Why I write – National Day on Writing 2015

Today is National Day on Writing, and all over the country people are talking about #WhyIWrite.

I’m a member of the National Writing Project’s Writers Council, and I recently did an interview with NWP on Blog Talk Radio with the lovely host, Tanya Baker. (I hope you check out the segment, because Tanya also interviews two other phenomenal children’s book writers, Benjamin Gorman and Renee Watson.)

So, why do I write? Well, there are a ton of reasons. Of course I want to sweep people away with my stories. I want to give all these experiences to readers—experiences I’ve had in books and absolutely treasure, like finding solace, friendship, awe, love, audacity, and moral courage.

There’s another reason (and you’ll hear it if you listen to the interview). I’ve surmounted so many challenges and self-doubt simply through sticking with writing and never giving up, that writing has become my ideal personal trainer. Think I can’t do this revision? I’ve learned I can. Afraid of rejection? I just have to face that fear and grow. Worried I can’t speak in public? There’s no cure except to get up on stage.

I realize that even if I had zero readers, I’d still write, just for the never-ending challenge of it.

Performing at Litquake Oct. 12!

I’m really excited to be part of SF Litquake again this year, and doubly so because I’ll be telling a story for Porchlight, the incredible monthly storytelling series. The theme is almost too good: Kill Your Darlings: The Unpleasant Art of Starting Over.

Check out that lineup! I’ve started over so many times as a writer, the only question will be which story of abject failure do I tell? Help!

The details:
8 pm, Monday, Oct 12
The Verdi Club
2424 Mariposa St, SF
Buy Tickets!!

The high-school girl theory of being in the world

In a recent issue of Poets & Writers magazine, a group of literary agents was asked, “What are some common mistakes that beginning writers can avoid?”

Melissa Flashman, an agent at Trident Media Group, answered:

Some writers undercommunicate, and I call this a “high-school-girl” theory of being in the world—you want everyone to come to you and recognize how great you are. But you have to be out there with other writers and communicating with your agent. If you publish a piece in the New York Times, I really want to know about it and tell your editor and tell my foreign-rights people. For those people, I would say be less of a “high-school girl.” Be like a “high-school boy” who wants all these girls to know who you are. I don’t mean that in a sexist way.

I had an unpleasant shock of recognition as I read this. Because, it now becomes clear, I’ve been operating in the world as a high-school girl.

For a while now I’ve had intimations that something was wrong with my ability to self-promote that didn’t stem from shyness—I’m not especially shy. It’s more an excess of manners, an unwillingness to disturb someone else by asking for something, a misplaced self-reliance. And, ultimately, a deep-seated feeling that I have to earn the attention of others by proving myself through work of such quality that everything else falls magically into place.

Which is ridiculous, because people like to be asked for help (within reason), and generally like to feel that they’re magnanimous. Not to mention, as a writer you really, really, really need to get the word out—no matter how good the work is.

Can I blame someone else? I’ll blame the books I read when I was an actual high-school girl. These were, for the most part, novels about the English upper classes for whom the most tasteless behavior was an appearance of trying and striving. E.F. Benson, Henry James, P.G. Wodehouse, etc. Even the fantasy novels I read contributed, and I was struck at an impressionable age by Tolkien’s “All that is gold does not glitter.”

What a terrible lesson.

Is it possible to stop being like this? (And no, I don’t think I want to morph myself into a high-school boy—it really is a weird analogy.)

Well, I can communicate more. And in the past I’ve set myself little exercises like, “Ask for something each week.” (That’s a good one.) As I learned from Cross-fit, it’s important to do things you don’t like or don’t think you can do.

On a larger level, I realize I still need to see myself as a writer. Even though I’ve published one book and have more in the works I think of how much more I could do to commit. Am I leaving myself an out? I can always blame my busy life of work and kids’ soccer practices and whatever else.

Or I can add this to my to-do list: “Change my way of being in the world.”

Random Quote: Dinaw Mengestu on writing when tired

I found this great item: 5 writing tips by Dinaw Mengestu in Publishers Weekly. Mengestu is the author of ALL OUR NAMES and has a host of honors and awards.

This is from Tip #4 about growing “less precious” about conditions under which writing happens.

Steal time from the crowded world even if it’s only a few minutes, or a blessed hour. Take being tired and emotionally exhausted as an excuse to take excessive liberties with language, with your imagination.

