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Creative Process, Ireland, Literature, Uncategorized, Writing

Writing in the Age of Anxiety

When I first started writing commercial fiction, I did what every disciple of Hermione Granger does–I went to the library. I checked out every book on writing commercial fiction I could find. I spent years in my doctoral work poring over GREAT LITERATURE, but when it came to sitting down to writing a bestseller, I had very little understanding of the nuts and bolts of what makes for a compelling plot or engaging characters (arguably, I still don’t, but like everyone else, I’m a WIP). Eventually I stumbled upon Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel, and there, I found the best piece of writing advice I’ve ever read or read since. The gist is this: ask yourself, “What is the worst thing that could happen right now?” And then you write exactly that.

In the story of America, as unstable and rocky as such a narrative is and has been, it seems our plot has turned. The worst has happened. All of us who are in the business of storytelling can see all the signs of a grand design involving a great fall, the dark night of the soul, the darkness before the dawn. Yet,such tropes speak to a hero’s journey, where eventually the chosen one will rise up, smote the enemy, and make things right again. As the days go on, though, and the news from Washington grows more and more terrifying, it’s difficult to see how that narrative could be possible. For those of who are in the business of writing commercial fiction, especially for those of us writing romance, we might try to grasp onto a Frodo, a Katniss, a Clare Fraser, a Harry Potter, but increasingly these characters’ plots seem, well, like the fantasies they’ve always been.

Glancing over my twitter feed, I see writers, like me, stunted by writer’s block, paralyzed in front of their laptops, hindered with anxiety and depression. The worlds we built in our heads are crumbling, and what’s left feels like the backdrop of Beckett’s Endgame, wherein the actors recite snippets of long lost dreams over and over again, grasping at something lost. Something they can barely remember and it wouldn’t matter if they did. Writing is hard, but writing in an age of uncertainty and anxiety makes it feel almost impossible.

After the election, I talked to my father. He’s also an artist–a composer–and he offered up this advice (please imagine his Mississippi accent. It works better that way).

“Colleen,” he said. “Look at this man. Look at him. Sooner or later, he’s gonna fuck up. He’s gonna fuck up! And these four years will be a blip in the history of America. Go write your stories. Go write your stories because he’s gonna fuck up.”

Something in these words signaled a turning point for me in my post-election grief, and I’ve been trying to sort it out. Perhaps it has something to do with the juxtaposition between our POETUS’s ineptitude and my own unwavering belief in myself, my ability to do great things, to prevail. Trump will fuck up, but I don’t have to. I don’t have to make these four years about him. I don’t know if a great hero or heroine will emerge from these ashes, but one thing I do know about purveyors of bigotry, violence, nepotism, fascism, and greed is that they tend not to have happy endings. Perhaps not in one generation or the next, but eventually. Villains fuck up. You might not find that chapter in Maass’s book. But villains fuck up. Bigly.

Today, I saw a writer who expressed feeling so deeply pained and anxious about the current political state of things, but she felt it would be “cowardice” to leave America. It’s in these moments I think of writers who chose exile over direct political engagement like James Baldwin or James Joyce. James Joyce chose to flee Ireland for the Continent in the heat of the Irish Revolution so he could pursue his writing career. Can you imagine? And yet, he  went on to write some of the greatest modern literature of the 20th century.

Reading through this writer’s tweets, I recalled a poem called Station Island by Seamus Heaney. Over the course of the poem, several ghosts visit Heaney who, himself, is haunted by his decision whether or not to leave Northern Ireland during the Troubles. Heaney had been very active in literary political activist groups, most notably the Field Day collective. Riddled with guilt and anxiety, at the end of the poem, Heaney visits the last station and the ghost of James Joyce confronts him. Joyce tells him:

‘Your obligation
is not discharged by any common rite.
What you do you must do on your own.

The main thing is to write
for the joy of it. Cultivate a work-lust
that imagines its haven like your hands at night

dreaming the sun in the sunspot of a breast.
You are fasted now, light-headed, dangerous.
Take off from here. And don’t be so earnest,

so ready for the sackcloth and the ashes.
Let go, let fly, forget.
You’ve listened long enough. Now strike  your note.’

