Category Archive: Philosophical Musings

Jul 01

Writing, NaNo and Meditation Pratice

Last year, I wrote a post about National Novel Writing Month, expressing my reservations as to whether focusing on quantity at the expense of quality  – hence the slogan: “No Plot? No Problem!” – could ever be a good thing.

Then, just recently, I received a comment that posed a very interesting question: “But anyways, isn’t a bunch of words strung together in an over-all messy story better than no story at all?”

If you are interested in my opinion, you can read my reply to that comment. But, today, I want to go deeper than that, and answer the question: Why is it that NaNo became so popular in the first place?

I think there are plenty of reasons, and some of them are good. For instance, NaNo creates a sense of community between writers: it makes us feel closer, and gives us the warm feeling that “we are all in this together.” Additionally, having a deadline and a goal pushes us to write even when we don’t feel “inspired,” or when we would rather be doing something else. Basically, it ensures that we get something done, and something is better than nothing, right?

However, I also suspect that there are other, less benign reasons for participating in NaNo, the most dangerous of which is that NaNo feeds off of our modern belief that we should do things quickly, that the goal – getting to the 50,000 word-limit at the end of the month – is a lot more important than the result – writing a novel – or the process – what happens to you as you go through all of the steps of writing that novel.

Thus, writing becomes just another thing we check off our to-do-list: “Writing 1,666 words for the day…check!” This attitude easily extends to all other aspects of life, even some that, like writing, should be more about the process than about the final result. “Earning degree…check!”… “Finding girlfriend…check!”

Photographer: Sean Kelly

The most ironically dramatic example of this was given by Bhuddist teacher Gil Fronsdal, who once told a story in which the Dalai Lama was talking to a large audience, and someone asked him a question. The question was: “What is the fastest way of becoming enlightened?” The Dalai Lama stopped for a long time… was just really silent,” said Gil.  “And then, apparently, tears went down his cheeks. […] At some point, he said something about how sad it was: this drive, this ambition, this greed, to get results as fast as possible.”

We can all agree that someone who starts practicing meditation with the main purpose of becoming enlightened as quickly as possible is probably very far more obtaining enlightenment. But what does this have to do with writing? The thing is, I am starting to learn that meditation and writing are very similar. Both can be painfully slow, both should be practiced regularly, and both can make you a truly happier human being – provided that you pay more attention to the process than to the end result.

If we meditate with the main purpose of becoming enlightened, we will be immensely frustrated whenever we sit down to do our however minutes of breathing, and come out with no further understanding of anything. In the same way, if our purpose as writers is reaching those 50,000 words, or publishing a novel, or becoming the next Stephen King, writing will never be a truly enjoyable activity for us.

We will not be able to get peacefully engrossed in the act of writing itself because we will always have our goal in mind, and our preoccupation with reaching that goal or the fear of not being able to attain it will take away from our ability to become aware of how the simple act of writing can enrich our lives.

Instead, if we meditate or write without a goal, we can do it calmly, without expectations, fear or time constraints.

How would writing without a goal be?

Everyone probably has their own answer to this question, and you are welcome to leave yours in the comments. I, for one, know that I would enjoy it more. I would write exactly what I want to write, without worrying about whether someone would be interested in publishing it or reading it. I would also write what is meaningful to me so that, if I feel the need to let go of my novel for a day or two, and write a short story that popped into my mind, I can, without experiencing the pang of guilt that sometimes accompanies such decisions. Most importantly, I would write without fear or rush, putting exactly as much time as I need, not worrying if I have to re-write the same page 2, 10, or twenty times, but resisting the urge to rewrite it twenty-one times. For once, I would not let myself be guided by the fear that what I write “will never be good enough,” because I don’t need it to be good enough to attain something. I just need it to be.

Writing without a goal can be difficult and I can’t promise that it will allow you to become a famous writer, or enable you to write 50,000 words a month. Nevertheless, I’m sure that you will still be able to write something, and that the final product you end up with will be more than  “a bunch of words strung together in an over-all messy story.”

 

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Oct 10

The Pianist, The Writer

When he plays, Marc’s fingers move feverishly, but also playfully, hitting the notes with a deliberateness that seems almost reckless. From my privileged position, propped onto the stool to Marc’s right, I listen, and watch, in awe. How can anyone move their fingers so quickly, almost carelessly,  yet produce such clean, harmonious sounds?

The answer is undoubtedly complex, but you can get a glimpse of it by looking at the pianist’s body become possessed by the music as he performs. Right now, I’m so close to Marc that I can feel his shoulder brushing up against mine whenever he needs to hit the higher keys of the piano, and I eagerly take in all of the nuances of his playing: The subtle changes of expression, the way his shoulders relax before a particularly slow and heartfelt sequence, or the way his lips form an imperceptible smile, and his eyes close, to savor an especially beautiful sequence… These are just some of the things that make Marc a great pianist.

His technique is not perfect, mind you, and he has given up on becoming a concert pianist years ago. Nevertheless, Marc continues practicing, albeit “only” for two hours a day. And I wonder, where does he find the discipline to sit in a stuffy room day in – day out, even during the sunniest days of summer, or the morning before an exam, when all the other students are studying? And where does he find the energy to play late at night, at times foregoing dinner, to return to a house that has long been enveloped by the comfort of slumber?

I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I realize that a writer has a lot to learn from a pianist, especially someone who is deeply devoted to his art, like Marc.

