Tag: Books

Rotate Your Crops

Last week I browsed Brevity, a website dedicated to the brief essay form, and I chanced upon a blog post by Kate Walter called ‘Rotating the Writing Crops‘. After working long and hard during the pandemic to publish her memoir Kate, naturally, ran dry. Some time afterwards an editor commissioned her for an assignment and while writing it a metaphor occurred to her: farming and rotating crops.

“The writing equivalent of rotating my crops is switching genres from essays to journalism or maybe to back to fiction. I have been planting and harvesting the essays and memoir fields for decades. I realized it was necessary to let those be fallow at least for a few months. That specific soil needed to rest.”

A few months ago I was working hard on an essay of my own, but after three months work something gave out. I couldn’t continue with it. Diminishing returns. I took a while for me to recognise what happened but I took it as my body’s way of saying enough. Yes, work ethic goes a long long way in sustaining creative output, more so than inspiration, but sooner or later something will give. So, for now, I’m working on lighter (but no less loved) forms like haiku and haibun while my own essay crop lies fallow.

Quotes on the Universal Struggle to Write

A few quotes on, as Robert D. Richardson put it, “the daily struggle for adequate expression”.

“Writing is finally about one thing: going into a room alone and doing it. Putting words on paper that have never been there in quite that way before. And although you are physically by yourself, the haunting Demon never leaves you, that Demon being the knowledge of your own terrible limitations, your hopeless inadequacy, the impossibility of ever getting it right. No matter how diamond-bright your ideas are dancing in your brain, on paper they are earthbound.”

William Goldman

“Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard. It’s one of the hardest things that people do.”

William Zinsser

“The way to write is to throw your body at the mark when all your arrows are spent.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Redefining Writing Success

“What I wish I could have told myself when I was hopeless about my writing prospects is that I should have defined artistic success in ways that weren’t shaped by forces beyond my control. Sometimes, success is getting a handful of words you don’t totally hate on the page. Sometimes success is working a full-time job to support your family and raising your kids and finding a way, over several years, to write and finish a novel. Sometimes it’s selling a book to a small press for 25 copies of your book and a vague promise of royalties you may never see. And sometimes, if you are very lucky, artistic success is marked by the glittery things so many of us yearn for — the big money deals, the critical accolades, the multicity book tours, the movie options.

Writing and publishing are two very different things. Other writers are not your measure. Try not to worry about what other people your age or younger have already accomplished because it will only make you sick with envy or grief. The only thing you can control is how you write and how hard you work. […] All the other writers in the world are not having more fun than you, no matter what it might seem like on social media, where everyone is showing you only what they want you to see.

Write as well as you can, with as much heart as you can, whenever you can.”

Roxane Gay, ‘Ask Roxane: Is It Too Late to Follow My Dreams?

The Most Subversive Thing a Writer Can Do

“The most subversive thing you can do is to write clearly and directly, asserting the facts as you understand them, your perceptions as you’ve gathered them.

Part of the trouble may be this: you’re afraid your ideas aren’t good enough, your sentences not clever or original enough.

But what if your ideas are coherent and thoughtful? What if allowing us to see what is accurate and true is among the best work writing can do?

One purpose of writing -its central purpose- is to offer your testimony about the character of existence at this moment.”

Several Short Sentences About Writing (p.132-133), Verlyn Klinkenborg

Style, Emotional Power and A Writer’s Real Work

“A writer’s real work is the endless winnowing of sentences,

The relentless exploration of possibilities,

The effort, over and over again, to see in what you started out to say

The possibility of saying something you didn’t know you could.”

_

“The emotional power the reader feels

Depends on how clearly you know what your words

are doing.

That clarity isn’t natural.

It’s artificial, the result of hard work.”

_

“Style is an expression of the interest you take in the

making of every sentence.

It emerges, almost without intent, from your engagement

with each sentence.

It’s the discoveries you make in the making of the prose

itself.”

