So You Want to Be a Writer

become a writer

This is an essay by Helen Woodward.

The moment you hint at wanting to be a writer, people will tell you that you write fantastic letters and that you should write a book!

Now there’s a thought. How many pages are in a book? Five to six hundred, give or take a couple. Do you write humorous or serious stuff? Maybe a “how to” pocket-sized piece of wonder or just a bloody good yarn.

After all, if you’re going to write with the idea of strangers reading your work, then it has to either teach them something, make them laugh, cry or put them into shock with revelations you think nobody has ever thought of since the first word was chipped into a stone.

Just how do you get started?

Have a look at Henry Schoenheimer’s “Expressive English”: “A great American humorous writer, Stephen Leacock, was once asked whether writing was a difficult art. ‘Oh, no, he replied, writing isn’t difficult at all. You just take a pen and put down whatever occurs to you, of course,’ he added thoughtfully, ‘the occurring, now that can be difficult.” 

After much deliberation, you put something down on paper and you think, “That’s not bad. I might run that past someone.” Family and friends gush all over you expressing how wonderful you are and, even if your work is appalling, you are heavily encouraged to write a novel. And because of that encouragement you actually think this is a possibility.

You begin work without delay on The Novel, the theme of which you feel has to be dramatic and complicated. Maybe a psychopathic degenerate with no morals can be at the core of your gruesome tale. You throw in the odd line of dialogue so people will be under the impression that you know what you are doing and before you can say, “oops dropped my pen” you’ve written ninety pages of surreal narrative, which you believe will knock people’s socks off.

With a sudden lack of genius, your brain won’t function, not another gory thought comes to your overworked mind. You decide to have a break for a few days; six months later all thoughts of The Novel are forgotten.

The next time you feel the urge to be creative you try your hand at poetry. Little rhyming ditties roll forth on the page and you truly believe you have found your forte in the wonderful world of writing. Six months later, with several large drawers full of poems that nobody wants and your head turning all your thoughts into a rhythmic pattern of witticisms, a straight jacket is the obvious next step.

You need an idea or at least a reader-grabbing first line. In “Working With Words,” E.A. Southwell writes, “Just as a film director with his camera-men can be all powerful, making us see what he sees, so you, when you pick up your pen may take shots for your reader to see; but first you must find something that you really like looking at. For instance, on a blazing midsummer day a cool looking spot is a welcome sight.”

You realize that if ever passion and talent are to be turned into a marketable product then immediate assistance is vital. Learning becomes important and necessary. It’s time to do a course. You are put to the test – and how! You find that your skills are not as good as you first imagined, and you become aware of your inept knowledge of the subject and the importance of getting it right.

“Thirty-nine rewrites are several more than most writers will want or be fully able to attempt, but you should count on revising your work up to half a dozen times before you consider it finished.” – from “How To Get Happily Published”

A solid training regime, although sometimes difficult, opens up many possibilities.

Sweating bullets, you do your utmost to impress, handing in assignments on time all the while thinking, it’s a walk in the park. Until through the correction process you are told that some areas of your grammar skills are incompetent. This causes feelings of inadequacy, and you work harder to meet the tutor’s expectations wondering if they will ever see your brilliance shining through the rubble.

Finally you seem to be doing better and, in fact, you are. Words are being strung together and the sentences are logical. Fiction is a low point for you, however, and once again you trudge down the familiar road of doubt.

The learning process becomes a huge challenge, but you’re in there fighting.

Your latest assignment is returned and you have earned yourself a merit. You are humbled to the core and that low confidence gets a much-needed lift, but mostly you have a strong feeling of hope. Someone did like your work. Someone you don’t know personally. Someone who is not worried about upsetting your delicate ego.

This is exactly what you needed but you also realize there are a lot of cracks in this pavement. So you set about filling them in by tackling them one at a time. The longer you study and do astutely reading of other people’s work, the better your own work becomes.

“You will not get far if you ‘skim’ as many people do, through an article in a newspaper or illustrated periodical. Give it all the attention you can muster; from the first word to the last.” – from “Comprehension and Precis”

In addition to your formal studies, you read all you can about writing and indeed writers. Reference books such as “This Business of Writing” by Raymond Flower become as important to you as your dictionary. You research and plan meticulously gathering useful information. Stockpiling is very necessary.

You discover that fiction comes easier to mind when it is colored here and there with a generous helping of fact. Flower said, “Tennessee Williams’ ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ was inspired by his sister’s true-life experience of a lost love, which eventually drove her into mental decline.”

This is the kind of fact that makes the transition to fiction a little easier. When you have written all you can, keep writing and eventually you will see a style emerge that is unmistakably you.

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Helen Woodward is an Australian mother of five and has been writing for twenty years. She has a novel in the publishing process and various published articles.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Photosteve

An Introduction to the Commonplace Book

This is an essay by Brandon Monk.

I recently stumbled on the idea of the commonplace book via Ryan Holiday of Thought Catalog‘s post, “How And Why To Keep A “Commonplace Book.” That post lead me to search Twitter for the popularity of the idea which lead me to two books by Richard Katzev: A Commonplace Book Primer and A Literary Collage: Annotating My Commonplace Book. As is the way of the internet, that led me  to Auden’s commonplace book, A Certain World: A Commonplace Book and by that time my head was swirling with the idea of  starting one of my own.

I’ve been keeping something akin to a commonplace book in notebooks and online for a few years, but I’ve never implemented a comprehsneive system. I type up or write up notes on the books I read, I write in the margins, and sometimes I compile my thoughts into blog posts. But, nothing mandatory or systematic. Without a system I still have to rely on memory to uncover the right notebook when I want to revisit a passage.

