My regular readers know that I always begin the fall season bursting with enthusiasm. I start this most productive of seasons full of ideas and plans for the months ahead. This season I have particularly lofty goals in mind with regard to my own writing and publishing career. But pretty soon, we all see the early hurdles rearing their ugly heads.
It starts small; perhaps we had the goal to cook more often, and then we discover how tired we really are at the end of a work day. We had plans for how to use the weekend, and then several weekends in a row seemed to be filled with errands and family obligations. All that time you thought you would have starts to evaporate before your eyes. This is a crucial period in the season; it’s a time of testing, and the outcome of the test can be deadly serious. Before you know it, the season you thought you would have can disappear. And that leads to feelings of profound disappointment and possibly even resentment toward the people you think stood in your way.
I’ve got a folder of unfinished stories right now. Being the organized type, I like to go on a purge through my folders once in a while, slashing and burning any story beginning that I don’t like. You had your chance to excite me, I tell the story, and send it flying to the trash. Sometimes, like now, the folder is filled with stories that are pretty far along; I’ve got at least three stories languishing in my “unfinished” folder that are nearly complete.
Wait — stop there. I may have gotten to the end of the story — but that doesn’t mean they’re complete. In fact, they are far from it. But this is the most delicate and dangerous stage in a story’s life. It’s the moment where I can choose to make it something good — or I can let all that work slip away.
The simple truth of the matter is that whatever you put into a first draft is going to be rough. It’s going to be too long in places, or missing whole necessary scenes. It will be relying on clichés in the parts where you were just a little sloppy that day. And often, you only discover what the story is about just about when you put that last sentence on the page. The story must be infused with its proper meaning — but how can it be in the first draft, when you just discovered what that meaning is?
First drafts are pretty bad, but it’s remarkable how many writers stop there. They feel the small sense of disappointment that the story wasn’t everything they hoped; then they either stick it in a folder, or half-heartedly (and ineffectually) send it out to a few magazines. When the rejection slips return, their already shaky convictions in their own writing abilities are toppled.
And that is honestly where the story ends for so many people.
So what is really the difference between those people — and the people who go on to become writers?
I’ve been frantically busy the past month, readers. The summer was supposed to allow time for relaxation, but with visits from friends and relatives, a few major milestones, travel to and from home, and weekend adventures…well, you know the drill. Somewhere in mid-July you look up from your computer or from your car’s steering wheel as if in a dream, wondering the cliché: where did the time go?
As long as we do raise our heads, though, there’s hope for us yet. For the first time in millennia, I looked up today and realized I had time — time to think, time to write, time to work on the career side of my writing. I looked into sending stories a few places, realizing that my pipeline of submissions had become woefully depleted. I thought seriously about the three or four stunted half stories that are currently languishing in my notebook. It wasn’t yet work; but it was where work always begins, in the thinking, in the itch to write again.
Maybe it was my latest frenetic activity that has filled the well up again as well. Last weekend I got out of the city and took a walk through the countryside. I’m always a little stunned by the color green when I haven’t been outdoors for a while. The green is the kind of color that goes deeply into you, that reminds you that you are a part of the concert of living things. For a while, I looked at grass and trees and sky like a newcomer and though, Oh, yes. So this is how it is.
If we are to continually write fresh and interesting things, then I think we must continually refill our wells with interesting things. That does not necessarily mean traveling around the world or doing death-defying feats. It might mean getting out of your routine, your comfort zone, in any number of ways. It might mean walking beyond the boundary of your normal route, or striking up a conversation with a stranger even if that isn’t the sort of thing you do. It might mean looking at a friend or a lover or a relative in a new way, thinking about that person beyond the typical role you place him or her in.
How will you look at your world with new eyes?
First, don’t panic. We’ve all been there. You’re writing your latest poem or story, really feeling great. This is going to be your best work ever. Then suddenly, you feel yourself sliding down some sort of funnel, down, down, into a cliche. There’s a phrase that you’ve used before sticking out like a sore thumb. There’s a situation which you’ve seen a million times before in other, better stories. There’s a character type who’s practically a walking stereotype, whether it’s the Goth loner or the dumb cheerleader. Suddenly, your special, wonderful story is trapped in the realm of cliche.
It can feel pretty desperate, and also pretty disheartening, to find your work here. It’s kind of like being stuck in the doldrums; what you wanted to be special is just a litany of weary sameness. But there ARE ways to get yourself out of that cliche, to escape back into the world of originality.
The key to escaping the cliche is to understand what cliches are and where they come from. Cliches are a kind of shorthand in conversation. When having a chat with someone, we want to meet on common ground, and we also want to convey information quickly. So we use shortcuts, established, commonly known ways of shortcutting through stories or description. We’ll see we cried buckets, or that the guy was the most boring guy on the face of the earth. We’ll say the little girl was as cute as a button or that we jumped for joy. And in casual conversation, we make ourselves understood. It saves time.
But in creative writing, it’s just lazy to use a cliche; it demonstrates a lack of imagination. It shows that we aren’t working hard to make our language beautiful, special, or memorable. We’re just leaning on the same old crutches to limp our way through an over-familiar story.
I’m so pleased to say a couple of new short fiction pieces by me have appeared online. The flash fiction piece “Bats” is available to read at Lumina, and another short piece, “Decide”, is up at a literature blog I love, The Toast. Have you checked these guys out yet? I’d love to have more readers, and I’m proud to be among some wonderful pieces of fiction there.
Both of these pieces were written very quickly this spring as I tried my hand at a bit of flash fiction. While fictional in plot, the emotions behind both of these were heartfelt, and the stories poured out of me with very little revision. Every now and then it happens that way, and it makes the months of tough slogging worth it.
