Pen On Fire blog

Thinking too much

Yesterday I was invited to lunch with a friend whom I met when he was an editor at a major metropolitan newspaper I freelanced for and one of that newspaper’s columnists.

The columnist (let’s call him/her V), whom I consider successful, has had a column for many years but is bored with her job (she may be a she…then again, she may be a he…). What she’d really like to do is write a screenplay or a book or something else! Instead she comes home and spends her night watching TV. She says she knows all she has to do is DO IT, but she can’t. Something holds her back.

What motivated you to finish your book? V asked me.

I looked beyond the basket of bread. The restaurant was crowded with a couple hundred people, probably. Frank Sinatra crooned beneath the din of voices.

We remember different motivations at different times, but yesterday, what came to mind, and what I said, was, My mother and father were unhappy when they died. I didn’t want to die with a load of regrets. If I didn’t get this book published, I would have always regretted it.

But how’d you do it? V said. How’d you make yourself do it?

I made myself stay in the chair, I said. You gotta stay in the chair.

I know, V said. I know what I have to do but I don’t do it. Instead I turn on the TV.

Do it first thing in the morning, I said.

I don’t want to get up at 4:00 a.m., said V.

Leave your house, I said. Change the environment. Do your “other” writing someplace other than the newsroom or your home–someplace where you can attach your creative persona.

I know I need to do it. I just don’t, V said.

You ever have a critique group? One writing buddy?

V started joking about therapy, which is when I said, I know just the therapist for you and talked about friend, author and LA therapist, Dennis Palumbo. V joked some more.

I tried seeing the blockage in V. Maybe it was success. V is doing so well as a writer on staff, why hassle it? Yet, V longs for the fire again, the fire that is sparked when your writing moves you, when you are drawn to the chair because your writing is on fire.

This all struck me as an interesting quandry because V has a job writing a column. How many writers would love that? And yet V is bored and just can’t motivate him/herself to do the creative writing she/he constantly thinks about.

V is funny and talented and if only he/she would do it, V’s sorta downbeat (but funny) demeanor would transform.

Stop thinking too much, I said. Freewrite. Don’t think.

Yeah, I think too much, said V.

Here’s your prescription, I said. Read the chapter in Pen on Fire on freewriting and every day, get out a timer and write for 15 minutes. Stop thinking.

I know I should, V said.

Do it, I said. And stop thinking, too.

A mini-interview with friend, Jo-Ann Mapson

I’ve known Jo-Ann Mapson a long time and I always love to hear her take on things. She has published eight books of mainstream fiction as well as many freelance articles, national book reviews, and has been included in several anthologies. Blue Rodeo, one of my favorite books of hers, was made into a CBS television movie starring Kris Kristofferson and Ann-Margret. Hank & Chloe, The Wilder Sisters, and Bad Girl Creek, were national bestsellers. She teaches in the MFA program at the University of Alaska at Anchorage.

BDB: You have had a number of novels published. You’ve been prolific–even before your first novel when you were working, raising a child…. What do you account for this?

JM: I have always known I wanted to write, and thus have made room in my day for writing, even if just for a few minutes a day. Working part time—my husband sometimes worked freelance in addition to his regular job—was a help, as were times our son was in school. To write toward any kind of goal—be it short story, poem, novel, or memoir, sacrifices have to be made. Television, reading the newspaper every day, socializing. Give up one or two of those and a chunk of time is waiting.

BDB: So many people can’t find the time. What do you say when a writer says this to you?

JM: I used to say “that’s nonsense,” but now I recognize that some people are simply not ready to face up to the commitment that writing demands. Some people are not ready to be so introspective, or to slog through the boring stuff to get to the few minutes of magic. Lately, I recommend your book, Pen on Fire. If they can’t find the time after reading how to claim minutes for writing, perhaps they don’t really want to write.

BDB: You’ve been teaching at the University of Alaska for–what? two years? three?

