Book review: Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life
by Dani Shapiro, Grove Press, 2013
Still writing? It turns out I’m not the only writer who gets that question. I usually reply with some variation of “If I’m still breathing, I’m still writing.” Dani Shapiro, author of two memoirs and five novels, as well as Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, is also asked that question. She says she usually nods and smiles then changes the subject, but adds: “Here is what I would like to put down my fork and say: Yes, yes, I am. I will write until the day I die, or until I am robbed of y capacity to reason. Even if my fingers were to clench and wither, even if I were to grow deaf or blind, even if I were unable to move a muscle in my body save for the blink of one eye, I would still write.” Amen!
Sections of this book address all kinds of things about the writing life. Shapiro talks about writer’s block and finding time to write, common subjects in books for writers, but she also discusses insecurity, trust, envy, and luck. She shares generously of her own life, of her successes and failures and her struggles to balance family and art. Her reflections are personal yet universal because we are all equals as we face the blank page.
It took me months to read Still Writing because it was too beautiful to rush. It is filled with wisdom, inspiration and truth for the writer. Sermonettes is the word I keep coming up with. I recommend writers read this book not just once, but at least once every year, pausing between sections to reflect on what has been said. You will not find grammar advice, marketing tips, or how to build a platform here. It’s all about the writing, without which the rest is useless.
I recently purchased Your Life is a Book: How to Craft & Publish Your Memoir by Brenda Peterson and Sarah Jane Freymann. I haven’t read it yet, but the one section I read in the sample pages on Amazon.com changed my whole outlook on the memoir I’m working on for National Nonfiction Writing Month. Years ago, Freymann was the literary agent who spent a half hour on the phone with me explaining why she was rejecting my book and what I needed to change to make it work. She was so right. That book is Childless by Marriage, which I published in 2012. I’ll report back to you after I finish reading Your Life is a Book, but I suspect I’m going to love this book.
Meanwhile, we’ve got some writing to do.
Let’s go write.
Earlier this month I went to California for my cousin’s wedding reception and some quality time with my dad. I took my laptop and a pile of work to do, but you know what? I didn’t do any of it. Didn’t even get those papers out of the case. All I had time for were some hasty notes at bedtime and lots of photos. But that’s okay.
I stayed at my father’s house, which may be the last place in Silicon Valley where I can’t get an Internet connection. Sure, the neighbors have Wi-Fi hookups, but they all require passwords that I don’t have. I could go to a coffee shop with free Wi-Fi, but that would mean peeling myself away from the family I had driven 700 miles to see. So I couldn’t get online for three days, and I didn’t get much work done. But as I sat in the backyard listening to Dad’s stories and watching the squirrels and the crows, I felt my brain relax. And then, like the squirrels gathering nuts, I started gathering ideas.
I think that’s what travel is for, at least for writers. Can we call it a vacation? Maybe not; maybe it’s more of a supply trip. If you stay in the office day after day with most of your input coming from the Internet and TV, you find yourself getting stale. But out in the world, if you’re open to it, ideas sprout up everywhere, like mushrooms in October on the Oregon coast. The question is: Are you prepared to pick them and bring them home in good condition?
If you’re going to pick mushrooms, you need a bucket or a basket. A writer gathering ideas needs at least a notebook and pen, a camera, and perhaps a computer or iPad. I also use small voice recorders that I keep in my car for the ideas and information I can’t write down while I’m driving. Bring lots of rechargeable batteries and a charger; today’s electronic gadgets eat batteries like I eat chocolate chip cookies. Make sure you have a memory card and flash drive with plenty of room on them. Expect to take lots of pictures, gather all the handouts and brochures you can find, and take notes. Also expect that you might not write every day, that your schedule may fall completely to pieces. That’s all right. If you’re going to write about life, you need to live it in order to gather the raw materials for your writing.
Capture whatever you can before you come home. It starts to fade as soon as you return to your ordinary life. For me, when I get within a few hours of South Beach, I start thinking about upcoming appointments, deadlines I have to meet, and oh God, I still haven’t called the plumber. That magic I feel on the road, whether it’s standing alone on a windswept beach, staring up at the redwoods, or enjoying a family moment, fades away.
So gather the notes, impressions, stories and pictures. Don’t publish it all half-baked on Facebook without looking at the bigger possibilities. When you get home, spread your treasures out around you and look at all the ways you can use them. Parcel them out little by little, taking time to write, edit and publish what you gathered on vacation.
Travel disrupts my writing schedule, but it also brings the focus back, like a reboot. It hushes the noise in my mind and allows me to fill my bucket again.
It’s summer. Get out, change your scenery, even if it’s only for a couple of hours. Just don’t forget your bucket/notebook and camera.
Here we are again with three quick tips for writers. The idea is to give you something you can use right away and then get back to your writing. If you have suggestions for websites, books or prompts to list here, please add them to the comments.
Literary agent Donald Maass knows how to produce books that sell, and he shares that information in his books for writers: Writing the Breakout Novel, The Breakout Novelist: Craft and Strategies for Career Fiction Writers and The Fire in Fiction: Passion, Purpose and Techniques to Make Your Novel Great, His books cut through the gobbledygook and tell you what it really takes to succeed as a novelist.
The web is riddled with writers giving advice to other writers (I know, I’m doing it, too). But Carol Tice’s Make a Living Writing site is truly helpful. Recent posts include how to write pitches and queries that actually work, what kinds of assignments writers should NOT take, and how to sell that piece you haven’t been able to sell.
Click on a random photo you have stored in your computer or other device.
1. Write a poem or prose piece about what was happening when that picture was taken. Describe the scene, the emotions, and what was happening before or after.
2. Now tell it from the point of view of somebody else who was there or a fictional character that you invent. Use your imagination.
