Thursday, October 28, 2010

Hello, Rejection, my old friend

I hate rejection just as much as anyone else. I mean what's to like, right?  But I'm sometimes surprised how much writers' fear of rejection can chart the course of their careers. I've met many talented writers who talk about publication wistfully, but when I ask where they've submitted, they're sort of taken aback and say something like, "Well, I sent something to the Atlantic Monthly but after they shot me down, I thought what's the point."

The Atlantic Monthly? Yes, it would be exciting to publish there.   But, in the meantime, why not bring the bar down just a tiny, tiny bit and consider some of the zillions of other place that just might publish your work.  But then again, they might not. I sometimes tell my students (I love to make up numbers and statistics, so bear with me): Expect to be rejected 50 times for every acceptance. The number is probably high, but I've always been a part of the lets-just-be-braced-for-the-worst school of thought.  But never mind the number--the truth is if you're going to be published, you're most likely going to experience a good deal of rejection between now and then.  And, yes, it is a special sort of misery. And, yes, I think it's miserable in a very special way when you're writing about your own life.  But, avoiding that misery means most definitely avoiding the joy of acceptance and publication.

Someone recently told me that the most profound sentence they ever heard in any therapy session was this: "You can't go through life avoiding heartbreak. Heartbreak is part of life." And heartbreak is most definitely part of a writer's life. But so what? Yes, you'll be sad when your work is rejected and--if you're like me-- sob into the sofa for a while. But then you'll get up and make yourself a cup of tea and get to work again.  There's no rejection you can't make it through. But, the not trying-- that's the thing I don't think we can make it through. That's where your spirit really can be broken.

"What we anticipate seldom occurs: but what we least expect generally happens."
----Benjamin Disraeli

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Falling off the Writing Wagon

Who thought there could be so much to say about having nothing to say? Or maybe, it's having too much to say?  Either way: it's one more post about block.

Early this past summer, I came to the conclusion that most of my writing students could do really great work if only, they would..well, just do it. But, most of them were writing far less than the amount they reported  that they wanted to write. When I'd run into an individual student, there would be the inevitable moment when her voice would drop to whisper and say something like, "I haven't been writing," in the remorseful tone normally reserved for confessing a murder.

And, I wish I could say that I was the teacher who was writing the amount she wanted to write who could lead her students by example out of the darkness.  I'd just come out of a period of six months of writing routinely and regularly, but then something happened and I was off my routine. Once off my routine, it's as if I've never written before, like I wouldn't even know where to begin.  It's the same with yoga. As much as I report that I love yoga if I miss a class, I might not be back there for months. And, in fact, during that time, there will be nary a stretch on the living room floor. By the time I decide I must go back to yoga, i will go back to yoga, here I am going back to yoga any minute now, I've been rendered into a hunched, crooked figure something like a medieval version of the Grim Reaper.

So, of course it occurred to me that while I was helping my students get to the page, I could also be helping myself.  I remembered the Valian essay (I wrote about this essay in the three posts titled Once Upon a Block), and was happy to find it had survived and was still on my shelf. I read it hungrily and the message made as much sense to me as it had 20 years earlier.  I also went back to all my it's-safe-to-write books: Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones, Julia Cameron's The Right to Write  and How to Avoid Making Art and Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird. From these readings, I developed a two-week program for getting writers back to the page and did it with three groups of students who mostly reported exhilarating results.  The cornerstone of the program--writing a little everyday-- is not astonishing or complex just like it's not surprising that eating less and exercising more will cause weight loss. But, it's always the simple stuff we get snagged up on.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Part 3 Once Upon a Block: How I Got Through My Worst Block Ever

So, fifteen minutes. What had I stumbled upon? I felt like I had just been given the permission I'd be waiting for all my life--the permission to work on something for a very tiny amount of time and then to walk away.  Ideally, of course, I would eventually not need to walk away after fifteen minutes. But, I didn't dare to get too far ahead of myself, but of course, I hoped that if not today, one day soon, the allotted fifteen minutes would be the gateway into a reverie of work from which I would lift my head only to realize that hours had elapsed and a snowbank of pristine, finished pages had risen around me.

