Letting Go of Your Work

If you pursue any kind of artistic endeavor, you invest a lot into it. Ernest Hemingway once said; “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” I’m not a big Hemingway fan, but I think his mastery of the simply stated shines through here. Blood, sweat, and tears aren’t always a metaphor. Having invested so much of ourselves, and our time, into our writing (or any art form), we become quite attached to it, and understandably so. It’s not a coincidence my first entry was called “Your Baby is Ugly.” In a very real sense, our writing can be like our children. We birth it, we raise it, we marvel as it grows and develops, we protect it when we feel it’s being attacked. And sometimes, we even see it die, but please don’t email me about what a bad comparison that is. I’m not saying that the death of something you’ve written is even in the same solar system as losing a child. However, as I said, we do become attached to those things we work hard to create, and so it becomes a handy analogy. Through all the stages, there’s a final step we often forget, which is that our beloved creation takes on a life of its own. It becomes something separate from us and ventures into the world. That hard part is letting go.

Now, I don’t mean in the literal sense of submitting your writing. I’m talking about the next step after that, when it actually gets into someone else’s hands. Once you share your writing, it’s not yours anymore. This might sound like a romantic notion, but there’s more to it than that. What I mean is what your writing “means.” Sure, you’ll be able to tell people what it’s about: the story, plot, and characters, but your thoughts on what you’re trying to express are no longer the only correct ones.

Each of us is truly unique. We each take different paths through our lives, and even the things we share in common are seen through lenses shaped by previous experiences. Combine that with our individual genetic predispositions (to whatever impact they may have), our ever changing world, and you can see how astronomical are the odds of any two people having the same set of experiences. As such, we all experience the world in different ways. Take Starry Night by Van Gogh, one of the most recognizable paintings in the world. Van_Gogh_-_Starry_Night I don’t know if we have any kind of record what Vincent was thinking when he composed this, but honestly, it doesn’t matter. Odds are we’ve all seen this picture. Some of us love it, myself included. Others are more sanguine about it, while still others don’t care for it. Are any of us wrong? Okay, that’s an easy one. How about this; what’s it about? What’s it mean? When you look at it do you see a serene and peaceful night? Does it bring back memories of your childhood? Or do you see a dark and cold night, imagining yourself standing alone on a hillside looking down at the town, at the lit houses where you know you’ll find no comfort? Or do you feel no strong reaction at all? Again, are any of those interpretations wrong?

When you let your writing go, you’re offering it up to the world. Someone could read your work and have a reaction to it that is nowhere near what you’d expected, or perhaps hoped. And yet, the very act of putting it out there is an act of surrender. If someone wants to know, you can explain what you were going for, what inspired you, etc. But, your thoughts are now simply your opinion, one amongst many in fact. Think of a song you love. If the person who wrote it, or performed it, came up to you and told you that what you thought the song was about was completely off base, would it really change how it makes you feel? What it does in your mind?

I recently posted some poems here, and I didn’t say what they meant, or were about, for the reason I just explained. For me, poetry is especially personal. I can tell you what I was thinking and feeling when I wrote it, I could explain the imagery I was going for, but that’s not as relevant as what you think and feel when you read it. Those poems, like anything I put out to the world, are not mine anymore. They’re yours. They’re ours. As writers, as artists, I think we strive for connection in our expressions. I’m storyteller at heart, and of course I love knowing someone was entertained by a story I came up with, but I’m hoping people find something in it that’s familiar to them. Something that says despite each us being unique, there are countless experiences, thoughts, feelings, “things” we have in common to one degree or another. In a world that is increasing isolated, ironically because of all the social media and interconnectedness of the world, we writers, painters, sculptors, actors, what have you, use our art like a message in a bottle, cast into the vast ocean surrounding our individual islands in hopes it reaches someone else on theirs.

Of course that’s just me. I could very well be insane. I heard a quote attributed to Picaso, I have no idea if it was his or not, but I like it. “All artists are half-crazy, but so long as I’m submerged in my work, I’ll be okay.”

Writing: A Journey, Not a Destination (Part 4)

This is the fourth, and final installment of a four part series on the journey or writing. If you missed the other three parts, you can read them here, here, and here, respectively.

Stage 4: Senility.

For most of us, there’re really only three stages. Not many of us are around long enough as writers to lose our literary marbles. But, some do. I’m not going to name names, but most of us can think of a favorite writer (or musician, or actor, or whatever) who produced work we loved, and then, well, something happened. Perhaps it was a complete reversion to infancy, like real old-age can sometimes do, or something more akin to grandpa’s obsession with buying peanut butter.