I am often tired and emotionally exhausted. How wonderful, instead of always bemoaning this fact, to think of it as liberating.

A recent obsession with scent

Sometime during the two weeks I took off work to finish my draft of THE SHADOW CLOCK, I found myself using (wasting!) my precious writing time to read wildly on the Internet about perfume.

A short explanation of how this happened. I ran out of some completely serviceable, everyday perfume my mother-in-law had brought back for me from a trip to France. I was fine with it, I wore it unthinkingly. A uniform.

But, trying to buy a replacement online, I encountered an entire subculture and community of perfume obsessives who wrote endlessly about perfumes and what they meant (viz. Basenotes).

I was floored. Discovering these sites brought up memories of a time when I took perfume seriously. In high school, a friend who we looked up to as a tastemaker wore her mother’s perfume. I remember her sniffing a handful of her shirt and announcing “I reek of Chanel No. 5.” It was hard to follow that, but I tried. I remember dutifully applying myself to the sampler bottles at the perfume counter in the local department store, trying to convince myself that Chanel No. 5 was great, although it remains one scent I can never bring myself to like: cold and ill-suited to me.

When I lived in Paris during college, perfume became something without which you felt under-dressed. I was not (still am not) a very polished person. But perfume offered welcome help in presenting oneself as an adult. And it was impossible to walk through Paris without encountering parfumeries—stores dark and steeped in feminine glamor, that sold only perfume.

I was surprised to discover that perfume threaded together so many different memories and times. I did not think perfume had importance in my life, but I was wrong. The bottle of Opium, for instance, always on my mother’s dresser, became shorthand for years of my childhood. Then there was the pretty bottle of some Annick Goutal scent that I bought on a trip to New York after reading about her in a fashion magazine (a memory that forced me to realize, yes, I used to read those!). Too goopy and flowery in the end.

I had also forgotten perfume’s power to unsettle and suggest. In high school French, reading Baudelaire’s “Correspondances,” I felt somehow scandalized by his list of scents, which start with those that that smell like babies’ skin, and ends with those that are “corrupt, rich and triumphant.”

All these moments, recollected through a memory of scent, of course made me recall the famous madeleine scene in In Search of Lost Time. There, it is the taste of the cookie crumbled into the lime blossom tea that opens a magical pathway to the past:

But when from a long-distant past nothing subsists, after the people are dead, after the things are broken and scattered, taste and smell alone, more fragile but more enduring, more unsubstantial, more persistent, more faithful, remain poised a long time, like souls, remembering, waiting, hoping, amid the ruins of all the rest; and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.

And there it is, the paradox. The ability of scent—which is insubstantial—to carry surprising weight is what makes it worthy of obsession. I found this lovely meditation on the power of perfume on Barbara Herman’s blog in an entry about the strange suggestiveness of Chanel No. 19:

“[P]erfume is, among other things, the most portable form of intelligence.” — Luca Turin, Perfumes: The Guide.

I feel this is the place to address this arresting quote from Luca Turin (written in a review of Issey Miyake’s Le Feu D’Issey). Chanel No. 19 was a similar fragrance for me, astounding me with its suggestiveness, its intelligence, its moods, its significations. I pondered this perfume as deeply as a film, book or song that moved me. It’s been one of the many revelations for me in discovering perfume in this sensual/cerebral manner that there is, in fact, a limbic intelligence that we don’t cultivate enough. Perfume is the perfect vehicle for exercising this intelligence and articulating what it has to tell us.

The market in rare and vintage perfumes—how they’re sold on eBay or other sites in the original packaging or with notes about the condition of the box—did end up giving me an idea for some of the magic trading that happens in THE SHADOW CLOCK. (It may not stay in, we will see.) So it wasn’t wasted time. But I only realized that later—after I was frustrated and angry with myself for following this thread, for avoiding work and word count. Which brings me to another realization, perfume has meaning because it exists outside of practicalities.

I was glad to rediscover it.

On keeping a writing diary

I recently came across this interview with Sarah Waters in The Guardian, about her experience writing The Paying Guests.

One of the best decisions I ever made as an author was to keep a writing diary, a record of each day’s advances, along with plans, thoughts and queries about my current novel-in-progress. Surveying this at the end of a project provides a fascinating vision of the evolution of a book – though I invariably find that it’s a catalogue of complaints (“horrible day”, “appalling day”, “realised that most of what I wrote last week was rubbish”), relieved only rarely by moments of insight and sweaty euphoria: “Think I’m getting there at last, thank Christ!”

