The writer focuses on practicing choice, keeping a vision and seeing how positive and negative experiences are vital to success.
Whitney Ferré is the author of The Artist Within, A Guide to Becoming Creatively Fit (Turner Publishing) and the founder of The Creative Fitness Center, which first gained national recognition on HGTV. Whitney’s approach to creativity is based on principles that underlie design and she teaches how to strengthen one’s natural creative abilities through her technique of accessing and strengthening right-brain abilities. Her corporate clients include American Express, YMCA and Columbia HCA.
Meredith: Why do writers so often struggle with what appears to be so natural—creation, creativity, expression of the deepest self? It’s really a struggle against oneself, in a way.
WHITNEY: If someone was having a writer’s block moment of sorts, I would advise them to check their mindset first. Creation IS a very natural activity, but it is more a function of our right brain abilities. Often, when art becomes “business”—as in the case of authors, songwriters, and freelancers—the creative inspiration gets lost in the left brain, task-oriented, logical side. To get back to the place of inspiration and passion we simply need to connect to the side of our minds that is responsible. While the left brain is predominantly logical, detail and task-oriented, the right brain is more interested in the big picture, the mission or passion. We all have so much on our mental to-do list that we need to, in a sense, file that list away so that we can focus on our creativity.
Meredith: Now answer this: If creativity is a natural state, why do we get stuck?
WHITNEY: Creativity is PART of our human state. It is not all of it. We need our other talents and faculties to maneuver and excel in this world. You may be mentally stuck in a traffic jam because of the barrage of things to do, details to cover, and logistics of our modern day. To get unstuck, one has to clear the lanes so that there is no congestion and our ideas can sail right through from our subconscious, our intuition, or from spirit, without getting side tracked.
When I am stuck, whether it is an inability to create (write or paint) or a mood in which I am wallowing, I use exercises from The Artist Within. Performing simple creative exercises like covering a page with purples doodles can radically change my perspective, the way I am thinking and my mood. It can feel almost miraculous. You might be sitting in front of the blank screen, getting more and more anxious and simply cover a page with your doodles, marks, lines, dots, zig-zags…and all of a sudden an idea pops into your mind. Bingo!
Meredith: What purpose does rejection serve in the process of creation? Tell us how we might reframe it a way that transcends the old adage: “every ‘no’ gets you closer to a ‘yes.’”
WHITNEY: Another old, but equally relevant adage, is that we learn more from our mistakes than from our successes. Just as every word, sentence, brushstroke adds to the overall work, so does every experience, positive or negative, lend to the creation that is our life. You can CHOOSE to see rejection as something negative or positive. YOU create whichever reality in your own mind. There isn’t a bestselling author out there without some incredible stories of how they overcame this or that. That is why they are successful. They have depth. Just as the contrast between lights and darks contributes to the success of an image, so these positive and negative experiences are both vital to our success.
Meredith: Does inspiration feel like something particular or specific to you?
WHITNEY: I feel inspiration all the time. It is like a wave gently crashing over my consciousness when I see a gorgeous fabric, painting, or image. It feels like a rat-a-tat-tat of being bombarded sometimes with so many ideas that immediately after they hit I am sorry that they may never make it to fruition. It can feel so spiritual. It can be those ah-hah moments where so many pieces fall into place and you realize that you have been heading there all along.
I also feel inspiration when I am painting, but also when I am managing my business or networking in social media world. It is a connection no matter what. It is a connection of ideas that together make a whole or a connection of minds, when I find people to compliment each other. It is when I am able to communicate a new idea or life skill to one of my children or connect on a new level with my husband. Regardless, it is when I am completely present, not sweating the details, conscious of my mission in this life, and caught up in the tide that is flowing THROUGH me. I feel lucky to have caught that wave.
Meredith: You talk about no rules, no limitations and no critics in your book, The Artist Within. I love this. But tell us how you take the next step, taking the unconditionally loved creation you’ve brought into the world and help it grow to reach a new height or place.
