Image by Christian Ferrari
In the never-ending quest for self-improvement, I started a modest exercise regimen this summer, of running increasing distances three times a week. Readers, I am not a runner. When I run, my entire body seems to protest. I wheeze and my arms flap, my heart pounds and my ribs heave. Particularly in the beginning, every workout felt miserable. The first few times I ran, I found myself stopping after a little while, gasping for breath. “Is it supposed to feel like this?” I kept asking my running partner. Patiently, he told me, it is, it’s supposed to feel like this. Somehow I thought I could magically get fit without actually trying hard. Just a few light jogs around the block, I thought. It will feel invigorating, and before you know it, I’ll be running marathons. Not so, readers. I learned a lesson this summer that is deceptively simple: when you’re improving yourself, or when you’re getting better at anything, it’s supposed to be hard.
I think this lesson could be eye-opening for a lot of us, and it can apply to our creative work as well. We write and write and write, and just don’t seem to get any better. It just seems so darn difficult to make every part of a story great. We always seem to be falling just short. The words just keep on disappointing us once they are fixed on the page. And because it’s hard, because it can feel downright miserable, so many of us give up. We stop, thinking that we just aren’t meant to be writers. We just don’t have the talent, the aptitude, for it.
But the secret is, it’s supposed to be hard. It’s supposed to feel tremendously difficult, shoving those words around until they’re in just the right order. It’s supposed to feel like we’re straining the muscles in our brains as we search for the right image or metaphor. And most definitely, it’s supposed to feel emotionally hard. It should feel like we’re tapping into the parts of ourselves that make us uncomfortable. We should feel dismay at how honest we’re being. We should feel shame that we’ve ever been quite so selfish. We should feel afraid of what people will think. We should feel our hearts pounding.
It’s such a simple lesson, yet somehow I’d forgotten it this summer. I’d forgotten that great artists and writers make it look easy, but that’s only because of the hours and agonies they’ve put in. With my running, I somehow thought I’d be gliding along the riverbank the way all those dedicated runners seemed to do. As I improved, things did get easier; suddenly I realized I was finding a rhythm, sinking into the work of running. But that’s when I knew I had to run longer, push myself harder. It was time to keep making things difficult for myself.
So much of our lives are based on ease, convenience, and instant gratification these days, that I think we forget this lesson. My students get frustrated so easily if a story is hard to understand. They think reading is supposed to be easy. But plenty of stories that are worth reading are not meant to be read with ease. They’re meant to be labored over. With reading, writing, and running, we have to remember how essential difficulty and strife and struggle are to the process of growth.
As regular readers of Writerly Life know, fall is my absolute favorite season. It’s all the cliched things that get me excited, from the special clarity to the air, to the violent richness of fall colors, to the various New England traditions that I love (Halloween, apple-picking). More than anything, though, the first week after Labor Day has always meant the start of a new year for me, full of opportunity, full of good hard work. I’m planning a large revision of my novel this season, as well as some new short stories that I’m very excited about. As a season of change, fall always has a measure of melancholy to it as well, though, and perhaps its that complex emotional mix that makes fall special.
Forget summer, with its straightforward luxuries and lazinesses. I end up hating the days where there’s nothing to do, because I end up wasting those days. It’s always better to have joyful work ahead of you, and fall can give me that. It’s also about the melancholy of the summer’s end, though, and all the changes and transitions that come with the new year. I’ve moved out of my beloved Cambridge apartment now, and I’m writing amid a sea of boxes, struggling to get organized in some temporary housing before I plan a larger move at the very end of the year. The entire fall will be a tricky transitional time for me this year; I’ll be between everything, from jobs to houses to cities. It can be hard to always be in the state of becoming and not of being, to bastardize a Fitzgerald quotation.
So fall has that extra complexity of melancholy, as I’ve said. Auden said, “Great art is clear thinking about mixed feelings.” I think that captures the way I feel about fall, and why I think the season is special. Being in a state of change necessitates being in a state of loss; it’s also a time of opportunities. It’s up to us as writers to capture the ambivalence of this state.
Are you in a state of flux this fall? What new beginnings and opportunities will you make for yourself? And what will all this mean for your writing?
