Cutting Out the Frivolous Stuff

song sparrow singingLast week, during a series of presentations on writing-related discoveries, which I always make first-year composition students do at the end of the year, one student said, “I learned that writing shorter is harder than writing longer.”

“Why’s that, do you think?” I asked.

He thought before answering.White-crowned-Sparrow

“Because to make something shorter, you have to make all these decisions. Like, what’s important and what to get rid of. And then, after you take stuff out, you have to change other stuff to make it sound right.”

“You mean, you have to revise—like, you know, re-see it,” another student chimed in.

“Yeah. It is like that,” he said. “Like seeing that it could be a different way and still be what I wanted to say. Maybe even better. I never thought of that. I always used to think revision was just fixing stuff.” The two students grinned with that mixture of embarrassment and pride students always have when using the language of the course.White-Throated_Sparrow

That night I led a professional development session for graduate faculty on the subject of assessing final projects.

“Everything students hand in is a draft,” I remarked in passing, “and drafts are hard to grade. If you want your students to revise, you have to trick them into it.”

Field_Sparrow“How?” one professor asked.

“Lots of ways,” I said, “but the most successful way for me is to give maximum word limits on assignments rather than minimum word limits.”

“How does that make them revise?” she persisted.

I knew that being made to write short did force students to revise, but it took me a second to come up with a reason why on the spot. “I guess it’s like when you fill out an online application and have to answer a question in a little box that limits you to only so many characters, including spaces,” I told them. “What you write is always way too long. So you have to keep paring it down, getting rid of unnecessary stuff, often the parts you’re Harris's Sparrowproudest of, so you can get down to what’s essential. And, in the end, it’s not only shorter but better. Or, anyway, I always think it is. In my experience, the same thing happens with students when I give them word limits. I get all these emails, begging me to let them go longer. But I never do. Not one word. So they have to revise. And what they turn in is lots better than what they turn in when they’re just trying to fill pages.”

Everyone wrote that down—the most useful grading takeaway, even though it wouldn’t be relevant until they started building assignments the next semester.

The next day, at an end-of-year luncheon of honors English students, my department chair asked those about to graduate to share the moment they realized they wanted to study English, and two women talked about learning to write short.

lark sparrow“Being forced to cut made my writing so much better,” one said. “I knew how to improve my writing after learning that.”

“I had this revelation that every sentence matters,” said another. “That was the moment for me.”

Finally, yesterday, my novel workshop students were talking about their revision strategies for the three chapters I’d be grading at the end of the semester.

“I’m cutting out a lot of frivolous stuff,” one said. “That’s the main thing I learned in this class: You don’t need half the stuff you write.”Chipping_Sparrow

As always, whenever I have one of these clumps of similar messages, I figured it wasn’t just coincidence—or the more obvious reality that people were saying back to me what I’d been preaching all semester—but the Holy Spirit weighing in on the ssavannah sparrowubject. It seemed strange, though, that the Holy Spirit was interested in revision.

Then it occurred to me that I’m the one who needed the cutting message I’d been preaching. My own novel is a frivolous (and practically unpublishable for a first novel) 130,000 words.

There’s no getting around it, I told myself. You need to cut another 30,000 words.

That doesn’t begin to answer the question—if you’re still wondering—of why cutting words from my pages might interest the Holy Spirit. Perhaps it’s that, as I like to tell my students, revision is a key part of the creative process, and God has always been into that. Separating light from dark, water from land. Fiddling with it, examining it, considering, until it’s good, or very good.

Or maybe God’s interested in revision for the same reason he pays attention to sparrows: namely, all of his creation—birds, us, our minds, words, our little improvement plans—fascinates and delights him.

(PS: To whatever fellow birdlovers are out there, I saw all the sparrows pictured this morning: song, white-crowned, white-throated, field, Harris’s, lark, chipping, and savannah. I feel so blessed!)

Asking the Question, “How Do I Get Published?”

Woman_talking_on_phoneNothing dispels the misconception that I am unique more categorically than the internet.

Case in point: Every time I embark on some new project—whether it’s growing asparagus from seed or figuring out whether to read a talked-about novel or advising a student about whether she should negotiate for a better grad school fellowship offer—I always begin by asking Google. Invariably, before I get further than a word or two, Google is already offering me the rest of my question in the searchbox, word for word exactly as I was going to phrase it, from one of the millions before me who’ve already posed it. Whatever I’m asking—however stupid, embarrassing, or arcane my inquiry—the e-populace has already considered it and devoted significant effort to answering it. Wherever I go, the virtual multitudes have already been. Truly there is nothing new under the sun.

