It’s okay. You can stop.
Stop resisting failure and stop fighting failure and stop fighting your resistance to failure. All this fighting that adds a whole level of energy-sucking, mood-killing and creativity-busting when you’re trying to express something.
Thinking about failure is a distraction.
So is trying to think positive.
Therefore, you can also stop trying to think positive.
Two sides of the same coin.
You can also forget about star-reaching or being-like ________.
It’s hard to let go of these things, I know that from experience.
You—we—can, however, hold a goal very loosely (or forget it completely).
We can write because we love it. Because it connects us to ourselves—first and foremost.
The words we first write are fertile, but they are also like raw data. Some things are obvious and others need interpreting. So with this raw data of sorts, with the words we have, we can read them and feel them in our bodies. And when we do that we begin to know what fits and what’s uncomfortable and needs to stay, and what’s uncomfortable and needs to go.
Editing from there is a different process altogether.
When we edit we need distance from the work, but not distance from ourselves. We need to be very connected to ourselves during the editing process, and every bit as supportive of ourselves as we are when the words first come pouring out. Carve away the excess that hides the real story—the authentic, the truth–can be so frightening. It’s why so many of us get caught up in how to structure, and thinking we have to have the structure to pour the story into.
No, the story will find its structure and, as you edit, you will refine it.
Being objective doesn’t mean cutting yourself off from yourself. It means not being influenced by personal feelings about what you’ve written—or personal attachments to it.
It’s hard work to have those feelings and judgements, to tolerate them and use them rather than to think someone else, a so-called expert, will tell you how to do it. Getting help is fine, but it’s best done when you are dedicated to honoring your true self first and foremost.
Hard work, but the kind of hard work that is driven from one’s interior. The interior can feel overwhelming at times, and diving in can be consuming, but the process of writing is not only about writing, but the processing of all of this. Which is what writing is also about.
by Kim Hooper
In writing, there is much discussion of “the muse.” Who is it? Do we wait for him/her/it to appear, or go to work anyway? Does the fact that we talk to this muse make us schizophrenic?
When I think of my muse, I think of a very lazy queen, sitting atop her canopy bed, in satin pajamas. She smokes those long, skinny cigarettes and sips champagne at all hours of the day. She is snotty and judgmental. She has ideas, see, and she is not happy unless they are brought to life in the way she envisions. She doesn’t help with much of this bringing-to-life business. If anything, she gives me one line, usually at an inopportune time, like in the shower, or on a walk when I am without a pen, or in the middle of the night. How many times have I patted around my nightstand at 2AM in search of paper and a pen to please this demanding bitch?
The thing with muses is that, despite their demands, they are passive, not active. Mine is immortal, like a vampire (and judging by her preference for middle-of-the-night visits and the way I feel she sometimes sucks the creative life out of me, maybe she really is a vampire). She has all the time in the world. She teases me with ideas and just waits. She is happy if I finish that short story or novel, but I think she is also happy just sipping champagne and smoking long, skinny cigarettes.
It is my job, as the writer, to be active. It is my job to take what she gives me—inspiration from that news article I read, that tidbit from the family holiday gathering, a thud on the head with that same novel idea I’ve been mulling for months—and make it into something. If I take the initial first line she gives me and go with it, she’ll give me more. When I open a new Word document, she’s thrilled (or, actually, I think she’s the type to be “titillated”). If I set the table, in essence, she’ll continue to feed me.
Some days, I don’t have mental energy, and I may wait for that to return before I embark on a project, but I don’t really wait for the muse. To me, this phrase doesn’t even make sense. The muse is always there, waiting to be beckoned from her canopy bed. She might not come right away when I call her (she may be giving herself a pedicure), but she will come. She’ll hear the whir of the computer, or my pen scrawling across the paper, and she’ll come.
Kim is the author of People Who Knew Me.
Meredith: Writing—or the dream of calling oneself an author or writer—seems, for many, to have this highly addictive, seductiveness about it. Like: I’d really be someone if I could write. Or be a writer, author, etc. But it’s not writing that imbues itself with these characteristics, it’s the person. Why, do you think, it’s such a seductive slope?
