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Don’t quit your day job

It’s one of the most common phrases a writer hears (possibly just after “have I read anything of yours” or “it must be fun to just get to write all the time): something about that day job of yours. Whether you flip burgers or are a neurosurgeon, everyone seems to think they have an opinion on how you earn a living, and that you need to hear it.

Of course, here I am with an opinion, and think you need to hear it. I’m cool with hypocrisy.

Don’t quit your day job. No, really, don’t.

I, like most other writers with middling to piddling success, require a day job. I’ve been lucky that my husband works in an industry that is ever-expanding, allowing me to stay home with our kids when they were young, and then work on my writing career as they’ve moved onto full-time school, and maintaining a Lord of the Flies-like rulings in their kingdom of two.

I also work, part-time. I understand that this might make my point a bit more moot, as I work mornings and have afternoons and evenings more or less free to write, or dick around as much as I want. However, I’ve also held a full-time job, a rather grueling one, requiring fourteen hour days and lunches eaten hunched over my computer in a closed-off office. It was when I was at this job that I started my first manuscript; it was after I was laid off that I finished it.

Writing is an extremely insular art form. Most writers work in solitude, and books are read far from the reach of the writer. While an artist may not be able to stand right next to you and explain their intention in color selection, a painting can be seen by more person than one, at the same time, can be shared by an entire group at once, and discussed in real time. Books require a dedication to read, to consider, and to reach out about. Being a writer is pretty lonely.

I write in the morning, when I first get up, before my brain is awake enough to let the inner critic carry on at me, telling me everything I do is pointless and stupid. I write in the afternoon when she’s in full-force, too, but, in between, I go to work. I do administrative stuff in health care, for a doctor’s practice, inside of a hospital (how’s that for vague?). This means that I interact with, on average, at least 50 people a day, in an important and direct manner.

Every writer has the ambition to be able to live off their writing. I know few who have expressed blockbuster dreams, or millionaire fantasies– most writers just want to be able to call writing their actual job, with a decent paycheck, just like their day job.

At this point in my life, I don’t know that I would want to quit to solely write. I’ve mentioned before that I hate the romanticizing of the artist life, like writers (and painters, weavers, photographers, actors, et al) are doing something deeply enlightened. It’s still a job, it’s still work. And it’s a lonely, drudging job at that. When a chapter is going poorly, and I’m tired and crabby and nothing seems to be going right, there are few people to turn to in my misery. Writer’s groups, in theory, are the outlet for this– but, I feel, everyone is suffering in their own bubble, and they’re just amassing the bubbles in one place.

At a workplace, there’s a shared feeling that is impossible to get solo. It’s that “we’re all in this together” feeling that makes any terrible day feel a bit more manageable.

I have no desire to quit my day job. Writing will always be my chosen career, but, in lieu of some kind of overwhelming (and, honestly, unwanted) celebrity, I can’t see myself wanting it to be the whole focus of my days. I love writing. I also like my sanity.

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Questions No One Asked Me: Part One

Sometimes, you see, I do this thing. It’s usually in the shower but, from time to time, I do it in the car, or even while walking the dog. I don’t usually talk about it, but I don’t think I’m the only person who does it.

I interview myself.

What, you were expecting something else?

It comes from watching the early days of Oprah, maybe, or too many awards shows. I was an avid reader of Seventeen and YM in my youth, and my favorite parts of the magazines (besides the “horrible things happen to me too!” fake write-in columns) were always the interviews where the questions were bolded and the star replied. I like a good list, after all, and I even more like hearing people talk about themselves. Maybe it’s a character study, or I’m really into self-absorbed people, who knows? But I do love a good interview, even when I’m the one who has to interview myself.

Thus, today, I intro “Questions No One Asked Me.”

Today’s question: “Lorrie, we all already know your stance on writing, and writing schedules, and taking responsibility for your writing output. But, really, what if you force yourself to write, and it sucks?”

Thanks for asking!

It’s a very real fear, that you commit yourself to writing, want to be writing, even, and find out that the words you put on the page are, for a lack of a better descriptor, utter crap. It would come as quite a shock, wouldn’t it, to find that even though you’re willing to make the effort, it’s in vain because your skills are on par with a donkey who backed into a typewriter while drunk. After all, you make the effort, you put in the time, shouldn’t that account for something?

