Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The Seven Fears That Hold Back Writers 3 — Fear of qualifications

My first full-time writing job was as a science writer. I would not have gotten it if I hadn't had credentials as a scientist, combined with evidence of publication. But the first things I sold were short stories and reviews, and, for those, the work credentialed itself. To me, that reveals the limits of qualifications. Boxes checked may be real or arbitrary. Quality is always the best credential.

Now, the world of science writing is both collegial and competitive. When I began, veterans were always willing to give me advice so that I could ask better questions, probe a little more deeply, and direct my articles toward readers. But they also mumbled about who had better or worse jobs, who had won awards, who had science backgrounds, and who to avoid listening to because their journalistic ethics were questionable.

It occurred to me this week, as I mourned one of the better science writers (one without a science degree), that considering what was either guidance or gossip was relevant to this week's topic. Essentially, qualifications tend to be more complex than we pretend. Many people with great resumes don't live up to them.) And a lot of the criticisms I heard early on, direct at other writers, emerged from a need to bring the competition down a peg. Which in turn, reminded me of someone familiar to all writers, the editor in your head.

In the first draft or when considering a new project, the editor in your head is not your friend. The editor in your head uses qualifications as a weapon to stop you from writing. When it gets things right, it's often accidental.

I'm not a big fan of imposter syndrome, but I think confidence – even among the most talented and skillful people — is always under threat. The fear of not being qualified can manifest itself in a lot of unpleasant ways. A topic could make you defensive, and while the arguments to take it on anyway might be sound, having a chip on your shoulder closes off possibilities for a new work. Openness and curiosity have much more power and are likely to lead to more interesting ideas and questions.

Hopelessness is also a strong indication of the fear of qualifications. In your bones, you want to tell a story that means something to you but doesn't seem like a good fit for who you think you are. You may be right, but you won’t know that until you do a little work. Exploring a topic, recognizing whether your perspective is fresh or banal, and coming to estimate the time involved – whether it be doing research or allowing yourself to grow and mature – will reveal if internal objections are valid.

My best guess is that you'll find your intuition is right most of the time, and the reason why you chose this topic is because you can bring something new to it. (Now, actually following through and doing the work and standing up to critics and daring to pay the emotional price is another story. No one guarantees that a work you were meant to do, in some sense, will be executed well.)

Isn't this presumptuous? Don't you need permission to write on a topic? No. Today you have less need for permission to write than ever before. It's still valuable to have support and the acknowledgment that comes from gatekeepers approving you, but anything you write can be made available to the world. The apparatus of creating books or commentary or even movies is much more available than ever has been in history. (We also live in a time when no qualifications are needed to be a critic. Thus, trolls.)

More relevant here than reaching the public with your work is a permission that has always existed – You are allowed to write whatever you want to (except when there are political or privacy concerns). You get to decide to write about a different culture, not someone who standing on the sidelines waiting to accuse you of appropriation. You get to decide to try your voice through a character of a different sex or age or income group, which is likely to reveal something about how you, being human, connect with people were very different from yourself. You can write from the point of view of a robot or an alien or a 17th-century serf. You have that freedom. And, without a doubt, when you exercise your freedom you will learn and become a better writer.

This is not to say that reaching into new areas doesn't involve responsibility. Too often, someone will use their imaginations to create or defend conspiracy theories or "cures" or accusations against innocent people. If they keep these private, they do little damage. But if they make them public, they are being irresponsible. As a human being, there are things you don't know about and need to explore. There are things you think you know about and you need to verify. And you are, certainly, blinded by your own perspective and need to seek out alternate views.

Even if you have the qualifications on paper, such that no one would question your work, you need to be thoughtful, inquisitive, humble, and diligent. Qualifications are complex because individuals, our society, and nature itself are complex.

I make a practice of crossing lines, doing things that would not meet with the approval of the editor in my head (and often of people I know) with the intent of challenging myself to learn more and discover what I might have to offer on a topic. When this is a disaster, the work is set aside (or even destroyed). When it seems like the work has value despite the arguments against it, I begin to share it.

