Writing Tip: Be Less Introspective

You write, presumably, because you have seen something in the world around you, and you want to show it to someone else. Why, then, do you spend so much of your writing time thinking about yourself? You're there at your desk, trying to work out the next sentence, and before you know it, you're thinking about yourself instead: your failures, your ego, your word-count goal. You speculate on how you're going to feel when you make your goal. You get a jump-start on the self-loathing you'll feel if you fall short. You wonder what people are going to think when they read what you've written. You wonder if anybody will even read it. You question whether anything you've ever written was actually good. You buck yourself up, remembering that, yes, you've written plenty of good pieces--brilliant pieces, in fact. Which makes you suspect that you've already used up all your brilliance. You think about your friend whose blog gets twice as many comments as yours, in spite of the fact that he can't write his way out of a paper bag. Then you ponder Edgar Allen Poe, who died penniless and alone in a Baltimore gutter. It occurs to you that you'll never write as well as Edgar Allen Poe. In short, it takes about 45 seconds to decide that you're the piece of crap that the universe revolves around.

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The Next Light Pole

I've taken up running in recent years, and it's done me quite a lot of good. Besides feeling better physically, I have benefitted from knowing that I, an old dog, am still capable of learning new tricks. I'm not a natural runner; cultivating the discipline to do it has taught me lessons that have applied elsewhere in life, including my writing life. Here's the most important thing I've learned from running: when I find myself miles from home and exhausted already, I've learned not to ask, "Can I run all the way home?" The truth is, I usually don't know whether I can run all the way home. I have learned instead to ask, "Can I run to the next light pole?" The answer to that question is almost always "Yes." And once I've made it to the light pole, I start thinking about the next light pole.

Of the few books I've read about how to write, my favorite by far is Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. That book has done much to shape my day-to-day approach to writing. Lamott compares writing a book to driving at night. Your headlights don't illuminate any farther than the next turning. But you keep going anyway, knowing that by the time you make that turn, your headlights will light the way to the next turn. And eventually you get where you set out to go.

Writing a book is a daunting task. Writing, like night-driving or distance running, requires a certain amount of faith. You set out for a destination without knowing exactly how you're going to get there. For me, at least, it helps to remember that I don't write books. I write sentences. A book is what you have after the fact. On any given day, I'm only writing pages. I'm only running to the next light pole.

Further Up and Further In: A Writers' Consortium for 2015

Do you have a big writing goal for 2015? Do you want to write a novel? A memoir? A sonnet cycle? An opera? Do you find it difficult to know where to start or how to keep going? Further Up and Further In is a community of writers who have taken the (rather large) step of stating, "My writing goal for 2015 is ____________." Throughout the year, we will offer each other encouragement, accountability, advice, and--hopefully--a growing conviction that the long journey of the writer is worth the effort. 

What should you expect from this consortium?

Good question. To some extent, we'll be defining the process as we go along, depending on what members of the group need. At least once a week I will post a consortium-related article here at jonathan-rogers.com. That article may be about the writing process or about crafting better sentences; it may answer a question that has come up in the consortium that week; it may be a writing prompt. These articles will be part of my regular blog and will be available to anybody who visits the site. Some of the consortium discussion, however, will take place in a private Facebook group inhabited only by those who have joined the consortium. For instance, you will state your writing goals, your schedule, etc., in that private group, not on the public blog. Though I am the host of the gathering, much of the value of the consortium will derive from the members' interaction with one another. Perhaps the most important function of this consortium is to provide a place for writers to say, "Here is my intention," and to be taken seriously by people who have stated a similar intention.

What should you NOT expect from this consortium?

In Further Up and Further In, we will not be discussing publishing issues such as finding an agent, writing pitch letters, marketing, etc. There are many excellent Internet resources on these topics; I'm sure you can find them. This consortium is all about the writing process and writerly craft. Also, while critique is a vitally important part of becoming a better writer, we won't be critiquing one another's work in this consortium. I ask that everyone refrain from posting excerpts from works-in-progress on the blog or in the Facebook group. I imagine that some of you will choose to share your work with one another. Please do so via direct communication--private messaging, email, etc.

How to join Further Up and Further In

To join our writers' consortium, fill out this short form. It simply asks for your name, your email address, and a few details about your 2015 writing goal. I will add you to the private Facebook group, and the next time you begin to doubt that you are a "real writer," you can remind yourself that you are a full member of a writer's consortium.

