Monday, September 20, 2010

A Compilation of the Best Writing Advice I've Ever Gotten

1.  Write every day.  
      This one came from a number of sources.  The way that I've integrated it into my life doesn't require me to sit down every day and write a certain number of words, although I'm sure that works for some people.  For me this means: try to write every day, even if it's a to-do list.  On those days you absolutely can't bear it, pay attention: find the things that you will be able to use in your writing and carve them into your brain, and then try to write every day.  If you write once a week, in five years you still will have written something.  My favorite iteration of this concept is: "A journey of a thousand miles begins with one small step."
2.  Start your story as close to the end as possible.
     This one I lifted out of Kurt Vonnegut's short story rules, and it forces me to get to the meat of what I'm trying to say.  It forces me to identify the end, and the real conflict as opposed to the backstory.  Sitting down to consider this rule has saved me oodles of drafts. 
3.  Get enough sleep.
     This is a weird one, straight from my totally weird and genius writing professor, Ron Carlson.  It's possibly the best advice on this list.  This advice got me to understand that while doing Hunter S. Thompson-esque author sh*t is an essential part of living, and living is at least half of writing, the actual act of writing requires you to take care of yourself.  You can't write when you're hungover; you can only reiterate television plots.  Writing is a healthy thing, the thing that sustains you and gives back to other people.  Living is what kills you.  Know the difference.
4. You have to like it better than being loved.
    This is the last line of a Marge Piercy poem which sustains me when the feeling of author vs. world is overwhelming.  This line is beyond the sustaining message of that poem, though.  What interests me is that I've found that it's not suggesting there's some sort of moral obligation that your writing should be more important to anything else.  It's saying that if you are a real writer, writing is more important than anything else, whether you like it or not.  Your writing will be there when no one else is, so you better like it.  You will write things that hurt the people you love; you will write things that hurt yourself.  You will write until mold grows all over your kitchen counter and you won't be able to help it, and so it better be what sustains you.  Which ties back, strangely, to number three.
5.  Don't answer the phone.
     This is the one I learned the hard way.  It has very little to do with the problem of opening the door and forgetting the dream you were writing down, like Coleridge with Kubla Khan (which is still a famous work of literature despite the interruption) and everything to do with not interrupting the mood that makes you want to write.  Interrupters will say things to make you doubt yourself; you'll be tempted to discuss your thoughts and you will talk it all out instead of writing it out; that guy you have a crush on will text you something cute--whatever happens, suddenly you will not feel like writing anymore.  Time is your only truly limited resource.  Spend it writing. 
6.  Don't make writing conditional.
    This is a general life rule, as well.  Whatever you want the most you will most likely get; if you inflict conditions on it, those conditions take on more importance than the desire.  For example: I will write x when I graduate college and have more time.  No you f*cking won't.  You'll graduate college, because that's what you have turned into a priority by arranging your other wants around it.  Write.  Do it now. 
7.  Forgive yourself for not writing (a.k.a. some writing>>not writing)
     This one is a gem of Elizabeth Gilbert's.  Sometimes you can't write.  Sometimes you'll go through six-month phases of reading, or running, instead.  This is also writing.  Don't worry about it.  Try to write every day, but forgive yourself if you don't.  This one also goes back to number 3.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

It's My Blog, And I'll Vent If I Want To

That said, I'm going to make my point, and person-who-needed-to-vent-at-me, well, it's my blog and I don't give a sh*t if you still read it and need to text me something else that's designed to ruin my evening and make me feel like the biggest bitch ever in response to this post.

People, when someone asks you for a pizza, don't give her an apple pie. She wants a f*cking pizza.
Whatever your intentions are—and I do concede, intentions are as important as the act itself—fulfilling someone else's wants is about their wants. It's not about what you want to give them. I don't care if you make the best f*cking apple pie in the universe, or how much you know I like both apples and sugar. I ASKED FOR A PIZZA. GET ME A PIZZA. If I asked for a pizza, that means I don't really want apples and sugar; I want garlic and cheese. A calzone would probably do the  trick, but a pizza would really be best.  If you really want to go above and beyond, here, get me two pizzas, and a gift certificate for more. 