WHITNEY: I think you are asking how once the creation has been created, in the case of my book being published, you can continue the inspiration to see it run its course. The book is such a great example. When Turner Publishing told me they would publish my book, I was ecstatic…for about a minute. Then, the reality of the work ahead settled in on me. It was like, “OK. Step one, check! Now, step two.”
Then, the book was printed and in my hands. Everyone commented on how proud and excited I must be. “Yes, but this book does no good in my hands. It is not a trophy. Now I have to send it out into the real world (keep in mind I had been writing this book for 10 years—all that time it existed in a very small circle). What if it doesn’t match my intention? What if it does not inspire? What if it meets indifference? So my next thought (when others think I should be having a party) is “Wow! There is a lot to be done.”
This is a perfect example of the choice we each have daily, with each task presented to us. Do we get overwhelmed at the magnitude of the task, the loftiness of the goal, all the reasons why it should not work, or should not hit the bestseller list? OR do we re-focus and channel all of our energies to that vision of hundreds of adoring readers emailing us daily, thanking us for our work? Do we supplant discouraging thoughts with all the reasons we embarked upon this mission—which I feel HAS to be to have a positive impact on our world? Right now, for me, I relish the emails I get from readers on the other side of the country thanking me for the inspiration and the tools my book has provided them. THAT is when I get excited. The book in and of itself is just a bound collection of pulverized tree fibers and ink. It is the emotion and inspiration that it creates that is of value.
So, in answer to your question, once the “product” has been produced, focus on the ripples it is going to have on the ocean of life. Then, it is a never-ending creative expression.
The therapist, author and coach helps us explore the eternal question: Do you want to be a “writer” or do you want to write?
Rachel Ballon, Ph.D., M.F.T., is a psychotherapist and international writing consultant, who has taught writing as a therapeutic tool to mental health professionals and health care practitioners at UCLA, UC Irvine, CSUN, and conferences worldwide. She is also the author of five widely-acclaimed books (click then scroll for each): Blueprint For Writing: A Writer’s Guide to Creativity Craft and Career, The Writer’s Sourcebook: From Writing Blocks to Writing Blockbusters, Breathing Life Into Your Characters: How to Give Characters Emotional and Psychological Depth, Blueprint For Screenwriting: A Writer’s Guide To Story Structure And Character Development, and most recently, The Writer’s Portable Therapist: 25 Sessions to a Creativity Cure. Rachel is a member of Writer’s Guild of America, West and has had several episodes produced on ABC-TV. Her latest screenplay is making the rounds of studios and production companies.
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. 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?
RACHEL: This is an interesting question and I’m sure if people who liked the idea of writing knew how difficult it is and how much work it takes without knowing what the outcome is going to be after one or two years of writing, they would take a long, hard look at writing and wanting to be a writer. I believe many people look at the end results–books, screenplays, plays, etc. and want the excitement of writing a best seller or a blockbuster film. Not only the excitement but the fame and often the fortune. After all, where else does it happen that an unknown can be thrust into fame as in writing. It is often referred to as the last Klondike, so writers or would be writers make the mistake of looking at results rather than the writing. Ask yourself: Do you like to write? Do you have something worthwhile to say? Do you feel passionate about your writing? Are you into process or into results?
Do you want to be a “writer” or do you want to write? There’s a big difference.
Meredith: Might there be something to be said about setting a place for the shadow side of ourselves, the part riddled with fear and anxiety, when we sit down to write? In other words, rather than simply trying to get rid of it instead, inviting it in?
Yes, I believe that whether or not you invite your fears, and anxieties into the writing process, they enter, whether invited or not. But I suggest that you write in spite of your fear of rejection, fear of failure, and fear of success. It would take too long to explain those different types of fears or blocks, but in my book, The Writer’s Portable Therapist: 25 Sessions to a Creativity Cure, I do discuss various exercises writers can do to lessen and reduce their blocks.