I, for one, learned that I had to practice, that I wouldn’t just wake up one day and become a great writer. I should have probably woken up to this realization earlier, but I hadn’t. My perfectionism had led me to believe that a real writer should be wonderfully eloquent from day one. Hence, I lived by the dogma that everything I wrote had to be good and, when it wasn’t, I got discouraged… and stopped writing.

Now, I’m “forcing” myself to sit down and churn out at least 500 words of my novel every day. Sometimes it’s incredibly hard, even though I know that 500 words is actually not very impressive – this short post is a lot longer than that! And yet, by becoming more forgiving towards myself and finding the courage to write, I am slowly learning to love the creative process, to lose myself inside the world brought to life by my words. When that happens,  time passes by without me noticing, until I have 700, 900, 1100 new words  on the page. Of course, not all of those rapidly, almost recklessly typed words hit the mark, in the same way that Marc’s fingers sometimes miss the right keys. But I keep going, knowing that it is only by giving myself the permission to write “crap” that I allow myself the possibility of – perhaps accidentally – ending up with a string of almost-decent sentences.

Another precious lesson Marc taught me is to be accepting of the unpredictability inherent in art. Since a pianist is not a robot, his performance is always unpredictable. Sometimes you play wonderfully, other times less so, and you can never be entirely sure that, when you sit down on that stool, in front of the audience, you won’t suddenly forget half of the piece and completely humiliate yourself. The only factor that can counterbalance your performance anxiety is the love for playing. If you can stay present with what you are doing, and forget about the audience, or your future readers, you will be able to enjoy the act of playing the piano or, in my case, writing. I noticed that, if I concentrate on enjoying what I do, rather than letting every sentence be smothered by the fear of writing a mediocre novel, my fingers finally feel free to dance on the keyboard, and the terror which had formerly paralyzed them finally subsides.

This leads me to the third crucial lesson Marc taught me: the importance of relaxing, of enjoying your work as much as a child enjoys play. Today, I was reminded of this as I listened to the speech Steve Jobs had given during Stanford’s commencement ceremony in 2005.  He had talked about death, and its uncanny power to put everything in perspective; to remind you to follow your dreams today, not tomorrow.

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.” – Steve Jobs

This is one of the parts that most resonated with me, and it has acquired a further sense of gravitas now that Steve Jobs has sadly passed away. Although it might be tempting to postpone putting your most ambitious hopes on hold as you pursue easier, but less satisfying goals, don’t do it. It’s better to confront your fear of failure, and put all of your energy in doing what you love. This way, when you wake up in the morning, you might be a little nervous, but you will at least be able to say that, if this were the last day of your life, this is what you would want to be doing.

 

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Sep 29

My Year In Writing

I graduated from university in July 2010, more than ready to never sit an exam again.

Autumn came around quickly and I was still looking for a job, with more spare time than the VIVA channel could ever possibly fill. After three years of independence, I was back home, sleeping on a cat hair-covered couch and sending job applications into the void. I turned to Erin Brockovich, ultimate badass chick, for inspiration and lines about effing ugly shoes.

I also turned to writing. I’d written hundreds of essays and reports. Putting together a sentence, cleaning away the crap till it shone brighter than a matte bonnet on a hundred degree day – pfft, I’d been doing that for years. How different could writing a book be?

I stared at the computer screen. The Microsoft Word Paperclip had joined me in my own personal hell. ‘Hey, no good writer starts at the computer,’ I said to myself. ‘I need to go out and get some paper.’

I stared at the blank sheet of paper. Where were these sentences and words? Where was anything? A pop culture reference, a line to grab people’s attention. Wait a second, what time period would my work be set in? Present? Past? Dystopian with mood organs and continents that may or may not resemble America after radioactive fallout/zombie apocalypse/eight years with Arnold Schwarzenegger as president?

‘Writing a book is hard,’ I admitted. ‘I’m going to play Civ IV.’

Days passed. I allied with Elizabeth, and knew she was using me for my longbowmen. Sometime in October 2010 I got a job and moved to the small town of Ballinamore, Ireland. (For those unfamiliar with the area, there are about 1,000 people tops, but they couldn’t be nicer. They say good morning to you even if they don’t know you, which came as a bit of a surprise after living in a place where strangers only speak to you if you’re blocking their view on the 8:15 bus ride to work.)

No matter what I did, I still couldn’t get the idea of writing a book out of my head. Living alone in a new place with no TV had also conveniently robbed me of the VIVA channel.

I started writing in early October. The flood gates had opened. Ten thousand words turned into twenty, then twenty into thirty. It was magical. I was finally doing it. One day I decided to leave my book for a week and come back to it with fresh eyes. Seven days later I discovered the work was about as magical as a sump pump in a sanitary sewer.

I canned 50,000 words and started the book which became Torrodil. I was more comfortable writing fantasy, and the sewer novel had helped me develop a voice – warm yet bittersweet, humorous without being showy.

By January I had finished my first draft. I came back to England to visit my family and they read parts of Torrodil, rating more than slating. After a couple of months of editing I started sending it out to British agents, all of which politely declined. It hurt, sure, but I knew the stats – especially for first novels – and they weren’t pretty.

I moved on to American agents. ‘The pace is good,’ they said, ‘but there’s not enough romance for a female audience to find this compelling.’

I sacrificed a copy of Twilight, then inserted more romance.