If only!

The truth of the matter is: you will write crap. You will write crap more often than you write anything good, or worthwhile, even. You will write pages and pages of crap, sometimes for an entire day, sometimes every time you sit down at the computer, sometimes for weeks. You’ll have your brighter days, of course, where everything you type is golden and beautiful, but these days don’t last long, and almost never come consecutively.

Sitting down and writing is quite obviously made that much more difficult when you introduce the threat of shit writing. Staring down a computer screen with that devil on your shoulder, telling you you’re going to fail can cause even the most determined, and even skilled, writer to balk at bothering at all. After all, if you don’t write, you can’t suck, right?

Every day, I write. I know many people with other methods, but the most popular way to get through the process of writing, even the bad days, is, simply, write. Write when you don’t feel like it, write when you’re tired, write when you’re stressed, write when you feel like you have nothing to say. The truth of the matter is: most of those times, that is when you will write your worst. It’s a ridiculous cliche that you must be having some intense emotion or life experience for your writing to read truthfully, or have any depth. The majority of writing comes from people who are, for the most part, pretty okay with themselves, and their lives. After all, if they weren’t, they probably wouldn’t get much out, if just because they might not make it that long.

How, then, do you survive writing all that crap? How can you still be happy when you have pages of prose you can never use, passages that couldn’t fit into your story if you took a blowtorch to them?

To begin with: bad writing does not make you a bad writer, just as one burned meal doesn’t make you a terrible cook. No one is “on” every last day of their lives. Even a genius wakes up with a case of the Mondays.

Second: writing, any writing, is good, even the bad stuff. Why? Well, of course, you’re writing, but, even more importantly– this can, and often does, lead to the good stuff! Sitting down and rambling out six pages of characters wandering aimlessly, conversations that go nowhere, action that falls flat, can not only clear out the muck that’s weighing you down, but can also jog your brain, and help you work your way through troublesome scenes, plot holes, and questions about motivations. Right now, you may be writing a too-long description about the horrible meal a character’s aunt has cooked, simply because you can’t think of anything else to write, but suddenly you know why he wants to go to Cambodia, or how to bring in that phone call that will tie Character X into Character A’s story.

The most important thing to remember, though, is: bad writing days will not last forever. The more you fear them, and let them control you, the longer and harder they stick. Making the effort to power through them, to refuse to let them control you, can only bring you out the other side, where you’ll be a better writer for them.

And then you’ll get to do that imaginary red carpet interview while you shave your armpits, too!

Stay tuned for more Questions No One Asked Me!

On Inspiration

It’s one of the questions that writers hear most, and one of those that makes most writers shrug their shoulders, shake their heads, or just plain want to tear their hair out.

Where do you get inspiration to write?

It’s as ridiculous a question as asking how one gets inspired to drive to work, but I’m willing to give a little on it. For so long, we (both writers and the general public– I’ll let us all shoulder the blame for this) have mystified the whole process of writing. It’s something that requires a special set of skills, a special mindset, a way of thinking and relating, and, so, of course, one who does not write can’t really help but wonder how one who does gets to that writing.

What inspires you? they ask.

Let me tell you.

1) The shower. You think I’m kidding but I’m not. I remember hearing something once (and, admittedly, it might have been on 30 Rock) that when you’re distracted by something as base and simple as showering, your brain has access to more of your thoughts– or, rather, gets more space to do it’s thinking. You’re busy trying to keep shampoo out of your eyes, and so your brain can tool along its happy path, wondering what would happen if someone were to jump from the top of a three story building into a pool, and then, lo and behold, you’ve figured out the escape route for your character who is cornered on the roof of his apartment building.

2) The car. Similar to the shower, but not quite. I mean, at this point, you’re attempting not to kill other people, but what, pray tell, are you supposed to do while waiting in gridlock or idling at a light? The radio, after all, only plays the same five songs on repeat all day, so it’s not like you’re going to find yourself introduced to something new and startling in the music world. Sure, you could listen to NPR, but you also are a person who spends 90% of their day already fretting about the state of the world, so you don’t really need the help (I may be speaking from experience).