Peternelle: As a young person I didn’t see myself as being a particularly creative person. I loved to read and knew that I wanted to work with the written word, but I saw my role as an editor, not as a creator. And when I attended writers conferences as a young editor, I remember being alarmed by the fervent desire of many to become bestselling authors—with all the glory and money that it was believed went with that. It seemed such an odd way to try to grab the golden ring. That is one source of the seductiveness, probably akin to the seductiveness of any sort of celebrity (which I’m pretty immune to).
The other kind of seduction—the one you describe as “being someone”—I can understand on a more personal level. Certainly when I was many drafts in on The Beast Is an Animal, I thought: If I can only get this novel published, then my life will be different. I think that for those of us who love books, the sense of accomplishment in having completed one that you’ve worked so hard on is really enormous. And of course there’s the awareness that despite how many books are written and published, it’s not something that everyone does or can do. And the permanence of having a book on the shelf with one’s name on it…well, that’s pretty seductive. It’s one guaranteed sentence in the obituary.
Meredith: Writing [or maybe, revision?] is [generally] solitary. Selling is not—selling as in marketing, promo. How do you help them make peace with one another inside you? Or do they?
Peternelle: I think of them as separate responsibilities that each need their own tending. But the writing must always comes first. I think the balance is affected by what kind of writing you do and who the audience is. In the YA world there’s a lot of networking that’s expected among other writers as well as bloggers, and there are things like cover reveals and ARC giveaways and swag and reading and reviewing of other authors’ books on Goodreads, all of which can be surprisingly time-consuming. I’m selective and unscientific about what I do on social media—basically, if I enjoy it, I do it. If I don’t enjoy it, I don’t do it. … So I think the promotion is important if you want to have a career, but by the same token you won’t have a career if you get so distracted by promotion that you have no time to write.
Meredith: The screenwriter, author and therapist, Dennis Palumbo, has a quote at the very end of Writing from the Inside Out, from Shunryu Suzuki: “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind, there are few.” There is this collective sense that experts are better, but perhaps, in a roundabout way, what it suggests is that more power comes to the beginner, because the beginner sees hope and has no expectations. Like, if you’re going to be an expert, be an expert in being a beginner/newcomer. What’s your take?
Peternelle: Ah, well, the older I get and the more experiences I have, the more I’ve come to learn how little I truly know. Well-worn wisdom, but no less true for it. It’s remarkable how much I thought I had figured out in my twenties. I was invited to present at a writers conference when I was maybe 27, and I’ve blocked out the content of my talk, but as I recall I was genuinely afraid afterwards that the writers in attendance were going to show up at my hotel room door with torches and pitchforks. I was that awful and discouraging. And I think that speaks to your quote from Shunryu Suzuki: There’s a particular sort of narrow-mindedness that comes from thinking you know a lot. Publishers can fall victim to this—they make proclamations such as X doesn’t sell and Y does. And next thing you know X sells and so now they’re all look for X and then X stops selling and what do you know, Z comes along and no one ever thought of Z because who would have ever thought of Z? … The older I get the more I want to believe that I don’t know what’s around the corner, but I hope it’s wonderful. I don’t know how someone can be creative without maintaining a child-like curiosity. I’m excited to write my next novel because I’m so eager to see how it’s all going to turn out.
Meredith: Can some stories not be found? What happens next—to the work and…our psyche?
Peternelle: I don’t know whether it’s that the story can’t be found, or maybe that the story can’t be told in a form that a wider readership wants to come to. As a freelance editor, I’ve worked with memoirists who had really interesting stories to tell, but we all have so much to read and it’s a question as to whether a publisher will think it rises to a commercial-enough level for them. This doesn’t mean that the story wasn’t found. But of course there are times when the manuscript simply isn’t working. Sometimes I think that’s because whatever the author needed to exorcise—whether fictional or factual—is purged at a point when it’s less than a book. And sometimes it’s only in writing a book that you discover, oh, that’s not a book.
I’ve heard writers say that when they submitted the same concept to magazine editors and book editors, they heard from the magazine editors that it should be a book, and from the book editors that it should be a magazine article. I think a lot of ideas exist in that in-between space—somewhere between an article and a book, and sadly there isn’t a clear market for that. But more to the point of your question—what does the writer do in the face of that kind of rejection? As someone who has discarded two complete manuscripts for novels that shall never ever ever see the light of day, I feel that I can say with some authority: Move on. It’s all you can do. I’m not saying give up on a project prematurely. My novel that is finally being published went through draft after draft. But I believed in it, and my agent believed in it, so I kept trying to hit the mark. If it had gotten to the point where my agent no longer had faith in it, or when every publisher rejected it, I’d have shelved it. I can say that with certainty. A creative person must believe that no idea is the last idea.