That said, experience has also taught me that there are many who don’t seek answers on the internet. Or anyway, there may be plenty of mes out there asking my questions, but, whoever they are, they’re not the would-be authors who show up at my office or email or call wanting to know how to turn their great ideas into published books.

Computer Workstation Variables from WikimediaUsually, I concentrate my authorial-guru expertise on trying to turn their initial question—how to get published—into something more answerable, like how do you write a query letter? Or, how do you write a nonfiction book proposal? Or, do I really need an agent?

I explain to them things I’ve learned about the publishing process over the years—like that agents play an important role in the publishing process by vetting billions of manuscripts out there to find ones worth sending on to publishers. I tell aspiring authors that the 15% of what they may make and are already so reluctant to shell out for their as yet unpublished (and often not yet completed or even begun) books is every penny worth it for someone who not only knows how to navigate the crazily mysterious publishing world and has the connections to do so but who has a vested interest—namely, the desire to make money—in their clients’ success, since that’s where their success will come from.

“What you should be asking,” I say, “is not if you really need an agent but how to get one. And how to motivate yourself to finish a draft. Or how to get started in the first place.”

But they didn’t come to be nagged. They came hoping I’d help them keep on dreaming.

Here’s the thing. Getting published takes work, that’s all. And every answer you have about it has already been asked and answered, in billionuplicate, on the internet. And in more detail than any single author could ever offer. Figuring out how to get published is a matter of asking Google a question and then making your way, site by site, into the vast inter-universe of answers, refining and reasking as you go.

Interested in finding an agent? Here’s how.

Interested in getting a particular agent? Here’s how.

Interested in what clients that agent has had and how successful those clients have been in the past few years? Want to know how long your dream-agent takes to respond to queries? To requests for a partial manuscript? To requests for a full manuscript? It’s all there, often conveniently consolidated into a single, sortable site. Verily I say unto you, there is no mystery more fully unraveled in the webby bowels of the internet than publishing a book.

Which isn’t to say everyone’s in agreement about everything. Or about anything. Far from it. Finding some small clump of consensus, much less an answer you can trust, is as difficult as getting the educated lowdown on a loved one’s disease from the internet. It’s there, but you have to sort through a lot of obvious and sometimes not so obvious nonsense to discover it. Publishing questions are no different. You’ll have to winnow your findings.

But answers to your questions are out there. And, if you’re selective, what you learn is likely to be as trustworthy as and more informed than the answer of any single expert.

So, when you have a publishing question—especially THE publishing question—start with Google. Each question you ask and every answer you receive will take you deeper and a bit more confidently into the publishing world than any one published author can. If you’re lucky, you might even end up somewhere like here, where not just one but an entire community of agented writers are dedicated to encouraging, engaging, and enriching you along your writing journey. Without even being asked.Computer Keyboard

All. Those. Books.

Princess in a Bubble: Sander van der Wel from Netherlands

Princess in a Bubble: Sander van der Wel from Netherlands

Recently I totted up that, of the eighty or so college students I’ve taught this year (only about a half of whom were creative-writing-emphasis English majors), a good dozen have written novels. That’s a fifteen percent. They’ve completed novels, they tell me. A couple of them have written more than one.

I haven’t read any of these novels, so I can’t say if they’re any good. Judging from the student-novelists’ writing in other contexts, they’re probably not much worse than a lot of what gets published these days, but they’re probably not masterpieces.

Whether their novels are good or not, though, it seems important that there’s all this fiction-writing going on these days beside and beneath and perhaps instead of all the assignments and tests and papers and other writing that comprise a college education. I certainly wasn’t completing novels—not even short stories—back when I was their age, and I can’t think of a single classmate who was. I’ve been speculating what all these budding—nay, blossoming—young writers might mean for the state of literature in our time and for the writing community at large.

One thing that occurs to me right off is that young people these days must feel more invited and encouraged and empowered to write and publish novels than I ever was. That’s perhaps to be expected of the self-esteem building curriculum promoted in the generations between mine and theirs. I once had my seventh grade teacher’s Little Brown Handbook thrown across the room at me for chewing gum. They, on the other hand, were told they could do pretty much anything they wanted. Consequently, not a few of them went ahead and did that—which is sort of exciting, when you think about it.

Students these days are also very motivated to write. By what? one wonders. One incentive would surely be the myriad publishing opportunities available to writers these days. Several of my students have published their work online and two have paid to have their work published by what we used to call a vanity presses. Publishing has become something anyone can do, at any stage of life, often with little or no investment of resources beyond the time it took stole from a few games of online poker.