I also don't care how many other people have asked you for a pizza when they really secretly wanted an apple pie. Other people's inability to communicate effectively is not my problem; it's theirs. I asked you for a pizza. Assume that I mean what I say. If I don't mean what I say, that's not your problem. It's mine.

Getting someone an apple pie when she wants a pizza not only showcases your inability to listen, it shows that you don't care about what she wants at all. You care way more about the fact that you love making apple pies and are super good at pinching pie crust in cute designs than about making her happy. It shows that you want to be praised for your abilities more than you want to fulfill her needs. If you hand a chick an apple pie and expect her to be all like, “Oh, my gosh, you can bake, too! That's so wonderful! I love apple pie! How did you know I really wanted apple pie when I asked you for a pizza because I felt too bad to ask you for an apple pie which was what I really truly deeply wanted? You are so perfect!” well, you're in for disappointment. Because she asked for a pizza.

This is what will actually happen:
You (covered in flour and slightly sweaty from slaving over a hot oven): Hey, I know you asked for a pizza, but I made you an apple pie.
Her (eyebrows raised quizzically): Wow, um, thanks. I'm just gonna put this in the fridge. Want to come to Buono's with me, so I can get a pizza?
You (stuttering): Unappreciated...made pie...what?!  *Your head explodes here*

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Thought For the Day

Sometimes it's more important to let people vent their emotions on you than it is to make your point; i.e., sometimes it is better to understand than to be understood.

Friday, September 10, 2010

False Dichotomies Eat Your Soul: The Religious Edition

I was raised without any particular religion.  My mother was raised Catholic and my father was raised Jewish and they both stopped practicing before I was born; obviously I was raised with Judeo-Christian morals, but I was never required by anybody to believe anything other than what I chose.  My parents answered my questions about traditions and their own beliefs and then let me think whatever I liked.
The only thing I regret about it was the lack of a community that other people had; otherwise, I am extremely grateful.

I don't quite know how to broach this topic, except to say that in the wake of the idiocy of the Qu'ran Burning News Special, a lot of my friends and acquaintances have professed beliefs along these lines:  "I support the right of anyone to have religious beliefs even though I think all religions are dumb and I am therefore an athiest." Which is cool.  I'm down with atheism.  I dig Sartre.

But what really made me sad is that one of the comments I saw on a fb thread about the whole matter said something along the lines of, "I really want to believe in God, and sometimes I do, but then I'm forced to be logical."

So I wanted to say to this person and everyone else like her, because it seems like no one else ever has,


No, really.  Just because you understand the limitations and logical fallacies of structured religion, and just because you choose not to participate, doesn't mean that the "logical" choice is atheism. You don't have to believe in God the way other people tell you to.  Religion doesn't have a monopoly on God, or on virtue.  Just because a lot of religious people say they do doesn't make it true, which you should know very well already.  But just because some of the things they say aren't true doesn't make everything they say untrue, either.

I really consider myself a lucky person for growing up in a non-religious household.  No one told me I had to believe anything, ever.  I never heard anyone I respected and loved tell me that their beliefs were correct and mine were wrong.  When I was three one of my little five-year-old friends told me I was going to hell because I hadn't accepted Jesus, but my parents jumped all over that and told me it wasn't necessarily true, and they didn't think it was, but that some people believed it was.  Then when I was ten they let me go to Christian camp with her anyway, so that I could decide for myself what I wanted to believe.
I remember I asked one of the church leaders who made God.  She pulled off her ring and said, "Do you see an end or a beginning to this ring?  God is like this ring.  He had no beginning and has no end."
I said, "Yes, but who made the ring?"
I put this example in here to prove that I was a logical person even at ten.

But I believe in God.  I believe He isn't anything a finite mind can understand.  So I've stopped trying, but I believe.  I don't go to a church, or a temple, or a mosque, and I'm not an atheist.  I don't let anybody else tell me what to think about what I believe.

That is something that I feel to be valuable about the title "atheist."  People who name themselves to be atheists are typically people who have begun to question what other people tell them. But I think most atheists don't question enough.  The alternative to "Not Your God" isn't necessarily "No God,"  just like the alternative to "Republican" isn't necessarily "Democrat."  There's lots of stuff in between, and outside!  Atheism is usually, as far as I'm concerned, another religion: it's a religion in which people doubt only the beliefs which are socially acceptable to doubt*.  And all I want to say to you is:  doubt everything, and then choose.  If you still think there is no God, that's more than fine.  But don't think there isn't a God just because you don't like other people's Gods.  You can like your own, if you want to.

