Fear [not]: A writer’s meditation

For today I remember that I am here to be a scribe (or a transcriptionist–whatever works) to ideas, emotions, humor and instincts—elements that are eternal. I practice waiting for them. I practice opening up my notebook and holding my pen (or opening my computer and touching the keyboard) and wait for the words to come, knowing they will.

Leave fingerprints

What is your footprint? Your fingerprint? Every bit of what you write includes some aspect about you. Writing can be a discovery process for you, or a statement about you. Recognize the beauty in that, that every bit of what you write is inherently valuable for simply those reasons.
Now, understand that some fingerprints become permanently published (think legal docs…wanted and unwanted!), while others fade (smudges on glass, for example). Likewise, some works are published, others aren’t meant to be – or weren’t meant to be. That said, all are real and lead to the next something.
Keep leaving fingerprints.

The oak tree is in the acorn (the story is inside you)

You can write about anything; a former job or a current one; a nemesis or archangel; the truth about being a trust fund baby, or growing up on the streets. The key is to find the heart of your subject–and this takes practice. Repeated practice. One yoga teacher I knew several years ago reminded students that “The oak tree is in the acorn.” I love this. For writers, this means that the story already exists. It’s our work to recognize it, cultivate it, nourish it, and give it time to grow into its own. It’s our job to shepherd it through the process, and, like parents raising a child, to respect its individuality, and encourage its uniqueness, and know, that that’s enough because it is everything.

Does rejection have a purpose as far as writing and creativity are concerned?

In continuing this month’s theme of there is no one right way to write, today we explore the purpose of rejection with book critic/author David L. Ulin, journalist Jennifer Nelson, and science writer/journalist Kayt Sukel.

Meredith: Does rejection have a purpose, as far as creativity is concerned?

DAVID L. ULIN: Yes, rejection definitely has a purpose. Sometimes, that purpose is to tell you to work harder. Sometimes, it is to piss you off. Just before I started “The Lost Art of Reading,” I suffered a rejection that really threw me. But I used it, as I was writing, as a motivation, a push to dig deeper, to write more fully, and it helped carry me through the book. Rejection is part of the dynamic, and if you can’t handle it, you need to go into a different line of work. It toughens you, and if you think about it the right way, it can lead you to understand your own strengths and weaknesses, to rethink certain strategies — or to strengthen your resolve. Like anything else, it’s a tool to be used.

David L. Ulin is book critic, and former book editor, of the Los Angeles Times. He is the author of The Lost Art of Reading: Why Books Matter in a Distracted Time and The Myth of Solid Ground: Earthquakes, Prediction, and the Fault Line Between Reason and Faith. He has edited two collections of Southern California literature: Another City: Writing from Los Angeles and Writing Los Angeles: A Literary Anthology, which won a California Book Award. His work has appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, The Nation, The New York Times Book Review, Black Clock, Bookforum, Columbia Journalism Review, and on National Public Radio’s All Things Considered. Follow him on Twitter: @davidulin

JENNIFER NELSON: You know, I have never been too waylaid by rejection for whatever reason. Probably because woman’s magazines, I pitched incessantly, up to 30 or more query letters monthly. Only a small percentage of my ideas ever made the cut, maybe 10-20 percent, which netted me a 3-5 stories monthly so I was quite familiar with rejection! I learned very early on that it was nothing personal and that if one idea got shot down, I was a day away from thinking up another great idea. That said, there were definitely times when I became attached to my ideas, or in the case of book work, a book proposal. Since those projects are so much larger than a mere article idea, you have a lot more time, effort and energy vested and so you do feel those rejections a bit more deeply. I tend to let myself wallow for a brief time—a few hours to a day– and then move onward and upward. As far as the role they play in creativity, I think rejection does serve some purpose mostly in terms of motivating me to move on when something is rejected or to dig deep, in some cases, and figure out how to make something work that’s getting negative feedback or rejection.

When I was looking for an agent for this project (AIRBRUSHED NATION), I received many rejections maybe 15-20 from agents who thought the magazine industry was dead, or that nobody wanted to read any negative things about the chick slicks even though they admitted my proposal and chapters were well done. I didn’t agree and kept pushing on. For one, I strongly felt the magazine industry was definitely not dead! And also, I envisioned Airbrushed Nation to be more than a report on some negative things in the women’s magazines, but rather calling out and educating whole generations of women who may not have realized the negative effect reading some of the glossy’s messaging had on them. When I did find an agent, she felt exactly the same way. The earlier rejection served as motivation.

Jennifer Nelson is the author of AIRBRUSHED NATION: The Lure & Loathing of Women’s Magazines. hundreds of articles for leading publications such as Self, Women’s Health, Better Homes & Gardens, Oprah, Parenting and many other health, women’s and lifestyle magazines. She teaches Stiletto Boot Camp, a women’s magazine writing course at Mediabistro.com and is a popular presenter at writing conferences across the country. 


