Filling More Than the Page
Presented at the It's About Time Writers Reading Series, Seattle, WA., Thursday April 13, 2006
Three years ago, I quit fiction writing. I was 28, and I'd just completed News on Frances Connelly, a short story collection about my hometown in the Bay Area. I'd envisioned the manuscript as my first publishable project, yet I wasn't receiving any rewards for my work. Though past tales of mine had appeared in literary magazines, I'd failed to place a single one of these stories in any publicationa necessary feat if I wanted to gain a publisher for the collection. Being an artsy, financially struggling city dweller, I was exhausted with the book's subject matter of insular, upper-class, suburban society, and I had no drive to revise or add stories. How could I accompany another middle-aged homemaker heroine through the process of revelation when I myself was stuck in life? I'd been diligently crafting short stories for nearly 10 years, and during that entire time I'd made less money off my fiction than I did working at my current day job for a month.
So why, I brooded, should I continue to write? I stepped back from the keyboard and ceased sending my manuscript to literary agents. And I signed up for a painting class.
Now I recognize my turning from type to brushstroke as a regression to my childhood. I'd adored drawing as a boy, and the cartoons and comics I produced earned me instant praise. For a short while, painting brought my adult self joy. I discovered a quick sort of therapy through working with colors instead of words, and I appreciated how the impact of a painting arrives with one glance rather than minutes or hours of reading and thinking.
But I missed fiction writing to my core, and though my tales no longer appeared on page they multiplied in my mindwhenever I followed the storyline of another's novella or horror movie or pop song, and each time a friend talked of a neurosis or epiphany. I had characters in my skull banging to leave, and I suspected it was vital to release them if I wanted to maintain my own sense of liberty.
I started writing fiction again, less than three months after I'd stopped. As I began, I hoisted some guidelines so I wouldn't slip back into that pit of misery with my writing. I'd like to share these six guidelines with you tonight, not because I view them as absolutes or because I think they should replace yours. I'm revealing my guidelines because they may help some of you continue writing when such an act seems impossible.
#1. Write for the sake of writing (and not for any loot).
If your primary purpose in writing fiction is to earn money or get published, you should either practice something more lucrativelike technical writing or lawor know that you're heading toward regret. Sure, you may receive checks for your work, and you may have your name appear in literary magazines or along the spine of a book. But the chances of financial success are few and the rejection letters and years of dejection can be many. However, if you write because you love the creative process or you want to advance your capabilities or expression brings you peace, then you have a sturdy mindset for being a fiction writer.
When I was battling my own writing-related disillusionment, I signed up for a class called "Intuitive Writing" at the University of Washington's Experimental College. Concerned with enabling students how to ignore their internal critics and create in spontaneous and unconventional ways, the class was a catalyst for many inspirations. I recall asking the instructor at the start of the course if she ever mailed her poems to journals. "I don't send them out," she said without a hint of bitterness. "I write them for myself." I couldn't fathom why she neglected this normal striving for recognition until I witnessed how much happiness she achieved from birthing a work of verse. Now I know it is essential to write for oneself first, and others second. If an audience builds then these readers are perks for your fiction, and not its impetus.
#2. Write what you want to know, not just what you know
I've always resented the "write what you know" motto emphasized in creative writing manuals and workshops. Of course, your fiction will have more force if you write with authority. But the insistence that creative writers write only about what they've experienced can cause censorship of the imagination, and the fear of writing outside one's own category of age, race, gender, sexuality, or lifespan. If you're a 23-year-old Argentinean woman who's familiar with kleptomania then you'll be fine writing about Roman soldiers pillaging a Celtic village in 23 B.C. Fiction writing is not reporting, nor is it memoir. You can write about what you've never seen and whom you've never met, and Oprah will never crucify you for embellishing.
I used to obey the unofficial law of "write what you know," which kept my fiction within the boundaries of contemporary realism. More recently, I've penned stories about Frida Kahlo's dreamtime, a gay couple in 1938 Nazi Munich, and medieval unicorn hunters. Each journey I take to another time or continent or reality brings me delight and enlightenment. I've noticed that my best fiction comes from my writing the tales I want to read, even if those tales are beyond my domain of direct knowledge. What we all know and what we all share is human consciousness, so we should rove across this terrain as much as we dare.
#3. Listen to yourself more than others
I believe that each of us possesses an intuitive voice that can communicate what will nourish us and what will cause us to be sick. I interpret this to be the voice of one's truest and most honorable self, the self that thinks in terms of wellbeing and growth rather than wealth and celebrity. We sometimes ignore this voice because it seems as irrational and unfashionable as the kooky person on the sidewalk whom everyone pretends not to hear. Our intuitive voice often directs us to write in an eccentric manner or create in ways we never have before. The intuitive voice is frequently in opposition to the voice of the ego as well as the voices of our peers, like book critics and graduates of MFA programs and whichever author placed a story in The New Yorker this week.
When I wrote my last story collection, I followed the literary logic of the times and constructed an easily digestible and non-experimental book on a little town mired in money. I had Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio and the novels of Edith Wharton to support my choice in creation, as small societies and aristocrats have always been acceptable subject matter in the history of literary fiction. As I rebuilt after the crash related to this book, I desired to write something less ordinary: works of flash fiction. Also called short-shorts or microfiction, flash fiction is a short short story that usually combines the structure of an average-length story and the language of a poem. The genre is a bit of a redheaded stepchild, as many poets label it unpoetic prose poetry and many fiction writers call it sketching that should have stayed on a Post-It.