Due_sportelli_di_libreria_con_scaffali_di_libri_di_musicaAnother motivation could be the greater variety of subgenres popular with kids nowadays. When I was young, girls read Nancy Drew as tweens, then progressed directly to the classics (Austen, the Brontës, for me Defoe and Dickens); boys who read mostly read adventure or sci-fi then stopped; and everyone liked the odd fantasy stand out like J. R. R. Tolkien. Nowadays, bookstores and libraries have separate young adult sections with whole shelves of mystery/thrillers, even more shelves of fantasies, plus equally popular subgenres we never heard of in my day: apocalyptic, dystopian, historical fiction, alternative historical fiction, cyberpunk, steampunk, contemporary, Christian contemporary, romance, LGBT romance, Amish teen romance. . . The world of fiction these days is like a map of the brain: so much stuff going on, so much new vocabulary you need to even talk about it.

Then there are the novel-writing success stories: J. K. Rowling and her napkin, Christopher Paolini writing Eragon at fifteen, the almost immediate transformation of their and other books popular with young people into big screen movies. It looks so easy nowadays, writing a book. A flick of the pen and you’re there.

I guess the thing that fascinates me most about the novelists among my students is not their license and motivation to write or even the astounding investment of time involved but the enthusiasm they must bring to the fiction-writing enterprise: to prefer it over other more age-appropriate entertainments—such as, for me at their age, hanging out with friends, cooking, reading, learning aikido, making ceramic pots, scavenging my natural and suburban surroundings for sea urchins and kumquats, sewing.

(For them, playing video games, watching YouTube, poking their cellphones? Maybe it’s that. The screen-squinching narrowness of their entertainment alternatives. Writing has become their life before they’ve even had lives, I’m supposing. Although I’d have to read their books to know for sure.)

From everything I’ve heard in the news lately, reading’s on the wane, but writing sure isn’t. Either that or the students at Christian universities like mine are way different—more creative and prolific, harder working, more hip to the possibilities out there—than their secular peers. I’m guessing they’re not all that different, though. I’m guessing my anecdotal fifteen percent of kids these days—perhaps more!—are writing books in lieu of reading them (or maybe in addition to reading them, since somebody’s got to be reading all those cyberEpiscopalian dystopian romances) and will soon be filling the shelves and movie marquees with their opuses.

It’s becoming my new writerly nightmare. Used to, bookstores scared me. All. Those. Books! All that competition for readers. Now it’s them. My students. Our kids. Our kids’ kids.

This isn’t a very encouraging post, I fear, for fellow writers—especially those of a certain age—so let me just close with a little remediation in the self-esteem training some of us missed out on: Don’t. Give. Up. If they can do it, we can too!

Revising Aloud

Tihamér_Margitay_Exciting_story“Reading aloud,” I’m always telling my writing students, “is the best way to revise.”

I encourage them—sometimes require them—to find read-aloud partners or start writing groups in which they take turns reading their work aloud.

“Hearing your sentences spoken lets you know whether they’re clear and natural-sounding—whether someone actually could speak them,” I explain. “And it doesn’t work to read to an empty room. You need a warm body, a listener, to complete the communication. Speaking is, after all, a collaborative act.”

Finding that read-aloud partner is easy at college, where everyone’s engaged in writing all the time. Outside the college setting, though, finding someone willing to listen can be a challenge.800px-Anker_Sonntagnachmittag_1861 People are busy. Few have time to sit still for an hour while some verbose writer drones on. That’s how they’ll imagine it when you propose reading to them. We Americans have lost—or never had—the habit of listening to people read. We had only the shallowest tradition of serial novels, released chapter by chapter as Dickens’ novels were and read to the whole family at fireside. And no comfy pubs—without blaring TVs—like the one where C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and their writer buddies hung out, drank beer, and read their work to one another. Writers who give public readings these days will tell you it’s hard to get even close friends to attend. Our lives are too busy for read-alouds.

I often recommend to writer friends that they make use of the lonely people in their lives: shut-in relatives, kid-imprisoned friends who wish they had a grownup to talk to, recently retired colleagues with time on their hands. 1280px-Anker-_Die_Andacht_des_Grossvaters_1893It sounds terrible, this “making use” of others, taking advantage of their neediness to assuage your own, but in my experience such mutual exchanges not only helped my writing but also transformed intended acts of mercy—“I should spend more time with my mother-in-law,” I was always telling myself—into pleasurable time together, which we both looked forward to. My mother-in-law not only got longed-for company but also felt needed; I got my warm body but also genuine enjoyment, without having to chide myselfHugo_Bürkner_Lesestunde (usually in vain) to, as Paul recommends, “give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver” (2 Corinthians 9.7 NRSV). The mutual benefit, I found, guaranteed that cheerfulness, for both of us—because attentive listening and being listened to can’t help but nurture relationships.

