manhattan beached

I just finished Jennifer Egan's MANHATTAN BEACH, which I whole-heartedly recommend. I've heard several complaints about the book being over-researched, and I agree that it sometimes wears its research heavily, but it didn't diminish my enjoyment of the book. It's true that my academic research includes the 1940s, which is when the book is set, so I'm predisposed to like fictional imaginations of the time period -- and I gobbled up the factoids Egan offered like they were day-old candy corn. But I also felt that the research lent itself to this feeling of whole absorption in the world that Egan had created. The abundance of detail simultaneously makes that world feel more real and historically accurate, and reminds us of the presence of the author and her role in building that world.

There's so much emotional intensity in the book, but aside from some special moments when that intensity slips into the relationships between characters (Anna and Dexter, Eddie and Lydia), most of that intensity is inwardly directed.... People figuring out what they want and setting themselves to achieving it. That combination of determination and introspection made every character very dear and relatable to me, even when they did terrible things.

The mood of the book is so strange and interesting. It really does feel like you are underwater with Anna, sliding slowly through the characters' lives, burdened by their troubles and the weight of that godawful diving suit. I think this is the hardest thing to achieve in any book, a certain mood that is so evocative and clear and unique. When I think about it, I want to distill the book down to colors: dark turquoise, forest green, shards of mud and paler blue... (This is also where I think the cover design on this book is PERFECT, melancholy but with a spit of light, like a clouded-over diving visor -- too perfect.) (Writing this made me feel like my synesthesia is stronger than I thought.)

How do you do this, as a writer? Create a mood with words? But genuinely, how, on the level of craft? This is something I've been thinking about a lot lately, because in academia we don't have a good theoretical way for talking about it (tone is notoriously the least theorized element of writing*), and as a writer I feel like it happens mostly on some subconscious level. You have the desire to achieve an effect, and then somehow you come up with words that you think communicate that effect. But how? Which words? What is actually responsible for mood or tone in writing?

These aren't rhetorical questions -- I want to know your answers! I mean I know I have like 8 readers so I don’t actually expect anyone to comment. Nor do I think there ARE answers. I kind of feel like it's a central Mystery of Life, actually. Impossible to solve perfectly, but fun to try to figure it out. So let’s discuss it next time we see each other.

* I don't think mood and tone are synonymous but I think the difficulties in describing them come from the same place.

how do you write?

How do you write?

A lot of people answer this question by talking about their routine. 6:12am, cup of coffee, listening to Italian opera on Spotify, ten breathing exercises, a single lamp on in their office. Or maybe: writing when it comes to them, anywhere, on the subway on their phone, dictating paragraphs as they walk their kids to school, up late at night typing maniacally on their keyboards as their spouse tries to sleep. Or something in between.

These routines are interesting from a voyeuristic perspective, which is why there are infinitely many interviews about writing routines to be found online.

But they also seem to me to be something a bit tangential to what people with the question are really asking, which is, How can I write? I know how to sit at a desk, I know how to open a computer, but how can I come up with stories?

How can I literally write?

If this is you, I think there are a few things to think about.

Personally—and I know other writers may be different—I have been coming up with stories since I was old enough to string together sentences, or perhaps more accurately, old enough to lie. Of course, most of these stories were terrible. And of course, I always struggle to find the right story, or the right way to tell it. No one said writing was easy. But the germs of ideas are always floating around my mind, like dandelion tufts in a breeze.

After you choose one of the tufts and pluck it (see earlier entry about where you get your ideas), writing about it becomes a matter of explaining the tuft. How did it get there? Where is it going? What does it look like? What is special about its outlook? What does it want? (Dandelion tufts not being generally known as sentient, this metaphor is now starting to seem like a badly plucked idea.)

 

Now here’s where I might get controversial. So feel free to disagree. But I sort of think if you don’t have dandelion tufts of fiction floating around in your brain, if you aren’t constantly making up weird stories about people you meet, or inventing characters, or falling asleep thinking about imaginary worlds, then maybe you aren’t meant to be writing fiction.

That’s fine! Not everyone needs to write fiction! Would you expect everyone to paint, or do interpretative dance, or perform heart surgeries, or make an amazing cup of coffee? People have different skills and paths in life, and that’s okay. There’s a tendency, maybe less so now that we’re shifting to a more television-based society, to believe that everyone has a book inside them. And I’m sure everyone has many things they could write about. But like most careers, writing is a grueling and largely unrewarding journey, so if you don’t feel drawn to the act of it… if you aren’t obsessed with creating fictional worlds… if you feel like only publication and a movie deal would bring meaning to your work… if the idea of writing instead of watching the new season of Stranger Things is completely unthinkable… 

Then maybe you are not supposed to be writing.

