August 24, 2016
In the New York Times on August 18, 2016, there appeared an article entitled “Luck Unites a Couple for a Lifetime of Great Collaborations” about Gregory White Smith and Steven Naifeh. The two men, who met and fell in love while they were in law school, co-authored more than two dozen books during their forty year partnership (among them, biographies of Jackson Pollock and Vincent Van Gogh). Over the last twenty-five years, they together restored Joye Cottage, a huge landmark estate in Aiken Georgia. What made their work and this restoration financially possible (the Pollack biography took them ten years; they received a $22,500 advance for it) was the financial success of their joint publications Best Lawyers and Best Doctors.
As anyone reading this blog over time knows, I believe that learning how “real” writers work helps us do our own work. And, for me, this article is no exception.
What struck me is that in 1974, the year they met, Smith was diagnosed with hemangiopericytoma, a “rare and . . . deadly” brain tumor. Over years of treatment, he lived through “13 brain surgeries, kidney and facial surgeries, radiation, nuclear treatments and constant pain,” and died only recently in 2014, many years after his original diagnosis, many years after his expected life expentancy. Through all this time, except when severely incapacitated, he worked. And he wrote about patients like himself who lived with excruciatingly difficult illnesses in his book Making Miracles Happen.
Accompanying the article is a photo of a sitting room in which Smith worked. Nafieh described how much time Smith spent over the course of five years sitting on the white sofa in that room reading Van Gogh’s letters in preparation for writing the biography.
The final words Smith spoke to his partner before he died were “What’s next?” It is the same question Smith asked Nafieh throughout their partnership, the question whose answer propelled him from one accomplishment to another. Nafieh believes, one reason Smith lived so long and so well was that he was continually embarking upon projects that would take many, many years to complete, as if his beginning a huge endeavor would ensure that he would survive its completion.
In this period of unrelenting illness that I myself am living through, I will think of Smith sitting on that sofa reading Van Gogh’s letters, knowing that it will take years for the two of them to complete this next, enormous project, knowing that during that time, there will surely be serious medical matters to attend to. And I like to imagine that immersing himself in his work helped him immeasurably, as all work well done helps us.
How many of us can say that we would carry on despite such enormous difficulties? And yet, it is perhaps within our capacity (baring, of course, incapacitating illness) to do so. I do know that I have spent many an hour stuck in bed feeling quite sorry for myself and yet when I have propelled myself out of bed into my study to work on a project, I’ve forgotten, for those precious minutes, what I myself am enduring, Still, Smith’s words, “What’s next?” can become our mantra, too, urging us to move to our own couches or desks or kitchen tables to read whatever we must to complete whatever enormous project we have decided to undertake, no matter what else is going on in our lives.
August 12, 2016
Today I began to unravel a sweater I’d knit for my son Jason. It was gorgeous, the sweater, knit in a simple yet complex stitch that showed off the expensive yarn I was using–Noro Silk Garden, a yarn I’ve knit with countless times. When we bought the yarn, I told my son that it cost the equivalent of four months’ rent for my first apartment. Yes, the yarn was magnificent, the sweater was gorgeous, but after I finished it, we discovered it didn’t fit. It was too tight, too short, and the sleeves didn’t even cover his wrists.
“You’ve lost your knitting chops,” my son said. I knew, that with this sweater, I had. I knew, too, that just like writing, though I’d finished an extraordinarily complex sweater knit in a circle a while before, every new project presents new challenges and just because you knit the last one well doesn’t guarantee that the next one will be a success. You always begin at ground zero.
The sweater had taken me months to knit. And I couldn’t figure out what to do. Or rather, I knew what I had to do but I couldn’t bring myself to start doing it.
I couldn’t toss the sweater: the yarn cost too much. I spent a few days trying to salvage the project. Told myself I could knit a gusset, then sew it between the back and front–that would solve the too tight problem. I could lengthen the sleeves easily enough. I could knit a border on the bottom although it would take time and experimentation to find a pattern that complemented the one on body of the sweater. That would take care of the length.