Verlyn Klinkenborg, Several Short Sentences About Writing, pages 14, 82, 84

‘Flow’ Is Not For The Writer

“Flow is something the reader experiences, not the writer.”

A writer may write painstakingly, assembling the work slowly, like a mosaic, fitting and refitting sentences and paragraphs over the years. And yet to the reader the writing may seem to flow.

The reader’s experience of your prose has nothing to do with how hard or easy it was for you to make. You’re not writing for a reader in the mirror whose psychological state reflects your own. You have only your own working world to consider. The reader reads in another world entirely.

Several Short Sentences About Writing, p.67

My copy of Verlyn Klinkenborg’s book came in the post today. It’s full of craft wisdom like the above. Wow.

Killing a Butterfly (To Make It Real)

The novelist Ann Patchett once said that writing a novel (or anything really) is like killing a butterfly. The novel in our heads (the butterfly) is perfect because our imagination isn’t subject to the limits of reality, but eventually we have to pluck that butterfly out of the air and pin it down on the page with (at first) imperfect words. In my experience, rewriting revives the butterfly. While it may not be the same butterfly of our imagination, it’s real.

. . . I reach into the air and pluck the butterfly up. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down on my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it. It’s not that I want to kill it, but it’s the only way I can get something that is so three-dimensional onto the flat page. Just to make sure the job is done, I stick it into place with a pin. Imagine running over a butterfly with an SUV. Everything that was beautiful about this living thing—all the color, the light and movement—is gone. What I’m left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled, and poorly reassembled. Dead. That’s the book.

Ann Patchett

This Year’s Reading (2021)

  • Capitalist Realism, Mark Fisher: Only 81 pages but an eye-opener. Is common sense re: the economy and your place in it really common sense or have you been taught to think that way?
  • Deep Work, Cal Newport: In our current time, with so many opportunities for distraction, shallow thinking and shallow work can prevail, but we can go against the stream and, with work, reclaim our focus.
  • Tribe, Sebastian Junger: According to Junger (and the research he cites), in times of war and hardship the rates of suicide and depression in a given country dropped, but in ‘peacetime’ rose again. Why is that? Junger also explores (to use one example) how early settlers in America, who were captured by Native American tribes and were ‘rescued’, ran away to rejoin their supposed ‘captors’. What did these tribes have that were so alluring compared to ‘civilised’ society?
  • Four Thousand Weeks: Time and How to Use It, Oliver Burkeman: The gist? The average human lifespan is four thousand weeks and there is always more to do than what can be done, especially in a capitalist society, so embrace your limits (even though society doesn’t want you to). In the long run you’ll feel better.

Why You Should Keep an Idea Garden

It’s easy to feel that nobody cares about your writing. Maybe your work keeps getting rejected by magazine editors. Maybe very few people read your blog posts because, among other things, you don’t know how to get their attention. In any case it’s discouraging and leads back to the perennial problem for creative people: how do I keep going?

One practice that works for me is to keep and maintain a garden or storehouse of ideas. Ralph Waldo Emerson kept notebooks he indexed and mined extensively for his lectures and books. I prefer a digital zettelkasten system and so far I’ve amassed around two hundred and thirty notes on anything and everything I’ve found interesting from a variety of fields such as philosophy, semantics, politics, music and economics, to name but a few. Anything goes.

The greatest benefit of an idea garden, as I see it, is that it can be a safe place for your writing, much like a journal, where ideas are accepted just as they are, while also being a place where the seeds of ideas can grow and bear fruit which we can, in time, take to the market.

Just Believe

Yesterday I unleashed a Pandora’s Box of fear and doubt when I finally made a start on my first book proposal:

Who am I to do this?

Can I do this?

Do I have enough credibility to sell the proposal?

Can I keep going if no one buys it?

I soon realised I can’t answer these questions and maybe I don’t need to either. I just need to believe – in myself and the book.

To encourage me for what I suspect will be a long journey I keep in mind a couplet from Goethe:

What you can do or dream you can, begin it;

Boldness has genius, magic and power in it.