But, even though I did not have children at that point, I was still very aware of The Power of Jinx (kids drill repeated and urgent warnings about Jinx into you, for fear that you will ruin their lives by getting too far ahead of yourself and counting their chickens before they're hatched.). And, as excited as I was becoming about the 15 minute formula (and then I will rule the world!  15 minutes at a time!), I held it as tightly in check as I could, for as I made abundantly clear in my last two posts so very much was riding on the completion of this ef-fing (say it with a British accent) thesis.

I was excited to read the section of Valian's essay titled "Rules and Rationales of the Program" (It was a program! and it had rules! it would work!). The first rule was "that the fifteen-minute period had to be spent solely on working." Good, agreed. I could do it. But then, a few lines later I read something that stopped me short:  "I also had to learn that losing myself in my work was not dangerous." I'd never thought of this before, but I definitely knew what this meant.  It was sort of scary to think of being absorbed into a long project, something like falling into a well. There was more to think about here, but for now I had to press on.

I was eager to start my first fifteen minutes. I got the kitchen timer ready.  But I knew that if I went into the fifteen minutes without a plan, I could choke and I was--I hate to admit it--afraid to use my first 15 minutes for actual writing on my thesis, so before I set the timer, I reassured  myself that the first fifteen minutes would be spent on brainstorming a plan for completing the thesis.  I won't bore you with the blow by blow of this fifteen minutes, but I will say that I settled in quickly and used the time making a list of 15 minute tasks--look up this and that, write a paragraph explaining x, read this source.  When the first 15 was over, I was satisfied, but I also knew that if I didn't do a writing task that day, I would still be doomed, that I would be using my new program as a very elaborate form of procrastination.  So, not long after (knowing me there was probably snacks, tea, some heavy sighing), I set the timer again and valiantly chose a writing task from the list.

Reader, I wrote. I wrote for 15 minutes.

You'd think it was a lunar landing the way I boast, but I knew after that fifteen minutes that the worst was over and that I would continue and soon the 15 minutes would turn into longer periods.  And by the end of the week, that's exactly what happened. I was now working for, gulp, several hours a day. Probably four hours. And the pages were piling up.  Two months from that first 15-minute session, I entered a small classroom and defended my thesis. I passed. I think everyone passes, but it was still glorious. But the most fabulous moment was a few days earlier when my desk jet printer spat out the last page of that thesis.  It was then that I did my Rock the Casbah victory dance.   

Read all of Valian's essay here:

Friday, October 15, 2010

(Part 2) Once Upon a Block: How I Got Through My Worst Block Ever

Referring to this block as "my worst block ever," I feel I must pause here to emphasize why this block was so bad.  All the reasons why I had to move block this pronto were, in fact, all the reasons it became so inert.  As I stated in my last post, my life would not move forward until I finished this thesis.  I wanted to teach English at a community college, which obviously I wouldn't be doing until I completed my Master's which I would never get before I wrote this thesis.  Also, every semester that I was working on the thesis I had to pay tuition, which meant there was a meter running on this block.

But, the worst part about this block was I wasn't writing a word.  It's not like I was writing a little.  I hadn't written a word since I had hit page 8 about a month earlier. In my mind, I was supposed to be writing every day all day, so every day all day (except for the hours I was waiting on the Tony Bennett-era San Franciscans at the San Remo), I felt guilty and like I was bad, bad, bad.  I could perhaps wring more pity from you by emphasizing again that there was also the break-up, but I don't want to risk that you'll tire of my whining before I've gotten to the turning point of this story, so I will leave that for now.

So there I was home from the bookstore with my newly acquired used copy of Working It Out: 23 Women Writers, Artists, Scientists, and Scholars Talk  About Their Lives, wasting more precious writing time leafing through it on the sofa, the clicking of the tuition meter whirring away in the background. But within a few minutes--to my surprise-- the cover's black and white pictures of 70's feminists began to have a calming effect.  The women there reminded me of the women who'd been my undergrad professors, women who'd studied, wrote and muscled their way into old-boy academia. Women who had spine-worn copies of The Second Sex on their crowded bookshelves. They were the women I'd gone to with all my Mommy needs when I arrived in college. They'd let me into their shabby offices and listened to me while I gobbled up their office hours with all sorts of rambling talk.  They were women who showed me a glimmer of who I could be in the world. 

