The Hardest Part of Writing

writers-writeEvery year, the Oscars are something I look forward to–an event, really. It’s not a dress-up, get fancy thing for me, but rather a jammy/mud mask extravaganza I started over 23 years ago when my oldest son was 2. We’d sit right in front of the TV and clap. We’d fill out ballots. We’d stay up late because back then they hadn’t moved it to 5 p.m. PT. (This year, sadly, we were  separated by miles–but did manage to close it out with rapid texting!)

Normally, the group eulogy was when I’d restore snacks. This year, I listened, because of what the various artists were saying in their clips. Nora Ephron’s words stuck with me most: “The hardest part of being a writer is writing.” (She’s the “Sleepless in Seattle” and “Julie & Julia” screenwriter who has wrote in nearly every medium possible. I love that.)

So simple, yet so poignant, her words. Ask any writer and they’ll tell you as soon as they say, “I’m a writer” the other person–doesn’t matter who–says, “I’ve been thinking about/have written/once wrote/am going to write a book.”  Lots of people like the idea of having authored a book. Many even like it so much they hire a ghost writer to write it and put their name on it. Fewer still find an easy slip into the writing process, and can muster the regular discipline it takes to finish a novel, or learn how to write a screenplay, or try their hand at essays instead of poetry just for the love of playing with words. Just for the joy of creatively expressing the story that one sees in his head. Just for the fun of painting with letters.

It makes sense. It’s hard to find the time. When I first started writing seriously, I remember my cousin Sharon Weil (screenwriter, novelist and all around awesome person) saying, “Everything needs to serve the writing.”

And, yet, what happens is we sneak the writing in. We tuck it in around soccer practices, basketball practices, Yoga classes, dinner-making, dinner buying for the making, trips, dog walking, showers. (As I type this right now, it’s 5:00 p.m. and I have yet to take a shower before taking my son out to a 7:30 – 9 p.m. practice where I plan to smuggle my laptop into a hopefully quiet corner of the bleachers and work on my current thriller.) I remember reading a whole book on this topic of working about five years ago called Writer Mama. (Idea after idea on sneaking it in–or at least that’s my takeaway.)

I appreciate this when I hear this from other writers because it makes me feel more part of a tribe than I do when I’m struggling to find the time. I know it’s just part of the writing landscape that is one more mountain to cross in the life of a writer.

Now–the thriller or Costco? That’s the decision I’ll have to face.



Not Getting Over It

Photo1 (1)We’re told we need to move on, “get over it,” grow up. That’s what it means to mature after all.

Except for writers. We’re told to go back. Access that age that your protagonist is now. Not get over, but dive into the pool of raw emotion you barely tread through the first time.

I’ve spent all these years trying to suppress those memories. They’re some particularly painful ones I just as soon pretend never happened, let alone access. Bringing it back hurts. (Take this Gunnie Sak, for example. To think I thought this was the prettiest dress I’d ever seen and we probably sacrificed a week’s worth of dinners to buy it for my eighth grade graduation.)

Emotions were so raw, so new, at 14. And buried. Covered up by smiles for the camera, fancy lace, and a light peach silk blend. The transitional time from 8th grade to high school is huge. I see it through my children’s eyes, but letting my own feelings boil to their  emotional surface is a whole different dynamic. Try it some time.

In my current YA/NA thriller, Intuition, my protagonist, Shay, is 14. She’s in her last weeks of 8th grade, dealing with a painful breakup, and feeling the need to help uncover a string of murders taking place in her small town. This is a novel–not a memoir–but it’s steeped in the true story of Darrell Rich, a serial killer who terrorized my small town during my early teens. My life was intricately woven with his in that his mom babysat me for years, often for weeks at a time, so we grew up together. The day he picked up his last victim (a 12 year old girl he raped and threw off Shasta Dam) he’d offered me a ride that I’d rejected. My stepdad, who was going through a nasty divorce with my mom during those years, was the public defender co-appointed to represent him. I was subpoenaed to testify in the trial (in his defense) which was terrifying at that age because the whole scene was so confusing. Rich was the last Californian (I believe) to be executed on death row 3 days after my birthday in the year 2000. That’s for starters.

Who wants to revisit that? I see no cyber hands shooting up. Me neither, quite frankly. But sometimes you just have stories that refuse to go away until you write them. This one’s been fighting me for 20 years and, finally, I’ve caved.

And I’m discovering why. Having these experiences…going back there and drawing on those emotions…will make Shay a richer, more rounded character, than she could ever be if I buried it.

Life’s challenges are not supposed to paralyze you; they’re supposed to help you discover who you are.
– Bernice Johnson Reagon

The Rhythm Method

DSCN0042My friend Janet sent this to me with a “you go girl” card last week. (She’s such a thoughtful friend. Thanks, Janet.) Can you read it? The guy at the computer is typing “January 11: Still struggling with the novel. Chopped more firewood.” There are piles and piles of wood–and likely no fireplace.

I cracked up. Totally relate to this. In fact at this very moment, I’m “supposed” to be doing my five pages for today and instead “preparing to do my five pages” (read chopping firewood) by writing this blog. You see–I reason–if my schedule is clear, I can write straight on through with a wide open day. It actually says that on my Google Calendar: Wide Open Day.