But I realized, soon enough, that my attempts to fix the sweater would destroy its integrity. There was nothing for it but to rip it out–we knitters call it “frogging–and begin all over again.
Well, not entirely. I had the yarn (and enough extra to knit a bigger sweater). I had the pattern. I had the stitch. All these had taken time for us to decide upon. So I wasn’t exactly beginning from scratch. But I’d have to knit the sweater all over again. A few months more work. But I’d get to reuse that magnficent yarn. Get to make a garment that fit as perfectly as it should.
So. What does this have to do with writing?
How often have I gotten to the end of writing a book, or writing a big chunk of a book, and have had to admit that it wasn’t working. I had my material. I thought I knew how the components of the book fit together, what the arc of the narrative would be, what the form looked like. But when it was finished, and I looked at it again, and reread it, and spent some time evaluating my effort, I knew it didn’t work. I knew, deep down, I’d have to “frog” the book.
And just like with that sweater, I’ve spent agonizing days, sometimes weeks, sometimes months, trying to effect a quick fix. Moving a chapter here. Writing a new beginning. Or an interchapter. Adding something to the end. All the while knowing I’d have to tear the whole thing apart, begin at the beginning, and write the damned book all over again.
I know there are writers who toss books that don’t work. But I’m tenacious. And I don’t like to let things go. I don’t like to let material go. Plus I believe there’s a lot to be learned from dismal failures, from reworking something that didn’t work the first (or second or third) time round.
That father book I’ve written about, Chasing Ghosts. Rewritten from beginning to end, what? Three times, maybe four? The voice was wrong. The form was wrong. It was too historical. It wasn’t historical enough. There was no significance to my father’s story. I wasn’t in the book enough. I was in the book too much. Ten years that took. And yes, I did write other books during that time when I couldn’t figure out what to do next.
But the material–my father’s experiences during World War II and how they affected me and our family, how every wartime experience affects all families–was too important to me to let it go. And each revision taught me something more, not only about writing (how to use history; how to use documents; how to use a chapter to synopsize an entire relationship; how to shift voice), but also about the subject I was treating. I started the book blaming my father. I ended the book beginning to understand (though I never could of course) what he’d experienced.
I am a fan of making mistakes, big ones, and learning from going back and trying to fix them. I think it makes for deeper work. It did in my case. I once told a student who wanted to toss one narrative that didn’t work after another that she’d never learn anything if she continued to do that, and I insisted that she stick with something that was an utter failure until she could make it work. And she did–brilliantly.
So now I’ll begin my son’s sweater anew. I hope that this next version is the final version. But I know myself well enough to realize that if the it doesn’t work, I won’t give up until it does.
July 16, 2016
Cleaning out old files, I come across a folder named “Book Ideas” that I’d forgotten about. Reading the pages inside, I learned that I’d been keeping a record of all the books I wanted to write starting in 1980. There were scores of them. A book on Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath (Woolf’s influence on Plath). One on the late works of famous writers and painters (Rembrandt, Lawrence). A book about writers writing about summertime. One on writers’ ideas of Italy. A daybook for writers. One about asthmatic writers enlarging my work in Breathless. A novel about a researcher unlocking a secret about her subject no one’s ever known. A book about how to succeed in college. One about Charles Darwin.
And on and on the list goes, some sixty or so ideas. All these books, as yet unwritten, in all likelihood never to be written.
But on the list, too, were books I have written, and what I learned is that I thought about writing these books far, far earlier than I got around to actually writing them.
In 1980, I thought about writing a book about writing as a way of healing. I published that book in 1999, nineteen years after I first thought about writing it! And when I began, I’d forgotten I’d penned that note all those years before and only came upon it today.
In 1980, also, I wrote that I wanted to write a memoir. That became Vertigo, published in 1996, and all my subsequent memoirs, the last of which is Chasing Ghosts, recently published.