3) Observation. This should be a no-brainer. Who hasn’t come up with entire histories for strangers in a coffee shop, stories for lip-read conversations, what-if scenarios for if the guy had stepped off the curb a second later? It’s like scripting your own TV show without having to pay anyone.

4) Interaction. Sorry to say, the old adage is true: anything you say and do can, and probably will, end up in a writer’s work, in some form. Conversations spark ideas, that come to rest in a story. That lame chat you had about what season mangoes are harvested while you each poured a cup of coffee in the break room? That’s now in a manuscript about a dystopian future when fruit is a novelty. We find novelty in things that may happen, day to day, hour to hour, without thought, because they fit neatly in a space we’ve been trying to fill in a story. A story about your childhood dance class, or the way you adjusted your skirt are now part of the repertoire.

5) Reading. “Good writers borrow, great writers steal outright.” (attributed to either T.S. Eliot, or Aaron Sorkin, depending on what part of the internet you land on) I wouldn’t say that’s totally true, but, certainly, reading influences writing. I’ve always been baffled by so-called writers who don’t care for reading. It’s as suspicious as chefs who don’t look like they eat (I’m looking at you, Giada De Laurentiis). But, moreover, reading is, in a way, similar to sitting around, talking about ideas and art with people you enjoy and respect. You probably shouldn’t write a thinly-veiled imitation of something like, say, 1984, but certainly your dystopian future can (and probably should) be influenced by George Orwell.

6) Writing. You knew it was coming, right? If you’ve read this blog for any length of time, you know that I’m a drill sergeant for consistency in a writing regimen, and insistent that the only way to get better as a writer is to write. The truth is, though, you also are most likely to find your inspiration in the actual act of writing. Sitting down and writing, no matter what it is, stimulates the brain, and the imagination. Maybe you have no clue what you’re starting with, and maybe it sucks for a hundred, or a thousand, words, but the more you do it, the easier it is, and the more ideas come.

I cringe at the idea that one must have a grand inspiration in order to motivate their writing. The truth is: few of us have all that exciting lives. If we sit around and wait for inspiration to strike, we’re more likely to be hit by a bolt of lightening out of the sky (according to really cursory Googling, I’m finding you have a 1 in 1,200 chance of that which is, suffice to say, pretty unlikely, and a really good simile for my point).

Inspiration is made. The longer you sit around and wait for it, the longer you’ll sit around and write nothing.

And that’s just sad.

Reading Women Writers

What an awkward subject. I find myself feeling foolish for bringing it up – “reading women writers” – because, in 2014, shouldn’t this be a non-issue? I’m a woman, many of my friends are women, many of the writers I know personally are women. Given we make up roughly half the population, we should make up half of the books on the shelves, right?

I always forget how poor I am at math.

On average, women make up less than half of the published and promoted authors today – some arenas, even less than a quarter. Even looking through my own library recently, I was surprised (and ashamed) to discover that I own far more books by men than I do by women. 

I like to think I’m an enlightened person. My parents raised me to be a thinking, inquisitive member of the world. I like to read a variety of books, on a variety of subjects. I lean towards what’s generally known as lit fic, or upmarket fiction – stories about people being people and learning about other people. I’m a feminist and have been since before I understood there was such a thing – I was the kid who couldn’t believe anyone’s ability was defined by their sex. I support women’s rights, equality, and an elevated thought process for all.

How is it, then, that when I’m asked who my favorite writers are, they’re invariably men? When I think of my favorite books, they’re written by men. I realized, today, outside the teenage girl standby of loving Sylvia Plath (and those shameful Babysitters Club books of yore), I didn’t read another book by a woman until I was in high school and was given Pride and Prejudice.

In college, I was exposed to Margaret Atwood and Sandra Cisneros. I read books about the craft of writing, by Anne Lamott, Annie Dillard, and Natalie Goldberg. I had great inspiration in my favorite writing instructor, and the fantastic Catherine O’Neill Thorn, who mentored me for years. 

Yet, ask me books I’ve read, authors I’ve admired, and they’re all men.

I’m bothered by this on a fundamental level. I am not against men as writers, and I don’t think anyone would accuse me of that. Indeed, I love reading what others have crafted, and generally care very little about the person behind the work – I want something good, something interesting, something compelling. I may be rare in that I honestly think very little of the writer of books: outside reading more of a person’s writing, I never bother to find out their politics, their beliefs, their opinions. Hell, sometimes I barely remember names. 

