Friday, October 29, 2010

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: October 29th Edition

Some link list love – enjoy!

► Ah, the artist colony, the writer residency, the artist retreat – peace and quiet, no distractions, a place and a time to tune out the world and do nothing but write, right? Not so much anymore, now that wifi connections have taken hold at many locations.

►Nonfiction writers (and those who enjoy reading essays), have you checked out the Essay Daily blog? The site's own description reads: A filter for and an ongoing conversation about essays and magazines of interest. Worth the trip, especially for the sidebar list of links to Homes for the Essay.

►I'm a big proponent of having a writing accountability buddy, and also a quantifiable submission plan. Over on Twitter, some writers have begun the #10bythen list. The idea is, you commit to making 10 submissions a month, and then update your fellow writers about your progress, commiserate, lend support, and send up whoops for acceptances.

►While these kinds of lists are sometimes tiresome, The New Haven Review put a new twist on it with "20 Nonfiction writers under 40."

►Do you use the feature at Amazon which allows you to search inside the book before you buy? According to this report, a new patent suggests the giant online bookseller may be considering charging for this service in the future.

►If you are considering publishing an ebook, perhaps no one is better suited to give you the dollars and sense scoop than J.A. Konrath, whose ebook-only books have sold in the millions. Check his blog, A Newbie's Guide to Publishing. Then, head over to Lauren Baratz-Logsted's feisty installment of her Disrespectful Interviewer series with the good-natured author.

►And finally, do you speak "college slang"? Would you even want to? Inquiring word geeks only, please.

Update: Don't know why, but several of these links weren't working; they have been fixed now!

Have a great weekend.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Intersection of Writing and Reading: Part Two.

The subject today is again about the intersection of writing and reading.

But this time, not so much a rant about reading, as an attempt to unpack another question I get asked a lot by less experienced writers in classes and workshops: Should I avoid reading too much of the kind of material I want to write?

This one is less black and white as why writers need to read, though at first blush it appears to warrant a quick answer, as in, no of course not, don't be so silly.

But if I'm understanding the question properly – and since I've asked people who pose it to explain exactly what they mean, I think I do – the inquiry boils down to: If I read too much of the kind of writing I aspire to, won't I, even unintentionally, begin to mimic others' style? Won't I get another writing voice in my head when I should be listening only to my own?

First things first.

I believe we must read deeply and broadly from what I call our writing sweet spot: If you aspire to be a humorist, you read good humor writers. If you hope to write about trauma or a painful past, you read nonfiction which tackle trauma and painful pasts. If you want to write historical fiction, you read a lot of historical fiction. Poets read poetry. You get the idea.

The reasons are obvious – to see how others do it, and how well and how remarkable it is possible to be on the page. You'll discover places you can go with your work that you never considered before. You will also sometimes encounter stuff you don't want to do.

If you wanted to build an entire new kitchen in your home and you had very little building experience or maybe your building experience was only comprised of building commercial offices, and your cousin the master builder was putting in a new kitchen at a house just down the road and invited you to come along and watch, well - wouldn't you?

The next part, the notion of being unduly influenced by other writers is interesting but really not all that different. In short, I wouldn't really worry about it.

In the above example, your eventual kitchen might utilize some of the same techniques as your cousin's, and who knows, maybe even some of the same materials and similar colors and appliances as your cousin's, but it wouldn't BE that same kitchen. It wouldn't even look much like his kitchen because your house has different dimensions, and structural constraints, and you have a different budget and differing taste. Maybe he was building a showpiece kitchen for folks who mostly eat out, but yours is a kitchen for people who love to cook at home.

Your writing style will be your own, your writing will be your own too. You can't help that. You are stuck with yourself. Usually, for most artists, that's a very good thing. And you know what, if you end up writing like the next (fill in the name of any literary god) well is that a bad thing?

If you were (even subconsciously) to be so heavily influenced by another writer that you began to write in his/her style, that's also not bad news. A little imitation is often a good writing teacher; in fact many writing teachers assign imitative writing as a craft exercise.