My daughter Lulu has been on semester break from college for the past month, with a couple more weeks to go. It’s tricky having a grown daughter home that long. We’ve long since put our Christmas CDs away, but I’m still in the throes of Bing Crosby’s parental prophecy for the season: “And Mom and Dad can hardly wait for school to start again!”

Luckily, Lulu’s engrossed in the final revision stages of her senior project—a hundred-Amédée_Guérard_Bibelstundepage translation of and critical introduction to an East German book—and I’m busy trying to cut 30,000 words from a novel before sending it out, so we have tasks to distract us from the inevitable mother-daughter combat. Also, since we’re in about the same place in our revisions—where what we need most is to hear them aloud and find out if they work—we’ve established a read-aloud schedule: I read her a couple short chapters during her late breakfast, and she reads me one long chapter while I trim vegetables for dinner.

I can’t say it’s the perfect exchange my mother-in-law and I had. Lulu doesn’t end my readings, as my mother-in-law always did, with “That’s the best thing you’ve ever written!” And, as a writer and teacher of writing, I give more critical feedback than Lulu really wants. But our reading fills two hours of our day with mostly pleasurable, mutually beneficial work. More importantly, the listening involved gives us both practice, at this complex juncture of our parental-filial journey, in navigating our new relationship as related but separate adults. As peers, in other words. Equals. Reciprocally heard, appreciated, and loved.

In Praise of Editors

facebook personPosting a comment online this morning made me suddenly hyperaware of the publicness of published writing. Publishing actually does mean, as I tell my students, making something public.

“Everything you write for a class, even if it’s disseminated no further than the classroom, even if I’m the only one reading it, is public writing,” I tell them. “Don’t tell me you just wrote it for yourself or attach a sticky note saying it’s just for me. Assume that whatever you hand in may be made public. That it’s already public. It was public the moment you printed it up and put it in my hand or clicked ‘attach’ and then ‘send.’”

copyedited manuscriptIt’s easy to forget that writing is public, though. Consider Facebook, where people often post sentiments best kept to themselves. However tempting it might be to rail or even to agree—by liking it—with someone else’s railing, I generally restrict myself to happy birthdays, comments about good-looking photos, and commiserations with others’ suffering.

Today I was doing just that: commiserating with a friend whose autistic child had just “had a huge meltdown . . . complete with yelling, food throwing, and tears running down his face” in front of, as she wrote, “almost everyone I know.”

It was a wonderful post, as those who’d already commented said, because it was so frank. So, as my students say, “relatable.”

“Most of the time I suck it up,” my friend wrote, the “meltdowns, 10+ accidents a day, the stares, rude questions, the incomprehension on the faces of people around me, but today it was all too much, so I walked to the car sobbing my heart out.” She confessed, “it felt, somehow, like it was my fault,” and I sobbed too. For her. For her son. For sufferers of autism and their parents. For parents in general. Is there a more agonizing feeling than the unavoidable conviction that it’s somehow our fault whenever anything goes wrong—even something we didn’t cause and couldn’t have stopped—with a daughter or son?

It’s hard to respond to someone else’s pain in a way that doesn’t compound it, though. I learned that when, in the aftermath of a sexual assault at gunpoint, friends commented, among other intended condolences, that I was “lucky not to be dead.” I didn’t feel lucky and wished I was dead. Being told the contrary merely intensified those feelings.

I was thinking about that as I commented and (hopefully) didn’t make that error. Not this time, anyway—thanks to my best editor, the Holy Spirit, who, I’m convinced, translates our groans not only to God but to everyone else and (with some effort, in my case) bleeps our stupidest words. After telling her I’d cried, I advised her not to blame herself: she was doing the best and only right thing to do—loving her son—and doing it perfectly. So far so good, I thought—or anyway, I didn’t feel that tug in the direction of the delete key at that point.

BloggingI did feel it moments later, though, when I helpfully passed on a reassuring comment from a pastor’s wife eons ago when I was in the throes of parental shame about a problem with one of my toddling daughters: “God chose you, precisely you, for your girls,” she said, “because he knew you’d be the best possible mom for them.”

Sounds safe enough, I thought. And I was mightily comforted by that woman’s words at the time. God chose me to parent my girls. I was the best possible mother they could have. Everything was going to be fine.

But, as I say, the Holy Spirit apparently didn’t think so. In the fraction of a moment before I pressed enter, stories of parental abuse and neglect poured into my brain. A friend whose mom once told her children she hated them. Did God choose those children’s parents, too? What child, grown now but surely still suffering that meanness, might be reading my post?