But it’s really a game I play with myself because more wood will inevitably “need” to be chopped. It’s why they have Na-No-rimo (or the lesser known Jan-no-rimo which I did with my friend Lois who was writing a thousand words a day and I thought I’d copy her) or computer programs that force writers into a daily word count or writers groups with arbitrary deadlines and so forth. We’re all looking for a system, a rhythm method, to help us get our stories told.

And every once in awhile I find it: that writer’s sweet spot. Suddenly, words are just pouring out. I’m knocking out above quota each day, loving the pacing on my story if it’s a first draft, killing my darlings on a rewrite, loving the creative dance. I’m a writer. I’m writing. I’d like to bottle it. I could sell it at writer’s conferences and make a mint.

And then BAM. Time to chop firewood. You can just never have enough. (Doesn’t it feel cold in here? Don’t worry. I got this.)

Writer Jealousy

greenmonsterIt’s a topic not frequently chatted about openly among writers. I’ve been to an embarrassing number of writer conferences and not once have I seen it on the menu. But I’m willing to bet it’s touched every writer in some way at some time somewhere along the journey. And when nobody else is listening, my writer friends confirm my suspicions.

I think it starts in high school with the English teacher who passed out the A/A papers to all the other poor writing students who only dreamed of seeing perfect scores assigned to their deepest thoughts? These, I realize now, were the first unofficial reviews (classmates rolling their eyes) of a published work–the assignment–from my publisher–English teacher, Mrs. Jones. I recently dug through an old chest of papers from 30 years ago my mom had been saving in her storage shed and found some of those A/As (not all of them mine, mind you). Why did I save random papers for 30 years from classmates I can’t even remember? Because these were held up as the best. I remembered those feelings of inadequacy if mine wasn’t the chosen one. Pangs of jealousy.

But there was also an issue on the other side. If mine was the chosen one, that, too, was slightly awkward. It wasn’t as if the teacher passed out “The Perfect Paper” and everybody threw love and gratitude the author’s way for the great care she’d taken with her similes. No. More like, “Whatever. She probably copied it.” Still, that was certainly better than the alternative.

As an adult, I notice these concepts still alive in the lives and thoughts of writers. Who gets published. Who doesn’t. Who gets an agent. Who doesn’t. Who self-publishes. Who gets picked up by a publisher. Who leaves a publisher to self-publish. Who writes in a very commercial way (vs. literary) and makes lots of money–and makes lots of writers say, “But the writing is crap.” Good reviews. Crushing bad reviews. It never stops.

The theme has snaked its way in to night time drama. Have you seen “Girls” on HBO? Aspring writer Hannah is recently out of college as an English major. (Been there.) She does a brief internship at a publisher, but when real life calls, she needs to get a job that actually pays. In Season 1, Episode 9, she is not amused when the crappy writer in one of her classes (you know the one–there’s always one) publishes a book which is wildly successful. At the big book bash party which she forces herself to attend said writer comes up to Hannah with this really awkward, “How’s your writing going? I know it must be hard when it doesn’t come naturally to you. It just pours out of me.”

Hannah, according to her English professor, is a great writer, but horribly insecure about her writing. This insecurity seems to flow through writers like the ink through their printers. Internal critics abound. Hannah sulks, realizing she’s not disappointed with crappy writer girl, but rather with herself for her own unrealized dreams.

I’ve felt this–like everyone around me is winning and I’m not winning. One time, I went to a conference and agreed to be the carpool driver and pick people up, go early and help, and take people home. (Good karma, right?)  Both my riders won top honors at the conference. I won squat. That was defeating. I wanted to throw my manuscript in the trash. Wait–something more dramatic. Burn it at night in a fire in an abandoned field while sobbing.

Once I got myself together, here’s how I decided to look at that: it’s getting closer. It’s in my car, and it’s almost to the driver’s seat. “It” is recognition. Validation. Somebody likes what I wrote. Because in the end, that’s why we do it, right? We want people to like what we write.

But becoming a master writer takes time (10,000 hours, right Burl?) It takes dedication and consistency. It takes focus. And damned if you can’t buy these things at Rite Aid. You need to dig in deep, be willing to be vulnerable, honest, and observant. Oh, and, work really, really hard BEFORE (and by before I mean in case) you get paid. All this, and yet everyone I know wants to write a book.

Today, I work at appreciating exactly where I am when I’m there. I respect and admire the A/A novels I read and am grateful to learn how language can be used in a way that tells a story so well because that is my goal, too. I feel genuinely happy inside when my writer friends do well–sell a book, get a great review, get recognized in some way along the process–no matter what part of the process I’m in at the moment. I am grateful for my mentors and am grateful when I can mentor others. What I think this means is I’ve become more secure in my own abilities. I know what needs to be done to become a better writer, and I love the process–reading, writing, growing, rewriting, rewriting, crying, rewriting.

If you’re pre-published, enjoy the waiting room. It comes with its own set of perks. Appreciate when your friends have success. What you appreciate, appreciates, and before you know it, it’ll make its way to the driver’s seat.