Meredith: Homeostasis is a concept I learned on my first day of graduate school. It means the desire to revert back to the familiar, for things to remain the same. As a writer, how do you remedy this type of stagnation which can thwart creativity? Or, do you believe there’s a time for it?
Peternelle: Interesting, I’ve thought a lot about this as I get to work on my second novel. I’ve been fascinated to hear what Ann Patchett has to say on this subject. She’s said that all of her novels are basically the same story—people trapped together. And she realizes that she keeps writing the same novel over and over, even if the rest of us might look at the superficial elements and find them different. For the time being, I am drawn to dark fairy tales, because I think there’s such psychological, emotional, social, and political richness to be found in them. I can’t really imagine exhausting that form, but there may come a time when I feel like I’ve done all that I can with it. …
In my writing, sentence by sentence, I ask myself: Am I falling back on cliché? Is this as fresh and wholly my own as it can be? That sounds pretentious, but I don’t mean that every sentence I write is a gem, just that I try to make every sentence I write either original or pure or both. So I try not to fall back on what others have done, and failing saying something original, I try to say something essential that can be said no other way. … Homeostasis is in the eye of the beholder, I suppose. I think one can be incredibly imaginative with landscape and tell essentially the same story over and over (and there’s nothing wrong with that because, for example, it’s hard to go wrong with good vs. evil, or a bunch of people trapped together), or you can restrict yourself to drawing rooms and endlessly plumb the depths of the human psyche.
Who: Jennifer Haigh, New York Times Best Selling author
Talks about: doubt
In life there are choices we have to make that, in hindsight, don’t seem like choices at all. We might say that the situation found us, or the decision made itself. But at the time we worried, were anxious, filled with doubt because what if we picked the wrong thing? Since the writing life is like any other aspect of life, can you share how you’ve moved through periods of doubt? How you used the doubt to enhance your process? Did you welcome it, so to speak, to go from being stuck to unstuck? How does it, each time, eventually resolve?
JENNIFER: “Like most writers, I live in a nearly constant state of doubt. This is particularly true in the first year of a project, the conjuring phase, in which I am making something out of nothing. My initial enthusiasm is interrupted again and again by troublesome flashes of common sense, in which I recognize the unlikeliness of success, the better-than-outside chance that the fragile thing I’m fashioning will turn to dust in my hands. This is no idle fear. It’s happened to me more than once, and will doubtless happen again. The only way to guarantee it won’t happen is to write the same book and over again, something I’ve chosen not to do. This summer I finished my first-ever short story collection, NEWS FROM HEAVEN, and found myself as nervous as when I delivered MRS. KIMBLE ten years ago. I’ve written short stories my whole adult life, and yet this project felt very much like writing a book in a foreign language.
“Unless you’re willing to risk a giant pratfall, it’s impossible to write anything of value. It’s a question of writing through the doubt. I’m now working on my sixth book, paralyzed by uncertainty, and the answer is the same as it ever was. I get up and go to work.”
Jennifer Haigh is the author of the widely acclaimed Heat and Light, and three New York Times bestselling novels, Baker Towers, The Condition, and Faith. Her first novel, Mrs. Kimble, won the PEN/Hemingway award for debut fiction, and Baker Towers won the L.L. Winship/PEN award. Her stories have appeared in The Atlantic and Granta, Best American Short Stories.
The writer thinks about intention, chronological order and connection to a story.
Kim Hooper lives in Southern California with her husband and an absurd number of pets. PEOPLE WHO KNEW ME is her debut novel. She earned her masters in professional writing from USC, and is a senior level copywriter for a large advertising agency (you’ve seen her work on popular brands, believe me!). She’s been writing stories since she was seven or eight years old, many of which her mother still has somewhere in a box. For childhood birthdays, Kim used to request baby name books, which she would use to name her characters. She’s also kept a journal since she was six (electronically now) but there are about 20-30 hardcovers, with keys, in fireproof safes at her parents’ house. Visit her at http://kimhooperwrites.
