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How the Discouragement of Getting Fired Became a Blessing

When I began teaching creative writing to adults in a non-credit evening school, I was new to the classroom and dry-mouth nervous. In that fluorescent-lit public school classroom with desktops clamped to hard metal chairs—it oriented me to stand at the blackboard and deliver a brief lecture on some aspect of writing craft. My students dutifully took notes on plot or point of view, and then we relaxed a little. We had lively discussions of published work, and they encouraged and critiqued one another’s stories.

We were in school. I spent hours preparing each class.

One day, I received a snail mail letter from a private writing client who was not in my class. Jossie’s handwriting was hard to decipher, but the message was simple: I was fired.

She said I was far too critical. I seemed to dislike her characters, when she had portrayed them sympathetically. I objected to her stream-of-consciousness narrative habit, which she considered to be her natural voice. Her favorite story? I’d bashed it. Not wanting to respond defensively, I waited and ran the situation by an editor friend.

My friend was decisive—if my client couldn’t take criticism, she should get out of the writing game and find a hobby. I wasn’t so sure. For one thing, while I tried to hide my feelings from Jossie, I had become impatient with her over the previous few months. Again and again, I had explained to her the fundamentals of plot. If she wanted to dispense with it, fine, but she had to understand how plot worked before she could create a successful anti-plot. Yes, she’d written one or two really good stories. But I wondered if she’d picked up on my feeling that her work wasn’t changing fast enough.

I took a deep breath, emailed Jossie, and thanked her for challenging me. I apologized for my prior insensitivity. A week later, we sat at her kitchen table over mugs of tea. I knew that repeating my concerns about technical problems in her writing would be a dead end, so I asked about her writing process. I was genuinely interested, and our conversation took on a new spontaneity. Jossie was passionate about her work, and it struck me that the long, rich cadence of her speech was a lot like her writing style. In fact, it was beautiful. In their impulsivity and verve, her characters resembled her. No wonder she’d felt attacked by my critique.

In the end, because I had listened to her without judgment, shared my own writing struggles and admitted my own mistakes, she decided to adopt some of the suggestions that initially angered her.

That conversation turned me into a creative coach. I’d been evaluating student work as if it bore little connection to the person who wrote it. Seeing the writer in the work is far more fruitful—and enjoyable. Diversity_1

But why is this important to the work? There are two reasons. The first is that there’s no such thing as a generic writer. Given a single lecture on plot, 15 different students will hear 15 different lectures. One will tune out, daydreaming about his characters’ complex motivations, and another might ask whether a plot has to have a certain quota of turning points before the crisis. Understanding the difference can make all the difference in a mentoring relationship.

The second point is more important. Understanding how one writes best is just as important as it is that one writes. Most writers (myself included) make good use of external validation. Excellent writing is hard-won, and learning to deal with self-doubt is essential. This part of the writing work never ends. Jossie, who once fired me, is now creating fine, published work because we learned to collaborate. What validates one person, though, might be irrelevant to another. My particular bit of advice may not turn out to be useful, but when it isn’t, we’ve all learned something about the creative nature of the writing process.

Seeking feedback on a piece of writing is an experiment in risk-taking, and not just for the writer. My job is to understand any particular writer as well as I can. My feedback can flourish in a collaborative relationship that is itself creative.

I no longer teach in classrooms with fluorescent light, and I’m having a lot more fun. My voice is one of many, and that’s as it should be.






The Writing Process: Playing With Tigers

From my sane self to my writer self:

My hope for us in 2017 is that we’ll incorporate self-kindness into our writing process.

Oh, please. Another thing I have to do? Just give me a 2017 calendar to keep track of when I avoid writing. And I just love it when people tell me how I should feel.

 Self-kindness isn’t a feeling. Not a cotton-candy antidote to your scolding voice.

Hey, at least if I beat myself up, I know somebody cares about my writing. Right?

If you stop beating us up, would you stop caring?

 Don’t try me.

(*sigh*) Okay, listen. Self-kindness has to do with discovering our own writing process. Not other peoples’. Ours.

You sound like a teacher. Which is annoying.

Shut up. I am a teacher. Don’t you feel lonely as a writer?


Look, writing is lonely. So find your tribe. Suppose history’s first story-tellers had gone off alone to scratch hunting stories in some isolated cave? Our ancestor Ogg would of never ended his tale of outwitting a saber-tooth tiger. Ogg would have kept chiseling away at his laptop, editing the passage where the tiger unleashes its beastly fury. Meanwhile the whole tribe took off for the South of France.saber tooth

Ogg would have given up, not because his story wasn’t good, but because there was no one left to tell it to.