What I've found is that much of what I'm glad I wrote could be challenged (as I was writing it) because I didn't have a full set of qualifications. Take more care if you don't have credentials. Expect a lower chance of acceptance. But give yourself the opportunity to do work that you'll be proud of.

Note: I'm teaching a course on writing a novel in a month beginning next week. That means there's a bonus blog post you might want to check out, The Best Prompt Is Passion.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

How to Write a Plague Journal

We live in interesting times. I'm breaking away from my series on Fear to provide some guidance on how to keep a diary of some sort during these days of stress and confinement. While I don't think anyone should be expected to write King Lear, as Shakespeare purportedly did, as they stay home, we all can take notes about the current situation. Reflecting on and writing about our experiences in a world of restrictions and losses can help to maintain mental health, provide a distraction, document this moment for history, and provide fodder for fiction.

Mental health. I don't think it's good to dwell upon those things that make us anxious, but it may help to put them into a list. Just writing down what we fear can contribute to a sense of control. For me, personally, this means just having a page at the back of the notebook where I can write down single words and short phrases that provide the contours of the nightmare landscape. I know that for me, this is calming. I suspect if I wrote all of these down in full sentences or tried to work through options at this time, it would be overwhelming. However, having dealt with other stressful circumstances in my life, I expect to see some of these get struck out or explored more fully as more information becomes available. I'll probably be adding to the list often, making it longer, just so some of the worries have a place to sit away from my active mind.

Once fears are listed, I'll leave them behind and work on something else. That will help me to avoid dwelling on them, and if you have a routine of watching movies or reading or talking to friends to distract you from your fear list, you might make plans to take such actions as soon as you finish your list. Right now, your habits are your friends. Writing about the things you like to do now provides a reminder of these possibilities when you need them most to provide balance. One thing I'm doing is observing nature. I can watch birds visit my feeder, but I can also write about it. Ultimately, I think it's good to document quotidian experiences, especially as we move to a new normal.

A plague diary can be a place where you can privately discuss things you're responding to emotionally. This could be an online post that delights or appalls you. You can dig into it and express your feelings. The same thing is true for new stories (which are probably good to confine to only a few times a day), political remarks, frustrations, successes, and observations.

A special note on observations – discovering something new or unusual is a kind of triumph. If you can develop the habit of seeing something you haven't seen before every day, you'll have a way to expand your world in the face of growing restrictions. Surprises add wondered to your life. When you are writing on a regular basis it becomes easier to notice these and to appreciate what they suggest about the world around you. “Puzzlements” provide the real treasure. There is a delight to keeping track of what you see and can’t explain. These are the things that open doors, but not right away. A puzzlement allows you to be a child for a while.

If you use a plague diary to distract yourself, you might want to have a series of questions to answer each day. Who did I speak to? What chores did I get done? How did I handle challenges — getting exercise, making sure there was enough food in the house, keeping peace in the family?

You can even make this kind of a game. For instance, you could create a cartoon that exemplifies the day or write a short poem or give each day a report card.

As bits and pieces of daily activity and amusements build up, you may (even inadvertently) find yourself documenting this moment in history. If you've ever had the chance to look at diaries of relatives kept during big moments like World War I or the fight for civil rights, you've probably appreciated the blending of the personal and the epic. One thing that almost always emerges is the growth of an individual against the backdrop of great events. Reading contemporary reactions,, sharing their concerns and gains and losses can become a way to connect generations and defined yourself within the story of humanity. Now, you may consciously shape the narrative around the coronavirus, but what you write is likely to be more resonant if it is more spontaneous. However, some people need some guardrails for writing. I'll suggest a few of them:

    •    Write at least one "day in the life." Consider writing one every week.
    •    Somewhere in today's entry, include not just the date, but a reference point is likely to matter. Commenting on what may turn out to be part of the big story can add value and perspective to everything else you put down that day.
    •    Make a habit of "before and after" entries. Something as simple as how I pick up the mail and handle it is different, but larger issues, like dealing with a routine medical problem, could help to dramatize how life is changed.
    •    Humor, reactions to announcements or changes in the circumstance, tough choices, good luck, emerging hopes and concerns, and anything else that matters to you is likely to matter to future readers who will probably empathize with your situation.
    •    Look at things on many levels, including individual, family, neighborhood, business, community, and nation. Also, don't hesitate to think in terms of needs fulfilled and unfilled. For you and for others. Maslow's hierarchy doesn't go away during challenging times, it becomes more vivid.
    •    Pay attention to firsts. The first time you get bad news. The first time you spend all day inside. The first time something frightens you. The first time you see something wonderful about yourself that you didn't suspect.
    •    The biggest experiences will take some processing. Noting these in your journal is just the first step. Revisit these. (You might want to underline or highlight experiences, choices, or projects that might reveal more with later assessments.)
    •    Pay attention to how other people's lives are impacted. There is an amazing amount to learn and document if you watch, and listen, and ask good questions.

As for fiction… Everything above can feed into future stories. But you might want to do a first draft of a character outside yourself in this setting, bringing the skills you already have for description and perspective to going beyond the facts and reaching for truth and beauty. Be sure to store up what might become valuable later on. I use as inspiration for that a story I heard about director of feature films who sent his crew out during a riot. He did not have a movie in mind for the images they captured, but he knew that he had one chance to get those pictures. Be ready for your chances, too.

Next week I'll be back with more Fear. You are also invited to look at the post I did on prompts for a course I'm teaching.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

The Seven Fears That Hold Back Writers 2 — Fear of commitment

Characters must face irreversible decisions. These cause them stress, doubt, and anxiety. Or should. One of the best ways to engage readers is to get them worrying about the characters they love and/or identify with.

Writers, on the other hand, don’t usually face truly irreversible decisions until they turn in a final manuscript. Yes, there are submissions to editors, contest judges, producers, and agents. But there are always more of these people out there to give the story a chance.

And yet, writers (and other creative people) tend to imagine they have only one chance to select a protagonist or get the ending right. They have to choose a genre or a form and stick with it, o they’ll never have a career. Sometimes, they get hung up on individual words in a manuscript.

My experience says “irreversible” is an illusion. One story I’m most proud of went from having a middle-aged man as the protagonist to a young woman to a teenage boy. I wrote a hundred pages with the middle-aged man and more than that with the woman. (By the way, these helped me work out plot ideas. And the middle-aged man ended up being a secondary character in the final manuscript.)

On genre, I’ve written SF, romance, thriller, fantasy, comedy and straight drama. I have published short stories, six one-act plays, two produced Web series episodes, and two optioned scripts. I’ll produce my own fiction podcast later this year. This diversity of projects isn’t for everyone, but listen to your muse and don’t be afraid to experiment. You’ll learn more and have more fun.

Besides commitments on specific works, writers can have trouble committing to a Work in Progress. This leads to dithering, as valuable writing time is squandered deciding which project to work on each day. Or, even worse, it can lead to a kind of literary promiscuity that causes unfinished manuscripts to pile up.

What looks like indecisiveness may be an unrealistic vision of success. (I’ll have a novel published by the time I’m thirty.) Or concerns about losing ground. (I can’t waste time with multiple drafts or my opportunities will disappear.) Or comparisons. (By my age, Fitzgerald already had three successful novels.)

At heart, all of these pretend there is a path or a schedule. Unless you’re like a man I know who felt stalked by death (no man in his family had lived past 50), it’s time to recognize the limits of ambition. When it keeps you exploring and developing stories and developing your craft, ambition is your ally. When it becomes your judge and taskmaster or encourages to chase market trends, it is your enemy.

Doubt may also be behind making decisions. This is healthy if it’s a signal to explore how a scene might be written (say, by looking at the work of other authors) or flesh out a character or ask questions or do some research. If doubt keeps you active and contributes to moving a story forward, it isn’t really fear of commitment. It’s a deepening of commitment. When it freezes you or causes you to look for distractions, that’s a problem. Some unhealthy doubts may be:

    •    “I’m not good enough.” - Which is better seen as a chance to try and prove it. If you fail, you’ll learn something that makes you a better writer. If you succeed, mark it down as proof you’re a better writer than the editor in you head tells you you are.

