Clearing your head

This weekend I went camping with my 10-year-old son Travis and the Boy Scouts. We went out to Joshua Tree, the desert north of Palm Springs. Eight hundred thousand acres adjacent to the Mojave and Sonoran deserts.

Our campsite was surrounded by humongous, rounded boulders that stretched into the sky. Looked very prehistoric. Travis spent most of the time “bouldering”–climbing, jumping, skipping about the boulders. I took many deep breaths as I looked up and saw him, a 100 feet or more into the sky, standing atop a boulder, his ten-year-old body against a blue sky. Mostly I didn’t watch as he jumped, mountain goat-like, from boulder to boulder.

When it grew dark, he wanted to go bouldering again. I told him no. He got upset. I said, Imagine you’re a parent. It’s just before dinner time. Your son tells you he’s tired, his feet hurt, he would love to sleep. You have dinner as It grows dark and your son says he wants to go bouldering again. What would you say?

He saw my point. So he ran around the camp, instead, or sat by the fire as a dad who’s also a cowboy poet recited hilarious poems and played guitar.

Meanwhile, I brought along the rough draft of a book proposal I’ve been tinkering with for the last couple of months but making little headway on. Not sure why. Perhaps it’s that a proposal isn’t “real” writing, exactly. And, in a way, it’s more work–trying to figure out what you intend, what you want the book to be.

But something about being outdoors in the crisp Southern California winter air, miles away from anything, including numerous distractions–just out in the middle of the desert with few belongings, or projects, and I was able to get myself into a frame of mind where I realized what I intended. I began revising the proposal and made actual progress.

I returned home with a resolve to go camping more often. Sometimes getting away makes you relax enough to see what you need to do. I like hotels and motels and inns because of the lack of distractions, but now I’m thinking camping might even be better because there’s even fewer distractions and you are so in nature, which makes you more connected with your thoughts and feelings about things.

Maybe a writers camping getaway is in order. Those of us with kids will just have to discipline ourselves to concentrate on our work and not look up as our offspring leap through the air above us.

If that doesn’t train you to focus, I don’t know what will.

Confidence … or what?

I’m still thinking about the columnist, V, and the way he/she uses humor to avoid the heart of the matter: why he/she won’t put time and attention into the project that keeps calling him/her, that he/she obsesses over.

Afraid of success? I asked him. Which is when he went on and on about not being afraid of failure.

I liked V so much, found him/her funny and bright–but worried, beneath it all, that life is slipping him/her by and there’s still that project, calling for attention, being ignored. And how many more years will pass with the project still on the shelf? There but not there.

Is confidence the problem? Maybe V has utter confidence in his/her column-writing abilities but this other thing, the screenplay, the novel…what if? What if he/she worked on it, and it stunk?

In my current Inner Game class at UCI, I have a student I shall call Sue. During introductions the first night, she said she was “just a mom.” She felt everyone else was so beyond her.

At the start of the second class, she said she almost didn’t return, so inadequate she felt.

Tonight, at the break, she left. Her spot was glaringly empty.

After class, another student, Sara, and I walked out together. She said she had really liked what Sue had written that first night and that it was too bad Sue felt so awful about where she perceived herself to be, writing-wise.

We so get in our own way. We all do it. What a waste.

I hope Sue returns next week.

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.