"The hard is what makes it great."

My babe's out of town this week, and it's hotter than the 9th circle of hell, so I spent tonight eating popsicles every colour of the rainbow and watching A League of Their Own. (I remember watching it as a girl and being in awe of how beautiful Madonna was.)

Anyway, this has also been a week full of revising, which, for me, means the volumes gets turned up on those bitchy inner voices that love to chime in when you haven't asked them a goddamn thing, you're just sitting at your desk, being a good little writer and they just have to diarrhea all over everything.

There's a scene in A League of Their Own, and I sat up as soon as it started. Tom Hanks is the coach and he's trying to convince his MVP (Geena Davis) not to quit the team. She says, "It just got too hard." His response:

It's supposed to be hard.
If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it.
The hard is what makes it great.

Thank you, Tom Hanks. You're a gentleman, and a scholar.

 

Don't be a competent clone: David Mitchell's writing advice

In a recent interview, Mitchell gave some awesome advice for young writers. He wanted to be a writer in order to "do to other people what [his] favorite authors had done to me."

A few parts really stood out for me:

"Send the thing out and forget it. Quickly get to work on the next thing. Don’t sit by the phone or watch your email. Don’t hope. You’ve done a big thing by finishing something. Spend all the energy on possible despair. Avert that possible despair. Transfer the despair to the next manuscript. Right away, like the next day."
If you don’t want to write a realist novel, that’s not who or what you are. Work out the kind of novel you want to write, that you’re best suited for and do that one instead. It’s likelier to be more interesting. It might be awful but it won’t be a clone. Better to be brilliantly bad with your first novel than competently clone-like.
Things that are your obstacles often turn out not to be. Things you think are stopping you from writing, these distractions, can feed into your work in positive ways. You just may not know it yet. Things you don’t want to discuss—your scars, your shadows, your psychological baggage from childhood. It’s useful. It’s therapeutic to deploy them. You kind of win by using them. You can give them a right to exist but actually give them a job to do as an informant about reality, about language, about the human heart. 

Colum McCann's Letter to a Young Writer

McCann has shared some exquisite writing advice on the official blog of The Story Prize. If this doesn't get your ass in a chair, I'm not sure what would:

Do the things that do not compute. Be earnest. Be devoted. Be subversive of ease. Read aloud. Risk yourself. Do not be afraid of sentiment even when others call it sentimentality. Be ready to get ripped to pieces: It happens. Permit yourself anger. Fail. Take pause. Accept the rejections. Be vivified by collapse. Try resuscitation. Have wonder. Bear your portion of the world. Find a reader you trust. Trust them back. Be a student, not a teacher, even when you teach. Don’t bullshit yourself. If you believe the good reviews, you must believe the bad. Still, don’t hammer yourself. Do not allow your heart to harden. Face it, the cynics have better one-liners than we do. Take heart: they can never finish their stories. Have trust in the staying power of what is good. Enjoy difficulty. Embrace mystery. Find the universal in the local. Put your faith in language—character will follow and plot, too, will eventually emerge. Push yourself further. Do not tread water. It is possible to survive that way, but impossible to write. Transcend the personal. Prove that you are alive. We get our voice from the voices of others. Read promiscuously. Imitate. Become your own voice. Sing. Write about that which you want to know. Better still, write towards that which you don’t know. The best work comes from outside yourself. Only then will it reach within. Restore what has been devalued by others. Write beyond despair. Make justice from reality. Make vision from the dark. The considered grief is so much better than the unconsidered. Be suspicious of that which gives you too much consolation. Hope and belief and faith will fail you often. So what? Share your rage. Resist. Denounce. Have stamina. Have courage. Have perseverance. The quiet lines matter as much as those which make noise. Trust your blue pen, but don’t forget the red one. Allow your fear. Don’t be didactic. Make an argument for the imagined. Begin with doubt. Be an explorer, not a tourist. Go somewhere nobody else has gone, preferably towards beauty, hard beauty. Fight for repair. Believe in detail. Unique your language. A story begins long before its first word. It ends long after its last. Don’t panic. Trust your reader. Reveal a truth that isn’t yet there. At the same time, entertain. Satisfy the appetite for seriousness and joy. Dilate your nostrils. Fill your lungs with language. A lot can be taken from you—even your life—but not your stories about your life. So this, then, is a word, not without love, to a young writer: Write.