What Joyce (vis-a-vis Heaney) is saying here is there is no “common rite” to being an artist, meaning that there are no rules to this gig. The only obligation is to writing and to cultivating that “work-lust” for it. Heaney has listened to the many ghosts and speakers at Station Island, but now he has to take all that and go forward and “strike [his] note.” Joyce goes on to say:

‘The English language
belongs to us. You are raking at dead fires,

rehearsing the old whinges at your age.
That subject people stuff is a cod’s game,
infantile, like this peasant pilgrimage.

You lose more of yourself than you redeem
doing the decent thing. Keep at a tangent.
When they make the circle wide, it’s time to swim

out on your own and fill the element
with signatures on your own frequency,
echo-soundings, searches, probes, allurements,

elver-gleams in the dark of the whole sea.’

Basically what Joyce is telling Heaney is that following the rules and doing what is expected of him is keeping him from fulfilling his deeper artistic purpose: “You lose more of yourself than you redeem/doing the decent thing.” Writers need to swim out on their own, find their voices, keep seeking and searching. Like Heaney, part of that paralysis we might feel stems from having new boundaries hoisted upon us, new rules for the “politically-engaged writer,” obligations to speak up, but in ways that already seem prescribed for us. If we need to step away and find our more authentic voice, then that is what we need to do. Baldwin, Joyce, Heaney, and so many other writers learned that in their own time, and our generation under this autocrat will have to learn it anew.

This doesn’t mean that we can’t be both–politically engaged and creative–but that we need to forgive ourselves when we find ourselves needing to step away lest our writing becomes more slogans than seeking. More divisive than exploratory. After all, for many Americans in this generation we are in brand new territory without a map or even a light to guide us. If we need to go out on our own to create these new pathways, then perhaps, years from now, our children will inherit more than our fears and our anxieties. Maybe they’ll actually inherit a world worth saving.

Creative Process, Editing, Literature, Marketing, Pitch Wars, Publishing, Querying, Social Media, Uncategorized, Writing

You Have to Defend It: Writing and Self-Doubt

A friend of mine once said that a doctoral defense is a form of academic hazing, a trial presented to you to prove you belong in the cadre of scholars in your field, that you can hold your own no matter what anyone throws at you. I bought a suit especially for the occasion. I sweated right through the silk camisole beneath it, but I kept my hands folded on top of the desk and tried not to squirm in my seat every time one of my professors pitched a curve ball at me.

Doctoral defenses are rituals. They signal a journey from student to scholar. To dilettante to professional. My advisor is from the Netherlands, and there they have this whole medieval pageantry set up around the defense. She had to wear a ball gown. A man came out with a scepter to pound on the floor to announce the beginning, the end, and the deliberation. The whole public comes out to see you sweat. Like The Hunger Games, I imagine, but with footnotes and, you know, in Dutch.

My defense was in a small conference room, and the first question one of the professors threw at me was the one question I prayed no one would ask. It was the one thing, the one glaring oversight in my whole dissertation I simply had no time to remedy before filing it. Graduate students are trained in deference, in admitting defeat, in owning up to the holes in our arguments. It’s what makes us open to feedback, makes us better at critical thinking and revision. When I received this question, I reverted back to this kind of behavior, this defeat. My imposter syndrome kicked in, and I nodded my head. “Yes, I should have delved into that more. Yes, I should have supplied the primary resources on which my entire argument hinged. Yes, a footnote would have been helpful there.”

“Wait. Stop.” My fifth reader waved her hand. “Stop.”

A fifth reader in a defense is a person outside of your discipline or outside of the university, someone who has never worked with you. She’s there to provide fresh eyes to a dissertation, to supply an unbiased point of view. My fifth reader was Irish, which doesn’t matter, really. But because my dissertation was in Irish literature, in my case, it mattered a great deal.

“I’m going to have to stop you,” she said.

