writing advice

"The fact that writing is hard and there are many hobbyists doesn’t mean it isn’t a job either. It is..."

"The fact that writing is hard and there are many hobbyists doesn’t mean it isn’t a job either. It is very hard to be a professional athlete or a head chef, and many people practice sports or cooking as hobbies. But we would not pretend an NBA player or a head chef doesn’t have a job….Even if writing only makes up a tiny fraction of your income, it can still be a job and should be treated as such. Or, at the very least, if your writing is generating money for other people — publishers, magazines, corporate entities — then you should be getting paid too.”

- “Yes, Writing Is A Job (Even If It Doesn’t Pay Well)” - Electric Literature
from Tumblr http://ift.tt/2drxZh3

Lee Smith, Inspiration, and Narrative

Me and Lee Smith, after her talk.

Me and Lee Smith, after her talk.

"Everything that rises must converge." -- Flannery O'Connor

Today, I had the opportunity to meet author Lee Smith at a luncheon and reading event hosted by the Friends of the Appalachian State University Library. It was a fantastic event for many reasons, but not least because Smith's novel Oral History was conceptually influential for my story in Athena's Daughters.

Oral History is about a generation of women living in Hoot Owl Hollar, and the ways their lives are impacted by a cursed heirloom. I read it as part of a course on Appalachian literature in college, and one of the things that first struck me about it was its rich use of dialect in establishing unforgettable character voices. Anyone who has grown up, lived, or spent time in the Appalachian area (and for the record, in the South it's pronounced "Appa-latch-an,") will find familiar and compelling elements in her work.

After lunch, we were able to listen to a reading from Smith's new book, Guests on Earth, which focuses on Highland Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, from 1936-1948. 1948 was the year in which one of the facility's most famous residents, Zelda Fitzgerald, died in an arson fire along with several others receiving insulin shock treatment in a locked ward. Smith talked extensively about how her personal childhood fascination with the Fitzgeralds and with Zelda in particular was connected to her own family experience. Her father was a patient in that very hospital in the 1950s.

The Flannery O'Connor quote which kicks off this post was how Smith began her prepared remarks, and how she described being inspired to write this book over time. Elements in her life rose for a number of years and finally converged into the inspiration for this particular story.

During her signing, I was able to talk to Smith briefly about how her work impacted my story and to tell her a little about the anthology. She was very warm and encouraging. We also chatted about my former creative writing program, and about the Athena's Daughters release date. I hope she'll get to check out the book once it comes out in June.

Until then, I'll be reading hers!

On Writing for Yourself, or, "I Don't F&@#ing Care If You Like It."

...There were always a lot of noisy "comedy bits" going on [in the SNL writer's room.] Amy [Poehler] was in the middle of some such nonsense with Seth Meyers across the table, and she did something vulgar. I can't remember what it was exactly, except it was dirty and loud and "unladylike." Jimmy Fallon, who was arguably the star of the show at the time, turned to her and in a faux-squeamish voice said, "Stop that! It's not cute! I don't like it." Amy dropped what she was doing, went black in the eyes for a second, and wheeled around on him. "I don't fucking care if you like it." Jimmy was visibly startled. Amy went right back to enjoying her ridiculous bit. (I should make it clear that Jimmy and Amy are very good friends and there was never any real beef between them...) With that exchange, a cosmic shift took place. Amy made it clear that she wasn't there to be cute. She wasn't there to play wives and girlfriends in the boys' scenes. She was there to do what she wanted to do and she did not fucking care if you liked it.

Scrolling through Tumblr today, I saw a linked post from my friend Janine Spendlove on writers, self-promotion, and sexism. Specifically, it highlights the treatment of several female writers who have had the audacity to promote their work and brand, as part of crafting a successful writing career. (Pearl-clutching!) These talented authors, because they don't write x/didn't write about y/should have written about z because it's quote-unquote better than their personal, original idea -- and because these women dare to draw attention to their work so it will sell-- get a lot of crap from internet trolls, general mouthbreathers, and the crackpot convention outliers who show up to public forums to personally heckle the people they don't like.

This, to me, is a perfect example of why putting work out into the world is so damn scary. I am a self-described perfectionist. I don't like being judged. And yet, when I write a story and submit it for publication, I am inviting someone to criticize it, whether that's an editor or some anonymous Goodreads commenter who thinks female authors promoting themselves is gross.

But to those anonymous commenters, let me say: a writer promoting their writing -- whether they are traditionally published, self-published, a media-tie-in-author, a fanfiction author -- is part of the damn job. Getting physical threats, derisive comments, and condescending remarks because they don't fit into the space one single person believes they ought to occupy in the worldview isn't. And, additionally, if anyone out there actually believes they have the right to threaten or assault someone who expresses an opinion that isn't their own? Take a long walk off a short cliff. Don't let the rocks hit you on the way down.

That linked Tumblr post, as horrible and ugly as it is, also serves as a perfect example of the reason that we all should keep writing. Because in the end, your work is not for the morons who tell you you aren't "real," or aren't good enough, or are too "much" of one random and tangential quality to have any talent with words. It's for you, the author. Ultimately, you are the creator and the curator of your own world. Nobody else gets to tell you what to write, or how to write it. As Neil Gaiman said recently in a forum giving advice to aspiring artists, nobody else will make the art that you will make.

The blockquote which began this post, from Tina Fey's book Bossypants, is something that I personally kept in mind while writing my last short fiction piece. Because in the end, all writers have a choice. Am I going to be honest with myself, and write what I want, what I'm passionate about, what I love? Or am I going to spend my writing career trying desperately to churn out a story that "everyone" likes (hint -- IT'S A TRAP) and how I can deliver on a pipe dream? When finishing my short story, I wrote Amy's quote at the top of my margin for the last few days. It's mine, and I like it, and ultimately that's all that matters. I'll need help remembering that once the crazies start flocking in.

So, finish your art. Finish your story. It's not going to be perfect, but don't let the bastards grind you down.

This is why we (should) do it.

Write every day. Not every other day. Not tomorrow. Not after the party. But before. The more you write, the more comes out of you. If you don't give inspiration an opportunity, it will never arrive.

I saw this quote in an Ethan Hawke AMA on Reddit several months ago. For me, the quote wasn't only pithy, but genuinely thought-provoking. I couldn't get it out of my head. I think it not only speaks to the discipline it takes for a person to be a successful writer, but the dedication it takes to be successful in any creative profession. The creative impulse isn't just something that flutters inside your brain like a moth, seeking the best time and place to land. Creativity also thrives in harmony with structure and repetition and routine.

Even as creativity begins to bloom, it's easy for us, as writers, to quash it by succumbing to The Fear. Anyone who has ever put pen to paper, or blinking cursor to screen, knows that vice-like grip. What if my work isn't good? What if someone hates this? What if I hate it because nothing's coming out right?!

Take it from me: I've felt The Fear. I have waded in it, dived into it, been swept away in its undertow. But the most important part of being a successful writer -- and also, the most difficult -- is to acknowledge the anxiety of putting your work, your heart, your locus of identity on display for the world to see. Then to set that negative voice aside, without another thought.

(If anyone succeeds in doing this, tell me how. You'll make millions.)

Until the day we feel no fear, we've all got to work to create our own opportunities, our own characters, and our own voices. We've got to write every day. Even if it's only fifty words. Even if it's only ten.

We write. We write. We write.