Recently, I asked one of my writing buddies how she is able to find so much time to write. That’s something I’ve struggled with lately. I’ve felt guilty about it because this is the time of my life when I have no responsibilities other than myself. If I can’t find an hour or so to write now, when I’m twenty-seven, living alone, without even a goldfish to take care of, then how will I be able to write when I’m, say, forty years old, potentially with a family and real responsibilities?
As I sat outside at a café in my neighborhood working on some short stories this Sunday afternoon, I felt overwhelmed by the feedback from friends and writing peers that I was trying to process, and use to improve my stories.
Recently I read a book that greatly influenced my perspective on writing, and more broadly, my attitude in general. I’m often skeptical about books that are written on the craft of writing; they themselves have to be well written in order to be credible advice on how to write. Booklife by Jeff Vandermeer was.
In his work of nonfiction on the craft of writing, Vandermeer focuses on developing both one’s private and public identity with regard to being a creative writer. I will focus on the part about one’s private identity as a writer. Firstly, what does our identity as a writer, or just our identity, mean? Are we defined by our habits and behaviors: our schedule and structure to our writing practice, or does identity beg a deeper question, such as why it is that we wanted to be a writer, or whatever we are, to begin with.
Vandermeer explores both elements in Booklife. He offers practical tips on how to carve out the time to write, and tips on the writing process from brainstorming to polishing final drafts, to judging what advice from others we should take. This is useful in building positive habits and behaviors that will allow us to hone writing skills and advance our creative writing practice.
In addition to behaviors, customs and routines with regard to writing, Booklife helps us explore why it is that we want to be a writer. I thought this was an interesting question that most of the time we don’t even stop to consider. A chapter in a book will unlikely be able to provide you this answer, but Vandermeer poses some interesting questions which may help you discover the why for yourself. For example, do you write because you couldn’t not write? Do most people work in a particular area because it’s their passion and they couldn’t not do that job, or is their motivation more extrinsic, for practical financial reasons?
Something else, which struck a chord with me, was Vandermeer’s mention of perspective and how keeping a clear head and a rational mindset are vital tools for maximizing the energy and creativity necessary for writing:
“If you can somehow find the ability to zoom back and put every situation in your life in its maximum perspective, you will find your life immeasurably enriched and you will be positioning yourself for greater success. […] The focus on what’s coming often allows me to pull back and look at the world with the perspective I need to make better creative decisions.” (Vandermeer, Booklife)
It’s great advice for life in general. No? Basically, use your energy for what’s most important to you at the time, whether it be writing, school, career, family or something else. “All of the base emotions are tied to the short view. These emotions not only keep wounds green, but they burn your time and energy,” says Vandermeer in Booklife. Let all the unimportant details work themselves out, and maintain the ability to focus, zoom out and recognize when things are beyond our control; doing so will provide you with a sense of freedom, and the energy to focus on what we can control.
When has adopting a new perspective helped you in your creative life?
“One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of looking at things.” – Henry Miller
It’s been about a year since I returned to the U.S. from teaching abroad in France. This is noteworthy to mention because I originally started this blog to write about my experiences teaching in Montargis and traveling throughout Europe. I’d like to take a moment to thank everyone who followed along on my blog. I hope you got as much enjoyment from reading my short stories as I did from writing them.
When I reflect on the fact that I’ve been back in the D.C. area for almost a year now, it feels weird. Part of my identity is being a traveler, specifically the type of traveler who tries to integrate into the culture and experience it in as genuinely a way as possible.
Many travelers can experience this phenomena: adjusting back to a “real life” that doesn’t compare to the excitement and stimulation that was constantly a part of life abroad. I miss the feeling of learning something new every day the most. A task as simple as buying produce at the grocery store or asking for directions can turn into a mini-adventure in a foreign country, which leads me to the topic of this post. We can still learn new things in our native countries and hometowns, and we can continue to view the world through the eyes of a traveler. It just takes a little more work than it did when you were deep in culture shock abroad. It requires effort to adopt the mindset of a traveler again and remove yourself from “the daily grind.”
Living in a small and peculiar town, with plenty of quirky characters around, as well as an abundance of free time during the week made writing easy. Everything was new, and my observations about Montargis, its inhabitants and the people I met in hostels and on city tours felt fresh and sharp. It was the perfect exercise for learning how to observe, and thus learning to write. I was using my heightened senses and the feeling of culture shock to become a better storyteller.
As a writer, (or other type of creative) or just as a human-being seeking some inspiration, the mindset of a traveler is a vital tool. When we travel, we observe, we take in, we soak up our environment like a sponge. Most importantly, we learn to know and appreciate a place for what it is, rather than what we’ve read or heard about it or imagined that place to be. It takes all our senses, every ounce of our powers of observation to really experience that place. We often feel overwhelmed, but in a good way. Maybe that’s why they call it culture shock.