JM: This is my fourth year teaching in the MFA Program in Writing. It is an incredible job, fun, challenging, and sometimes frustrating. It is so exciting to be with writers making such big strides. I get to see the light come on. The moment they know one truth or another about their writing. It’s indescribable.

BDB: How does teaching help (or hinder) your own writing?

JM: I learn a ton from my students. Their work informs me as a writer. Their comments, critiques, and papers often lead me into directions I might not otherwise have taken.

BDB: How do you teach writing?

JM: It depends on the course. In workshop, I explain how to critique, and we read, talk, and sometimes do exercises. In 490—the Craft of Fiction—I often focus on one aspect of writing, such as narrative, and we read books and discuss them while closely examining the chosen area. We also write several stories. In Form & Theory, a difficult class to teach, we examine form and the theories that led up to that form. For example, this semester we are looking at love and death in the American novel. Leslie Fiedler’s book of the same name is fun and irreverant. Some of the books we are reading include : The Time Traveler’s Wife; Leaving Cheyenne; Little, Big; Lawnboy; Fingersmith. Each are quirky books about love and dying. Since those topics are huge in terms of writing, it’s fun to examine them and try to emulate the process.

BDB: I would assume that your MFA helped you land your stellar teaching position. You were writing, prolifically so, for years before you got the MFA. Are MFAs necessary, do you think to getting novels published?

JM: Absolutely not. I got my MFA because I was tired of working crappy jobs. I wanted to teach. I knew it would strengthen my writing as well, and it sure did, but my primary aim was teaching at the college level. In some ways the MFA allowed me to experiment in ways I might not otherwise have. I had already written a novel that did not sell (thank God), and I tried writing another while in the program. It turned out to sell just a few weeks after graduation. But an MFA is not a guaranteed entrance into publishing. My friend Earlene Fowler is a prime example. She has no MFA. She has a career because she pushed herself to write and it paid off.

BDB: Any other words of wisdom you might offer?

JM: Read like crazy. Become an astute reader, one who moves beyond getting lost in the story to one who asks, “how did she do that?” I tell my students to break things down to syllables if necessary. Be open to your experiences. Listen, eavesdrop, tell lies in your writing in order to get to the truth underneath. But mostly it is a matter of sitting your behind down in a chair in front of the computer and putting your fingers on the keys. One thing that is essential—and hard to explain—is learning and nurturing intuition. It’s an essential writer’s tool, that kind of knowing. To foster it, you have to come to reading and writing without judgment. You have to listen with your soul, I think. Pretty soon, you will recognize things in your own work that don’t ring true. Then you have to listen and change things.

Jo-Ann’s Web site is www.joannmapson.com.

Does blogging make for less “real” writing?

My student Jordan worries that now that I have a blog, I will be doing less “real” writing. This is interesting. Not long ago I cautioned students about blogs, for this very reason: “Watch out,” I said. “You may find yourself blogging more and writing less.” So I appreciate my student’s worry.

Yet, what I’ve found is that in these few short days since I started my blog, I’ve actually been writing more–maybe as a reaction to the fear that blogging might mean less real writing.

For example, yesterday morning, when I assumed rush hour would be over at Starbucks, I packed up my iBook and mosied up the street. I ordered a latte venti, nonfat, sat at a small round table against a persimmon-colored wall, and transcribed pages upon pages of fiction from my Moleskine notebook. Now, you might say I wasn’t actually writing. But I was doing what I advise my students, and anyone else who will listen, to do: I visited with my work. I spent almost two hours transcribing. Then I came home and printed out those pages and found I have more than 300 pages of a very rough first draft that I began one year ago. So much of this novel came from freewriting. Those pockets of time we all have. Visiting with my work connected me with the story again.

But getting back to my original question: Does blogging cut down on writing? It does, and it doesn’t. I mean, all of us who blog probably emai at least one lengthy email to at least person on any given day. So why not blog?

So, my sweet worried Jordan, it’s too soon to say, but I’m hoping that instead of cutting down on real writing, blogging helps inspire it. I’ll report more in days to come. In the meantime, what about all of you who blog–does it help or hinder your writing?

