Digging for Words

One writer's quest to bring the past to life through imagination

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The Crack of the Axe and the Cherry Tree Falls

This is a quick one, but you MUST read Garrison Keillor’s heartfelt, ironic and insightful Op-Ed in today’s New York Times: The End of an Era in Publishing.

Times are changing so rapidly that none of us can keep pace. What publishing once was, even a few years ago when I sold my first novel, is no more. I say this with great compassion, appreciation and even encouragement for so many of us who are working so hard to create works worthy of being read.The Cherry Orchard
Read Keillor’s piece, and you will get the picture. His analogies are perfect. We are at a historic moment and there’s no turning back. How can we “literary people” not see what’s coming with so many brilliantly illustrative precedents? Is it A Tale of Two Cities? Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard?

The digital age is creating an egalitarian revolution with publishing available to all. Equality and accessibility don’t guarantee that anything will be better. Only different. It is a changing of the guards. The great bastions of publishing are crumbling as the hoards batter at the walls. Is the old guard sipping wine in the sunset of last glory, or are they arming for a new strategic attack?

Either way, we cannot pretend it’s not happening. If we did, we’d all be fools. But we must adapt or be left unassimilated, wandering aimlessly and bemoaning our past and our fate, recalling the cherry orchard that had to be sold.


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Mediocre Books and One-Time Wonders

We all hope and pray that the writing we’ve been slaving away at for weeks, months or years is brilliant, publishable, praiseworthy.

Sometimes we’re right. More often than not, it seems, we’re wrong.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re bad writers. I found two links this week that brought home the point that every writer, no matter how skilled, talented, lauded or adored, sometimes misses the mark. And some of us (God help, please no!) have only one really good book within us.

Take note of “Great Writers, Bad Novels” in last week’s Wall Street Journal. I particularly love the honesty in Flannery O’Connor’s quoted letter to a friend: “It appears that I have finished my novel [“The Violent Bear It Away”].…Just in that state of not knowing if it works or is the worst novel ever written.”

We all feel that way, sometimes afterward, but more often than not right in the midst of creation. Some days the words don’t flow. Some days they do, until we go back the next day and realize everything we thought was brilliant really was just a pile of lard!
A Writer's Obsession

How do any of us stack up in our earnest efforts to get our hearts on the page? As Robert McCrum muses in his column in the U.K.’s Guardian, “Writers who flourish at the peak of their powers for longer than a decade, or even two, are rare birds.”

Indeed! How many of us struggle just to get a few words on paper, to complete amidst the daily demands of our busy lives, a single short story or a somewhat lengthy essay? Wouldn’t any of us give our right arm (or perhaps more critically, each of our ten fingers) to have written one of the novels in The Huffington Post’s list of “Great Literary One-Hit Wonders“?

Writing is struggle. Perhaps that’s why I witness such incredible reluctance in some of my younger students. Writing IS HARD, especially if you have nothing particular that inspires you, as is often the case with essays that are required for school.

But some of us “rare birds” (in a less rarefied form than above), feel a literal pressure within our bodies as a story forms and pushes upward, forcing itself upon us, demanding with such force that we cannot refuse it.

So we write. We have a passion as powerful as any new-found love. If we neglect it, even for a day or two, we feel guilty as if we’ve forgotten to feed our infant. After a while, we can no longer separate the story from ourselves. We carry it around with us and listen to it, think about it even when we are occupied with something else, take notes at odd hours of the night, in the middle of meetings, when we’re chatting with someone on the train. We know we cannot give it up no matter how tired we are, no matter how bored we are with it, or how frustrated with the awareness that our love, our soul, may never find its way to a wide, appreciative audience, that we are all almost inevitable victims of what McCrum calls “the murderous cannon fire of indifference and critical disdain”.

None of that matters somehow when we’re in the midst of writing. It is creation itself that drives us. If our effort is mediocre, we know we will try again, searching forever for the unforgiving truth that something’s living inside us and we are its slave, not its master. Our stories are our essence. They inform our existence and give us our sense of self. If they were anything less, why would we bother?

We write until the well runs dry. Then we rest until we’re ready to take up the challenge again. We are grateful for our mistakes. We learn from them and slowly, with plodding certainty, we actually get better.

But no writer travels a straight or steady path. This is not a staircase; it’s a mountain. Sometimes we trip up. But that, too, is part of the journey.

In The Wall Street Journal essay, perhaps the most poignant thought comes at the very end: “No writer sets out to produce a mediocre book; sooner or later, most do. Forgiveness is in order. As Aldous Huxley once said, ‘A bad book is as much of a labor to write as a good one, it comes as sincerely from the author’s soul.'”

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My Little Crusade

I’ve started to realize why I keep writing about the South Mountain Reservation. It certainly isn’t for the money (see my last post!), though I’m grateful to be paid at all (thank you, Mary!).

Still, each story I post on our local Maplewood Patch is my chance to make a difference in my tiny corner of the world. The state of our environment and how we care for or abuse it is something that’s concerned me since I took my first rather mincing steps into the woods when my husband and I began dating years ago.

Before that, believe it or not, I was rather disinclined even to get dirty!