Readers, I’m moving. It’s been three years here at my sunny, friendly, definitely quirky Cambridge apartment. I’d stay for three more, I think, but I’m also ready to move on as life circumstances change. I’ll be dealing with a very transitional housing situation this fall, and then I’m on to the big city of Chicago. I’m excited!
There’s plenty of time to think about the city of Chicago and all it means in the future; as I navigate a narrow goat path of boxes in my apartment now, I’m feeling nostalgic in these last few weeks. I’ll still be in Boston for the next several months, but most of my things will be in storage and I’ll be preparing for yet another move. I’m looking out the windows at my quiet street, at the restaurants and shops and hard-to-nab parking spaces, and I’m missing Boston already.
Several out-of-town friends have happened to visit lately, and it has given me the chance to do all the touristy things Boston has to offer again. I’ve visited Faneuil Hall and toured the campuses of MIT and Harvard; I’ve strolled over the Mass Ave bridge and seen the Smoots (locals will know this) and passed by Paul Revere’s house and Old North Church. I’ve walked through the Boston Public Garden this past weekend, loving the orderly chaos of green, how every tree is a different species, the unexpected rat-a-tat of a revolutionary-era parade band going by. I feel like I’m living inside the pages of Make Way for Ducklings these days, sweeping benevolently through Boston’s prettiest, oldest places, looking with the eyes of a friend.
It’s an exciting time to be a writer in transition. My family is still here and I imagine I’ll be returning regularly to Boston; but I’ll be trying my hardest to carve out a new home in a strange new city, one that doesn’t hold my childhood in its hand. Walking through Boston on a sunny summer day, I can feel embraced by this place, the sights and smells so familiar (and superior to New York’s summer smell of hot garbage!). I’ll probably be in a state of perpetual nostalgia for this place in the months to come; each time I visit the Boston Public Library or walk through Copley square, I’ll feel the pang that this might be my last time for a while.
I hope I’ve made the most of the time here; but I’m also ready to go. Many famous writers known for their evocation of place only truly captured that place once they left it. Nabokov, forever haunted by the Russia he lost, continued to write about it; under house arrest, Milton wrote of the woods and fields of England in his pastoral poetry. I think the best example of this is Joyce, who only so brilliantly captured Dublin in his novels once he had left it. I think this mournfulness, or nostalgia, is just the complication of emotion we need to capture a place. As I leave Boston, I imagine myself writing about it all the more; and my description will have that extra sharpness of feeling that comes from loss.
I’m back, readers, from a writing conference that took place in Tennessee, a state I’d never been to and a world unto its own. I had a wonderful time meeting other writers and sharing my own creative exploits, as well as hearing many a reading from some very distinguished southern writers.
What can a writer expect to get out of a writing conference? There are some writers who go hungry for the next big leap of their careers. They’re there to network, to shake hands, exchange cards, find the right person, the right reader for their books. On the other end of the spectrum are fledgling writers unsure of who they are or what they want, seeking permission to be writers for the first time in their lives. And there are all those in between, looking for advice, for validation, for a community.
For those of you seeking these things in your writing lives, I couldn’t recommend a good writing conference enough. It’s a wonderful balm to one’s spirit to be among people who already understand what you’re trying to do and why, who welcome the story of your journey and your work, your trials, triumphs, and frustrations. At the conference I attended, I found likeminded souls eager to share their work; I met poets who loved prose and fiction writers who devoured poetry; I gained a little insight into playwriting, a form I had barely understood. More than anything I felt that it was OK to be a writer; in fact, it was a good thing, an important thing, a quest to enrich my life and the lives of readers.
I also heard some heartening words about failure and patience. It was refreshing to hear award-winning writers like Alice McDermott and others explain how there comes a time in every novel’s life when it feels like the thing is a sinking ship. In that moment, McDermott explained, there’s a choice a writer must make; whether to abandon ship or try to steer the thing to shore, perhaps in a different form than what you thought it would take when you set out. We need to press on, to work through the disappointment, and discover the new surprises on the other side. We need to accept that feeling of a loss of control.
Now I’m back in my office, looking out on a street in Cambridge, still a little stunned that I won’t be plied with wine and cookies each evening anymore. It will take some adjusting to return to the real world; but I’ll carry the advice, the friendships, and the generous spirit of creative community with me.
