The Wishing

“One writes such a story [The Lord of the Rings] not out of the leaves of trees still to be observed, nor by means of botany and soil-science; but it grows like a seed in the dark out of the leaf-mold of the mind: out of all that has been seen or thought or read, that has long ago been forgotten, descending into the deeps. No doubt there is much personal selection, as with a gardener: what one throws on one’s personal compost-heap; and my mold is evidently made largely of linguistic matter.”  – J. R. R. Tolkien

To put it simply, the question at hand is: What influences you, and what are you doing with the product of that influence?

We can’t know all of it, there’s too much to take in. But, in our fiction there are a great many references to our lives, intentional or otherwise, because we can only write what we know. I laugh a little, quietly of course, every time I hear someone say, instructionally, ‘Write what you know.’ I laugh because that’s as ridiculous as saying, ‘Speak using words you’ve learned.’ Kind of unavoidable really … if I don’t know the word, how can I know to use it? Similarly, if I don’t vaguely, in some form or fashion, know what I’m writing about, then how would I be aware enough to write it down at all?

I suppose the problem stems from people misinterpreting that advice to mean that one should write about things one is familiar with, or well-versed on.

That’s not the point.

Oh, I’m sure some who say it mean it that way, but that’s a narrow way of thinking and we don’t encourage that sort of thing here at the asylum. When you hear ‘average’ advice, we want you to think about what’s being said. Really think about it. Don’t just shrug and accept it at face value or immediately jump to the easiest explanation. In other words, spend time and interpret the words yourself. What does that guidance mean to you personally?

This brings me back around to why writing is so deeply connected to our personal lives … this compost pile, this mold that Tolkien referred to, is part of our whole being, not just our writerly selves. We are more than authors, you know. In a sense, we are the truest kind of human beings because we take all of our experiences and we catalog the liveliest, loveliest, darkest and most beautiful pieces and then file them away to be examined and picked apart and appreciated later. I suppose artists are the same, but still there remains something visceral in the sheer monotony of words. I say monotony because they all use the same letters (OK, not if you’re comparing Japanese to say, English, but you get the drift). The stark sameness of our materials, those letters and words, forces us to get our hands dirty in the muck and mire of our past and of our imagined future. Usually, if we write fiction, this is through the exploration of someone else’s past and future, an imaginary someone, but someone else nonetheless.

As fantasists, we are not exempt from writing what we know, even if we’ve made a great majority of it up. It’s still patchwork pieces of the life we’ve lived. Things we create are kind-of-like-but-not, everything we’ve ever touched or tasted or screwed or slapped or kissed. Sensory tools are all we have in gathering our materials from the compost heap in order to form them into a deliverable story.

The story is there, to us, from the very beginning … from the moment we pull the little scraps and clippings from the pile, the leaves from the mold, but our task as authors is to weave enough of a foundation around those things to give the story a reference point and to make it understandable to others. We’re, in a sense, telling the onlookers what all the pictures in our scrapbooks are of; where the tuft of fur is from, what the golden thread means, what the feathers are for.

Our novels, even the most outrageous ones, are like giant scrapbooks of our lives. Sometimes we lie about what’s on the pages and why … but those things are still ours. They belong, utterly, to us in ways that can only be explained through emotional and physical attachments.

And they say it isn’t personal.

The author, clutching her book of scraps, those bits of bone and shreds of soul all bound up, laughs at this too. She laughs because she knows better. The only things that aren’t personal are the blank pages of the book, the glue in the binding and the leather of the cover. But, the contents … oh the contents are the very definition of personal. Pity those who cannot see it this way, for they truly cannot understand the deeper meaning of art and I wonder, since they cannot see the reasons, are they capable of seeing life as a personal experience at all?

I suspect not. They’re the sort of people who take things at face value … they laugh at jokes they don’t get, comment on medical reports that they haven’t read, news stories that they don’t understand and they hate and love with equally blind devotion. They are not capable of making up their own mind on anything. And so, they bristle to hear that you’ve done so, to hear that you’ve claimed something not only for yourself, but as something that is uniquely and irrevocably yours. It is simply beyond their comprehension.

But … as authors, storytellers, it is also our task to keep that pile cultivated. We have to do more than just exist. We have to live … really live. I know it’s been said a hundred times before, to breathe deeply, love unconditionally, laugh hard, but don’t take this bit of advice at face value either. There is more to just living than reveling in the experience of it. Yes, laugh hard. Yes, love deeply. But, more than anything, don’t waste your time. You only have a limited amount of it, and unfortunately most of us aren’t aware of just how much time that is. So, spend every moment you can of that time you’ve been given either cultivating things to go into your scrapbook later, or weaving what you’ve already saved up into whatever tales you plan on telling.