Seeing What You See

Originality may be the most overrated of the writerly virtues. Much more important is the skill of seeing what’s in front of you and rendering it faithfully. The world is a varied place; every person in it is a miracle; every setting is unusual; every event, every encounter is a thing that has never happened in the long history of the world. On top of all that variety is the fact that every observer’s vision is unique. If you will allow yourself to see what you see, and then write what you have seen, you can be sure that originality will take care of itself.

That’s not an easy thing to do. Few people write what they have seen. More often, they write what they think they ought to have seen, or they shoehorn experiences and people into familiar categories. It’s a hard habit to break; categorizing and sorting the firehose-blast of experiences and ideas that come our way is a necessary survival skill. But writing is different. Writing is a chance to release experience from man-made categories and say, “Look at this—this thing that exists in the real world.” Writing comes alive when you do that. Oddly enough, faithful imitation is the front door to originality.

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The Artist and His Country

nursingsow
nursingsow

When my dad was in eighth grade, there was an art contest at his school. The winning picture would be displayed in the state Capitol in Atlanta. It was only 137 miles from Chester, Georgia to Atlanta, but it was a lot further than that. I don't imagine very many of the students at Chester School had ever been to Atlanta; my father hadn't. Knowing what was at stake, the students worked hard to make their pictures as spectacular as possible. They drew tornados carrying people off. Car crashes. Earthquakes. Pretty dramatic stuff. My dad, on the other hand, drew something he saw every day: an old sow nursing her piglets.

My father's picture carried the day. The sow and her pigs may not have had the panache of a hurricane scene, but what it lacked in glamor it gained, I suppose, in realism.  The picture was hung on the walls of the Georgia Capitol, and the eighth grade of Chester School piled in a bus and drove to Atlanta to see it. They rode a streetcar too--not anyplace in particular, from what I understand, but just for the sake of experiencing city life. Mr. Ivey, the local bus driver, was passed over for a driver who had more experience on paved roads. "Also, Mr. Ivey was inclined to put boys off the bus if they got to fighting," my father said. "I think there was concern that somebody might get put off in the middle of Atlanta if Mr. Ivey drove."

I've known that story all my life. I knew it long before I ever heard the advice, "Write what you know." Every time I hear that adage, I think about the old sow hanging in the high-domed Capitol, smiling her satisfied, piggy smile.

In an essay called "The Fiction Writer and His Country," Flannery O'Connor put it this way: "The writer can choose what he writes about, but he cannot choose what he can make live." A tornado would seem a more lively subject than a nursing sow, but only if you can make it live.  If you're an artist, you do well to ask yourself: what can you make live?

Symbolism and The Prison-Issue Joke Book

There was this guy who got sent to prison. Wandering around the yard on his first day, he noticed that a man would shout out a number--"a hundred and twelve" or "thirteen" or "seventy-eight"--and everybody within earshot would laugh and laugh. Perplexed, the new prisoner asked one of his colleagues what everybody was laughing about. "Jokes," the old prisoner said. "Remember the prison-issue joke book you got when you got here--along with the the prison-issue khakis and prison-issue toothbrush?" "Yes," said the new man.

"Well, we've all read through the joke book so many times that we know all the jokes by number. So instead of telling each other the jokes, we just call out the number to the joke we want to tell. Saves a lot of time."

Eager to fit in, the new inmate stood up on a bench in the prison yard and yelled, "Forty-six!" Everybody stopped and stared. Nobody laughed. Near the corner of the bench the man heard one prisoner say to another, "Some guys don't know how to tell a joke."

***

I taught my way through Vanderbilt's PhD program, and when we discussed symbolism, I always told the joke about the prison-issue joke book. It was my way of explaining what T.S. Eliot called "the objective correlative." Here's how Eliot himself explained it:

The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an "objective correlative"; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.

When I taught literature, I was very interested in symbolism and the objective correlative. It certainly gives you something to talk about with freshmen and sophomores. Step 1: "What do trees symbolize in All Quiet on the Western Front?" Steps 2-14: "Here on page [fill in blank], the author mentions a tree. What do you think he's trying to get across here?" In other words, you learn the formula (the set of objects, the situation, the chain of events) and thenceforth, whenever you encounter the formula, you crank out the meaning or the emotion.

