JESSICA GADSDEN is the publisher and co-founder of Penner Publishing. She is a graduate of Smith College with a degree in English Language & Literature. Additionally, she graduated from Cornell Law School. In addition to being a lifelong reader and lover of books, Gadsden is a traditionally and self-published author.
MEREDITH: With all the manuscripts that cross your desk, what is the internal experience between the one you know is “the one” and all the others—even if all the others are quite good?
JESSICA: I’m reading one now, that I can’t stop thinking about. My heart gives a little skip of excitement. I start thinking about how to reach the readers that would love this book. That’s how I know. Truthfully, I’m thinking about it now, wanting to get back to it while I’m answering these questions.
MEREDITH: How do you view rejection? What greater purpose does it serve in the creative process—for the writer?
JESSICA: As a published author, I’ve been on both sides of rejection. Now that I’m one of the people making the decisions, rejection comes in two forms. The first is a book that’s not ready for publication. It may have a great premise and great story, but the writing’s not quite there yet. The second is a book that is wonderful and lovely, but doesn’t fit a publisher’s vision.
In the past, I’ve seen both kinds of rejection with personalized notes. I’d tell authors if it’s a generic note, not to read anything into it. You may write wonderful inspirational novels or titilating erotica, but if the publisher isn’t in either of those markets or is saturated in those markets, you should find the right match for you and your story.
If a writer, gets thirty, forty, fifty rejections, however, he or she should probably reevaluate the work. I suggest beta readers or critique partners. They may help flesh out issues the writer isn’t seeing.
In the end, writers must be true to their vision. JK Rowling got rejected. But she was blazing a new trail that others couldn’t see.
MEREDITH: What’s the deal with platform, honestly? And I mean, as an editor, how do you really (and I mean, really) determine when enough is enough? I know writers who scramble to get this many Twitter followers, or that many Facebook likes, only to be disappointed to find out that some other author has double, or triple or fifty times the amount. There has to be something more substantial than simply one’s persona in the world. Yes, I know, the work needs to hold up. However, so often we see published works that struggle to hold up. Can you help us understand the whys, and hows?
JESSICA: Here’s the deal with platform. Readers know in this new techno-millenium that they can connect with their favorite authors. Readers and fans love that ability to connect with authors. And many want to.
I remember writing a fan letter to one of my favorite authors while I was in college. I was obsessed with her and her books. If I could have scoured her website or tweeted to her, I would have been her devotee for life. (This was, ahem, before that time).
However, we caution all authors that writing comes first. If an author has a wonderful book and no platform to speak of, we’d still publish the book.
MEREDITH: Inside the publishing house, does the editor kind of, sort of, have to have an internal “platform (there’s that word again!) with the marketing and promotions department? How does that whole behind-the-scenes selection process go, and what do you or will you help your authors understand?
JESSICA: Unlike a big NY house, we’re not running the acquisition process through marketing or PR. Instead, we’re doing it the other way ’round. The explosion in self-publishing has taught us that readers have very wide tastes. Our goal is to match book to readers, hopefully lots of them. At Penner, we love strong, troubled heroes and heroines.
My friends and fellow readers love them too, but can’t find enough of them. The same is true for all sorts of books. I want to bring wonderfully written, complex, and different stories to the readers that crave them.
MEREDITH: As an editor, what gives you the sense that, even if the story or the writing is not pristine or stellar, that this is an author who will be amenable to being edited. Is it just a good story, or something in addition?
JESSICA: We find that an author’s willingness to make changes often comes through in the query letter. Some authors are more amenable to edits, input than others.
JESSICA SAYS: “We are open to submissions from agents, published, and unpublished authors alike. The books we’re looking for and looking to acquire will be romance and women’s fiction driven by strong heroines. We ask agents to submit a proposal. Authors should check our submissions page for our current requirements.”
[Thank you, Jessica!]
“There is also nothing like failing to please to make you realize that in the end, you have to please yourself.”
Rufi Thorpe received her MFA from the University of Virginia. THE GIRLS FROM CORONA DEL MAR, published by Knopf, is her first novel. A native of California, she currently lives in Washington D.C. with her husband and son.