You’re the only one with that particular compost heap … that forest mold … those leaves … so, that story, the one that’s been placed in your hands and in your pile, can only be told by you. No one else on this earth has your exact set of experiences. You are, despite however much you might have in common with others, unique. So, if you don’t tell that story … if you don’t gather up your scraps and bravely set forth to show them to others, then no one ever will.

No one ever will.

Every moment you waste in fear is a sentence that will never be crafted. Every afternoon you fritter away by worrying about whether or not your writing will be read and loved by others, is a scene that dies an untimely death. Every week that you don’t grab hold of, is a character or plot arc that will never get a chance to breathe. Every month you spend not writing, is a story that fades into nothingness. Every year you allow to pass by, is a world you’ll never create. Every decade is a career milestone that you’ll never reach. Eventually, you’ll run out of things to forego and there will be nothing left but the wishing.

You will not get better by thinking about it. You won’t progress by stalling and crying and hoping or pleading with others to share their secrets. There are no secrets, there is only the act of putting words onto a page, one letter at a time. Your ideas won’t come to life just by remaining in your head unseen and unheard. Fads will come and go, trends will wax and wane. Your style won’t improve just because you get older and mature. You won’t suddenly wake up one day, miraculously inspired, and find that you’ve finally become a writer. It doesn’t work that way, but you’d think it did judging by the sheer volume of ‘writers’ who are … well … not writing. They’re wishers, not writers. And they’re excellent at it. They’ve hoarded an absurd amount of materials in their compost pile, their mold is fermented and ready for use. They are some of the most talented people I know, if only they would brave that first step. There’s nothing there but the dirt to step on … no hot coals (those don’t come till later) … just moss and leaves.

So, what are you waiting on?

Step out. Stop wishing. Start breathing. Start living. Start writing.

Guest Post: Jolina Petersheim

Today we’re joined by a delightful writer I met over on Twitter, whose blog I fell in love with (and I’m sure you will too). Her name is Jolina Petersheim, and I hope you guys will make her feel welcome here!!

“Hope is the thing with feathers – / That perches in the soul – / And sings the tune without the words – / And never stops – at all -“
~Emily Dickinson

This week I attended an author luncheon in Nashville. Over the course of my hummus wrap, I quietly listened to the realities of the writing life: backs aching from hunching over a keyboard or toting suitcases and laptops hither and yon; flying into beautiful cities that are never seen beyond a smattering of bookstores; the royalty checks that never come when they’re promised–or, even worse, those that do but aren’t worth the paper on which they are printed; the terrible book reviews; the end of the hardback book; the end of the tangible book, period….

Although the authors interjected a few jokes while discussing the publishing Apocalypse, the weight of their words resonated long after the bills had been paid and everyone had said their goodbyes. After I’d said mine, I drove toward Vanderbilt and parked near the coffee shop where my best friend and I were to meet after her class. Gathering 20 pages of my manuscript and a green Sharpie, I crossed the road and found a bench on the sunny side of the park.

But for a while I couldn’t even edit.

In that moment, with the authors’ words still echoing in my mind, editing that manuscript felt like building a kite when I know there will be no wind to take it up. I could edit and edit until I was blue in the face and my fingers stained green, and if there were no agents to represent my work and no publishing houses to receive it, what was the point?

But when you have time to kill, you do not want to spend it marinating in dramatics; so, I stayed in the park for two hours, doggedly editing. I only stopped when a straggly-haired homeless man came and sat on the bench next to me, took a long draw on his cigarette nub and rasped, “Sorry, you looked comfortable.” Trying to gauge how fast I could run in my boots and prairie skirt should he sidle closer, I decided it’d be best if I left the darkening park, for I was suddenly colder than I knew.

I crossed the street again and walked up to a local bookstore my best friend and I used to frequent that summer Vanderbilt Hospital became our second home. Strolling up and down those aisles, I felt like I should be holding my breath, clasping my hands at my sides like a child told not to touch–treating the interior of that place with the reverence of a shrine. Dust motes sparkled in the fading afternoon light streaming through the front window; the musty scent of books wrapped around the tiny space with a comfort of a grandmother’s quilt. The numerous shelves seemed to bow beneath the intellectual weight of their authors: Dickens, Hawthorne, Shakespeare, Tolkien, Lewis, Hemingway, Austen, Chekhov, Steinbeck; newer writers like Ann Panchette, Lee Smith, Joanne Harris, Natalie Babbitt, Edward P. Jones, Frances Mays.

