Friday, September 04, 2009

Myths, Fairy Tales, and Other Lies About Writing

The day I wrote this a ghostly pall hung over the city. We woke coughing and feeling vaguely asthmatic. During my morning run a yellow haze sheathed the sun. Some had sore throats, headaches, or itchy eyes. Smoke from the L.A. fires had surrounded us. By afternoon I could see from my office window that the wind-blown evidence of California’s latest disaster had settled in Denver’s trees like lost West Coast fog. I wrote about writing, maybe to clear my head?


The first big untruth is that writing depends on inspiration, sometimes called a muse, often referred to as the right conditions, whatever those may be. If that were true, would anything ever be written? Maybe it’s that I didn’t recognize my muse when she or he or it appeared. The fly buzzing around my computer? The spam email that appeared from nowhere? The dog-eared but embarrassingly empty notebook that sits on my desk, challenging me to fill it with dialog, plots, and character sketches?

No, writing requires ambition – lack of laziness. Just do it. Ambition is defined as an ardent desire for rank, fame, or power; a desire to achieve a particular end; or a desire for activity or exertion. Any of those will work. You gotta want it, and want it bad. A half-hearted writer will produce half-assed writing. A well-exercised imagination helps; good grammar is nice; a growing vocabulary is essential. But none of that matters without the desire to achieve the particular end of writing. Ambition defeats writer’s block every time.

Next, the fairy tale that some writers, including myself, have propagated and nourished in response to questions such as “Have you ever been surprised by what your characters do or say?” And the writer responds, “My characters just took over and all I could do was go along for the ride. They developed a life of their own.” My wife smirked when she first heard that from me, even though I may have convinced myself that it was true. I’ll admit that I do not always see where my writing will end up; that characters may enter stories on the fly, without any preconceived plan on my part; and that I have been surprised by twists in my stories as much as any reader. But it all comes from my head, the product of hard, gut-wrenching labor, and not romantic notions of magical forces guiding my pen or keyboard. Does that sound harsh, maybe too business-like and not cozy-armchair-honey-sweetened-tea enough? Blame it on the smoke.

I love to talk about my books, stories, poems, anything I have written. I can go on for hours about my output, and have, but only after the books have been written. Some writers will say that talking about their current projects helps -- maybe that works for them. Not for me. It can be a big mistake to talk about something that hasn’t been written yet. What is imagined by the writer never can be completely duplicated on the page. It’s perfect in our imaginations, of course. Talking about it before it hits that page only exacerbates the problem. I don't mean using a critique group or a reader to help with the editing to take the writing to the next level. But such assistance comes into play only after the writer has spent a good deal of time on the actual writing and is ready for reactions and editing.

I’ve met numerous people over the years who have told me that they were writing, when what they meant was that they were thinking about writing. They have beautiful ideas for novels; an entire six-volume series ready to go in their heads; masses of details collected and thousands of notes scribbled and favorable support from family and friends; but they aren’t writers until they stare at that empty page or screen and put together a paragraph, a sentence, hell, the first word. And maybe even then they still aren’t writers.

Along those lines is the person who says that they have always wanted to write a book and one of these days maybe they will. As if writing a book is like deciding between walking and riding a bicycle – just a matter of choice. Please. Maybe there are people who can do that. On Monday they decide they are writers and on Tuesday they start writing. Didn't work that way for me.

Then there is the notion that writing is its own reward. This could be a half-truth (does that make it a whole lie?) The act of writing, of producing words that work together, is healthy. I am happier when I am writing. My mental well-being may depend on my ability to continue to write. But that’s only part of the story. The reward comes from knowing that someone else is reading my writing. I don’t need the feedback or the reviews or the public recognition, just the knowledge that because I have produced, someone else has picked up my product and used it. I'm not averse to getting paid, too, but that's always seemed like an extra to me. Maybe that's why I've never made much money from writing.

How about the readers who ask me when am I going to write another book – implying that they have already read all of my previously published books (they haven’t) and I am interfering with the necessary feeding of their reading jones? Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate the gesture and realize that someone asking about a new book is far better than no one asking about any book. But the truth is that I am a writer so I am always writing. There isn’t a season for writing, no day of the week reserved for writers, no Writers Write Now month. I can’t turn it on and off. I don’t want to turn it on or off. I am hooked and ready for the net. The next book comes out when the next book is done, that’s really all I know. Other writers respond to contract deadlines or agent threats or editor demands or job responsibilities. I respond to sleepless nights when I cannot write and boring days when I don’t have the time to write. I respond to myself.


The PEN/Beyond Margins Award celebrates outstanding books by writers of color published in the United States during the previous year.

Sponsored by the Open Book Program, the Beyond Margins Award is one of the many ways in which the Open Book Program encourages racial and ethnic diversity within the literary and publishing communities. The Open Book Committee works to increase the literature by, for, and about African, Arab, Asian, Caribbean, Latin, and Native Americans, and to establish access for these groups to the publishing industry. Its goal is to ensure that those who are the custodians of language and literature are representative of the American people.

Honored for writing "outstanding books by writers of color," three authors will receive $1,000 and be featured at a December celebration.

The three recipients are: Uwem Akpan for Say You're One of Them, Juan Felipe Herrera for Half of the World in Light: New and Selected Poems, and Lily Hoang for Changing. National Book Critics Circle president Jane Ciabattari will host the 2009 Beyond Margins Celebration at Housing Works Bookstore Cafe (NYC) on December 2.



Anonymous said...

Right on, Manolo!!

Viva Liz Vega! said...

I like the way you write. Thank you.

Manuel Ramos said...

Thank you, Anonymous, and Liz (and welcome to La Bloga - great start for the Sunday bunch so far.)