From The Writing Life

You’re a Big Failure. Here’s How to Succeed.

I got your attention, didn’t I? It’s very rare for people to actually tell us that we’ve failed. And yet there’s probably no more universal a feeling than the feeling of failure. It happens when we do badly on a test or lose a race; for writers and creative folks, it happens when we get that rejection in the mail, or just when we look at the great yawning gap between what we want to achieve and what we have actually done. There’s no worse a feeling than when we fail, and we begin to doubt everything we’re doing. We begin to think that one failure, or a series of failures, means we ourselves are failures; maybe there’s just something fundamentally lacking and untalented in our cores.

The secret is, everyone is a big, flailing failure.

Attending a conference panel discussion on failure recently, I felt the whole audience breathing a sigh of relief as each accomplished, published, award-winning writer on the panel admitted to us that they, too, were failures. The writers told us about the days when everything seemed to be going wrong; when no one would read their work, or thought they could succeed. At that stage of their careers, they needed to hear about other people’s failures, because it can be heartening, sometimes, to remember that other people go through this too.

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Why Television will Suck Out Your Soul. And Be So, So Fun.

I know I’m not supposed to admit this, because I’m supposed to be a Big Fancy Writer who doesn’t waste time on non-literary pursuits — but I. Love. Television. I always have. The love affair began when my mother dug a tiny black-and-white TV out of a neighbor’s trash to have something to watch while she was on her treadmill in the basement. When my older sister was hogging the regular tv I’d go down there and stand on the treadmill — literally, just stand there — in order to watch Saturday cartoons. It was cold and damp and dark in the basement, and the little half-broken TV only got three channels and had a horizontal stripe across the screen that scrolled slowly up and down the image, but I didn’t care.

My first TV love was cartoons, and I continued to love them well past the age considered appropriate. I watched Nickelodeon devotedly. When my older sister was watching MTV, I rolled my eyes. We had to have a strict turn-switching system, and when it was my turn, I went straight back to Rugrats or Hey Arnold.

Then later on, I discovered grown-up TV. When the good HBO shows started coming out, my parents rented them on DVD a year after the fact and I watched Sex and the City and The Sopranos. I saw more violence and sex than was probably usual for my age, but I was more captivated by the stories than anything else. For that reason, Sex and the City was always something of a drag to me — weak storytelling that doesn’t age well — but The Sopranos was a family event.

There was a slowing down period in college, but when I got my own place and got a tv that actually got more than five channels, it was hard to control for a while. I could watch silly reality TV or serious educational shows on PBS; I could watch old black and white episodes of The Twilight Zone and Perry Mason, with Raymond Burr’s enormous shoulders filling the screen. I loved it all. Time that I could have spent reading studiously or writing diligently has been wasted staring into the silver screen.

Why is television so powerfully attractive? It’s hard to say. But I’d argue it uses the same storytelling techniques that make for compelling fiction — just to even greater effect. Great and bad tv shows alike use suspense and drama and surprise; they let you sink into a deepening and broadening world. The really excellent shows in our day — Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead, Downtown Abbey, and so on — are more like novels than anything else, giving us a large and complex and deep immersion into a fictional world. They tap into the same wells of storytelling hunger that all of us feel.

Television can be delightful as well. There are teams of writers out there right now, whole mobs, sitting around tables and working out ways to make you laugh. They’re funny. Good, serious books are not as funny as often, because television shows have the advantage of the visual cue. A sideways look, a pratfall, a bit of slapstick and we can laugh.

But as I began this post, I want to point out that television also has a funny way of — well, sucking out your soul. Of draining you of creativity, of originality, of energy. Even with all the fun and suspense and surprise.

Have you ever had one of those weekend nights, where you started sitting on the couch after dinner, and hours later you find yourself sinking to the floor in a pile of chip crumbs, the last hours of your life an uncertain haze? Anyone who watches television seriously has had a night like this. The way the shows loop endlessly together, the way our favorite shows are always available in rerun, the way even the commercials know how to pull us in with a cheery jingle and funny joke — all these techniques have been precisely calculated to suck the creative life right out of you. 