 

Don't expect a cathedral, expect a brick: my feature on Sarah Selecky's site!

Hello to anyone crawling around on my site thanks to the wonderful, generous feature Sarah Selecky has up on her site! (You can find it here.)

Sarah gave me the opportunity to talk a bit about my writing process, and share an "open letter" to nervous writers. I also got to share an excerpt of a work-in-progress (or as Sarah likes to call them: Mysterious Middle Drafts). The response so far has been overwhelmingly lovely! I've received dozens of comments from people who have also felt anxious while quietly "collecting their bricks" and felt that my letter was empowering. Many people wrote to tell me how much they enjoy Eileen, the main character in the excerpt I shared. I swear this feedback is like emotional Wheaties: it's packed with so much good stuff, it fuels me!

Deepest thanks to Sarah for being so generous with her virtual space, and thank you to every person who read the feature, and who took the time to write such thoughtful comments. I am feeling the literary love over here!

 

"Torch Something Big": Andrew MacDonald on productivity

Andrew stopped writing long enough to take this photo.

Andrew stopped writing long enough to take this photo.

You know how people will cross the street to avoid anything that is even mildly uncomfortable? The stories I like best are the ones where the characters don't cross the street. Where they —due to pride, naiveté, panache, etc. — stay on course, and I get to experience the trouble from the safety of my couch. That's how I felt when I read Four Minutes by Andrew MacDonald. (The story went on to be long-listed for the Journey Prize.)

I became social media friendly with Andrew shortly after reading Four Minutes and was immediately struck by his productivity. He's finishing a novel. He's writing screenplays. Plural. And of course, he's got his short stories. He has so many balls in the air. He even has two homes: Toronto and New England. And he seems to be okay with it all. Enjoying it, even. And since I feel like each of my own story/script/novel ideas are impatient hamsters who won't stop fighting with each other and competing for carrots (resources), I asked Andrew to sprinkle some of his sagacity on the rest of us. And the guy said yes. What follows is a special communique from Andrew to you, dear writer. Enjoy! 

 

I have a picture of Kiss Me, Deadly, a really masculine pulp novel by Mickey Spillane, that I keep by my desk. The novel’s alright, if you like woman-slapping detectives and hilarious anti-pinko sentiment. But it’s there because I’m in awe of Spillane’s output (just like I’m in awe of the output of Joyce Carol Oates, another hero I admire primarily because of how much she’s able to accomplish). 

Shannon seems to think I’m really productive. I’m not sure I am, but looking at my creative plate, I guess one could construe it as pretty full: I’ve got the novel to get ready for editors, a short screenplay draft for a production company I’m working with, a short story for a journal that reached out to me for a submission, an article on mental illness for The Rumpus, a two-book review for another publication, plus a trashy feature comedy screenplay to hammer out with a pal. Plus I have two cats who won’t stop walking all over my laptop (THE NERVE).

When Shannon asked me to write about how I stay productive, I thought of how a lot of the strategies I use come from my days as a wrestler (and my embarrassing obsession with self-help literature). They've become more habit than anything else. Maybe they’ll be useful to people, maybe they won’t. But crafting a writing practice around routine has made it a lot easier for me to focus on the fun part of writing – the chaos of creation – more effectively.

-

Lists

I’m a big believer in routines and to-do lists. Every night before bed I write a list of things I want to accomplish. In writing terms, I’m usually juggling a number of projects, so I make sure number one on my list is the most important thing, which is usually the thing I least want to do. 

Word Count Goals

I can’t survive without a word count I need to hit. I get it – talking about things like goals takes all the fun out of writing. Besides, you’re not that kind of writer. You heed inspiration. Right? I don’t buy that, and I don’t really buy that some people ‘just aren’t wired to write X number of words a day.’ I remember having a lot of trouble hitting a 250 word count goal. After about six months I got it up to 500 words. It just takes practice, and an ability to shut off what Anne Lamott calls Radio Station KFKD – the part of your brain that can only settle for perfection.

One trick I used to get better at shutting off that voice is writing in ‘white font,’ which meant I couldn’t actually review in real-time what I was writing. I also wrote a lot in hand and on a typewriter so that I couldn’t stop and edit as I went along.