Katzev describes his process, and I think it’s a good introduction to the idea:

When I come across a passage that seems memorable in some respect, I put a little mark in the margin or enclose the passage in parentheses. Then I write down on the end page of the document its page number. I do this for every one of the passages I have marked in this way. When I have completed reading the material, I type each passage in a Word document on my computer, listed under the name of the author, title of the work and its source if it is from a periodical. At the end of the year, I review the collection, correct any errors, and make a printed copy. Following this, I add the yearly collection to the growing hard copy volume and now electronic version that I have been compiling for many years.

Ryan Holiday describes his, very different, process:

-I use 4×6 ruled index cards, which Robert Greene introduced me to. I write the information on the card, and the theme/category on the top right corner. As he figured out, being able to shuffle and move the cards into different groups is crucial to getting the most out of them. Ronald Reagan actually kept quotes on a similar notecard system.

-For bigger projects, I organize the cards in these Cropper Hoppers. It’s meant for storing photos, but it handles index cards perfectly (especially when you use file dividers). Each of the books I have written gets its own hopper (and you can store papers/articles in the compartment below.

I’m not sure which method is superior. With a project like this it’s best to make it your own. That’ll make it more likely to stick. Steal what you like from the practitioners that came before you. There are a many examples available online.

To Katzev, one of the key components of the commonplace book is the transcription of long passages from the books you’ve read. This kind of work is tedious. There are shortcuts. Katzev would argue that the shortcuts take away from the overall intent of keeping a commonplace book–which is to force some form of muscle memory to interact with the words. This visceral interaction is key for some.

If you prefer the shortcut and read with a Kindle you could easily use the Kindle: Your Highlights function to remove the need for tedious transcription. (You will need to log in to your Amazon.com account to access this feature.) Highlight with your Kindle as you read and the highlights automatically appear. From Kindle: Your Highlights you can copy and paste to your application of preference. This frees up time for you to annotate the passages you’ve read. This method has the added advantage of allowing you to use Kindle’s “Daily Review” function to review your highlighted passages and annotations as if they the passages were printed on notecards.

Katzev also discusses the value of annotating your commonplace book. Your thoughts, as you read a particular passage, are valuable to you, to your loved ones, and for your writing. The annotations can serve as source material for articles or blog posts or as a kind of diary of the remembrances invoked by your reading.

The beauty of the commonplace book is that it makes the act of reading and writing inseparable. Reading inspires writing which inspires more reading.

Emerson, in his Journals, July 1836, compared the activity to making your own bible. His take was, if you collect all the words and sentences that mean something to you, you are performing an activity that will provide a reference for future use, a book you could pull out when you needed an answer or to be uplifted. I believe it would make a fine keepsake to pass on to descendants, but there’s no harm in deciding to keep it private.

Some keepers of commonplace books, including John Locke in the 17th century, create systems to categorize and organize the passages they’ve noted. Storing your entries electronically would certainly make that task either easier or unnecessary because of the search functions available in tools like Evernote and on Amazon. The balancing act is to keep the system simple enough that you’re not discouraged from using it.

There are no hard rules when it comes to what to include in a commonplace book, basically, you note what interests you. And, isn’t that the question we ask constantly as we read anyway? “What resonates with me?” or “What in this book is consistent with my experience?”

As Katzev points out, reading is a passive activity unless we do something about that. By putting a pen in our hand or by doing something like keeping a commonplace book we turn reading into active reading. Active interaction aids our memories. The commonplace book becomes a tool we can use to refresh our minds–to recall important sentences and words.

A commonplace book could become a sort of reading memoir. There’s no doubt that the passages we pay attention to and take time to record must say something about who we are or who we’d like to be. Imagine having access to a commonplace book your grandfather consistently used.

As Alain de Botton has said more eloquently,

In reality, every reader is, while he is reading, the reader of his own self. The writer’s work is merely a kind of optical instrument which he offers to the reader to enable him to discern what, without this book, he would perhaps never have experienced in himself. And the recognition by the reader of his own self of what the books says is proof it its veracity.

A commonplace book gives you the tool to re-read yourself and Chris Ciolli has talked about the value of re-reading here before. It can be a tool to analyze and track your own evolution. As you age, your thoughts about certain passages will change and in that change you can experience your changing self.

My suggestion: Just start with what seems natural. I intend to evolve my commonplace book entries into a better system in 2014.

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Brandon Monk is a Texas attorney. He created readlearnwrite.com to become a better reader and, hopefully, a better person.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Beinecke Flickr Laboratory.

What Does It Mean to Be a Writer – Part Two

writing is hard work

This essay is in two parts and was written by Elizabeth Simons. In case you missed it, here’s part one.

Part Two: Make Room For Writing

Writing is hard work. It’s so hard, I spend hours avoiding it. Sitting in front of a computer screen creates anxiety, so instead of composing words I play mindless games. Simple games to put me into a no-write zone until the Muse arrives.

But she hasn’t been showing up lately.

It’s all about time management, isn’t it? Some call it rhythm and settle into a routine. Some see it as rigidity and chafe against the perceived reins. It’s a mixed bag.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. My love for writing began when I started a journal. Someone gave me a diary when I was 11 years old. I didn’t write every day, but often enough to record my impressions of life as an introspective fifth-grader. The entries were initially cautious. I was either unable to write about more complex feelings, or I was guarded about revealing emotions I didn’t know how to handle.

There wasn’t a lot of time to write, so the entries were brief. Much of my time was taken up with endless household chores. There was school and homework and housework.

I was a dreamy child with unreasonable expectations. The fact that I had many interests and a very short attention span meant that even when I did have personal time, I didn’t know what to do with it. If I couldn’t finish a project in one sitting, I abandoned it. Or did a poor job because I’d lost interest long before it was finished. I had the attention span of a gnat.

While the first entries in my diary were brief, they became longer as I neared puberty. One-entry-per-day diaries were replaced by black-and-white composition books. I wrote page after introspective page through high school and college. I wrote feverishly when I was depressed, which was often, or euphoric, which was brief and short-lived but no less intense.