What’s the issue then, you might ask. If all people are equally as interesting, then why does it matter who wrote the book?

The issue is this: if women aren’t read, then we’re only characters in someone else’s story. We’re not writing the words, we’re not telling the tales. Our lives, then, are lived out through the eyes of another person, a person who, as a male, cannot understand the actuality of living as a woman.

Does this mean men can’t write women (or the opposite)? Of course not. Some of my favorite books, about women, have been written by men, in a moving manner. However, only reading books by men is like only seeing half of a movie: you’re missing out on the other part of the story, the rest of it.

Publishing traditionally favors men. This is not the fault of modern male writers, obviously: this is inborn, and perpetuated in a scope that is rather hard to grasp. Equality still isn’t a full thing – women are still underpaid, and lacking in basic rights on a lot of levels. Our media still tends to heavily favor men. This means more books that are accepted for publishing are written by men, and more authors that are promoted are men. This, quite naturally, leads people to believe that men are the thought-makers, the story-tellers, the ones with something to say and greater talent with which to say it. It’s a vicious cycle, one that is self-perpetuating: publish a man, promote a man, think only men are capable, lather, rinse, repeat. Men sell more because there are more books by men to sell!

Women have a voice. Women have talents and thoughts, beliefs and interests, and we’re doing ourselves a disservice not to explore these, experience these, and make them a part of our own considerations as well.
Why, then, are women not published? See above: we’ve created a market that favors men. Do none of these men deserve this? Of course not: the great majority of published male authors earn their acclaim, through both talent of works, and sheer effort put into producing interesting reading.

It comes down to money. There is still a pervasive sexism that causes men’s works to sell more. I’ve met more than one man – often, thinking, thoughtful, intelligent men – who have said, point-blank, they don’t read books by women, and usually on purpose. Our media is slow moving: we’re still surprised when a woman can write a crime mystery – who wasn’t shocked to find out it was JK Rowling behind Robert Galbraith? Often, books penned by women are labeled “chick lit” or “women’s fiction,” pushing them out of the realm of “legitimate fiction” which is almost entirely populated by the likes of men.

There is nothing wrong with “chick lit” or “women’s fiction,” or the traditionally female-dominated genre of romance. However, that men get the simple, straight-forward, main genre of “fiction” and women, when allowed, are relegated to a second tier, a set-apart realm that, often, is meant to indicate lesser writing, is upsetting.
How do we go about changing this? Read women. It’s really oddly simple: read more women. The numbers are what drive change, so buy more books by women. Seek out stories penned by female authors.

I almost feel like I should add an apology here, or a reassurance: you can still read your favorite authors! Men are okay! But this is not about men, or padding the feelings of such. The majority does not need our assistance. The balance is gained by assisting the minority.

Read more women. It will do us all good.

On Reality vs. Realism

One of my favorite stories to tell about my childhood is about the night a cow ended up on our lawn.

I did not grow up in a rural area – I’m a city girl, and the closest I’ve ever really gotten to nature was the yearly overnight at the Girl Scout camp in elementary school, where I rode a horse named Snowflake. I’ve never been interested in country life: I need places that are open late and grocery stores minutes away. I’m spoiled. We don’t have cows.

Except one night when I was thirteen. It wasn’t really late, about 8:30, but the house was shut-down, all of us in bed reading. When the doorbell rang, my father jumped from bed and I followed from down the hall – we lived in the city, but it’s a pretty safe city. Excitement could easily come from a doorbell after dark.

On our porch was a man in his late thirties, breathless and holding a rope. “There’s a cow on your lawn,” he informed my father, who stared at him, stupefied. The man gestured in the direction of the bushes that lined the edge of our property; I squeezed up next to my father to look.

A cow. I am no expert, so I have no idea what kind, or if it was a large cow, impressive for anything besides being a cow on a city lawn. But, at any rate, it was a cow, on our lawn, that had never seen anything larger than the neighbor’s golden retriever.

“We saw it on the road,” the guy reported. “We followed it up here.” Out on the street behind him were two cars, with several other men standing beside them. These were not cowboys in the least: they wore jeans, but they all had the giddy look of people who were embarking on a random adventure.

