's resolutions, and one of mine is to read more books. I got an early start and over the holidays finished both Sherwood Anderson's "Winesburg, Ohio," and Ray Bradbury's "Fahrenheit 451." Anderson was one of my always-meant-to-read-someday books, and it had been so many years since I'd read "Fahrenheit 451" that I'd forgotten much of the plot. I felt like I was reconnecting with an old friend after a long time apart.
I not only enjoyed both books, I learned a lot from them. "Winesburg" deals mostly with the interior lives of the inhabitants of a small Ohio town, and in reading it I realized that it's possible to write a compelling narrative in which not a lot physically happens. In Bradbury, I came to see how a master writer uses beautiful metaphors and descriptions to hold and move the reader.
At about this point in my blog posts, I usually say something about how I found this or that "useful" and add that you might want to try it in your own writing life. But reading, and reading classics--both inside and outside your field--are so central to learning to be a good writer that this is one of the few times I'll say you must do something. If you wish to be a writer, you must also be a reader.
The careful reading of classics is, in my opinion, even more important than reading "how to write" books. Classics provide everything from inspiration to skeleton plots for your own work to examples of the successful use of just about every writing technique that exists.
So read, read a lot, and read the classics. Use those waste moments in line at the bank or before the movie not to scroll through your phone, but to get another page, another paragraph, another line through your eyes and into your mind. You'll be a better writer for it, I guarantee.
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© 2019 Andrew Gudgel
andrew (at sign) andrewgudgel.com
This page last updated on 20190809.