That’s okay.

It’s not a judgment on you.

Or a suggestion that you have no inner life.

It’s just that maybe you need to find a different outlet for your creativity and passion.

In that case, it might be helpful to spend some time thinking about why you think you want to write. What do you want to get out of it? Are there other ways to accomplish it?

 

To clarify, I don’t want to suggest that writing should be easy, and that if it’s not easy, you shouldn’t be doing it. That would be crazy! Writing is hard for everyone, even (maybe especially) people who have been writing for a very long time. Writer’s block can be devastating and can seem endless.

Also, there are challenges to overcome before you start writing. Maybe you need to gain confidence. Or learn to type. Or gain fluency. Or just find the time, which is so hard in this 24-hour world.

These are real obstacles. It may take you a long time to overcome them. That is okay. I have been very lucky to have material conditions that have allowed me to write seriously for a long time, and if I hadn’t had those material conditions, I don’t know where I would be today.

 

My point is…

There are so many obstacles to writing.

Coming up with a story shouldn’t be one of them.

 

[Thoughts about routines and writer’s block to come another time!]

writing while not writing

Sit down and write.

This is the essence of a lot of writing advice, and quite rightly so. Many writers will tell you that you should take all the time you spend talking about writing and put it into actually working on your novel. They're not wrong. No book ever got written without some serious quality time in a desk chair. (Or bed, or standing desk, or treadmill desk, or pool lounger. Whatever floats your writing boat.) The fastest way to write a book is to write it.

This sounds like common sense, but we all know those people who talk a lot about all the work they're doing and never actually do any of it. It's the same with writing, for sure. And it's hard to overstate how isolating, disheartening, and mind-warping it can be to force yourself to be creative for a certain amount of time every day. Sitting through it, getting through it, is challenging. The writers who manage to do it deserve credit for that work.

That said, what I have realized increasingly over the past couple years is that the other stuff -- the talking, the boasting, the kvetching, the networking, the thinking -- matters a lot, too. Earlier this summer, my very Italian uncle told me his rule of cooking: the longer you cook something at lower heat, the more flavorful it tastes. I don't know that this is always true with writing, but I do think that sometimes, as you go about the world talking and thinking about writing, you are just turning the pot down to a lower temperature and letting your ideas simmer.

I'm an impatient person with a big work ethic, so I have a tendency to want to sit down and crank stuff out. But the process of writing, rewriting, rewriting, rewriting, and rewriting my latest novel has taught me that there are dangers to just pressing forward. You end up having to delete a lot of words. This isn't the biggest deal; for me, it's part of my process. At the same time, as I go forward, I'm aiming to do more planning work upfront. Which means telling myself it's okay to step away from the computer.

And daydreaming! There's a tendency to scoff at people who talk about material ends to writing. The movie deal they want to sign, the signings they want to give. The droolworthy deal. Writing is not a very materially rewarding occupation, so these comments can come off as very naive. Still, I want to come to the defense of daydreaming. Novels are ambitious projects. Often painfully so. Daydreaming about finishing the first draft or winning the National Book Award or having your book made into a Hollywood movie or just having someone read it and connect with it -- these may be lofty and even unattainable goals, but daydreams can be a useful balm for the despair and boredom that often accompany difficult writing projects. You may want to keep some of the daydreams to yourself (especially the ones about movies, for a variety of reasons).

Most importantly, in terms of non-writing writing time, read. I can't say this enough. Read. Read. Read. I'm going to have to write about this again another day because I have too much to say on this subject.

So while the "sit down and write" advice is fundamentally true -- and I think people struggle more with writing than with not writing, so it's probably better advice on a practical level -- there are all kinds of ways to grow as a writer while not actually writing.

So go on, grab your coffee, grab your computer, thunk down into your chair, start up your treadmill desk. But if you need a few minutes to think about where you've been and where you're going, that's okay, too. It doesn't make you less diligent. It might make you a better writer.

 

where do you get your ideas?

Imagine you are a writer. (Since you're reading this, you probably don't even need to imagine!) You are at a party, eating burnt pigs-in-a-blanket and drinking warm beer, talking to a person whom you just met and whose name you cannot remember. They find out what you do. Then: "I have a great idea for a book, why don't you write it and we can split the proceeds?"

You can see how the thought comes about. I want to have written this book, I don't have the time or inclination or skill to write it, here is someone who apparently has all three, perfect. And I think most people who propose such an arrangement are completely well-intentioned. Simply oblivious to the norms of the writing industry and excited about their idea, because ideas are exciting.