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?
RUFI: I think our first ideas of writers come from our experience as readers: I still remember being sixteen or seventeen and reading Faulkner, James Baldwin, Virginia Woolf and thinking that there was something about them that was different, almost otherworldly. And perhaps there is. But if I set out every day trying to be a Great Wise One, I would scare myself out of writing at all. In the end, I think most writers write because they love it, and not because they want to “be a writer.” It’s an abiding obsession with the activity that sustains you.
Meredith: How do you block out the chatter – yours and everyone else’s?
RUFI: The truth is that I would rather be writing than doing almost anything else. So I find it incredibly easy to turn off Twitter or Facebook, ignore whatever I am supposed to be doing, and just go. I think this has something to do with work habits. I have made it a priority to write daily for many years, and I think doing that allows you to slip in and out of that mode at will. But silencing your own internal chatter– your doubt, your inner critic, that’s much harder. I have a variety of techniques, but they all boil down to the same thing, which is that I simply allow myself to get interested and stop worrying about whether what I am writing is good. Sometimes that means I spend a few days just writing out backstory I know won’t be used. Sometimes I write in a different document so I don’t feel what I’m doing is “permanent.” But the real trick is just finding a way to give yourself permission to get lost in what you’re doing.
Meredith: When you find it hard to pay attention to your writing, what does it mean?
RUFI: Sometimes it means I have something big going on in my life: a wedding, a new baby, a new job. Sometimes it means there is something about the novel that isn’t clicking yet for me, that there is a big piece missing and I just have to wait and keep mentally fiddling until it falls into place. I tend to think about things for a long time before I start writing, years even. And then my initial writing is still very loose and exploratory. But it is rare for me to not be fascinated or even obsessed with what I am doing. If I am “bored” with something, I don’t write it, I give up on it immediately. Maybe that’s terrible advice! But I think you can’t really control the subjects that obsess you. You’re sort of gifted your material by birth and circumstances, and the best you can do is mine your little patch of earth.
Meredith: Does rejection have a purpose, as far as creativity is concerned?
RUFI: Well, sometimes when people tell you something is bad, it is because it is. And you have to be more interested in fixing the thing than in nursing your own vanity. There is also nothing like failing to please to make you realize that in the end, you have to please yourself. This can be very freeing. To be liberated from the tastes of others is perhaps a necessary stage in the development of one’s own taste. But I do think that very young artists, writers in their teens especially, should be sheltered from harsh criticism for as long as possible. I know that isn’t a popular opinion. But when I was fifteen I was in a writing workshop where we were only allowed to give positive feedback. Literally, we weren’t allowed to utter one critical word. I have never seen people progress as quickly as they did in that class. By the end, everyone’s writing had improved dramatically. It was jaw dropping. It taught me something about where we write from. It’s easier to see where our work is strong and steer toward it, but much harder trying to “stop doing” something that is a fault.
Meredith: Some people refer to their creations as their children, but sometimes I see our creations more as an extension of our own biology. In other words, our words are who we are, just expressed in an alternate form (kind of like how water freezes to ice and then melts and flows again). How do you view your creations and how did you come to seeing them this way?
RUFI: I do not see my novels as children or as extensions of self. I see them as very elaborate dreams. I see them as spaces I have built. Almost like a house I have built. Once I have finished building, I rarely visit it again. When I see it again, I can remember building it, and I can see all over again the places where I failed and the places that came together like I wanted, but there is none of the intimacy you would expect in your example of the work as a child. My work feels very thing-ly to me. But the characters themselves, they do feel alive, and they feel more like people I remember but no longer talk to, people I went to high school or college with but haven’t seen lately, and it always kind of surprises me when people mention the characters in my books, and I think, “You know Lorrie Ann too!?!” I feel this surge of intimacy with them, as though we know a real person in common and not just a fictional one. But the best characters come to you in such a strong way that you don’t feel like you made them up. Characters are by far the weirdest part about writing fiction, I think.
Visit Rufi at rufithorpe.com
[Thank you, Rufi!]