My stomach dropped to the floor, and my hands shook. This is how it ends, I thought. All those years, all that money down the drain. The Irishwoman from the German department found me out for the fraud I was, and now it was all over.

“Sorry?” My voice wavered.

“I’m hearing you apologize for what you didn’t do in your dissertation, but I don’t care about that,” she said. “This is a defense. I want you to defend it.”

Her eyes pierced right through me as if in a challenge, and I sat up a little straighter, throwing my shoulders back. I’m a scrapper. You had to be in the places I grew up. I didn’t know if my answers would ring true, but I had to play defense. I had to defend it.

I’m reading through my manuscript for Book 2 one more time before we send it for formatting for galley proofs. We’re in the homestretch, as they say, and this book has definitely been a journey for me. I wrote this book in the middle of two polar vortexes, and it poured out of me fully formed, as if the story had been waiting in the wings for its cue before barging out to the center stage of my mind. I’ve revised it, re-revised it, sat through several editorial meetings to negotiate scenes and various endings, and now it’s reading like a book. A real, actual book.

But I have to tell you, like so many writers, I suffer from self-doubt. Loads of it. But is it any wonder? We spend months, sometimes years of our lives in deference to our critique partners, our beta readers, our agents, our editors. We have to open ourselves up to criticism, make ourselves and our creations vulnerable to change, to complete annihilation sometimes in the name of some higher goal. We revise and revise and revise and we reach a point where we stare at the words and wonder…is this any good? Have I fooled myself into believing I could be a novelist? It sounds dramatic, sure, but it’s a part of the cycle—the destruction of everything in order to build yourself back up again. Because at the end of the day, when the marketing machine starts to whir, when the blurb goes up on goodreads, when the ARCS get sent out to book bloggers, we have to defend it.

You have to defend it.

And by that, I don’t mean screaming back at your reviewers or going batshit on social media about how no one understands your “vision.” I mean, you have to box up all that self-doubt, all that deference, all those inner fears, the bullshit imposter syndrome, put on your armor and defend it. Stand by it. Say to the world, “Yes, I did a thing. Here it is. Poke holes in it, kill it with fire, but I’ll stand on this mountain of ash. I’m not leaving.” We have to be the guardians to our own artistic output, to the incredible circumstances and hard work that led us to this place.

James Baldwin once said about publishing,

“You never get the book you wanted, you settle for the book you get. I’ve always felt that when a book ended there was something I didn’t see, and usually when I remark the discovery it’s too late to do anything about it…But, if a book has brought you from one place to another, so that you see something you didn’t see before, you’ve arrived at another point. This then is one’s consolation, and you know that you must now proceed elsewhere.” (from Conversations with James Baldwin).

I’m so proud of the book I’ll be sending out into the world this fall, and I do feel confident about it artistically, as a piece of storytelling that I think really works on several levels. What I am most proud of, though, is the journey this story took me on, not just in the telling, but in the retelling, the revisions, the feedback, through the late nights talking with critique partners and reworking scenes. It brought me to a new place as a writer, and that is a place I can stake out and defend. No matter what.

 

 

Faeries, Ireland, Literature

Halloween: Irish Literature Edition!

I love a good ghost story.

When I was writing my dissertation I spent an inordinate amount of time watching shows like Ghost Hunters and Ghost Adventures, much to my pragmatic husband’s dismay (he’s my Scully to my Mulder). We spent several evenings fighting for control over the remote. “You don’t really believe in any of this crap, do you?” he would say.

For me the question of whether or not ghosts exist has always been the wrong question. Instead, we should always ask, “What is this ghost story trying to tell us?” A good ghost story reveals a great deal about a culture’s values, fears, and insecurities, but more than that, it unravels histories that are often marginalized–women’s history, the history of minorities and oppressed groups, children. To borrow from Kristeva, ghost stories are abject, filled with the horrors of humanity we push to the margins. Ghosts blur our distinctions between the real and the unreal and undermine our modern assertions of logic and science.  The fact that we still tell ghost stories reveals some innate desire in us for the unknowable, but also that in this information age, we may not be so secure in our knowledge of the universe as we purport to be.

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