My dad looked between the cow and the man. He grew up on a farm, knew from cows, but the whole thing was so out of place, so utterly out of context, he was speechless.

“Can you call Animal Control?” the man suggested, and my father nodded.

I listened in on the call. “A cow.” Pause. “Yes, a cow.” He rattled off our address and there was another pause. “A cow. On the lawn.”

Ultimately, the cow moved on. The majority of our neighbors were unaware of its presence as the cowboys in sedans followed it along our block, back in the direction from whence it had come. The next morning, I examined the lawn for any evidence of the cow visit the night before and found nothing; it was disappointing, in a way, until I realized I would always have this fantastic story to tell, about the cow on my lawn.

There is, of course, a ridiculousness that makes it sound like I’m full of it. Telling the tale of a squirrel launching out of the fireplace and my cat chasing it around the house sounds far more authentic: more people have experienced a wayward squirrel in their chimney, a cat who believes it is a greater hunter than, perhaps, it is. 

The point of the story, of course, is in the telling. A story that sounds untrue will jar you right out of it, out of a conversation, out of a novel. A cow on a lawn in metro Denver? I don’t downplay the best details: there were four men, two cars, all of them completely out of place with a rope that was clearly for tying a trunk closed when moving a bookcase or bicycle. The cow seemed utterly uninterested in the lot of us. My father was dumbfounded.

I love to tell this story because, coming from me, it’s weirdly plausible. Why would I lie about a cow on my lawn? Who cares where the cow came from, why she was roaming our neighborhood? THERE WAS A COW ON MY LAWN.

Realism in fiction is often strangled to death. There seems to be a fine line, in the eyes of critics, between representing life accurately and representing life in fiction. I’ve been surprised more than a few times to hear complaints about some of my favorite books not being “real enough.” 

What is real enough? No one’s life gets broken up by laugh tracks and act breaks. Something dramatics happens and… everything keeps going. A bomb is dropped, and you still have to feed the cat, do the laundry. Characters rarely go to the bathroom, fart, burp, shave their legs.

There is a difference between reality and realism. It’s in the depiction. In my story about the cow, there are elements left out because… it matters little to the telling of the story. No one cares that animal control never showed up or that we never did find out where the cow went off to, what happened to the intrepid Tuesday night cowboys. The story loses wind when I report my parents live a mile as the crow flies from a still-functional farm acting as a museum.

I worry when I hear people criticize dialogue as unbelievable, of situations being too dramatic. While there is a line that can be crossed, it rarely actually is. Reality is not the same as realism. Reality is our world, with its fits and starts, its long, boring interludes, its clogged toilets and cows that come and go. Realism gives the human emotion and condition without the lagging, half-hearted arguments over who forgot to buy coffee. 

Who doesn’t want a cow on their city lawn? Who doesn’t enjoy a dramatic end to a chapter and a start to the next where the heroes awake with the tension of the day before that ended so much earlier? Reality, it is said, is boring, and that is no truer than in fiction. Realism outlines reality in a sharper line, gives it boldness and shape, gives a viewer or reader a place to explore their perceptions and opinions. 

I miss the cow sometimes. I want to give her an ending, though I know hers was, ultimately, too realistically boring. In the telling, my hand shapes your view of her. I have always hoped to do the cow justice.

 

On Feminism

or, subtitled: The Radical Notion Why You (Yes, You), Should Shut the F Up.

Caution: I understand that you may come here for discussion of writing, reading, or humorous anecdotes. This is not any of those. This is your last warning of that fact: I value you, and love you as a reader, but, should the topic of feminism, and the complications of men and media therein, disinterest, or anger, you, then you should stop now. I’ll be back later with something more entertaining – I think about fictional murder.

Further: this is my blog, and, as such, is not a debate forum. While I abhor the use of the concept of “safe space,” this is, indeed, mine. If you have a differing opinion, I am not, currently, interested in hearing it. I’m happy to read something on a blog that might be linked, but comments that are not on-topic, or accusatory, defaming, or outright misogynistic, will be deleted without being read.

I’m not a cruel person. I am not the most intelligent person on earth. However, my views are mine, and I believe in them whole-heartedly. I welcome you to read, and engage, but will not tolerate anything approaching sexism, racism, or any other such prejudice in the name of “discourse.”

