Friday, August 26, 2011

A little perspective on a bad day

Writing is an up-and-down profession. One day, your fingers fly over the keyboard, and you’re the next great American novelist. The next day, you’re the world’s biggest hack. Everything you write is garbage. I was having one of those “woe is me” days when the hospice newsletter arrived.

One of the most selfish things I do every week is volunteer for a local hospice group. Those few hours with patients and their families remind me to be grateful—every day—for health, love and time. There’s no faster way to put life in perspective. Unfortunately, the lesson tends to fade between visits, which is why I go every week.

Yesterday, though, no excuses. I was plain feeling sorry for myself. Even worse than not writing, I’d deleted whole paragraphs of my book, convinced that the entire thing belonged in the trash. Why keep up the struggle? Why write at all? And even if I finished, who would read such drivel? I finally took a break to read about a hospice patient named Tony.

Before he fell ill, Tony dreamed of becoming an author, and he wrote a thriller about an FBI profiler. Not only did he finish writing—he paid to have 1,200 copies printed. Like most of us, he must have pictured himself at Barnes & Noble, signing books for his fans. And then came the doctor’s diagnosis.

“I know I’ll never be able to sell those books, but I sure would like for people to be able to read them,” Tony told a volunteer. “I’d give them out for free if I could find a way.” The volunteer, a writer himself, launched a campaign to distribute the books to as many readers as he could find. Tony wrote a personal note to be enclosed, and from his bed, he showed off the thank-you cards he received.

The old saw about “living each day as if it’s your last” has always irritated me. It implies a level of pressure no human being can sustain on a regular basis. (Who would ever make the bed or wash the dishes?) Still, we don’t have forever. We might not even have next week. Our dreams have a shelf life, even if we don’t know the expiration date.

Tony, thanks to you, I'll hug my family tonight, floss my teeth, and keep on writing.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The choice to write.

There are the prolific writers: Stephen King (whose daily goal was 2,000 words), Mary Faulkner (904 published books), Joyce Carol Oates (56 novels and counting), Leo Tolstoy (whose novels, plays and essays take up a small room). And then there’s me. My daily word count often comes out to negative numbers, thanks to my liberal use of the delete key.

When I was younger, this lack of productivity used to depress me—in fact, often stopped me from writing, period. What was the point, if all I had to show for hours of work was a few measly sentences? Back then, I’d come home from my job exhausted, without a functioning brain cell left. Saturday was my “day to write.” I dreaded the weekends because of this pressure to create, and then I’d look for any excuse to do something else. (Say, doesn’t the house need painting?)

Clearly, this wasn’t a workable system. Why not? I knew the secret to being a successful writer—we’ve heard the advice a thousand times. Write every day. It’s as simple as losing weight: Burn more calories than you eat.

Which was how I gained 35 pounds and didn't finish my novel.

Like losing weight, writing is a self-directed goal. Sure, we can decide to lose ten pounds for a high school reunion, but what happens when we come home? Where’s the incentive now? If the goal is to impress someone else, we slowly lose the motivation. The little voice in our head convinces us it’s hopeless. Same with writing. If our goal is to impress the critics (and our friends/relatives/old English teacher), or to break an Amazon sales record, we’ll find a million excuses not to work. I'll start tomorrow, we’ll say. Just like the diet.

The truth for all of us, whether we’re talking about words or pounds, is the same: we wake up every day and decide what matters. If we set a goal of writing a few good sentences every day, and we string those sentences together, week after week, we will become successful writers. Mind you, I didn’t say financially successful, or critically acclaimed. That’s out of our hands. (Oscar Wilde died penniless, and Snooki got a six-figure book deal, God help us.) The practice of writing is what defines us—nothing more. Here’s a cold, hard fact: Nobody else really cares if you write, any more than anybody else cares if you eat that pint of Häagen-Dazs. It only matters to you. Writing is hard, and nobody’s going to pat you on the back for all the long, lonely hours at the keyboard. You have to find the meaning in what you do. You have to believe in the value of your work. No one else in the world can write your story. Only you.

Last week, I spent four days at the beach, alone, writing. After a walk along the sand each morning, I sat down at my laptop and worked (with short breaks) for 10-12 hours. For the girl who used to give up after 20 minutes, this was nothing short of miraculous. So is the fact that I’m back to my fighting weight (pre-college days). Every morning, I have to make a choice, which is why I wrote this reminder to myself. Same thing tomorrow, and the day after that. Simple (or not). My choice.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Thoughts (and thanks) after two weeks on Twitter

Last month, a friend prompted me to open a Twitter account. Like most people who grew up in the days when phones had party lines, I couldn’t fathom the concept of typing a conversation in 140-character snippets. Why not write a novel on postcards?

Twitter, the new party line
But within days, I was hooked. Understand, the Internet has always been my friend. I was one of the first kids on the block to sign up for Compuserve, way back in 1995. I used to hang out in a writers’ chat room. My phone is an Android. This isn’t a Luddite’s tale of falling down the rabbit hole—I get (and love) the power of social media.

That being said, Twitter is a different beast. More democratic, in a way, and also more chaotic—flashes of brilliance and ignorance in equal measures. (Type the wrong hashtag, and you're getting off the wrong subway stop in a bad, bad neighborhood.) The arcane system of retweets and mentions means that you don’t always get the instant gratification of a smile or a laugh; it’s more like dropping pennies in a well. 

<my thoughts to the world>……………………………………………………..…..<plink>

The first few days of tweeting, I was so intoxicated by the ability to “talk” to famous folks that John Hodgman and Paul F. Tompkins had to take out restraining orders. It didn’t dawn on me that a person with 604,314 followers might not see my witty LOL among his many replies. Silly, I know. Great fun, though. When the novelty finally wore off, I started to get down to business, the true nature of Twitter. We’re all selling something, after all: our jokes, our blogs, our cookbooks, our thrillers. (Oh, and did I mention our spam?) There’s a mercenary nature to the game of follow-you/follow-me, and for someone who hears the word “networking” and breaks out in hives, it’s a challenge.

Still, my follower count is up to 75 this morning, and I wanted to thank each and every one of you. (Okay, so maybe @NovelSpot isn’t an actual person. Fine, be that way.) What a marvel it’s been to meet a thriving community of writers and artists who encourage one another, who openly share their failures and triumphs. As mentioned in an earlier blog, my second novel is almost—almost—done, and you’ve inspired me to get to the finish line. The page count has grown more in the past two weeks than in the previous six months. My goal is September. (Holy cow.) I’m telling you because I know you’ll hold me to it.

Thank you, all, for having the guts to pursue your dreams. Keep up the good fight (and put a timer on Twitter).