‘The romance is believable,’ another said, ‘but I just didn’t like your main character. Rebellious girls don’t sell.’

The Hunger Games fell from the ether to mock me, and I tuned up the X Factor of Anna Gray.

‘The pace is very good, you throw us into the story quickly and there are some vivid descriptions. Yet I didn’t find the novel as gripping as I’d hoped.’

The dream was over. Hell, my skin had gotten so thick from rejection I couldn’t even pull a Joplin anymore. Living alone for the first time was pretty depressing, too. It was strange to have silence at 2 AM instead of Finnish heavy metal, or go into the kitchen and find the floor clean instead of covered in meringue from a Baked Alaska explosion.

Somehow the months had continued to drift on by without me noticing. People had Moved Like Jagger and dislocated their hips. At the end of August 2011 I decided to self-publish on Amazon, fully aware that the traditional publishing route would be closed off to me.

Two weeks on, I’m still okay with that. I like talking to blog reviewers instead of having someone else do it for me. Through doing so I’ve discovered a lot of great books I may never have found otherwise. So far the few reviews I’ve gotten on Amazon and Goodreads have been positive, and I’m grateful to be able to share my work with the world after keeping it to myself for almost a year.

Right now, I couldn’t ask for anything more.


The original post was published on Luke Geraghty’s blog.

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Jun 29

The Anatomy of a Writer – Part 2

In The Anatomy of a Writer, I argued that being a great writer does not necessarily correlate with fame, success, or even getting published. What does it mean, then, to be a writer?

In my first post, I wrote about the importance of embracing chaos, then stepping back from it to give it meaning. I also wrote about the insatiable curiosity that is common to most people who write, our passion for the details that others find trivial, and the irresistible appeal that putting our thoughts on paper has for us. Today, I will write about other characteristics that I associate with the writers I know and/or admire.

6.  STUBBORNNESS

As is exemplified by Proust’s example, writers need to have a thick skin in order to keep believing in the value of their work despite the criticism they receive. If you are still skeptical about the validity of this statement, just consider the conspicuous list of bestselling authors who were initially rejected. It includes such names as Beatrix Potter (who self-published her first book), Isaac Asimov, Stephen King, James Joyce, William Faulkner, Rudyard Kipling, Madeline L’ Engle, Anne Frank, J.K. Rowling, Richard Bach, Stephanie Meyer and Jon Kerouac… Many of the rejection letters received by these authors are hilarious, ludicrous, or downright preposterous. If we were to listen to editors, Kipling doesn’t “know how to use the English language,” “Jonathan Livingston Seagull will never make it as a paperback,” and G.H. Wells’s War of The Worlds is “an endless nightmare.” Anne Frank’s Diary sold more than 31 million copies, and Seagull Jonathan Livingston sold more than 1 million copies in 1972 alone. But, perhaps, the examples that should be worth highlighting are the most recent ones. Stephen King’s Carrie, for instance, was rejected with the statement that stories about negative utopias “do not sell.”

Does this mean that you have to completely disregard an editor’s comments? Absolutely not. Sometimes, you can actually turn rejections into a way to improve your writing, as explained by Nathan Bransford in The Art Of Reading Rejection Letters. But don’t let rejections discourage you, and keep them into perspective. After all, editors are human beings and they, too, make mistakes.

7. HUMILITY

Since I have just expounded on how a writer should not let nearsighted editors discourage them, I would like to highlight how vitally important it is to remain humble. No matter how much success we may or may not have as a writer, we must remain teachable. There is always room for improvement and, unless we are receptive of other people’s feedback, our creative energy will stop flowing, and never reach the sea of our readers. Like water, stagnant creativity is doomed to become filthy and lackluster, turning into a muddy, bacteria-invested version of itself. If you want your writing to be clear, if you want fish to be able to live in it, dolphins to make love inside it, and human beings to refresh their souls by tipping their toes underneath its surface, then your acceptance of the world around you must be even larger than the ocean.

While some writers cling to every word as if it were a life-raft, I encourage everyone of us to seek feedback, no matter how good or accomplished of a writer we think we are. You will find that it doesn’t even matter whether or not you follow everyone’s advice. You might choose to ignore 50 percent of it, or even all of it, but your subconscious will still assimilate the feedback,  and your gut instinct will help you pick and choose which advice to follow and which to discard.

8. GENEROSITY

One of the responses to my post on Enchantment was a quote from Brenda Ueland: “Writing is not a performance, but a generosity.” Some writers responded to the quote by arguing that they write solely for their own pleasure. They don’t need anyone else to read their work. To me, these people are missing out on one of the greatest pleasures of writing: touching people’s lives, keeping them company when they can’t sleep, inspiring them, provoking them, waking their spirits when they fall into the slumber of a monotonous life.

Sure, I greatly enjoy writing for myself, and I don’t feel the urge to share every thought I put down on paper with the rest of the world. Also, I write because I love to do it. I would do it even if nobody wanted to read it, or even if some of the readers took my words and distorted them, giving them a meaning I didn’t intend.

However, I will never forget the night in which one of my stories moved my father to tears, or the first time I read my poetry out loud, and was approached by a girl who thanked me for putting her feelings into words. When others respond to my writing, my spirit somersaults (I know it’s not a word, but this is how it feels.) In these moments, nothing else matters, and even though I’m not making any money, I’m not a published author, and I’m no Proust, I still feel that I’ve been a successful writer that day.