Meredith: I also trained as a therapist and as a result was trained to strike a delicate balance of letting the client guide the session but also encouraging growth and change. There are, however, times when the therapist, in order to help the client move forward (or deeper), must raise issues to keep the process from stagnating. How do you see this playing out for you as the creator/writer–and for you as the therapist/coach?
RACHEL: When clients come to see me it often turns out to be a different reason then they thought. Many writers come for script or writing consulting because they are blocked or have writing problems and their project isn’t working. However, as we discuss the script or novel the problem often has little to do with the writing and more with the writer.
So we put the work aside and start doing therapy with issues that the writing has brought up and which are often unresolved childhood issues. Sometimes, I never even read their script or manuscript, but we work on the writer, which in the end loosens up internal demons, traumas and problems and they go back to their writing with renewed passion, vision and emotion–making their writing so much deeper and powerful, without ever concentrating on the writing. It’s a very enlightening and magical method, which is organic and natural.
On the other hand, I often use writing with non-writers who come to see me for therapy, because they feel stuck in their lives, their relationships or have self-destructive behavior. With many of these clients talking doesn’t help, because they have canned stories such as: “My mother did this…” “My father did that…” “If only I had…” “When the time is right,” and on and on and on. To help them get out of feeling trapped or stuck, I have them use my Fast Flow Writing method and get them to write new stories as they rewrite their lives. This is a wonderful way to enable clients to experience positive change, take risks and stop self-defeating behavior, by writing winning stories and using the pen and paper to make enormous changes and get on a new track by “righting their lives through writing.”
Meredith: What did you have to unlearn, un-believe about yourself to find your truth as a writer, and a writer’s therapist? What had to go?
RACHEL: I didn’t have to unlearn anything about myself, because when I first started writing as a youngster I just wanted to write stories and nothing was at stake. I always wrote and was an editor of the feature page in high school. In college I wrote and was an English major where I studied poetry. I first started writing poetry and that was my passion. At UCLA I took a class called “Poetry and the Therapeutic Experience and LOVED it. We used poems to get into feelings and I studied with Dr. Arthur Lerner who was the founder of the Poetry Therapy Institute. For example, if working with people who were angry, I learned that reading “The Poison Tree by William Blake helped them relate to the poem, or if they were depressed reading “Richard Cory” in the Spoon River Anthology was a great source of comfort.
Soon, I realized that I needed to expand my knowledge and that reading the right poem for the right purpose wasn’t enough. That’s how I went back to school to get my license in California as a psychotherapist. So being a writer myself, I can relate to and empathize with writers and the pitfalls and blocks they fall into. I’ve walked the walk. I learned that writing wasn’t enough, but a writer had to get an agent or a publisher; write query letters or give pitches; get rejected or accepted but to keep on writing no matter what. The combination allowed me to give workshops at UCLA and The Writer’s Guild, the Director’s Guild and Women in Film about the 3 aspects of writing. They are Creativity (the idea); Craft (the perspiration) and Career (the Selling). I’ve also taught workshops for Writers called Surviving and Thriving as a Writer. I did have to learn that writing isn’t enough you then need to go out and sell your work. I began writing scripts and in the late 1980’s sold several episodes for ABC-TV, got an agent, wrote a screenplay that was optioned by Paramount Pictures and became a member of the Writer’s Guild of America, West. But every time I wrote something new or tried selling a script it was like starting over on square one and it still is.
Meredith: 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?
RACHEL: It’s easier said then done, but most writers, myself included, have such negative thoughts before they begin to write that they don’t need a list of “rights and “wrongs” because everyone is his or her own worse critic. Yes, I worry about will they like it, is it good? And many more thoughts, but I keep on writing in spite of them.