It’s the ultimate test that your writing must pass: can you make your reader feel? That means not just feeling a little interest or pleasure or sadness — can you make your reader cry ugly tears and get the page all soggy? Some writers can, and they’re the ones succeeding these days; just look at John Green and his The Fault in Our Stars. The good news is that making your reader feel is a skill that you can learn. You’ll be making your friends sob uncontrollably in no time.
Choose a A Sympathetic Character.
While villainous or even annoying characters have their place in literature, they’re not typically the ones that make us weep. To make a reader feel, we need to feel connected emotionally to a character, as though the character is someone we could befriend or at least admire in real life. Choose an accessible character with a personality that intrigues you. The characters we connect to most strongly are often characters with desires we share or can identify with. So give your character a passion or a dream. Whether it’s a desire to find her long-lost brother or a passion for boat-building, we like folks who dream big and who want things.
Choose an Accessible, but Painful, Obstacle
Here comes the most crucial part; that character must be put in harm’s way. We need to feel that character is in eminent danger, whether that danger is emotional or physical. Oddly enough, it’s the more intangible problems that make us feel the most. We feel excited if a character is surrounded by rabid bears, but we feel emotional (and downright weepy) if the character is surrounded by cold people who don’t understand her. Give your character a problem that is clear and identifiable, but that carries real emotional risks. Look no further than John Green for that classic example of a very real problem (cancer) that carries heavy emotional baggage with it. And remind us that your characters are normal human beings, who are struggling to deal with this in normal human ways. We don’t cry when super heroes can use their laser vision to get out of a mess; we cry when ordinary humans can’t.
Give your character an impossible choice.
You’ve set us up beautifully for tears now, but you’ve got to bring it home by presenting your character (and us) with a terrible choice. There can’t be one good and one bad choice here — there have to be downsides to either decision. After all, that is what feels most real to us; in real life we often have to choose the least bad choice out of a series of bad choices. Don’t let the problem be solved too easily. If you give a character a life-threatening illness, for example, it feels like a cop-out to suddenly discover a cure. If your character finds a long-lost brother, perhaps the brother is not the person she thought he would be. There must be complications, because life is messy, and that’s why life makes us cry sometimes.
Follow these steps, and your readers will be bawling in no time!
Let’s face it: the world of writing, and writing careers, have changed drastically in the past decade. The internet and social media have changed what it means to be a writer, who can call themselves writers, and how we can succeed in this difficult world. If you’re a writer, you have to be a shark, constantly moving forward with the tide of how the culture reads. Here are three skills every budding writer should work on (on top of all that writing, of course).
1. Creating an online platform and persona.
Do you know how John Green won the hearts of millions? It all started with a Youtube channel he created with his brother, talking about his thoughts, telling jokes, and crafting funny videos. From there he created a platform of fans ready to read and enjoy his books. Today, many writers are expected to have a firm online presence. That might mean posting on Twitter or Facebook, or gaining fans and followers on sites like Teen Ink. If you want your writing career to take off, start creating relationships with followers online. Tell them your thoughts and solicit theirs.
2. Networking with other writers.
Never has it been more clear that connecting with other writers is a crucial skill. It’s a myth that writers must work in isolation; while the actual work needs peace and quiet, the other part of writing has always been about community. You can go back to Hemingway in Paris and note that he spent most of his time chatting with fellow writers in cafes, sharing his talent and helping with others’ writing. Being part of that community is still important today; after all, if you spread the word about a friend’s book, he’ll spread the word about yours! Think about making friends of other writers. Start a creative writing club at your school or a workshop circle. Share each others’ words, and you’ll be glad for those friendships in the years to come.
3. Be your own editor.
In the past, famous writers could dump a patchwork, sloppily-written manuscript at the desk of their editors and expect it to be polished to perfection. Now that competition is fiercer, what you put on the editor’s desk has to be near-perfect already. Whenever you send out stories to magazines, remember to POLISH it first! Make sure you’re happy with it in every way before it flies out of your hands; editors, agents, and publishers are hardly likely to be impressed with a story you’ve dashed off without a second thought.
What skills do you think you need to become a writer? And what’s your plan for working on them?