[Such terrific insights about the writerly process. ]
The writer on finding his place, there being no such thing as “I feel like it“ and what he cherishes most about writing.
Jim Ruland’s newest novel, FOREST OF FORTUNE (Tyrus) is about an alcoholic, an epileptic, and a gambling addict who try to turn their luck around at a decrepit Indian casino. He’s also the author of the short story collection, Big Lonesome, and creator and host of Vermin on the Mount, a popular and irreverent reading series in the heart of LA. LA List called Jim “a writer who has had a strong impact on the LA literary scene,” which is no small feat considering the breadth and depth of left coast literary talent. Jim has written for or contributed to The Believer, National Public Radio, McSweeney’s, Esquire, Los Angeles Times, Barcelona Review, among others. He has received numerous awards for his work, including a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
MEREDITH: What do you most cherish about the practice of writing?
Jim: There’s so much. First of all, I’m grateful that I can practice my craft virtually anywhere. My wife is a painter and she currently doesn’t have a studio which creates all kinds of logistical problems that writers simply don’t have. James Joyce wrote parts of Ulysses in a tiny apartment using a suitcase for a desk.
Second, I appreciate the permanence of writing; the notion that words set to paper acquire a kind of substance that only time can take away. I marvel at the stoicism of performance artists. What if the actor gives their finest performance at an audition for a part they don’t get because they don’t have a mustache or some other silliness? Or the songwriter performing in an empty coffee shop? How does one go on knowing they’d accomplished something amazing and no one was there to witness it? Writers don’t have that problem because they practice their art in solitude. This brings me to what I cherish most about writing: it fills the solitude.
MEREDITH: Now answer this: what does it represent?
Jim: Okay, bear with me a minute. When I was a child my grandparents had several books of Norman Rockwell portraits that I used to look through whenever we visited. Part of what Rockwell did so well was communicate very precise emotions. Not just “sadness” or “pride” but a particular kind of sadness or a very specific feeling of pride. A scenario he returned to over and over again was that of a young girl waiting: waiting by the phone for a boy to ask her out, waiting to grow up into a glamorous woman, etc. Not only is the girl sad and lonely, the portrait suggests her fate is to remain sad and lonely, a fate she has yet to come to terms with, which makes it even sadder. I remember feeling a great deal of empathy for these girls waiting for their lives to happen. Growing up I would become familiar with that feeling of being on the outside of things. With writing I’m never on the outside; there’s always an inside for my imagination to explore. So writing represents always having a place to go. Do you remember the end of James and the Giant Peach? Where the peach pit is installed in Central Park and James takes up residence with his bug friends and is never lonely again? That’s what writing represents for me: the end of loneliness.
MEREDITH: Now answer this: is it [this cherished place] a constant?
Jim: I think so. I believe it is. I’m a professional writer in the field of advertising and have been for over a dozen years. I’ve also worked as a part-time teacher, freelance whenever I get the work, and have always been ambitious with respect to my own projects. So I think I’ve trained myself for the writing to be a constant. There’s no sitting around waiting for inspiration. [I’d-have-to-agree-but-it’s- not-a-bad-thing-either alert:] Once you decide to choose writing as a vocation the waiting-to-catch-lightning-in-a-bottle approach doesn’t work. In other words, there’s no such thing as “feel like it.” I can no more say “I don’t feel like being a writer today,” than “I don’t feel like being married today.” (I can pursue these impulses, but the consequences will be disastrous.) I’ve also been able to remove distractions and not feel adversely affected by their loss. For example I don’t have a television and have gone for long stretches of my adult life without so-called essentials like a car or a phone or internet connection. It’s a great help to know what one has been put on this planet to do.
MEREDITH: Is this an internal place [of solitude, stillness, knowingness] you can always draw on?
Jim: I certainly hope so. That’s the big fear: that someday, for whatever reason, I won’t be able to write. One of the people who inspired me to become a writer was a cousin who, after many years of struggle, became a successful screenplay writer. He became severely depressed and eventually lost his will to live and tragically succumbed to his illness. Toward the end he complained that he was unable to write. Sometimes it was the illness he was fighting, sometimes it was the cure, i.e. his medication. He suffered terribly and while I’m not qualified to say how large a part his inability to write played in his decline, I’m certain that it was a not insignificant factor. I hope and pray that I don’t ever have to go through what my cousin went through.