The public is a tricky sea to navigate alone. Our kindest intentions, our most heartfelt theologies, have as much potential to mislead and hurt as to inform and uplift. Thank God for editors.

What My Students and I Learned This Semester in Creative Nonfiction Workshop

Big Thing #1: Neatening the messy truth never works. Nürnberg Prozess, Büro für Druckschriften-HerstellungStory: A sweet-hearted student wrote a moving essay about her difficulty with “being held” following her father’s death. She began her essay with an amusingly awkward forced hug—an assignment from her Family Sexuality class to practice “hugging until relaxed”—and concluded with her “surrender” into her friend’s arms at the hug’s end. Everyone loved the essay except for its conclusion.

In a conference with the student after workshop, I explained what I thought was the problem: the resolution just wasn’t as concrete and thus convincing as the wrenchingly funny opening scene. “Did this surrender really happen?” I asked. “It sounds like you’re lying.”

I didn’t really mean to accuse her of lying, only to convince her of that disparity in concreteness. Turns out, though, she had lied—not intentionally, of course, or even with intent to deceive but just to simplify the messiness of her struggle into a more satisfyingly redemptive conclusion. There’d been no surrender in that hug. After we both recovered from her surprising lie—as much to her as to me—she revised the piece to reveal what really happened, transforming a good essay into a publishable one.

Application: Tell the truth, don’t prettify it.

Big Thing #2: Contrary to the usual creative writing mandate to “Show, don’t tell,” most good writing requires both.

Story: Two students who particularly explored this truth were a chemistry major and a woman from a missionary family in Kenya. Both wrote from a knowledge-base completely foreign to us, thus running into a classic writerly problem which the missionary-kid characterized as “balancing explanation with story.” Explain too much, and you end up with a boring commentary on what happened; explain too little, and readers get lost. As the chemistry major said, “The audience cannot read your mind.”

Throughout the course, the students tugged at the delicate membrane between showing and telling, testing the delights and dangers of being too baffling or too, as I call it, “explainy.” By semester’s end, both consistently wowed us with their work, delighting us especially with a close-up of cosy Nairobi teatimes and a wacky book review/lab manual hybrid on the chemistry of poisons.

Application: To take us somewhere we’ve never been—which is, after all, every creative nonfiction writer’s job—you need to show AND tell, judiciously.

Big Thing #3: Scheduled, specific assignments not only motivate idea-less students but—counter-intuitively—often result in their most creative work.

Story: Several students struggled with motivation and, as one put it, “finding something to write about” for the course’s ten pieces. The first six assignments were pretty narrowly defined and came one right after the next; pretty much everyone found those fun, easy to write, and creatively empowering. Open assignments with longer deadlines were more challenging.

Application: If you’re stuck, give yourself an assignment. And a due date.

Embarrassed_Father_-_Vintage_family_PhotoBig Thing #4: Learning to write better teaches humility.

Story: Several students identified “taking criticism” as a struggle in the course of the semester. Here’s a reflection from one student’s revision account: “I was pretty judgmental of the big guy, so I tamed that part down. It felt mean when I looked at it again. I don’t think I lost anything at all, the scene wasn’t really about him anyway.” The student’s introspection and writerly focus say it all.

Application: Find yourself some honest readers, then pay attention to them. It’ll help your writing and your soul.

Malassezia_lipophilis_3_loresLittle Thing #1 (Big Thing #5): Clichés are like fungus: ubiquitous but strangely more embarrassing and disgusting than most other writerly ills.

Story: Student after student confessed to clichés. They hardly needed to, since I routinely point them out in class. Even their revisions had clichés—as do my own, unless I’m super vigilant. In class, I put quotation marks around their clichés in Google to convince them. The phrase “inextricably linked,” for example, gets “About 715,000 results (0.15 seconds).”

In a way, clichés are wonderful: someone’s once-creative, collectively approved wording. That said, clichés remain the bane of good writing—Oh no! That’s “About 3,160 results (0.51 seconds.)”

Application: Look again. And again. They’re there.

Loved, Chosen, and Writing (for the Forseeable Future) at 5 a.m.—A Lesson from Anne Lamott

Anne-Lamott-2013-San-Francisco--Wikimedia Commons--ZboralskiI just returned from Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Writing, featuring such diverse writers as Luci Shaw, Richard Foster, Rachel Held Evans, and Anne Lamott and offering sessions on everything from how to write a book proposal to self-publishing, writing about trauma to writing novels, writing children’s books to writing faithfully about sex. Some sessions were practical, others funny, some heady, some worshipful. All inspired and challenged me. Several offered strategies I’ve taken to heart and will pass on to my students.