The problem is that ideas are not the hardest part of writing. Good ideas are a dime a dozen. Probably every day I think of a book I want to write, and I get all worked up about it, and then I remember I have to finish the book I'm currently working on, and then the one I have planned after that, and then the one after that. Maybe I'll get to that cool idea in like 20 years or something. Just in time for it to be retro.

But where do those ideas come from? This is a question I have gotten many times. Fortunately, my painter friend Liza Samuel turned me onto this amazing essay by Siri Hustvedt, "Why One Story and Not Another?" and since then whenever anyone asks I just tell them to read that essay. Hustvedt's basic thesis is that stories -- the way we tell them, the way we think about them, the way they occur to us -- come from the sum total of our life experiences. These experiences shape our thoughts so fully that when we need to make an artistic decision, there is only one true decision we can make. Hustvedt writes:

It is the accumulation of years of reading and thinking and living and feeling. It is the result of autobiography in the loosest sense—not as literal facts, but as the creation of a story that appears from a writer’s depths and feels emotionally true to her.

Boom. Hey, hello.

So when someone comes up to you and says that you should write their story, there are two ridiculous things about it. First, you can't write their idea the way they want to write it. It won't feel emotionally true because it won't be emotionally true. Theoretically if their idea resonated with you, you could take it and write from that starting point, but what emerged would be so warped and confused as to be almost unrecognizable. Second, as I said, the idea isn't the hardest part of writing. The hard part of writing is getting up every day and opening your Scrivener document even though just looking at your book makes you want to vomit. The hard part of writing is throwing out 100,000 words because they weren't good enough. They weren't emotionally true. The hard part of writing is trying to seem like a normal person when you spend most of the day in your pajamas and subsist on a diet of dill-flavored pita chips.

You know, for example.

N.B. The exception to this, sort of, is ghostwriting, where you do literally take someone else's idea and turn it into a book. But ghostwriting is different. Ghostwriters are paid up front (...because the labor takes place up front) and talented ghostwriters are able to tune into their client enough to produce a book -- a novel, a business book, whatever -- that reads as emotionally true. Any random writer is not necessarily a good ghostwriter. Ghostwriting is a particular and highly specialized skill.

hello and welcome

I was talking to a friend last week about how hard it was to find good writing advice online. We were sitting in a restaurant that was temporarily pretending to be a coworking space, our feet propped up on carved bar stools as we chomped ginger chews and swigged endless cups of mint tea and battered our poor keyboards to death. The freelance life. I had been searching for some very specific information related to the publishing industry, but -- despite being able to find any friend's random love interest on social media in thirty seconds flat based on a first name alone -- had, in this case, surfaced from the depths of Google empty-handed.

The problem was not that there was no writing advice, but that there was too much of it, and it tended to be neither precise nor informed. A lot of it was either bare-bones factual (useful to an extent, but lacking in color) or embroidered rumor (useful in increasing anxiety levels, but not in teaching me what I needed to know). I am not being coy when I say that these pieces of writing advice must be useful to other people. After all, they ended up on the first couple pages of search results somehow!* But for various reasons that maybe I will tell you if you buy me a glass of Pinot or retweet my website, they were not useful to me and the way that I think about writing.

So I thought it would be nice to start a place to collate some thoughts about writing -- mine and others' -- as a way of working through some of my own questions about the craft and industry, while also hopefully sharing some useful information.

What makes me think I have anything useful to say about writing? Honestly, I'm not sure. I do teach creative writing and literature. I think a lot about form and structure and literary history, both from creative and critical perspectives. I love writing and I love helping my students become better writers, because OMG the world needs better writers. But I also have this worry, which I think many women share, that I shouldn't speak until I know I have something to say. A fear that whatever I have to say is useless. This is a fear I want to move past, so I guess I have to tackle the fear the only way I know how: by writing through it.

The title "Uncover the Bones" is a paraphrase of Stephen King in his book ON WRITING, one of the books whose writing advice I find very useful, because King and I share an appreciation for the declarative and prescriptive. Anyway, he writes:

Stories are found things, like fossils in the ground ... Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world.

Your job, as a writer, is to uncover those fossils, chipping away at the crud around them until you have the beautiful, streamlined thing.

This is perhaps the best metaphor for writing -- seconded by Ann Patchett's metaphor about the butterfly, which I'll talk about another time -- that I've ever read. It is both specific and capacious. It emphasizes work, but also magic, because art is magic. Magic that you've sweated through; pit-stained, deodorant-breaking magic... but magic all the same.

* I don't actually know how Google search results work at all, and I am okay with that.