Conversations with Author-Folk; or, Leave it on the Page

On more than one occasion I have heard the idea that, as a writer, you participate in a conversation with those who have gone before you. (Yep, by writing this right now I’m communing with Charles Dickens.) I’ve heard that everything written is a response to whatever has gone before, and that it’s also a response to the times in which the writer lives.

Which sounds just ducky to me. I like thinking about the writing tradition that I’m a part of. I like the idea that, even though I’m blogging in the living room right now in full view of my children and the television, I am doing the same thing that Jane Austen did in her drawing room…right before she hid it under her sewing whenever someone came in. I like the idea that times have switched up so much but I’m still doing what she did, only differently. (Okay, I know I’m no Jane Austen, but you know what I mean.)

And then I read a little book called Conversations With American Women Writers by Sarah Anne Johnson. The whole book is sets of interviews with, well, contemporary American women writers (no points for creativity on the title, I guess). In the introduction Johnson states that one of the biggest reasons that she interviewed these writers was “In addition to easing a bit of that isolation among readers and writers…these interviews demonstrate that there is always more to understand about a piece of fiction.”

That comment caught my attention because, in reality, the only authors with whom we can have conversations–real, responsive conversations–are the living ones. Dickens and Austen are, unfortunately, not with us anymore except through their writing. We can’t interview them and understand more about their pieces through them. It’s now all the readers and whatever correspondence the writers may have left behind about their work.

The conversation is sadly one-sided, and eventually, will always be. Jane Austen can’t respond to the slew of sequel-writing, zombie-adding writers…anymore than they will be able to respond to the writers that follow them in one hundred years.

So my thought-process while facing all these somewhat depressing ideas is this: Leave it on the page. Write clearly. Write a lot. Because in this conversation all you’ve got is the writing.

…and maybe get rid of those notebooks that posterity might “Eh?” at you for….

Whatchoo think?

Wanna Know What I’m Grateful For?


I hope everyone has a fantastic and peaceful Thanksgiving.

I’d also like to give a shout out to all the soldiers who can’t be home today and their families. I’m thankful for you.

Moving On, Moving Up

School, school, school’s almost over. Thirteen years after I originally started college, one Associates degree, five majors, a decade of working at Barnes and Noble, and a multitude of personal dramas later, I will finally have my B.A. In creative writing.

That’s a very satisfying accomplishment. Yay me!

Then there’s that nagging little thought: the Now What?

I already have a sort-of plan in place that I’m hoping will work out…trying to think of alternatives in case it doesn’t. Mainly, my goal is to write and write and write. After all, the degree I earned was for writing, yes? Gotta put that stuff to work.

Still, it’s not an unstressful proposition. For so long I’ve worked toward one thing that the social world accepts fairly well: getting an education, a degree. Learning shit. To suddenly (and it does feel sudden) jump from that world into this new one where there’s no garuntee of success, and no real brass ring to grab hold of (after all, how does on define success for writing? Prizes? Getting paid? Finishing a sentence?) I feel groundless. And potentially spoiled, because how many other writers really get a chance to do that? So then there’s the pressure of producing, because all those other obstacles are now presumably removed.

Have you guys ever had that “Now what the hell do I do?” sensation? About what? How did you handle it?

The Process, Again

Everyone’s process is different. Everyone’s process switches up too.

The original set-up for the CWC (one of my awesome writers’ groups) was based on a writers’ group somewhere up in New England. I’d read about this group in Writer’s Digest and it sounded just intense enough for me and my buddies. The idea was that on alternating months some writers handed in 50-100 pages, the rest of us would critique the pages and then hand in our own 50-100 pages the next month.

You know what was awesome about that set up? Four out of five of us have at least two manuscripts in rough draft form. Deb has a monumental 4. Score us!

You know the difficulty with that set up? There is no time to revise. People have different processes. Like NaNo — after a while churning out pages is just not enough.

I’m excited by CWC has decided to do: mix it up. Some of us work great with deadlines (Ali and me). Some people just need pressure (Shane). Some of us need to the freedom to write without having other voices in their head (Deb). And some just need some time and space to figure out what they want to do with the stuff they already have (Mary, Deb, and me). And there are various other things that a writer needs.

Basically, we’ve proven that we can produce. Now the goal is to work on what we need to…and just bring proof that we’ve done it. If we need things critiqued, then we get them critiqued. If someone has finished a full draft and needs first readers, we do it. If we need to exercise our writerly muscles, we do that.

It’s awesome.

What if Toni Morrison Sucked?

Nathan Bransford recently posted a “You Tell Me” that revolved around writerly fear. This question and the resulting comment posts freaked me out. There was just a lot of fear listed there–some stuff that I hadn’t even thought to be afraid of. And, of course, the post made me wonder.

What is my greatest fear?

I’ll be straight with you: I’m pretty cocky. Sometimes obnoxiously so (ask any one of my writer’s group members…they won’t say it out loud, too loud, but they’ll tell you). When it comes to writing, there’s very little that I don’t feel like
A.) I’ve got fairly figured out, even if it’s just theoretical and
B.) I may not know but will learn.