The best advice, from Anne Lamott, was the simplest and hardly new or profound. She must have said it twenty times during a characteristically hilarious and solipsistic one-hour interview—which surged pell-mell in and out of her various addictions, the gift of desperation, her cellulite-pocked thighs, people she appreciates (those who give her even more cream for her coffee, for example) and those she avoids (e.g., those who claim you can’t have fear and faith simultaneously), her love of desserts and coffee with massive amounts of cream (Did I mention that already?), the interminably lost and sought jetliner on CNN in her hotel room, and the good news that we’re “loved and chosen” (a refrain I’m already aware of reiterated apropos to nothing that I could tell but nevertheless causing tears to start from my eyes each time)—and it was the same advice I’ve encountered whenever I’ve heard her talk or reread her wonderful book on writing, Bird by Bird. Still, like that loved and chosen refrain, it seized me anew each time she said it. It was this: All it takes to write is to sit down and do it.

She put forth several ancillary recommendations. That you can’t wait for your toddlers to start school or your teens to leave home. That you don’t need an office, just a door that closes. That you have to say no, nicely, to the dogs, cats, and kids at that door, who are attracted like heat-seeking missiles to your lap (or thighs or cellulite, I can’t remember). That all one needs—not only in writing but in everything (“Anything I know about anything,” she observed, “applies to everything else.”) is structure and discipline. That, for the past four years, she’s turned off her cellphone and written every day, at the same exact time (9 a.m.), no matter what.

“Give me an hour!” she kept demanding—as if she were our mom and we her teenage wastrels—and pointing out all the junk we waste our time on each day. Though I’ve written and revised and published five books, I still need this reminder, this goad to get after it.

“You’ve got an hour! Give me that hour!” she yelled, as though we would be writing just for her.

And truly, inspired as I was by that simple call to quit dallying, I really feel as though I’m writing, right now, for Anne alone.

Farmland_and_Airbus_Beluga_near_Cop_House_Farm_-_geograph_org_uk_-_446678I planned out that hour—or maybe two, since, as she said, you’ll really only get forty usable minutes out of an hour, only an hour and twenty minutes out of two—all the way back to Oklahoma. In the seats at my gate, on the tarmac waiting in vain to take off, back in those airport seats after deplaning because of weather in Chicago (Who knew you couldn’t take off on a runway perpendicular to the wind direction?), through the murky clouds over Illinois and Missouri and Arkansas, in the car snailing the empty roads at midnight with my cautious husband.

“I’m gonna write as soon as I get up,” I told him. “Before I run. Before I do any grading or reading. Get me up at five, when you get up, but don’t talk to me. Just give me my coffee and let me write.”

Don’t worry: I’m a morning person. And with our dogs living outdoors and daughters away at college, I can write in my non-office—the living room—without even the closeable door Lamott requires. If my gaze strays from my computer screen, I’ll see the sun turn the horizon pink. Every single day. At this rate, I’ll get my novel drafted before summer’s end and revised and sent off sometime before moving on, loved and chosen, to a heaven of no distractions from what I should be doing.

What Stories Teach Us

Woman readingI just finished reading two novels that I ended up loving but started out hating. Or, not exactly hating. Just struggling to keep on reading.

Both were assigned reading. One was a friend’s favorite novel: David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle. After repeatedly recommending it, she finally sent me a copy all the way from Germany. I couldn’t not read it. But it was a challenge. It’s about training dogs, I kept thinking through the first hundred pages. I like dogs, (we have four of our own), but how could this book have been such a bestseller? Right around then, though, the dogs and characters coalesced into a gripping mystery, and I read all night long.

The same happened with Randy Boyagoda’s Beggar’s Feast. A colleague organizing a conference featuring the novel’s author asked if I’d participate in a panel discussion of its “Christian elements.” The assignment made me leery. If there’s anything I can’t tolerate in fiction, it’s a sermon, which I assumed the presence of discernible “Christian elements” would comprise. When I sit down—or, more often, lie down—to read a novel, I want to be entertained. If there’s a message, I like to discover it myself, as with Jesus’ parables. “If you want to preach,” I tell my fiction workshop students, “write devotionals, not novels.”

My colleague’s new to our department, though, and I didn’t want to alienate her. Plus, running a conference is hard work; I wanted to offer support. Accordingly, I said I’d read the novel and, if I liked it, join the panel.