That said, read on.

Today, on two different topics, I was spoken down to, belittled, and reminded, oh so kindly, by a man. This was not, frankly, a surprise: quite unfortunately, it is somewhat of a daily occurrence. If you are a woman, I assume you are unshocked. If you are a man, you might have a myriad of thoughts about this fact, including, maybe, that I am an airhead.

You’re not far off-base. I am. But I am also not a moron. I might squeal over John Krasinski, and coo over babies, I am also an aware citizen of our world, politically astute, and quite engaged in many issues.

If you have met me, you are aware that I am the following:

  1. short
  2. glasses-wearing
  3. busty
  4. rather shy
  5. have a lisp
  6. tend towards a sort of dramatic hyperbole in my descriptions

I am easily intimidated, given I am a small female. It’s a fact of my life – I’ve never been tall, obviously, and have always identified as female. I developed early, and have never appeared as anything other than a biological female.

If you are a woman, you know where this is going. If you are a man, it’s likely you have no clue.

It’s not your fault. The thing that can be avoided, that can prevent any fault on your part, is found by the following:

Shut up.

I am married to a man, who I love very much. I have a fantastic father, and very good male friends. I, unlike many other, have had men in my life, all my life, who are great and good and kind men. 

It’s complicated, explaining to men what it is like to be a woman. It’s something, truly, we don’t think about on the daily, ourselves. It’s a way of being, of living, that you don’t really parse out until confronted with the need to.

Confronted with rape, with harassment, with denial of services or healthcare, revocation of rights. Confronted with a media that tells you you are too fat or thin, too short or too tall, too masculine or feminine, too flaky or too ambitious, too maternal or too businesslike. 

I’ve stood in my living room, suddenly faced with a news report that, indeed, I am a lesser woman because I do not have a full-time job. Articles on the internet inform me that because I don’t care to wear heels, I am not attractive to men. I wake in the morning and get dressed, take my kids to school, and am informed that I am not engaged as a parent because I didn’t attend last night’s PTA meeting.

As a woman, you rarely win.

It’s difficult to explain because: men don’t face this. There are give and take situations in everyone’s life, but, as it is, being is not something men have to worry about. They might, surely, if they are a man of conscientiousness, of emotion and thought, but, even then: they are not required. Missing a PTA meeting does not make a man a poor father. Not wearing a suit does not make a man unattractive to the opposite sex. 

I am not here to deny the struggles of men. I just need this space to say: YOU DON’T GET IT AND YOU NEED TO STOP TALKING.

There is a culture of minimizing experience, now. I don’t know if it’s new, or if it sprouted up in the wake of social media, of 140 character commentary, of soundbites that sound clever on Facebook. We post up memes of ten words, Impact font, to replace meaningful discussion. Gifs stand in place of emotion.

I am guilty of all of the above. I like a good, clever quip, a gif of Liz Lemon high-fiving herself rather than spelling out my feelings. This is a right of anyone with an internet connection: to be flippant.

Today, I was spoken down to in short soundbites. “Just sayin'” was uttered. “Why don’t you look again” was recommended.

Shut up.

There is no reason to baby me, but, guys: take an extra moment to think. Do you understand that we don’t have equal rights? Do you understand that, as it stands, we’re not sure we actually have a right to the condition and well-being of our own bodies? My bank demands, despite repeated signed paperwork, that I receive my husband’s approval for major transactions. His name comes first on checks, on bills, on loans. We are buying a house, and a lender waved off any information about me, despite my credit being much higher.

Mansplaining is funny, a joke, until you’re the focus of it. Today a man told me to stop and think. This is not new. It is still jarring, still appalling, and I am sitting, over an hour later, seething at my desk.

I have a degree. I have worked in multiple fields. I have actively participated in political groups, attended rallies and speeches, have combed resources and investigated.

I was told to stop and think, without a second thought on the part of a man.

I need you to shut up. I need you to spend another minute, two, thinking about who you are talking to, what a life that is unlike your own might be like. Where your intelligence is excused, where assumptions take place of facts – where your skirt asserts your fault when walking down a street, where your position begets a personality you have never displayed.

You won’t get it. It’s okay. But until you’re willing to make an attempt:

Shut up.