Going forward, you won't be able to maintain that imitative style anyway. Your own writing proclivities, quirks and style will always win out. Even if you tried with every ounce of your being to write exactly like a fabulous (or even a bad!) writer, you can't. At least not for more than a few pages. And probably not even that long. Plus, you have different reasons for writing, and different experiences, different ideas about language, a different vocabulary, different urges and intention. That writer has one thing to say, and you have another.

Another reason TO read widely from the sliver of bookshelf you hope to one day occupy is to discover where your material fits in. Do you, as you hope, really have anything new to add to the literary conversation?

Now, having said all of that I also have to admit that there's something to be said for NOT reading from your writing sweet spot at certain times.

What times? Some writer say when they are deeply entrenched in a project, at one stage or another according to their own lights, that's when they want to screen out voices that are maybe a little too close to their writing voice.

I know a few memoir writers who read memoirs voraciously in between projects and up until the early stages of a new manuscript. But then they switch to reading third person fiction so that the only first person voice they are hearing in their heads as they are writing, is their own. I know one young adult novelist who will only read journalism while she's working on the first draft of a book, but then once she's sure of the arc of the story, she's okay with reading everything again.

When I'm reading a book for review, I tend to not read any other book in the same genre at the
same time. When I'm in the revision stages, or rewriting, a memoir piece, I too avoid reading memoir. But when I write personal essay, I practically inhale other personal essays. Everyone's different.

Then there's this.

Most writers I know (me too) will tell you that when stuck, the first place we go is to the bookshelf. Why? Well sometimes we just want to read for a bit, to get out of our own work and inside someone else's, to distract ourselves, but not leave the world of words entirely. But more likely, we want to see how X author (or ten other writers) did it. We're not looking to crib easy "answers" but to get inspired by writers we respect, to reassure ourselves that it's possible to get out of whatever writing corner we've gotten ourselves into.

I like this quote from a legendary stage performer, who was asked how he'd advise aspiring artists: "Watch the masters at work."

As writers, we "watch" the masters at work by reading what they've written.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Of Writing, Reading, and a Rant

Warning: I feel a rant coming on.

Look, I’m no authority on how reading affects the writer's brain or creative process other than what I know intuitively, logically and via personal experience, and what I've gleaned by reading about this issue, and from talking with other writers.

But I do know this: you can't be a writer if you are not a reader. A big reader.

Seems to me writers have to be readers by default, else how would any of us even know we want to write in the first place? Maybe that's a little too simplistic; the urge to communicate is not limited to marks on paper, after all, but I'm talking about wanting to write so that others can read what one has written. How else do we get that urge other than from experiencing writing first as a reader?

We all start out as readers before we are writers.

And yet in many classes and workshop I run, I'm gobsmacked by writers, in the early stages of their writing life, who claim not to be especially interested in reading and/or say they don't have time to read.

Here's what I say: If you don't have time to read, maybe you don't really have time to write either.

Let's say all you have available to devote to writing is a two hour chunk of time per a week. I'm suggesting you read for an hour and write for an hour, and over the long haul, the writing will be far better than if you had written for those full two hours.

Reading feeds writing. Reading good writing opens the door to a deeper understanding of craft, possibility, creativity. Reading teaches us to think as writers, and to know, in our bones, what it feels like to be consumers of writing.

Can vocal students NOT listen to recordings of vocal performances? To songs? To the radio, CDs, to each other? Do hopeful downhill ski racers progress by watching cross-country competitions, or by watching no skiing at all? Are there visual artists out there who rarely look at others' paintings? What would happen to a chef who rarely ate other chefs' cooking?

I don't get it and don't think I ever will. Most writers, if they've spent enough time thinking about what it is about their craft which they love, realize they are enthralled not only with the act of writing, but by the "moving parts" of writing, which we only notice by reading -- individual words and the millions of ways they can be put together, meaning and language, story, the cadence of words strung together, the rhythm and style of favorite lines. So why wouldn't we always want to experience more of that?

