Doing the Actual – A blogger returns from self-imposed exile

I’ve been away – maybe you noticed, maybe not. I haven’t gone far, I’ve just been doing the actual.

What I mean is, with a lot of things going on I decided in the midst of all of my grand ideas to spend all of my writing time working on actual writing – which is, for me, creative. The stuff I want to be most successful at. This has taken the form of ongoing revisions of my novel. I didn’t abandon writing, is my point. In fact, I also wrote almost an entire newsletter for work, which I had to, and thus, well, I neglected this blog for a bit.

For all of the chatter about finding time to write – no, about making time to write – it’s a bit of a different thing to actually be able to do it. As some of you know I had the luxury of not having a day-job for two years, and then I found a great new job and have been working again for almost three months. Before I went back to work I was really really adamant that everyone could find even fifteen minutes a day for writing if the soul was willing.

Now I know it’s true.

Not that I never wrote when I was employed before. I’ve written quite a bit while gainfully employed. When I wasn’t working I got to write all the time instead of a little each day. I’m happy to say, at this juncture in my writing life, I am still writing, er, call it “regularly,” despite the demands of job and social and all of the things insistent on talking up my time. But instead of blogging and sending email, and writing ad hoc grants, and the myriad other writing projects I had at the same time, I now find myself narrowing focus, committing to one writing project at a time. All I have time for is my best project.

At our most confident we writers feel invincible, capable of mastering all forms and of generating copious work, volumes of writing for the edification of the masses. We forget we are human, susceptible to distraction, fatigue, and the laws of Murphy (damn the Irish!).

In some ways, though, having time enough only to work on one project feels like the most sincere form of the writing life there is. I have no time, therefore I write, and I write only this one thing because without it there would be no writing at all, and no writer, and no dream. Yet, I persevere.

So if you are feeling downtrodden, underachieving, and on the brink of failure because you’ve decided that fifteen minutes per day on just one project is not what being a writer means, I assure you that if you return to just that much effort you are still a writer.

Besides, the truth is that there are more than fifteen minutes available to us if we want them. Half an hour is twice the time and twice the productivity! An hour – four times! There were writers in history who wrote while standing among friends and family in the parlor, women who had to hide their work under the cushion of a chair for fear that someone would find out that they were writing at all.

No, if we have the time then all we must do is use it, and write from the gut, and just keep going. As novices we are out to sea with only our wits to keep us from the sharks, the elements, and the threat of drowning. But if we keep swimming, a little bit at a time, and never give up, we will reach the shore.

This belief is something every one of us must keep inside. No one else can give it to us and they cannot take it away. Reserve your golden fifteen, imagine them on the clock in shining gold numbers, imagine the sheen spreading to thirty minutes, an hour. This is a sacred time to do sacred work, and once you’re in it, steeped in the depths of your creativity, you will find the energy again, and the muse. All you have to do is try.

Keep on task and soon the miles will pass behind you. Your destination is just ahead.

Another Reason to Read (as if you needed one)

Not long ago I went on a rant about the cookie-cutter era and how, as I read through various journals, I couldn’t decipher one narrative voice from another. Well, that hasn’t changed much, but that’s not the point of today’s post.

I digress even further. I’ve written before about why we should read and mostly it’s because as writers we need to be informed about what others are doing and how we might “steal” techniques that help us learn how to be better writers ourselves. Reading informs our lives in so many ways, and it’s very good for us, like the way eating organic food is good, exercise is good, and being nice is good. All of these things take a little effort but there’s a benefit to be had in doing them. That benefit is a better life.

Last night I was enjoying some reading time with one of my favorite literary publications, Glimmer Train, and I wasn’t even feeling much cookie-cutter annoyance with the particular issue I was reviewing. Not, mind you, that I found the writing of some of the stories especially rewarding. There are still far too many first person narratives for my sensibilities (I find the first person POV to be a cheat. It’s narcissistic, indulgent, and way overdone. Not that it isn’t effective, but the overuse of the FP POV is like hearing the same five songs on the radio, all day long, every day), and I didn’t see much risk-taking. You know me (or maybe you don’t) and I like my fresh.

I got to thinking, with all of these FP POV stories and such a precedent of a singular narrative voice (ironic, wry, a little vulgar and trendy), what am I learning from reading this stuff? I thought, ‘if this story can get published why not mine?’ I thought, ‘if I were going to write a story like this I would do it this way . . .’ And a light went on. By the time I closed the pages of that journal I was ready for an easy sleep, because I knew when I got up the next morning I was armed with two things that will eventually make me successful (according to my terms). 1) I have a unique narrative style and I’m not going to compromise it to fit some mold of expectation in the current publishing world. 2) While there’s nothing new under the sun, by staying true to my voice and by fostering my style, I will be telling the kind of story I like to hear and read, the kind that gets me to open another new journal, or a novel, and try reading again, not because I need to learn how to tell a story so much, but because I enjoy the discovery of reading something twenty or fifty pages in that is unlike anything else in the collection. So while we may read for technique, and we may read for understanding, and we may read for subject matter, there comes a time when we read for something equally as important. We read for inspiration.

I have a new approach to writing time. After all, I struggle like everyone else with finding the motivation to sit down every day and write. But I have discovered instant motivation in reading contemporary collections. Not because I think my work is better than the others. Certainly they have been published and are being read by thousands of people, an accomplishment that is no small feat. But I do get motivated by seeing what I’m not fond of because it helps me hear my voice better. In addition, when I do find something I especially like, I still have the benefit of learning from it, and of the thrill of discovery, and in sharing that discovery with others.

A writer is not harmed by a little hubris (just a little). Five minutes of pride per day, just to get started, is rather a tonic for good health in the creative process. Like a shot of hard liquor, it’s not going to damage your liver if you keep it to a minimum.

The moral of this story, therefore, is that reading serves a great many purposes for the aspiring writer, from exemplifying the craft, to addressing technical challenges, to revealing cliched, tired styles and ideas. But most importantly reading can serve as inspiration for getting back to your own work, in your voice, and with some real effort maybe even in a new style of writing that others will one day enjoy not because they see it on every page, but because they can only find it on yours.

And so, if you have not heard it already, read on my friend, read well. Read much and plenty. Then go write, first and foremost, for yourself.