I wrote poetry as well. It was my outlet for expressing love, hate, fear, pain, sorrow, addiction and revenge. I’d grab a notebook and pen and spend hours searching for the perfect words, rhymes and rhythms that reflected the powerful emotions I was experiencing.

I loved these moments of inspiration, these interruptions from daily life. They were my power in a world in which I often felt powerless.

To this day I find it very hard to undertake any task that can’t be completed either in one sitting or by devoting several days of undivided attention to it. Not surprisingly, this single-mindedness results in the neglect of daily chores.

Which then sets me up for guilt. Old habits die hard.

Rhythm is not my strong suit. I’m envious of people who can dedicate several hours to a project, then switch to something else, then after an hour go on to another task, then take up the effort again the next day without losing momentum. I struggle with bringing my attention back from its dream-like wandering. Projects that begin with so much hope and enthusiasm often get orphaned.

I resent routine, even when I’ve created it. I don’t like having to do repetitive things, things like brushing my teeth or making my bed or cooking a meal or working out. I remember a professor in college who told the class he jogged daily for exercise. He said he had been doing it for more than twenty years. My admiration turned to astonishment, however, when he announced he hated every minute of it. Why did he do it if he hated it? Why not find another form of exercise?

Is it possible to love what you choose? More to the point, is it possible to choose to love something you have to do, anyway?

I find the idea of writing feels more satisfying than actual writing. Ideas rattle around in my head, and they are especially exciting when I’m nowhere near a computer. Scenarios play themselves out like a movie reel while I’m doing the dishes or sweeping the floor or driving. Potential is more exciting than reality.  I love the warm glow, the ironic certainty of thoughts that have yet to be defined.

I tell myself I’ll remember these flights of fancy and write them down shortly. But I don’t. When I finally sit down to write, these thoughts, ever ephemeral, degenerate into incoherence. I might capture one fleeting thought while the others wither in the telling.

The bottom line is that I need to write in order to feel whole. I need to write even though I struggle with time that seems to accelerate with each passing year, crushing the day’s hours into infinitesimal increments. I need to write even though the thoughts I put down are far less noble than they appear at first blush. I need to write even though I don’t know who will be reading my words. I need to write because only I can say what I have to say.

At this point I’d like to reveal that I have discovered the secret to time management and am churning out hundreds of words each day, but the truth is that I still struggle with a short attention span. Some days I might write 1,000 words. Some days I don’t write at all.

What I can say is this: I just try to show up. I don’t wait for the Muse to come calling.

Some hours, some days, some weeks are better than others. I continue to wrestle with the inexplicable urge to run from that which I love, but I dedicate myself to becoming more awake each day. Each day I struggle so that my ordinary words may one day be extraordinary.

I may not write the way you write. I may not be consistent with my time in a predictable rhythm, but in the long run I do write regularly. I’ve learned to accept my limitations, and I’ve even relinquished guilt for not being perfect.

I may not be a prolific writer, but I am a writer.

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Elizabeth Simons is a writer who lives in the heart of the Missouri Ozarks. She is the author of “Dancing With Words,” a creative writing course she wrote for the University of Missouri’s online curriculum for advanced middle school students. She also edits manuscripts for publication at Prosecraft. You can see samples of her writing at Words By Heart. Elizabeth is currently making peace with her muse and is working on her novel “To Die For.”

Photo: Some rights reserved by Desi.

What Does It Mean to Be a Writer – Part One

writing child writer

This essay is in two parts and was written by Elizabeth Simons.

Part One: The Essence of Being a Writer

In the third season of the overwhelmingly popular drawing room saga Downton Abbey, the imprisoned Mr. Bates receives a packet of letters from his beloved wife, Anna. She, in turn, receives a packet of letters from her husband. The last scene in this episode shows them, side by side, each totally absorbed in reading the other’s words. The camera juxtaposes the two images as if they were next to each other. It’s a breathtaking moment.

This is the power of words. Human beings are born to communicate, to make connections. Words give us the means to reflect and interpret the world around us, and to share this world with others. We use words to bring thoughts to life on the page, and the page comes to life in the hand.

In the days before electronic communication, or even the typewriter, one wrote with a pen, one letter at a time, each letter blooming into a word, each word shaping the structure of a sentence. How you wrote, and what you wrote about, were uniquely your own.

But you wrote.

It has been said that speech shapes thought. As babies we imitated the language of those around us, and the words we learned echoed in our souls and reflected meaning. Dog! Cat! Tree! We learned the essence of these expressions before we grasped, through thought, what it meant to be a dog or a cat or a tree.

As artists, and especially writers, we long to recapture the enthusiasm of childhood, creating wings for our words, releasing them to soar and reflect the life within them. Speech is never more alive than it is at the threshold of thought.

We all create with words, spoken or written. We write stories and essays in school. Some of us keep a journal or a blog. We write business letters. And while we may have exchanged the computer screen for pen and paper, we express our emotions through personal letters.

Everyone writes.

For some, writing is redemption. We sculpt ordinary words until they shine, putting out into the universe something that has never existed before, tales that can delight or entertain or inform. Regardless of our individual circumstances, we can create worlds that are beyond what is personal. In the process of writing we discover that our stories are true because they reflect a universe in which we are inexplicably linked to every thing and every one around us. We make imperishable connections.

Somewhere in the unseen world there are words with our name on them, imprisoned like the fairy tale princess, waiting to be released. It is our task to discover them and share them with the world in which we live.

No one else can do this for us.

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Elizabeth Simons is a writer who lives in the heart of the Missouri Ozarks. She is the author of “Dancing With Words,” a creative writing course she wrote for the University of Missouri’s online curriculum for advanced middle school students. She also edits manuscripts for publication at Prosecraft. You can see samples of her writing at Words By Heart. Elizabeth is currently making peace with her muse and is working on her novel “To Die For.”

Photo: Some rights reserved by Marin.

Andropause for Thought: Writing to Relieve a Mid-Life Crisis

andropause mid-life crisis writing

This essay was written by Christian Green.