MEREDITH: When you sit down to write, what is the ritual? By ritual I mean, how do you prepare your mind to receive—or enable yourself to go out and seek—the words or the story, or maybe, just the essence of both?
Jim: I don’t really have any rituals. Rituals get in the way. I have an addictive personality so ritualizing things I like to do ultimately will lead me to an unhealthy place.
MEREDITH: Are you a receive-oriented creator, or a hunter/gatherer type?
Jim: My approach is like a pendulum that swings back and forth between the two dichotomies. I’m drawn to historical subjects and enjoy researching projects, although I’ve learned to distrust both the process and my motivation for doing it. I spent seven years “writing” a novel about a German sailor. It was a world I knew nothing about and did a vast amount of research. At one point I could have taught a course in German Naval Operations in the Atlantic during World War II, most of which I have since forgotten. Many, many times I have spent hours in the library filling up pages of notes. Then when the time comes to use them I either can’t find them or forget about them and write the scene without them. Maybe I needed to take those notes in order to write with confidence and clarity, but I doubt it. I tend to think on the day I took down the notes I was being too lazy to write. Most recently I have been more of a receive-oriented type writer. Like the explorer Admiral Byrd said in his memoir Alone, you have to have confidence that your instruments will guide you to where you need to go.
MEREDITH: The painter and sculptor, Juan Gris, said, “You are lost the instant you know what the result will be.” Many would find this counterintuitive, believing it’s actually better to know where you are headed. You?
Jim: After working on that novel about the German sailor I decided my next novel would be much more dialed-in so that I wouldn’t spend another seven years figuring it out. So I built this massive outline and it was a great help to me as I embarked on a novel even more ambitious than the previous one, but in the end I think it feels a little overdetermined. I was writing to connect the dots, to take the story where it needed to go. Unfortunately, I neglected the characters and didn’t properly consider where they wanted to go. This was a very valuable lesson. So in the project I’m working on now I’m not using an outline at all and paying very close attention to the characters, tending to their wants and needs, listening to what they have to say. So far so good.
Meredith: You have a distinct way of storytelling. When did your voice become apparent to you? How did it happen?
Jim: Thank you very much! I’m drawn to so many different subjects, have so many interests, write in so many genres, that I sometimes wonder if my enthusiasm has taken me too far afield. An author is probably the least qualified to talk about how their writing behaves on the page because intention and effect are two very different things, but I’ll give it a shot.
I was one of those young writers and devoured all kinds of high-brow literature. I was particularly smitten with James Joyce and for a while my ambition in life was to be a Joycean scholar. Toward the end of my senior year of college I discovered hard-boiled crime novels. They were a god-send. I had this overdeveloped sense of the importance of style but little practical understanding of how stories actually work. These taut little engines of suspense taught me everything I’d glossed over while studying literature-with-a-capital-L: exposition, dialogue, plot, i.e. the nuts and bolts of storytelling. The fact that these slim novels by Dashiel Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Jim Thompson, David Goodis, etc. were psychologically sophisticated and had a style all their own made them easier to embrace. Today, the stories I enjoy most are those that display a keen sense of style that doesn’t come at the expense of a storyline that keeps me turning the pages. Isn’t that what every reader wants?
Jim’s life and bio represent a union of opposites, the intersection of left and right brains: veteran of the Navy, part-time English teacher, creative supervisor at a Los Angeles advertising agency, writer. He grew up in a Navy family and swore up and down when he got older he “wasn’t going to be like my old man.” But then he joined the Navy. “You can’t run from your life,” he says. Jim lives with his wife in San Diego and is at work on a novel. Catch him here, at his Vermin blog.
[Repeat performance…One of our most popular posts]
The creative reveals his quest for collaborative passion, an antidote to creative panic attacks and realities of the gifts we seek.