The problem is that bad television really is bad. It’s clichéd, lazy storytelling. It relies on absurd and offensive stereotypes or sex appeal. When you are passively consuming the same clichéd storyline over and over, you become a little deadened to the possibilities of story. You forget to imagine that other people exist beyond the bro, the shopaholic girl, the nuclear family. You forget that other races and genders and countries have perspectives. You forget what your own perspective is, and you begin to think you’re just like those two-dimensional figures you see on the screen.

I’m thinking about the new series Fresh off the Boat, which has rightly been garnering some praise and excitement for its humor, sharp writing, and bold new choices. But then I can’t help but feel stunned that it’s such a big deal. This is a fairly typical family sitcom — but everyone’s going wild over this one because it’s only the second television show to ever star an Asian-American family — and the first in nearly twenty years. How absurd is that?

Bad TV irons out any of the bumps and wrinkles of humanity; it has only about five to seven possible storylines for all characters to follow. It’s insulting to our humanity and it can really ruin a day’s worth of creativity.

So how can we resist? I know we all need our guilty pleasures. I began this piece talking about how much I love the experience of watching television. I love sinking into that spot on the couch after a long day and relaxing a bit into a familiar story, a beautiful vista, or the life of a character I know. I like being educated and informed; I like learning something about lions in Kenya or the state of Ukraine. But I also like watching voyeuristic reality tv or sitcom reruns I’ve already seen. I’ll probably always love television, and I want to say that without shame. But I know what makes me feel good beyond the time of reading or watching; it’s reading that makes me feel richer and fuller and happier long after the book has been closed. With television, the moment of pushing the power button is filled with a feeling of regret. What just happened to those two hours of my life?


The Rising Rollercoaster of AWP

AWP! Each year that you attend this massive conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, each year you crack open the wallet and plunge for the airfare to another city you’ve never visited, your emotions are taken on a wild climb, dip, and climb. For those of you unfamiliar, the thing that briefly took over the writerly corner of Twitter this week was an annual conference held in different cities each year for writers and all their ilk. It includes back to back panels led by publishers, agents, and writers, as well as a massive bookfair in which every literary magazine and MFA program under the sun has booths, tote bags, cheerful interns, and endless swag. It’s an exhilarating time for writers, particularly because we are a solitary lot, and it provides a time for socializing, boozing, and a healthy dose of motivation. 

I’ve been twice now, and it can feel a bit like a ten-year high school reunion that’s held every year. The first year, in Boston, I was barely out of my MFA program and somewhat terrified at the idea of talking to anyone. I couldn’t imagine nosing my way into a conversation or confidently speaking about my work. I had business cards made up but ended up giving them to no one. The panels were informative but I don’t think I was fully ready to absorb much of their advice. What a change a few years makes!

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Too Much, Too Many! What to do When Too Many Projects Grab Your Attention

I’m in a tizzy half the time these days, readers. With a bit more free time and warm weather on the rise, it seems that a new writing idea is growing on every tree, popping up out of manhole covers as I walk down the street, tapping me on the shoulder as I sit in my chair. I’ve started half a dozen short flash fiction pieces and have two short stories partway in the works, and I’m still working hard on a major revision of my novel.

It’s great to have ideas, but there comes a point when your brain starts shrieking, too much, too many! My attention is scattered to the four winds as I struggle to bring any of these projects home. There’s just too much pulling at me in these different stories I’m crafting. Have you ever had this problem? Have you been working on three poems and a novel and two stories and that creative essay for school all at once? The feeling can be exhilarating, but having too much going on can actually lead our work to suffer. What will happen is that when the going gets tough on one story, I’ll just effortlessly jump over to another project — and if I keep jumping this way, dodging any difficult work or giving up when one story doesn’t please me, I’ll end up with ten unfinished projects grumbling in a drawer.

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What Will You Do with the Joys of Spring?