In 1980, also, I wrote that I wanted to work on a book about creativity. I finally got around to that in The Art of Slow Writing, published in 2014.
In 1989, I listed six books I wanted to write, among them a book on literature as revenge, which I did write and publish; another about Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf which became the edition of Sackville-West’s letters to Woolf, and a book about D. H. Lawrence that I’ve researched but haven’t yet written or might never write.
Oh, and there is the Hart Crane biography I did some research for but never wrote. The Leonard Woolf biography a publisher was interested in that I researched but couldn’t see myself writing. The book about Darwin I got a contract for and researched but then another project captured my fancy and I didn’t write that one either.
I was amazed I’d completed so many books I’d imagined writing so many years after I first started thinking about them. I learned, too, that that I had many good ideas for books that never materialized for one reason or another.
I’d always told my students that it’s important to write down all the ideas we get about writing so that we can free ourselves to conceive of even more ideas. I’m glad I didn’t just think about the ideas for these books but wrote them down. Writing down the idea for a book, I learned, is the first step to completing it.
May 15, 2016
Recently I was asked why so many books about writing tell you not to judge your work and just do your work when in fact to get to the end of a project we need to make so very many decisions. Right now for instance I am organizing some essays I’ve written over the years into book form. I’m in the process of deciding whether the beginning of a piece overlaps too much with material I’ve described in an essay I’ve placed earlier (about my father wanting to throw away a lot of family memorabilia). Surely that’s a judgment I have to make in that I have to make a decision about it. So what’s this about not judging?
For one thing, when we’re beginning a piece, say, the question of how much information belongs and how much can be deleted is best left alone until way later in the process. So at the beginning it is surely more helpful is to just get a lot of language on the page and to trust that through our many revisions we’ll be able to see what needs to be done as we respond to the words on the page. It’s tough to describe this process but it feels pretty much automatic. There’s a sense that something’s not working and then the editor self takes over and makes a change. So in fact we seem to be making judgments all the time, but perhaps it’s more germane to say we’re assessing what’s on the page against some ideal in our head and making changes that at some level we understand will benefit the piece or more accurately state our intention.
I think the easiest way to explain this business of not judging is to say that a certain kind of judging our work will likely stall our project. And I hear A lot of it from my students. “This stinks.” “The middle is a mess.” Then there are the judgments we make about the worth of the self, the writer, even though they may not sound like they’re about the self but a statement of fact. “I’m no good at this.” “I’ll never get this done.” “I don’t have time.” “I have no idea about what to do.”
I always invite the writers I work with to ask whether the statements they make are useful, whether they will aid in the composition of the work, and if the answer is “No” I exercise my teacherly prerogative and indicate that I’d like them to transform the utterance into one that gives the writer something to do.
“This stinks” clearly doesn’t help. But “This piece isn’t saying what I want it to say” does. That is, I think that in writing we need to evaluate our work in ways that give us the next thing to do with it. In the example of my work given above, it would go like this: “Reread all instances where this moment is described. Decide whether to trim or eliminate later instances and revise accordingly. Sometimes it makes sense to write the directions we give ourselves down.
In the “It stinks” example, the writer might ask him/herself to identify whatever is working and whatever isn’t. And then to take each instance of what isn’t yet working and work with it, continually asking “Precisely what doesn’t work” along the way.
A writing friend of mine is near the end of revising her book and she’s come to a chapter where there is a time shift. She’s asked herself whether she’s let the reader know enough about how she’s changed. (That’s making an important assessment of the work appropriate at this stage of the process.) Note that she didn’t say the chapter stinks or it’s no good but she stated in neutral language something she has to evaluate and decide. If she decides the reader needs more back story , then she has another job: to figure out how to do it.
So the most useful statements we can make about our work are ones that help us solve the creative challenges we ourselves have made. Then writing becomes nothing more, nothing less than creative problem solving.