And, then I flipped to an essay entitled, "Learning to Work."  I startled with recognition as I read the first paragraph:  A work problem, it stated, "consists of being unable to work, not because of external pressures such as lack of time, but because of internal problems, which can be exacerbated or disguised by external pressures." My eyes darted to the photo of the author, Virginia Valian, on the adjacent page.  It showed the author absorbed in her work, not bothering to look up at the camera, not caring that a city pulsated behind her through a plate glass window. It was clearly an "after" photo. My eyes slid over to the title again: Learning to Work. Maybe, just maybe, there was a way out.

In the opening pages of the essay, Valian sets the scene:  It's Cambridge, 1970, she's done all the course work and now she just needs to write this thesis, but she's doing everything but write.  The circumstances of the block are so hauntingly similar that I feel like these pages have tumbled through time and space and a used bookstore on Judah to bring me out of my paralysis.  Clearly this woman had made it through.  The photo showed calm working. I flipped quickly to the bio in the back: she was now a psychology professor.   I felt something flicker through me: hope.

After analyzing her situation (she uses the work of Masters and Johnson as a guiding example), she decides that she needs to break her work time into measurable and doable units.  She runs through the possibilities of how long she might be able to sit at her desk at a stretch: "Three hours! The very thought gave me an anxiety attack. How about two hours? Two hours! The very thought...One hour?  More reasonable, but still not possible.  Half an hour?  Getting closer but still too much.  Fifteen minutes?  Fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes.  Now there was a figure I could imagine.  A nice solid amount of time, an amount of time I knew I could live through every day."

Again, I glanced at the photo. This respectable, working woman--a professor--was admitting to the world that she saw fifteen minutes of work as a stretch she could "live through."  Not everyone was working away calmly.  There were people--at least one person--like me out there.  A person who'd struck a bargain with herself to work for fifteen minutes.  Could I work for fifteen minutes?

I thought maybe I could.

To be continued....

Read Valian's "Learning to Work" essay here:

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Once Upon a Block: How I Got Through My Worst Block Ever

In the post Thou's Name is Block, I wrote about writer's block that originates from a fear of the material: if you're not ready to go there, you'll find yourself washing dishes or checking email rather than writing. And then, beating yourself up later for not writing. All fun stuff.

When people ask me about my writing routine, I get a little squirrelly. I'm off task as often as I'm on. It's hard to prescribe that as a way of life. Some of my off-task time comes from that fear of material stuff, but the worst block I ever experienced was rooted in being in over my head, simply not being prepared for the magnitude of the project I was facing.

After two years of course work for a Masters in English Literature, I was faced with the task of writing a 100-page thesis. Until that point, I'd never written a paper longer than the required 20 pages of our seminar papers. The truth was even those always came in a little short, weighing in at a slender 17 or 18. Like I didn't quite have enough words in me. But it wasn't so much the number of words as playing games with a required number. If a 15 page paper was required, mine would surely be 13.

Now faced with the heft of 100 pages, I choked. It seemed like I wouldn't find my way through and all the work of the last few years would be wasted and I would be waitressing for the rest of my life. The following is the first part (maybe there will be three, but based on what I just said, maybe two) of the story of how I got past this block. I share it not because it makes me look like a total dumbo, but because I think the route I found out could be traveled by others.

Once Upon a Block, Part One:

It’s May 1989 and it feels like things can’t get much worse. My boyfriend broke up with me unexpectedly. Really. They say you see it coming, but I didn’t. Okay, maybe three days before I saw. It was an uncleared plate. I made him this amazing breakfast…a crazy thing a woman should never make for a man unless she’s sure sure sure it’s the real thing. A breakfast that included a fresh fruit salad (which involves chopping), an omelet with fresh herbs and cheese (whisking, chopping, grating) and a half an everything bagel (toasting). He ate half of it—that’s fine—but then he left the unfinished plate on the table, my little table in my tiny studio apartment with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge. I saw that uncleared plate and I thought: Oh boy. There’s a problem here.

But that wasn’t the worst of it. For the three weeks before the pending breakup, I’d been stuck on page 8 of my 100 page thesis. I’d spent the last two years doing the coursework for the Masters in English Literature degree, and all that stood between me and the piece of paper now was this teensy, tiny little thesis. Simple enough. Except, except, except. I got to page 8 and I just couldn’t figure out another word to say. For three weeks, I stared at the thing. I took it over to the Tart to Tart cafĂ© on Irving and gnawed on it over lattes and giant muffins. I took it home and tossed it onto the rug and wrestled with it down there for a while before finally slumping over my desk and trying to get something, anything else out.

