I’ve decided to practice what I teach (<–nope, not a typo).
When I teach writing, I harp endlessly on the need to write often, to keep the muscle memory of writing flexed and supple. It’s like playing an instrument, I say, or practicing a sport.
That’s why at the beginning of each class I provide my students with two quotes and ask them to write about them for a bit. Mostly they’re writing for themselves–I might read a few when I collect at the end of the semester, but it’s spotty.
They love it.
But do I do it myself? Eh, not really.
Here’s another thing I tell my students: we are always writing for an audience, even if that audience is our own self. We tend to be more precise writers, however, when that audience is another person. So it’s a great idea to get feedback on writing, to hone our skills and broaden our perspective.
Do I do that either? Nah, not enough.
That’s why I’m going to try to revive this blog. I’m tired of stowing my writing in a drawer like it’s some dirty secret, of being jittery when anyone reads it. I need to toughen the calluses of my writing muscles (<–that probably doesn’t make sense anatomically, but you get the drift).
This blog started out as a way for me to frame what I was researching in the 17th century with current trends and my own (sometimes random) pairing of historical ephemera and political and social trends. Hence the name of the blog–Out of Time.
That name has taken on a new meaning for me after being diagnosed with and treated for breast cancer.
I’m not out of time, not yet (did I just tempt fate or the gods or something? Yikes). My cancer was caught very early and I have an excellent prognosis. But an experience like that changes you, ya know?
One of the best things about being an independent scholar (whatever that term means) is that my enthusiasms are no longer policed by the academy.
Note: Which is not to say that academics are unenthusiastic about their topics. It’s a truism that academics have a proprietary relationship–well, really, they fall in love with–the subjects of their research. One need only go to an academic conference and watch people unabashedly nerding out about Chaucer or planetary rovers or chaos theory to know that’s true.
No, this is all a very long way of talking about how I saw some of John Dee’s books—and the doodles, notes, and marginalia within—and am unconstrained in saying that it was pretty freaking magical.
The circumstances that led up to my sitting in the reading room of the Royal College of Physicians, quietly waiting to pay my respects to Dee’s books, were a perfect example of the kind of generosity of spirit and collegiality among many academics on Twitter. I had heard that the Royal College of Physicians would be doing an exhibit on John Dee, the 16th-century magus and mathematician who is widely thought to be the inspiration for Shakespeare’s Prospero (Scholar, courtier, magician: The lost library of John Dee). Unfortunately for me, the exhibit was ending in late July, and I wouldn’t be in England until late August. I was sure I would miss this chance of a lifetime. I bemoaned my luck on Twitter, tweeting out “Oh, to be in England, while John Dee is there…”
Within a day I was thrilled to have a response from R. Satterley (@rsatterley), tagging the curator of the exhibit, Katie Birkwood. Katie generously offered to show me some of the highlights of the exhibit when I was in London, a month after the official end of the show. Katie spent almost an hour with me, and we talked about a wide and fascinating array of topics: how the books were stolen from Dee’s library and found their way to the Royal College of Physicians; Dee’s wife, Jane Dee, and what her life might have been like (in a word–odd); and Dee’s mathematical interests and drive to codify and record everything from the weather to his wife’s menstrual periods. Katie was so very kind and immensely knowledgeable. Thanks, Katie! <waves>
The first thing Katie showed me was, she said, one of her favorite parts of the exhibition: a doodle Dee had drawn (probably in 1545 when he was a student at Cambridge, as Katie notes in the video below starting around 2:40). It was found in a compendium of Cicero’s work’s, tucked in a corner by a poem about the “foaming, frothing seas.” The drawing is of a ship that seems almost to glide off the page, the perspective foreshortened in such a way that it floats toward the viewer. I had viewed the digitized image before my trip, but seeing it in person had a much more visceral effect. I was embarrassed to say this to Katie, fearing it would be too fanciful, but it reminded me very much of the scene in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, by C. S. Lewis, in which Eustace, Lucy, and Edmund stare at a painting of a ship rolling on the sea, staring gape-mouthed as it materializes in front of them until they are drawn into the cold, salty ocean.
That idea—of a picture, a doodle, a painting that manifests itself in person, that jumps the dimension between concept and object, the materiality of that idea—captured my imagination. I started thinking about the differences in seeing a picture of an object and the object itself. Why did it seem different, somehow, to experience these books in person rather than to view them on my computer, 7,000 miles away? Do we know, at some deep, molecular level, that we are in the presence of the thing itself? Does that materiality connect us more intimately than an image separated by distance and time? Is it all in our imagination, and if so, is that any less real?