Sometimes you just have to take a leap of faith.

You see, I’m trying to be a successful writer, but keeping the news to myself during this precarious early phase, so I won’t look too foolish should I fall flat on my face.  Sure, there have been plenty of acceptances. In fact, for two months now I’ve been making a living as a full time freelance writer, having been laid off from my manufacturing job last March.

The Beginning of a Crisis

I’m bursting with pride and an almost overwhelming need to tell the world all about it, but this urge is currently offset by a superstitious dread that such a display of hubris could make the whole delicate structure collapse.

There I was, five years ago, easing into a comfortable middle-age, yet feeling restless and vaguely dissatisfied. There was a nagging suspicion that I was not doing what I should be doing.

The disconcerting realization gradually dawned that what I was experiencing was the legendary male mid-life crisis. The phenomenon for which some wag coined the term, ‘the andropause’.

I proceeded with caution. I’d heard of men reaching this difficult age. Suddenly realizing that the clock is ticking, many panic and start to indulge in reckless or simply embarrassing behavior as they vainly try to recapture a long-lost youth to prove they are still virile and dynamic. Such attempts often seem to consist of chasing after girls young enough to be their daughters, or dressing in wildly inappropriate teen fashions, or acquiring a Honda Fireblade and hurtling off to become another road traffic accident statistic.

Fortunately, my crisis didn’t seem to be advising me unwisely. To my great relief I concluded that I was being nudged in a more responsible and creative direction. The direction that led to my unfulfilled ambition to be a writer. Since childhood I’ve enjoyed writing. Over the years my efforts had appeared in various amateur publications but, held back by a lack of confidence, I’d never tried to climb higher. As the years passed my vague longings had been placed firmly in the background by life and all its attendant responsibilities and distractions.

The Beginning of a New Career

Then, a few years ago, I wrote and submitted an article to a semi-pro journal devoted to my favorite writer. The piece was published and I was paid. It felt good, and something long dormant awoke, yawned and stretched in the dusty recesses of my mind.

I realized I wanted to build upon this unexpected success but didn’t know how. I felt gauche and naïve, lacking any clear idea of how to develop and present my work. With impeccable timing it was then that I happened across a flyer listing a new course at a local college: Professional Writing. It seemed that a benevolent fate was giving me a little shove in the right direction. The prospectus intrigued me and I signed up.

I’d realized that my restlessness wasn’t necessarily about a yearning to write. I was doing that already for my own amusement. No, it was about wanting to be a writer.

To produce work good enough to be accepted and published and to get paid for it. I didn’t want to write for the trunk, hoping for posthumous recognition as a genius. I wished to succeed while still breathing. I wanted the satisfaction of learning a skill, to enjoy applying that skill, and to make money out of it; a secondary income which might, if I was sufficiently hard-working and fortunate, become a primary income. A heady prospect indeed.

I plunged right in, and found to my delight that the course suited me well. It was completely practical, offering an unpretentious nuts-and-bolts approach to getting published. The aspiring writer was given the tools to do the job; how he chose to apply those tools was then solely up to him. Before the course ended I began to place my work.

I found that writing for publication rather than for myself reinforced some general life lessons; patience, reliability, self-discipline, organization, analytical thinking, objectivity.

I learned that, although effective communication is obviously important, the second most vital aspect of writing is marketing; presenting a professional plumage, and displaying to attract an editor. I also discovered, the painful way, why it’s not good practice to pester editors, even when I’m haunted by visions of my submissions yellowing in some dusty in-tray.

I learned to sever any emotional ties to a piece of work after submitting it. After all, you may have carefully raised and tended your flock, but once they’ve been packed off to the butcher their fate is out of your hands and all you can do is get on with raising the next litter.

I toughened up and gained the nerve to offer my work in the marketplace. The results were encouraging. Of the first sixteen unsolicited articles submitted, fifteen were accepted. On the back of these efforts I began to receive commissions. Often the wait for a response is long and frustrating, but I have the satisfaction of knowing that I’m capable of producing work to the required standard. That’s a real confidence booster.

Each acceptance is like an injection of rocket fuel; I can’t wait to get to the next project. It’s addictive.

Looking back over the last few years, I can see that I’ve developed in both capability and outlook. I find that I’m seeing the world in a different way, paying more attention, noting details I might once have overlooked.

The Beginning of a New Future

So I’m forging something useful out of my mid-life crisis. It’s pushed me into attempting something fresh and challenging which can actually earn me a living. Fulfilling and profitable, it’s a useful crisis, a handy andropause. It’s given me a second wind at a time when it’s all too easy to flag.

Soon, when my still shaky business is on firmer ground, when I’ve picked up a few more clients, I’ll feel able to blow my trumpet about what I’m doing, heedless of any superstitious fears about jinxing the outcome. I’m too thrilled to keep it to myself much longer. It’s the excitement of possibilities. The broadening of horizons. The feeling that I’m only just beginning to see what I’m capable of.

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Christian Green is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in a number of U.K. magazines and online.  He lives with his wife in picturesque Lincolnshire, England. Check out his website.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Isaac Torrontera

 

Plausibility in Fiction: Is it a Sacred Requirement or an Oppressive Sacrilege?

This is an essay by T. Lloyd Reilly.

Pursuing a career at writing fiction has many obstacles and impediments.  There is the exhaustive grind of formatting for submission, the obligatory query where the writer must, for all intents and purposes, sell the idea to some secretary or intern at a publishing office.  The editor or whoever makes the decision to accept a story rarely reads anything that hasn’t been vetted by whoever is charged with the duty of culling the proverbial herd into chattel, maybes, and definitely pass on categories.

Having experienced the joy of acceptance and the misery of defeat as a writer, I have discovered that much of it is ruled not by reason, but by structure.  Most of what is shared (if shared at all) about a rejection concerns the mechanics of the piece as opposed to the actual story and what it might convey.