KAYT SUKEL: Rejection has many, many purposes.  Some in the publishing world refer to it as a “necessary evil.”  But you know, I don’t see it as an evil anymore.  Sure, rejection has definitely taken a few bites out of my self-esteem over the years.  Maybe more than a few!  But time and time again, it has made me a better writer.   When working on the idea and proposal for DIRTY MINDS, the rejections I received helped me recognize and address the project’s shortcomings.  If you can learn not to take rejection personally—and hopefully to learn something about yourself or the piece of work in the process—it’s a boon.

KAYT SUKEL is the author of DIRTY MINDS: How Our Brains Influence Love, Sex and Relationships [out today!]. Her writing credits are diverse and impressive: personal essays in the Washington Post, American Baby, the Bark, USAToday, Literary Mama and the Christian Science Monitor as well as articles on a variety of subjects for the Atlantic Monthly, the AARP Bulletin, Continental In-flight Magazine, Parenting, Cerebrum, Islands, National Geographic Traveler, BrainWork and American Baby magazines. She also wrote the essay, “I Had an Orgasm in an MRI Scanner” for The Guardian, which talks about an element of the research she did for her book about which she eloquently and entertainingly explains in her DIRTY MINDS book trailer.

When you sit down to write and nothing happens

There is no one right way to write. 

This was my hypothesis when I began The Writer’s [Inner] Journey. The blog has gone on to be name as a top site for writers by scores of websites, and was a finalist for a Bloggie, among other honors.

One of the things I love about the 5-Question [Author] Interview is that, sometimes, I ask the same question of various authors. This month I’m going to do what I always thought I’d do when I began the blog, and that is display the varying responses given by different authors to a particular question I’ve asked about their writing.

So, let’s begin…


Meredith: What do you do when you sit down to write and nothing happens? Is it really nothing? {Or a path to someplace unexpected?}

ROB ROBERGE: …If I’m producing nothing, that’s because of my relationship with the process, I think. It’s me not being in the right state of mind to write. So, it IS something. It’s just not something very conducive to writing, maybe.

On the days when very little or no writing worth keeping is the result, I try to wait it out. In Buddhism, there’s this notion that if something is boring for two minutes, you should sit with it for four minutes, and if it’s still boring, sit with it for eight minutes. And so on. The point being, EVERYTHING is there…you just aren’t there FOR it. Well, the rhetorical “you” here being me. I try hard to never be prescriptive. My experience to the process is mine and there are writers I respect tremendously who have entirely different ways of going about it.

But, when I produce nothing? For me, it’s never the THING, I’d guess. It’s my relationship to the text (or lack of it in that moment). And it’s usually caused by me allowing my ego to invade the process, where it does not belong. In early drafts especially, I submit to language, rather than try to govern or lead it. Those show up more when I revise…when there is already something to work with.

THE COST OF LIVING (Other Voices Books) is Rob Roberge’s fourth book. Previous books include Working Backwards from the Worst Moment of My Life (Red Hen, 2010), More Than They Could Chew (Dark Alley/Harper Collins, 2005) and Drive (reprint, Hollyridge Press, 2006/2010). His writing has been featured in Penthouse, The Rumpus, ZYZZYVA, Black Clock, “Ten Writers Worth Knowing” issue of The Literary Review and many others.


YUVI ZALKOW: This happens more often than I’d like to admit. Maybe it is a touch better than nothing, but it just doesn’t seem to be what I expected or what I wanted from that writing session. Sometimes, I’ll write the scene I intended to write but it is just flat or boring or clichéd. I’m not driven by word count like some people I know are, so even if I do write 1000 words, if they suck, I’m disappointed. However, I’ll typically just give it a few days before I revisit what I wrote. When I revisit the writing, usually I can pluck something useful out of it. Or even just discover a core issue with my storyline or my character or something like that. I try not to let myself get too disheartened; I try to think about what I learned from the experience that can help me moving forward.

I don’t mean to suggest that I’m always constructive about these difficult moments. Some weeks, I just mope and feel sorry for myself.

YUVI ZALKOW’S debut novel (A BRILLIANT NOVEL IN THE WORKS) is now available online and in stores, and was a Rumpus Book Club pick for July 2012. His stories have been published in Glimmer Train, Narrative Magazine, The Los Angeles Review, Carve Magazine, and others. He is the creator of the “I’m a Failed Writer” online video series and has been rejected more than 600 times by reputable and disreputable journals. Follow him on Twitter: https://twitter.com/yuvizalkow


JESSICA ANYA BLAU: Yes, you’re so right, it’s always the path to someplace unexpected.  Last year my computer crashed and I lost about a hundred pages (I use Dropbox now).  I never really rewrote those pages, I wrote something completely different using only the idea behind those pages.  So even that “failure” was a path to someplace unexpected.

Jessica Anya Blau’s second novel, DRINKING CLOSER TO HOME, was a Target stores “Breakout Author” series pick.  Her first novel, THE SUMMER OF NAKED SWIM PARTIES, was picked as a Best Summer Book by the Today Show, the New York Post and New York Magazine.  The San Francisco Chronicle, along with other newspapers, chose it as one of the Best Books of the Year. Jessica’s website is here: http://www.jessicaanyablau.com/Jessica_Anya_Blau/Jessica_Anya_Blau.html



The 5-Question [Creative] Interview: Jordan Levinson

[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.

jord and snake

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.

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