— Ira Glass to Lifehacker. I’m Ira Glass, Host of This American Life, and This Is How I Work.
So, we writers complain a lot that writing is hard. And it is. It can be really, really hard. It can be so hard we think about quitting. Maybe more than sometimes. Our dearest companions sometimes may suggest to us that we do something other than writing, temporarily or permanently because of our bad moods about writing.
But when writing goes right, and by that I don’t mean being easy, but by that feeling of satisfaction you get when by God—you captured something in words that no one else has been able to write before—writing is such a joy.
There is a time to commiserate with writers about the terrible pay, the lack of control of creative people over our own work, the grind of writing to deadline, the pressure to do more than write by having a “presence” on the internet, the emails, the cover art issues, the business end even when you are getting paid, and of course, the
I’m not going to write anymore about that now, though. I am going to write about the sheer, unadulterated pleasure that is writing on a good day, on the right day when it turns right because you got that sentence right or you figured out who the murderer is or because you know now why your main character does that thing she does.
Why I love being a writer:
1. Writing in my pajamas, whenever the notion strikes me.
2. Eating food while writing.
3. Sitting down and rocking the world.
4. Reading a note from someone who “got” your book in just the way that I one day hoped someone would.
5. Finding out a truth about myself that I would never have known if I hadn’t been writing that character that day.
6. The light that goes off in the middle of the night and you know how you’re going to do that revision and fix EVERYTHING!
7. When I’m cooking dinner and my characters talk to me about what they would be eating instead.
8. Cutting out the weight that was holding my book down and now it feels so free, so clean, and so pure.
9. Surprising my editor and making her say, “Woah! That is awesome!”
10. When people tell me the part they loved about the book, and that they wanted more and were sad when they reached “THE END.”
11. Figuring out what the next chapter is going to be about.
12. Writing dialog that makes you want to read it out loud.
13. Taking out a notebook when your brain is on fire and writing words down with an actual pen.
This is something that one of my early therapists told me. She was actually pretty smart, but I didn’t keep seeing her for very long because I wasn’t ready for some of the things she had to tell me. In this case, I told her all these things that had crushed me and when she said that her job was to help me get stronger, I was so furious. I didn’t want to get stronger. I wanted the world to get easier. Basically, she was saying that I was going to have to change, to do work, and I was too depressed to think about any of that.
This is a frequent problem with depression. If someone in your life is depressed and you find yourself thinking up brilliant suggestions for them which they hate, well, you’re not doing the wrong thing necessarily. It’s just that often you have to wait for the depressed person to initiate movement toward change. I’m not sure you can do much to push them forward except standing by them and giving support—sometimes even when it seems ridiculous. Say “yes” and nod a lot, make sympathetic noises. And eventually they may get to the part where they have enough energy and enough clarity to change.
That change may include medication or it may not. It may include therapy. It may include weird things that you think are stupid. Diet changes. Exercise changes. Sleep changes. Relationship changes. They may change things that didn’t need to be changed and they regret them. But at least they’re trying something. Of course they can’t see clearly, but the energy to do some change is a good thing at base.
And the truth is, my therapist was right. There was nothing she could do to make the world less cruel, to take away the pain that I was suffering. There might be people around me doing things that hurt me more. But she and I couldn’t change them. I wanted to point fingers and say everyone else was doing everything wrong, that they were the problem. This is pretty common in depression. And I’m not even saying it wasn’t true. It just didn’t matter that much. Because when you’re the one in pain, you’re mostly the one who has to change—even if the only thing you can change is getting rid of the people in your life who are unable to stop causing you pain.
Sergeant Phelps worked for General Eisenhower. Four decades after Eisenhower had defeated the Axis powers, Phelps recalled an extraordinary event. One day, the general told her, “I’m giving you an order to ferret those lesbians out. We’re going to get rid of them.”
“I looked at him and then I looked at his secretary who was standing next to me, and I said, ‘Well, sir, if the general pleases, sir, I’ll be happy to do this investigation for you. But you have to know that the first name on the list will be mine.’ “
“And he was kind of taken aback a bit. And then this women standing next to me said, ‘Sir, if the General pleases, you must be aware that Sergeant Phelp’s name may be second, but mine will be first.”