It might take more concentrated effort to wear your “traveler’s eyes” while commuting to work, standing in line at Starbucks, or during other “boring” rituals of the day, but if you make a point to really be present and observe your surroundings, the things you notice can lead to fantastic inspiration.
What interesting or unusual things have you noticed when you stopped to observe your surroundings?
“Let’s say I submit a short story to a magazine for publishing? If it doesn’t get accepted, will the editor write me back with feedback on what I should improve?” says a member of the audience. He’s your typical “aspiring writer”; cargo shorts, unkempt hair, and zero sense of style.
“Hah!” spits the author on the panel, “No one’s going to give you the time of day to string three words together on what you should improve. Editors are looking for any reason not to read your crap! And that’s the truth.” The aspiring writer looks taken aback by this response. It’s like an answer to a Calculus problem which is undefined, or all non-real numbers; it simply doesn’t make sense to the linear mind set in thinking a certain way.
“So, I’m a first-time published author,” another audience member starts in, “What should I say in my biography on the back cover of my book if I don’t have any experience?” she says. She’s young, slightly more stylish than the cargo-wearing aspiring writer, with black curly ringlets hanging past her shoulders. But its hard to take her seriously with this concern, as it’s mostly a fake question with a hidden announcement in it. She has a very studious and concentrated air about her, as if she believes the panelists’ authority to be equivalent to that of God, or a world-renowned professor at Harvard.
“What genre do you write in?” says the author.
“So you have a book deal?” he says skeptically.
“I just got an agent,” says the studious woman.
“That’s a big deal. It’s like the first dollar that a restaurant makes, which gets framed. You should be proud!” then he pauses, as if to reconsider the reality of the woman’s news, “Did they ask you for money up front?” he says, “If they ever do, then fire them right away,” he says.
The moderator of the panel talk, which only consists in two authors, tries to get the discussion back on track. In an attempt to maintain the feeling of a “writer’s community,” which is purportedly the objective of the event, he poses another question to the panelists.
“In your experience, have you found a community of writers when publishing work in literary journals or other small presses?” he says.
“Well, not really. I have a life. I’ve got a wife and kids. I’m not trying to make friends with people who publish in literary journals.” says the author. The moderator keeps posing questions of this nature, as if to make the audience feel like they are gaining some great secrets into the world of success as a writer, most of which are met with harsh responses by the first author. The other writer on the panel provides vaguely diplomatic responses, which seem more encouraging, as the audience members ask a couple more useless questions until the discussion peters out.
After the talk, Julie approaches the author. She tells him that she’s just starting out as a writer.
“Who are your friends?” the author says to Julie. Like a scientist; a researcher who collects information to piece together a puzzle.
“My friends, they do all sorts of things.. they’re in graduate school, looking for work-”
“Are they chasing money?” he cuts her off.
“I wouldn’t say that, so much.”
“Chasing fun? They’re the beer-guzzling, Ravens fanatic crowd?”
“That’s a bit closer…” says Julie. Weren’t all young people chasing fun to some extent?
“Here’s what you do,” says the author, “You watch them. You observe everything. That’s your job. Who’s hooking up with who, who is jealous of who’s boyfriend. Then you write about it. I don’t mean exactly what’s going on. You don’t watch them obviously. But you take a back seat, and observe.”
“What do you read? Not Twilight crap, or any of that vampire nonsense, I hope,” he says.
“No, I’m reading Edith Wharton and J.D. Salinger.” says Julie.
“Good, Great! That’s perfect, you can’t do much better than Wharton,” says the author.
“So, how did you first get published?” says Julie. Of course this was a silly question; anyone could churn out some piece of garbage about vampires or were-wolfs if the goal was simply to make a buck, or to be able to see one’s book on a shelf. The question was actually: how do you publish something that’s good.
“You know, getting stuff published just comes,” says the author, “There’s no scientific formula I can give you, or magic words I can tell you that will bring you success. But, I can say, that you don’t need to go to a fancy school. Just do your job. Watch the world and write,” he pauses, “There are only two things that are going to happen. A, you’re going to keep doing what you’re doing. Or B, you’re going to stop doing what you’re doing.”
This seemed like a fairly obvious summary of one of Newton’s laws of motion; an object in motion tends to stay in motion.
“You can’t worry about the cocktail parties and networking. Getting published will come to those who do the work, writers who accept that rejection is part of the process. Rejection letters are badges of honor!” But who even took the effort to send out rejection slips anymore?
“Thanks for the advice,” Julie says, sensing that the conversation is finished, “It was nice meeting you.”
“Likewise. Just remember: observe and write.”