Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Banish the Inner Writing Critic? Maybe not so fast.

The polite name for him or her (or them) is the "inner critic". The more common appellation might be that lousy jerk (or crowd) inside my head who won't shut up and keeps telling me what I'm writing is crap. You know that voice, don't you? 

The one on constant rewind, that endless loop of self-recrimination that's moving along at a faster clip then your fingers on the keyboard, dancing to its own destructive beat, that repetitive drone of No! Wrong! Bad! Unoriginal! Cliché! Trite! Been done before! Boring! Stupid!

I think every writer, to some degree or another, has this internal censor, the uninvited disruptive guest whose job seems to be to put a stop to your writing, to make us doubt ourselves, our stories, our right to write those stories.

So, what to do?  I think we've got three choices.

If you're lucky, or practiced and determined and experienced – or maybe just handy with self-hypnosis – find a way to completely turn this voice off. Flip a switch, banish it, move on. (Good luck and let me know how you did it.)

If you're not that writer, then you'll still be dealing with that critic's carps:  It's too long!  Too short!  Not deep enough!  Plot hole!  Thin plot! Why the hell can't you think of a plot!

Option two: we learn to ignore that voice. It doesn't go away, and yes, we know it's there, but maybe we grow skilled at letting the unhelpful chatter fade into the white background noise of our brain. Yeah, we hear it, but we've learned not to acknowledge it, to write anyway. We deal with like the stand-up comic trains herself to ignore the hecklers and turn away from the audience members who keep their arms folded and mouths arranged in frowns.

This is where I find myself most often. When I hear the internal cynic revving up—No one cares! Dumb details! Vague! Generic! Learn some new damn verbs!—in another part of my brain I'm thinking, "Yeah, yeah, yada, yada, yada," and I keep writing that lousy first draft, or revising that limping second draft

But not always.

Sometimes that voice is too loud, too insistent. And sometimes, got to admit, sometimes that loathsome little twerp is too close to what I think may be the truth. Yep, sometimes that inner critic has something to say that I need to hear.

So I listen. But. I don't stop what I'm writing, don't just agree with the voice, delete, and close the laptop.

What I sometimes do is find a way to acknowledge the points that voice is railing about. I take notes, either in the side margins of what I'm writing (you can use Track Changes, or divide the text into two columns, one for your draft, the second for the critic's notes). Sometimes I jot these nagging nabobs of negativism on a sticky note, or in my writer's notebook.

Just the act of recording the criticism seems to end it – I've cleared it out of my head and have it on hand should I need/want to consider whether it has any validity. In a way, I've "honored" that inner critic—or at least what I like to think of as his well-meaning but tactless spirit—by taking down the message, and moving on.

Mind you, I don't write precisely what I hear between my ears (Crappy dialogue! Confusing backstory! Terrible transition!), but try to translate the raw thought into something that may prove helpful later: Is this conversation authentic to the time period?  Can I move more of the backstory to previous pages?  Find a smoother way to get from A to B?

What I've figured out is that the grumbling, grousing, complaining, crabby, argumentative, techy naysayer who lives in my head is not going away. He can be silenced on occasion and I know how to ignore him and push him into the background, but once in a while, that guy is going to have something handy to say. He just doesn't always say it so nicely. 

Images - all Flickr/Creative Commons: NO - AranZazu; Switch - LynnDurfey; Listening - BesZain

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Writers and Their Coffee: All the Regular Reasons, Plus Mine

It won't startle anyone to find a writer with fingers on keyboard, a cup of steaming coffee within easy reach.

I start my day in my home office with a cup of coffee, and I look forward to it. As the day unspools, I head down to the kitchen to refill my oversize mug whenever I need a mental break from the awful draft on the screen, or when the draft in my older house nips at my ankles, or I know that if I don't unfold my legs soon they may refuse to hold me up in a few hours.

But I'm not a coffee hound, not even a gotta-have-my-coffee-or-I'm-grumpy girl. (I'm grumpy in the morning, but it's not about coffee.) Coffee lovers, true coffee lovers, will find the following appalling: Though I won't turn down an expertly blended cappuccino from a skilled barista, I don't care what brand I drink, at home I drink instant, I dump two Splenda packets in the cup, and use only skim lactose-free milk. And  – I drink only decaf. 

That's because other than savoring the way that first cup warms me on a chill New Jersey winter day, I'm fairly sure the only  reason I drink coffee is that it helps me feel closer to my father. And it was always thus: my coffee habit (three or four cups a day most days, less in the summer), began wholly as a way to share something with him, decades ago when it seemed we weren't sharing anything.

But like many revelations in the life of a writer of memoir and personal essay, I did not understand this at all until I had a brief experience I could have discounted and forgotten. But writers of personal nonfiction don't do that - we file things away, and pull them out for reasons we don't always understand. That's what happened: I had an unnerving, but in retrospect, lovely experience surrounding a cup of coffee a few weeks after my father died—and then weeks after that, I began to write about it. That was seven years ago. 

I tinkered with that flash nonfiction piece about coffee sporadically for a few months, then put it away. For a long time. I’m not sure if I did that on purpose—following my own advice about creating mental and emotional distance from both the experience and from the early draft, so I could revise/rewrite it properly later—or if those early paragraphs perhaps felt too flimsy to develop into anything, or too personal.