I would like to end this section with a quote from an interview with the Chilean author Isabel Allende: “I will take the risk of offering one word to sum up, at least what I felt, about Isabel Allende. The word is generous. She is generous as a storyteller and a memoirist and as a person. She opens doors and shares herself—her thoughts and feelings—yet with the discipline of an artist. Implied is the assumption that in doing so she is showing what will heal and illumine life for others and also for herself. This generosity explains, at least in part, her worldwide popularity.”

9. BEING A “NIGHT OWL”

This one refers to the weird and, to me, somewhat unexplainable fact that so many of the writers I know seem to work best at night, when the rest of the world is asleep. Although there are ongoing debates as to which times work best for writers, and, rationally, I would argue that writing in the morning is what makes most sense, I inexplicably but inexorably find myself warming up a cup of black tea when I should be burying my head on a pillow.

I tell myself that I’m too tired to write anything that makes sense, and then I sit down in front of the screen and write, until the morning light forces my already aching eyes to close, and birds chirping themselves awake become my lullaby. The following day, I’m exhausted. I reprimand myself for staying awake, and swear that I will never, ever do it again. But we all know that these kinds of promises are made to be broken. My only consolation, then, comes from my readers, who tell me that they really liked that sentence, or that word, or that story I wrote in a sleepy-delirium. For some reason, my 4 a.m. writing is always the one that readers appreciate the most.

The reason? Maybe the silent, seemingly endless night liberates your mind from distractions, so that your reality becomes the page, and the page becomes the world. Or, to use the expression of singer Luciano Ligabue, it’s because people who are awake at night  “are only half-awake, with one’s dreams always open.” Whatever the reason, being a night owl is undoubtedly a key aspect of being a writer. Unless you are a vampire. Or you understand that I’m as serious as I am awake.

10. LIFE

Nothing in your life prepares you to be a writer, but everything in your life might.

To me, being a writer is an attitude, a way of experiencing and interpreting the world we live in. For a person, events are just that: something that happens to you. They might change your life or not. They might be forgotten or end up in your diary. Occasionally, they might even be turned into a sort of story to be shared with a friend, or a stranger sitting next to you on the airplane.

A writer uses events, and reality in general, as the spark which gives light to literary fireworks. Anything from a breakup, to cancer, to a walk around the park or a newspaper headline might get thrown into the basket of ideas and feelings that a writer draws on, more or less consciously, when sitting down in front of a blank page.

If you have ever found yourself thinking “I should write a story/poem about this!” then you have already taken a big step towards becoming a writer.

IN CONCLUSION

So, then, what does it mean to be a writer? Is a writer all of the things I talked about, or is this just an idealized, romanticized account of being a writer? Maybe a writer is none of these things, or, most likely, a writer is a little bit of all of these things. Like Oscar Wilde so wisely said, “the truth is rarely pure, and never simple.”

Regardless of where the truth lies, I still felt the need to write about the Anatomy of a Writer, because it’s too easy to put people who write in different boxes, and say: “these are the writers,” while “those are just amateurs.” Hopefully, even if you disagree with everything I have written up to now, you will take a second or two to reconsider your own definition of what it means to be a writer.

My definition?

Writer: someone who can touch the soul of the world using only their fingertips.

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Jun 26

Anatomy of a Writer – Part 1

The superficial world divides writers into two categories, really – those who get published, and those who don’t. Although the internet has blurred the boundaries between professional writers and amateurs, the divide is still there. Published writers have the luxury to dedicate themselves to words for days on end, while others do it as an act of rebellion, at night, on the train-ride to work, or during breaks.

Like the protagonist of 1984, who risked his life to purchase a notebook and signed it away by filling it with words, writers sometimes find themselves huddled in a corner, crouching onto their guilty pleasure protectively, hoping that their spouse or friends won’t catch them at it. Even those of us who “come out” and courageously tell others that all we want to do is write, even we have a little voice whispering in our ears, coming back to torment us every time someone criticizes our work, or rejects it altogether. Because, secretly,  we all share the same fear:  that what we are pouring our very soul into might never be useful to anyone…that it might be just a waste of time.

But we are wrong.  Differentiating “real” writers from the rest through the amount of money they make, the popularity of their work or even whether or not it gets published is not only inaccurate, but also an insult to what writing really is and should be: a subjective art form. As such, the words we write have an intrinsic value that goes beyond the way others perceive them. Sure, being recognized while you are alive might have its advantages – who would turn down a nice, fat check from an editor? But not getting any recognition at all is perfectly normal, and shouldn’t get you discouraged. It might just mean that, as Nietzsche wrote in Human, all Too Human, readers are just not refined or enlightened enough to be able to appreciate you.

This shouldn’t give us the license to consider ourselves “misunderstood geniuses.” It might be that some of us are, but there is also the small chance that your work might just totally and objectively suck. As I wrote in Nobody Tells This To Beginners, sometimes you have to accept that not everything you write will be good, and keep refining your “crap” until it becomes something you can be  proud of.

The point is, however, to not let publishers have the last word on whether or not you are a writer. The reason? Editors are human beings and, as such, they make mistakes. Let’s no forget that Emily Dickinson, now a widely acclaimed poet, was largely ignored during her lifetime – she only published a handful of her almost 1,800 completed pieces. Other writers were even less fortunate, and were rejected so many times that they decided to self publish their work. One of the most notable examples is Marcel Proust. His masterpiece, Remembrance of Things Past, wasn’t simply trashed, but utterly deviled by editor Alfred Humboldt of Ollendorf Publishing.