Sometimes I would take a title down and flip through the deckled pages; test the heft of it as a doctor who is convinced their patient is shrinking before their eyes. I stared at the book cover art. At the jewel-like tones of the older books embossed with gold; at the newer titles, all jagged fonts and glowing fluorescence. How can all this change? I wondered. How can we toss all this history, this tangibility, in exchange for a tiny, strolling screen?

Once I’d been up and down every aisle, I rolled my manuscript up like a newspaper, took a deep breath and moved toward the door. But then I paused, looked over at the silver-haired woman reading a book behind the cash register. Both the woman and the cash register looked like they’d seen better days.

“What’re we going to do about the eBook?” I asked.

She didn’t say anything at first, just set her hardback book down, took off her glasses and looked up at me with clear blue eyes that reflected the weariness of her soul.

“I don’t know,” she said. “Take it as it comes, I guess.”

“Has it been very hard on you?”

“The dawn of the eBook, you mean?”

I nodded.

“Well, it’s certainly not helping matters, but we were hit long before that. In this economy, people just aren’t buying books.”

I unfurled the papers in my hand, showed the green stains marring the script. “Before I came to your store, I was in the park revising my novel. But…well, it seems kinda foolish when books are coming to an end.” I shrugged. “At least books as we know them.”

“Hey, maybe these changes won’t all be bad….You remember LPs?” The woman smiled, shook her head. “Never mind, you look too young for LPs. Well, I remember my husband saying that LPs were going out. That these little disks about the size of our hands were going to replace them. I couldn’t believe it, but then — within a couple of weeks — LPs were completely gone, replaced by CDs. Now, CDs are gone, too…replaced by iPods.” The woman sighed, ran short-nailed fingers over the glossy cover of her book. “Change is the way of the world. Always has been, always will be….We just have to learn to change with it.”

A dark-haired woman stepped out of an aisle and looked between the two of us. The curious expression on her face made me think she’d been listening. “Do you all know any good classics?” she asked, pointing to the rows and rows of jewel-toned, gold embossed books. “There’re just so many, and I want–I want one to put on my bookshelf. It’ll look so nice. Especially one like these.”

The silver-haired woman and I shared a secret smile. She then stood, adjusted her dangly, stone earrings and walked over to the classics. I suggested a few titles as well and touched the silver-haired woman on the back.

“It was nice talking with you,” I said.

“You, too,” she replied, looking over her shoulder. “Good luck getting your novel published.”

“Thanks, I think I’m gonna need it.”

I walked out of the door with the bell chiming and crossed the street. I went into a store known for its stationary and unique invitations. How long until they go out of business, too? I thought, staring at the shelves of graduation, birth and engagement announcements; old-fashioned red wax seals and onionskin paper tied with burlap string. Who even sends cards anymore?

Then something in the display window caught my eye. A desk. A towering, scarred wooden desk I couldn’t have sat behind unless boosted by a library of dictionaries. On top of it was a typewriter. An old typewriter. The kind that cherrily ding! whenever you reach the end of a row. The kind used in movies so the aspiring authoress can wrap her arms around it and sob into the button-like keys.

Behind it was a toppled pile of books as ancient as the typewriter. If opened, it seemed the covers would waft the tobacco smoke and brandy used by The Inklings; shimmering silverfish would fall out from between the pages like odd, pressed petals. I must’ve stared at that desk and typewriter for a moment too long, for one of the employees came over and asked, “Can I help you?”

I turned around. “No, no…I’m fine. Love your display here.”

She waved her manicured hand. “Oh, we’re getting ready to change it out.”

“I think it’s beautiful, just beautiful,” I breathed. I wasn’t about to burst into tears, but I did feel like wrapping my arms around that worn typewriter, kissing each of those faded keys like a mother kissing her newborn’s perfect fingers and toes.

I’d probably get thrown out if I did either, and this gum-popping girl didn’t seem like she was trembling at the dawning of the eBook age, so I just smiled and left.

Walking toward the coffee shop where my best friend and I were to meet, I passed the dark-haired woman from the bookstore with her little boy in tow. On her arm was a white sack. I could see the square contents inside it. The books, the classics. I looked over at her and grinned as if she’d just handed me a pot of gold. She smiled and nodded in a I-know-you way.

In that simple exchange, hope fluttered back to perch in my resigned soul, and I almost started skipping and swinging on a lamppost à la Singing in the Rain. But I didn’t. I just kept walking toward that coffee shop, clutched my rolled manuscript a little tighter, and wondered if I could revise a few pages before my best friend’s arrival.