Torch Something Big

One of the best things I ever did was write a novel in two months with the explicit intention to throw it in the garbage. It’s only purpose was to go from blank page to 70,000 words. I divided the word count I was aiming for by the number of days – sixty, in this case – and just puked up the words for the day. I had a vague outline (which I recommend, but I know everyone’s process is different and I hate people who argue for one side of the ‘plan’ versus ‘not plan’ debate). I followed said outline, knowing I was just using it to hit my word count for the day and not much else.

Once I hit ‘the end,’ I closed the file on my computer and never looked at it again. I had never finished a novel before and I wanted to prove to myself that I was actually capable of writing one. 

Sets and Reps

I can’t actually concentrate for a long period of time, so one of the things I need to do is split my writing time up into ‘sets.’ Usually I complete around three writing sessions a day – one big session and a couple smaller session (so three ‘sets’). I like to group these sessions around . . . 

Peak Time / Pocket Time

I’m a morning person, so I know I can get the bulk of my writing for the day done before I become a regular human. It’s my peak time. But I also make sure to identify pocket times every day – briefer free moments when I can pull out my laptop and hammer out a hundred words or so. If I write 500 words during peak time, and have a few brief pocket-time writing sessions (lunch break, before bed, etc), it’s usually easier to hit my 1,000 word count goal.

-

All of that probably sounds overly pedantic, or too prescriptive, or the opposite of creativity, but I would argue that being disciplined in how you structure your writing life actually enables the mental (and logistical) freedom to write freely. I know that when I sit down during my peak time that it’s my time, or that I’ve already written, and cheerfully trashed, a novel, and over the course of that novel’s writing can feel more comfortable in my process. 


A bit about Andrew: Andrew MacDonald won a Western Magazine Award for Fiction, is currently shortlisted for a National Magazine Award for Fiction, and has been a finalist for the Journey Prize on several occasions. His stories appear on both sides of the border. The Windsor Review selected him for their Best Under 35 issue, while The Masters Review published a story of his in their annual anthology of the best writing to come out of American MFA programs for the year. 

Tracy Chevalier on "putting a frame around" small moments

I listened to a fascinating conversation on the TED Radio Hour between writer Tracy Chevalier (Girl with a Pearl Earring) and Guy Raz. Chevalier talked about growing a whole novel out of a single painting. If you haven't listened yet, I highly recommend it. She said one thing in particular that really stood out to me as a short story writer:

"We have dramatic lives, though they might not seem dramatic to the outside, but to us it's those little daily incidents of life that are dramatic, and if you put a frame around it—an actual painting frame, or if you put a frame that is a novel around small incidents—they suddenly become bigger because you focus. And anybody can focus on things that don't seem to mean much, and suddenly they become much bigger and much more important than you ever imagined."

I would argue that the short story also frames these small, uncelebrated moments, zooming in and examining the minutiae of a life, pixel by pixel. 

Mad Men's Matthew Weiner: "Why don't you wait and see what they find on their own?"

I read a great interview with Mad Men writer-producer Matthew Weiner (he eschews the term 'showrunner'). While lots of his responses tickled me as a fan, what stuck with me as a writer was this little nugget: 

"You work on a script or story for three months and then you hand it to somebody and they have 24 hours with it, and you're like, "Why don't they get it?" Well, guess what! A) You might not have achieved what you want to do in terms of clarity, and B) Why don't you wait and see what they find on their own?"

A) is a reality I'm All Too Familiar With and already spend enough time whingeing about, so I was most interested in his take on B). Weiner goes on to share a recent example (which I won't for spoiler reasons). But in short, the way the actors interpreted a scene was different than how he'd intended for it to be performed. And it became more "real" (his words). So even Weiner— who has created characters so layered and full-feeling that they've become archetypes in our culture, and who knows his characters so intimately— still doesn't always know what a scene or storyline is really about until he hands it off to someone else.

Sending one's work out for editing/interpretation is equal parts thrilling and nauseating. I don't know about you, but each time I hit 'send', this little voice (which, FYI, sounds an awful lot like Marcel the Shell with Shoes On) pipes up from the dead centre of my gut and says: "My gosh, I hope they pick up what I've put down there." But lately, I've noticed a follow up exclamation, where the emphasis is taken off of me entirely, and instead the little voice says, "I wonder what they'll see that I can't see yet." 

