Archive for the ‘Doing your work’ Category

I recently was interviewed by Katharine Hansen’s excellent blog, A Storied Career, on the transformative power of our stories, making a living through the language arts, and how Transformative Language Arts has helped people create careers doing work they love and helping their communities find and share stories. Check the interview out, and read other interviews, articles and amazing insights on this site, which explores the intersection of various aspects of storytelling, including writing, blogging, and speaking stories for individuals, organizations, communities, careers and callings.

Kathy Hansen’s Blog to explore traditional and postmodern forms/uses of storytelling.


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The recent death of J.D. Salinger motivated me to read The Catcher in the Rye again, turning back to not only a great work of literature but to a part of my life that felt like a movie I must have watched rather than my own past. I found my dog-eared paperback in the basement and, upon opening it fondly, found  hundreds of penciled notes in the margins, most of which I couldn’t make out. Who WAS the person who took such copious notes? (Unlike the marginalia, I had neatly written the date on the fly leaf, 1974, just below my (then) maiden name.)

I couldn’t fathom why I would write so many explanations of the text, why I would circle and underline to such an annoying degree, and then it hit me: I didn’t just read Catcher in the Rye. I taught it! Oh right! I had taught college English off and on in a previous life. It sounded so academic and optimistic because that’s what I was — optimistic, certain I would teach and write for a living. But when faced with teaching composition to practical, world-weary non- traditional collegians, my confidence disappeared like the cash in Holden Caulfield’s pocket. One student said to me of Holden, “Oh why doesn’t he just get a job.”

There were many myths about Salinger the writer. Among them: he would hang each chapter on a clipboard and perch all the clipboards on nails inside his writing shed, so he could walk around and make a change here, another one there. I don’t know if this was true — I heard many other stories about him. But I wonder if I had written my journal on clipboards and if I could find clipboard  circa 1974, what would I change?  More detail, yes. A stronger voice, more dramatic plot points, and less ambiguity.

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Should Writers Read?

Nathan Bradford’s blog the other day raised an interesting question about whether or not most writers read much. Certainly time is always pressing and I don’t read nearly as much as I’d like to, but I have used reading as a writing tool. In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion talked about how John Gregory Dunne would often read a novel several times “to see how it worked.” When I was working on my novel, I turned to my favorite in the middle grade-YA genre, Missing May by Cynthia Rylant, and charted the book out on a graph, showing where the various plot points occurred, when characters were introduced….the whole arc of the plot. It served as an invaluable roadmap  because I was, and still am, a novice at plot development for anything other than a short story. Even if my novel is never published, I have a greater appreciation for Rylant’s craft and a graph of Missing May that is real purdy.

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Like most writers, I keep a notebook in my purse to capture story ideas, pieces of dialogue, possible names of characters and plot ideas that occur to me during the day. I also keep a list of road signs and whatever that, to me, have possible symbolic significance to life in general. A recent sign in the window of a clock maker was “Grandfathers and Cukoos Fixed here.” They weren’t taking referrals… to my disappointment. One of my favorite sayings for the writing life, perhaps not really a sign but certainly a frequently used saying, is “Must Be Present to Win.” To me this is advice for the writing life…that one has to be present, at the computer, ready to work every day. Even if nothing results, the muse cannot find you if you are not in your usual place.

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I am reading a wonderful book, The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield.  It might just as easily be titled “Choosing Yourself”.  

The book is about Resistance (his caps, not mine), which manifests itself as procrastination, unhappiness, fear, fundamentalism, and more.  The author describes it perfectly.  I saw myself in almost every page.  The second part of the book is about turning from amateur to professional, which is his way of overcoming Resistance.  And the third part is about the allies we have in the war.

I generally object to using a war metaphor.  I believe that we give energy to what we focus on, and I don’t want to give any energy to war in the world.  This metaphor works for me in this book, however.  Resistance is a seductive enemy, one I’ve dealt with all my life.  I welcome ways to help me out of its clutches.

The book is very short, and at first I gulped it down.  Now I’m going slowly, rereading and thinking.

I started reading it on Wednesday night, and I’ve worked on my novel each day since then.  That’s only three days, but it’s a good start.

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I heard a riveting interview with author John Edgar Wideman while driving home from Sioux Falls, South Dakota today. He was on Minnesota Public Radio talking about writing. He said that, as writers, we can’t control how well we write, but we can control the energy and discipline we put into our writing. He also mentioned that the publishing industry is feeling the same squeeze as bus drivers, secretaries and steelworkers. But that it doesn’t matter. All it takes is one reader and one book. That’s all we can hope for. To connect with that one reader. He also reminds us that just like every basketball game starts at 0-0, every day we write, we start from the beginning. We fight the same fears, the same doubts each day even if just yesterday we won a Pulitzer prize.

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