For, regardless if my work will be placed in a jewel-toned hardback embossed in gold or a tiny, scrolling screen, the weight of the medium doesn’t matter as much as the weight of the words. And I must keep editing and editing until I am blue in the face and my fingers stained green, so those words — that story — can bring a smile to someone’s face, put a spring in their step, and a joy in their heart that regardless of the changes of the world, hope in the midst of uncertainty will always, always remain the same.

**Jolina Petersheim’s blog, The Happy Book Blog, at a year old has been featured twice on Southern author River Jordan’s Clearstory Radio. Currently it is featured under author Jessica McCann’s “Stuff for Writers,” award-winning freelance writer Melissa Crytzer-Fry’s Blogroll and numerous other creative writing sites.

A graduate from University of the Cumberlands with degrees in English and Communication Arts, Jolina’s short story, “Security in the Shadows,” and article, “The Support System,” were the university’s 2006 and 2008 Creative Writing Award recipients. Her current publishing credits include Muscadine Lines, Tales of Kindness, Cicada Magazine, Maypop, Waiting Room Magazine, Washington Poets Association, Pensworth, Branchwood Journal, The Patriot, and The Robertson County Times. She lives in the mountains of Tennessee with her Mohican-man husband, their 40 acres of untamed territory, and one unruly but lovable Southern novel-in-progress set on a tobacco plantation in northwest Tennessee that is in the final editing stage.

I’m Just Saying…

“Having the critics praise you is like having the hangman say you’ve got a pretty neck.”
Eli Wallach

I just read ANOTHER post on the pitfalls of praise. It even had a cute trendy title and came from a, gasp, respected trustworthy source.

Why is it that somehow praise is always to be regarded with a skeptical attitude, but criticism is not? I realize that this is rarely stated as being 100%, but it still seems like every other blog post I read these days is all about gleaning nuggets of wisdom from the negative reviews and “plugging your ears” when the praise comes around. I’m not saying that there isn’t some truth in being cautious with how you interpret reader reaction, be it positive or negative, but this #trendy topic I think has grown a bit big for its britches.

You know how small our percentages are as authors, how much we get paid in reality (even those of us on bestseller lists), and yet the one thing we get to really enjoy … we’re to plug our ears to? This was a great post that I just read, and I understand where she was coming from, just like I’ve understood the perspective of every other post on this subject. Yet, it still chaps my ass a little. Why?

Because we grew up in a world where things like 5th place exists. Because every other profession gets to celebrate, regardless of where they fall on the continuum except, it seems, for authors. Honestly, I’m a little tired of it. Who really stops growing as a writer because they think that they’re made of awesome? Seriously, are there that many authors out there who are throwing all their forward momentum into the trash because their latest novel was well received and they’re reveling in it a while?

I doubt it. Maybe one or two … but it’s hardly the epidemic that the blogosphere is making it out to be. If the temperature of the literary community is in any way related to how bloggers see this subject, we’d all be proclaiming our own worth like Capote on steroids. But, we aren’t.  No one writes blog posts about how much they rock (no author I’ve ever heard of anyway).

Unwarranted praise? I believe in the existence of unwarranted criticism, but a wealth of praise from the anonymous public without cause seems … um, legendary? I can’t even think of the right word for this. I get what she’s saying if the praise is coming from friends and family, but give us some credit for not being totally brain-dead here. We know genuine praise from total crap. And even if it is from family, it depends on which member of the family the praise is coming from. If your uncle has told you that your stuff is shit, 9 books out of 10, then you’re more than free to take that 10th book’s praise to heart.

I’m SO tired of hearing this chanted like a mantra for newbies. The Pitfalls of Praise. It’s cute. It’s catchy. It’s everything you’d want in a viral blog post. It probably even looks good printed out and posted over an aspiring author’s desk, but I can’t bring myself to agree with it. I think if you’re in-tune enough with your voice, as an author, and your editor, as a professional, then you’ll be just fine.

If, for some ungodly reason, there is a giant steaming batch of unwarranted praise hanging out there for a novel, your publisher/agent and/or editor, will tell you not to let your head get too big over it. I’m sure. Can’t say that I see that scenario actually happening in real life, but perhaps for someone the words, “All those comments about how strong your characterization is, are total shit. You need to seriously work on it in the future,” have been spoken.

Whatever. All I’m saying is that I doubt Stephen King takes advice like this. Or J.K. Rowling, or Dean Koontz. Or hell, even James Patterson. Maybe they just don’t care and I’m too bitter to see the forest for the trees … or, just maybe, we’ve let Twitter and Google Ads overtake our want for genuine writing guidance and sound mentoring. Most things worth hearing don’t fit into the viral scheme, so that stuff doesn’t get blogged about all that often. It doesn’t easily fit into packages with shiny ‘totes fave’ Blogger of the Week badges, or into the top five sponsored Twitter topics.