*This is a prime time for a bitchin' example of logical reasoning: Some people who are bad at logic believe in God.  Not everyone who believes in God is bad at logic.   
Alternatively, some atheists are logical.  Not everyone who is logical is an atheist.
(Mindf*ck FTW)

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Giving Tree: Hate Is a Strong Word For Excellent Literature

I found this article lying around on Twitter attached to a message about how much the Tweeter HAAATED the book The Giving Tree (it was one of my favorite authors, which kind of disappointed me).

I do see the problem with the perceived message of The Giving Tree.  I get it.  As a child, I didn't, really, and I thought that the story was very sad; I still think it's sad, but I don't hate this book.  Because books are supposed to talk about these sorts of human behaviors.

Can you, or should you, hate a book?  I'm sure I've said that I've hated a book before (hellooooo, The Kite Runner (AKA Gratuitous Butt-Rape Will Solve All Your Plot Problems!)) but on reflection I think this is a really irresponsible thing to say, especially for a writer.  A book can be bad: i.e., it doesn't achieve what it set out to achieve, or is executed poorly.   A book can have a terrible message: e.g., Robinson Crusoe (message: white people everywhere are superior to brown people everywhere, especially when they manage to find a cabin full of newly-sharpened hatchets hiding in their shipwreck).  But hating the book and hating the message are two different things.

The Giving Tree is certainly not poorly executed, nor does it fail to achieve what it set out to achieve.  So it's not bad.
But finally, I'm not sure that the message is bad, either.  I unfortunately don't have a copy of it handy, so I'm working purely off memory and this article.  From what I can recall, though, it's really just a really great character portrayal.  The tree gives.  The boy takes.  The boy is never satisfied.  The tree stunts itself by giving endlessly, but is satisfied by that.
But I don't recall any part of the text ever passing judgment on that. Nowhere does the text say, "giving endlessly until you are a stump is a good/bad thing." It lets you say so yourself, one way or another.  I never thought the ending was all that "happy."  It was just true to the characters. 
And for me, that makes it a great work of literature.  

As a writer, I feel that my job is to portray accurately the world around me as I see it.  I don't feel like my job is telling people what to think.  I want people to find themselves in my work, not to forge themselves out of my judgments; I want my portrayal of what I see to speak honestly to someone, and to present the world in a new, fresh way.  But expecting a work of art to tell you what to think about the world is lazy reading, and saying that you "hate a book" because of your reaction to a well-executed portrayal of the way love sometimes happens is thoughtless and irresponsible.  As far as I'm concerned, if you feel that strongly about a book, that author did his job really, really well.  Which makes it a good book.

Finally, and on a totally different note, just because a book is written in cute rhyming verse doesn't make it a kid's book.  Shel Silverstein also wrote the lyrics to "A Boy Named Sue."  Stop reading adult-themed literature to children, or if you do, make sure you freaking talk to them about what you think it means.

Monday, September 6, 2010

It Has Nothing To Do With You, Parte Deux

This is a lesson that never gets driven home hard enough:  I have no idea of the depth of other people's pain.
Sometimes I run across that quote from Plato:  "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle," but somehow that quote just rubs me the wrong way.  It makes it sound like other people have financial difficulties or an upcoming round in the gladiator ring and that I have the extra burden of kindness because of it; I wish the quote said, "Other people's heartaches are often bigger than yours."
Because it's not financial difficulties or career choices that are plaguing people.  Sometimes your boss is going through a divorce and doesn't exactly want to talk to you about it.  But if you knew that, wouldn't you have a little more patience for her bad mood?
And even the word divorce isn't strong enough, sometimes, to bring out the compassion.  What I really mean is that sometimes your boss is throwing in the towel on a fight that's lasted two years now and her whole family is splitting up and her kids are miserable and crying a lot and this is her husband, the man who stayed up all night with her when she was writing her thesis just to keep her company and nobody did anything wrong but they can't work it out and she finds herself saying hateful things to the people she loves best.  So if she's a bit snippy with you in a meeting about something you've been meeting about for months, it probably has nothing to do with you.
And sometimes the reason your friends do confusing things is because they're confused.  Sometimes your friend's father is dying and not only does she sort of wish he'd hurry up and do it because watching someone waste away at a hospital every night is not only painful but intrusive, but she's feeling guilty for feeling that way and doesn't think you would understand, and then her relationship with him was pretty complicated anyway because he really wasn't around that much, they never really talked about important things, and this is her last chance to spend time with him but they still just sit around discussing television shows and how can she start having a real conversation with him? So when she doesn't really want to talk about what's going on in her life but does really want to go to Mill Avenue on a Friday night, it might have nothing to do with you.