“It was on sale, and you should always have some peanut butter, so I bought you six jars!”

“Wow, um, that’s great. Thanks, Grandpa. I’ll just put them in the cupboard with the other eight jars you’ve given me.”

He might be eccentric, but he’s grandpa and we love him. I said I wasn’t going to name names, but maybe just one. For those in my generation, the original Star Wars movies were almost mythical. I’m not a diehard Star Wars geek, but I’m a fan. When Episode 1 came out, often referred to as “The episode which must not be named,” there was a general consensus amongst my peers that George Lucas had “lost his freaking mind.” I’ve since learned that members of the younger generation, those who were kids when Episode 1 was released, feel he really came into his own with the prequels and that the first movies were his lesser works. They’re completely wrong of course, but that’s beside the point. It actually shows us something important. Crazy, like so much else, is all about perspective.

In truth, we should all be so lucky to reach this stage. It means we’ve been around long enough that we’ve developed a devoted fan base. It means we have readers who were touched and changed by something, or many things, we wrote. They developed an emotional tie to our work and when that tie doesn’t seem to be there anymore, it hurts. No, it’s not fair to assume our favorite artist will never change, but we do sort of hope they don’t. Don’t look at me that way. Are you someone who cheers and screams at a concert, even when the band you love doesn’t play any of their big hit songs, just stuff from their latest album? Yeah, I thought so.

Writing, like life, is a journey. We’re always growing, learning, and changing. Sometimes that means we’ll grow in ways that will make old fans move along, but like George Lucas, the change might also bring in a whole new generation of fans. For most of us, change is a gradual and generally painful thing. It takes a long time for us to change that much, so, yes, I think we’d all be lucky to be writing long enough for that to happen. I look forward to the day I excitedly present my readers with the book equivalent of six jars of peanut butter and they smile politely and put the book on their shelves anyway.

Writing: A Journey, Not a Destination (Part 3)

This is the third part of a four-part series. If you missed parts one or two, you can read them here and here, respectively.

Stage 3: Adulthood.

I like to say the main difference between me now, as an adult, and me as a teenager is this: now I know I don’t know anything.

While wisdom does not always come with maturity, the two do usually walk hand-in-hand. Do I think I’m wise? I do, but in the same sense as Socrates. He was called the wisest man in Athens, and he said he was wise because he admitted he didn’t know anything. Only by acknowledging ignorance in something can you be open to learning. To loosely quote the movie Avatar, it’s hard to pour water in a cup that’s already full.

Literary adulthood isn’t the point at which we’ve come to recognize the bounds of our writing ignorance; it’s just when we admit we have writing ignorance. The first time you look at your writing and think it could be better, and that someone might be able to give you some good advice, is when you earn your grownup writer pants. Unfortunately, that moment is rarely achieved in a pleasant way. For many, myself included, it comes after being beaten senseless with less than complimentary feedback, usually repeatedly and brutally. After the third or fourth concussion from trying to walk through a wall, you start to realize the wall isn’t going to disappear, and maybe you should find another way in. After receiving a number of rejections from agents and publishers, I decided perhaps it was the manuscript. I wrote a short story, which I posted online. It was fairly well received, so I decided to make it into a full novel. The Stolen Child was born. Now, if I’d still been a literary teen, I would’ve just started submitting that story. Instead, I decided I was going to make sure it was the best it could be. I bought some books on character development, read articles online, and then I bought a book on editing, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. I won’t turn this into a commercial for the book. I’ll just say that I got a lot out of it, but I was also ready to learn because I’d admitted to myself that I didn’t know anything. When I reached a point where I knew I couldn’t take my book any further, I decided it was time to put my money where my mouth was, literally. I hired an editor. Again, I don’t want this to become a commercial, so I’m not going to mention who I hired. However, I knew it wasn’t going to be cheap, so I spent a LOT of time researching editors before deciding on one. If you’ve read my other posts, you know it was brutal at times. But I forced myself to hear what was said, to really listen and try to understand. That, in essence, is what makes us adults, no matter the realm; writing, life, music, driving, what have you. Taking criticism, especially harsh criticism, isn’t easy, but to my mind, it is a defining characteristic of maturity.

Stupid people don’t learn from their mistakes. Smart people do learn from their mistakes. Wise people learn from other people’s mistakes. We should hope to be smart, but strive to be wise.

To be concluded next week with senility.

Writing: A Journey, Not a Destination (Part 2)

Last time I wrote about writing infancy, which you can read here if you missed it.

Stage 2: Adolescence.