Just because we’re out of school doesn’t mean we can’t use the summer as a time to catch up on our reading. In fact, most of the writerly and readerly folk I know are hungry for those warm months when we can finally devote our energy and attention to a big ol’ book. In the past I’ve used summers to get through David Copperfield, Middlemarch, and War and Peace (not all in the same summer!). Your summer reading list doesn’t have to be hefty old tomes, though; it could be way to get your finger on the pulse of contemporary literature. Here’s the list of recently completed and upcoming books on my list, and why they’re already making my summer awesome.
All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr
Is it a coincidence that I picked up this book right around the 70th anniversary of D-Day? Either way, I’m glad I did. The reminders of the absolutely titanic struggles in the time of world war II are on my mind these days, and they’re brought to brilliant life in this intricate, epic, tender, crushing World War II-era novel. I haven’t actually read that many books from the perspective of the occupied French, but half of this book is closely with Marie-Laure, a young blind Parisian in love with her Braille edition of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and deeply attached to her father. On the eve of a calamitous firebombing by Americans, she will find herself in a northern seaside town scheduled for total destruction. And that’s only in the first chapter. Every other chapter will be following Werner, a penniless orphaned German boy determined to escape the life in the mines that has been slated for him. The book is dramatic, mythic, sometimes whimsical, but always moving.
The Sandman, Neil Gaiman
I’m working my way through Neil Gaiman’s funny, thought-provoking, and certainly dreamy comic book series about Morpheus, god of dreams. He is a very cool character, sometimes intimidating, sometimes gentle, sometimes merciful, sometimes horrifying. He reminds me a lot of a character from the Matrix, and I’m not just saying that because of the name.
Sleep Donation, Karen Russell
One of my favorite current authors has a short novella out this season, and as with her previous work, it’s funny, quirky, mythical, strange, and blurring the lines between fantasy and science fiction. In this one, a contagious insomnia is sweeping across the nation. The only cure is the donation of sleep from unaffected donors; and the protagonist must perform the story of her sister’s death from the disease again and again to win donors.
What books do you have on your list for this summer? I hope it’s not silly mindless beach reads that I’ll see poking out of your bag; just because the weather’s warm doesn’t mean we have to read soggy warmed-over writing! On my list to come are Re-Deployment, The Goldfinch, The Savage Detectives, A Possible Life, White Out…and too many more to count!
This past weekend was my college reunion, which gave me a chance to re-visit the hallowed halls and tree-lined campus avenues of my youth (I was there only a few years ago, though!). It was amazing to see how little had changed; I felt I could have stepped through a time warp and become the person I was just a few years ago. Just the simple act of running up a flight of stairs the way I used to run to make a class made me feel like I had stepped back in time and in body.
Have you ever had a moment of time travel like that? Have you visited the old house where you grew up, or tried to step into a piece of clothing that you wore constantly a few years ago? Did it make you feel like a different person? Did it help you feel like the person you were?
The old saying is that you can’t go home again, of course; no matter how much I felt like I had traveled back in time, the reality was that I am a different me today, and there’s no going back to the old me. We are all in a constant process of transformation, and rarely do we get a chance to look back at our older selves. Will you come back to your high school reunions? Will you feel nostalgia, regret, or be glad that you stepped away? Even if you hate high school today, you may be surprised how affectionately you feel towards it, given a little distance. Or if you love it dearly now, you might be surprised how glad you are to be away from it in a little while.
Today I’m thinking about how reunions can affect the stories we tell. There’s no more fertile a concept in a story than of having character re-unite as changed people. Just look at the classic reunion story, Casablanca. In that story, the relationship we see is an uneasy reunion between two former lovers who are trying to revive the memory of their love. But ultimately the circumstances of the world interfere, and it’s impossible to become who they once were.
Other classic reunion stories are joyful ones of long-lost connections. Consider The Color Purple, in which the narrator must wait and struggle for a lifetime before she can be reunited with her stolen children.
You can write about reunions in all their complexity as well. Is the reunion between your characters a joyful or an uneasy one? Are your characters changed people? Do they still mean the same thing to each other? Or has the other’s significance changed? Try writing about yet another way that human relationships can be so delightfully surprising, strange, subtle, and complex this week.