Two novelists in my writers group offered reluctant smiles upon reading some of my one-sentence to one-page stories and said, "These pieces are enjoyable, but they'll be so tough to publish. We think you'd write such a good novel." I heard their warning that my new work might meet rejection, yet my intuitive voice was crying for me to proceed with the flash fiction. And I did, which has led to the near-completion of another collection. I don't know if the work will reach print, but I'm aware of the peak of satisfaction I attained by creating what my truest self wanted to create.
One further comment on listening to others: Criticism and compliments concerning your fiction are the sameworth a bit of your consideration, and then meant to dissipate. If there's something you truly need to improve in your writing, your intuitive voice will inform you.
#4. Remember that you are a person before you are a writer
When I first began crafting stories, I pined for the title of "writer." What does it require, I mused, to be able to call oneself writer? A specific number of hours typing each week? A story appearing in a literary magazine? Or do you have to land a story in a publication that pays, or one that is as reputable as Zyzzyva or Zoetrope?
Within a few years, I understood that a writer is merely someone who writes, and once I acquired that identity for myself I never wanted to surrender it. I came to interpret life with a writerly mind, noting that this co-worker's dream about decapitating a pig must go into a story about dating and that Honolulu condo tower would be an ideal setting for a tale about a Japanese coquette. It was impossible for me to make a mistake in choosing a day job or lover because every moment of my suffering could become a paragraph in my oeuvre.
The problem with clutching to a writerly persona is that when your craft comes under criticism or you are unable to create your very being is threatened. You will have jeopardized your sense of self by constructing an imbalanced identity. The reality is that writing is only one of your daily functions, like sleeping or socializing or exercising. Yes, writers may differ from others due to their sensitivity or intuition, but if you locate your existence on a separate plane than "ordinary folk" then you are sealing yourself into a position of isolation and ignorance.
I recently viewed an Internet site claiming that one becomes a better writer by producing more words on a routine basis. The site set Stephen King as the masterly scribe, as he delivers about 10 pagesor 2,000 wordseach day. My advice to you is to occasionally break the schedule that allows you to call yourself writer. Go to a beach without a book or make word-less love to your partner during that time when you "should" be writing. For me, such a split in regimen is one of the most difficult things to do. Yet when I emerge from my writing cavern into the unfamiliar light of the world, my following work often gains a luminescence.
#5. Be hollow
I frequently remind myself that the best part of my fiction writing doesn't come from me. Yes, I consciously shape the frame of a story, and select themes and name all characters. However, I don't actively implant moments of transcendencethose times when the story transports my reader to a point of thought loftier or more gorgeous than any word on the page. Where do these moments of transcendence come from, if not from my conscious self? My unconscious self? The web of consciousness strung above our heads and across the globe? Or perhaps spirits, or possibly what we call god?
I've decided I'm not meant to know but to trust. When we insert our ego into the work, it suffers. The story reveals the writer more than anything else, or it ceases to form completely due to that distracting relative of the ego we call inner critic.
If you aim to be hollow in your writing, and act as a kind of vessel, the fiction will always come. Maybe slowly, or even poorly at first. Yet if you keep your mind clear for something greater than yourself then I assure you something good will result. It may be universal truth through art or it may simply be pleasure from finishing what you began.
If you continually plug yourself with ego or cease trusting what words will arrive, you will most likely suffer from creative paralysis. Only after your ego withers from this condition and undergoes a necessary death will you start writing again.
#6. Remember what a feat it is to create
When I abandoned writing, fiction seemed insignificant and writing a frivolous activity. What a waste of hours, I thought, all this dwelling on people who don't even exist and tweaking of imaginary situations. I could have spent those mid-week nights and weekend days career planning, or upgrading my apartment, or at least learning how to cook. Why be so impractical when I live in a society where the practical things like money and belongings and status matter above all else?
By quitting and returning to writing, I've acquired an answer to this question: I write in a practical world because this world won't last. When everything is impermanentincluding one's existencethen what more miraculous activity is there than creating? Through our creations, we can understand this world before we exit it, and through our creations we can share that understanding with others.
I've noticed that an increase in age brings an increase in opposition to creativity. In the courses of their lifetimes, people lock themselves into all-consuming jobs, they assume responsibility for a spouse and/or children, they seal themselves inside an identity that can become a little more rigid with years or disappointments. I've met countless writers who've stopped writing. Their eyes light when they talk about that thriller they've outlined in their thoughts or the fictional biography that's been crystallizing in the back of the mind. But before they write, they require the perfect circumstance: when their sons leave for college, or when they locate that adequately lit cafe, or when they enroll in a writer's retreat to Arizona, or when they retire.
The truth is the perfect circumstance for writing is the one you're in right now. All writing requires is writing. The quality of the writing, the frequency of the writing, the results of the writing, and anybody's guidelines are all irrelevant. It is the act in itself that matters, and it is the act that can transform blank space into meaning, and a life that lacks into a life that is whole.