The writers who get blocked and paralyzed listen to only their critical voices (whether parent, teacher, friend, agent) and can’t seem to escape the negatives that block them. A good thing to do when this happens is to tell the writer, “Write as badly as you can.” No kidding, that’s what I say and one client was so into rights and wrongs that he asked, “How bad is bad?” Now, you can see how he was unable to write until we worked through his need to be perfect. I say if you come to see me with nothing to read or discuss we’re really at a dead end. But if you write something, even if it’s the worst thing you think you’ve ever written, you’ll at least have done the writing and we can work together on making it good. So just do it!!! There are no guarantees if it’ll be sold or not. So have fun with the process, enjoy your subject and play with your characters so you can lighten up and get it written.
Rachel Ballon has been in private practice as a licensed psychotherapist in Westwood for the past thirty years. A clinical member of the American Association of Marriage and Family Therapists and California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists, she conducts “Writing to Heal” workshops through California, and teaches health care professionals how to use narrative with clients to help them transform their negative personal stories into happy endings. For eight years she conducted weekly groups in journal writing for women with cancer at the UCLA Center for Integrative Oncology. Visit Rachel’s website here to learn more about her and how she works with writers.
Images courtesy of Rachel Ballon.
The author talks about what she likes best about fiction writing, being a planner and how she gains perspective on rejection—the inner and the outer kind.
VALERIE HOBBS is the author of several books including Defiance, which was a Kirkus Reviews Editor’s Choice and a School Library Journal Best Book of the Year. Back in 1991, she was Publisher’s Weekly “Flying Start” author after the publication of her first novel for young adults, How Far Would You Have Gotten If I Hadn’t Called You Back. Since then her books have consistently been honored with numerous awards (California Young Reader Medal, School Library Journal Best Book of the Year, Junior Library Guild Choice, to name a few). Valerie’s newest, the coming-of-age novel The Last Best Days of Summer, was published in 2010 by Farrar Straus Giroux.
Meredith: How do you balance the left-brain activity of promotion with the right-brain activity of creation? Or do you experience them as unified?
VALERIE: I don’t balance them very well, I’m afraid. My sluggish left brain doesn’t do promotion very well. It would rather work on plot structure, although that’s hard work. My right brain is always alive and happy and ready to play.
Meredith: Is voice, to you, a constant? Has yours as a writer evolved over the years? Or have you just gotten more confident in using what was always there?
VALERIE: Yes, pretty much a constant. Confidence about voice (though not necessarily other things) was there from the beginning. I can sense when the voice is wrong for a character and I know I won’t get it “right” if I just push forward. Characters seem to bring their voices with them, but of course it’s all my voice. It’s what I like best about fiction writing.
Meredith: Are you a planner-outer by nature or more of a someone who takes life moment by moment? Now answer this: Do you plot your books or do they take you on a meandering path? Tell us the good, the bad and the everything.
VALERIE: I am a planner in real life and in my fiction writing. I’m not confident enough to follow an unplanned story and I worry about “wasting time”. Honestly, I’d like to be more of a meanderer (I was a true meanderer as a child) and often promise myself that the next book will be done in a more spontaneous way, but I have to know the ending of a story and that leads to all the other stops along the way and the plot is more or less done. I envy those who meander and find surprises along the way.
Meredith: What purpose does rejection serve—or how do you view it in such a way so it best serves (rather than dis-serves) you? (Oh, by the way, I’m talking about rejection from an outer source [editor, publisher] and also from yourself.)
VALERIE: I’ve gotten much better about dealing with rejection over the years—outer rejection, that is. My editor, Frances Foster, is such a perceptive and wise (and kind) editor that I learn a lot from whatever she rejects. When I first started writing novel, though, I was despondent over rejections and cried for days. Now my own rejection of my own stuff—that’s the worst of all and I still do it. Not a lot, and less as time goes by so there’s hope!
Meredith: Some people refer to their creations as their children. I see our creations more as an extension of our own biology. In other words, our words are who we are, 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?
VALERIE: [Love-this alert:] They’re all me or hitherto unexplored parts of me, even the boys. I don’t believe we really ever know anybody else; the only person we understand (as best we can) is our own selves.
