Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Have Fun???

In the previous post Claire talks about happy. I want to talk about fun, something that perplexes me (as does happiness).

I am working on a novel due in August—you fellow writers understand what this means, yes? It means working on my novel, thinking about my novel, living with my novel ALL THE TIME. Except for the occasional rest-bit when I go swimming, walk the dogs, see a movie, or bother my husband (all while thinking about my novel.)

Recently, after telling my mother I couldn’t do something because I had to work she exclaimed: “You never have any fun! You need to have fun!” This reminds me of that dreaded first-date question: “What do you do for fun?” A question I have never been able to answer properly. (Perhaps why I never dated properly.)

What is “fun?” And is it true that I don’t have any? Is writing fun? Is it supposed to be fun?

I gave my mother an example of my ideal fun day: get up, walk dogs, work on novel (or current w-i-p) have lunch, play solitaire, work on novel (or current w-i-p), swim, and ending with some evening activity. (I don’t work on anything serious after dark—my brain only functions in natural light.) The evening activity usually means dinner with husband, watching a movie, and eating ice cream. Oh, sometimes I walk to the local bookstore or farmer’s market during lunchtime. That’s fun.

But this answer did not satisfy my mother. (just so you know she is the type that sends daily emails marked "just for laughs," consisting of photos of animals or vegetables doing various bizarre things.) Fun is perception, isn’t it?

I ask for your help here. Please tell me, what is fun? And do writers need it? (You do not have to tell me what you do for fun--just explain what it all means...)

(ps. Writing this blogpost was kind of fun. Does that count?)

Monday, June 27, 2011

Be Happy: Deadlines and Writing

I am happy today. Last Friday I sent off a revision of my novel for writer friends to read while I am at the Hamline residency. I always set deadlines before trips and professional commitments and I don't always make them. Then I am not happy. I wanted to get this revision finished because preparation for the residency - presentation and workshop pieces, along with 4th of July camping; two weeks back in St. Paul, and then recovery from all the stimulation, add up to quite a bit of time away from a daily writing routine.

And yet I love the stimulating days and nights with fellow writers. I would be one unhappy camper if I sat alone in my front of my computer, day after day, all year long.

So how to be happy? My husband and I recently watched the film documentary Happy. The film producers traveled the world in search of the happiest people. They asked: Does money make you happy? Kids and family? Your work? Do you live in a world that values and promotes happiness and well-being? Are we in the midst of a happiness revolution?

According to the film 50% of your happiness can be attributed to your genes. So go ahead and blame your parents for your grumpiness quotient - but only part of it.

I want my writing life to be part of a happiness revolution. I want to believe that this summer I could be happy heading off for Hamline, or vacation, even if I hadn't finished that revision. I want to trust my process, on the happy and not so happy days.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Spidery Hauntings


Dear readers in search of answers in search of questions,

Given all the talk lately concerning whether writing about a behavior encourages young adults to engage in that behavior (although I have yet to see anyone argue that a recent best selling picture book dangerously encourages impressionable parents to swear at their children at bedtime), it’s good to remember why we write what we do, as Melissa pointed out in her comment to Marsha's post. E.B.W.’s question seems particularly relevant.

Dear Inkpot,

Why can I not stop thinking about spiders?


Dear E.B.W.

If you are obsessed with spiders, perhaps it’s a good idea to write about them. I realize spiders are low on what one editor has called the “cuddle factor, ” but anything we are haunted by (as Jane Resh Thomas would say) is probably something we should be writing about.

You may hear that stories about spiders aren’t selling or that no one wants to read about spiders or that writing about, say, literate spiders will encourage children to try to teach spiders to read and write, leading to spider bites from recalcitrant eight-legged students.

But we write what is in our hearts to write, the stories that only we can tell. Fiction, non-fiction, horror, fantasy – the arachnid possibilities are endless. Don't let anyone talk you out of writing what you want to write.

Good luck, E.B. I’ll be watching for your spidery magnum opus.

Sunday, June 19, 2011


YA fiction has once again been in the news. Many of you have probably seen Sherman Alexie's much-forwarded rebuttal to a Wall Street Journal article written by Meghan Cox Gurdon, a regular reviewer at the WSJ. Alexie's article was touted and cheered in all the usual spots--okay, author grapevines and library blogs--apparently silencing supporters of Gurdon's position. Silencing is never productive. Speak up!

Personally, I sort of think YA literature is due to shift in other directions pretty soon. Can't say what will result, but I think something's coming.

Thursday, June 16, 2011


This past Monday I was surrounded by books, books, books at the
Bemidji Library Book Festival, reading stories and talking about
writing. More important, I was in the midst of people who love books,
who read books, who want to hear books read aloud. This whole week
the library will feature writers talking about and reading from their
works, starting each morning with a children’s writer, all events free
and open to the public.

It was good for me to remember why we write—not just because we have
something we want to say but also because we hope someone will listen.
And it was good to remember that we are members of a greater
community than one person in front of a piece of paper or a typewriter
or a keyboard. Stories take shape at those sometimes lonely
locations, population one, but stories move out into the world and
have a life of their own among a larger community.