One reoccurring theme on the structure side of any attempt at a publishing endeavor is that the story is not plausible.  It does not translate into real life and the facts are not believable.  Certainly there are stories that should or could use a level of believability, but fiction is, in my opinion, must not to be restrained by structure.  Fiction, as the dictionary states is “something feigned, invented, or imagined; a made-up story, the class of literature comprising works of imaginative narration, especially in prose form, the act of feigning, inventing, or imagining.”

Given the parameters of this delineation, the question that begs to be asked is – what is wrong with just making it up?  Granted, there is a larger amount of people in the world that count themselves as writers today than in years past.  It is a noble profession and one of seeming prestige.  But what if the need to publish overshadows the wonder of an active imagination?  Does the story mean anything, or is it just an avenue to remuneration?

For me the magic is, and always has, been in the story.  My college educated mind rejects the idea of a human being raised as an ape, but that rejection never got in the way of my obsessive belief in the possibility of Edgar Rice Burroughs uncivilized hero.

The ideal of Might for Right certainly has little place in the modern world given the reality that mankind has never seen a time when there were no wars, or where violence wasn’t just business as usual.  Regardless, Camelot was a world I became an active participant in when I read of it.  It never stopped being another world for me as I discovered and read a different telling by T.H. White’s and his tome on the legend of Arthur.  It did not leave when, in college, it was presented to me that there most probably was never a knight named Lancelot.  Little did it matter when, at the same university that tried to dispel a belief in the might/right ideal, I rediscovered it in an English Lit Class where we read Sir Thomas Mallory’s “Le Morte d’Arthur.”

The list goes on from there.  Much of the great fiction in the world was, as I am wont to champion, just made up.  Is that a plausible modus in which to discern the meaning behind such wonders as Heinlein’s “Stranger in a Strange Land” and its blatant message that mankind is the most adaptable species ever invented while being, at the same time, helpless prisoners to ignorance and bigotry?

Where is the value of Les Misérables? Is it in the forgiveness given Jean Valjean by the Bishop Myriel?  Could it be Javert’s fanatical and obsessive quest to bring Valjean to justice?  Or might it be the depiction of life in the form of a made up story?

Hugo did not have to go outside himself to make the story up having lived through the time period as a child growing into manhood.  All he had to do was make it up.  The fact that it paralleled actual events might be considered serendipitous, and proof that plausibility was vital does not negate the imagination of the writer telling the story.  He wrote the book to tell a story, certainly, but he also believed in the message that brought him to make up that story.  In his own words from the Preface:

“So long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation, which, in the face of civilization, artificially creates hells on earth, and complicates a destiny that is divine with human fatality; so long as the three problems of the age—the degradation of man by poverty, the ruin of women by starvation, and the dwarfing of childhood by physical and spiritual night—are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words, and from a yet more extended point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, books like this cannot be useless.”

Lofty words which ring true to this day.  For me, the story blatantly speaks of forgiveness, redemption, compassion, duty, honor, and unconditional love.  That he wrote it and made it seem so real is emphatically evident.  Fiction, in many cases, brings us values and principles that are not found in the New York Times or any college textbook which attempts to research the implications that near burst off the page if just read with a desire for the story without regard for the structure.

This is not to say that structure does not have its place.  Irritations such as typos and misused or dangling participles, split infinitives, or my most misspelled words recieve (!?!?!?!?.) can and do occur frequently. Most of those can be avoided and most word processors will automatically correct it (receive) and ignore whatever is artistic license used in dialogue or storyline.

Plausibility, while definitely important in many areas such as non-fiction commentary, historical fiction, and term papers for college, it should not get in the way of the story.  At least, that is, in my opinion….

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T. Lloyd Reilly is a writer with over twenty five years of writing experience. He has lived what some would consider more than one lifetime and has acquired a wide range of knowledge and life experience which he wishes to share through generous application of the written word. For more information about him go to: http://about.me/tlloydreilly.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Jan Tik.

On Writing

This article was written by Anjali Amit.

A lady walked into a milliner’s shop. “I have this party to attend,” she said. “I’m looking for a hat like no other.”

The milliner picked up a roll of ribbon and wrapped it around her head, shaping and fitting as he went along.

“Ah! beautiful,” the lady sighed. “How much do I owe you?”

The milliner named a sum that had his customer gasping in disbelief. “But it is just a roll of ribbon,” she exclaimed. The milliner unwrapped the ribbon and gave it to her. “The ribbon, madam, is free,” he said with a bow.

Writing is like that. Letters of the alphabet. Just letters, mere pencil strokes on paper. The letters, dear readers, are free; the masterpieces they create are paid for in blood — long nights and sweaty days, the unending search for the informing thought that brings them value.

Do we, then, cut a vein and let it bleed drops of blood onto the paper, as Hemingway is reputed to have said? No. Writing is not the spilling out, but the going within. A good writer, like a great actor, loses himself in the characters he creates, and finds himself with every character, every sentence and word chosen.

To find herself a writer has to first lose herself. To put his ‘I’ before the reader a writer has to find the ‘you’. Writing is best described in paired opposites, in binary terms almost, with the caveat that the opposites are not mutually exclusive but contained in each other. “The longest journey is the journey inwards,” wrote Dag Hammarskjold in his book Markings. So short a distance, so long the journey, and we may never reach the end.

Write anyway. The truths you have within you are yours, and yours alone. Unstated, they are lost forever. The prince and the pauper look at a bird on a distant tree. “Target practice,” thinks the prince. “Food,” hungers the pauper. The professor and the student see a thick notebook lying by the roadside. “Oh, oh, looks like someone’s thesis,” says the professor. “Kindling,” thinks the poor student shivering in the cold. Both voices need to be heard.