Dealing with fear

Since my keynote at the conference, I’ve been hearing feedback–about the talk, about the fear of speaking, the fear of writing and publishing, and about fear itself.

Fear can be so debilitating. It stops us from doing things we’d love to do, whether it’s getting on a plane or quitting that awful job or pursuing whatever dream, whatever hoped-for-thing that calls to us. We don’t finish writing projects because we fear no one will ever want them, anyway.

And fear makes us doubt ourselves. A friend who’s published fiction and nonfiction but can’t seem to sell her latest novel now questions what she’s doing with writing and wonders what she needs to do with her next novel: How can she make it more commercial, perhaps even write a breakout novel?

She’s a wonderful writer, has a lovely literary voice. She’s not a commercial writer. She knows it’s so very competitive today and tries not to take it personally. Yet the self-doubts haunt her.

Novels continue to be published. First-time novelists continue to be published. Maybe not as quickly as nonfiction authors but they still are. And even nonfiction is no cakewalk. At one point (one very long point) I was cautioned that there were too many writing books and not to expect that mine would be published. Still, it was a book I had to write and longed to publish.

It takes a crazy streak of optimism to be a writer–to be any type of artist, really.

And it takes a certain brand of fearlessness, realizing the fear is there and getting on the plane anyway, quitting the awful job anyway, pursuing the dream anyway.

I used to hate public speaking. I’d stand up and tremble and go all pasty and white. I’d stop smiling. My mind would go blank. I did it anyway. (I considered Toastmasters but passed on that idea; I didn’t need one more obligation.) I figured I’d just do talks when the opportunities arose and that eventually I’d eventually get better.

Use fear. Trust it. Go through it and you just may arrive where you want to go.

Erica Jong said, “Fear is a sign—usually a sign that I’m doing something right.” Yup.

The SDSU Writers Conference

I spent the weekend at the San Diego State University writers conference. Talk about massive! Dozens of editors and literary agents from New York, San Francisco and L.A. and hundreds of people in attendance. Very few authors speaking or on panels: I was one of maybe three. It’s definitely the conference to attend if you want to network; if you have a book to sell or you’re looking for an agent, this is the place. In that regard, it was very different from other conferences I’ve attended that were long on authors and short on agents and editors.

They hold one-on-one sessions where, for ten minutes or so, you can meet with various agents and editors. Interestingly, I later talked with a few agents who said many people came in, not with a project they wanted to pitch, but with questions about becoming full time writers, and whether that was a viable course they should take. And of those that did come in to pitch a project, many were so very nervous and had their pitch memorized, and the agents said they tried to convey to them: loosen up! Relax! Enjoy yourself and the process. This isn’t your only chance!

I gave the keynote speech on Sunday morning. I do love speaking, which is so bizarre since public speaking used to be right up there with all of my major fears. Public speaking is a major fear of most people, right up there with death. (I don’t fear death so much as I fear all death’s accoutrements: the morgue, morticians dealing with my dead, naked body…)

But now I love speaking. It can be so much fun. I like inspiring folks, making them laugh; there can be a dearth of inspiration and laughter in the world, y’know?

I was cautioned not to promo my book too much during my talk–it could sound like hype and be a turn-off–so I hardly promoed it at all. As a result, few books sold. In an ideal world, all authors would sell a book or two to everyone present–one for their mother, one for their dog…. It is hoped (by your publisher, by your agent, by you!) that you’ll sell books at events, and if you don’t, you wonder: What should I have done differently? What should I do next time? What would Pamela Anderson do? Kidding! No matter–I love conferences and all types of book events regardless of sales. But in these crazed days of publishing, marketing remains stuck on the brain.

So I would definitely recommend this conference next year if you want to network, meet agents and such. High quality folks attended, too, I thought. One caveat: If you stay at the Doubletree Hotel, where the conference is held, make sure you get a room on a nonsmoking floor (unless you smoke, of course). The room smelled fine, but the hallway reeked.