Jordan Levinson leads strategy and execution for a portfolio of blockbuster pharmaceutical brands across the globe for Saatchi & Saatchi. But his creative career spans a broad range of venues and mediums. He was an actor and writer for many years, working as a stand-up comic and hosting a television wrap-around show called the Metro Break in the late 90s. Jordan has also written and performed with Gotham City Improv. “Writing is at the core of everything,” he says. And that he’s “Always a writer at heart.”
MEREDITH: Your direction is all over some of the biggest, most far-reaching ad campaigns. Is fear ever an issue, like does your creativity measure up?
Jordan: Fear is definitely an issue; whether it impacts me or not depends on where I am in the process. Generally fear sucks. It doesn’t motivate or inspire me. It just makes me numbingly self-conscious and fuels the self-eviscerating crap I’ve tried so hard to shed for a million years. Some really smart people I know (and have done some heavy drinking with) buy this notion that terror creates genius. I’m so not there. I crave fun, collaborative passion, and do everything in my power to cultivate that around me—in work and in life—without even realizing it.
MEREDITH: If so, how do you temper fear? What works? What doesn’t?
Jordan: I approach creative panic attacks the same way I cope with getting the flu: I surrender, coddle myself and let it run its course. That’s key for me, trusting paralysis will go away if I give in. I find that turning my attention to something mind-numbingly inane speeds my recovery. Lifetime movies are a form of creative Echinacea; there’s something about the predictability of it all. Let’s face it: you know it’s just a matter of time before Mr. Sweetness turns out to be a freakazoid and starts doing creepy shit to some naïve woman. What could be more relaxing? Or listening to really bad 70s music (the next time your inner critic is shredding your confidence, throw on “The Candy Man” by Sammy Davis Jr.—trust me, you’ll get unblocked in a hurry). Basically, if I lighten up, my mojo will come back. That’s when I pounce.
MEREDITH: In his book, The War of Art, Steven Pressfield writes, “Resistance has no strength of its own. Every ounce of juice it possesses comes from us. We feed it with power by our fear of it.” It’s kind of a corollary to that line in the Eagles song, “Already Gone”: “So often times it happens, that we lives our lives in chains, and we never even know we have the key.” What’s your take?
Jordan: It took so many years for me to finally get it—that most handcuffs are, in fact, imaginary. Completely made-up. Therein lies the benefit of age, I guess; we begin to understand these things. [remember-this-always alert:] Each time I watch The Wizard of Oz it floors me. It just does. This notion of pursuing a long, strenuous journey to acquire something you don’t have—a heart, a sense of courage, whatever—only to learn in the end thatit’s always been there. You do, in fact, possess it.
I think all of us—to some degree, at least—have that self-critical badass in our head telling us we’re not good enough. Or not smart enough, whatever. [do-this-too alert:] When that nay-saying fucker comes to town, I defend myself by attaching “I just made that up” to anything and everything he tells me: “I don’t have what it takes, I’m not talented— and I just made that up.” I do this religiously whether I believe it or not. [keep-this-in-mind alert:] If nothing else, it’s a reminder that resistance is a mean-spirited apparition, nothing more.
MEREDITH: It seems appropriate to ask: If you were pitching yourself as a writer today, what would your tagline be? How about when you were new to advertising?
Jordan: I’d have to think about it for a bit. Off the top of my head it would be along the lines of keeping it simple. It really lies at the core of what I believe. I mean, there’s this tendency to add layers to a strong, simple idea. It undermines the strength of the communication.
My tagline starting out? Fulfilled but like, so poor.
MEREDITH: If conflict is an essential part of every good story, what would you say the running conflict in your life is, the one that keeps your writing and creating at its peak?
Jordan: I’m constantly fighting the urge to do things that are either out of place, inappropriate, or just plain weird. I’ll be in one of these ultra-heavy-duty-super-braniac-type seminars where everyone is incredibly uptight and has really neat hair. It’s always life or death at these things, or so it seems. I can’t focus on whatever the speaker is ranting about because I’m obsessed with fastening a clothespin to his goiter. Like, the idea of interrupting the meeting for that sole purpose. It seems silly and meaningless but this is something I genuinely struggle with: this adolescent, low-IQ madness. Whatever you call this conflict—compulsion, neurosis, or just plain mental illness—it’s the muscle that pushes me to create.