“My dear fellow,” wrote Humboldt, “I may be dead from the neck up, but rack my brains as I may I can’t see why a chap should need thirty pages to describe how he turns over in bed before going to sleep.”And yet, Proust kept writing, revising his work up until his death.

Photographer: Valentina Nesci

***

We have now established that some of the artists who keep us awake at night, almost breathless from awe, were utterly alone during their lifetime.

They, like so many of us, had every reason to give up, but didn’t. Something kept them going, and that resilience – the stubborn, idealistic and wildly irrational hope of someone who has no reason to hope – that is what we read behind their words today. Those are the subtexts that so grip our subsconscious. Because a real writer pours every inch of energy into his words. Because when he writes, he doesn’t simply lay words down on paper; he becomes the page. He goes beyond the grounded reality and bends it, his illusions so strong that they would fool anyone into believing they are real; the emotions he exposes so true that readers instinctively recognize them as more fundamentally relevant than any of the words they might read on a newspaper.

So what is the Anatomy of a Writer? Which are the characteristics that turn common mortals into Prousts?

1. CHAOS

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said “you must have chaos within yourself to give birth to a dancing star.” Creativity is the daughter of chaos, because it is only when a person stops to see the world as predictable and orderly that he can discover something new, a different way of doing what has already been done a thousand times before, a solution to a problem, a story, a poem.

2. STRUCTURE

Most of the artists I know are extremely messy, disorganized, and, to use an Italian word I adore, “sconslusionati,” which literally means “without conclusion.” This lack of order is a double edged sword. While it enables the artist to see beyond the surface and reach into incredible possibilities that others don’t see, it also hinders him, making it sometimes almost impossible to write (or to finish his stories.) This is why it’s so essential to be able to find the eye of the storm and rest inside it. Why the eye of the storm? Because you need to be able to see all the objects, events and emotions that twirl inside it to be able to write about them, but you also have to be calm and patient enough to be able to order them in such a way that your readers will appreciate them. A chaotic person might be wildly creative, but lose themselves so much in their own train of thoughts as to not be able to create anything that others can appreciate or understand. A highly structured person, by contrast, might function perfectly in society, and might even be an  eloquent writer…but they may never be able to surprise, shock and move you.

The solution is to find the perfect equilibrium between chaos and structure, to have enough chaos to give birth to a dancing star…but sufficient structure to not give birth to an alien from Mars!

3. COMPULSION TO WRITE

I once read an article which connected obsessive thinking with creativity. The article surprised me, as it was right on target. During my most creative periods, I am literally haunted by my stories. The characters accompany me through the night, greet me when I wake up, and continue developing as I shower. They follow me around, like faithful friends, whispering dialogues, suggesting plot points… I sometimes get so engrossed in my imagined reality that I walk right past my destination, or lose my way, or -rarely, but surely – run into something, like a sign post.

I mean, I’m not crazy – I don’t “hear voices” or anything of the sort. But I do sympathize with the writers who confess that they can’t put their characters to rest, that their book doesn’t seem to abandon them until it’s written. If you have ever found yourself scribbling an idea in a napkin, afraid that you will forget it, or if you have ever felt the need to write through the night, or as soon as you wake up in the morning, your fingers almost aching to get your idea onto the page… If you have ever experienced this compulsion to write, even just once in your life… Then, in that moment, you made it: you were a writer.

4. LOVE OF THE SUPERFLUOUS

When one of my friends justified his purchase of moleskine notebooks with one sentence – I love the superfluous –  I didn’t know him enough to understand what he meant. At the time, I dismissed the matter with one value judgment – he was just a snobby writer. Later, however, I realized that the love of the superfluous is not born out of superficiality.

Truly great writers astound us by giving life to the most minute and apparently inconsequential of details. They talk about how a character rolls his pants up before wading into a muddy river, and that gesture might seem trivial to you at the time. But it isn’t. Because the author knows that there will be a point in which that character, whose anal orderliness is made blatant up until chapter 8, will crawl into a muddy hole, ruining his precious pants, to rescue his best friend. And the fact that he had rolled up his pants at the beginning of the novel will acquire a new significance. This attention for the minute detail is a skill that is hard to develop and, as such, is often overlooked by writers. It is precisely for this reason that you should hone it. Train yourself to focus on an object you are extremely familiar with, such as your favorite sofa, a picture of you, a gift your grandmother gave you when you were three – and try to see it, really see it. You might be surprised to find that Gustave Flaubert was right: “Anything becomes interesting if you look at it long enough.”

5. INSATIABLE APPETITE FOR STORIES

I was reading Gladwell’s Tipping Point yesterday, and was surprised to find in it the perfect description of a writer. Great writers are Connectors. When they sit next to you, they don’t just see a person. “They see possibility,” writes Gladwell. To paraphrase him, while most of us are busy trying to evaluate whether or not we should spend energy in getting to know a person, a writer is curious about everyone. Let’s take one of my friends as an example. J. is not famous, but is definitely a writer at heart. And the funny thing is that this realization occurred to me not after reading what he had written, but over dinner, as a result of a phone call.