So, I started Beggar’s Feast, the syntactically gnarled tale of a boy mistreated and abandoned by his benighted family who subsequently fights, smarms, and schemes his way through the docks of Ceylon to become wealthy and powerful. A Ceylonese Horatio Alger, minus (thank God!) the moralism: Boyagoda’s protagonist, the self-named Sam Kandy, is no tractable boot-black. He despises everyone, even his own children, and murders two wives in the course of the story. Indeed, he’s such a baddie I’m struggling to discover Christian elements in his exploits.

tree diagramWhat made me dislike the book initially was that it was so hard to read. Those gnarled sentences— barrages of images so jumbled and knotted they defied sorting into logical wholes, even by someone who makes her living sorting sense from mangled prose. It was so linguistically maddening to follow this boy’s experiences—worse than Benji’s in The Sound and the Fury—that I decided my difficulty must be Boyagoda’s fault. That, though the novel was roundly acclaimed, he was incapable of writing a sound sentence.

Even as I thought this, though, I knew it wasn’t true. For one thing, despite my struggle to pin down what Boyagoda’s sentences were saying, their images and rhythms and little imbedded amusements carried me forward in a narrative that grew increasingly gripping. And, as the story developed and Sam sorted himself out, the prose did too. Soon I wasn’t laboring but just lying back, enjoying what happened next.

It eventually occurred to me (I’m slow, I know) that the sentences’ incoherence mimicked Sam’s, that a person so broken early on would likely perceive and express life brokenly, especially at first. What’s maturity, after all, beyond the accrual of coherence? As I progressed through the novel, I increasingly sensed and trusted, beneath the verbal chaos, Boyagoda’s guiding hand, shaping Sam alongside my experience of his story.

I hate devotional writing that’s just one long metaphor, but I guess that’s what this is. These two reading experiences reminded me of life—of how often I wade through a slew of confusing and often vexing mundane events unrelated to (or, worse, antithetical to) what’s really important only to realize, much later, that it was all relevant, every bit of it, all its elements, positive and negative, part of some bigger vision.

We are, each of us, part of a better story than we’re sometimes aware of, a story that unfurls only slowly, only slowly displays its meanings. Life may seem pointless or muddled or just plain wrong at times, but beneath and behind and above and within it all is its capable Writer, pulling us toward him.

Confessions of an Introvert Writer

crowded HallI have a writing conference coming up, and I’ve been trying not to think about it. Although I spend a good part of my work week happily among colleagues and teach big classrooms full of students with enthusiasm, I’m an introvert at heart, most content in front of my computer at home or out in my garden, alone. The thought of being among clots of strangers in some vast hotel lobby fills me with dread.

Anyway, I was thinking about how much I hate conferences and reminding myself of Crowded Wikimania 2009 welcome dinnerhow wonderful it’s been, on occasion, to stumble across a fellow God-lover among the strangers assembled there. The topic of faith comes up slantwise through some serendipitous comment about someone’s having read something in a church book club. Or maybe I notice a woman ducking her head briefly before lifting her fork to eat.

Such chance believers typically turn out to be quite different sorts of God-lovers than I am, which makes the encounters all the more thrilling. They refer to their pastor as “Father.” Or they go on about some pet business of politics important to their faith that I don’t give a rip about. Sometimes their God is barely recognizable as the God I know. Still, I want to sit next to them when I see them enter my next session and to eat my overdressed salad from a Styrofoam box at their table and to suck their occasional thoughts about God into my own.

FOUNTAIN_SQUARE'S__SITTING_WALLSYes, I’m that piteous stranger you meet sometimes at conferences whom you can’t seem to shake. Know this about me: I am in some sort of heaven, sitting there beside you, accepting the M&Ms you offer from the little bag you got out of a machine. We are siblings, you and I. We come from the same home.

I figure that’s how Abram the Hebrew—literally, Abram the Foreigner, the first instance of the word Hebrew in the Bible—must have felt that day after rescuing his cousin Lot and a bunch of other Sodom and Gomorrah inhabitants who’d been taken captive. When the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah come out to meet him in the Valley of Shaveh, they bring along their friend Melchizedek, another king like them but also, we’re told, “priest of God Most High” (Genesis 14:18 ESV). Later, the writer of Hebrews will describe Jesus himself, repeatedly and at length, as a high priest “in the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 5.6, 5.10, 7.11, 7.17 NIV).

Melchizedek brings out bread and wine for them all to share—Catholics memorialize the event by mentioning Melchizedek during the Mass—and then he prays this prayer:

Abram, may you be blessed by God Most High,
the God who made heaven and earth.
And we praise God Most High,
who has helped you to defeat your enemies
(Genesis 14.19-20 NCV).

Wow. Imagine hearing that from a stranger! Imagine being a stranger among strangers yourself in the Valley of Shaveh, a place Abram’s never been before, a place where he’s so unlike everyone else, so alien to their values and practices, that people refer to him as “the Foreigner.”

