Grit

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“It’s hard to beat a person who never gives up.” – Babe Ruth

I know how terribly obvious this sounds, so just consider this a preface: It’s so easy to get disheartened when you see people achieving more than you.

I’ve wanted to write novels since I was a tyke, but I only really started writing seriously about two or so years ago when I realized journalism wasn’t going to be enough for me. Since then, I’ve hated almost everything I’ve written. And, on days that end in “y,” I poor salt in my wounds by comparing myself to people who are out there, writing stories and sharing them with the world at a skill level and speed that I can’t seem to keep pace with.

During my last couple of years as a writer-in-training, I’ve tried out and discarded dozens of ideas, eventually landing on a premise for a novel about time travel that I felt was decent. I wrote about 30,000 words that I eventually threw out. (Though I remain committed to making that premise work in some way, some day…maybe tomorrow, actually, now that I think about it.) Over the last 10 months, I’ve taken a break from novel-writing to take a crack at writing a short story. And last night, I finished it. (I’ve come to love that word. Finished. Mmmmmm.) And, amazingly, despite its problems, I actually like it. Callooh callay! (Of course, now it’s time for the heartache of rejection, but I’ll cross that bridge when I have all of the wine.) (Am I over-using parentheses?)

I’m writing all this out because it’s important to remind myself once in a while that I’m making progress, even if it is painstakingly slow. And progress is so important, because it means I’m sticking to my goals even though I’ve barely left the starting line of this exhausting marathon. And that, according to my new favourite TED Talk, is how you succeed.

I don’t know if I’ve got talent. I don’t know if the world wants to read what I’m peddling. But if grit really is a key indicator of success, I think I may stand a chance, because it sounds like having grit is a choice. Every day, I can sit at my computer and choose to keep plucking away. I can choose to be gritty by simply refusing to give up. While I hope this perseverance leads to my eventual success (however I’m defining that on a particular day), it also serves a more short-term goal: it makes me feel like I have some control over this ridiculous, largely luck-based pursuit of mine, and that gives me something to hold onto on those days when I feel as though I’m typing nonsense into the abyss.

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How does ANYONE do this?

Writing

Apparently the key to good, imaginative writing is to relax and have fun. That’s one of many conclusions drawn by YA novelist Carol Plum-Ucci in an essay she wrote for a Smart Pop Books anthology about Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance Cycle series. The essay’s called “Q: How Does a Fifteen-Year-Old Do This?” (which you can purchase for $0.99 US through that link). Plum-Ucci discusses how a writer’s imagination works in a general sense, with a focus on Paolini’s specific work in his boy-and-his-dragon novels. I guess a lot of people tend to wonder how a mere teenager was able to write such an amazing and imaginative novel.

Hold on. Before I go any further, let me clarify that a) I’ve read his first book, Eragon, and I didn’t think it was THAT great, and b) I was insanely jealous of him when it came out, having been an aspiring novelist (key word: aspiring) since I was 12. (He, along with Amelia Atwater-Rhodes, were my nemeses when I was a teenager, unbeknownst to them.) End side note.

So, Plum-Ucci takes a psychoanalytic look at how writer’s write, and ultimately comes to two conclusions. I’m sure I’ve heard similar theories about writing elsewhere, but the fact that it was about a fifteen-year-old writer that I once abhorred caught my attention.

The first conclusion she draws is that the dream centre, or the part of the brain that’s associated with ‘play time’, is largely associated with a writer’s creative process. That’s where character archetypes come from, as well as common symbols that tend to crop up throughout literature. These are the things readers relate to, because they’re common to all of us.

The second conclusion was this: in order to be a popular and therefore successful (I suppose) author, a writer must develop a writer-reader relationship by creating something that they enjoyed writing, so that the reader may enjoy reading it. Basically, you should trust your gut instinct about what’s interesting, what’s not and what works in your novel. If you spend all day analyzing what the “average reader” wants in a book, you’re bound to fail. Successful writers offer something that they would read themselves.

She also mentioned that writers who spent years studying writing were less likely to access that inner child; she said she knew hundreds of unpublished writers who spent years (in some cases, decades) studying the craft to no avail.

As I continue to spend my nights trying to capture something worthwhile on paper, I find myself trying unsuccessfully to turn on the ‘play centre’ of my brain. Once upon a time, I wrote a really crappy horror novel at the age of 12-going-on-13 as a result of consuming too many Christopher Pike and R. L. Stine novels. I recall spending hundreds of precious after-school/weekend hours at my computer writing simply for the sheer joy of it. I was having fun. It was probably because I had no internal editor telling me that what I was writing sucked. *sigh* Those were indeed the good ole’ days. I sent the manuscript to one publisher and after receiving a very nice rejection letter that explained that they don’t publish fiction, I never sent it anywhere else. Since then, I don’t think I’ve sincerely enjoyed writing creatively. Maybe that’s why I have so many unfinished novels in a very sad folder on my computer.

So, here is a follow-up question to Plum-Ucci’s essay. What if there’s a barrier between my typing fingers and my dream centre? What if my brain wants to spend more time thinking about what will sell than what would be fun to write? How do I let my imagination run wild?

Perhaps a better question is: if I’m not having fun, why am I doing this?

I write, therefore I procrastinate.

Writing

Funnily enough, the date of my last post was also the exact day Zip sent me American Graffiti – and it has taken me the same amount of time, almost to the day, to watch it as it has to post again. I did, however, organize my closet in the interim. So, feeling thoroughly ashamed to be one of those sporadic ‘oh-I’m-too-busy-to-blog’ bloggers, I’m going to stop making notes in my organizer about all the things I want to blog about, and actually post something.