“Then I looked at him, and said, ‘Sir, you’re right. They’re lesbians in the WAC battalion. And if the general is prepared to replace all the file clerks, all the section commanders, all the drivers-every woman in the WAC detachment-and there were about nine hundred and eighty something of us-then I’ll be happy to make that list. But I think the general should be aware that among those women are the most highly decorated women in the war. There have been no cases of illegal pregnancy. There have been no cases of AWOL. There have been no cases of misconduct. And as a matter of fact, every six months since we’ve been here, the general has awarded us a commendation for meritorious conduct.”
“And he said, ‘Forget the order.’”"
The Gay Metropolis, page 47, Charles Kaiser (via bibliothekara)
Phelps tells this story herself in the excellent 1984 documentary Before Stonewall, which you can watch in its entirety on YouTube (she’s at 19:30, but really, watch the whole thing): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kX7AxQd82H8
This makes me laugh every time I see it.
It’s easy to get depressed when you get rejection letter after rejection letter. Knowing that it’s part of the process helps a little, but doesn’t take away the sting completely. And there are other parts of the writing process that are even more painful. Giving up on a manuscript and putting it aside. Rewriting a manuscript so that large chunks you love are gone. Realizing that a manuscript you’re working on is derivative—or that something far too similar has just been published by someone you never heard of.
When you are feeling like this sucks and there is no point in writing another word, I hope it’s helpful to hear things like this:
1. This is all going to make a great book someday. Either a book about a writer or a book about someone who is rejected in ways that are like a writer.
2. I’m making that editor into the villain in my next manuscript.
3. The people who rejected me are going to wish they hadn’t. (Sometimes this actually does happen.)
4. Anger and despair are just more fuel for the creative fire.
5. Now that I’ve suffered, I really get what other artists are talking about.
6. I can write characters who have been through bad stuff a lot better now.
7. If I can figure out why people do these things that hurt me, I can write better villains. And make them suffer even more when I take away everything they care about. Mwahahah!
8. I’m going to devise a fantasy world in which things like this don’t happen. And I’m going to spend a lot of time worldbuilding to show how it can be done.
9. I get to the god of my next novel and I will make all the people I create suffer the way I’ve suffered, and it will be delicious!
10. I am going to work on my inspiring talk on how to keep working hard, no matter how bad the rejection gets, and aspiring authors are going to one day give me standing ovations.
We tell ourselves as writers that this is how it works to write a book:
1. Write a crappy first draft.
2. Get some feedback on it.
3. Revise it.
4. Get more feedback.
5. Revise it again.
Which isn’t untrue, but sometimes I think it feels more like this:
1. Write a crappy first draft.
2. Despair that it will never be any better and put it away.
3. Try writing another crappy first draft.
4. Decide to go back to the first crappy first draft because it seems better.
5. It isn’t better, but at least it’s finished.
6. Ask for feedback.
7. Reread notes on feedback and realize that people are telling you completely different things to fix, and that you could go off in at least six different directions.
8. Try to make everyone happy.
9. Get more feedback. Everyone hates it and tells you to go back to the first version.
10. You give up and move onto the next book, because this one CANNOT BE FIXED.
If you haven’t been through this process at least once, I don’t believe you’re a writer.
I was with a great writer’s group for years, and I improved for a long time. And then I stopped improving. I started using the comments of the other writers as a Bible rather than as guidelines. I took too many notes, and I heard their voices in my head as I revised. This was not their problem, really. It was mine, but the only way I was able to fix it was to stop going to a writer’s group for several years.
The problem is that when you hear feedback from people, especially from other writers, you are likely to hear a lot of—this is what I do when my book has that problem. Which makes sense, right? I mean, how else do you offer advice except by using your own experience as an example?
But the best teachers of writing are the ones who see what you are trying to write and show you how to do it better. Not how to be them. They strip your work down to some basic parts and show you how to play with those. They don’t take away anything that matters to the piece and somehow, they manage to keep what makes your piece unique while also making it better.
This is nearly impossible. Really, I don’t think we realize how difficult it is to do this. You have to be not only a superb writer, but a well-read writer. Someone who understands many different kinds of forms, voices, and stories. You have to be able to be humble enough to realize that not every book is a book that you could write. There are wonderful books that don’t appeal to you at all. And yet you must learn how to help someone else write a perfect book that is not your kind of book. How many writers are this smart and humble—and care enough to learn this skill? Not many.
The wrong kind of writing teacher teaches you not how to write your own book better, but how to write like everyone else. And this is tragic. I’ve seen this all too often. Someone who writes a quirky, unique book, and it is “critiqued” or “edited” by the wrong person and ends up being something that almost anyone could have written. Sure, it has the edges knocked off so that it might appeal to a wider audience. Only it doesn’t really appeal to anyone anymore because the passion is gone out of it.