Now that I write literature instead of teaching it, I find that I'm much less interested in symbolism than I used to be. It's very possible that I'm misreading Eliot (he was surely smarter than I am), but the idea that a set of objects or a situation or a chain of events can be the formula for an emotion strikes me as being about as artificial as calling out the numbers of jokes in a joke book and expecting the hearer to laugh.

I'm not opposed to symbolism per se: I wear a wedding ring that symbolizes a commitment that has nothing to do with the ring. That's how a symbol works; we all agree that a thing means something that it doesn't really mean, and it serves as a helpful shortcut. Anyone (including me) can see that I'm married simply by glancing at my left hand. In certain social settings, that's helpful information. So, yes, I like symbolism just fine. But I also think it's important for a writer (and, for that matter, a reader) to realize that fiction and poetry really do their work on us not by assigning meaning to an object or situation (the way we assign meaning to a wedding ring) but by uncovering the meaning that inheres in a situation.

Let me give an example from one of my own stories. In The Secret of the Swamp King, Last Camp sits at the Big Bend of the River Tam. It's the very end of the civilized world. Anybody who crosses the river is leaving civilization behind and entering into a whole different world where a whole different set of rules applies. That looks for all the world like some kind of symbol. One could easily imagine an author saying, "I want to symbolize this idea of stepping out of the known and into the unknown...hmmm...oh, I've got it! I'll have a river that represents the boundary between the known world and the unknown world." In fact, it worked the other way around. I had been reading about the settlement of Georgia, and I got to pondering a treaty in which the Creek Indians ceded the land between the Oconee and Ocmulgee Rivers to the United States. Settlers could live as far as the east bank of the Ocmulgee and they would enjoy all the protections of US citizens. But if they crossed the river (as some did), they were on their own. If they got sideways with the Creek Indians, they couldn't expect any help from the government. That idea--of crossing the river and leaving the protections of the "civilized" world--was the germ of much that happens in The Secret of the Swamp King.

The work of the writer is not to assign meaning, but to observe long enough that meanings reveal themselves. A well-told story reminds us that transcendence is forever peeping out between the cracks of the mundane. Symbolism is a kind of shorthand, and it has its uses, as the prisoners with their prison-issue joke book knew. But fiction works differently. The fiction writer has to tell the whole joke, from setup to punch line, and trust the narrative  to do the work.

Unsolicited Writing Advice: On the Real World

Generic 1960s pic of a father and son scene.
Generic 1960s pic of a father and son scene.

I was reading some writing blog or listserv a few years back, and I ran across a fellow--a writer of espionage-action thrillers--who was trying to work himself out of a plot dilemma. His characters were schlepping across an arctic waste in Norway or Finland or someplace, and there they had been schlepping for a good long while. He felt he needed something to happen, so he was going to drop a village onto this vast arctic waste, a place where his characters could meet some new people, maybe get into a scrape or two. I urged the fellow not to do it. The arctic waste in question is a real place, and there are reasons there are no villages there. I challenged the writer to spend some time pondering a) why there are no villages where he wished there was a village, b) what is there instead of villagers (smugglers? moonshiners? hermits?), and c) what narrative possibilities present themselves. Plopping down a village would be the easy and convenient thing. But by taking that easier route, the author may miss out on some real rewards. Aren't smugglers and hermits more interesting than villagers anyway?

The fiction writer has the luxury of not sticking to the facts on the ground. He can change whatever he wants to change in his fictional world; who's going to stop him? Writers of fantasy fiction have even more freedom in that regard. But there are dangers therein. Imaginative worlds are frictionless worlds. And frictionless is another word for slippery.

I'm a big fan of creative non-fiction. A good essayist limits himself to the facts as he finds them, then rassles around with those facts until meaning reveals itself. The facts on the ground become metaphors and symbols for deeper truths that lie behind and beneath them. There's a whole worldview there. I really believe that good fiction--including fantasy fiction--begins with a willingness to search, like a non-fiction writer, for the meanings that inhere in the facts of the world around us. Different writers will choose to disguise the facts on the ground to a greater or lesser degree. But when they unmoor themselves entirely from the facts of our shared world in the creation of their own, the story suffers.

I'm not through articulating this idea. I imagine there will be two or three more posts on these topics in the next couple of weeks. Meanwhile, I'd love to hear your thoughts on the role of the "real world" in imaginative fiction.