That concludes my unnecessary, somewhat random, prologue.

During the International Festival of Authors in Toronto late last month, I collected some favourite quotations from a series of Q&As with various authors compiled by Star book critic Geoff Pevere. Why? Because sometimes thinking about what being a writer is like, or what it means, instead of actually putting pen to paper (read: fingers to keyboard), is just easier.

Also, if you read all the Q&As, you may notice that I favoured the authors who tended to have disorderly habits – no one wants to read about a successful writer who is productive and never stares out a window when they should be meeting a deadline.

B.C. crime writer William Deverell:

Q: How do you get started writing? How do you avoid getting started writing?

A: In this trade there is no time clock to punch, you must exert a will of iron. Typical fall day: I leave for my writing studio promptly at 10, imbued with determination. But I can’t help notice the weather is fair, for a change it’s not raining, so perhaps a walk in the woods might invigorate the mind, and the field mushrooms are out and perhaps one should gather some for dinner. Ultimately, after a couple of hours of this hard discipline, I take my bag of mushrooms to my studio and sit down to keyboard. But first I have to turn on CBC 2 and listen to the news, and that’s followed by the Brahms second symphony, and it would be insulting to the master not to listen. And in the meantime, of course, there’s that unfinished chess game on the computer that might just sharpen the mind. (I have yet to fall prey to Internet addiction only because I have banned all phones from my studio.) Suddenly yet another hour has passed, and I sense the first tremblings of panic disorder, and finally bring up the chapter I’ve been working on, and begin to read, edit, compose – and then just as suddenly it’s 7 o’clock and I’m late for dinner and in deep s–t and I race to the house, forgetting my bag of mushrooms.

Q: What is the optimal creative atmosphere?

A: (…) Dreaming. Faulkner is said to have divorced his first wife because she could not understand that when he appeared to be staring idly out the window he was actually hard at work.

Q: Do you actually like writing?

A: I used to practise law, when all I dreamed of is what I happily do now.

Nova Scotia author Shandi Mitchell:

Q: Where do you write?

A: I have two work spaces: 1) A beautiful studio that overlooks the canal. No phone or email. This is where I am supposed to write. 2) My upstairs, 7 foot x 8 foot, ½ story office. A quarter of the room is comprised of a closet. The only place to stand up straight is under the peak. There are phones, emails, TV, husband, dog, and my only window looks onto the street, which is under construction. This is where I tend to write.

Q: Do you actually like writing?

A: I like having written. The act of writing itself can be a gruelling, soul-ripping, self-doubting, mind-crushing mountain to climb, interspersed with glorious moments of flight. But once done, I can’t wait to go again.

U.K. author Iain Pears:

Q: How do you get started writing?

A: Guilt is the best motivator; the trick is to let it build up until you feel like a total useless wretch. Then you can get down to work out of sheer self-disgust.

Q: Do you actually like writing?

A: Sometimes. Especially when I consider the alternatives.

On second thought, I don’t think my prologue was that random, after all.

My Milk Ain’t Free

Writing

Trying to be a writer is hard. 

Actually, scratch that. Trying to be a paid writer is hard. Maybe it has something to do with how hard it is to be a good writer. I guess these things are all dependent on each other.

In the real world, in which I refuse to live, I suppose one would have to pay their dues by either A) writing the stuff they want for free or B) writing the stuff they don’t want to write for money (my current day job) – possibly at the same time. That is, until they garner some kind of leverage so that people pay for their writing (say, celebrity?). Unfortunately, this supposedly wonderful free society that is the Internet makes it so easy to access free writing (free everything), that a girl can’t get paid these days.

Context. I wrote a lengthy travel piece about a mule trek I did on Molokai last summer, which I’ve been shopping around.

Actually, scratch that. I bled, sweated and birthed a lengthy travel piece over many, many weeks and I have desperately been trying to get it published somewhere (and getting less picky by the day).

That being said, I know I’m not in a position to be demanding when it comes to getting published. Lords knows I’m no Les Stroud. But I can’t let go of the idea that I should be compensated for my work, beyond the ethereal joy of having people read my stuff, of course. I’m talking about financial compensation

One magazine said it wasn’t suited to their demographic, but was very helpful. One newspaper said they already had “enough Hawaii stuff.” Another newspaper said they just weren’t buying much travel writing these days, and wished me luck in getting it placed somewhere. Others have yet to respond at all. (By the way, I’m actually quite grateful and somewhat surprised I got responses at all, so I hope this doesn’t come off too bitter.)

But that’s the rub, isn’t it? No one’s buying much travel writing these days, because no one’s buying much of anything, unless it has a little apple on it

Alas, I hope I will summon the patience and maturity to stop my grumbling and accept that I may just not be in a place right now to expect money for my work. (That sounds so sad when I phrase it like that.) I will just suck it up and keep on trucking and… uh, keep my chin up and so forth…

I was reading Diablo Cody’s life story on her Wikipedia page the other day. It’s not that she’s the best writer, or a role model of mine in any sense, but her story’s a good example of what I think it takes to make a name for yourself as a writer. (The kind of name that makes money.) She started out as a blogger, and later wrote bona fide articles, a book and eventually a screenplay that got her a column in Entertainment Weekly. Blogging, eh? I can do that for a while, I guess. Although I may need a gimmick of some kind…

I guess my other option is to keep sending my writing around until someone says, “yes, your work is worth money.” I may cry if that day ever comes.

Even so, my main concern persists… who’s going to buy the cow when they’re getting the milk for free?