Valerie lives in Santa Barbara, California, with her husband, Jack, a high school teacher, and is an Emeritus Lecturer in the Writing Program at the University of California Santa Barbara. When I asked Val to tell me something quirky about herself she said, “I don’t know how quirky this is but I was once a drag racer, Also jumped (once) out of a plane. And brushed my teeth (once) by mistake with Preparation H.”
The writer tells about the danger in what he finds funny and how writing erases all fear.
DENNIS DANZIGER, who has written for sitcoms including “Taxi,” and “Kate and Allie” is the author of A Short History of a Tall Jew and Daddy, The Diary of an Expectant Father* which chronicled his life from the day he was married to the day of his son’s bris.* Dennis has written about public education for The Huffington Post, and his essay, Hoops Schemes “about how playing basketball with many of my inner city high school students gained their respect and gave me the chance to actually teach them,” is forthcoming in the literary magazine, Black Clock.
Meredith: When you write does your mind wonder first what you would like, or what others would? In other words, do you think about pleasing yourself or pleasing the crowd?
That’s a difficult pattern to break. I think it took me about a decade before I could free my mind from imagining what someone else would think of my writing.
Usually when I’m writing, I don’t consciously imagine an audience. If at some point I do imagine that a line I write would get a laugh, or I can visualize someone I know laughing, I’m pretty sure those words should immediately be cut. As far as being my own audience, I have only one rule. If I write something that makes me laugh. I enjoy it. Reread it. And then I trash it. For some reason anything I write that amuses me is never funny.
Meredith: The Talmud says that “Every blade of grass has its Angel that bends over it and whispers, ‘Grow, grow.’ Do you have a personal interpretation for what this means to you as a writer?
DENNIS:You lost me at “The Talmud.” I’m afraid that might be from having been raised in an Orthodox Jewish family in Texas and having a negative reaction to every moment I spent in the religious world. I read the words, “The Talmud” and thought, “Okay, next question.” I don’t believe in a spiritual world. And no angel or spirit or muse or other-worldly entity comes into play when I’m writing or when I’m doing anything else. I believe change, growth, whatever you want to call it comes from pushing oneself, from desire, discipline, from thinking, from being brutally honest with oneself, not from listening to the spirits. Or from too many other people for that matter.
Meredith: Do you make any promises to yourself before you sit down to write? Any deals?
DENNIS: I know writers who won’t go to dinner or to sleep until they’ve written two or three pages each day. I’ve never worked that way.
I wrote Short History over a period of three years while teaching full-time. Some afternoons or evenings I had so many papers to grade, I couldn’t get to my computer. Some days I was too exhausted to focus. I wrote my novel by grabbing an hour here or there, whenever I could Often before work. 5:30 – 6:30 a.m. Sometimes in the middle of the night if I couldn’t sleep. Other times if I felt energized I’d just keep on writing regardless of the time. But my schedule never allowed me to cut a deal with myself. In fact, I never really had a schedule. Maybe I have more of a guerilla approach to writing. Hit and run. Do it whenever I can.
But I’ve never promised a certain number of words or pages per day. Sometimes a good day of writing is one good paragraph. Or a sentence.
Meredith: Is fear ever an issue, like does your creativity measure up? How do you deal, one way or the other?
DENNIS: Fear is an issue in living. Fear of everything. Losing my health, my memory, my loved ones, my dogs, my health insurance, my job. But I never equate fear with writing. Writing is the antidote to fear. Writing is what erases all fear. Erases all thought that anything can be painful. Writing is when I’m most alive. Unless I played basketball that day and hit a lot of three-point shots. That’s when feelings of immortality take hold.
Meredith: Buddha said, “It is better to travel well than to arrive.” If traveling is writing, then arriving is…what? Oh, and what is it not?