Your narrative voice starts to crack about the time you realize you’re pretty good at this writing thing. Our literary puberty could start in a number of ways. Maybe like me, you find your peers and teachers reacting well to things you’ve written. Maybe you win some contests, or have an article published in the local paper. However it happens, it’s most likely positive reinforcement that causes you to start to change.

Writing teenagers, like most teenagers, know well, like, everything. Duh. They understand what truly brilliant and magnificent writers they are. After all, so many people have told them they should be writers. How many? Well, um, like, a bunch! Their paths are clear; the entire literary world is eagerly awaiting their arrival. They alone have the comfort of knowing that anyone who criticizes them, is totally clueless, and just doesn’t get it.

Lest you think I’m letting myself off the hook, I remember very clearly the first writing course I took in college. I’d received some negative feedback on my writing up to that point, but it was really more neutral than outright negative. I was working on my novel Taleth-Sidhe, and all my friends loved it! So, I knew it had to be awesome; after all, my friends wouldn’t lie to me. So, I took the first couple chapters and turned them in for the writing exercise. I listened to the amateurs in the class read their examples, and offered them my expert feedback. Then it was my turn to read. I’d been writing poetry for many years before this (during the coffeehouse and poetry reading height of the late 90s). Those readings, combined with my experience as an actor, meant I knew how to tell a story (one of the few things I was right about at that stage). I read the first two chapters, then sat back and waited for the praise to come rolling in. I wouldn’t have been surprised if the whole class had lifted me on their shoulders and named me their king. Okay, I would’ve been a little surprised.

To put it mildly, that didn’t happen. To put it accurately; I was eviscerated. Granted, I’d written a fantasy story and not everyone in the class was a fan of that genre, but all the notes and feedback made my pages looked like someone had sacrificed a chicken on them. Actually, more like an entire flock. I was beyond confused, but like all good teenagers, I eventually got over it and realized those people just didn’t know what they were talking about. Clearly my writing was just over their heads.

Now, it’s true some in their writing teens might be open to learning, or hearing less than glowing feedback. But, those are generally the writing equivalent to teenagers who fit in better with adults than peers. In short, they’re mature for their age. The vast majority of teenagers are, well, not. It’s not that they’re immature, just correctly mature for their age; they believe they know everything, and aren’t inclined to listen to others’ opinions People in their writing teens are often the same way.

To be continued next week with adulthood.

Writing: A Journey, Not a Destination (Part 1)

Writing: A Journey, Not a Destination.

Like so much in life, and like life itself, we often hear, “it’s a journey, not a destination.” But what does that mean? It means that your focus is not on trying to get somewhere, it’s on how you’ll always be working at a task or experience. Now, you might be someone who’s written a book and once it’s published you’ll never write anything else. I’ve heard people say they had only that one book inside them. These people are rare, though. Most of us who call ourselves writers plan to keep writing for as long as we can. Part of this means that, like it or not, we’ll grow and change as we hone our writing craft. Like in life, we’ll learn and have our notions shaped by positive and negative experiences. And also like in life, we all grow and mature at different rates.

Much like doctors “practice” medicine, I like to think writers “practice” writing. So here are my thoughts on the various stages of being a writer that we all go through. You could easily apply these thoughts to just about anything, but I’m going to stick to writing since that’s sort of “my thing” on this blog.

Stage 1: Infancy.

Like in life, we all start here in our writing. Odds are that your writing journey began not long after you learned to read and write in general. Like an infant, we stumble around trying to figure out how language works. We have to learn that while more than one dog are dogs, more than one mouse are mice, and more than one fish are, well, still fish. And let’s not even talk about more than one octopus being octopuses or octopi. Yes, technically both are correct.

As with all good infants, we learn by observing as well as by trial and error. Most of us are still in this writing stage long after we leave our actual infancy behind. It’s really no wonder because the early years of school are when we learn all the technical rules of writing: nouns, verbs, clauses, punctuation, etc. Separately though, we might be maturing as storytellers, which means later on, we’ll need to bring stories and grammar together.

Writing infants will generally compose thinly veiled rewrites of stories they’ve heard/seen/read: a princess with four mean step-sisters, for example. No, it isn’t always quite THAT thinly veiled, but you get the idea. This is where we start to learn what kind of stories and characters resonate with others, as well as with us.

Depending on when you actually begin writing seriously, writing infancy can last well into adulthood or even old age. There are plenty of people who aren’t serious about writing until they’re well into their adult lives or even retirement. I want to make this clear. There is no “normal” about when people move from one stage to the next. It doesn’t matter if you started writing when you were 7 or 70. If it’s something you love, I say well done you for starting!

To be continued next week with adolescence.