Shakespeare, master dramatist, paired the hero/heroine with the Fool, and gave him lines that state truths often invisible to the other characters. King Lear called the Fool “my philosopher”.  Feste, in Twelfth Night, points Olivia to her excessive mourning:

Feste: Good madonna, why mournest thou?

Olivia: Good fool, for my brother’s death.

Feste: I think his soul is in hell, madonna.

Olivia: I know his soul is in heaven, fool.

Feste: The more fool, madonna, to mourn for your brother’s soul being in heaven. Take away the fool, gentlemen.

Writing requires courage. Disguise your words as coming from a fool, if you so desire. Take a lesson from Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky:

Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Be brave. If you hold onto your truths you may be mocked and scorned. You may be disbelieved. That goes with the territory. Tell your truth anyway.

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Anjali Amit does not subscribe to the ‘eat to live or live to eat’ debate. She reads to live. Occasionally she writes stories for children, and has been known to create a crossword or two.

Photo: Some rights reserved by erink_photography

Why Great Art Lies at the Centre of the Physicality-Spirituality Scale

This article was written by Aaron Pederson.

“I live a personal life of great optimism, but I look around and I don’t see a way out for this species.” – George Carlin

Ahh. George Carlin once again leading the way, showing us how all artists should perceive the world: with a mixture of cynicism and optimism.

With the rise of spirituality and the constant bombardment of new self-help books, I think we’re drowning in a deep sea of optimism.

As artists, it’s great to dip our toes in these waters—everybody needs more happiness and emotional stability. But if we’re not careful, we can become submerged in these indoctrinations. We can program ourselves in positive thinking and optimism, and unknowingly hinder the power of a healthy dose of cynicism.

As a result, our creativity gets crippled.

Now, you might disagree and say, “There’s so much spiritual art out there!” or “Spirituality fuels art—it gives it meaning!”

And I’m not fully disagreeing with you, but when you take a look at the great artworks, you see a combination of the “tangible” and the “spiritual.”

The Celestine Prophecy, for example, is a fantastic spiritual story, one that, as I get older, makes more and more sense to me. But it’s not “art.” It’s too pie-in the-sky, too perfect, and too preachy and pretentious.

(Of course, the author, James Redfield, probably didn’t intend to make art—he had a message to convey. I’m just using his book as an example.)

Great art has its realistic qualities: characters with painstaking flaws; stories with shades of ugliness, shadiness, anger, and baseness; songs with anxiety and despair; plots doused with a sense of realism.

Along with these “realistic” reflections of human nature, however, there’s also an overarching (or suggestive) “spiritual” theme, e.g. optimism or faith.

In other words, great art combines elements of “realism” and “spiritualism”—without focusing on one or the other!

An example is the song Lose Yourself by rapper Eminem. To me, this song works so well because it’s grounded in pessimism, failure, pain, ugliness, and anger—all elements of “realism.” But towards the end, we come to understand the power of self-belief, optimism, persistence, and faith—elements of “spiritualism.” The song naturally lets the spiritual elements rise through the more grounded components, without artificially manufacturing the “ethereal” too early.

The result is a song that sends mixed signals, letting us taste both the “base” and the “noble” sides of human nature. How powerful!

Here’s another example: The Shawshank Redemption. This movie tells the raw truth of what it’s like to do time in prison: you have to deal with the social politics, feelings of shame and regret, and the strange dependency you develop on the prison system. But as the story progresses (and eventually climaxes), a theme of “faith” and “optimism” prevail. This combination of the “real” and the “unreal” throws us back—and we’re moved in a deep way.

One of my favourite writers on the subject of creativity, Steven Pressfield, sees the human experience as being suspended between two worlds: the “upper” and “lower” realm.

Every time you and I sit down to work, we confront a scale that depicts these two excluded worlds. It ranges from “realism” to “spiritualism.”

As an artist, you need to be “centre-field.” Perceive and depict the world with raw honesty, in a way that transcends the “lower” realm and catches glimpses of the “upper” levels (without ascending too high up).

Let’s look at an example. In Shawshank, the protagonist escapes prison and lives out the rest of his days down south on an island. But he was never supposed to be in jail to begin with; he was innocent! The story ends happily, but there’s still a tinge of bitterness. He never escapes the angst of being human, as his innocence was never recognized and a large chunk of his life was butchered.

That’s how we feel after we’ve watched a great film, read a great book, or listened to a great song—we’re licking our “lower” realm scars, but we still get a peek into the divine, the infinite.

As Pressfield puts it, “We’re marooned in the middle.”

I believe artists should convey this experience of being stuck between two worlds, without diverging too far to one side, i.e. stay away from overly “realistic” and overly “spiritual” art.

Here’s why: if a painting or song or movie is too mechanical and realistic, it feels dull and hollow. You see examples of this in mainstream action movies. These films have cool effects and entertaining fight scenes, but the plots usually stay stuck in “base” territory. They never reach for something higher; the characters fail (for the most part) to transcend their human vileness.

Likewise, if art is too spiritual, it feels pretentious.

The answer, then, lies in a mediation of the two extremes, a balance that so beautifully conveys the bittersweet experience of being human.

I mentioned earlier that it’s crucial for your inner artist to avoid getting sucked into the growing spiritual movement because it can cloud your creative vision.

But our culture is also very materialistic and money-oriented, so it’s best to steer away from that extreme as well. Instead, you are realistic, grounded, and attune with the fine details of your work, but you also have a sense of wonder and curiosity in the divine—things you can’t perceive with your senses. You maintain hope for the human race, but you have reasonable doubt—much like George Carlin.

As an artist, we can’t lose you to blind materialism or airy spiritualism. We need you to juggle both balls, and tell us stories about what it’s like.

Next month right here on Read Learn Write, I’ll continue on this theme and suggest how the physicality-spirituality scale can impact not just our work, but also our own lives. Stay tuned!