DENNIS: Let’s face it, Buddha was pretty glib. Always tossing out clever little thoughts like that. Annoying everybody with his superior, reflective mind. In writing, arriving is getting to the place where you think you’re done, ready to submit your work, where you fantasize that the book of sonnets you just completed is going to earn you a ton of money and be adapted into a mini-series. In fact, arriving is when you think you’re done, but all you’ve done is arrived at the place where you need to sit back down and rewrite everything one more time. Or two or three more times.
In writing, there’s only traveling, because how would anyone ever know if he or she truly arrived? Have you arrived because you think you’ve arrived? Because you don’t want to work on this project anymore? Because someone pays you for what you’ve done and therefore, because money has changed hands, you’ve arrived? Maybe arriving, for better or worse, is when you have no idea how to make your writing better.
Dennis lives in Los Angeles with his family. Visit him at his new website, (he’s still unpacking), and check out his very funny essay in The Huffington Post about self publishing. If you have further questions or just want to schmooze, email him at email@example.com .
*Dennis provides a little background about Daddy, The Diary of an Expectant Father: “[The book] was translated into Korean and German and oddly, sold better in Germany than in America. Much better. I could never figure out why a Jewish comedy writer’s work would do well in the Motherland until a friend married a German man. He explained to me that 20-and-30-something Germans were hungry for parenting advice from the West because since their parents had been Nazis they didn’t feel as if their folks were the best people to listen to when it came to child-rearing. Who would have ever guessed that? I thought I just translated well into German.”
Visit Dennis at his website by clicking HERE!
Images courtesy of Dennis Danziger.
The author riffs about knowing and not knowing, being scared and being brave and the true rewards of being a worker bee.
SAMANTHA DUNN is the author of Failing Paris, a finalist for the PEN West Fiction Award in 2000, and the memoirs, Not By Accident: Reconstructing a Careless Life, a BookSense 76 pick and Faith in Carlos Gomez: A Memoir of Salsa, Sex and Salvation. A journalist and essayist, her work appears regularly in such publications including Los Angeles Times, “O” The Oprah Magazine, Ms., Shape, InStyle, Glamour, SELF and Men’s Health. A Maggie Award winner for the personal essay, several of her works have been anthologized, including in the collection Women on the Edge: Writing from Los Angeles.
Meredith: Does your creative process come from a place of something that scares you or from a familiar place of strength?
SAMANTHA: I fool myself into thinking it comes—or, rather, starts—from a place of strength. This is how I have to begin, because I lack the bravery to begin writing from the other premise! Listen, it always ends up scaring you. Or me. Scares me. Somewhere along the path of doing a big work, whether it be book or substantial essay or short story, there comes a point of fear, of feeling like I’m wandering around in a cold, dark forest with the wolves howling in the not-too-distant distance. The only time that doesn’t happen is when I’m just banging out a service journalism piece (Better Butt in 5 Days!), but I do that kind of hack journalism less and less now, so the work is more and more scary. Alas. And, hey, just to clarify—I am happy to get those hack pieces! They’re fun! I love being a hack! It comes in handy for the food-shelter-clothing issues. Editors just don’t ring my bell so much for that stuff anymore, for some reason.
Meredith: Taking the stance that creativity/growth is a natural state, why do we get stuck? Why do we stagnate?
SAMANTHA: I don’t know the answer for everyone, but for me, it’s when I start to think I “know” something. That I “know” what I’m supposed to say, that I “know” how it’s supposed to work on the page. I’ve memorized this quote I read eons ago, attributed to Hemingway—it never fails to remind me what the deal is: “Writing never gets any easier to do, and you can’t expect it to, if you keep trying for something better than you can do.”
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? Have you ever been seduced?
SAMANTHA: Have I ever been seduced by a writer? On the page, sure. (In person they’re kinda geeky, not my style…although back in the day Michael Ondaatjee was not too shabby…) Wait, was that what you were asking…? Let me reread that question…
OK, I think I’ve got it.