Soon Hamline faculty and students, writers and book lovers all, will
gather for the summer residency in the Master of Fine Arts in Writing
for Children and Young Adults program. For eleven days we’ll be an
intentional geographic community of folks who love books for children,
who love writing for children. We’ll be excited, enthusiastic, a
little crazed at times, at times despairing of “ever getting it
right.” We’ll be hopeful and thoughtful and sleep deprived. We’ll
listen, learn from each other, discuss what makes good writing, write,
and go home exhausted and exhilarated and eager to put butt in chair
and write more.

I can hardly wait to be among all you like-minded folks who love those
pesky, illusive things we try to write.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Present Imperfect

I’ve been reading the posts on imperfection and thinking about my own imperfections as a writer. I don’t know of any present imperfect or future imperfect tense in English, but perhaps there should be. My writing in the future will be just as imperfect as my writing in the past, and my present writing far exceeds past imperfections. I guess that’s progress of a sort.

I envy Tom Rachman’s contentment (which Claire quoted) that the imperfections in his book are “the best imperfections I had in me at the time.” Some days even my imperfections seem imperfect.

If I can’t achieve contentment with imperfection, maybe I can aim for acceptance. All that’s really required of me as a writer is to put words on paper, no matter how inadequate those words. To be, as William Stafford says in WRITING THE AUSTRALIAN CRAWL, ready for adventure.

Most days (except for the ones when I want to pull the covers over my head and pretend I chose banking as a career) I try to venture into wherever language takes me. And once in a great while from those adventurous but inadequate words something emerges that makes me happy, or makes me weep, or makes me shiver. Something emerges that would never have appeared if I hadn’t put my imperfect words down on paper.

Maybe that’s contentment after all.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Editor to Author

I acquired the habit of browsing used bookstores when I was a college student in the Twin Cities, a very long time ago. At some time back then I bought a copy of Editor to Author, which is a volume of selected correspondence between the editor Maxwell Perkins and many of his writers. I suspect I bought the book because Perkin’s writers included F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe and Ernest Hemingway, authors I was just discovering after devoting my high school reading and rereading time to an odder mix: Herman Hesse, Germaine Greer, Richard Brautigan, Abbie Hoffman and Maud Hart Lovelace.

I grazed through the Perkins book recently and found myself laughing aloud. The gentle and patient way he deals with his writers’ anxieties (Marketing! Deadlines! Requests for revisions!) reminded me of my own long-time editor’s manner.

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings was one of his writers. Before she hit the very big time with The Yearling (1938) Rawlings wrote some other books, and after a successful novel in 1933, (South Moon Under) evidently she was getting conflicting advice as to what to write next. Perkins patiently advised her: “…of course the sales department always wants a novel. They want to turn everything into a novel. They would have turned the New Testament into one if it had come to us for publication. … Anyhow, the thing for you to do is to write it as you feel it. …”

And then he goes on to answer a question about whether she could get an advance on her royalty check (Yes).

What would a modern sales department want to turn The New Testament into? A YA zombie novel?


Friday, June 10, 2011

Story Versus Life

Claire’s post on imperfection says it all. What is a life, and certainly, what is a story without imperfection? That is what makes it all interesting and relatable (and tolerable). My editor told me more than once that I should never write a perfect book. If I did, I’d never write another one. One book may be fine for someone like Harper Lee, but not for most creative folk. Strive for perfection, sure, but reach it…? Never!

I saw the movie, Everything Must Go recently, based on a Raymond Carver story and starring Will Ferrell (in a very serious role). Everyone in it is imperfect. You could even go so far as to think of them as losers and/or assholes. Yet they are human. All humans make mistakes at one point or another, some are bigger mistakes than others. Compassion and forgiveness seems to be the only thing that gets us through. It’s way better than the alternatives (hatred, anger, revenge, etc…) even though some of that is necessary for the learning curve of the story to get to the other side.

Sometimes we writers have a very difficult time knowing the difference between story and “reality.” I am starting to think that there really is no difference at all.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Living With Imperfection: Writing and Contentment

I recently read a fascinating novel The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman. Set in a fictitious newspaper in Rome, it features multiple POV's, covering decades at the newspaper. But my favorite part of the book was the conversation in the back between Rachman and writer/journalist Malcolm Gladwell.

Sometimes before I even read a book, I scan the acknowledgments and endnotes for insights about how the book came together. Did it take years? Who supported the writer along the way? Where did the ideas come from?

Side note: I’d love to see a conversation like this featured in a children’s/YA book between two authors like Russell Freedman and Jim Murphy discussing nonfiction research and how it affects story arc or a pair of fantasy writers discussing how they create their worlds. Maybe some day.

In the Q and A section, Gladwell asks Rachman how much of his personal life shows up in his fictional characters and the plot. Rachman states that there are bits and pieces of himself in all his fictional characters. We writers know this to be true. But many of my reader friends are rabidly interested in this intersection between art and life. But for me, it is process that pulls me in. I could listen to writers talk about their process all day long. It is one of the joys of our residencies or a great writing conference.

At the end of the section Gladwell asks Rachman, “Do you consider The Imperfectionists a success? I suppose that will have as much to do with your personality as the book itself.” Rachman responds, “I battled with this book . . .certainly there are imperfections in this book, but they are the best imperfections I had in me at the time. For that, I am contented.”

Ah, contentment. May we live with the tension of imperfections in our writing, knowing that on any given day they are the best imperfections we have to give.