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Aaron Pederson is a copywriter and freelance writer by trade and, in his spare time, he writes about creativity. He believes that creative people must be diligent and disciplined in their work, because if they aren’t channelling their creative energy productively their personal life can get messy. He has self-published a book called Lessons for Creative People, a short book on creative recovery. He blogs often at http://creativeethos.net about the creative spirit, and the many lessons we can learn from living he creative life. You can follow him on twitter @Creative_Ethos.

Find more information about how to contribute to Read.Learn.Write.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Yinghai.

Your Existential Despair–Treat it Like a Creative Gift

This is an essay by Aaron Pederson.

This article is about learning to see our existential despair/discontent/anxiety (whatever you want to call it) as a creative gift, rather than something to be psychologically burdened with.

Note that I’m not talking about neurotic (obsessively self-focused) despair. Existential despair is much different—it’s about how one feels in relation to one’s existence.

I experienced existential anxiety recently, when a couple friends and I were driving home from a night out at a club. We had had our fair share of banana rum and liquid cocaine shots. The driver, of course, was sober. As we were driving down a main road, I noticed a full red moon hanging low in the night sky.

“You know,” I said. “On a night like this, people everywhere are looking at this brilliant object, and most won’t even think twice about it. That thing that seems so close to us is in space right now. It’s so hard for me to fathom that.”

Silence.

“How did that giant rock that so perfectly lights up the night sky even get there in the first place?” I continue. “People rarely ask these types of questions—they just go on with their night…. thinking about work tomorrow or football on Sunday.”

I was speaking anxiously—my hands waving in the air as I scrambled to convey my point accurately, as if the right words were floating in front of my face and I just couldn’t snatch the right ones.

My friends didn’t say much. They suggested that my thought was strange. Perhaps they had missed the essence of what I was trying to capture in words. Had I miscommunicated my point? Should I swig some water, rest my head against the seat and call it a night?

I don’t know. Maybe I was just being weird.

The next morning, though, I remembered something I had read about Sigmund Freud. Let me explain.

Freud believed that people who came to therapy were not crazy, were not ill, but were actually personal previews of the angsts and anxieties the general population would soon face.

In other words, the sensitive people of the population—those who were worse than most at rationalizing their discontent/ despair/ anxiety—were the first to talk about their dissatisfactions, their repressions—but they weren’t the last. Soon enough, the majority of people would be experiencing the same inner conflicts. And that’s when major change happens in a society—a shift in values is really just an attempt to alleviate mass anguish.

For example, before the Renaissance was born out the disintegrated Middle Ages, there were probably a few individuals who predicted a great societal change, who experienced existential angst before the rest of society, who felt that, say, science needed to make greater leaps or the arts needed to become less stiff and more appreciative of nature.

Slowly, more and more people would experience this same discontent until it became a widespread shift in attitude. Suddenly, new values like materialism and human achievement and being a “Renaissance man” would trump the mere worshiping of God.

My point is this: if you currently experience existential angst and are kept up at night with deep, dark questions about life, and nobody seems to understand you, then realize you’re not crazy. Instead, you’re just ahead of the curve than the rest of us.

If anything, you’re more normal and saner than the rest of us—we just haven’t caught up.

Now, you may be wondering how this relates to “creativity.” Well, the great poet Ezra Pound once called artists the “antennae of the human race.” Or as psychoanalyst Rollo May says, “…. they [artists] give us a ‘distant early warning’ of what is happening to our culture.” What Pound and May mean, I think, is that artists often see (negative) things coming before anyone else, and this allows them to comment on society’s discontents in films, in novels, in art, in music.

With that said, you and I should treat our existential despair like a creative gift: something to be cherished, not burdened.

As artists, we have giant antennae sticking out of the backs of our heads that may attract certain thoughts. Sometimes these thoughts or insights seem depressing or hopeless, but that’s okay. We should explore these troubles courageously; not run away from or medicate them, for these are the concepts and ideas philosophers and artists create with.

The great philosopher Jon Stuart Mill once said, “It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied; better to be Socrates dissatisfied than a fool satisfied. And if the fool, or the pig are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question. The other party to the comparison knows both sides.”

Maybe ignorance isn’t bliss after all.

Maybe exploring deep questions about life is more important to our human growth then merely being contented, blinded.

Maybe in a few generations, a layperson wrestling with probing doubts and questions about the moon will be a common, daily occurrence—and this will inevitably push our society forward.

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Aaron Pederson is a copywriter and freelance writer by trade and, in his spare time, he writes about creativity. He believes that creative people must be diligent and disciplined in their work, because if they aren’t channelling their creative energy productively their personal life can get messy. He has self-published a book called Lessons for Creative People, a short book on creative recovery. He blogs often at http://creativeethos.net about the creative spirit, and the many lessons we can learn from living he creative life. You can follow him on twitter @Creative_Ethos.

The Great Error of the Romantic View of Creativity and Mental Illness

This is an essay by Aaron Pederson.

“…For thousands of years, people have made the observation that there’s certain kinds of extreme depressive states that seem more likely to produce philosophers, people in the arts, unusually brilliant scientists.”

—Kay Jamison Redfield

I used to idealize the “crazy” side of artists. I’d look at the sorrow of musicians and rappers and writers and think that their pain must be the source of their creativity. For me, Eminem was a big example of how misery aids creativity. His latest solo album, Recovery, was about his struggle recovering from depression.

So I thought as a writer, it’d be wise to keep some kind of suffering in my life. This would heighten my senses, fuel my imagination and give me something to write about. It’d make me a better artist. Boy, was I being stupid—and this realization came after reading a few books on the subject of creativity and mental illness.

A particular eye-opening book was Daniel Nettle’s Strong Imagination: Madness, Creativity and Human Nature. Nettle’s conclusion was that if you yearn to embark on a creative career, you shouldn’t adopt the foolish view that “you’re more creative when you’re depressed or mentally ill.” That view is truly wrong and by the end of this article I hope to convince you—with the help of Nettle’s firm grasp on the subject—why it’s wrong.