MEREDITH: Do you actively seek ideas, or is your style to wait and see what crosses your path?
Jordan: Ideas are everywhere but truth be told I’m at a loss. I have no method. I mean, I’m hopeless. Having said that, I religiously follow Anne Lamott’s notion of ‘shitty first drafts:’ get it down on paper, stop thinking. And since my background is in improvisation, I always say yes to an idea regardless of how illogical it seems. But each and every time I set out to work, I’m figuring it out on the fly. Just keep hacking along until it feels right—like life.
JORDAN has recently relocated to Southeast Asia in a leadership role, combining his passion for mentoring, communications, and travel. He has three pet snakes at home and one in his New York-based Saatchi office. (His snake Stanley escaped from his apartment and turned up alive and well 4 months later in an entirely different apartment complex.) He digs survival trekking (all over South & Central America, Southeast Asia, Borneo, etc) restoring antique tractors, photography and, you might have guessed, herpetology.
“I take feeling fear as a good sign.”
RENEE SWINDLE is the author of Shake Down The Stars (NAL/Penguin). Her first novel, Please Please Please, was published by the Dial Press/Dell and was an Essence Magazine bestseller. Her next novel, A Pinch Of Ooh La La, will be released in August 2014.
MEREDITH: Buddha said, “It is better to travel well than to arrive.” If traveling is writing, then arriving is…what? Is it money? Fame? Love of the finished piece, or process? And what is it not? We know it will differ by person, but I sense we are all looking for answers…perhaps you are, too?
RENEE: I don’t think there is such a thing as arriving. Sure, when you look at certain writers who’ve won lots of awards and make all the bestseller lists, it may seem like they’ve arrived, and that might even be your definition of what it means to have arrived, but even big named writers have to face the blank page. Even those who have “arrived” have to grapple with plot and character and all the rest. On top of that, they probably have people constantly asking for their time. I guess I mean to say, wherever you are on the journey, even if you think you’ve arrived or not, there will always be issues to deal with. I think it’s your relationship to the process—to the journey–that’s most important. I think it’s fine to have goals and dreams, I’d love to have one of my novels made into a movie, for instance, but when that happens it will only be a part of the journey and not the arrival. I think that’s why the Buddha suggests we travel well. If you learn to enjoy the journey, all is golden.
MEREDITH: The child development writer Joseph Chilton Pearce said: “To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong.” Let’s talk about what “wrong” is, or what we think it is. Can you help us dissect?
RENEE: I think I’ll respond by quoting Anne Lamott from Bird By Bird: “Perfectionism is a mean, frozen form of idealism, while messes are the artist’s true friend. What people somehow (inadvertently, I’m sure) forgot to mention when we were children was that we need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we are here…” I think that about sums it up, right?! I’m a true believer in writing good solid messy drafts. Whenever I’m starting a new scene or chapter, I call it play time or “free day.” It doesn’t do any good—at least not for me—to make any part of the process torturous. Sure, I can be curious. I can look over a scene and think, Dang, that needs a lot of work, how can fix it? But making mistakes, being “wrong” is a huge part of it. If you’re in it for the long haul, better to make friends with that fact sooner than later.
MEREDITH: When do you write for you – and when do you write for the reader? Now answer this: How do you write for you – and how do you write for the reader? Does the process begin or end with one or the other? Is there really a balance? A concession? Something else?
RENEE: With the early drafts, I tend to write for myself; otherwise I wouldn’t feel free to play around and explore. I also would lose interest if I felt I needed to write solely for readers. I figure if I can surprise myself and write a scene that’s especially charged or interesting, someone out there will get something out of it. Even so, I do think about potential readers when I feel not pushing myself. I work pretty hard at writing well-paced scenes with lots of surprises and I love to imagine readers staying up late to finish my novels. I also like turning in a great draft to my agent. She’s tough and I like that. So when I’m working on a draft, I sometimes write with her in mind. Ultimately, though, I think a writer’s voice comes from somewhere within and thinking too much about pleasing an outside reader can stifle it.