Art and activism: the two animals who live inside me.

I live with two adorable, hungry animals inside me.
Let's say they're lions.
Actually, let's say they're goats.
Let's say they're as adorable and rambunctious as Jollygood and Sunshine (pictured below).

So yeah, there are two goats inside me.

The first goat is an artist, who, for as long as she can remember, has wanted to tell stories. Stories that are true. Stories that make a person say, "that’s just what I’ve always felt, but you said it clearly". She likes the way her favourite artists make readers lean in and touch foreheads with the rest of humanity by using humour+heart as a connective force. She wants to try to do the same.

Photo credit:  Sunshine and Jollygood, two sweetpeas enjoying their lovely life at  Piebird Farm Sanctuary .

Photo credit: Sunshine and Jollygood, two sweetpeas enjoying their lovely life at Piebird Farm Sanctuary.

The second goat is an activist, who, for as long as she can remember, has wanted to suck less and help other people suck less too. Especially when it comes to the treatment of other animals. She wants to tell their stories, so people say, "I had no idea animals had it this bad. I don't want to contribute to that mess anymore." She respects the way her favourite activists have so fully dedicated their lives to their important causes. She wants to try to do the same.

But there are only so many hours in a day. And there's only so much "forage" (energy) to be chowed down on. Some days it seems like you can only be really good at taking care of one goat. So only one goat gets access to the most delectable pasture. Sometimes for weeks. But it always feels like cruelty to deny the one goat, and let the other feast. It feels especially bad to let the activist goat go hungry. After all, artist goat is just telling silly stories. Are stories going to fix all that's been so broken?

When I go into these guilt swings about the activist goat being fed too little, I go to extreme places. For years, I ignored artist goat entirely. Artist goat survived entirely on the nourishment of enjoying other people's art. She created almost nothing herself.

Don't let my goat metaphor confuse you about the seriousness of this issue for me. First off, I love goats. I couldn't be more serious about my love of them or using them in metaphors or one day living with a bunch of them piled on top of me. Secondly, of all the identity-based dilemmas I face, this truly is the largest one. I want for both goats to thrive, to be happy, to skip around, and to meet their goals. I even want them to be pals (like Jollygood and Sunshine), or to at least respect the importance of what the other is doing. And I know there are artists out there with their inner goats living in perfect harmony. But endless discussions with J. had brought me only a thimble-sized amount of peace in my own balancing act. Until a few days ago, when he texted me the following:

"Don't ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive."

The quote is attributed to Howard Thurman, an author, philosopher and civil rights leader.

When I read it, all my bones shook. It was exactly what I'd needed: permission. To go in directions that make me feel alive. It's about nourishing each goat with the things that make them feel the most alive. By focusing on the feelings, instead of the output, I believe this is how any person with two goats living inside them finds balance. (And come to think of it, how any artist or activist avoids burn out.)

The quote also gave me another gift. It licked shut the envelope on saying 'Yes' to the forms of activism that drain me. Because Thurman's words made me realize this: it is coming alive that moves people. It is offering up authenticity that leaves people changed. I have permission to say "H to the ELL no" to the approaches/people/spaces that tire me. And "SHIT YEAH!" to the work that makes me buzz with energy.

In other words: I feel now like both my goats will be better nourished. 
They'll feel freer to frolic and be the best goats they can be (in a non-military goat way of course). 
Hopefully just like Jollygood and Sunshine.

I just have to let each goat go in the direction that makes her feel the most alive.

Typos: "When your baby dies, it is worth nothing..."

The inimitable Jill Margo's recent Mini-Mag issue was focused on typos

I have a love/hate relationship with typos. I hate them because they are tiny, disguised reminders of the fallibility of human beings. How often have you proofread something (whether it's an email or a story draft), sent it off to someone, and then realized you wrote 'you're' instead of 'your'?

And then you get that hotflash in your armpits and the panic sweats commence, because you need that person to know that you know the difference between 'you're' and 'your'. That it was a silly mistake, that it means nothing. But are you supposed to send a follow-up communique just to state that? Are you supposed to write "OOPS! I meant *your, not 'you're'. Durrrrr." Isn't making a big deal of it letting your Poor Spelling Skills slip show?