We write to be read. Not because we’re vain creatures who suck up praise, but because stories create our closest human bonds. But while Ogg would have known to pack it in and get out the GPS to locate the whereabouts of his tribe, we berate ourselves for being human. For feeling sad that isolation kills creativity. Only we don’t say that. Instead, we tell ourselves there’s something wrong with us because…

…Last week my dog died and I found out that my kids are drug dealers and there was a flood in my basement and my partner of twenty years left because she doesn’t like damp feet and I got laid off from my job. I handled all that pretty well. But I had ten minutes available to write between getting ditched and learning that I was fired, and I couldn’t bring myself to do anything. There’s something wrong with me. I must not be a writer after all.  

Enough! Remember Ogg? One time he and his tribe spent three weeks getting rid of a saber tooth tiger that was harassing their pet mastodon. Ogg didn’t berate himself for taking the next few days off. He took care of himself! He had a good long sleep until he was ready to get up and tell the story.

Yeah, but our writing isn’t good enough. Ogg and company were too scared of tigers to care about anything else.

 And we aren’t scared? Our tigers have just moved inside. Not indoors. Inside. If I give myself permission to listen to what’s inside, what if the tigers tell me I’m a fraud? What if they scare me so much I don’t want to write at all?

Exactly! If I start being kind to myself, I might not even try. Telling myself I should do better lets me know that there’s a grownup in charge (Me) who carries a big stick so someone (Little me) won’t run off and forget about writing because she’s having too much fun.

Writing is fun.

You didn’t hear me! Writing is hard work!

Actually, I was listening. Writing is about learning to work with your tigers. Real, scary tigers that we’ve been toting around since we were babies. But when they roll over and let you scratch their tummies, they’re adorable. What could be more fun than walking around with a tiger on a leash?

Maybe if there were some real grownups around, you wouldn’t be allowed to say that.

Hello? You know how old I am? And you’re no spring chicken, either. Which is my point. You + me = tribe. Isolation is what makes us give up; not lack of ability. Lack of talent never stopped anyone from doing anything.

I’m not sure that’s a compliment.

Hey, remember that ‘loser’ Ogg? He was famous for telling long-winded, repetitive stories. His plots didn’t resolve; they self-combusted. What isn’t known is that he actually invented the first-ever literary genre—the epic poem. The only reason we don’t know this is that everyone was too busy adapting Ogg’s material to their own mythologies to bother criticizing all the times he shouted, “Tiger at ten o’clock!” or note for posterity how he bored the whole tribe to sleep. He even bored the tigers to sleep, which made them easy to kill.

And that’s the real reason saber-tooth tigers became extinct. I’ve heard their fossils are used to make microchips.

Are you done?








When the Muse Messes With Your Head: A Case Study

Sunday morning: I’ve been slacking long enough. Time to finish the story I began with such enthusiasm ten just a few brief months ago. I need inspiration, so I turn to where all the muses have fled: The Internet. I resolve to begin each day with an*!Inspirational! * quote from a famous writer. (Starting tomorrow.)

Monday: I decide Dedication is lacking. My Google search provides the example of someone whose wild words apparently sprang from the chaos of his personal life: I will follow one of Henry Miller’s “commandments”: Don’t be nervous. Work calmly, joyously, recklessly on whatever is in hand.

The problem is, I want people to like me. But the muse has spoken. I sit down to the computer, coffee on the left, a bottle of Heineken at my right. Never mind that it’s 9 in the morning. I take a large, nauseating slug of beer and stare at my latest draft. Who wrote this garbage? Don’t be nervous. Work calmly and recklessly! Calm and reckless? Isn’t that an oxymoron? I pull the blind in case the mail carrier should spy the Demon Alcohol.

 I start on the coffee and start banging out words. Are they any good? How the hell would I know? I force the story for an hour, at which point I succumb to the relief of calling the dentist to schedule a long-overdue root canal.

hand-hazard-symbols1Tuesday afternoon: I’ve been too hard on myself. Maybe. Apparently I’m not a Henry Miller type. I have an artist’s guilty need for reassurance. Voila! EB White pops up in today’s search. A wholesome family man. Recalling how I fell asleep as a kid, Charlotte’s Web clutched to my chest, I am already heartened.