    •    “I’ve gotten off track.” - Even if you have an outline, there is no track. Even if the genre has obligatory tropes (like meet cute in romances), there are no wrong turns. There are just pages that respond to muse or experiment with possibilities. There is a rule of thumb for reading a book. Read 100 pages minus your age. I think this works for fiction writing, too. Write 100 “off-track” pages minus your age before you jettison the effort.

    •    “This is a waste of time.” - This is an unrealistic view of writing. Real writers have false starts. They complete works that should never see the light of day. They end up revising over and over again. This is not you screwing up. It is you learning to be a better writer or moving from rough idea to polished story through the normal process.

This last leads directly into concerns about literary promiscuity. Now, sometimes, that’s doubt manifested in a bigger way. Or it may be fear of pain and exposure (which will be explored later in this series). But it probably is more along the lines of “This is a better use of my time.” With very few exceptions, this perspective is wrong. This is true even if you have a sure-fire idea that will be a big hit and make your career. Why? Because you never know what your story offers until you finish it.

And if you pile up a lot of unfinished works, you’ll miss important —essential — lessons you must learn to create that sure-fire hit. Go ahead and make notes on that glorious idea, but finish what you are working on. Don’t set it aside. Two approaches to being more persistent: 1) Make a list of reasons why the Work in Progress must be finished. 2) Write shorter works so you can complete them and move on to your current infatuation.

Fear of commitment is a theme in romances. It’s often associated with Dan Kiley’s Peter Pan Syndrome, which Wikipedia defines as “an inability to grow up or to engage in behavior usually associated with adulthood.“ What this implies to me is that writers facing a fear of commitment may still be maturing.

Suffering the disappointment and uncertainties created by indecision and literary promiscuity may be fine before becoming a professional or in the early years of a career. Growing up isn’t easy, and the process brings its own lessons. But, if you think it’s time to be a grown-up writer, a deeper look at your fears and trying persistence and literary fidelity and articulating reasons for finishing a work and acceptance of your own creative timetable may be worth considering.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

The Seven Fears That Hold Back Writers 1 — Fear of performing

Is putting words on paper daring? Risky? Vandalism? Obviously not, especially when it’s not really paper. I can erase this text with a few clicks. If I really want it gone, I can overwrite it or even smash my hard drive. I can be sure I’m not connected so no words will live in a cloud beyond my control.

And yet…

And yet… many writers behave as though they have one chance to get it right. As if the mere act of typing out something offensive or daring or incorrect puts an indelible mark on their souls.

You cannot call back words you speak to someone and your Tweets may live forever, even if you nuke them, but the page you’re typing is not permanent or public. There are realities many writers can’t accept emotionally. These fictions are hard to overcome.
    •    No one needs to see your early drafts.
    •    That first wrong sentence is not eternal.
    •    Writers often need to warm up like musicians, dancers, and actors.
    •    Writing weird, embarrassing, and even offensive stuff can open the door truth and beauty.

Last time, this was on my list of seven fears:

Fear of performing — Performance anxiety doesn’t need an audience. All by yourself, when you face a blank screen or a fresh sheet of paper, you can be overwhelmed by an sense you won’t be able to put words together that make sense, change minds, or move readers. There are special instances of this, such as the inability to respond to a pressing deadline. Or to be funny on command.

I’ve faced blank pages so often, their existence no longer intimidates me. (Well, not for long.) The repeated act of putting down horrible prose without suffering horrible consequences helps insulate me from the voice that still bubbles up within me, telling me I have no right to foul the purity of a blank page. That fear is recognized and dismissed.

But sometimes it feels like the first sentence or page is a waste of time. It feels like throat-clearing I should no longer need. (My wife says, you can should all over yourself if you’re not careful.) So fear sneaks in as anger at myself.

Or I may simply be disgusted by the act of typing.

Or I may be confused by too many things battling to be put down and threatening to be forgotten.