We were at a nice Italian restaurant, ostensibly engrossed in our meals while, in reality, we were both eavesdropping on a stranger’s conversation, our forks suspended in the air and our ears raised, while our plates turned cold. That same curiosity that made us walk out of that restaurant with a hole in our stomach and our minds filled with conjectures of who the woman was talking with and why is also the reason that J. is a great storyteller. He is the type of person that will stop to talk with the homeless man everyone walks past on their way to work. The kind of person who will want to know the poor man’s entire story, and will then be so fascinated by it that he will tell all of his friends about it.

Living in the United States,  I miss getting his excited phone calls about the conversation he had had with “that amazing girl” who sold newspapers on the streets to support herself as she studied Chinese, or the “incredible” story of a professor who had read a book that had changed his life, leading him to drop out of a Computer Science degree in order to study English literature. I was always astounded at J.’s almost uncanny ability to discover interesting people, and it took me some time to realize that the reason he was able to make everyone seem interesting was that he was fascinated by them. Similarly, I suspect that the reason why some complain that “people are boring” is because they never give them a chance to show how interesting they are. Anyone can surprise you, if you don’t just walk by, but actually take the time to sit down with them long enough.

That is the thing about writers: they have a way of earning your trust, of becoming not simply your friends, but your most trusted confidants. They listen, ask questions, give thoughtful advice and nod in all the right places, as if your love woes, your childhood, or whatever it is you chose to tell them, was the most interesting story they had ever heard. You know why they are so good at it? It’s because they are not feigning. They honestly do find your story fascinating. As a matter of fact, they see in it so much value that they remember and treasure it until, sure enough, you will see a nuanced version of it in one of their stories.


Note: This post has been divided into two parts. Stay tuned for Part 2, and send us your comments!

In Anatomy of a Writer, Part 2, I will explore 5 other characetristics common to great writers: Stubborness, Generosity, Vision, Humility and… the last one is a surprise. You can post your guesses and comments below!

 

 

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Jun 15

Leveraging Perfectionism

We can’t always be perfect, nor can life always go as planned. The other day, for example, I found out from one of my coworkers that I had neglected to put all of the store products back where they belonged, and that the other courtesy clerks had do what should have been my job. Even though it should have been friendly, constructive criticism, I couldn’t help but become anxious about it, and for the next few minutes, I was pretty upset, and the people around me could totally see it. Being the perfectionist I am, that one little mistake became a terrible sin in my mind. To make matters worse,  there was no way I could fix my mistake: it was in the past, and we all know that we can’t undo what we have already done, no matter how much we would like to.

I had a break coming up, so as soon as the lines died down,  I asked if I could take mine. While in the break room, I took several deep breaths, and plastered myself with positive self-affirmations: “it’s not the end of the world”, “nobody’s perfect,” “just do your best”, “calm down, you’ll perform better if you just relax…”

As I put myself into this self-healing meditative state, I thought of all the other times I had been plagued by perfectionism, and most of them had to do with writing. I would write an essay, the teacher would look over it and return it with her criticisms, and  I would go home dejected, even if she thought my essay was pretty good, overall. All I could see were the mistakes, the could-have-been-betters, the faults. I wanted my writing to be perfect the first time, but when it wasn’t (or rather, because it wasn’t!) I died inside every time.

Over the past several years, I did all sorts of things to avoid the pains of my own perfectionism. I’ve written so many blog entries in which I completely ignored grammar, spelling, and cohesiveness, afraid that if I actually looked at my own writing– actually gave it a serious critique, the vicious cycle of self-hate would begin all over again. I stopped editing my writing, stopped caring about whether or not people liked it– just got my ideas posted to the Internet before I could even proofread it. In my mind, this was for the best, because I knew what would happen if I took my writing seriously.

As a result of my perfectionism, I’ve amassed a huge pile of unedited writing. I say I’ll get around to it eventually, but I never do. It’s not because I’m afraid to, and it’s not because I don’t have time to. I know that if I were to properly proofread, edit, and provide supporting evidence and logic for my writing, it would be so much better. But I’m afraid of my own writing– or at least of taking it seriously.

Perfectionism has not only interfered with my love of writing, but with every aspect of my life– everything that I care about. If I start truly dedicating myself to something, one mistake and it’s over. I can’t handle the pain of even a single mistake when it comes to things I care about, because I’m a perfectionist. My room is messy because I know it will never be perfect, and I’m afraid to try. I even falter in my dedication to friendships, because I know that if I actually try to dedicate myself to a friend, I will eventually screw up. Perfectionism has made me afraid of living life, and prevented me from being able to take life seriously.

But I know that resolving these issues is part of the process of achieving emotional maturity. Perfectionism has its merits– I just need to acquire the level of maturity necessary to properly leverage them. If I could learn to be a perfectionist without getting emotionally distraught about my mistakes, I could gain all sorts of useful qualities, and I could learn to successfully turn raw creativity (like that pile of writing I have stacking up!) into art. I just need to find a better way to deal with these emotions, instead of running from them.

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Jun 09

Nobody Tells This To Beginners

By Ira Glass

I started Write-A-Holic because I wanted to create a space in which people who were passionate about writing could meet and share their work without the fear of being rejected by faceless, often merciless editors. Perhaps naively, I hoped that this website could become a stress-free environment in which nobody would judge our work,  and I was completely unprepared when I discovered that, even here, we couldn’t escape “The Gap.”