Now Go Write
(I’m taking a break from “Three Tips” this week to offer a sermonette. More tips next week.)
At church recently, we heard the Gospel where Jesus appears to the disciples who have been fishing all day and caught nothing. He tells them to cast out their net one more time. And they say, “Lord, there’s no fish out here. We’ve tried and tried.” He says, “Well, try it once more.” And boom, the net comes up full to bursting with fish.
Somehow, that Gospel reading made me think about my writing. God knows I get rejections just like all writers. They always seem to come in bunches. I think I got seven in the first two weeks of April. It’s like everyone wants to finish their contests and clear out their submissions by April 15. The rejections all came by e-mail. I miss the days of paper rejections where at least you could wait until you picked up the mail instead of having rejections arrive on your computer while you’re writing. Right now as I write this, I have an Internet blocker, Freedom, going, and I try to always keep sound off so I don’t get that little ping that signals I have a new e-mail and tempts me away from the work at hand. I recommend you do the same. Getting a big old “no” can scare the muse away in a hurry.
But like the fishermen, real writers will keep trying. There are incentives, whether it’s the fish that just swam by a near-acceptance or placing in a contest. Recently I’ve had work that placed as semi-finalist, finalist or won honorary mention in prose and poetry contests. I’ve had editors says, “We can’t use this, but try us again.” But I have also won contests, and I have had editors say yes before. I know it can happen again, but only if I keep trying. Writing is a gamble. I don’t play the lottery; I’m a writer instead.
So, let’s all try it one more time. Cast out your net and see what comes up. Of course, you have to use the right bait, and you have to fish in the lake or river most likely to yield a good catch, just as you need to send out good writing to the markets most likely to use it, but if you keep trying, you will catch a fish and you will get your work published.
Once a week I offer three quick tips that you can use right away. For those of us who would rather be writing than reading blogs, this is a place you can grab something useful and get back to work. If you have suggestions, please share them in the comments section.
Not sure what to do next in your quest to be a successful writer? Try a page from The Writer’s Workout by Christina Katz from right here in Oregon. Katz, writer, teacher and platform powerhouse, has put together 366 tips, tasks and techniques to get you going. Writing, networking, marketing, climbing out the swamp when you can’t write–it’s all here.
I just clicked on WritersWeekly.com and almost didn’t come back because there were so many great things. Markets, how-tos, comparisons of the different print-on-demand publishers, trivia, and more! Subscriptions are free.
Finish this sentence: “After he ___________________”
Now Go Write
Do you know that feeling when you get so immersed in your writing that you just keep going and going and no longer care what time it is or what else is waiting for you to do? Later you’ll have to worry about revising, editing, marketing, and all that blah blah blah, but if you haven’t experienced it, let me tell you that when the writing flies on its own, it’s the best.
How do you get there? You allow time, you prepare yourself and your tools, you warm up, and then you write. Do this as often as you can, and it will happen.
This morning, I got up late and was more inclined to stare at the TV coverage of the mass shooting at a local shopping mall than to write another page of my novel. But the newscasters were getting repetitious, and my work was waiting. Blessed with being able to stay home most mornings, I treat my writing like a job. I shower, eat breakfast and get dressed, then report to my bedroom office with a mug of hot tea. I go through the mail, pay bills that are due soon, check email and various websites, then get down to business.
I start by sitting on the sofa with my dog and my notebook. I journal, I write a little poetry, I jot down ideas for future writing projects. Sometimes it’s total junk, but it’s writing. Then, warmed up, I go back to my computer, silence the Internet, and bring my current project onto the screen. I read what I wrote yesterday, tweaking it here and there, and then I start writing.
Today was one of those days when I didn’t feel like it, and yet, after a page of whining about why I couldn’t write, I wrote a poem about the shooting. Then I wrote 1,600 words on my novel, so excited about the scene unfolding before me that I didn’t want to stop. If I didn’t remember a detail from past pages or needed to look up a word, I marked it and went on. If something didn’t feel quite right, I marked it and went on. I had planned to give the book just 15 minutes because I have a lot to do today, but two hours passed and I didn’t care. It was fun, the most fun a writer can have.
Don’t feel like writing? Can’t get started? Get yourself organized, write a little junk and see if that doesn’t lead to something good. Don’t promise yourself magic or hours of productivity. It scares the muse away. Just write a little something and see what happens. If you do this often enough, the time will come when you’ll feel the story taking over, sort of like cruise control on the car. Keep writing and enjoy the ride.
It’s the fifth day of the Poem-a-Day challenge. So far, I’m keeping up. My poems are not all great. I’m not sure some of them are even poems, but that’s okay. As Anne Lamott says in Bird by Bird, you have to be willing to start with a “shitty” first draft. Let yourself write freely, worrying about making it perfect later.
I like to compare writing to creating a sculpture. First I have to shape the clay in the general outline of what I’m planning to make. Once I have that, I can add and subtract until it’s perfect, but without that original lump of clay, I’ve got nothing.
I’m finding more and more that it helps, especially with poetry, to take my notebook outside the office. There’s a theory that we write differently when we use pen and paper instead of a keyboard. It uses a different part of the brain. I think that’s true with poetry, but even if you prefer the computer, if you feel stuck or stale, try taking it somewhere different.
If the sun is shining, I may go out in the yard. If not, I can snuggle on the sofa with the dog. Or, I might get in the car and go somewhere. Some of my best writing happens sitting in the car looking out at the ocean. Starbucks, the library, or a hotel lobby also work. Once I’m in the mood, I may go back to the office, but sometimes it takes a change of scenery to get away from distractions and start my creative mind working.
How about you? What gets your pen or your fingers moving?