This is 1989, so there’s no googling “stuck on thesis” or “thesis block” or “steps to completing thesis.” I turned to the other grad students, who were either similarly stuck (although I must say it didn’t seem to be of the epic sort of proportions of my stuck) or just racing along typing out the pages as if they were being dictated from on high. “Just do it,” my friend Margit said. She was 25 and already owned a condo somewhere near the end of the BART line, which in itself seemed quite beyond comprehension.

“Isn’t that a Nike ad?” I asked, trying to sound cynical rather than scared.

“Yeah,” she said, “But it works. Tell yourself it’s easy.”

Easy. Okay. Easy. I told myself that but myself just answered back that it was easy for Margit. She’d picked a more comprehensible topic. Mine, I knew, was convoluted—a dash of Foucault, a dash of Derrida, a little Structuralism, a pinch of Post-Structuralism, none of which I fully understood. But if the topic was really hard, that meant I was smart. Although not smart enough, I had to admit, to actually write the thesis.

I called my thesis adviser and told her I wanted to meet. “You have some pages?” She said pages in an ominous way, like maybe the word heroin would be used if this were a drug deal and people who bought heroin actually used the word heroin when purchasing.

“Some,” I squeaked out, and left the dog-eared 8 pages in her box, hoping for a miracle. We met the next week at the Ecumenical House across from the University at the Southern edge of the city where the glamor of San Francisco threatens to become a stretch of identical, nameless suburbs.

“Is this a draft?” she asked. “A rough draft?”

I had no idea how to answer that. I was writing a 100 page thesis. If we’re looking at 8 pages of course those are going to be a “draft.” But the way she said draft, almost like a cough, something to be cleared from the throat, I knew a draft must be a very, very bad thing.

She lowered her voice to an ominous whisper. “Don’t ever, ever give me a rough draft again. Do you understand?”

“I’ve been having some problems.” I thought of the boyfriend breakup but veered away from that, knowing that her disgust would only be magnified by that getting-your-head-messed-up-over-a-boy sort of nonsense. “I’ve been having some problems,” I started again, “managing the project. My time, maybe?”

“I can’t help you with that,” she said, threading an arm through a coat sleeve. “My job is to help you with the content. Get some pages done. Finished pages.”

I rode the M train to the N train and finally was home, where I fell onto my sofa and sobbed. The jig was up. I wasn’t going to be able to do this stupid thesis, which meant the last few years, all the money, energy and time that went into getting this degree were wasted. It also meant….what I’d always feared…that I wasn’t smart, wasn’t somehow like other people who completed things, who had One Real Job (I had two jobs—one as a writing tutor, another as a waitress in an Italian restaurant that served a certain blue-haired San Franciscan of the Tony Bennett era that was on the verge of extinction), who won prizes and scholarships and had relationships that lasted.

Eventually, I must have stopped crying. Crying alone is a thankless task. No one’s there to coo over you, tell you it’s going to be okay or take you out to the Lebanese restaurant on 9th when you’re through. You know this when you’re crying; you know that sometime it will end and you’ll be alone facing the void, the transition in between crying and whatever will come next. Maybe a snack or a walk.

Sometime, over the next few days, I was in the used bookstore on Judah where I came across a book that caught my eye: Working it Out: 23 Women Writers, Artists, Scientists, and Scholars Talk About Their Lives and Work. The cover reeked of that 1970’s feminism that I’d once dabbled in: a collage of black and white photos of women of all races—black women with afros, fresh scrubbed women with no makeup and hair that didn’t require a professional cut. One sported a bun and a pair of dangling earrings, another sat thoughtfully behind a typewriter. I looked inside: 4 dollars. On instinct, I bought it and scurried back to my little apartment.

To be continued...

Friday, October 8, 2010

Thou's Name is Block

I've often said to anyone who will listen that our use of the word "addiction" is far too crude to describe all the myriad ways our restlessness manifests.  And then if they're still listening, I say, it's like trying to build a house with just a hammer.  Similarly, I find the term "writer's block" to be a bit of a catch all for the assorted means and reasons we skid to a stop on the page.