I was rejoicing about the amount of pageviews, positive feedback and writing samples that Write-A-Holic had received, when a friend destroyed my enthusiasm with one sentence: “I’m not sure that this is a good idea,” he said. He was afraid that our readers would start sending us “crappy” writing, that I would have to spend so much time editing work that I would not be able to write my own, and that the quality of the entire project would decline, together with the amount of users we attracted. Pretty encouraging scenario, huh?

Well, I wasn’t happy, of course. I started questioning my writing, and everyone else’s too. I read over all the content we had published multiple times to make sure that there weren’t any typos, or grammatical mistakes, or anything that could irk our readers and lead them to never come back.

But the pageviews soared, and new users continue coming to our site every day. (THANK YOU GUYS!) This tells me that, even though there is surely still a big “gap” between what we would like to write and what actually ends up filling the pages of this website, readers are more forgiving of our imperfections than we could have ever hoped.

Perhaps the reason this quote resonates with writers so much is that we are all, by nature, perfectionists. We love what we do and we want to be able to do it to the best of our abilities. However, I am starting to think that, rather than trying to write a nobel prize winning novel, we should concentrate on cultivating forgiveness.

The more we learn to let the words flow without feeling pressured to create a flawless work from the get-go, the more our creativity will be free to express itself on the page.  The important thing, therefore, is not to sit down in front of the computer, waiting for that first, memorable sentence to magically materialize itself on the screen.  The trick is to sit down and write, write, write. Even when you think it’s “crap.”

The reason? Avoiding the blank page will not help you to become a better writer and, most importantly, rereading over your work might surprise you. In time, you might actually come to realize that some of that “crap” wasn’t that bad after all…

 


Further reading:

  • The New Kings of Nonfiction: This book, edited by Ira Glass, includes a selection of masters of nonfiction ranging from David Foster Wallace to Dan Savage to Malcom Gladwell… makes for exciting summer reading!
  • Radio: An Illustrated Guide: Also a must, Ira Glass’s take on how to conduct a radio program, based on his experience in hosting and producing This American Life.
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Jun 07

Why be a Writer* When You Could be an Electrical Engineer?**

* stands for the job of your dreams, the one that you would do if you only didn’t have to worry about minor details, like bringing food to the table and such.

** stands for whatever you’ll end up doing, the secure job that comes with a monthly paycheck, a protruding belly and weekly visits to a therapist, trying to figure out why you are not “happy” even after all that money, the smart phone that allows you to video chat with your dog and all those other superfluous gadgets that you don’t really need, but that you could never live without.

 

The truth is that, as much as I would love to be able to say that I would rather be a homeless writer than a rich electrical engineer, I know it’s false.  Wally said it all too well in My Dinner With Andre:

When I was young and rich all I thought about was art and music. Now I’m 36, and all I think about is money.”

I am not 36  and becoming rich is certainly not among my priorities, but I am painfully aware of the fact that I’ve been steering clear of creative writing as if it were an infectuous disease.

This is part of the reason I created Write-A-Holic: so that I would have an excuse for doing what I love. But I wonder – why is it so hard to choose to be a writer, or an artist, in general? And why should we keep trying? I think I might have the answer to both questions, so here I go:

Two reasons why many creative people don’t end up following their passion:

1. You might end up being poor

Ok, fair enough. But you have to at least give it a try. Otherwise you will never know whether you could have actually ended up making it. In his book The Art of The Start, venture capitalist Kawasaki says that, for a successful entrepreneur, ignorance is bliss. What he means is that people who achieve impossible feats aren’t necessarily the ones with more experience or talent. They are the ones who didn’t know or care that what they wanted to do was almost impossible… and so they made it.

I am sure that, in your life, you have heard many people tell you not to do something, that it was “impossible.” I heard the same refrain conutless times and, so far, I have always enjoyed proving everyone wrong. The funny thing is that, every time I decide to do something “impossible,” people look at me like I’m this crazy person, and tell me “Vale, do you know what you are doing?” And my answer, of course, is invariably “Yes!” But the truth is that I almost never know what I am doing, or if I am actually going to be able to do it. But I try nevertheless…and, somehow, I make it through.

2. But what if I try and fail?

Sure, that’s a possibility. And yo are not alone. I think one of the main reasons that I always find excuses to procrastinate on my creative writing is that I am secretly terrified – well, now not so secretly – of giving it my all and realizing that I’m a horribe writer and that half of my readers never get past the first sentence. But, what happens if I don’t try? I will surely never be a writer. And so I try, and I don’t just try half-heartedly – I give it my all. And when I get scared, which happens at least thrice a day, I think about Chuck Palahniuk, who says: “find out what you are afraid of and go live there.” And he is right, because usually, it’s doing what scares us the most that ends up giving us the greatest satisfaction in the end.

And, by the way, you will fail. I have been rejected many times. Just like anyone else. But I kept going, and you should, too.

