Monthly Archives: May 2010

Late Bloomer

When I was in high school, I read “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” and loved its intensity. Carson McCullers published it when she was 23.

I decided I would write my first novel by the time I was 23. I didn’t succeed for a simple reason: At 23, I hadn’t even started a novel.

Writing takes a combination of talent, hard work, and life experience. I knew I wanted to write pretty early in life, but I’ve been a late bloomer in a lot of other ways. I had my first kiss at age 21, first boyfriend at 22. Married and had my son in my mid-thirties. (My mom was 23 when I was born.)

Carson McCullers died at 50. According to her bio on Wikipedia, she had health problems, including addiction, throughout her life. Perhaps the universe sped up her talent just as it sped up her time on earth. Perhaps she simply had experienced a hell of a lot in her childhood and adolescence and was also lucky enough to be ready at a young age to translate her experiences into literature.

There’s something thrilling about “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter,” a passion may have been the result of McCullers’ youth. But there’s also something special about a writer like Alice Munro, whose stories convey a long life lived.

Nowadays, I love stories about late bloomers, whether in writing, art, film, music, sports, career choice, or business, because they give me hope that anyone can blossom, regardless of age.

Got any good late-bloomer stories for me?

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‘Shut Up and Get to Work’

This week, a coworker told me about a friend of his whose first novel was going to auction. A few hours later, the book had sold for five figures.

At first, I was like, “Wow, that’s so cool for your friend.” A few hours later–definite pangs of jealousy.

I wasn’t jealous of the book sale. I was jealous that this person I’d never met had finished his first novel.

Here’s some advice from blogger Tayari Jones: Don’t get pissy about who got published other than you. If you haven’t completed your novel, “shut up and get to work.”

And remember, you started writing because you love to write. When I say get to work, I am not telling you to pick up a hammer and start breaking rocks. When I say get to work, I’m saying get back to you. Get back to where you started from when you said you wanted to be a writer, when you didn’t know anything about the business.

I’ve been saying all along that the business of publishing does not concern me until I FINISH THE DAMN BOOK. But, I do think well-channeled jealousy is not necessarily a bad thing. It has spurred me to action more than once. I prefer to focus my jealousy on the types of things I can control. I can control, for the most part, getting the writing done. I can’t control, for the most part, whether someone decides to publish me. And of course, if I haven’t finished the novel, whether anyone would publish my work is a moot point.

So, kudos to my coworker’s friend for finishing his novel and doing all the hard work it must have taken to make it sale-able. And congratulations to him for getting a publisher.

And kudos to me for cutting the first three pages of a chapter yesterday and getting my characters right into the middle of the action. Baby steps.

Artsy Fartsy

Neither of my parents is a writer or an artist. My mom is a retired nurse. My dad is a college professor who teaches business administration and communication and operations research. Yet somehow, my brothers and I all wound up in creative professions. My brother O is an architect. Y is a musician and animator.

I wonder if that’s a coincidence, or a product of nurture. Mom was the type of mother who signed us up for music and art classes and camps, who bought us books and got us library cards and took us to movies and plays. And then there was our upbringing: We’re the products of a cross-cultural marriage, and grew up in two continents, speaking two languages. I don’t know whether my brothers would say the same, but growing up “different” made me want to express myself. We were also lucky that our parents never expected us to follow a particular career. (The closest my father ever came to being pushy about career choice, at least around me and at least that I can remember, was saying, “It would be nice if one of you became a doctor.” But I think he’d like it even more if one of us became a college professor.)

Then again, writing is such an integral part of my being that I think (but of course I can’t be sure) that I would have become a writer no matter what.

Support creativity by voting for this year’s Million Writers Award winner. I haven’t had time to cast my vote yet, but I hope to before the May 31 deadline.

Why Write a Novel?

Back in April, when I was thinking about starting this blog, I made a list of about 30 topics I thought might make good posts. (I was on leave at the time; my brain was free and creative.) No. 5 on the list: Why write a novel?

The question now is: What was I thinking? How on earth do I answer that question?

Why write a novel? I used to write poetry. Writing poetry is no piece of cake, but you can write the first draft of a poem in minutes or hours, on a napkin or the back of an envelope. You can see the fruits of your labor. Maybe no one else in the world will ever read that poem, maybe it will take you years to revise it to your liking. But in the meantime, you can move on to the next poem.

A writing teacher of mine in college, a writer of novels for children and young adults, told me, “Poetry is nice, but you’ll never get anywhere doing that.” Or something along those lines. Her words didn’t influence me to want to write novels–I was already writing short fiction and had always loved novels best of all types of literature–but they stuck with me.

Why write a novel? As I have said, writing a novel is hard. It takes stamina. It causes guilt. Right this minute, I should be working on my novel. I should always be working on my novel, if I ever want to finish it.

Why write a novel? It’s all about the story. Which is funny, because I didn’t set out with a complete plot–or any plot, really–in mind. I just saw characters I liked and wondered what made them that way, what motivated them, what stories I could uncover for them. The length of a novel gives so much room to explore. It’s exhilarating, and tiring, like searching for the Northwest Passage.

Wanting to write a novel is also about–surprise!–writing. Good writing days, when things are flowing and moving along, feel really good. Plus, when I finish writing my @#$@#%#@ first novel, I will be a better writer than I was when I started. I know that for a fact. I will have learned to hone, to cut, to plot, to characterize. I can always learn more, of course, but I’ll be further along the way.

There are more reasons to write a novel: To move people, to share a view of the world. But those things seem far away. At the moment, I focus on the reasons connected to the process of writing, because I’m in the thick of it.

Fellow novel writers: What are your reasons?

Free Money for Writers. Not.