I know I’m counting my chickens before they’re hatched, readers, but this weekend felt like spring was in the air in Chicago. The air had that special mild feel; the wind that blustered about me was warm, and the sun was bright enough to make me squint. More than these little rises in the thermostat, though, I just felt that extra burst of energy that spring brings with it. I walked all over town, glad to make up errands and excuses to get outside. Before the week was out, I had filled the coming months with excited plans. I’ll be fitter! I’ll eat better! I’ll write outdoors and go to cafes and and and…

I know I won’t be able to accomplish all the excited plans on my calendar, but just having the excitement of planning is enough right now. Spring always gives me a boost of hopeful energy. And before you tell me not to get my hopes up, I know; as a dyed-in-the-wool New Englander, I know April has a way of having late snowstorms. My heart is hard and ready for this little taste of spring to fade. But once nature gets a foothold, it never seems quite as bad to dip back into winter for a while.

This also means that I’ve almost officially survived my first Chicago winter. I thought it would take extra strength of character, but it honestly wasn’t too unbearable, except for a few extreme days. And of course, this has me thinking about what the change of season means for our creative lives. Will there be more time, somehow, for writing? Will we be able to sit out in the sun and jot things down in our notebooks, or just think and plan and work on dreamier things? It’s hard to say. But we can certainly set ourselves up for success by seizing the joy of spring.

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Without This One Crucial Skill, You’ll Never Write Well.

It’s just that important: without this ability sunk deep into your daily habits and perceptions, without this skill coming as second nature in every aspect of your life, you’ll never be a writer. You’ll never write truthfully or specifically or well. You’re dying to know what it is, aren’t you?

It’s the power of observation.

Sounds simple, right? But without this power, you’re sunk. Every writer I’ve ever known began as an observer. It starts with looking at the world around you, and simply noticing things. The way the light shines through the leaves. The taste of mashed potatoes with too much garlic. The way your mother’s eyebrows knit together when she’s worried and relax apart when she’s happy. The way that this happens and that happens. The detail, the detail, the detail, of being alive.

It sounds easy. But most people who think they are doing a pretty good job of observing are really just noticing the surface of things, the clichés. It’s not our fault; it’s a natural feature of our human brains to try to absorb as much as we can by making assumptions, and filling in data from our past experiences. So if we’ve seen a clown in the circus before, then we assume every clown looks the same. Red lips, red nose, flower in hat? That’s how they all look. The cliché is a function of our brains; it’s a kind of cognitive shorthand. But if we want our writing to feel vivid and unique, to feel fresh and new, we can’t take any shortcuts. We need to go deeper with our observations.

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Expressing Your Point of View Is a Lifestyle. Are You Living It?

WRITERS ARE LUCKY. We have a built-in desire to communicate; it’s a need within us. That’s true of all human beings, but we’re lucky because we, unlike many others, have the tools to do it. But all too often, we smother that impulse and those means, preferring the safety of silence.

I was a shy kid.

 Shy with a capital S. So afraid of meeting with someone’s disapproval that I would keep silent in the most extreme of situations. My first day in preschool, I recall with a sting of shame, I wet my pants because I was too shy to ask where the bathroom was. Yes, it was that bad. Sometimes I look back and breathe a sigh of relief that nothing too terrible happened to me, because if it did, I’m sure I wouldn’t have spoken up about it.

Looking back on that terrified little kid, I wonder what was going on in her head. 

Nothing had traumatized me into this silence; it was just part of my personality. It was extremely difficult for me to speak my point of view. When I went over to another kid’s house and the parent asked me what snack I wanted, I wouldn’t say for fear of insulting them or seeming greedy. And when friends angered me or hurt my feelings, I bore those feelings in silence, afraid of losing that precious relationship. 

I suspect more kids than you think were like this.

There are the loud talkers, the needy kids, the showoffs, and way in the back are the shy ones, desperate to speak up, but scared to. As an adult, I can shake my head and see how much better life is in every way when you risk criticism, and when you speak your mind. Through experience, through growing just a bit older, I can see how speaking your mind becomes a powerful need. 