Point being, other people have wounds you aren't aware of, and sometimes wounds they won't ever reveal.  Sometimes your relationship is their Band-Aid and they don't want you to know that, or admit it to themselves.  Sometimes your relationship is lemon juice in their paper cuts and they are loathe to say so.

I think if I could have one wish granted, it would be always to be aware of these sore spots, even if I can't know the details.  I don't want to blindly go around being compassionate to other people in case they happen to be in pain; I have trouble putting sweeping abstract principles like that into action. But I wish I had better radar for it.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Maybe It's Just My Lucky Day

     Sometimes I still have problems with plane flights, particularly when I'm not looking forward to where I'm going.
     And this has been, like, the longest, hottest, most stuck-inside summer I've had since I've moved to Phoenix, and I was just at home in New York for a week where everything was lush and shady and green and I went running down by the river every day and the whole place smelled like water and I ate dinner with my family every night, so I wasn't looking forward to coming back to the desert and my one-bedroom place and running on a treadmill.
     And the plane from Buffalo to Detroit was one of those teensy little puddle jumpers and I was sitting right over the wing and we got up into the air and it was all real pretty and green and the sun was setting...and then the engine noise stopped.
      I panicked.
     There was nothing wrong with the plane, at all; it had to do with my perspective and where I was sitting on the plane and normal function in a headwind, but it seriously sounded like the engines had shut off and the only noise was the wind, and I freaked.
    But then the noise started again, and no one else freaked, so I relaxed a little, even though it kept happening; finally we began approaching Detroit, and then the pilot announced that there was a holdup because of the weather and we would be in a holding pattern for the next 25 minutes at 14,000 feet and I death-grabbed at the seatrest and tried not to show that I was about to hyperventilate, because that's not nice to the other passengers.
    Five minutes later, the pilot came on the intercom again and said, "Looks like it's our lucky day, we've been cleared to land and we'll be on the ground in 10 minutes," and then, in a colossal tribute to bad patterns of thinking, I freaked out more.  I was thinking, Don't say that!  You're going to f*cking jinx us!  LUCKY?!  WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?
    Then the rational part of my brain looked up and went, "You know, it's not entirely out of the realm of possibility that things could go well.  Maybe it is your lucky day."
     I told my rationality to shut the hell up, and then we landed, and everything was fine.

     The next day, I went in to work, and had a nearly parallel experience:  while I was on vacation there was a huge miscommunication, and a video project we'd been working on hadn't gotten submitted before a contest deadline, and it was just as much my fault as my coworker's.  I panicked.  I called my dad and freaked out and didn't know what to do, or how to tell my boss we'd dropped the ball on something the president of the Science Center had specifically asked us to do.
   My dad (playing the part of the rational section of my brain) said, "Why don't you call the contest people and ask them if you can submit it late?"
   "I guess," I agreed, knowing that deadlines were deadlines and nobody who had been hired to run a contest would be that soft or nice.
   But I wrote an e-mail, explaining the problem, and asking her to please not penalize the kids who had done the video for my mistakes in communication at work and could we please please please still submit the video, and while I was sitting there practicing my resignation letter and trying to remember how to breathe, she responded with,
   "Yes, of course.  Just submit to such-and-such a website and send me the link."

   Somehow, I've allowed myself to become the kind of person who expects to die in a plane crash and be denied kindnesses by strangers.  My brain is so prepared for my hopes and dreams to be crushed like leaves underfoot that the concept, "Maybe we're just lucky" is foreign to me.  Which is way scarier than anything that could possibly go wrong.

    So I'm going to go outside now, where it's sunny, and try to find my luck again.