I’m reminded of one of the best stories I’ll ever be able to tell in my life.
Five years ago, the magnificent Ursula K. Le Guin came to my local library with photographer Roger Dorband to talk about their book Out Here: Poems and Images from Steens Mountain Country. At dinner after the presentation, the table talk drifted to how, let’s be honest, there’s something a little weird about wanting an author’s signature on a book. As Le Guin put it (paraphrasing here), “I’m happy to do it, of course, but I do think sometimes, ‘I’ve just given you my words—thousands of them!’” We talked about how the signature seemed like a material proof of connection, of experience. My husband nodded sagely and said, “Hmmm, maybe you could just lick the book instead?” (For the record: Le Guin laughed and laughed, and when it came time to leave, she gave my husband a little pretend air lick.)
It was all great fun, but really, I think there’s something there.
At the risk of sounding as esoteric as Dee, I think books and writing retain some residue of the people they’ve encountered. “Books speak to us,” we say, and sometimes I wonder if we’re being strictly metaphorical. Why else do we run our fingers over their spines, trace the lettering on their backs and covers, flip through pages as though visiting an old friend? There’s something profound about the physical manifestation of our most cherished ideas, thoughts, experiments, and emotions made solid and shared, a way for people to connect across time and space through the simple touch of a pen to paper.
Or you know what? Maybe this is just a flight of fancy of my own. Maybe this deep sense of connection we feel when seeing somebody’s actual writing, or doodling, or jotting of notes, the joy and connection people find when an author has signed their book, is all in our imaginations. But I ask you: If so, does that make it any less magical?
There’ll usually be someone saying something incredibly weird and/or offensive. Once you tune in, you won’t be able to concentrate anymore, but you’ll be cool with it because it’s all fodder for the novel.
So far, I’ve overheard the following conversations:
A man, staring soulfully into the eyes of his companion, telling her she has a “luminous energy.” That his one regret is that he hasn’t spent enough time with her. That he wants to kiss her, then and there. That his wife probably wouldn’t approve.
A man discussing the remodel of his home, bemoaning the cruel fact that “toilets these days just aren’t constructed for the modern American asshole.” I’m preeeeettty certain he meant it in an anatomical rather than metaphorical sense, as he went into great detail (I will spare you).
A blind date during which the first question was “What kind of rifle do you own?” followed by discussion of the vast medical conspiracy behind flu shots and the following conversation:
Him: What’s your last name?
Him: Are you related to Ted Turner?
Read widely and well.
This will make you a better writer. It will also make you a better procrastinator.
You will endlessly compare yourself to another writer who is not you and whom you will never be. Ignore that the writer cannot be you and you cannot be that writer because that would defy all known laws of the universe and everything would implode. Wish you were Geraldine Brooks anyway, universe implosion be damned.
Bonus: If you read a wide variety of authors, you’ll return to your writing sounding like one of those old See ‘n Say toys that comes back with a different voice each time you pull the string. Paragraph 1, you’ll sound like Donna Tartt. Paragraph 2, Donald Trump.
Go to conferences.
You will get to spend a lot of money and sometimes it will be worth it but sometimes it will just be a chance to go out of town and drink a lot of coffee and wine instead of staying home and drinking a lot of coffee and wine.
On the plus side, the other conference attendees are likely to be cool and interesting. They’ll also appreciate the bookish-seeming shoes you’ve been dying to wear (like, I don’t know, maybe these which I bought for my birthday and that I love so much I want to marry them):
Do your research.
Before you’ve finished your first draft, go to QueryTracker. Research all of the agents who represent your work. Fall in love with one or two of them—I mean, just know in your heart of hearts that she/he is THE ONLY AGENT who could possibly really understand you and your work. Imagine the laughter and hijinks as you get together for drinks in New York to discuss the details of your publishing contract. Get so excited that you finish your half-assed manuscript and don’t really bother with editing or beta readers (because you’re certain that the #MSWL Your Dream Agent (YDA) tweeted out last week was just like what you’d written and A SIGN FROM THE UNIVERSE). When YDA rejects your query/manuscript (or worse, never gets back to you), assume that it’s not because you jumped the gun and sent out your work before it was ready but because you are the worst writer who’s ever dared put pen to paper (or, I don’t know, finger to keyboard?). Your ideas suck. Your words suck. You suck.