February 11, 2016
A few days ago I had one of those meltdowns that often accompany acute or chronic illnesses. I’d tried hard to be in the moment with where I am in my life right now. I’d read—and tried to apply—Toni Bernhard’s wisdom (derived from Buddhist thought) in her wonderful books, How to Be Sick and How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: A Mindful Guide. Bernhard tells us that these meltdowns are normal and that, when they occur, we need to be empathic towards ourselves rather than self-critical. And I was trying to do this, but none too successfully.
At the heart of my despair was my sorrow for all the losses that living with illness entails: teaching; giving up a country house where I no doubt had contracted this disease; travelling; going to museums; socializing; spontaneity; writing, except for a very short time each day, and sometimes not at all.
It was Monday when I bottomed out, and not for the first time, and Monday is the day when my writing partner, Edi, and I check in with one another about how our work is progressing. She is in the final stages of another draft of her memoir—close to the end of this phase, but still drafting new and wonderful material about her life as a young woman in Sicily. And I am writing—or rather, trying to write—towards the book about my sister’s suicide when and for however long I can.
But the week before had been very difficult. Once a month I have to take Tindamax, in addition to all the other medications I take, including an IV antibiotic. Those of us being treated for Lyme Disease call this “the drug from hell” because if the Lyme is still present, it reactivates all our symptoms, and we feel much, much worse—the “cure” for this disease is sometimes very hard. During this Tindamax week, I’d spent more time than usual in bed, and in the bath (doused with Epsom Salts which help with pain). I hadn’t completed one of mini essays for my book in over a month, and about this, I was bereft. So that when Edi and I began our talk I asked if I could go first. And I did, and just wailed in despair because I couldn’t get to my writing.
What Edi said was this, and I offer you her wisdom because it was so helpful to me.
She asked me if I remembered when, after she’d earned her certificate to teach yoga, she’d injured herself, and couldn’t do any yoga at all. And, yes, I recalled this loss. She’d started integrating yoga into the teaching of writing, and she was thrilled at the prospect of investigating how to apply this to her ongoing work as a teacher.
“All I did each day,” Edi said, “all I could do was go to the yoga mat and just sit there or lie there. But I did it every day, and somehow it helped, and slowly, in time, I could do a little, and then a little bit more. But just sitting there was a tremendous comfort.
“So just go to your desk and sit there,” Edi continued, “for a very short time. You don’t have to write; you don’t have to do anything. All you have to do is sit for as long or as short a time as you choose.” (For those of us, like Toni Bernhard, who must write in bed because of illness, that might mean gathering some writing tools–notebook, pen–and take them to bed with us even though we might not yet use them.)
The yoga mat. The desk. The places where, Edi and I agree, we feel centered. And that was/is another of the losses that come with chronic illness: feeling centered.
So I did what Edi instructed me to do. I went to my desk, and as awful as I felt, a certain peace was present in my just sitting there. I ran my fingers over the keyboard, looked out the window and saw a bird in the tree outside, watched the neighboring children trudge to the bus stop on the corner carrying far too much in their overstuffed backpacks.
And not the first day, but on the second, I did write. And the first thing I wrote was a little hundred-word piece (more about that in another post) about a telephone call my sister might have made just before she died.
Edi was right. And I offer you her wisdom. During those times when the words don’t come, during those times when we have precious little energy or moments to devote to our work, just sitting in those spaces can be a source of comfort and joy. And sometimes, just sitting can help us break the silence that prevails even during difficult circumstances.
February 2, 2016
Throughout my writing life, I’ve tried–and often failed–to maintain a balanced attitude towards my writing. Tried to read the work I’ve produced with enough detachment to make judgments about what needs doing (or perhaps it’s more apt to say “make assessments”) without getting hung up about the worth of the work.
So often in the classes I teach, I have to talk students down off the judgment ledge. “This stinks.” “This is awful.” “I hate it.” “I’m going to tear it up because it’s no good.”