My house, he told the Paris Review, has a living room that is at the core of everything that goes on…There’s a lot of traffic. But it’s a bright, cheerful room, and I often use it as a room to write in, despite the carnival that is going on all around me.

In consequence, the members of my household never pay the slightest attention to my being a writing man — they make all the noise and fuss they want to. If I get sick of it, I have places I can go. A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.

 Yes! I flip open the laptop, still in my footie pajamas. Surely the carnival of daily life harbors the safer sort of Muse. The problem is, I currently live alone, and the place is as quiet as King Tut’s tomb. I call my cat, JP, who trots in, hoping for a handout. “C’mon,” I tell him. “Make all the noise and fuss you want to.” He jumps up on the desk and settles down to stare at me. I grit my teeth and revise yesterday’s work, trying to gain momentum to move forward.

My phone is turned off, but I see an incoming text. It’s my recently-fledged daughter. Can we talk? NOW? it says. Oh, dear. It occurs to me that had EB White access to text messages, he would have kept right on going at the typewriter. Any cries for help from children would have gone straight to the Mrs.

I make the call. It turns out the quarter-life crisis I fear amounts to nothing more than a thick trail of ants assaulting her trashcan. After making several dozen suggestions, I am so relieved I have to nap for an hour.

Wednesday: I am disgusted with my lack of progress. I am a complete failure as a human being. I bag my plan and go to the mall.

Thursday: Guilt. Anger. Ben & Jerry’s. Why should take my writing advice from men? Back to the Magic 8 Ball. Ah, Jodi Picoult. She’s a mom. She has pets!

She says, I don’t believe in writer’s block. Think about it — when you were blocked in college and had to write a paper, didn’t it always manage to fix itself the night before the paper was due? Writer’s block is having too much time on your hands. If you have a limited amount of time to write, you just sit down and do it. You might not write well every day, but you can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page.

 All true, all true. I feel so bad about myself that I spend two hours at the computer, doing God knows what to the current story. Every word feels forced. I go to bed with a pounding headache.

Friday morning: I decide that the writing advice spattered across cyberspace is covertly chosen to make “unsuccessful” writers feel like morons. I’m done with writing. Screw it! The last three stories I got published elicited exactly zero comments from anyone. Not that I resent this. I get it. There are just too many damn words out there. I probably wouldn’t read me, either.

I go for a long walk, contemplating my feet. When I come back, my computer screen is feebly blinking off and on. Panic. My story! I reboot. Laptop pulses back to life. No work is lost. I fall to my knees in praise of the muse: “Tech worketh in mysterious ways, its wonders to perform.”

I’m so grateful I actually write for a while. By afternoon the story seems to be finished. So I tell myself, knowing that only continued meditation on my own demise will keep me from endless revision.

I close the computer. It sucks, it sucks, it sucks, I chant. I don’t want to anger the muse with hubris.

Saturday: I print out my story, ordering myself only to revise for grammar and typos. I am rewriting the 91st draft when my writer friend Ginny calls. “How’s your latest story going?” she asks.

“What story?” I ask.

“Come on,” she says. “Would you like me to read it?”

“Really?” Ginny is a very busy woman. Her writing is much better than mine.

“I’m happy to do it. It’s not a big deal.”

“Oh, my God!” I stop crying and email her the story.

Sunday: I catch up on all the things I didn’t get done during the week, such as feeding the cat.

Monday morning: Ginny sends an email. She loves the story, but suggests that a talking pterodactyl who is an icon of New York street fashion isn’t (perhaps) the most convincing protagonist in a work of realistic fiction. Why not make Lola a person who feels like a pterodactyl—awkward and wild and socially inept? “And you might consider changing the ending,” she adds. “Having a piano fall randomly out of the sky to crush Lola’s ex-boyfriend is too deus ex machina. You need an ending that results from the actual conflict in the story.”

Ooh, I knew that. Or should have. Never mind. Ginny thought the piece was worth criticizing! Ginny cared! I dive in to the revisions. Never has writing felt so effortless. By the time my fingers fall off, I have turned my pterodactyl into a human being and written a new ending: Lola realizes that her ex-boyfriend actually is keeping dead animals in his walk-in freezer. Fearing she might be next, she quits her boring job and moves to New Orleans to sing in bars.

I write Ginny a long, ardent note of thanks. Then I send the story out to 879 magazines, knowing I may only receive actual rejections from one or two. The rest will be lost in some cyber version of the Bermuda Triangle. It’s all good. After all, I only need one magazine to say Yes.



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