How Sally Apokedak Rescued The Charlatan’s Boy

wonder-woman
wonder-woman

The Charlatan's Boy was an exceedingly difficult book for me to write. Before writing this book, I had never experienced writer's block. I didn't, in fact, believe it existed. "Writer's block" conjures up images of the tortured artist, misunderstood by the world. Me, I've always been a plain procrastinator. I thought it would be distinctly unhelpful to dignify my procrastination with the term "writer's block."

But in the writing of The Charlatan's Boy, I experienced something that went beyond procrastination. I don't know any word for it besides writer's block. I had set a task for myself that I wasn't at all sure I could accomplish. I've always been comfortable writing raucous, whoop-it-up stories, but The Charlatan's Boy, for all its robustiousness is really a story about a boy's inner life. It's one thing to write about alligator wrestling; it's quite another to write about a boy's wrestling with his loneliness, his hurt, his ugliness. Writers often talk about how terrifying it is to write; I usually dismissed that as mostly self-indulgence. But I was pretty terrified by the thought of trying to go deeper into a character's inner life. I literally pictured readers saying, "Really? That's what you call insight into the human condition? Why don't you stick to alligator wrestling?"

A certain amount of pressure is motivating, but I had crossed some threshold; the pressure was paralyzing. I fell into an awful cycle of self-absorption and terror. I had come to view my unfinished book mostly as a source of personal misery. Time came to turn in a manuscript and I didn't have a manuscript to turn in. My editors, Shannon Marchese and Jessica Barnes, were very patient and understanding. They gave me an extension. Which I missed. Then I missed another extension, if I remember correctly. Eventually they very sweetly laid down the law and gave me a genuinely hard and immovable deadline.

That sho-nuff deadline was bearing down on me, and all I had was big pile of scenes that didn't yet fit together into a coherent story. They were great scenes; I loved everything I had written. But they were highly episodic, and there weren't nearly enough of them. I was at a critical point; if I hadn't already spent the advance long before that time, I would have just told Waterbrook Press never mind and given them their money back.

It was at that critical moment that I got an email from Sally Apokedak, whose name you will recognize from the comments section of this blog. Sally has been a huge supporter since The Bark of the Bog Owl came out in 2004, but we had lost touch. I hadn't heard from her in a couple of years or more. She had heard that I was working on another book. She scolded me for not telling her and said she wanted to start telling her friends and blog readers about it:

Really, Jonathan, just because you don't know us, you have to realize that your loyal fans feel like they know you after reading and falling in love with your characters and they WANT to know what is going on. You could put out a little newsletter. It wouldn't kill you. It doesn't have to be cheesy and braggy like others we get in our in-boxes. You could do it with humility. We like you and want to know what you're up to.

I wrote Sally back,

Sorry for not telling you, but I've been genuinely worried that the book would be bumped from the fall catalog or worse...this has been the most painful writing experience ever. Which is to say, my lack of communication with readers...has more to do with self-doubt than stuck-upness.

If you don't mind, let's hold off on telling your loyal readers about The Charlatan's Boy until I'm a little more confident that it's going to release in the fall. I'll know in about a month, and then I'd love to shout it from the rooftops.

Meanwhile, would you pray for me, Sally?

Sally did pray for me. She also offered some encouraging words that bordered on flattery, and she offered to read the manuscript. After some dithering, I decided to let her read what I had. She read it (that very day, I think) and told me that she really loved it.

And then something shook loose for me. It wasn't many days later that I was done with the manuscript. In praying for me, Sally turned out to be the answer to her own prayer. I had descended into a closed spiral of self-doubt, self-indulgence, self-flagellation...self, self, self. I had come to think of this book as my personal nemesis. My interaction with Sally reminded me that this wasn't just about me. Other people had a stake in this thing--real people who would read and benefit from my book. The realization jarred me out of my solipsism, and I was surprised by a joy of writing that had long been absent. Sally's willingness to step in kept me going.

So here's to Sally Apokedak.

Desire, Choice, Consequence: Building Character Through Stories

At writing seminars everywhere, writing teachers are giving stuck story-writers the same advice: “Ask yourself, ‘What is it that my character wants?’”

Why? Because once you know what a character wants, you know what choices he or she is likely to make. Once your character starts making choices, consequences follow. And then a story begins to take shape.

Desire. Choice. Consequence. That’s what a story is made of.

When we speak of the other kind of character—an individual’s character or integrity—we’re usually talking about the choices that person makes. A person of character chooses the good over the bad, the better over the good, the best over the better, whatever the circumstances. And why does a person make such choices? Because he or she wants what is good or better or best.

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