If you want to see ambivalence in action, visit a memoir writing class sometime.  Every fall, my students arrive ready, set, go in the classroom. They've paid the hefty tuition, bought the books, sometimes hired babysitters of left spouses to fend for themselves.  They're tired from a day of high-tech or parenting or doctoring or the busyness that is retired life, but they're determined. They've been wanting to do this for years often, and now here it is: their chance to write.  And they do! The first few weeks are quite often very productive. Many of them are very excited about how much they're writing and how well it's going. But then, for some of them something happens around Week Six.  Before my eyes, I watch the expressions morph from "Here I go!" to "Why am I doing this again?"

I don't always know what's going on (and frankly at least one student will flat out disappear), but I've talked to enough of them and watched my own experience with writing memoir to have a pretty good idea of what happens.  At first--it seems to me--they're writing that story that they came to the class to write--their story--but then as the pages wear on, a darker story beckons, an understory starts to emerge from the lake of memory.  It's a bit of a Loch Ness Monster, this story.  Hard to corral and certainly not something to be shared with friends and family.  It's that knee-level story Frank McCourt and I talked about.  You can veer around it and return to the surface, but once you've seen the face of this story--far more riveting than the one you originally set out to tell, most of the time--it's a bit tricky to let it go.  Part of you wants to follow it.  Where will it lead?  What will you know after you follow it?  And then, there's the sane part of you that has to get up in the morning and resume high-teching or parenting or doctoring. That part is saying, "Hey, what's on the telly?" or "Why don't you go make yourself another cup of tea?"

It's a bit of a make or break time. A time most of us want to call "block," like an iron fence that's suddenly been dropped down from the heavens for no apparent reason. I'm happy to say that most of my students make it through this and somehow keep showing up at the page, doing their best to tell their stories the best they know how.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

A Turncoat's Tale: A story told in broad cultural stereotypes

 When a book is about to be published, most likely the author's agent is scurrying about trying to pick up a few foreign rights.  Even books that sell only modestly in the States can sometimes make the author a fair bit of cash because of their appeal to foreign markets.  And, when a book does sell in foreign markets, it is not uncommon to speculate about why it  sold using the most crude type of stereotyping.  When the German rights of How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed sold, I spoke to anyone who would listen in a terrible German accent (I cringe even saying this) how Germans are not afraid to read about hard topics like divorce.  I'll spare you the spectacle I made of myself when the Brazilian rights sold.

And, then there are the countries that don't buy. "Too American, they said," my agent wrote me when the Brits turned down King Size, and then he added, "Whatever that means." That was sweet of him, but I knew exactly what it meant. I'd spent much of my growing up years in Canadian classrooms with portraits of the Queen feeling like I was "Too American."  Moving to Canada at ten at the height of the Watergate scandal, I got an earful on the schoolyard about "Yanks" that I wasn't sure what to do with.  I didn't feel Canadian, but I didn't feel particularly American either.  But growing up in particularly British Canadian neighborhood, I quickly learned how very American I was.  I was too loud, I interrupted, I was boastful, I asked questions about unmentionable things.  I learned over time that my American side--which included the part of me that wanted to talk about myself--was something like Auntie Mame, a sort of showy embarrassment that was best kept under wraps.

After a few years in Canada, I fell in step.  I came to love good manners, strong tea, and national health care (and that love will never die). When I'd spot American tourists in downtown Vancouver, their voices seemed too loud, their cigarette smoke too sweet, and their clothes too gaudy. But yet, I knew too--that they were also my people. I wasn't truly a Canadian--although eventually I'd obtain citizenship--as much as I was a shamed and tamped down American.

The British publisher's comment of "too American" rang in my ears last week as I visited London.  I was thrilled to see vestiges of my Canadian childhood were everywhere--steak and kidney pies, men with proper raincoats and umbrellas, tea biscuits.  But, also, I kept hearing this tone of voice, this hush-hushness that sounded like home. It's absurd to sum up a culture with overheard conversations, but fear of the absurd has never stopped me before, so here goes.  I heard the song of my Canadian youth when a two proper businessmen bowed their heads near and one said, "Let's not mention..." and then he rattled off a long list of unmentionables.  I heard it again in Hyde Park when a suited man began a sentence with a lilting, "On the QT," the weight of the phrase very much placed on the letters QT.

Yes, I thought, with my small satchel of evidence clutched in my paws, there it is.  It's the voice telling me to keep it quiet, keep it proper, keep it down.  And it's the voice that asks in very proper and appalled voice, "Why on earth would you want to write about yourself of all things?" And as American as I am, there's a Canadian part of me that must still answer to that voice.