But there's also the love part of my relationship with typos. I tweeted a few weeks back that of all the typos in all the towns in all the world, my favourite one is when you write: "it is worth nothing that" instead of "it is worth noting that". I love how absolutely, colossally opposite of your intention it is. It's a big ol' slap in the face from your computer. It's your computer saying, "I OWN YOU, ASSHOLE!" Writer Chris Kuriata responded to my tweet saying 'My worst typo? Trying to type to a friend, "When your baby does" but actually typing, "When your baby dies"'. 

I like to imagine that in some alternate universe, where typos are allowed to run free, somewhere, one was just sent that begins: "When your baby dies, it is worth nothing that..."

Are you a swooper or a basher?

We were having dinner with a couple friends a few weeks ago and my pal Andrew was asking about a chapter I'd just finished writing for a forthcoming textbook. 

"So are you a swooper, or a basher?" he asked me.
"Say what?" I said.
"Vonnegut had this thing about how there are two kinds of writers: swoopers or bashers," he said.

Having never heard this before, I glumly handed Andrew my Vonnegut Fan Club membership card. He was kind enough not to cut it up in front of me.

So according to Vonnegut, writers were either swoopers or bashers. 

Swoopers "write a story quickly, higgledy-piggledy, crinkum-crankum, any which way. Then they go over it again painstakingly, fixing everything that is just plain awful or doesn't work."

Bashers "go one sentence at a time, getting it exactly right before they go on to the next one. When they're done they're done."

Vonnegut himself claimed to have been a basher. He had some weird gendered beliefs about it too, arguing that most men are bashers and most women are swoopers. While I'm not into generalizing based on gender, I do personally fall into the swooper camp. Hard.

My first drafts are messy and cluttered, and full of placeholders for things that I hope will bloom later. I think of them as seeds I drop throughout the story, with the strong suspicion that they'll eventually germinate and bloom. Sometimes into flowers, sometimes into weeds which need pulling.

My partner J. is a basher. It makes for a sitcom-esque experience when we collaborate on things. Because he wants to get it just right. Which is admirable. But I just want to get it, period. Like Elizabeth Gilbert, I hail from the world of "Done is better than good". At least when I'm working with newborn stories. To expect perfection (or completion) with each individual sentence paralyzes me with fear. I'd never start.

Letting everything escape out of me and onto the page without judgment or pressure or expectation is the only way I can write and still like myself after.

I will admit: it would be thrilling to write in a way that you instantly knew when the story was over. I tend to feel like my stories are never 'finished', so much as they slip away and escape. 

What about you, dear reader? Are you a swooper? A basher?

My online cotillion and thoughts on professional sassing...

It's a weird thing to be building an online presence for yourself. It's like an extended opportunity to make a good (or extra bad) first impression. And because I'm a bit of a perfectionist (on the Friends spectrum, I'm about as 'Monica' as they come) I've bumped up against the usual barrage of self-critiques when making the tiniest of decisions. Is this pink too pink? Am I unconsciously infantilizing myself? Is that picture too showy or not showy enough? Is this bio wholly representative of the very essence of me? Am I trying too hard? Or trying to not try too hard, too much?

I'd say it's a lot like a first date, but I don't really know how those go because all my first dates tended to roll right over into second dates (breakfast) and third dates (lunch), and then relationships, and marriage proposals and Viking River Cruises. You know how it goes. 

Rather, I imagine this is the way rich girls feel picking out a dress for their cotillion balls, only with more PNG resizing and looking up if 'ubertalented' needs a hyphen, and less crying because your wild-card Dad got laid out by a business client, and now the whole fucking evening is ruined. YES I WATCHED THE O.C. WANNA MAKE SOMETHING OF IT?

In truth, I'm staking a claim on this little piece of virtual earth because I want a home-base, where I can get excited about stuff, share work with people who may be interested, and be opinionated in a way that's more respected (Insider's Tip: people accept more sass from you if you have your own URL, because then you are a professional, who by giving Squarespace money, now has an inalienable right to manufacture cheekiness.)

You can expect those kinds of insights and oh-so-much-more if you come on this journey with me. I'm even saving you a seat.

Yours,
Shannon