If you feel like this has happened to you as a writer, my advice is to let the piece sit for 6-12 months and come back to it with fresh eyes. Even that is sometimes not long enough to fall back in love with what was going right in a piece.
The worst risk of revision is always that you will end up abandoning a piece completely because you lost the part of yourself that wrote it. I don’ t know how to get that back. I know there are some writers who claim that they never give up on a piece of writing.
I am a little envious of this, because I feel like those writers have more confidence—or something—than I do. I give up on books. A lot. I forget what it was I was doing when I talk to too many people about my book, and that is something that I have begun to guard a little more closely against. Maybe it sounds like a superstition, but I believe too many eyes on a book takes something away from it.
A man I used to know only a little used to introduce himself to everyone he met with this story: He was driving from California to Utah because they were moving and he had three children in the car. The youngest child, about 9, was sitting in the front seat. It was dark and the youngest child fell asleep, so he reached over and undid the seatbelt so his son could be more comfortable.
A few minutes later, he fell asleep at the wheel, bumped off the road, rolled the car, and his son was catapulted from the car because he did not have a seatbelt on, and this son died. The man felt so much guilt for his part in the death of his son that he had to tell it to everyone he met, to get a kind of up-front forgiveness or maybe to feel like he wasn’t getting their friendship or kindness unfairly.
I have never forgotten this story, and when I think about creating characters, I often think about what is the story that this character would tell to everyone. What is the deep loss in their past that they cannot forget or forgive themselves for? And are they the kind of person who tells that story again and again or are they the kind that can never speak of it, that buries it deep, hoping without hope that it will go away?
I was a little nervous going into this book because I’m not Mormon and I’m not even that religious, but I was pleasantly surprised. Yes, there’s some Mormon terminology that isn’t explained in-depth, but the important terms were briefly summarized by the author (which I greatly appreciated).
While the main character, Linda, is the wife of a bishop, she isn’t a blind follower. She questions her husband’s actions and decisions and also those of other people living within their ward. I liked that Harrison explored both the upsides to religion and the downsides. There are people living in the ward who have extremist beliefs and those who are more conservative and this shows how easy it is to interpret the same religion in different way.
As for the plot, the beginning of the book started off a little slow for me, but that can sometimes be accepted as a lot of set up can be involved. About midway through, it really picked up. Whenever I thought I knew what had happened, new information was revealed that said otherwise. It was also interesting to read a mystery from the perspective of a seemingly normal woman with no background in law enforcement or investigative services. All of the actions she took and all of the conclusions she drew were what I would assume that I would do if I were in her shoes.
I’m sure some people will be put off by the religious tones in the book, but I didn’t find them overwhelming at all. The characters were interesting, the plot kept me guessing and the ending was satisfying.
Thanks Samantha Londer! http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/21416678-the-bishop-s-wife
So much what I hoped to hear about this book of my heart, and this character who is so close to me:
This book was hard to put down. It’s described as a mystery, but it’s definitely not a formulaic mystery (ie body found in the beginning and murder solved by the end)… But I appreciated that because I’m all for changing things up. The tone of the story read more like women’s fiction and the religious “world” reminded me a lot of The Ladies Auxiliary by Tova Mirvis (one of my all-time favs) in which we get a frank look inside a religious woman’s mind who has a strong testimony of her faith but doesn’t have all the answers (in this case, Mormonism. And no one has all the answers, so I appreciated the honesty of Linda’s character as well).
I loved the twists and turns, and I loved how the MC, Linda, made wrongful assumptions at first (so true-to-life) when a woman goes missing in her ward (church congregation). I loved how she was a selfless person as she helped her husband in his Church-calling, yet she felt lost in her own journey much of the time. Complicated characters draw me in, and I can always find something to relate to. Linda recognized the flaws in those around her immediately, but was willing to learn to see the good in those same people, and to be compassionate regardless. She also was fiercely protective of her personal grief, and that led her to grow her character and do the hard things that needed to be done.
At several points, I thought I knew the answers, but Harrison would surprise me… which is the key in reading mysteries. I’d love to see a sequel/series to The Bishop’s Wife since there were some things I wanted to see tied up (with Kenneth and Samuel, and even Anna) since I became invested in the secondary characters, and I could definitely continue reading about Linda’s next adventures in life! (I hope she gets that cruise in…)
Thanks, Heather Brown Moore!