MEREDITH: How do you not hold on so tight–to a belief about writing, a piece of writing, or an idea that you have–that isn’t working or that, perhaps, an editor would like you to change. The belief part goes for you…but the piece, the idea, those refer also to your relationship with the editor. In other words, what tells you how to proceed?
RENEE: If an idea isn’t working, I’m more inclined to let it go. I don’t like the feeling of trying to force something to work; it’s not worth it. Another Buddhist saying is, “Not too tight, not too loose.” I don’t mean to say that if I believe in something, I don’t give it my best, but I take it as a sign that if I’m trying to force something, I may need to put it aside or somehow find my way in again—or even toss it. I’ve tossed two so-so novels in the past and when I look back, they were more for my growth as a writer, and not for the public viewing. Writing those two books taught me that I honestly do love the process and I also learned that it can be liberating to let go and move on.
As for my editor, if she has an idea about something that she doesn’t think is working–I’m all ears. Count yourself lucky if you have a good editor (and sometimes a good editor comes in the form of a partner or friend). Editors have their own talents, a way of seeing things writers often miss, so I’m always desperate for honest feedback, and there’s nothing better than an editor who takes the time to give good feedback. Nine times out of ten, someone in my writing group or my editor will call me on something that was bugging me anyway. I’ve seen this happen in the workshops I teach as well. Usually people can sniff out problems and only confirm what your gut has been telling you all along.
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?
RENEE: I take feeling fear as a good sign. For me it means I’m on to something. Shake Down The Stars involves a woman who sleeps around and is an alcoholic. I focus so hard on making the character believable and honest and complex, the last thing I want to do is retreat. I’ve never written about myself, so I guess it’s easier to go to the more scary places. I actually like pushing things because I think that makes for a more honest book, and when the writing is honest, you’re generally closer to making a connection with readers. Someone, somewhere is going to be grateful you wrote the thing they’ve been feeling.
I also think emotions like fear or sadness need to be explored rather than shut down. It takes courage to do this, but once you start to explore, it’s generally not as scary as you thought. I’m not perfect by any means, but I meditate and that has helped change my relationship with different emotions that come up. Years and years ago, my fear and procrastination around writing was so bad I started seeing a therapist. I also see nothing wrong with yoga, or whatever is needed to move forward. Do whatever it takes to stay with it.
An admitted tea snob, Renee lives in Oakland with her two rescue dogs. Visit her at http://www.reneeswindlebooks.com/
“To me, creativity requires an open mind and an open heart. The alternative is to cling to our views and opinions, and that carries fear with it—fear of being wrong. If we don’t mind being wrong, our minds open to all possibilities, and that gives rise to ideas that we might not have otherwise entertained.
To me, that is creativity at work.”
— Toni Bernhard
TONI BERNHARD is the author of the award-winning HOW TO BE SICK: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and their Caregivers [<– a book that is distilled and powerful]. Her new book is titled HOW TO WAKE UP: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow. Until forced to retire due to illness, Toni was on the faculty of the University of California—Davis School of Law, serving six years as the dean of students. Her [wildly popular] blog, “Turning Straw Into Gold” is hosted by the website of Psychology Today. She can be found online at www.tonibernhard.com.
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?
TONI: Maybe it’s because of my background as a law professor, but I admit to liking rules! At the same time, I recognize that knowing when to break them is a sign of wisdom. I like rules because they impose discipline on me. This is especially important to me as a writer because my health is unpredictable. Some days I’m too sick to write at all. As a result, on a day when I’m able to write, my “rule” is to do it even if I’m not in the mood, because I know that it may be days before I’ll be well enough to write again.
So, that’s my rule: If I’m well enough to write, write. That said, I allow myself to break the rule if there’s a particularly enjoyable alternative on the horizon. Freedom to occasionally break the rule makes it a positive addition to my life—a skillful means to an end—rather than a tyrant hanging over me.