Trail Working in the South Mountain Reservation

Trail Working in the South Mountain Reservation

More and more I sense that we are slowly killing ourselves through arrogance and neglect. I’ve been following Nicholas Kristof‘s far more influential crusade against chemicals in our environment, not to mention his extraordinary reporting of the state of women and children in Africa, Cambodia and elsewhere in the “third world”. While his words coalesce for me as a call to action, the scale of the issues seems far too vast and removed from everyday life. What can I do besides donate a few dollars and monitor my own household’s habits?

While my writing may not have Kristof’s reach, I happen to know my audience – personally. If my little crusade spurs a couple of friends and neighbors to take action and responsibility for the environment in which we live, then I’ve achieved my goal.

If I can encourage our local schools to get our children out into the woods to learn about civic duty, ecosystems, biology, botany, and maybe even a dash of history (all virtually for free, mind you), then I’ve achieved my goal.

If all I manage to do is get my own butt up the hill and do something more than shake my head in pity at all the trees that have fallen in the latest storm, then I’ve achieved my goal.

So, perhaps off-topic from my usual musings about the writer’s life (or perhaps not, since it’s all about the power of words), I invite you to read my latest on Maplewood Patch, Trail Working in The South Mountain Reservation.

If you live here or if you don’t, I hope my story will serve its purpose and bring at least one more pair of boots and a sturdy back into our forest or a forest near you. Or maybe just remind you that recycling may be a pain, but it’s worth the trouble.

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It’s not about the money (is it?)

It’s a well-known fact that writers rarely make a lot of money at their work. OK, there are exceptions, but most of us can barely afford to buy a blouse with our royalties, never mind J.K. Rowling and her impressive Scottish mansion.

Most of us are just regular folks – OK, regular folks with an odd quirk of imagination that won’t hush up like nice, normal people. We’re just trying to get by, pay our mortgages and educate our kids.

I found this great chart on Lapham’s Quarterly that shows how historically consistent our situation is:

Day Jobs

Even the greatest of us rarely make a lot of dough!

So why do we do it, if it’s clearly not for money? Mostly because we can’t help it, and wouldn’t even if we could. Take Janet Burroway‘s advice in Narrative Magazine. (You’ll need to log in to read it, but it’s worth the trouble for all the great work they publish.) Most of us realize after a while that we can’t write for the market. Burroway says: “The trouble is that… the muse is likely to grow dull and depart. …Writing for the masses is like marrying for money, an exhausting way to become a hooker.”

Some of us have commercial voices and others simply don’t. We each simply must write our own true work and stick to it, thick or thin – mostly thin, mostly for ourselves and, if we’re lucky, for a small audience of others that occasionally lets us know that our efforts have not been in vain.

More and more in this bold new publishing environment, we’re simply one pebble on the beach, shining and new just as the tide recedes. But soon enough our gloss will evaporate and we won’t look any more beautiful or interesting that the millions that surround us. As the scary numbers of books published in 2009 show, our odds of being noticed just get smaller and smaller. More than likely we’ll be left lying there in the sand and forgotten.

So why do we do it? Because we must. Because we’re destined to speak. Because there’s an essence in writing that helps us figure ourselves out that comes only from this kind of exploration and expression.

Most of us eventually accept that we might never become famous or rich or even published unless we publish ourselves (which apparently these days isn’t the vanity taboo it once was. But that’s an entirely different story – check out the links above).

Even well-published authors come to realize what they’re up against. Burroway quotes Adam Gopnik: “Every writer’s life can be summed up, in sequence, by the Four Permanent Titles: Great Expectations, A Sentimental Education, The Way of the World, and, finally, Lost Illusions.” Meanwhile publisher and editorial director at Writer’s Digest Jane Friedman tries to explain what many newly minted authors often agonize about, Why Don’t Publishers Market & Promote the Books They Publish?

With all this going against us, why do we do what we do? Because we must. Because we’re forever dissatisfied with the dull reality of our lives. Because we’re dying to know what it’s like to be inside someone else’s head. Because we’re desperate to record the fleeting wonder that comes to us in the middle of the night or in the shower or when we’re walking the dog. We do it because we hear voices and we can’t shut them up unless we listen and carefully write down every word they say.

That’s why we write. If we get paid for it, all the better. If a few of us get rich from it, God, I’m jealous! But when that rare success happens, remember again what Burroway writes, “that the joy of publication, prizes, prestige, money is never adequate and always fleeting. It is taken away every time such successes fail to be repeated…. But the moment of ecstase, ecstasy that comes usually at the end of a period of effortful and perhaps despairing concentration, and yet comes ‘out of nowhere,’ not as an apparent reward but apparently as a gift, that moment stays and is present every time I remember it or reencounter the passage in which it occurred, or reencounter the reluctance that precedes it or the grace as it descends—because this is my only religion, and it is ‘grace,’ and it does seem to ‘descend’—and these moments accumulate into an awareness of power in the sense of capacity, which cannot be taken from me—except, of course, by dementia or death.”

In the end, success is never about us or our work, it’s about happenstance and timing, the frivolities of taste and commerce. Completely separate from the power of passion, imagination, obsession, “ecstase”.

That’s why we do it. Those are the forces that drive us on.

The rest, whether we like it or not, will take care of itself.