So, a few things come to mind. My usual shtick is, why would you want to be a writer? We’re miserable fucks. We’re broke constantly. We’re good at a cocktail party but hell to live with. Depressive te ndencies. Inherently narcissistic. Flabby bodies. Hunched backs from typing. Just, so not cool. However, since the birth of my son, I have vowed to live in gratitude as much as I am able, and so as a result I have reassessed my stance on writers in general, and my identity as one in particular.
While I still think most of the above is often true, I would add the up side. There is an unequalled, to me, fulfillment in being able to take something from your head and translate it so that it has meaning and resonance for others, if only one other. What a gift that is. Really. And then there is the almost metaphysical experience of writing itself, of really writing, not because you think it’s going to get you something but because of the pure joy of entering language, of writing so that you lose your hang-ups and your conscious mind and tunnel through to another place of being. No wonder we have the image of The Muse, because the experience is godly. I have never done anything else other than write for my entire career, and for that I am just beginning to be fully grateful.
And about writers themselves—miserable fucks for sure. I used to say that most of my best friends are writers because we are the only people who can stand each other. But, but…they are also the funniest, most engaging, most stimulating, most generous, most exhilarating company on the planet.
Meredith: Some people refer to their creations as their children. 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?
SAMANTHA: Wow, Meredith. I like what you said. (In fact I like it so much I’ll say it somewhere else and people will be impressed.) You know, I used to have some ego about my “work.” THE WORK. As if I, in my mightiness, had done it all. Now that I have been a working writer for 20-some odd years, when I happen to see things I’ve done 10 years ago, 5 years ago—hell, last week—I read them as something other than myself. Not to be too woo-woo, but that muse reference above, I really do believe it. Creativity comes from a place beyond the conscious mind—maybe it’s just next door in the subconscious, but whatever. You get my point. What I give myself credit for is just being a worker bee. Showing up year after year, making myself available to that “muse” (although, I have to say, that muse, she’s pretty fickle, doesn’t show up on time and is pretty uneven in her production). Reading, apprenticing myself to the process. That’s what I keep doing. The rest, I dunno.
Meredith: Do you ever experience writerly or creative jealousy? How do you turn it around (reframe it) and make the energy work for–rather than against–you?
SAMANTHA: No. I have no idea what you’re talking about. I’m really a paragon of virtue in that regard. A regular freakin’ Bodhisattva.
Ok, well, I can sense here that you’re not buying it, so I might as well spill. You know that quote by Gore Vidal? “Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.” I have that one memorized, too. Seriously, I think it’s normal to have twinges—and honestly, sarcasm aside, that’s all I experience at this point—of envy or jealousy when viewing someone’s success from the outside. A large part of that, I believe, is the pervading scarcity mentality in publishing—like there is only so much to go around, only so many readers, only so many slots in bookstores, etc. That breeds a kind of “if you get yours I lose mine” mentality. It’s horseshit, of course, but because it’s so pervasive an attitude, it’s hard not to get sucked in at times.
What helps me is, well…well, experience. There have been moments—fleeting, ah yes, and long ago—when I have received accolades and the People-magazine sort of attention. And…those times correlate to some of the most miserable times of my life. Which is to say, success is no guarantee of anything. Knowing other writers, too–famous and mid-list and struggling–reminds me that no one gets out alive. We all suffer, and we all experience joy and fulfillment (if we allow ourselves to).
And who is to say what’s going to matter, or not, in 100 years? That’s what I also tell myself. When we publish we enter a much larger conversation that has been going on since Guttenberg invented the press—even before.
Then, of course, there is the creative jealousy you feel when you read something so brilliant, so beyond your own capabilities, that your response is, “I am not worthy, I am not worthy” (or, in my case, “dude my muse totally SUCKS”). I give myself the moment and then putter forward, reminded of what the bar (barre?) really is.
Samantha teaches in the UCLA Extension Writers Program and created “The Grape Gatsby,” a writers’ series in northern California. She lives with her husband, musician/politico Jimmy Camp, and their son, Benen in northern California where, she says, “At our home in the foothills of the Sierra we have two horses, two goats, two dogs, a fat, lazy cat and now a donkey named Jack, who wandered over here from the neighbor’s place and refuses to go home.” Check out her website by clicking here.
