The Work of Writing and Friends
WORK IS MEMORY: I was reminded by a writer friend of mine today about the struggle to work at writing when it is going poorly or not at all. It is an easy reminder for me because mine has not been going well recently. You can tell by my increased attention to my website here. I was also reminded by an opinion piece in The Times. Susan Cain writes: “One explanation for these findings is that introverts are comfortable working alone—and solitude is a catalyst to innovation. As the influential psychologist Hans Eysenck observed, introversion fosters creativity by “concentrating the mind on the tasks in hand, and preventing the dissipation of energy on social and sexual matters unrelated to work.” What did help me today was offering my time to help her by remembering my own experience earlier in my own career.
WORK IS PRACTICE: The best thing you can do is show up for it every day, because like any art, much of it takes place between sessions at the page and much of it takes place in the subconscious. I just wrote a paragraph about my main character in my Cuban novel where he imagines that his skin has turned dark overnight. It’s actually the first night he spends together with Tesora, and the vision signifies to him how shallow his prejudice against Africans had been: his mind is blown and his skin is now brown.
WORK IS CRITICISM: Yes, it’s hard to take criticism, but writing is a form of conversation, so feedback is important. Someone once said that whenever someone tells you a piece of your writing doesn’t work, the critic is probably right—at the same time that person, when they tell you how to fix it, they’re almost always wrong. You must stick to that inner self who knows the truth, whatever that is. Take time to sit quietly every day to listen to your inner voice (don’t worry if it sounds exactly like silence). No one can read the vision behind the piece you write.
WORK IS LISTENING: And to show up every day, is also to be a part of that audience yourself. You change and your point of view changes a bit every day, so you can be a better critic for yourself. One of my critics, a young Japanese woman, who writes urban fantasy, is someone I picked who would be far from my own point of view, certainly. She expects a whole different thing from writing—more present-tense action. Me, I think action is best emphasized by pauses, like music uses it to produce rhythm and cadence. I still enjoy reading books who were born in the 1800s. Plus, I have a propensity to enjoy and accomplish a certain lyricism. I enjoy reading it, and I enjoy creating it, too. So way to hang in there, writers: who told you writing was easy? It’s simple enough; you just stare at the page until blood forms on your forehead: no problem.
WORK IS COLLABORATING: Writing with a partner right there at your side can be helpful too. For a whole year, once a week, I trekked down to the Reading Room of the Boston Public Library and met a friend and we both wrote for a few hours and then had tea to congratulate each other. It was a wonderful way to learn how to show up for the work. Writing regularly helps you to feel good about yourself, even when that time is not a big number. Other things always get in the way: keep writing and feel good about that. I wrote much of one novel commuting on a bus, surrounded by black high school kids yelling and blasting music. At first I thought it would be impossible to write like that, but then it just became part of my routine like the Boston Public Library. Years later it gave me the idea for my last novel with the plot involving a Scottish boy marooned in an all-African Cuban town. Did you ever hear the phrase, “acceptance is the answer to all my problems”? That also applies to writing as well.