Happy Memorial Day, readers! This is one of those holidays that can mean vastly different things depending on who is celebrating it. For those involved with the military or those who have lost loved ones, it’s no doubt a somber day, one of observance and of ritual, of sadness but perhaps also of pride. For all those Americans who don’t have a direct connection to the military, without any disrespect, I think the day has a more festive feeling. It’s a day that usually marks the start of summer, a day of celebration, of cookouts, parades, of facepainting and balloons tied to children’s wrists, of sparklers in the summer twilight. For either group, though, I think the day is still very much tied up with memory.
For the military families out there, the day is of course about remembering what has been lost, the prices paid, the people who aren’t there today. But for the other group, the day is about memory as well; it’s a day in which we remember when we were kids, and the summer traditions we had that the kids of today are upholding; it’s a day of doing what Americans have been doing for generations. Any major holiday has that element of memory to it, but whereas a religious holiday is only for some, Memorial Day is pretty much open to anyone who wants to tap into American traditions and share in them.
Memory, to me, is always a fundamental aspect of the stories I write, and both the unreliability and constancy of memory features prominently as a theme in those stories. I often write stories from the perspective of people looking back at important times in their lives, or marveling at how naive, how fresh, how unsullied they once were before other major life events came crowding in. I think memory is one of those things that simply can’t be avoided in fiction. To assume that memory is fixed and perfect, for example, ends up seeming naive, and denying the fluctuating nature of the worlds we store in our heads. To deny its powerful influence on us at all, on the other hand, is equally naive.
Today is an occasion to mark time, and to think about memorial days past. I remember having hot dogs on the grill with my family, and running barefoot in the cool grass of the shady backyard; I remember the elation that the school year was almost at its end; I remember the little shorts and t-shirts that I wore every day of the summer until they fell apart; I remember summer as a kid. I remember the radio playing through the open door of the kitchen and running to get the cushions off the chairs in the backyard when rain inevitably came. I remember the sound of that rain pinging on the metal air conditioner bolted into the window frame as I lay in bed at night.
What do you remember as part of your summer? What about childhood, or memory, or the person you were, does this day evoke?
Today, I’m thinking about memory as I walk through my city. Twice a week my commuting path takes me through Copley Square, the historic center of Boston, and I walk/jog briskly through traffic past some of the oldest buildings in the area, such as the grand Boston Public Library and the old church that face each other across the plaza. I remember visiting the rare books room of the library and seeing documents from the sixteen hundreds or even earlier, chronicling the journeys of the earliest European settlers here. At the same time, I’m crossing Boylston street, which now has a plethora of other, starker memories demanding their room in my brain, demanding citywide remembrance.
That’s the funny thing about living in a city with any kind of history; there are always so many layers of time and memory super-imposed on each other, constantly layering on top of one another, blurring the lines of past and present. There is the circle memorializing the Boston massacre; and over there, a line of hip new clothing stores that seem to have sprung up just last week. The city keeps changing, but there are always signs of the old wherever you look. There’s the line of hungry cannoli-eating customers in the North End, waiting at Mike’s pastry shop; but the Italian immigrants that made up this neighborhood are largely gone. Where did they go?
I sometimes hear old Bostonians lamenting this change, the way all city-dwellers hate change. A guy I worked with who had grown up in Somerville remembered all those Irish Catholic kids he grew up with, the friendly cops who looked the other way when they were drinking out of paper bags, the saints’ parades down the streets. Now, he complained, there’s a Caribbean cultural parade every year instead, and the neighborhood is “all foreigners.” It’s always unpleasant to hear this kind of talk; after all, go back a generation or two and it was the Irish who were the foreigners. That, of course, is part of the way memory evolves in a city; the people who arrive as outsiders are quick to reject the next generation of newcomers. That’s natural, I suppose. Things even out in the end.
It’s amazing to me how fast cities change, and how the old does endure side-by-side with the new. Buildings get torn down, but the beloved ones become shrines to memory, treasures of common repository. And we say, “That used to be —” and are stunned to see the city growing up around us, and it reminds us that time passes. If anything, the city marks time for us, and reminds us that we grow older. But the memories of what was there before endure. Even on my small street in Cambridge, I see that one shop that seems to change its identity every six months, and already it has gone through three iterations. First it was an abandoned store front; then a trendy cafe with two chairs and only three items on the menu; now it’s a pie shop. I like the pie shop and hope it stays, but I know the odds are small.