I think the most jealously guarded secret in the world of writing may be that just everyone’s first drafts are really, really bad. Did you just write something that disappoints you, that just isn’t as good as you hoped it would be? Welcome to the club! Everyone struggles with their first drafts, and yet we all want to pretend like it was easy and effortless, as though a winged muse descended from the heavens and dropped a brilliantly packaged idea right in our laps. The more you write, though, and the more you get to know other writers, the more you realize that it just doesn’t happen that way. Not for anybody.
Even if you continue to work on writing at the college and graduate level, though, few people are going to admit this, and fewer people are going to teach you what to do about it. The only writers who succeed are the ones who are willing and able to revise their work, to commit to not letting it be done until it really is as good as it can be. Here are a few tips to get you started on the long, exciting, frustrating path of revision.
First: put it aside, and look at it with fresh eyes.
The moment you finish something, you might feel pretty great about it. It could be your best work yet. The temptation is to throw it into an email and send it off to your friends, to Teen Ink, to The New Yorker magazine, without any further thought. But you’re just too close to it right now to tell whether it’s really ready. You’re emotionally invested in it; you’ve just been fighting battles alongside with your characters. You’ve shed their tears. There’s no possible way you can be objective about the language, the plotting, the actual quality of the thing.
So put it in a drawer for a little while — or in today’s digital age, put it in a “needs revision” folder on your computer. Let it sit in there WITHOUT LOOKING AT IT for a MINIMUM of a week, but more if you can possibly stand it. Only then may you look back. You might be shocked to see how many errors in judgment, how many clichés or plot holes still remain in that first draft. And now that you can see them, you can fix them.
Welcome to summer, writers. You’ve slogged through the hard brutal months of winter, you’ve sneezed and sloshed through the allergies and mud puddles of spring, and you’ve been rewarded with that perennial gift, the months of summer. (For this post: sorry, Australians, you’ll get there). The sun is out ridiculously late, and I always find myself bursting with newfound energy. At long last, it’s time to do all the things you said you would do, and make sure you make summer count.
The great part about summer is that if you’re out of school, those daily mental demands of homework are gone, freeing you up to daydream, to wonder, and to imagine. This is the kind of idle, directionless thought that can turn into creative work; no matter how you try to force creative thought when you have to, it just doesn’t happen as easily as when you let thoughts percolate and creep up on you of their own accord. It’s kind of like trying to solve a crossword or a sudoku — you always get the answer the moment you’ve given up and pushed the puzzle away for a while.
So my first suggestion to you this summer is to leave plenty of room for unstructured thinking time. That is NOT to be confused to unstructured staring-at-the-tv time or unstructured partying-with-friends time. Fun as that is, those activities end up filling our brains, stimulating us in pleasant but distracting ways. To REALLY leave ourselves in an unstructured mental space, we’ve got to go for a walk. Stroll under some shady trees or follow the shoreline of a beach that is whispering secrets to itself. Ride your bike through a neighborhood you only half now. Don’t blast music in your earbuds. Don’t check your phone for messages. Give yourself the time to dream.
When you return from your walk, you’ll be amazed by how many ideas want to jump onto the page from your head. Try writing down a few of them. Keep the spell of quiet going just a little bit longer. After all, it’s the summer; there will be plenty of time for the beach, for friends, for cheesy blockbuster movies. But daydreaming time, creative time, is precious. Don’t let the summer slip through your fingers without that rare time.
No matter how old I get, I think I’ll still feel that burst of savage glee that comes with the arrival of summer. School’s out for summer! School’s out for ever! I may not be a a student anymore, but the summer is still a time of changing schedules, of greater freedom, and of nearly boundless opportunities for creativity. It’s crucial to be mindful of what you want out of your summer, and to make it happen. It’s simply too easy to let summer slip away, and wake up on August 31st wondering where it went. On the first day of fall, you want to walk back into your normal life with accomplishments under your belt, with new skills acquired, new adventures experienced, new maturity and growth achieve. So here’s your guide for how to have not only the most fun summer, but also the most creative.
For Memorial Day this year, I found myself in a small Vermont town, working on my novel. Sometime around noon I heard the fanfare of trumpets and drums beating outside my window; I stepped outside just in time to see the town’s charming little parade come by, waving banners and flags, high-stepping and proud. It’s always fun to see a parade go by, but I was also glad that I was in a small town with just one Boy Scout troop and one high school band, because after a while, parades start to get repetitive. They also look the same no matter where you are. There’s always the firetruck and the band and the camping troupe, the same people you don’t know marching by.
I know I’m not supposed to knock parades, their being patriotic and all, but on a purely aesthetic level, I think they can teach us a lot about our own bad habits in writing. Once my dad attended a very long parade. He used two rolls of film taking pictures of the event. When we got the photos back, there wasn’t a single interesting photo in the whole bunch; it was just a wall of unknown people walking past. Sometimes this is the exact effect we create in our own writing.
Readers, this month I have been tucked away in the splendid Vermont Studio Center, busily editing the novel and also trying to produce some new short stories. About once a year I love attending programs like these; there really is nothing like devoting yourself to the quiet, singular craft of writing. You’d be amazed what kinds of work can come out of an experienc like it.
I am stunned by how smoothly the VSC is run, by how beautiful the facilities are, and how friendly and welcoming the entire community is. I’ve met a terrific bunch of writers and artists while being here, and I’m so inspired by marinating in their developing work.
Many might say that you can achieve the same experience if you just turn off the phone and hunker down at your desk at home, and you can with effort and if a residency is not possible. But if it is possible, jump at the chance. There’s a huge mental difference between squeezing an hour of writing in between obligations at home, and giving yourself the time and permission to put your writing first.
So what is a residency really like? I’ll try to tell you about a typical day here at the Vermont Studio Center. The day might be different for every resident, but here’s the routine I’ve been working on.