Meredith: Do you plot your novels or do they take you on a “meandering” path? Tell us the good, the bad and the everything.
Kim: My novels always start with one line. I just get a line in my head. I have
a book with a collection of these lines. For some reason, some resonate with me more than others and I just start writing to see where the line takes me. After about twenty pages or so, as I get to know the characters, I start thinking, Is this a short story? A novel? That’s when I give some thought to overall plot. I think about where I want the characters to go, how I want them to interact. Still, even when I develop a rough outline, there are lots of holes and gaps that are very much intended. I find the most interesting twists and turns when the plot is not set in stone. I don’t like to meander too much, but I think it’s very powerful to just see where the story goes. It’s pretty obvious when it goes way off course.
Meredith: Do you see your work as a huge mural or do the pieces emerge one color, one notion, one word at a time?
Kim: I start small, with one line in my head (a little birdie, I guess you could say). Even when the bird flies away and an entire sky is revealed, I still fixate on the minor details of the landscape. It’s too overwhelming for me to think about “the big picture” when I write. I may have a very general idea of it in my head, but I like to figure out characters and plot points as I go. It’s more exciting that way. In terms of career, I am definitely the same way. I dream about how I want my career to shape up, but I take one little story or novel at a time, without much expectation placed on it. I try to think of it the way I did when I was a kid, before I knew there was such a thing as a publishing industry. I try to remember that it’s pure joy to start with one line and see where it takes me.
Meredith: [I love this question so I tend to ask it often of different people.]The child development writer Joseph Chilton Pearce said: “To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong.” When you write are there “rights” and “wrongs” for you?
Kim: I’ve definitely struggled to let go of the fear of being wrong. Now that I’m trying to get my first novel published, I’m second-guessing other in-process projects: “Is this character too similar to the other one? Is the tone too familiar? Should I use first person again?” I assume there is a system of rules to follow, when really there is not. When working on a novel, I feel like I have to write scenes in chronological order, even if a scene later on in the story is begging me to write it. It really is a challenge for me to think of writing as I did when I was younger—just fun. When I am able to see it that way, without rules and “rights and wrongs,” I write better.
Meredith: How do you connect with your work and your voice best? What works?
Kim: Lately, I start writing by hand, with mechanical pencil, on blank pages of computer paper. I have no idea why. I’ve always liked to start by hand, but the pencil on blank paper is new. As hokey as it sounds, I feel more connected to the story when I write long-hand. It’s not always practical though, as my wrist gets very sore. I go to the computer once I feel like I’m in a groove with the characters and the plot. If I get stuck, I come back to long-hand. After I have everything typed up, I print it out and go to town with more long-hand edits—sometimes, pages and pages of them.
Meredith: Is writing your only art? Your main one? Do you use other methods to access the creative well?
Kim: Sadly, I’m not very creative otherwise. I used to be much more crafty, but now any creative energy I get tends to go toward writing. However, I am very creative when it comes to making ready-made meals from the store appear homemade.
“Faith in self has to be protected and nurtured like a fire in the rain, because I don’t think a long-term project can be sustained if you don’t believe you’re capable of completing it.”
— Therese Walsh
Therese Walsh co-founded Writer Unboxed (writerunboxed.com) with Kathleen Bolton in 2006 and is the site’s editorial director. Her debut novel, The Last Will of Moira Leahy, was nominated for a RITA Award for Best First Book and was a Target Breakout Book. Her second novel, The Moon Sisters, received starred reviews from Library Journal and Booklist, and was named a Best Book of 2014 by Library Journal. She has a master’s degree in psychology. You can learn more about her on her website, theresewalsh.com.
Meredith: In her book, Women Who Run With the Wolves, Jungian analyst, Clarissa Pinkola Estes, says: “Creativity is a shapechanger. One moment it takes this form, the next that. … It is not virtuosity, although that is very fine in itself. It is the love of something, having so much love for something—whether a person, a word, an image, an idea, the land, or humanity—that all that can be done with the overflow is to create. It is not a matter of wanting to, not a singular act of will; one solely must.” Please share how your process fits or doesn’t fit what she says. Tell us how you’ve come to see the process, or if it has changed for you over the years.
THERESE: Thanks so much for having me. First, let it be known that I’m a big fan of Clarissa Pinkola Estes and Women Who Run With the Wolves.
