Saturday, March 17, 2007

You Ought to Have Your Head Examined, Part I

Writers aren’t exactly people…they’re a whole bunch of people trying to be one person.
—F. Scott Fitzgerald

Writers aren’t noted for their mental stability. The more productive ones tend to be manic-depressives (excuse me, the PC term is ‘suffer from bipolar syndrome), while the less productive ones tend to be plain old unhyphenated depressives.

Remember the HAL 9000 computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey, which gradually went mad because it had been given conflicting instructions? Writers are in much the same situation (except that no one has figured out how to unplug us).

Insanity and Rejection

You recall that old saying that insanity can be defined as doing the same thing over and over but expecting different results? I think it was writer Ralph Keyes who first noted that doing the same thing over and over again was a basic requirement of a writer’s career.

Consider the simple matter of sending an unsolicited story to magazines for publication. Have you ever heard a writer suggest you send the story once, and give up if they don’t take it? No, the advice is always to keep trying, keep on sending it—I believe the proverb claims the number of times you hear ‘no’ doesn’t matter when you only need one ‘yes.’

In submitting stories to magazines, novels to editors, or manuscripts to agents, every famous writer will tell you to expect rejection after rejection: the proof of your character as a writer is your willingness to keep on going.

In other words, character is shown by keeping on doing the same thing while expecting different results. In other words, insanity is your most valuable character trait. Wonderful.

Write Your Passion, But Don’t Get Self-Indulgent About It

Write what you deeply care about! Write what interests you! Write whatever is fun for you! Follow your bliss! This page is the first page of the rest of your book…

Sure. But while you’re at it, remember at all times that the reader is the most important element in everything you do. Just because you are vitally interested in all those details doesn’t mean anyone else will care. Can’t you cut this by 50%? Why is that scene/chapter/character even there? Yeah, that digression is cute and probably the best thing you ever wrote, but how can you possibly justify leaving it in?

It’s all about you and what you care about. Except that it isn’t; it’s all about somebody you haven’t even met.

The Most Important Thing in the World is Only a Book

Thomas Carlyle declared, “Genius is the capacity for taking infinite pains.” Genius may imply that capacity, but I’m not so sure the capacity for taking infinite pains necessarily implies genius. (Think of all those ship-in-a-bottle types.)

I am certain of this, though: unless you think what you're writing is mighty important, you will not take great pains with it. Writing a novel—even a mediocre novel, heck, even a bad novel—is arduous, and no one can do all that detailed work without believing they are achieving something of worth. Possibly even Art, with the capital A. As Faulkner had it, “If a writer has to rob his mother, he will not hesitate: The Ode on a Grecian Urn is worth any number of old ladies.”

But get a grip. It’s just a book. Don’t be obsessed about it. Your success as a human being doesn’t depend on this book. Your self-esteem shouldn’t depend on this book. Your friends, your family, your pets, your health, your volunteer work, your potted plants—all of these are more important than some made-up story the world never even asked you to write.

Keep it in perspective. It’s only a book. Now go write it as though your life depended on it.

It Isn't Just Me (I hope)

I've got another double-bind or two I want to rant about, but I'll save that for the next post. I suspect every writer is familiar with the schizo problems I've described--and I bet they could even expand my list. Because it isn't just me. It isn't.


Jeremy James said...

Well said. Writing = the definition of insanity. So true.

cate sweeney said...

Hi David
I absolutely agree with all this.
However, I think writing has helped keep me sane and helped me deal with the shitty stuff that happens in life a lot better, (though of course I can't prove that) but it's the being creative that's the important thing.

I do writing workshops in mental health situations sometimes, and just giving people permission to be creative, proves enormously up-lifting... whether it's something they make up, or whether it's something true a memory or whatever... though of course what we make up is often as revealing as... and also I agree that it's only a book, even if it did spring from something in our lives... why do we write anyway? Is it to get attention? Or to impart something about life to other people? Oh God, it's Sunday isn't it? I always get philosophical!
Keep on blogging!

David Isaak said...

Hi, Cate!

You raise an interesting point. Maybe writers aren't made crazy by writing, but can tolerate it BECAUSE they are already crazy? I remember Ray Bradbury asserting that they great thing about writing was tha it gave his mood swings somewhere to go.

As to why we write...ooooh, I'm not sure I want to go there just yet. Even if it IS Sunday.

Why do you think you write?

David Thayer said...

It dawned on me while reading your post that I really want a pool. Not an inflatable either but a regular pool with tile and ladders and a deep end. I will float on this pool regardless of the inclement weather until surrounded by manuscript pages before sinking beneath the waves (artificial waves).
That's why I write. I want a pool.

David Isaak said...

Well, Mr. Thayer, that's about the most rational reason I've ever heard for writing.

But wouldn't it be faster and easier to dig a pool with a teaspoon (or your fingernails) and then plaster it yourself with limestone hand-hewn from some ancient waterchannel in a far desert? Keep it simple, I say.

Charles Lambert said...

Right now I'm working on the final draft of a novel that's due out early next year. The original version was something like 125,000 words long. The final one will probably be around 73,000. I haven't thrown away almost half the book by myself; I've had the help of an extraordinary (no irony intended) editor, who's asked me exactly the questions I should have asked myself, but didn't, because I was too in love with my writing to imagine who might be reading.

It's taken me so long to sell the book that I'm no longer emotionally dependent on every deathless word, and I'm actually enjoying removing entire chapters that caused me both anguish and joy as I wrote them but are now, I have to face up to it, redundant. Editing yourself is hell, but you can learn so much from the work another person (a very good reader)does on your writing.

Believe me, I'm not normally this humble.

David Isaak said...

A good editor is the best thing that can happen to a writer. Unfortunately, to get one you typically have to have written a book they want to publish...which would have probably been a better book had they asked their questions earlier...

Charles Lambert said...

I would say though that some of the earlier revision of the book was in, let's call it, pondered response to comments made by editors who turned it down. there was a general consensus that one part simply wasn't needed and eventually I let myself hear it.

Jake said...

Well, the plus about having to care about those irrelevant things like friends, family, health, volunteer work, and potted plants, is that you can steal lots of material from them. (Yes. Even the potted plants.)