I’m a little embarrassed about this post. It reveals — God forbid — that I was once callow and overestimated my skills.

I used to have this fantasy about getting a writing windfall — an NEA grant, a Stegner Fellowship, or the like — and quitting my job. If only someone would recognize my genius and give me some money, I could follow my heart’s desire.

At the same time, I was starting my career. Like just about everyone else who didn’t go to professional school, I’d say I applied for a lot of jobs I wasn’t qualified for. It’s the new grad’s dilemma: All the cool jobs require experience, but you can’t land the job to acquire that experience.

Eventually, I paid my dues and advanced to exactly the job I wanted: a full-time writing gig. I’ve been writing for a living for nearly nine years now.

Meanwhile, I slowly realized that what goes in the world of work also goes in the world of grant making. If you don’t have much experience at creative writing — if you don’t have publications or an MFA under your belt — why should someone give you $25,000 to do it?

This year I was blessed to have a small grant from the Arts & Humanities Council of Montgomery County. That’s the type of grant maker I should have been setting my sights on all along. Even so, I think I applied at the right time in my writing endeavor. I’m working on a serious project that I had already invested several years in. I could promise my benefactors that I would use the money well.

I like the way my career has turned out, and I really enjoy my job. I write about meaningful topics. I like feeling somewhat socially useful all day and then making stuff up in my spare time.

Don’t get me wrong; I wouldn’t mind switching that balance, and I still have fantasies. Last Friday night, while supping in Dupont Circle, my husband and I talked about how nice it would be to move into the city one day. “When I get a big advance on my novel,” I joked.

“Then I can go to school full time and get back into painting,” he said. It was nice to know he shared my fantasy.

Five Tips: Things I, One Reader, and One Published Author Have Done to Make Time for Writing

Last night, my husband and I went on a rare date. My in-laws, who live 10 minutes away from us, watched our son. I was hoping they’d keep him overnight, but when we called around 10:15 to check in before we started our 45-minute subway ride home, he was still awake. So we took pity on them and picked him up. By the time we got him home and he had unwound enough to fall asleep, it was almost midnight.

The upside was that he slept in until 8 a.m. this morning. I was awake by 6:30, so at 7 I dragged myself out of bed, crept downstairs and fit in an hour of work on my novel.

So there’s tip No. 1 for carving out time to write: Take advantage of insomnia and fortuitously empty blocks of time.

Tip No. 2 is to figure out your best time to write and see if you can change your schedule. Before my son was born, I worked out a flexible schedule with my then-boss. Two days a week I went to a coffee shop near work and wrote all morning before heading to the office. I worked extra hours the other days to make up my 40 hours.

But, now my schedule isn’t as flexible. Tip No. 3: Make a date with yourself. On Tuesday evenings, my husband picks our son up from daycare (normally my duty, as daycare is closer to my office than his), so I can go plunk myself down in a coffee shop and write for two or three hours. The downside is that I don’t see my son on Tuesday nights. Sometimes I have to force myself to be productive instead of sitting there missing my family. I’m trying to see Tuesday nights as my chance to get a break, because when the writing goes well, I feel happier.

Tip No. 4 comes from my friend and reader Andy. His advice boils down to “Go to bed early.” Retiring with the chickens enables you to get up at 5:30 and write for an hour or so before getting ready for work. Andy says an early-to-bed-early-to-rise schedule only hurts for a week or so. Hmmm.

Tip No. 5: Apply for a small grant or residency that would allow you to take a week, two weeks, a month off from work. Or just go on a one-week vacation to write. While I was on a one-month residency sponsored by the Espy Foundation, in Oysterville, Wash., I wrote as many pages as I might normally write in a year. And in the Oysterville public library, I read about Elizabeth Gaffney, author of the historical novel “Metropolis,” who said she wrote her book while on annual residencies. (This is my recollection of something I read three years ago, so don’t quote me!) Writing a novel just didn’t fit into her busy life as a Paris Review editor; she had to take time off to do it. Of course, if you don’t work at a famous literary magazine, you may have difficulty convincing your boss to give you time off. Or perhaps your spouse wants you to save your vacation time for a trip to the Bahamas. But even if you take a short “book leave”  just once rather than once a year, you’ll make progress.

What have you done to make time for writing?

Julia Child, Novelist

I’m a sucker for movies about the creative process. You know the scene in “Ratatouille” in which a bite of food whisks the bitter food critic back to his childhood ? The ability of art to transport is one of the major reasons I consume and create it.

Last night I watched “Julie and Julia,” a movie about the woman without whom “Ratatouille” probably wouldn’t exist. I thought “Julie and Julia” was going to be about cooking. In fact, it told the story of two women’s roads to becoming published authors.

I was disappointed. Cooking has its own drama. The final scene of “Big Night,” in which two brothers cook eggs, comes to mind. My favorite parts of “Julie and Julia” were brief views of mushrooms being browned, cream being poured. But the movie doesn’t exploit the drama of cooking, as it could have.

I’d much rather watch someone cook on film than write (or talk about how they want to be published). Let’s face it, watching someone type is boring. That’s why we have no reality shows featuring aspiring novelists battling it out, and why some of the best movies about writers have writer’s block as a prominent theme (“Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” “Sideways”) or are about hunting down a scandal (“All the President’s Men”).

Julia’s half of the story was more compelling, for a lot of reasons. Julia Child vs. Julie Powell, Meryl Streep vs. Amy Adams (as cute as she is), Stanley Tucci vs. whoever that guy was, Paris vs. New York, fifties fashion vs. aughts fashion. But also, just the fact that, although we know Julia’s book will be published, there’s drama in watching Julia Child become the woman who would transform American culinary culture. I didn’t really care whether Julie transformed from blog writer to published author. So many people are trying to do that.