In my experience you have to be able to dwell in your concept, your theme, your story world, until all thoughts about those aspects ring true. It takes a lot of time and energy (and absence from ‘real life’) to make this work, for me. What it requires is something akin to obsession. For me it isn’t always healthy, not always love. But it is a deep-seated need to express something as authentically as possible.
So I agree with her – I see why she chooses to use the word ‘love’ – but my experience is not always filled with gladness for my story or my characters. Sometimes it feels like torment, to be honest. But it’s always burning hot and undeniable – a storyteller’s passion, with all of its highs and lows, if that makes sense – and I know that feeling won’t stop until I serve the work.
Meredith: Where you find yourself scared and paralyzed, either of something you are writing, of revealing yourself through the work, or for any other reason, how do you start moving again? And by moving I mean forward, not backwards, as in retreating.
THERESE: Fear is something I’ve considered quite often. I think it’s a wildcard, actually, and so I’ve demystified it a bit in my own mind. When I fear something, I remember other times I’ve faced a fear – believed I would behave one way (cowardly), then surprisingly behaved exactly the opposite (hurrah!). Fear is duct tape over my mouth, hands dragging me into a closet, a key turning in a lock, and I try whenever I feel it to remember that I am the one placing the tape, doing the dragging, and that I own that key. And then I feel freer.
A concrete example: When I wrote the character of Beth Moon, a depressed mother, in The Moon Sisters, I could feel myself holding back, draft after draft; I only approached the shadow of depression. I called myself on it. I’ve felt those feelings. I know more about how that woman would have felt than I wanted to let on. I was afraid, maybe, of putting myself into that headspace or revealing too much of what I may have felt in the past. But once I saw the truth of my paralysis, I faced it, and went as deep with myself and those feelings as I was able. And, of course, the work was better for it.
Fear is not any writer’s friend. It is something that should be actively called out and given a name.
Meredith: We all seem to have rules we are attached to—whether they actually work for us or not is another story. What is it about rules that make us feel like we are doing something correctly? Why, once we set up rules does it seem we need to break them to set ourselves free?
THERESE: Rules are a safety net. They are compliance with a set of standards someone else set a long time ago. They are the teacher with the sticker sheet of stars in hand, ready to put them on our work. They are the opposite of the time-out-chair or corner, depending on your generation; they are not naughty.
Art is messy. Art colors outside of the lines. Art is made away from the corner, naughty or not. And art strives for singularity over replication.
Meredith: How do you know when to stop? Either when it’s complete/done or when it’s never going to be complete/done? Have you ever been sad to have moved away from a particular work?
THERESE: No, the only work I’ve been sad about is the work that’s waiting for me to return to it; it’s been a challenging year. But I will return to it.
You know when to stop when your gut says, ‘This is the very best I can do.’ When you’ve been over it again and again, and you just know that what you’re looking at on the page meets or exceeds your standards as a reader. You know it’s time to stop when you’re just tinkering. You know when you suspect that tinkering might be making things worse.
Meredith: How do you keep the faith—or whatever you call it personally—when acceptance doesn’t seem to be coming?
THERESE: I’ve had to step away from the work on occasion, and ‘refill the well’ in ways that have nothing to do with art. I’ve also had to remind myself, through short-form writing projects, that I can write, that I have something to say, that it’s worth putting on the page. This can be a discouraging, difficult occupation even after our work is sold and on a shelf, so it’s important to always find ways to nurture ourselves. Faith in self has to be protected and nurtured like a fire in the rain, because I don’t think a long-term project can be sustained if you don’t believe you’re capable of completing it.
‘Believe, believe’ has become one of my mantras, and something I say often to my writer friends.
Meredith: Is there ever truly a balance between the left-brain activity of promotion with the right-brain activity of creation? For you, are they unified or polarized? Or something else?
THERESE: If there’s a way to do this dance properly, I have yet to learn it. But I’m not much of a dancer (this is a vast understatement). I find that when I’m promoting, I’m hardly writing, and when I’m writing, I need to stand clear of promotion. That said, I know there are people who do this well. They relegate promotion to a certain time of day, and writing to another, for example. My mind just doesn’t work like that. I tend to ‘go down the rabbit hole’ on one thing at a time. Like I said, writing, for me, tends to be an awful lot like obsession.