However, underneath all that is the nagging little voice, that tiny tug at the edge of a conscience thought: You Suck. Capital Letters.

Right now, if we were sitting in a coffee shop across the table from each other and you asked me “What’s your greatest fear as a writer?” I wouldn’t say that I suck. Because I don’t. But I’m afraid that I do. Strange isn’t it. You know something is not true, but you’re afraid that it may be true.

I think it’s related to Bransford’s other recent post on Greenspan. This man knew he didn’t suck, had years of evidence to back up his theories, and BOOM! the economy tanks and he gracefully admits that he was wrong. It was all a bad idea, unsustainable, costly, troublesome.

What would that be like?

I mean let’s pretend that Toni Morrison, writer extraordinaire, Nobel Laureate, book after book published, Oprah loves her. By every definition this woman is “powerful beyond measure” as Marianne Williamson would tell us. What happened if she woke up one day and BAM! everything she did was suddenly considered weak, preachy, too much of a stretch? What if Toni Morrison woke up and discovered she sucked? (By whatever definition she considers “sucking” to be?)

Well, that’s my greatest fear. And since I don’t have a Nobel or even a physical book to my name yet, that fear seems way more justifiable than in Morrison’s case.

So, because Bransford has bummed me out (Love you anyway, Nathan!) I want to know what your greatest hope as a writer is. Please perk me up people!


I’ve made it a goal to read all of the books that people apparently lie about reading. Currently I’m reading 1984 by George Orwell, and I have to say that Orwell is a difficult author for me. Sure, he comes up with great concepts that we’re still talking about today – name one person who doesn’t understand the concept of Big Brother. Yeah, I can’t think of anyone either.

But I’m getting so bogged down in the concept of the thing that I’m not really invested in the characters at the moment. This could be because I’ve had the concepts shoved down my throat since middle school, which isn’t Orwell’s fault (except that he conceptualized the concepts). It’s difficult to remember that these ideas were new and original and paradigm shifting when they were written.

Animal Farm was equally difficult for me, perhaps because by the time I got to Animal Farm, the Berlin wall had come down, the Soviet Union had effectively lost its looming sense of doom, and Orwell’s passion seemed dated.

So my question to you: When does a story lose you because it’s about ideas instead of people? What stories have done that to you? Do you think this a strength or a weakness?

R.I.P. Ye Pain in the A$!@* Short Story

It is official: I’m tabling a particular short story because I now hate it.

Got critiques last night on a short story that I have revised and revised and looked at again and again and again. I did all this work because as I wrote it I felt that hum of “This is one of the best pieces I’ve written.” And, in some ways it was. The description was solid. The situation tricky. Flannery O’Connor inspired it.

The problem is that there is no friggin’ point to it. I don’t really have strong motivations for the characters, and when you blow your characters up at the end, you really need to give them some motivation. Ya know? Plus, you should really know what you want to say with a piece. I just wanted to blow stuff up, and sad to say, blowing stuff up does not a good story make.

Yet Another NaNo Commenter

For all you NaNo folks out there – stop reading this and get to writing! And good luck.

But I do want to talk about NaNo for a second, because I think it serves a fantastic purpose: getting people to write. It wakes up those muscles that some writers need to get to it. Then it also drives the writers who are stuck to just get something on paper that can be fixed later.

After doing a few word-writing races this year, and after a few discussions with my writerly fellows, I’ve concluded that getting stuff down is, indeed, incredibly important. It’s satisfying to see paper accumulate. Trees be damned!

But…and you do hear the but, don’t you?…if you are looking to improve your writing and you already write consistently (not necessarily every day, I mean, we do have lives, or some of us do, maybe) then I would consider skipping NaNo.

Why? Because the mindless plopping down of words – which is the definition of NaNo, to get those words down whether or not they are very coherent – only helps you if you’re not putting words down already. So, if you’re not putting words down, stop reading this and get to work. You won’t get that coveted NaNo blog patch otherwise.

For those of us working on a larger project prior to NaNo, and who are moving the words along: Step 1 accomplished.

The next part is considering how those words work. Sure, you want to outrun your inner editor/heckler but throwing words at a page, and hoping they stick, is no way to learn how to write better. The real way to outrun those inner editors/hecklers is to write any-friggin-way, and get better at the writing. Then there’s more confidence, which leads you to work on writing better, which leads to more confidence, which leads to better writing, and so on and so on.

NaNo doesn’t allow you to take that into consideration, that’s not its purpose. If you’re already writing and moving along at a steady clip, then I say keep that clip, don’t sweat the word count, and focus on what you are doing. Changing pace or schedule because it’s a celebratory word-smith month could actually stall you, distract you, and/or make you think you’re working too slow. As long as you’re writing, just keep going.

If you’re not writing, then stop reading this and do the NaNo challenge. 50K(words) to you.