(The above has definitely not happened to me. More than once. Or twice.)
Keep being a horrible writer.
Because writers are doing what they’ve felt called to do. Because there’s something about writing that taps into a soul-deep core of human need for stories, for connection and meaning. Because when we don’t write the world seems a little flatter, a little grayer, a little less shimmery.
I’m currently revising a novel in which some folks have said I do a whole lot of telling and not enough showing.
I trained as an academic, so it’s practically a given that my early fiction attempts would skew towards the didactic, the wordy, the analytic. I knew that going in.
So if that feedback is so straightforward, why am I struggling with feelings of embarrassment, even shame? (And now we enter Inception-level neuroticism, in which I’m a little embarrassed about feeling shame.)
All I really have to do is add some more dialogue, inject more ambiguity in my characters by showing actions rather than explicating motives.
But when I sit down to do so, when I open the file and look and what I’ve written, when I revisit the feedback I’ve gotten, I’m embarrassed that I didn’t see these issues before.
Why do we writers do this to ourselves?
When I teach writing, I hammer the idea that writing is a skill, a techne, that improves with practice and feedback. I also insist my students share the following assumption: a critique of someone’s writing is not a critique of that person. I can object to a vague thesis or point out a comma splice and still think the writer is good and smart and worthwhile.
By the end of the quarter, my students can recite my mantra with me: “I am not my writing.”
So why can’t I take my own lessons to heart?
I think the answer lies somewhat in the mystification of the writing process. Those who don’t write regularly see only the final product, not the messy process, and so creation seems magical.
And indeed there are some inexplicable moments in the creative process when the right word or the perfect action is gifted to the writer by something that resembles a muse. But those moments are few and far between, patches of inspiration on a path littered with absurd turns of phrase and cringe-inducing dialogue.
Good writing seems to come from some place deep inside. I can deal with that.
The corollary, however, is chilling: if we can’t produce good writing, does that mean we don’t have good insides?
Obviously that’s poppycock, and yet . . . when has the subconscious ever made sense?
So I’m left relying on a process that seems to work for me: naming the thing that shames me. It’s a technique both modern and ancient. Dredge up the fear and give it a name. Call it by that name and declare its powerlessness.
My fear: if I write something someone doesn’t like, I am a bad writer, a poseur, an object of ridicule. I am bad.
That fear is absurd: I write to tell stories, to connect. If somebody teaches me how to tell a story differently, in such a way that I can connect with other people in better and more powerful ways, they have given me a gift. I want to use that knowledge to make my writing better.
So far I’m only three chapters into Bruce Holsinger’s newly released novel, A Burnable Book, but already I can see that it has one major, tragic flaw: I didn’t write it.
I should have known better than to start in on this book just a day after giving a second draft of my novel to my wise and wonderful beta reader, Teresa. I should have known that I would compare my writing to Holsinger’s, that I would wish I were as adept at conjuring the past. It made me feel like burning A Burnable Book. (Not really, of course–more like putting my bookmark in chapter three and relegating it to the bottom of my Sisyphean “to-be-read” pile.)
The mature and commonsensical part of me knows that I should reading MORE writers of historical fiction, that I should consider it an apprenticeship, honing my craft by adopting successful techniques and learning to avoid the genre’s pitfalls.
But despite that knowledge, the insecure little scribbler inside of me quakes when I read authors whose work I hope to emulate. Geraldine Brooks. David Liss. Matthew Pearl. (Dear God, Iain Pears. Just looking at Instance of the Fingerpost can give me a panic attack.)
I’m trying, though, to keep this panicky sense of inferiority tamped down. The little voice that whispers to me of my shortcomings, the voiceover to my Imposter Syndrome narrative, would like me to give up in the face of such daunting talent.
But I won’t.
I like what Brene Brown, author of Daring Greatly, The Gifts of Imperfection, and The Power of Vulnerability (and She of the Much Downloaded TED Talk) has to say about comparison, shame, vulnerability, and creativity in this talk given at a 99U conference (for what it’s worth, Brown gave this talk a much more evocative title than that listed here–she called it “Sweaty Creatives”):
So I’ll return to some of my favorite advice from the lovely Neil Gaiman:
“Tell your story. Don’t try and tell the stories that other people can tell. Because [as a] starting writer, you always start out with other people’s voices — you’ve been reading other people for years… But, as quickly as you can, start telling the stories that only you can tell — because there will always be better writers than you, there will always be smarter writers than you … but you are the only you.”