But the event (which lasted just a little over an hour), and the feeling that triggered the essay (which lasted for years), finally nudged me to work on it again. I had to be attentive to the line between sentiment and sentimentality. I worked on it again. And again. Got some feedback, tweaked, and then understood that I had a place for it within a much longer essay in my memoir manuscript.

I began to send the short flash piece out last summer, and I'm so pleased that Gravel Magazine liked it enough to publish it in their March issue. I'm also happy that the editor chose this photo of my father holding me, to accompany it. 

If you've ever spent time in a coffee shop and maybe had a strange encounter while there, or you've felt that someone who was gone was in some small way still there, I hope that you will take a few minutes (it's that short) to read "Coffee Regular."

Top image (coffee cup):  by Waferboard via Flickr Creative Commons; Photo, bottom, Lisa Romeo, all rights reserved.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Friday Fridge Clean-Out: Links for Writers -- March 14, 2014 Edition

> In The Atlantic, Megan McCardle breaks down the psychological origins of procrastination, and explains why writers are such champions in this department. 

> The Boston Public Library offers an annual Writer-in-Resident fellowship, offering a private office and $20,000 stipend over nine months, to an emerging children's writer. The current and former recipients talk about the experience

> How much do I love notebooks?  I keep a large writer's notebook near my desk at all times, and stash tiny ones (Staples sells the 2" x 4" ones in groups of five, often on sale), in car, purse, laundry room, kitchen, bathroom.  Jessica Morell concurs.

> Scrabble players: Nominate the word you think should be added to the official Scrabble dictionary's next edition. 

> The National Book Critics Circle book awards are finalized, and you can find the list and links to excerpts from some over at The Millions.

> Whether you're visiting book clubs from your own dining room table, participating in an online class or critique group that meets via Skype, or conducting interviews, you can use these three tips for looking good on your webcam.

> I have one or two of these "10 Self-Limiting Habits Successful Writers Don't Have," but I fight them, sometimes successfully.

> If you're promoting a book or writing-related event, or sharing links to your published work or resources, the time of day when you post to social media sites does matter.

> This article is nearly a year old, and Ms. Howard has since died, but I'm still passing it around, especially to any writer friend who moans about being too old for this game.

> Here's a cool step-by-step peek into the art and process of designing a book cover when the book's subject is well-known (and not universally liked).

> Finally, rejection is rarely fun, but the Form Rejection Decoder Thingy (pdf) by Sarah Einstein, is. (via Brevity)

Have a great weekend!

Image: G&A Sattler/Flickr Creative Commons

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

A Circle of Writing Mentors and Students and More

I love a circle. 

During my time in the Stonecoast MFA program, I was lucky to meet Meredith Hall, whose essays I had read in Creative Nonfiction. She gave a rousing guest lecture that stirred up strong feelings for many of us, about thinking bigger, about being generous with our stories, and bringing everything to the page, not holding back.  

Mostly what I remember is this advice:  Be audacious in what you go after -- and go after a lot. Age doesn't matter! Apply for grants! Seek residencies! Enter contests! Be bold! Why not you?

I went home, bought her memoir, Without A Map, read it in one afternoon. We exchanged friendly emails. I reread her book again slowly, and realized she'd grown up in the same New Hampshire town as my husband's cousin. A few quick emails confirmed that they were once good friends, and Meredith also remembered my sister-in-law, a frequent New Hampshire visitor during their childhoods. I was able to put them all back in touch, and that felt wonderful. 

It would be enough if the circle ended there.  But there's more.

After hearing Meredith at Stonecoast, I began submitting my work more often, and entered my first contest with an essay about visiting my father in the hospital in Las Vegas. It placed second in the Charles Simic Graduate Student Writing Contest, and with the honor came a bit of cash and publication in Barnstorm, the journal edited by the MFA program at University of New Hampshire.

Though energies and enthusiasm sometimes flag, I've kept entering, submitting, applying, and often while doing so, I think of Meredith. I interviewed her for my research thesis, and for an anthology of craft and publishing advice. 

The circle widens.

After I began teaching and coaching writers, I got an email from someone I would get to know as a lovely writer and delightful person. I remember Alyssa Martino's first email because at the moment it arrived, I was waiting for another flight in the Las Vegas airport, where I'd been visiting my ill mother. I was glad for a distraction from my sadness.

Alyssa signed up for an online classes, then to continue working on essays and memoir pieces, and finally to shape and polish her portfolio to accompany applications to MFA programs.

Where does she land but at University of New Hampshire, and in whose class does she find herself? Meredith Hall's. I've had such fun hearing from Alyssa periodically, about how much she's learned from Meredith, and the deep satisfaction she's experiencing developing her writing craft. Tell Meredith hello! I've often written back. Meredith says hi! she's replied.

When I send a newsletter about something I've accomplished, a reply invariably arrives from Meredith:  thinking of you...congratulations...delighted and not surprised...such lovely news. When I look back at craft notes taken during the MFA, she's there too.

Now, Alyssa is working toward graduation, building her own teaching skills, and working on the editorial staff of...Barnstorm. One of her responsibilities is to interview writers for a section called The Writer's Hot Seat. A few months ago, she asked to interview me. 

I'm tempted to say the circle now feels complete.  

But I know better.