I know what it’s like to have those feelings. But when I do–and when my students do–I remind them that their thoughts are just thoughts, their feelings are just feelings, and that they don’t necessarily have any truth functional value. That is, just because we say “This stinks” doesn’t mean that it does. And just because we feel “I hate it” doesn’t mean that the work in process isn’t good enough for the stage it’s at or doesn’t have the potential to become a fine work of art.
I tell my students, “Our job is to write the work, to finish the work to the best of our ability. It’s a critic’s job to evaluate the work.”
This is why I don’t do group critiquing in my classes. Because I want my students to think only in terms of their own work; I don’t want them to have to mull over several (twelve, fifteen) written judgments of how well other people think their work in progress is coming along. We each have to find our own particular, and sometimes idiosyncratic and peculiar voice, and this takes time, time best spent without listening to others’ opinions which can derail us. As I tell my students, what would a critiquing session sound like with William Faulkner sitting next to Ernest Hemingway sitting next to Virginia Woolf. Can you imagine it? “Your sentences are too long.” “Your sentences are too short.” “Why are you telling the story from so many points of view? Stick to just one!”
The problem with all this is that it’s judging a work way before a work is completed, way before the writer has found her/his voice for the work or even learned what the work is about. Many of us write really incomplete, semi-incoherent narratives while we’re in process, and we don’t figure things out until very late in the writing process. In my own work, what the work looks like two or three months before I finish often is very different from the work I complete. That’s because it takes me that long to figure out how I want to tell the narrative. And once I learn that, I work quickly.
I’ve seen many a writer–myself included–stopped dead in their tracks when someone offers criticism too soon. Or at all. My particular point of view is that we should wrestle with our work until we’re satisfied that we’re finished with it for now. When we believe that there is nothing left for us to do. Notice I don’t say we should wrestle with the work until it’s good. Just until we believe it’s finished for now, and working for the time being.
It’s important for me to maintain a certain equanimity while I write to get a book to the finish line. And there are a few behaviors I’ve adopted that help me.
1. I don’t say “My work,” I say “The work”. “The ending of the work needs some refining: maybe I need a concluding scene.” Compare this with “The ending of my chapter doesn’t work: maybe I need a concluding scene.” I learned to do this a long time ago. I read a wonderful meditation book for people with chronic illness that suggested it was better for us to say, “The arm is in a great deal of pain today” than to say “My arm is in a great deal of pain today” or to say “Anxiety is present today” rather than to say “I’m very anxious today. The first allows us some distance, some detachment that automatically makes us feel better (at least that’s true for me).
Similarly, when we say “the work” rather than “my work” we take a step back from our attachment to the work, allowing ourselves to assess what needs to be done, not judge the work.
2. Never judge our work’s merits. Just think about what needs to be done next, one small step at a time. Judging will prevent us from doing the work that needs doing. Think, instead, of the work that needs to be done: this will make us feel more powerful. It will give us an action plan. “The beginning of the work needs some tightening, I think; I’ll try it and see what happens” rather than “I hate the beginning of my chapter; I don’t know what to do.”
3. Keep our work to ourselves until we think it’s ready. Don’t hand our work around and ask other people what we should do, not unless we’ve wrestled with it work for a very long time and we’re truly stumped.
And a word about asking another writer to read our work. . . .
We must respect the fact that the reader is giving up time to do their own work to read our. Years ago, I spent a long time reading the manuscript of a friend’s memoir. She gave me guideline questions to answer as I’d asked. When I finished, I called to talk to her, whereupon the writer said that she’d changed everything already and that we didn’t need to talk. Hours of my time wasted. That was the last time I read her work.