Real gold takes a little searching. It doesn’t pop out at you from a laminated sticky note above your desk. It comes from inside your head or your heart. The real gold is you, your special gifts, and your unique voice as an author. It’s the stuff only you’re capable of telling yourself.

So, instead of shunning praise and scouring criticism … how about we spend a little more time invested in finding out who we really are as authors?

I’m just saying …

If there be dragons…

After fighting with a scene for three weeks, which included yelling at my keyboard, pulling at my hair and much weeping and gnashing of teeth, I’ve finally broken through the fog. How? I realized that it wasn’t the logistics of the scene that were hurting my ability to write it…it simply didn’t need to be written. I needed several main characters to encounter a, well, let’s say hardship, and instead of crafting a useful way for this to happen I was rushing through what turned out to be an extraordinary scene in the process. Let me be more specific; I hurried them through some rather fantastic scenery in order to be on solid ground and encounter said foe, and by doing so I was missing out on all that I was eventually able to do in the original setting.

All that gibberish to say that if a scene is giving you that much trouble, there are two reasons for it: It deals with something you personally aren’t ready to deal with, or it’s being forced. Check your motives. Does it sound like a plot device? Could your novel/short-story do without the whole scene? (This is good to ask for any scene you write).  There may be many parts of the story that you write only for yourself, because keep in mind that a reader only needs to read what will push the narrative forward. Now, that’s not to say that it will always be obvious how it does so. A scene/chapter may only be for character building purposes, but you have to be unbelievably careful in doing this, you stand the chance of losing your reader’s interest. In other words, yes you can learn alot about James Bond with internal dialogue while he’s on the John, but it won’t have near the staying power as hearing that internal dialogue while he is in captivity somewhere (where he will inevitably sleep with the enemy and blow something up…but I digress).

I learned alot through this…and I may have encountered this lesson before, but as I’ve already said, each novel is different. Every story has its own characteristics and everytime I begin a new chapter, its like beginning a new relationship. There is the courtship phase, the newly-wed phase, the seven year itch (please God don’t let this drag on anymore), and hopefully the blissfully comfortable familiarity of someone you’ve known all your life. There are basic guidelines and ideas for all novels/relationships, but not all of them apply to every piece.

Writing isn’t a choice

Whoever told you that it was, must count the description of their ebay bid as writing. I write because I must. This isn’t new or unique to me as an author. I have heard this before and completely agree. Who would choose a career that takes years (usually) to see professional results? Writing often makes us reclusive individuals. I personally have a reputation for never having my cell phone charged, and forget calling the land line…I don’t answer it anyway (those of you who know me, hush).
How many times do you have to decline invitations before others stop inviting you places? How often do you find yourself in the awkwardness of trying to explain what your epic fantasy novel is about, to loved ones who don’t read the genre…if you’re me, the answer is quite often. Its somewhat like trying to explain global warming to a toddler. They don’t understand the world you are describing, let alone the cause and effect aspects of a plot involving creatures they can’t comprehend. It could be entertaining were it not for the uncomfortable silence that always ensues (Followed of course by…’Isn’t that nice, dear. Be sure to send me a signed copy when its published’).
Equally as vexing is the completely errant beliefs of those who have no idea how very little an author makes. No, having a book published doesn’t mean I can quite my day job and buy you a car…or anything else requiring money for that matter.
The odds are the most staggering thing for me. Consider how few books are on the shelves in Barnes and Noble. Now, narrow that down further by cutting everything out but your specific genre. Then, take into account how many authors submit their work on a weekly basis. Lastly, do get yourself a drink to hopefully counter how sobering this realization is. A kind of gut hollowing silence always follows my thoughts of this nature, that reminds me why I write at all…because I must.
I write because I can’t fathom doing anything else with my time. I love the worlds I create, and even more so, the characters that populate them. The good, the bad and the ugly. One of my favorite characters in my current project is the darkest personality I’ve ever written.
I write because it is what fuels my soul. No writer, regardless of how seasoned, can spit out a perfect manuscript upon first draft. There isn’t an agent or editor alive who can predict the future (though same may try), so though you may not be ready as an author now…you may mature in your own voice enough to share your creations with the world. Only you can make that determination.
It is easy to get discouraged. It is easy to give up. It is much harder to continue to have faith in your words when others have made judgments that you know are accurate. Try to see what exists beyond the static of a manuscript in need of work…don’t trash it. It may be drivel…now. That has no bearing on what it will be later. Your will determines that.