These journals are always substantial, but at more than 170,000 words my Paying Guests diary is only slightly shorter than the book itself

Although I can hardly put myself in the same company as Sarah Waters (whose amazing Fingersmith blew me away), I found a lot to relate to here. For everything I work on I start a “Notes” file, and this doc becomes my confidant during the course of the project.

It’s usually a lot of griping or the place where I unload my emotions. I don’t keep a journal, so the book diary becomes a record of all my thoughts along with what’s going on in the day-to-day.

For my Shadow Clock draft, I kept track of word count each day (because I wrote the book in one big Word file), how I was feeling (usually awful—reading back on Notes, I come off as a raging depressive). The Notes file is also my “what if” place—if I can’t bear to work in the official file, I sketch scenes in Notes.

And then like a movie cast and crew who disband at the final wrap, once the book is done, the diary is done. It’s interesting to me, the Notes file is often about the same length as the manuscript, as if they’re twins, somehow growing in parallel.

I’ve sometimes thought maybe I should just keep one big Notes file about the whole of writing life. But I like looking in on each idea to see where it’s stopped in time. So now while I’m waiting to see what my editor thinks of what I’ve turned in, I check in on another Notes file—it’s like visiting another person in another world: full of excitement about an idea that’s just been waiting in suspended animation.

Random quote: Jeff VanderMeer on Narnia

I found this on Julianna Baggott’s blog during a moment when I was trying to inspire myself to write.

She interviewed Jeff VanderMeer, the author of The Southern Reach trilogy–all three books published within one year, an amazing story in and of itself. I have the first book, Annihilation, in my TBR pile.

I thought it was brilliant she asked him not about the books he loved and wanted to emulate, but about the books he hated. Here’s his answer.

I really hated The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I hated that the intelligent woodland animals were so happy about replacing a dictatorship with a monarchy instead of just telling everybody else to shove the hell off.

There are books I hate–really hate–although I’m not always comfortable revealing them. And I have complicated feelings about Narnia. For both reasons, I love this quote.

Writing at night

I am nearly done with my Shadow Clock draft, but getting to this point has required a tremendous push and a lot of night writing.

It’s often very hard for me to get started when I write at night. I usually spend an hour doing preliminaries – desperately searching for blog posts (only no one blogs anymore). I go to Amazon and “Look Inside” books reading first chapters. I read things in the New York Times. “We are, at least from the standpoint of DNA, more microbial than human,” is something I just learned.

I must slowly overcome my hatred of the text.

Opening the file and seeing the words I’ve written, I experience a violent recoil. How can anything be that bad?

So I must approach the manuscript as if it is a wild pony. Sideways but with determination and an overall sense of my goal. Not straight at it, but piece by piece. It’s a war of inches and defeat lurks at every turn, because each inch contains the potential of an hour lost to procrastination. I cycle through these activities, flipping back to my open draft.
Reading various writing-related sites online.
Eating chocolate.
Drinking mineral water
Eating something salty
Eating almonds
Drinking wine (the right amount)
Deciding on the music I will listen to
Applying evocative perfume
Remembering how when I write in the morning before work I am always so annoyed that I can’t continue but must stop. So how can I turn my back on hours at night!
I remind myself that even if it is bad work and bad writing I produce it is still necessary work that must get done and it brings me that much closer to my goal. Tonight, I don’t want to write, but I’m still up. As long as I’m sitting here I might as well write, right?
All I have to do is get in.
Once I am in, I will work
But the text is like bitterly cold water – I turn my head away. I don’t want to.

James Salter on finding the best word possible

James Salter, who died last week at 90, was known for his wonderfully precise prose style.

Here is a memorable quote from a Paris Review interview with him:

I’m a frotteur, someone who likes to rub words in his hand, to turn them around and feel them, to wonder if that really is the best word possible. Does that word in this sentence have any electric potential? Does it do anything? Too much electricity will make your reader’s hair frizzy. There’s a question of pacing. You want short sentences and long sentences—well, every writer knows that. You have to develop a certain ease of delivery and make your writing agreeable to read.

You can read the rest of the interview here at the Paris Review. My only warning is that it is full of elegant, thoughtful expression, and glimpses into an entirely enviable writing life. After encountering it, I took several hours to go back to my work, which I felt was entirely frizzy-haired and unagreeable. Such are the hazards of reading author interviews!