Two ways to help you keep going:

1. Have a short memory

Or, in other words, keep trying. I have a funny story about this too. So, I don’t know if you are familiar with Color Labs Inc, the social network startup that got $41 million in funding this March. Bill Nguyen, the entrepreneur behind the company, shocked the Stanford crowd by telling us that the reason for his success was his short term memory: he conveniently forgets every time he gets rejected and keeps trying until, finally, he succeeds. Nguyen pointed out that many people get discouraged once they start failing, and stop trying. The problem is that it’s easy to get discouraged. But you shouldn’t really. I mean let’s just take an example from my life: when I was seventeen, I got rejected from a mediocre Italian university. I cried the whole night, but  my cat was there to lick my tears and his warm, fluffy body pressed against my cheek helped me to realize that I could still make something good out of my life. And now, five years later, I am about to become a Stanford alumni. Ironically, if I had gotten into that Italian university, I would have probably never even ended up applying to Stanford… which goes to prove that trying hard and failing can be a more valuable experience than suceeding at something that is easy and clearly possible. Ultimately, if you do fail, take it as an incentive to try even harder next time.

2. Be surrounded by positive people

That one night, my cat was there for me. Similarly, I will always be greateful for my ex, who encouraged me to apply to Stanford. I thought I wouldn’t get in, my dad believed that applying was just going to be a waste of money and time, and I would never have submitted that application if he hadn’t insisted so adamantly, telling me that he was convinced that I could get in. And here I am. This is why surrounding yourselves with positive people is key. Because life is tough, following your dreams is scary, and failing on the way will require someone to help you pick up the pieces whenever you are too weak to do it yourself. If somebody tells you that you can’t do something, chances are that it has nothing to do with you. Usually, people who are negative are like that with everyone, particularly with themselves.  happens to them? Well, they might not fail as often as you will, but they might also not succeed as often, and they may never end up becoming the person they would truly long to be. Leave their fear of life to them. Instead, seek out people who support you. And forgive me for offering you one more quote from Goethe, one of my favorite writers: “If you treat an individual as he is, he will remain how he is. But if you treat him as if he were what he ought to be and could be, he will become what he ought to be and could be.”

What are you waiting for? Go out and do it, right now!

We all tend to put off what scares us. But we shouldn’t. I don’t know much about the other arts (unfortunately) but I do know a little about writing, and I can tell you that, the more you write, the better you will become, and that you should start now. So pick up your pen (or usb stick) and go do it! There are many websites that pay you to write, incluing us – but, honestly, we aren’t the only ones. In fact, here is a comprehensive list of many websites that pay you to do what you love the most.

Best of luck, and come back for more whenever you feel discouraged: we are happy to cheer for you from the sidelines, and hope you will be able to achieve your dreams.


For more information, check out:

 

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Jun 02

Push-back Pressure

When I first started taking social dance classes a year ago, I thought that I was just taking a dance class. I knew that I was afraid of dancing, and I wanted to overcome that fear. I also knew that there were going to be other perks involved, like the scent of some of my dance partners’ shampoo.

What I encountered, though, was a philosophy.

You see, it turns out that in the term “social dance” – at least as it is interpreted by our teacher, Richard Powers – the two words must have equal weight, because as much social learning seems to take place as kinetic learning. One foremost example of this social learning is learning to be attentive to your partner, to take their perspective and understand how the steps feel to them.

But perhaps more interestingly, often the kinetic seems to serve as an analogy to the social; or put differently, the social learning becomes embodied. For instance, if you are naturally overly passive socially, that becomes embodied as flimsy posture and a kind of under-responsive sluggishness; if you’re naturally overly domineering socially, that becomes embodied as rough, inflexible leading. The right balance, in dancing as in social life, is to have an uprightness and confidence that allows for clarity, while being open and accommodating to the perspective of the other.

Richard Powers often talks about “noodle arms” – the dance floor syndrome in which your arm is merely dangling and not supporting its own weight, giving your partner nothing to push off against. By contrast, when you give your partner push-back pressure, he or she feels your presence more clearly, and the interaction is more fruitful. It has been occurring to me lately that this push-back pressure is really important to a good relationship.

I’ve recently met a wonderful girl with whom I really hit it off, and the way she pushes back at me is a big part of what makes our interactions so enjoyable. For instance, I tend to be naturally sarcastic much of the time – in a playful way – and one of the things I like about this girl is the way that she plays along. My sarcasm is met with more sarcasm, with the same playful energy. Often the content of the interaction is pretty silly, but the energetic feel of it is something special.

Push-back pressure also helps you to see (or rather, feel) yourself and what you’re doing more clearly. For instance, in the design of musical instruments there’s this concept of “haptic feedback”. This is the weight of the keys of the piano, the tension and feel of the string as you play the violin, the pressure of the air column as you play the oboe, and it turns out to be a crucial part of the feedback process of playing an instrument. The theramin was/is an early electronic instrument that has no haptic element – pitch and dynamics are controlled by waving your hand in the air relative to an antenna – and the result is that it is notoriously difficult to play in tune. However, if you attach the hand to a rubber band, the other end of which is attached to the wall, suddenly intonation improves dramatically; high notes, now, correspond to higher tension as the hand moves away from the wall and towards the antenna, while lower notes have lower tensions. This information helps so much in learning where to place the hand.

Similarly, in dancing, push-back pressure helps you to orient your body well in relation to your partner, and it helps you to understand better what you are doing. And in relationships, it helps you to learn your own boundaries and to gain a new perspective on yourself.

That said, of course, too much push-back is not such a good thing. In the case of the theramin, if you can’t move your hand more than 3 inches from the wall, probably a milder rubber band is in order. Likewise, an overbearing and pushy partner, whether in love or in dancing, becomes constrictive rather than clear. As always, it is a matter of balance, and with the right balance comes a wonderful vitality.

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