According to Nettle, there’s a central confusion that crumbles the foundation of this romantic belief, this idea that mental illness fuels creative thinking. The confusion lies between the notions of “neurosis” and “neuroticism,” or “psychosis” and “psychoticism.”

The Great Error  

“Neurosis” is defined as the actual symptoms of a person’s storm-tossed soul. Depression, social withdrawal, anxiety, unbridled anger—these are symptoms of neurosis.

“Neuroticism,” on the other hand, is defined as the personality trait that merely predisposes a person to neurosis. You and me can be happy, healthy and functional people even though we have shaky genes. Genes that, given an unfortunate environment or heartrending life circumstance, can hurl us into, say, severe depression.

(The same distinction is made between psychosis and psychoticism.)

Nettle believes that neither “psychosis” nor “neurosis” itself is useful to creativity. Being clinically depressed, being unbearably anxious, hearing voices in our heads or having grand delusion play in our minds is rather debilitating to our productivity. Nobody creates anything fruitful in the heat of a mental breakdown.

Robert Lowell, an American poet who suffered severe manic-depression, once said: “It isn’t danger, it’s not an accomplishment. I don’t think it is a visitation of the angels, but a weakening of the blood.”

What Really Aids Creative Thinking 

With that said, the underlying genotype that allows for psychosis or neurosis is what aids creative thinking, i.e. having “psychoticism” or “neuroticism” trickling through our bloodline.

At this point you may be wondering why? Why might the “genotype” be advantageous and not the actual “illness?”

The answer is quite simple. A person with, say, neuroticism sprouting in their family tree may be naturally more sensitive, more perceptive, more intuitive and more introspective than a person with more stable genes. And if that person keeps healthy (physically and mentally), maintains good relationships and practices positive thinking, he or she can channel that depth, that unique understanding into creative activities without any inhibitions.

But the deeply depressed, for example, face too many inhibitions for their work to be productive. They’re simply too listless, too troubled to create anything significant.

Now, for the rare cases of people who do make great art in the midst of a dark storm, Nettle believes that they’re simply exceptional people with rare intelligence, determination, self-discipline, resilience and even a ray of optimism burning brightly beneath the rainclouds.

And even though it’s these positive qualities that are responsible for their success—and not their sickness—we tend to fall into the trap of romanticising mental illness. We emphasize the positives and overlook the negatives. We forget that these rare individuals were resourceful and productive not because of their illness, but in spite of it. And we forget that aside from their achievements they still suffer tremendously.

Kay Jamison, an American psychologist who had suffered from Bipolar Disorder, explains: “Byron and Van Gogh wanted to be treated. Byron traveled with doctors, Van Gogh admitted himself, finally, to a hospital. They were in agony, in pain and in suffering.”

The sad fact is, had Van Gogh and Byron been treated successfully, they probably would have been even more productive. Or had they lived today where treatment was more effective and available, they still would’ve remained deeply creative. With drugs, with treatment, their suffering would have diminished, not their imagination.

So we’ve learned that the actual symptoms of mental illness are not beneficial to creativity, but rather it’s the underlying gene. But how can we adopt the advantageous aspects of this special gene, of “psychoticism” or “neuroticism”, without taking on the negatives, i.e. the madness?

How to Enhance Our Creativity and Discard Our Madness

The personality traits of “psychoticism” and “neuroticism” give rise to two things: enhanced creativity and mental illness. The key, then, is to eat the seed and spit out the shell, to enrich our creative faculties and discard any potentialities towards madness.

We can do this by understanding why a person with “psychoticism” or “neuroticism” running in their family has a creative edge. We’ve already discussed that it can make us more sensitive, perceptive, intuitive and introspective—but it’d be hard to enrich these traits since they’re largely inherited. Thankfully, there’s another artistic advantage in these personality dimensions that we can manipulate and develop—high mood.

People with an inclination towards mental illness seem better able to put themselves in good moods, in high spirits. Doing so gives them motivation to endure the gruelling process of completing a creative project.

As Nettle advises, we can self-generate this “high mood” by making good choices, surrounding ourselves with suitable friends, putting ourselves in gratifying situations, being sociable, exercising regularly, being optimistic and realistic about life and making courageous decisions that move us in positive directions. We can remove the stressors in our lives before they leach into our skin and dampen our positivity. We can live the life we want to live, a life that makes us happy.

If we do this, we’ll notice the benefits of a cheery mood—we’ll be more creative, bold, productive, motivated and focused. We’ll be a few notches under a manic-depressive’s “manic state,” and that’s exactly where a creative person wants to be.

To summarize: It’s not mental anguish (neurosis) itself that makes a person more creative, but the personality trait that makes them likely to experience anguish (neuroticism). It’s not psychosis itself that makes a person more creative—who could be productive in such a collapse?—but their sensitive, reflective character that hovers along the fringes of madness. Artists can have their cake and eat it too—we can rid ourselves of suffering without disposing our creative powers. How liberating!

Now it has become clear to me. Although Eminem’s depression may have inspired the material for his album, it’s obvious he was trying to escape and outgrow his troubles. He wasn’t welcoming his suffering—he was working through it, viciously trying to shed it. And you and me should do likewise.

As Daniel Nettle puts it, “People with a vulnerability to psychosis should not embrace their predestined trip; rather they should grab hold of every tool they can to protect themselves, including, most importantly, living a healthy life, just as fiercely as those burdened with a predisposition to cancer.”

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Aaron Pederson is a copywriter and freelance writer by trade and, in his spare time, he writes about creativity. He believes that creative people must be diligent and disciplined in their work, because if they aren’t channelling their creative energy productively their personal life can get messy. He has self-published a book called Lessons for Creative People, a short book on creative recovery. He blogs often at http://creativeethos.net about the creative spirit, and the many lessons we can learn from living he creative life. You can follow him on twitter @Creative_Ethos.

Photo: Some rights reserved by Nasir Nasrallah.