Hearing Melchizedek’s words, sharing bread and wine with him, Abram must have felt himself, for a moment at least, at home. As a person of faith—which the author of Hebrews defines as one who welcomes God’s promises and acknowledges being a foreigner and stranger on this messed up earth—Abram suddenly finds himself, for a moment, where all the faithful want to be, in “a country of their own” (Hebrews 11.13-14 ISV). Not, that is, in “the land they had left behind” or even in the one in which they find themselves, but in “a better country, that is, a heavenly one” (Hebrews 11.15-16 NRSV).

Priests of God Most High. That’s who we are when we acknowledge God among strangers, whether at a conference or among our readers. And however strange and foreign we might feel ourselves to be, we are where we belong.

Stalled and Happy: How to Keep Writing When You’re Not

John_Bourne__Woman_and_ChildHaving written five nonfiction books and countless essays, I’m now at work on a novel, and it’s going well. When it’s going at all, that is. Often it isn’t. Going, that is.

Nonfiction, for me, advances briskly and pretty much according to plan from the moment I have a picture of the completed book in my head. When I sit down at the computer, I know what I’m going to write.

Fiction, by contrast, develops in spasms or spurts. Like a living creature. Like a daughter, to be specific—one day cuddling on my lap, trying to figure out which one of us loves the other the most, another day slamming the door and refusing to talk at all.

This is not a new observation. Countless novelists over the centuries have reported that their characters seem to have minds and lives and schedules and intentions of their own, that they and the novel’s resulting plot shapeshift continually throughout the novel-writing process.

So it is, in this case, with my novel. I seem to be discovering my characters’ stories rather than inventing them, and my discoveries come on their own unpredictable, unschedulable timetable. Some days I can’t stop writing to make a pot of tea or eat lunch or speak civilly to whoever happens to be around. Other days—or weeks, even months—I have nothing whatsoever to write.

I used to find this timetable upsetting. I found, that is to say, the stalled part of the timetable distressing. And, while the spasmodic spurts were exciting, they were also hard to keep up with and seemed always to come when I was nosing some deadline or needed to be reading and responding to a looming stack of students’ writing or looking after Christmas guests. Never has it been the case with this novel, as it was with my other books, that I could sit just down at the computer on my designated writing days and simply write. Instead, I’m either frantically trying to set down a scene—before it evaporates from my brain, as I always fear it will, never to return again—or else I’m sitting before a blank screen, incapable of writing altogether. Idealess. Sceneless. Wordless.

All this to say, I have devised a simple method for getting through this problem that really works for me, and I thought there might be someone out there struggling with the same problem who might profit from my experience.

Before I reveal my method, though, let me just say that I do not consider my problem to be writer’s block. I refuse to let myself call it that, in any case. And I’m deep down convinced it is not writer’s block. (I’m protesting too much. I know that. Don’t point it out to me.)

But consider: I am progressing. I have characters, a plot, twenty-eight chapters, some eighty thousand words securely anchored in my hard drive. (And backed up on half a dozen USBs in case of theft or a house fire or accidentally substituting an ancient draft for the most current one. I’m kind of maniacal about the possibility of losing everything and not being able to start over again.) However slowly and erratically this novel seems to proceed, I’m nevertheless inching along toward completion. And the stalled moments, I like to think, are as important to my progress as the precious periods of frenzied writing. When I’m not writing, I’m thinking. Or, that is, not thinking so much as just letting the child poke around in the world I’ve created and experience it and respond. I need to forget about the whole project for a while and give her space and time to grow up and become someone I like.

Enough of that monstrously mixed metaphor. (Is the child the novel itself or my protagonist or the writerly impulse in me or what?) On to my method of taking advantage of the weird stopping and starting that is how this novel has been toddling forward. It’s simple, as I’ve said. Hardly worth writing about, except that, for me, it’s been transformative.

Here it is: When I’m stalled, I reread from several chapters back, correcting as I go. It’s like a magic charm. Long before I catch up to where I stalled, I invariably have new ideas, new words, and, before I have a chance to think about it, I’m frantically writing again.

I call my method recursive—that is, it progresses by means of looping backwards, as in cursive writing. Or, more exactly, as with those lines of loops we were made to draw when we were first learning cursive writing, before we ever got to stringing the loops together into actual words and the words into sentences and the sentences into our second grade stories.

Or it’s like bicycle-riding, in which progress forward depends on looping our feet backwards, over and over again.

One worry: This recursive method of writerly progress violates a primary rule of many resources out there on novel writing, and it’s a rule I have promoted to my students over the years—namely, squelch your inner editor and save revision for when the draft is done.

But, oh well. You gotta do whatever it takes to keep moving along.