MEREDITH: How do you not hold on so tight–to a belief about writing, a piece of writing, or an idea that you have–that isn’t working or that, perhaps, to you is working but that an editor would like you to change. The belief part goes for you…but the piece, the idea, those refer also to your relationship with the editor. In other words, what tells you how to proceed?
TONI: I’ve learned not to assume that my beliefs or opinions are right. I think this comes from my years of Buddhist study in which people are encouraged not to cling to views. I love the teaching of the Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, who suggests we ask “Am I sure?” before we assume we’re right and reject another person’s viewpoint or suggestions. It’s wonderfully freeing not to automatically believe I’m right just because I’ve formed a strong opinion.
For this reason, as a writer, I’m always open to my editor’s suggestions. That said, I do sometimes stand firm and reject his ideas. When I’m considering rejecting one of his edits, I re-read the section in which the suggested edit appears and ask myself how important my version is to what I’m trying to communicate to the reader. If I decide it’s important enough, I insist it not be changed.
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?
TONI: Unlike many writers, having my first book published was not the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. In fact, I never imagined that I’d become an author. I was content in my profession as a law professor. When I became chronically ill and was forced to give up my career, I began writing from my bed. My first book, How to Be Sick began as a “how to” manual for myself. It was only when I showed what I’d written to others and they said, “This should be a book,” that I began to put it together in publishable form.
After I’d found a publisher, to my surprise, some friends and acquaintances were envious and resentful that I was about to have a book published. They’d been writing for decades (blogs, newspaper columns, and the like), but I had no idea that they harbored dreams of becoming published authors. Here I was, about to be published after writing for only two years. Many of them thought it wasn’t fair.
From my conversations with them, I’ve concluded that the seductiveness of becoming a published author—and the feeling that they’d really be somebody if it happened—stems, in part, from the desire for recognition. Anyone can “publish” a blog, but not many people are able to find a publisher for their writing.
What people often don’t realize, however, is that, along with recognition, comes disregard. The Buddha said something that’s always fascinated me: “There will always be praise and criticism, recognition and disregard in the world.” I’ve found this to be true—I certainly experienced all of these when I was a teacher. Now, as I put my second book out into the world (feeling, as I did with the first one, that it’s my baby), I try to remember to expect criticism along with the praise, and disregard along with the recognition. Knowing to expect some criticism and disregard takes away their punch.
People now ask me, “How does it feel to be a published author?” Although it’s supposed to feel like a tremendous accomplishment, it doesn’t. Perhaps this is because writing books is something I “fell into” when I couldn’t continue in a career I dearly loved. I’m grateful to my publisher, not because of the recognition it’s brought me, but for giving me the opportunity to help others through my writing. I hope that sounds as sincere as I intend it to.
MEREDITH: The child development writer Joseph Chilton Pearce said: “To live a creative life, we must lose our fear of being wrong.” Let’s talk about what “wrong” is, or what we think it is. Can you help us dissect?
TONI: This takes me back to that “Am I sure?” teaching from Thich Nhat Hanh. To me, creativity requires an open mind and an open heart. The alternative is to cling to our views and opinions, and that carries fear with it—fear of being wrong. If we don’t mind being wrong, our minds open to all possibilities, and that gives rise to ideas that we might not have otherwise entertained. To me, that is creativity at work.
MEREDITH: What do you do when you sit down to write and nothing happens? Is it really nothing?
TONI: When I sit down (or in my case, often lie down!) to write and nothing happens, I do one of two things. Sometimes I write down anything that comes to mind, even if I think it’s terrible. Editing is my favorite part of writing, so I know that if I can just get something—anything—down on paper, I’ll be able to work with it later. Other times, I move to a different section of the piece or book I’m working on. I can always find a place in whatever I’m working on where the creative juices are ready to flow. So, I move to that place.
As to whether, when we sit down to write and nothing happens, it really is nothing, I think it’s almost always something! That inability to write contains a message. Perhaps it means we haven’t done enough pre-writing thinking to be ready to put words on paper. Perhaps it means that we should be writing about a different subject. Or, perhaps it means that ideas are percolating just below the conscious level so that, soon after we set the writing aside, the right words will pop into our heads. That happens to me a lot!
[Thank you, Toni!]