January 13, 2016
I’ve been reading Augusten Burroughs’s wonderful This Is How: Proven Aid in Overcoming Shyness, Molestation, Fatness, Spinsterhood, Grief, Disease, Lushery, Decrepitude & More. For Young and Old Alike. His chapter, “How to Be Sick,” is the best advice I’ve read about how to live a life with/in illness. His cogent insight, borne out by my own experience, is this: “Thinking about something that could happen to you is always worse than when the very thing you dread actually happens.” Put another way, no matter the illness, no matter the declining condition of a person you love, “once you’re in it, it’s okay.” Or rather, it can be okay if we adopt Burroughs’s advice that we must be in it, not “in a state of refusal” about it.
I love this essay because of his insights about how much time we waste on anticipatory anxiety, how much energy we waste worrying about how much worse things can become. If I’ve learned one thing as a writer and as a teacher of writing, worrying that we won’t be able to write about something difficult, painful, perplexing, horrifying, embarrassing, humiliating, exasperating, or worrying that we’ll fall apart while we’re writing about that moment, is good writing time wasted, is good life time wasted. Ditto worrying about whether the writing will get harder as we progress; whether we’ll be able to finish the piece/the poem/the book. We expend a lot of time worrying that we won’t be able to write about something, or that we’ll never finish the work we’ve begun, or that writing about something will cause us enormous pain. It would be far better for us to be immensely curious about what happens to us when we allow ourselves to be present to our experience of writing.
I tell my students we can’t predict what will be hard to write. I’m currently writing about my sister’s suicide. I’m working a little at a time because that’s all I can do right now. “Isn’t it awfully painful?” a friend of mine asked. I could give her the inaccurate answer, and say that yes it is, but that it’s something I need to/want to do anyway. But the truth is that it’s not all that painful. And sometimes it’s not painful at all. Sometimes it’s even fun.
I’m not saying that I’m without feelings as I write, or that something I write doesn’t spring from feelings I have, or that writing something doesn’t elicit feelings in me. I’m saying that writing about this tough subject isn’t as painful as I assumed it would be. And why? To repeat what Burroughs has said, “Once you’re in it, it’s okay.” At least that’s been my experience in my own work, and in witnessing my students writing theirs. And let me say that it’s okay even if it’s hard.
The most difficult thing I ever wrote was this, and I never could have anticipated it: writing about how my mother would turn over our cereal bowls at night as she set the table to make sure no dust would get inside them. Writing that scene knocked me out. Unexpectedly. In a good way. Because in writing it I understood so much about her: how we’d lived in a filthy working class neighborhood where, by breakfast, the cereal bowls would have been filled with traces of soot from nearby factories; how she kept this habit even when we lived in a house in the suburbs; how caring and yet how crazy I thought the gesture was; how I wished I could have been empathic to her when she was still alive.
I’ve witnessed writers smiling as they’ve penned the most difficult scenes imaginable: being raped by a trusted friend; being abandoned by a parent; watching a loved one die. I’ve also witnessed writers connecting with powerful, difficult feelings while penning the most terrible scenes imaginable. I do know this: we can’t predict how writing about something will affect us until we’re in it. But however the writing affects us, it’s okay, we’ll be okay. And we’ll be far better off than if we don’t write.
Of course there are those who argue that writing about difficult material can push us over the edge. Witness Plath.
I’ve written before about how necessary it is for us to take care of ourselves as writers. And many writers whose lives I’ve studied do. And many writers whose lives I’ve studied don’t. Being okay while we write about difficult things assumes we’re taking care of ourselves as writers. Sylvia Plath didn’t: taking on too much (beekeeping after childbirth), acting as if she had superhuman strength, not asking for help, drinking too much, marrying a man who harmed her the day she meet him. Henry Miller, not at first, but in time, did. To take care of himself as a writer, Miller often took an afternoon nap. In his pajamas. Which is what Burroughs recommends doing. Taking a nap when we’re going through a rough patch. Or having soup. Or a brownie.
Good advice for those of us writing about difficult material. Rest. Eat soup. Reward ourselves with a brownie.