Once I got through the agonies of middle school, I was surprised to discover that speaking up felt good. It still does! There’s nothing worse than quietly seething when someone has offended you, or a job isn’t being done right; and there’s nothing more satisfying than expressing your point of view. This applies to relationships, friendships, coworkers, teachers — you name it. There is always a respectful way to tell the truth; and you are always entitled to feeling a certain way. Once I realized this, I became hard to shut up. I was always the big talker in class. I went on and on. I shared. I overshared. It can be intoxicating, to find yourself listened to and understood. I probably overdid it a little, but I was making up for lost time.

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When Are You Ready to Revisit the Past?

It’s been a couple of years now since I sat down and wrote the very first lines of the novel I’ve been working on. Turning back to page one can feel like a bizarre form of time travel; in one flash I’m the younger person who was nervously typing out that early, early paragraph, not yet sure of what this writing project would be or where it might go. If you can believe it, I wrote those first lines on my antique typewriter. Talk about a trip to the past!

Now that I’m re-visiting even the oldest parts of my novel to do a major edit, I feel invigorated to discover that in the time that has passed, my writing ability really has improved. I’m sharper and leaner in my prose style; I’m more readily able to recognize clichés; I’m fast and mean and vivid. Instead of returning to these early pages and feeling hopeless or confused about how to improve them, I know exactly what to do. But that process has taken time; I’ve had to go away and get better before I could come back.

When is it the right time to return to your old work?

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Why Your Emotions Are (Rarely) What They’re Supposed to Be

When all the mysteries of the universe have been figured out, I think we’ll still be probing the mysteries of the human heart like cave-divers with a wet match. It’s human emotion that is more endlessly surprising, more deeply satisfying and deeply frustrating, than just about anything else in life. The great novels of the past dealt with issues of society, history, religion, and gender in ways that have dated themselves; introduce the possibility of divorce, for example, to the great novels of the nineteenth century, and half of them wouldn’t have any problems anymore. Anna Karenina could have joint custody over her child and Madame Bovary would drop her husband like a bad habit. But these novels endure because they capture emotional landscapes and emotional troubles that are still the same troubles we face today. When science and law have solved even more of our problems in the future, good old fashioned emotions will still be tearing us up inside.

So how does this apply to our own lives?

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How does this apply to our own lives? I think so many of us, the control freaks especially, think at some point that we’ve got a handle on our emotions, thank you very much. In times of plenty and goodness, we kick back and think smugly that we’ve got a handle on it all. We know what makes us happy and we know how to get happy again when we’re sad. We know how to grieve appropriately, how to vent our anger. We’ve smoothed out the bumps on the roller coaster.

And then something unexpected comes along — a fight with a friend, a bad breakup, a disappointment, a misunderstanding — and it feels like we’re back to square one. We’re children again, overcome with anger or grief or self-loathing. Why am I feeling this way? We wonder. Why do I have to feel this bad? If it’s all happening in my head, if it’s my perception, then why can’t I control it? Why can’t I just stop being sad?

No matter how in control we feel, a bad day can still dump us back on the emotional roller coaster. Sometimes feelings are like a bad cold; we just have to wait them out. And they will not be hurried. The only cure for an emotional spell, I’ve found, is time. If we fix the problem, there’s still a recovery period to wade through. Emotions move slowly and cling to everything like maple syrup. They ooze through our bodies and leave residue behind.

So where does that leave us? How do we ride the roller coaster? Here are a few things I’ve learned about weathering emotional storms and understanding others’ emotions as well. This stuff is crucial to understand when capturing emotion in fiction; and it’s pretty important for developing your own emotional intelligence, too.

1. Time is the only cure. As I mentioned earlier, emotions move slowly and have a high degree of inertia. Even after you’ve resolved an issue with a friend, for example, you may find those hurt feelings lingering. Even after the person has said “sorry”, sorry doesn’t work right away. So give it some time, and give the other person time as well. All people take varying amounts of time either to cool off or to cheer up. Even if you’re worried that a friendship is about to end, give it a little time, and you may be surprised what a new day brings.