Photo courtesy of Samantha Dunn.
“Learning to have a “lower standard” for myself as a writer has helped me to write more and probably, in the long run, to write better.”
—Theo Pauline Nestor
Theo Pauline Nestor is the author of the memoir How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed: A Memoir of Starting Over (Crown), which was a Kirkus Review Top Pick for Reading Groups and a Target Breakout Book. Theo’s essays were also included in the collections Modern Love: Fifty True and Extraordinary Tales of Desire, Deceit and Devotion and Ask Me About My Divorce: Women Open Up About Moving On.
Meredith: How do you balance writing for you and writing for an audience. How do you find the sweet spot?
THEO: When I was writing How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed, I think I found the balance between myself and the audience through separating the needs of the audience from my own in the writing process. The first kernels of the book—rough and raw sentences written in a tiny notebook jotted in the attorney’s office or in my car at stoplights—were strictly for me. I had no intention of writing a book at that point. I was in the early grief of divorce and taking notes was my way of getting through the day. Two years later when I was writing the proposal for the book, I sat down and thought of all the things I thought someone going through divorce would want to know about—getting through the legal aspect, surviving telling acquaintances in the grocery store, helping kids cope, falling in love again—and then I wrote about each of those topics in the book, whether I “wanted to” or not. Some of the topics were either so personal or painful that I did not enjoy writing about them at all, but I already had decided that those were the topics important to my audience and so I needed to stick to my commitment to helping them with my story and write.
However, once I’m in the writing process itself, I’m not thinking too much about the audience. Obviously, I want the story to be interesting and enjoyable to readers, but I’m taking for granted that that will happen if I throw myself into the process.
Meredith: What was the single most debilitating self-imposed rule you had to abandon in yourself—the rule that you thought made you feel safe and in control but actually didn’t—before you could really accept (and put) yourself on the page?
THEO: I guess one thing that has stopped me a lot is the belief that everything I write has to be extraordinary and gorgeous. I had to get over the idea of myself as an artiste. This might work if you’re firing off the occasional haiku but if you’re writing a full-length manuscript, there are going to be parts that are not gorgeous, especially in the first draft and they may never be gorgeous and extraordinary. Some parts will be ordinary. Learning to have a “lower standard” for myself as a writer has helped me to write more and probably, in the long run, to write better.
Meredith: When you’re in love with a particular idea so much, how do you know when enough is enough—for example, words in a sentence, a line in an essay–a chapter in a book (memoir!)?
THEO: I think when I like how it sounds I think I’m done, but then there’s usually a great deal more work when it goes through the editor’s hands. The version of King-Size that I thought was “done” was much rougher than the final product.
Meredith: When you write, do you keep your eyes on your own paper, so to speak? In other words, have you mastered the art of non-comparison (to other writers)?
THEO: I’m happy to report that I think I am over most of my compulsion to compare on the page. (Mind you, I still compare myself like crazy to other people off the page in the areas of cooking, accumulation of wealth, and looking good in a two-piece bathing suit). Maybe that’s why I like to write because I accept my writing style and I like it. It’s a little island of self-acceptance in a sea of wanting more, more, more.
Meredith: What does truth in writing mean–to you?
THEO: Truth in writing to me means emotional truth. I don’t make up scenes or people, but I’m not too worried if the bird I said was a sparrow might actually have been a robin. I think memoir writers need to leave fretting over technical accuracy to court reporters and journalists. Our job is to tell a good story based on our own experience.
Theo teaches memoir writing for the University of Washington’s Extension Program. Visit Theo’s awesome blog Writing Is My Drink [about, guess what?!] Her new book, Writing Is My Drink: A Field Guide to Finding Your Own Voice is forthcoming from Simon and Schuster. Visit her website Theo Pauline Nestor.com