Anger, disgust, and confusion. These are disguises that fear of performing may wear. If it is anger, I need to force out a bad sentence, making it clear that warming up is acceptable. The act itself moves me from feeling it is a rookie mistake to seeing it is what professionals do. When typing feels wrong, that’s often a good thing. Creative modalities can shift, and I’ve found paying attention to keyboard phobia gets me to dictate or grab a pencil. Warring ideas? The confusion is probably good news. It just means a linear approach (my usual writing of full sentences) will be too slow. Typing or printing fragments, even individual words is usually the way to go. Often, I segue into analysis with charts or thought balloons that capture everything and make it available for prose with special clarity. Chaos is frightening, and sentences aren’t always the best tools for bringing order out of chaos.

Okay, that’s one example of fear of performing, with the emotional covers, risks, and possible solutions I promised last time. If you want to become a resilient writer in the face of blank page fear, planning your writing the day before, dictation, learning different ways to capture ideas can prepare you. (Mostly, it comes down to figuring out what’s going on, creatively.)

What about deadlines? These can be motivators, but the stakes can create pressures that work against using them productively. To get my first writing job, I had to read a scientific article and type out a one-page story explaining the research and make it interesting on a sixth-grade level. On a typewriter that was unfamiliar. Within a half hour. The article’s words blurred, and my heart raced for a minute or two, but I ultimately found it fun, pretending I was explaining it to one of my brothers. I knew that if I failed completely, I’d still have a job and income going forward. But I think I would have choked if I’d been unemployed when I met this challenge.

While it’s possible to have a learned reaction to deadlines (negative or positive), I suspect context is everything. I once had to ghostwrite a book against repeated deadlines, with a list of conditions that kept growing, while I was suffering from vision problems. Not good. And I’m not happy with how things turned out. But the key was NOT to let that deadline experience become THE deadline experience for me. I purposely took other deadline work afterward, with low pressure and better circumstances. I needed to work my way away from fear that threatened to be traumatizing.

Breaking up work into smaller pieces with multiple, self-imposed deadlines can take the fear out, too. Every successful step builds confidence. A plan, scheduled work with 50% more time than is planned, accomplished in an environment free of distractions, can make all the difference. Resilience comes from facing a lot of deadlines and meeting them successfully. One danger — putting too much time into planning. Planning is one of the most lethal distractions of all for creative people.

Of the three examples of performing fears, the toughest for me to beat was being funny on command. While I wrote a few humorous stories early in my career, they did not emerge deliberately. All of them were inspirations, written in one sitting. Until recent years, almost all my fiction has been drama, not comedy. Even when I had comic ideas, I couldn’t convince myself to write the stories. Fear hid behind internal narrations like “I’m not funny, he’s funny” or “I can tell a joke, but I can’t be funny on paper.” Denying the talent and claiming I didn’t understand the rules of comedy protected me from trying. Like everyone, I had a fear of saying something funny and not getting a laugh (or worse, getting a pity laugh).

Now, not everyone is funny, but I suspect fear keeps a lot of people from finding out what they can do. I have been lucky in that I had to write humor on command as a speechwriter (humor in someone else’s voice). I got to hear audiences laugh at my jokes. I got encouragement from people who write humor professionally.

I still can freeze up. Nowadays, when that happens, I try to look through the eyes of characters with odd points of view. Or I write in the style of another humorist. Or I brainstorm with another person whose humor I like.

I’ve come to the conclusion that (within limits of talent and taste), being funny on command is very much like scaring people or thrilling people or doing work that brings tears to readers/audiences on command. And here’s how to be ready to be funny (or scary or tear-jerking):

    •    Have some success eliciting reactions. This can be seeing people respond or being encouraged by a colleague or mentor.
    •    Learn the skills (set-ups, timing, clarity, turning it up to eleven) and practice them.
    •    If possible, get into the right head space. Find that voice. Or find a suitable proxy in a character. Or imitate someone who does it well.
    •    Be willing to get down the idea in a suitable shape (for humor or horror or heartbreak), and leave “sweetening” it to later. If the shape and idea area right, it will be easier than you’d expect. You’ll also be ready to bring in an editor or another writer to help.

I’ve explored three examples of fear of performance, but there are a lot of other ones. And for each of these, there are other ways fears disguise themselves and many different approaches to finding solutions. But I hope there’s enough here for you to recognize this problem and try a few things to find your own way back to the joy of putting words on paper.