2. Respect others’ emotions. There is nothing more subjective than someone’s emotional state. I’m angry because you said that, but he’s just sad that you did. I’m ready to bounce back but he isn’t. That offended him but not me. We are all tremendously complex and tremendously idiosyncratic. There’s nothing more disrespectful than trivializing someone else’s emotional response. If we say, “Don’t be so sensitive”, or “you shouldn’t have been offended by that”, or “Why can’t you just get over it?” we’re telling the person that their emotions lack value.

3. Listen to your own emotions. You’re mad that your friend said something. But you’re not going to tell him. You’re not even going to admit it to yourself. You’ll just go about your day pretending to everyone that you’re not upset. It’s the perfect plan! Except that it’s a horrible plan. If you deny your emotion to yourself, it will find a way to creep out in insidious ways. You’ll become passive aggressive or cranky; you’ll pick on people for no reason. Remember to listen to yourself and be honest with yourself. Your emotional response has merit and validity. Try to figure out why you’re feeling a certain way. 

4. Emotions aren’t “supposed to” be anything. They are what they are. This might be the most frustrating thing about emotional states. We want to feel a certain way, or we think we’re supposed to feel a certain way. But our emotions refuse to comply. We want to be proud of our friend’s accomplishment, but a little bit of jealousy has wormed its way in. We want to stop grieving for a lost relative, but grieving just isn’t done. In this situation, remember that you’re not entitled to feel anything. Emotions are what they are; nothing more, nothing less. It’s our job as human beings to be astute observers, to probe and wonder and figure out why.

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How to Make a Character Readers Actually Char About

You see what I did there, right?

Kurt Vonnegut said that every character in your story must have a desire, “Even if it is only for a glass of water.” When I read stories submitted to the literary magazine I edit, or when I read student work for the creative writing classes I teach, the most common character mistake is that there is a total lack of desire. People go to a lot of trouble to create a person on the page. They think hard about their character’s taste in music, his favorite food, her darkest fear. They answer questionnaires and fill out all the little boxes of a character’s resume and life. They search baby name books for just the right name.

But then they don’t DO anything with all that information.

It just sits there, like a turgid pile of information, a giant paragraph on the second page or a long, long flashback that loses track of the main action. Or even worse, they do all this research and creation, and then they don’t use any of it. They know what a character’s darkest fear is, but they just show the character eating and sandwich and going shopping. Where’s the part where the fear comes to life?

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The way to make your character not only feel multi-dimensional but also worth caring about is to give your character a desire. It can be very simple. This character wants to make it to the wedding on time. This character is hungry. That character wants that character over there. Or the desire can be complex, contradictory, multi-layered; that character wants the approval of her parents. That character wants to be loved but also wants to be left alone. We need to feel that desire from page one of your manuscript, because it is that desire that moves the engine of the story forward. We’re not able to care about the events of the plot unless we understand what the character wants, and we begin to feel that want to.

That’s part of what makes great stories so seductive; even if the character’s desire is something we would never want for ourselves, we can cheer that character on and feel oddly invested in his quest. Think of Satan’s fervent desire to foul up things in Eden in Paradise Lost. Think of gangsters and criminals who just want to get away — and we are rooting them on. It’s desire that moves scenes and stories forward, and that gives scenes tension. Without that desire, no matter how eventful your scenes are, it will just feel like one thing happened after the other, a series of things happened to your character. But we need to see your character make choices and take action, and that can only begin with desire.

So here’s an exercise: look up some random photographs of faces on the internet. Try assigning a desire to each of those faces. Start simple; start with Vonnegut’s suggestion. This character wants a glass of water. Why does he want a glass of water? Why is he so thirsty? What’s going wrong in his life right now? And what’s between him and that glass of water? You’re halfway to a story already.