I believe a writer's reading life has a lot to do with what kind of a writer one chooses to be, or can continue to be. I love to read from many different genres and media, but it wasn't until I realized just how much nonfiction I was reading that I realized it was what I mostly wanted to write. The more I found my way to the top of the creative nonfiction reading pile, the more excited I was to try to secure a place there myself. In that sense, I feel that writing, as a personal act as well as the process which produces a public piece of literary art, cannot grow out of anything except aspiration.

And when the writing is not going so well, the answer is often not more writing. The answer to a writing problem is often more reading.

What say you?

P.S. Read anything good lately?

Friday, October 22, 2010

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links Writers May Like. October 22nd Edition

Typically, every Friday I post interesting web links (both obscure and popular) I've found throughout the week – hence the name, Friday Fridge Clean-Out (much the way I feed my family on Friday nights). Lately, I've only been sporadically blogging, so the fridge is now overflowing. Some of them may have already found their way to your screen, though a handful are more current. Either way, enjoy.

►In the LA Times, Mary McNamara offered this Working Mother's Guide to Writing a Novel. Bottom line: difficult but do-able, and a daily decision.

►Manhattan's popular The Strand ("18 miles of new, used, rare & out-of-print books") used to stack small inexpensive books near the register for impulse buys, but lately have found what grocery and convenience stores have known for years. Readers have a sweet tooth.

►Anyone who has done it before and is heading into National Novel Writing Month again this November probably has a list of tips for newbies. This one, serious ("Learn how NOT to edit") and silly ("Lock up all fire arms"), covers a lot of the bases.

►Free public wifi isn't a bargain if it plants a bug on your computer, as NPR explains.

►Is there a writing workshop in your future? Can't hurt to review these tips at MFA In A Box. I especially like: "Don’t ever confuse a writing group with a therapy group." Ah, but doesn't that kill half the fun?

►No matter what they write, I am almost always interested in how and why successful writers created the work they did, sometimes especially when it's outside of my genre and/or skill set, which is why I enjoyed this piece about how Darlene Hunt created and writes scripts for The Big C, a new Showtime TV series.

►My friend Sari Botton, a standout ghostwriter (a Q/A with her ran here last year), recently interviewed Vivian Gornick about the difficulty, in memoir, in writing the truth and also taking care of loved ones on the page. Gornick's first memoir was Fierce Attachments and her craft book, The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative, is probably on every nonfiction writer's shelf (or should be).

►I had a major crush on Andrew McCarthy from the Brat Pack films (St. Elmo's Fire, etc. – yeah, I'm dating myself) through to his turn in Lipstick Jungle last year. Now he's back on my radar, winning the 2010 Travel Journalist of the Year award in the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Competition. He's the real deal too, as this brief Washington Post interview notes, with bylines in Travel and Leisure, Afar, Bon App├ętit and National Geographic Traveler.

►I have always believed that the creative process is somehow altered (in my opinion, for the better), when we handwrite rather than type our first drafts. Lately, researchers are finding that handwriting delivers all kinds of other benefits too.

►And finally: we writers ARE a strange lot, no? We want to write, crave time to write, complain about not having enough time to write, and yet sometimes….we just don't write. One Page Per Day seems like a workmanlike way to trick yourself into it.

Have a great weekend.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Next Daily Writing Prompt Project Begins Today

I planned a longish post today about writing prompts, and why I love them and how much I enjoy sending them out and all the great feedback I've gotten from fellow writers about how they use the prompts, and lot of other prompt-related stuff.

Instead, I'm just going to say hey, the new round begins today.

It works like this: Sign up, receive a writing prompt in your email every day until Thanksgiving. The prompts are suitable for all kinds of writers. Any genre. Free. Simple. No expectations. No obligations. Join in anytime, opt out anytime. Use the prompt. Don't use it. Save it. Share it. Delete it. You choose.

To get on the list, send an email. Please put Prompts in the subject line.

You can read more about why I started this prompt project earlier this year, what writers have said about it, and why you might want to consider participating: here and here and here and here. The Women on Writing site also ran this recent article about how prompts and writing exercises can motivate and inspire.

Update: The email link in this post appears to be working now. If not, use the email link button on the left sidebar, or simply: