Perfection in Writing?

Get over yourself. You’re a writer. So write.

Need some help getting over a desire for perfection? Self-doubt, seen in an obsession to perfect your prose in fears of being exposed as an unworthy imposter (we’ve all felt that, right?), can be debilitating. Here are some tips from great writers that have proved helpful to me.

“No matter how hard you work on your writing, there will always be other writers who are better, faster, deeper, more popular, richer. And that’s fine.”
– Jane Yolen

“Perfection of means and confusion of goals seem, in my opinion, to characterize our age.”
~ Albert Einstein

“A book is like a man—clever and dull, brave and cowardly, beautiful and ugly. For every flowering thought there will be a page like a wet and mangy mongrel, and for every looping flight a tap on the wing and a reminder that wax cannot hold the feathers firm too near the sun.”
– John Steinbeck

“Knowing how to work as a farmer has helped me a lot as a writer. You don’t, for instance, have such a thing as ‘farmer’s block.’ If you’ve got animals to take care of, you take care of them.”
– Wendell Berry

“Once the book or the story is written nobody cares and nobody knows what was written on a good day or what was written on a bad day. Nobody knows or cares how fast it was written. (Coraline was written over ten years. That’s an average of about nine words a day.) By the time the book’s been copy-edited and is ready to be published, nobody will know or care or remember which days you enjoyed writing it and which days you didn’t, not even you.”
– Neil Gaiman

“Noise proves nothing. Often a hen who has merely laid an egg cackles as if she had laid an asteroid.”
– Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens), in Following the Equator, Pudd’nhead Wilson’s New Calendar

“To reach a port we must sail, sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it. But we must not drift or lie at anchor.”
– Oliver Wendell Holmes

“Isak Dinesen [Danish author Karen Blixen] said that she wrote a little every day, without hope and without despair.”
– Raymond Carver

That last quote is truly one of my favorites. We all understand that we should write without despair. But without hope? It means that writing is not a matter of wishful thinking, but what you do, one day at a time. It is a commitment not requiring a promise of a wonderful outcome. Perfection of means or confusion of goals? Your goal as a writer is to write, today. It is what we do. Dithering over the perfection of means will hold you back.

You’re a writer. So write.

November Hodgepodge 2013 – Keep Writing!

[Are your fingers flying feverishly on a NaNoWriMo project? Or are you you working on something else? Here are a few quotes to encourage you to keep writing!]

I don’t impose any word count or number-of-hours quota on myself, or have any rules, except one: persistence. Nothing glamorous. No epiphanies. Just revisiting and rewriting. For me, momentum is far more important than inspiration.
– Pam Muñoz Ryan

Write in any way that works for you. Write in a tuxedo or in the shower with a raincoat or in a cave deep in the woods.
– John Gardner

The tragedy of life is not death, but what we let die inside us while we live.
– Norman Cousins

A goal is a dream with a finish line.
– Duke Ellington

“Go back?” he thought. “No good at all! Go sideways? Impossible! Go forward? Only thing to do! On we go!” So up he got, and trotted along with his little sword held in front of him and one hand feeling the wall, and his heart all of a patter and a pitter.
– Bilbo Baggins, in The Hobbit

Keep going; never stop; sit tight;
Read something luminous at night.
– Edmund Wilson

I learned never to empty the well of my writing, but always to stop when there was still something there in the deep part of the well, and let it refill at night from the springs that fed it.
– Ernest Hemingway

There is neither a proportional relationship, nor an inverse one, between a writer’s estimation of a work in progress and its actual quality. The feeling that the work is magnificent, and the feeling that it is abominable, are both mosquitoes to be repelled, ignored, or killed, but not indulged.
Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes.
– Norwegian proverb

[Okay, that last item is not really about writing, but it might help you find an extra ounce of gumption in the face of literary or life’s headwinds.]

Just Say No to NaNo (WriMo)

If you really want to try to write novel in a month, I am not going to stand in your way.

NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. The goal is to commit, sitting side by side (virtually) with thousands of other avid fictioneers, to pen a 50,000-word manuscript in 30 days, starting at midnight on Nov. 1 with 0 words written.

Sure, a few of the impulses behind this zany idea are valid. For instance:

  • It’s good to set goals.
  • It’s good to create a specific timeline in which you commit to reaching a specific goal.
  • It’s good to tell others your goals.
  • It’s good to write daily, if possible.
  • It’s good to try to find extra time to write even if you seem too pressed by other obligations  to have much time for literary creation.

Fine. And the NaNoWriMo challenge may sound fun and possibly productive (at least in October).

But the problem: a madcap, caffeinated dash to write 50,000 words in 30 days and call it a novel is a bit foolhardy.

What is most likely to happen? After a week or ten days, the creative juices will flag. At about the two-week point, you’ll start to seriously get tired.

You’ll ask yourself, should I continue? Some will quit. Others will stiffen the spine, declare they are not quitting, superglue their posteriors to their chairs (or growl at anyone who approaches them in the coffee shop), and plunge along.

It’s just that few good novels are written in this way. I’ve always recommended NaNoWriMo as a good time to commit to writing more diligently. (As is most any time, but November is good, as the fall settles in and our gardens are done and we begin to look at what we’ve achieved this year and hope to accomplish in the near future.)

But make a realistic plan. Please.

Am I being too Midwestern? Too practical?

Here’s what I’d rather that you did in November, towards the goal of writing a good, readable, marketable novel:

  • Commit to writing 500 words a day. (So you’ll end up with only 15,000 words. So what? What if that’s better than a 50,000-word mess?)
  • Commit to finishing a short story each week in November. Four weeks, four stories.
  • Commit to finding a good writing partner. Exchange serious plans, and support each other in a path that leads from here to a good novel, within any reasonable timeframe.
  • Commit to anything that you genuinely feel will push your career forward, in a way that really helps and that doesn’t create a lot of bad habits and mediocre writing.

If you’re a nonfiction writer, you might also check out this challenge by Nina Amir to “Write Nonfiction in November!” (She suggests that you write and publish nonfiction all year.)

Her pitch:

You are personally challenged to start and complete a work of nonfiction in 30 days. This can be an article, an essay, a book, a book proposal, a white paper, or a manifesto. WNFIN [Write Nonfiction in November] is not a contest. It’s an event held for you—so you get inspired to set a goal and achieve it.

That actually makes sense. Follow that lead, for your fiction or nonfiction. Set a good goal. Get inspired. Achieve it.

And enjoy your Thanksgiving . . .without sitting there with a dazed, distracted look, wondering if sending your hero over the Zylchix Mountains on a wild goose chase is such a good idea, but deciding you’ll stay up late and make it happen anyhow . . . because, hey, it’ll take thousands of words to do it. And it’s Nov. 28. And you need 5,000 words to hit your NaNo goal.

Just say no to NaNo. (And yes to more pie!)

If NaNo works for you, godspeed. May your fingers fly. May the Zylchix Mountains ever rise to meet your hero’s step, with the flowing wind of words at his/her back.

[For a few other articles I’ve written dealing with the NaNoWriMo issue:]

Do You Practice Creative Contemplation?

NaNoWriMo – A Literary Feast of Fools?




October Hodgepodge 2013

Here are a few thoughts (about creativity and the writing process) to savor:

”Inspiration usually comes during work rather than before it.”
– Madeleine L’Engle

“You climb a long ladder until you can see over the roof, or over the clouds.  You are writing a book. You watch your shod feet step on each round rung, one at a time; you do not hurry and do not rest.  Your feet feel the steep ladder’s balance; long muscles in your thighs check its sway.  You climb steadily, doing your job in the dark.
When you reach the end, there is nothing more to climb.  The sun hits you. The bright wideness surprises you; you had forgotten there was an end.  You look back at the ladder’s two feet on the distant grass astonished.”
Annie Dillard, in The Writing Life

No matter how hard you work on your writing, there will always be other writers who are better, faster, deeper, more popular, richer. And that’s fine.”
– Jane Yolen, in an interview in the Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast blog

“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.”
– Albert Einstein

“There are painters who transform the sun to a yellow spot, but there are others who with the help of their art and their intelligence, transform a yellow spot into the sun.”
– Pablo Picasso

“The moment you doubt whether you can fly, you cease forever to be able to do it.”
– J.M. Barrie, in The Little White Bird, “Peter Pan” chapter

“To learn something new, take the path that you took yesterday.”
John Burroughs, naturalist (1837–1921)

Time and The Writer

“There is time for everything.” – Amish saying.

1. Ask the right question: What is possible? 

I’m starting a new writing project and want to make good progress this month. A motivational phrase that floats through my mind, one that resonates for me (as a busy person), comes from an Amish source: “There is time for everything.”

Although this may produce an initial snort of derision, it holds a deep truth. What happens is the everything. What doesn’t happen . . . well, those ideas and wishes were merely figments of our imagination. We might envision writing an ambitious work. We might break it down into plans to write chapters and sub-chapters. We might plan to work on it hard. We might try to shoehorn it into a busy lifestyle with long worklists. We might try to get up early to write, or stay up late, or write during breaks during the day.

But what will happen is what will happen. And for many of us, that depends on how much we wanted it to happen.

Let’s agree that what happens is the totality of “everything.”

Is my writing project a high priority? If so, it involves trade-offs. Will I waste time doing less important things? Or will I decide things other than writing are more important?

As Maeve Binchy, said, “Time doesn’t come from nowhere.”

To write, you need to prioritize it.

I often see aspiring writers who bite off more than they can chew. John Gardner recommends starting with short stories to develop craft. I like the advice, because writing short pieces also develops the habit of tackling right-sized bits . . . and finishing them. Short pieces teach you how to work through an idea, try it, and if it works, great. If not . . . on to the next.

I often refer to what I call Ray Bradbury’s method (from Zen in the Art of Writing): Start a story on Monday, and send it off at the end of the week.

All during my early twenties I had the following schedule. On Monday morning I wrote the first draft of a new story. On Tuesday I did a second draft. On Wednesday a third. On Thursday a fourth. On Friday a fifth. And on Saturday at noon I mailed out the sixth and final draft to New York. Sunday? I thought about all the wild ideas scrambling for my attention, waiting . . . confident that . . . I would soon let them out.

Me? I’m an essayist. I write in 1,000- to 2,000-word chunks. It works for me. Focusing on a short piece at a time, I’ve managed to write a number of books, learning to organize my short essays in outlines that lead to longer works.

2. Perfection is the enemy of the good.

The proverb is good advice for writers. How often have we slaved too long over a work . . . and in the process, undermined it by a) overwriting. and b) not ever finishing it? I am not a believer, as some literary types say they do, in the need to polish each sentence before going on to the next.

Achieving absolute perfection may be impossible. The returns (better quality for more effort) diminish over time. As the Pareto principle says, 80% of the results comes from 20% of the work. Yes, try to improve your story . . . up to a point. That point is where you’re fussing over details that don’t matter to the reader, that don’t contribute to the story, and that may well interfere with the real purpose of the story.

Get in, tell your story, and get out. Let the story do the rest of the work for you. If it’s good, it will.

British Inventor Robert Watson-Watt, who helped develop early-warning radar to counter the initial success of the Luftwaffe in World War II, offered this advice, recommending a “cult of the imperfect,” which he stated as “Give them the third best to go on with; the second best comes too late, the best never comes.”

3. Exclude. Focus. Work.

In Henry Miller on Writing, the gifted author lists a set of “Commandments” that are worth their weight in gold.

  • Work on one thing at a time until finished.
  • Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.
  • Work according to Program and not according to mood. Stop at the appointed time!
  • When you can’t create, you can work.
  • Cement a little every day, rather than add new fertilizers.
  • Keep human! See people, go places, drink if you feel like it.
  • Discard the Program when you feel like it—but go back to it next day. Concentrate. Narrow down. Exclude.
  • Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards.

What keeps you from getting your writing done?

Do you know how to exclude distractions, focus, and work on your writing steadily?

Make it VIP, a very important pursuit. Do it, and then go on to other things.

 4. Real desire. No waffling.

Steven Hagen, an American teacher of Buddhism, writes in Buddhism Plain and Simple (1997) about “right intention” or “right resolve”:

Intention to act, for him, means more than wishful thinking.

There’s a story of Socrates testing the true intent of a youth who came to him for instruction. He wanted to see if this young man had the resolve to search for Truth. He took the youth to the river , and, after wading into the water, asked the young man to follow. Once they were waist-deep, Socrates suddenly took hold of the fellow and held him under the water. Naturally, the youth soon began to struggle for air. Socrates then lifted him from the water and said, “When you fight for truth as you fight for breath, come back and I’ll teach you.”

. . .

“Right resolve” is likened to a person whose hair is on fire. When your hair is on fire, you’re not going to weigh the pros and cons of putting it out. If your hair’s on fire, there’s no waffling. You see no choice. You act.

Do you intend to write? Do you fight for the time to write? Do you act on that resolve “like your hair’s on fire”?

5. Accept.

There is time for everything. Will “everything” include . . . that story you’ve been meaning to write?

I could work longer on this piece, but I won’t. My hair’s on fire . . . to finish this and get it to you.

I hope it helps you understand how to find the time to write.

Proper Persistence for Writers – Or How Long Should I Keep Trying To Get Published?

In emerging-writer discussions, I often hear versions of this question: How long do I keep trying if I’m not seeing any results in my pitches to agents or publishing houses?

There are many ways to approach the answer. You can just buy into Winston Churchill’s advice to youngsters: “Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never—in nothing, great or small, large or petty—never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense.”

Yes, there’s a part of me that appreciates that kind of bulldog stubbornness. I’d definitely want it if, say, I needed to defend Great Britain from invasion from foes.

But in most cases, for writers, the answer is more nuanced. What, to follow Churchill’s words, is the point at which it makes good sense to give in, lick a few wounds, learn from mistakes, and move on?

Yes, I’m familiar with the stories of writers like Madeleine L’Engle, whose wonderful novel, A Wrinkle in Time, saw dozens of rejections. Ditto for Jack London, and for others now considered authors of great literature.

But honestly, that doesn’t really tell you how long you should persist.

Here’s my advice, mostly in the form of questions for you to consider:

1. Are you sure you’re targeting the right agents and publishing houses?

Maybe half the queries I see for Crickhollow Books, the small indie press I run, are not of any interest to me. That suggests (admittedly from a small sample) that half the queries the typical writers send out are going out are going to places with no interest whatsoever. In fact, for most houses, the immediate rejects from slush piles are much worse; the bigger the publisher, the smaller the percentage of pitches they’ll want to ever consider even briefly.

Have you studied your prospects closely and developed an appropriate list? Have you used the directories of agents or editors that have detail on what they are actually looking for? Have you visited their websites and gleaned all you could?

Better targeting is a key step. Develop your best list of 10-12 places, and work through those. If all say no, you might want to try another dozen, especially if you’ve got a broad set of market options (say, for short stories for literary magazines). But if you’re writing in a niche area, after the first 12, the next 12 get less likely. After that . . . you’re starting to get a sense that what you’re writing may not be tickling the fancies of the gatekeepers.

2. Are you moving things along briskly?

Once you query a house, how long do you wait? There’s a big difference in waiting one month versus three. The first timeframe allows you to query 12 in a year. The second, only 4 – which means it will take you 3 years to work through a dozen targets. I’m only pointing out the math; you’ll feel different about your results if you’ve gotten “no”s for your pet project for 30 months year or just for 10 months. (The shorter time to discover what the market interest is will help you decide whether to keep pitching the work to others, to revise that work, or to start another.)

It behooves you to move things along. To be business-like, you’d want to get a sense sooner rather than later if a given project is of interest to your top prospects. A good literary agent is of course very helpful here; they will not only help to find the right targets, but they’ll also have the clout or to get it reviewed sooner and know how to push for an answer (and possibly an answer with real feedback about why the “no”). In a business sense, a “no” is useful information; it tells you to move on to find someone more interested in the work . . . and eventually that maybe your work isn’t of sufficient quality or market interest.

Agents will push for an answer. If it’s no, they want to move on to the next prospect on the list. You should too if you’re representing yourself.

3. Are you meeting agents at writer conferences?

This is one of the best ways to get more individualized attention from a few agents and editors. The professionals that you meet at conferences, assuming you’re a reasonable writer, should be willing to give you serious consideration; that’s why they are there. They’ll listen to your pitches at the conference, and if they ask for a submission, they’ll look a bit more closely at your project when they get back to their home offices. This means that if you’re work is good and marketable, you’re more likely to get a nibble, at least at a request to submit more material.

And if you get rejected here, it might be a sign that your work is lacking something that’s needed.

4. Are you reading outside of the current popular literature in your field?

This is not apparent to many writers, but let’s say you’re writing fantasy, and the reading you do is all bestselling, most hyper-popular stuff. So you read Harry Potter. The problem is that your writing is too likely to be strongly affected by the Harry Potter style. You may write work that seems to echo those stories. And to an editor or agent, work that is too derivative of recent popular work is often less marketable, as a) it’s already done so well by the big names in the first place, and b) lots of other new writers are submitting similar work, hoping to be the next J.K. Rowling.

To get around that, one trick is to read the good stuff that falls outside of your area. Read American national poet laureates, read National Geographic books, read biographies of the most fascinating people in arts or business or science . . . and then go incorporate elements of those into your fantasy novels or whatever you’re writing. Your results may be unique, more different from bestsellers, and this might be the competitive advantage you need.

5. Have you started your next project?

One of my favorite techniques comes from Ray Bradbury, who launched his career by a regimen of starting a story on Monday, and sending it off by Friday. He kept at it, generating a lot of material. This covers more bases – the 6th story or 12th might just happen to be the one that is bought – or it might have led him to success because he just kept getting better as a writer over time.

Look at the writing of a famous one-hit wonder, Margaret Mitchell. Her one novel, Gone with the Wind, was a terrific success. On the other hand, she had long written profiles for the Atlanta Journal of local bon-vivants and grand estates and society events. How much of her ability to capture dramatic characters and places and events was honed by practice, by long observation and writing of several hundred feature articles and news reports, with steady feedback from editors and readers?

In short, maybe it will be the second project, or the 24th, or the . . . that will sell. If you just write one, and it doesn’t sell, and you ask should I give up . . . I’d say you haven’t worked enough yet to develop either your writing skills or the choices in your literary offerings.

In Conclusion

This isn’t a comprehensive answer to the question: How long should I keep trying?

But it is what I’d want to know if you came to me and asked me that question. Maybe it helps to point out some helpful things to focus on.

Do You Practice Creative Contemplation?

Writers, how patient are you? Do you really listen to what your stories are trying to say before you try to tell them to others?

Do you give your stories enough time to grow creatively, to blossom into their fullest form?

I read a lot of blogs and group chats about self-publishing. One of the biggest problems I see is the impatience of aspiring novelists to write, finish, and get published. (One of the stranger phenomena in speedy, don’t-look-back writing is NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month; it encourages writers to create a 50,000-word novel from scratch in a month. Yikes!) Especially in the fantasy field, I run into plenty of newbie authors who have written a trilogy, zooming ahead to sequels full of plot twists and further adventures . . . before having fully contemplated and completed the potential of their first (and most important, career-wise) novel.

In contrast, accomplished authors recommend the importance of taking time to reflect, to work through a series of drafts, to put work aside for a time, to come back later to revise. They know that this passage of time involves actively listening to what a story is trying to say, to seek the hidden door to the treasure cave that lies hidden in the shrubbery of early drafts.

Why do the best authors often talk about reaching a watershed moment in the course of writing a novel – a state of mind in which the characters of the work-in-progress start to “talk back” to the author, resisting being pushed into pigeon-holes or, conversely, resisting something not in their “true nature” or self-interests?

This is the point when you’re dreaming about the work, when you’re thinking in the back of your mind about it as you’re doing mindless, repetitious work like washing the dishes or going for a walk, when the brilliant solution comes unbidden and you have to scribble it down on an old napkin found in your car’s glove compartment.

I’ve quoted this before, in How To Write Your Best Story and a few other places:

“When I’m really writing, I’m listening. . . . [Listening] takes us places we have no idea where we’re going. Surprises always follow.”
– Newbery Medal–winner Madeleine L’Engle

To listen, you need to allow the quiet time to do it. I recently read a brief piece from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel by psychotherapist Philip Chard on the dangers of “hurry sickness”:

So one of the casualties of hurry sickness is the [lost] opportunity to contemplate, to apply one’s quiet attention to some experience or idea or to one’s sense of self and life purpose. Contemplative introspection . . . is an ancient and proven practice that supports emotional balance and mental clarity.

Historically, it was the preferred method for making important decisions, as well as for nurturing greater self-understanding. When someone had to figure something out or clarify their identity or sense of purpose, she or he would be cloistered away from distractions, often in a natural setting, where it was possible to fully focus on the issue at hand. Think of Jesus in the desert or Buddha under the Bodhi tree.

Do you have to figure something out or clarify something in your fiction? Do you have a (metaphorical) tree you can go and sit under?

Sometimes you need to sit in silence and not do anything. Here’s some wisdom from an Inuit elder named Majuak, from Diomede Island in Alaska, describing a native practice of creative contemplation called karrtsiluni to Arctic explorer Knud Rasmussen in Rasmussen’s 1932 book The Eagle’s Gift.

In the old days, every autumn – we used to hold great festivals for the soul of the whale, and these festivals were always opened with new songs which the men made up.  The spirits had to be summoned with fresh words – worn-out songs must never be used when men and women danced and sang in homage to this great prize of the huntsman – the whale.

And while the men were thinking out the words for these hymns, it was the custom to put out all the lights.  The feast house had to be dark and quiet – nothing must disturb or distract the men. In utter silence all these men sat there in the gloom and thought, old and young – ay, down to the very smallest urchin, provided he was old enough to speak.

It was that silence we called karrtsiluni. It means waiting for something to break forth.  For our fore-fathers believed that songs are born in such a silence. While everyone is trying hard to think fair thoughts, songs are born in the minds of men, rising like bubbles from the depths – bubbles seeking breath in which to burst.

[I encountered this wonderful passage in Bob Kanegis’ blog, Storyteller’s Campfire: Thoughts on Living a Storied Life]

Maybe your story could be better. Have you asked it?

As Trappist monk and poet Thomas Merton wrote: “Our reality, our true self, is hidden in what appears to us to be nothingness.” For writers, the real significance of your story might lie hidden in the quiet cracks – in unspoken thoughts, in missing passages, in unrealized potential. The plot is the noise, but inner nature of the story is what you need to listen for and draw out into the open.

Do you need a fresh song to catch a great whale? Yes.

To find a fresh song and to be a good writer, you might need to take a little time to silence the “hurry sickness” and listen.

Thanksgiving with a Twist – The Power of Words

“Thanksgiving with a Twist,” by Moira Allen (reprint from

It’s traditional, at this time of year, to write an article about the importance of “giving thanks.” If you searched the web or browsed the blogosphere about now, you’d probably find an endless array of articles explaining why it is so important to be thankful for what we have. (. . .)

However, there’s another side to “thanks-giving” that isn’t talked about so often: The issue not of giving thanks, but of receiving them. (. . .) And while reams have been written about the importance of thanking others, very little has been said, it seems to me, about the importance of BEING the sort of person who deserves to be thanked.

Yet this is an area in which writers are uniquely qualified. Writers are blessed with endless opportunities to bless others. The work of a writer isn’t simply to put words on a page. It is to aid, to support, to encourage, to instruct, to inform, to entertain, to guide, to inspire, to uplift. Writers touch lives. Writers transform lives. Writers change the world.

In fact, when I decided to Google that thought, I found so many examples that it’s impossible to list them here. History is filled with writers who used the power of words to call attention to injustice, abuse, and danger – and whose words have been instruments of immense social change. Think of Charles Dickens on the workhouses, Mary Wollstonecroft on the right of women to be educated, Harriet Beecher Stowe on slavery, Rachel Carson on the environment . . . and the list goes on and on. When one starts to enumerate the social changes that have taken place as a direct result of powerful prose, one starts to realize that many of the blessings we take for granted today really are “thanks” to a writer.

The amazing thing about the written word is how MANY lives it can touch. A single article can reach thousands of readers. Nor does a work have to be a monumental tome of earth-shaking significance to make a difference. It can be as simple as a story that makes someone laugh, a poem that makes someone cry. Sometimes, we change the world simply by enabling others to SEE, through our words, a part of the world that they would never otherwise see, whether it’s the inner city or outer Mongolia.

Another amazing thing about the written word is the infinite variety of issues, subjects, and people it can address. Somewhere out there right now, someone is writing about how to master a complex computer system. Someone else is writing about how to raise goats. Both of those pieces will give someone, somewhere, a reason to be thankful. Perhaps an even more amazing thing is that we will probably never know that someone, or hear their thanks. Writing is the business of changing the world for total strangers, of planting a crop whose harvest of thanksgiving we will actually never reap.

Today, our words can travel farther and faster than ever before. However, it seems to me that today, it is also very easy for a writer to get lost. It’s so easy to get caught up in our blogs, our Facebook pages, our Twitter feeds. And for those of us who resist the mire of social media, we’re told, repeatedly, that we simply MUST jump in. We MUST blog, have a Facebook page, join LinkedIn and MySpace and Tumblr, build a following on Twitter – even if we have nothing better to Tweet than “Hey guys just caught the latest episode of . . .”  (. . .) We’re told that “writing” is really all about “promoting,” about building a following and a platform and a brand.

Perhaps this is true, though, amazingly enough, writers have managed to change the world in the past without the help of Facebook, and I suspect will continue to do so in the future. Where I fear this leads us, however, is into never-ending demands upon our time that result in a product for which no one, including ourselves, has any reason whatever to be thankful for. I suspect this is why I have such a dim view of SEO writing, which is, basically, the business of writing for robots. Hundreds of writers today spend thousands of hours cranking out thousands of carefully crafted words that aren’t even meant to be read by another human being! Besides being the equivalent of a workhouse for writers, this is surely the ultimate “thankless task.”

I’m certainly not saying that every writer needs to strive to be another Dickens, or Stowe, or Thoreau. However, in this season of giving thanks, I think it might be wise to take a moment to ask whether WE are giving other people a reason to thank US. Am I investing my time and energy into something that has the potential to make someone’s day?  If not, does it at least have the potential to make MY day? If it isn’t even doing that, why am I doing it?

The root of writing, for most of us, was most likely the desire to be heard. The heart of writing is learning how to give readers a reason to listen. When we achieve that, we can be certain that somewhere out there, someone is giving thanks.

— Moira Allen, Editor

This is a reprint with permission of Moira’s article from Copyright 2012 Moira Allen. It has been lightly trimmed for length, you can find the whole article here:

Moira Allen is the editor of and the author of more than 350 published articles. Her books on writing include Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer’s Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests.

Click here to subscribe to Moira’s free biweekly newsletter. It’s full of excellent, well-written advice for emerging writers, with lots of detailed tips you won’t easily find elsewhere. Highly recommended.

Thanks, Moira, for sharing that article with writers everywhere. It’s a wonderful example of its own message!

November Hodgepodge – Being a Writer

Don’t, please, get precious about your working methods. . . . The more you humor your inadequacies by compensating with phony environment, the tougher your work will become. You have to be in a mood. I grant that. But if you haven’t the understanding of yourself to be in any mood when you wish – then don’t fool around with the mood business. Be an automobile salesman. I would like you to be able to write as well as you can with pen, pencil, and typewriter, in tree houses, boiler factories, and on subway trains. I insist you must be able to write as well as you can with a stomach-ache, a crying baby, a paving drill going – and on a typewriter that has a non-functioning “e” and an inoperable backspace. If you want and need to. Then – for your regular surroundings – any moderately quiet, well-ventilated room with an ordinary typewriter table and chair will be paradisiacal.
– Philip Wylie (1902–1971), co-author of When Worlds Collide (1932)

I can’t decide for you whether or not you have got to write, but if anything in the world, war, or pestilence, or famine, or private hunger, or anything, can stop you from writing, then don’t write . . . because if anything can even begin to keep you from writing you aren’t a writer and you’ll be in a hell of a mess until you find out. If you are a writer, you’ll still be in a hell of a mess, but you’ll have better reasons.
– William Saroyan (1908–1981), author of The Time of Your Life, for which he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, which he declined to accept.

I believe there are writers who enjoy writing. For my part, I loathe and abhor it. I enjoy immensely sitting in an easy chair before the fire, closing my eyes and rapturously envisaging the sweep, the drive, the sounds, and the fury of the masterpiece – they are all masterpieces at that stage – which I am going to produce. But writing – ah! That is a different pair of shoes! . . . No sooner am I seated at my desk than I want to get up again, to wander about the room, look at the view, eat apples, suck toffee . . . .
– A.J. Cronin (1896–1981), author of The Stars Look Down

I confess, right at the start, to the doubts  – and sometimes outright dreads  – that go with me as I climb the stairs to my study in the morning, coffee mug in hand: I have to admit to the habitual apprehension mixed with a sort of reverence, as I light the incense . . . and wonder: what is going to happen today? Will anything happen? Will the angel come today?
– Gail Godwin (1937–), American novelist

I have no idea whether what I write will be of the remotest interest to anyone else. Some mornings when I read what I wrote the previous day I think it’s fairly entertaining; other times I think it’s pure rubbish. The main thing is not to take any notice, not to be elated or upset, just keep going.
– Maeve Binchy (1940–2012), Irish novelist

[Quotes from Wylie, Saroyan, Cronin, and Binchy appeared in issues of The Writer magazine, in Feb. 1938, Sept. 1938, Dec. 1938 – it was a good year –and Feb. 2000 respectively, and all reappeared in The Writer’s Handbook 2002; quote from Godwin is from “Rituals and Readiness: Getting Ready To Write,” a wonderful article in The Writing Life (1995), a collection of essays by National Book Award winners.]


NaNoWriMo – A Literary Feast of Fools?

What is NaNoWriMo? A great surge of literary energy?

Or a Feast of Fools?

From their website:

National Novel Writing Month is a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to novel writing. Participants begin writing November 1. The goal is to write a 175-page (50,000-word) novel by midnight, November 30.

In 2011, NaNoWriMo claimed 256,618 participants and 36,843 winners (i.e., those who finished the challenge successfully). As an earlier press release said: “They started the month as auto mechanics, out-of-work actors, and middle school English teachers. They walked away novelists.”

As one of the participants wrote:

Every year of NaNo, I feel like a winner, just for taking time for myself to do something I love, and to do it intensely.

I agree that one key element of writing is setting aside the time to write, fueling your core of passion, and dealing with the demands of the often-tiring process. Writing can seem like a solitary struggle: man or woman facing the blank page of infinite possibilities. We all can benefit from encouragement and writing buddies, real or virtual.

So I understand how the cheerleading and sense of community of NaNoWriMo gets the writer’s blood pounding and fingers flying on the keyboard.

Personally, though, I recommend a more measured, stick-to-it approach. For most, 500 words a day and a good 3-month plan will get you further than an intense November.

Is a month-long writing marathon really a good idea for you?

As a writing coach and an editor of books of advice for writers, I’ve studied the techniques of successful authors of all genres and approaches. Only a few writers (Georges Simenon, Belgian author of the Maigret crime novels comes to mind) did anything like NaNoWriMo with any consistent success.

The Encyclopedia Britannica entry for Simenon says “Typing some 80 pages each day, he wrote, between 1923 and 1933, more than 200 books of pulp fiction under 16 different pseudonyms, the sales of which soon made him a millionaire.”

Eighty pages each day! Zounds!

This story about Simenon is attributed to Alfred Hitchcock:

Alfred Hitchcock was said to have telephoned, only to be told by Simenon’s secretary that [Simenon] couldn’t be disturbed because he had just begun a new novel. Hitchcock replied: “That’s all right, I’ll wait.”

Here’s another Simenon story:

So notorious did his speed of composition become, that on 14th January 1927 he signed a contract with publisher Eugène Merle undertaking to spend seven days in a glass cage outside the Moulin Rouge nightclub, during which time he would write a novel which was subsequently to be serialised in Merle’s newspaper, Paris-Matinal.

(The paper folded before the event took place, but Simenon kept the advance and enjoyed the media attention for the planned stunt.)

Of course, I certainly can’t prove that the manic intensity of NaNoWriMo – or being locked in a glass cage for seven days outside a night club to write – will do any serious harm to a writer. Most will probably build up at least some ideas, passages, maybe self-confidence (or not), maybe some progress on a project.

But that’s a lot of energy to spend on something that’s probably better training for pulp fiction than for serious writing aspirations.

My November challenge: ask yourself, honestly, what really works for you? Not what is fun, or a literary adrenalin rush, or a heightened sense of community, or the power of a public oath of commitment (good things in moderation). . . . but what is really going to advance your writing?

For some, NaNoWriMo is going to be the trick that works. No problem! But then . . . what’s your plan for the next three months, and beyond?

For others, maybe a better idea is to look at the principles of setting aside the time to write, fueling your core of passion, and dealing with the demands of the often-tiring process . . . and develop a more realistic schedule to accomplish a good piece of publishable work, and find some longer-term writing friends to help keep you on track.

As I said in my Afterword to The New Writer’s Handbook, Vol. 2:

“One of the oddities of the writing world is that it allows you – in some ways glorifies the tendency – to continue in fruitless ways. To grow as a writer, be more honest about evaluating what works.”

Being a Writer – Sacred Idleness

“Work is not always required. There is such a thing as sacred idleness.”

Author of that quote, George MacDonald (1824–1905) was an 19th-century Scottish fantasy writer and Congregationalist minister; his novels had an enormous influence on C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, and Madeleine L’Engle among others.

I’m just back from a bit of sacred idleness myself, a week-long vacation across the big pond (Lake Michigan) to the other side: the State of Michigan’s dune-swept, sunset-prone western shoreline. I’ve been recharging the batteries of creativity, trudging around Sleeping Bear Dunes national lakeshore, through a sparse beauty of dune flowers and grasses, looking out at horizons blue with water and dark low islands.

I recalled this line from Anne Morrow Lindbergh, whose book Gift from the Sea is a personal favorite.

The loneliness you get by the sea is personal and alive. . . . It’s stimulating loneliness.

I also recalled this quote from Kafka. When I first read it a few years ago, I thought frankly it was the most ridiculous bit of advice I’d encounter. I’m not sure I’d turn to Kafka for advice on the well-balanced life. But the core of the advice, to occasionally be still and just listen, rings true.

You do not need to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait, be quiet, still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked, it has no choice, it will roll in ecstasy at your feet.
– Franz Kafka

Just ignore the part about not needing to leave your room. Oh yes, you do!

It doesn’t need to be a week-long outing, sitting on sandy beaches and watching fiery waves turn silvery-blue at sunset.

Daily, I get a lot from a neighborhood walk. I like my 20-minute loop, just enough time on the way out to stretch, breath, relax, and leave some mental clutter behind. Then, fresher ideas start popping in. I’m not sure I’d say the world, per Kafka, rolls in ecstasy at my feet. But I feel rejuvenated and walk back briskly, trying to remember the best of the ideas so I can sit down and pound them out.

(Sometime, I just like to pound the keyboard a bit harder, just because I like the sound of ideas emerging.)

Relaxation, clearing the mind, listening . . . creativity draws on this like a deep, mysterious well to overcome a bit of drought. The Japanese have a word, mushin (the empty mind). A Zen concept, it refers to a mind clear of clutter and active knowledge. It is essential to seeing things fresh.

And it is reached by techniques designed to reach that state: sitting, breathing, walking, looking at nature.

At a museum I used to work at, creating exhibits, we used to walk away from first rough layouts, leaving the space, muttering the mantra: erase, erase, erase. Then, we’d re-enter the space and look at it through the eyes of a newcomer.

There is another state, muga, beyond the empty mind, of mushin, which is closer to uniting with the cosmos. It is a total centering, described by Japanese Zen master Takuan Sōhō, author of The Unfettered Mind, talking about the connection of long practice, mind-free centering, and the flow of powerful activity. He wrote:

When the swordsman stands against his opponent, he is not to think of the opponent, nor of himself, nor of his enemy’s sword movements. He just stands there with his sword which, forgetful of all technique, is ready only to follow the dictates of the subconscious. The man has effaced himself as the wielder of the sword. When he strikes, it is not the man but the sword in the hand of the man’s subconscious that strikes.

For the writer, the sword is the pen, and the opponent the blank page, perhaps.

So empty your mind. Go for a walk. Breathe. Become just little more blissful. And excited to get back to work.

After all, even crazy Kafka knew what it comes down to in the end:

God gives the nuts, but he does not crack them.
– Franz Kafka

Walt Whitman – The Twirl of My Tongue

What is the calling of a great writer?

To write. To celebrate. To see how everything is connected and equal.

To be open to the smallest epiphany, and then to show how it is part of the largeness of the universe.

“I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey work of the stars,” said Walt Whitman.

Here is the job description of the poet and the writer, according to Walt Whitman in his extravagant, effusive, ecstatic rant on poetry and bold expression in his 1855 preface to Leaves of Grass:

Love the earth and sun and the animals,
despise riches, give alms to everyone that asks,
stand up for the stupid and crazy,
devote your income and labor to others,
hate tyrants, argue not concerning God,
have patience and indulgence toward the people,
take off your hat to nothing known or unknown,
or to any man or number of men,
go freely with powerful uneducated persons,
and with the young, and with the mothers or families,
read these leaves in the open air every season
of every year of your life,
re-examine all you have been told in school or church
or in any book,
and dismiss whatever insults your own soul;
and your very flesh shall be a great poem . . . .

The poet shall not spend his time in unneeded work.
He shall know that the ground is always ready ploughed
and manured . . .
He shall go directly to the creation.

The ground is ready for the writer. Go directly to the process of creativity. Again, from Whitman (in Song of Myself):

My voice goes after what my eyes cannot reach,
With the twirl of my tongue I encompass worlds
and volumes of worlds.

With a twirl of the tongue . . . or flourish of the pen . . . or clickety-clack of the keyboard.

Go forth and encompass worlds. Today.