The Art of Giving Up

Invisible_ManAfter the publication of his classic novel, Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison spent over forty years working on his sophomore effort, Juneteenth. When asked by an interviewer to explain the delay, he blamed it on a fire which destroyed his manuscript during the early 1970s. But now, nearly twenty years after his death in 1994, scholars believe Ellison was stricken with self-doubt and insecurities from the pressure of being the token voice of Black America during the pre-Civil Rights era following his celebrated debut. Ellison suffered from the strains of creative paralysis, a condition that, for whatever the reasons, can strike any writer. I ought to know; it happened to me. It took me twenty years to finish my novel.

Now I’m certainly not in the same league as Ellison; I’m not even a published novelist. Yet I know how easy it is to get caught in that trap. I experienced everything that could possibly go wrong and suffered the confusion, fear, and self-doubt that Ellison might have felt all those years. A more experienced writer, recognizing she was fighting a losing battle, might have given up. Yet nothing frightened me more.

I was ambitious. I was also young and still discovering my voice. And though I lived in the San Francisco bay area, a place so rich with its own literary traditions, I didn’t seek out a writing community. I had only my books. So I struggled alone because I thought that was the proper way to write.

I went into the project well-armed, or at least that’s what I thought. I knew what I wanted to write about. The novel was to explore suicide and denial within the black community through the eyes of a young girl who struggles to get to the bottom of her parents’ tragic and inexplicable deaths in a house fire several years earlier. She, along with her grandmother, her father’s best friend, an aunt and cousin, and her mother’s former lover formed the backbone of the story’s narrative. I kept a list of character names and bios and wrote a timeline of the community’s history. I included references to characters who were long dead and the gothic specter of ghosts and dream worlds. I wanted to write a serious novel and tossed in everything I thought would make it so. Confident that it was all going to come together somehow, I began writing. I wrote the prologue and the first few chapters with ease, but soon got stuck. My head crawled with so many ideas I had trouble organizing them all. I didn’t know what I was doing. In the end, I wound up writing by trial and error.

Realizing I needed help, I turned to books. I reread Toni Morrison’s novels––The Bluest Eye, Sula, Song of Solomon, Beloved––to study exposition, multiple character points of view, voice. Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping taught me the power of observation, particularly of the natural world. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ Autumn of the Patriarch, for better and worse, taught me about magic realism. I read books about writing like John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, a collection of Reader’s Digest books on craft. I researched the Vietnam war, as well as the history of African Americans in California.

The books were instructive, but they didn’t help me confront my main problem: How do I juggle plot and all 41KYQst9aILthese different voices and make them gel? That was something I was going to have to work out on my own. My main problem was that I was too generous and too desperate to be democratic. The novel had nine main characters, tons of exposition, a rigidly structured plot, enough stories to fill three novels, and my lame attempts at magic realism. I refused to make tough choices. As the problems multiplied, I became more frustrated and indecisive. Crippled with self-doubt, I’d write two or three pages only to delete them along with whatever confidence I had left.

While I struggled to fix the problems in my novel, I faced numerous setbacks that ground its progress to a halt. Like a lot of people in the 1990s, I was relying more on technology. Before I got a computer, I used a small laptop word processor and saved all my files on a floppy disc (remember those old relics?). It was a primitive machine but it performed all the necessary functions. Back then I was strangely confident in technology. I foolishly thought it was more reliable than a good old-fashioned hard copy manuscript ripped straight from a typewriter. You can’t destroy a floppy disc as easily as you can paper. It was all there, stored in a single file on a hard piece of plastic.

God, was I ever stupid!

One night before dinner I decided to work on my novel. I slid the floppy disc into the slot of my WP and clicked on my file. As it came up on screen, I realized something was wrong. My novel had been replaced by strings of squares and alphabetical and numerical gibberish. I frowned and scrolled down the entire page, growing more panicked. I exited the file and ejected the disc. After confirming that it was still in rewritable mode, I slid the disc back in again. Still the same problem. The disc was corrupted. My entire manuscript was gone. All those days, weeks, and months of hard work gone.

907781I wanted to toss the WP across the room. Instead I cried. I was frustrated and angry at myself, at technology, and the world in general. I had spent years conceiving, dreaming, planning, researching and writing this novel and now it all came to nothing.

Yet the more bad luck pushed at me, the more I pushed back. In an interview, Ellison, regarding his second novel, stated that “I managed to keep going with it, I guess, because there was nothing else to do.” I found myself in a similar dilemma. I wanted to write this novel so badly that I was determined to see it through to the end because I really had no other choice.

Needing space and clarity, I decided to put my novel aside and work on other writing projects. I had even begun submitting a few stories to magazines and journals. None of them were accepted, but I kept writing and developing my craft. I also started to read more. I bought an eclectic mix of novels and short story anthologies, learning as much from them as I could.

Still my thoughts drifted back to my novel. It rattled around in my head while I browsed in a bookstore, walked down the street, or rode the train to work. I’d jot down a few lines in my journal, knowing that I was going to start climbing that mountain again.

This time I tried a different strategy. I shared my short stories and fragments of my novel with coworkers and later joined a workshop. After I started attending school, I felt confident enough to workshop my work-in-progress. In a class of nearly forty, I read aloud the prologue to my novel. The response was encouraging. People loved the rich details and the humor.

It was the encouragement I needed to continue working on my novel. Everyday I wrote, balancing my time between classes and family, until I finally finished. When I wrote the last sentence, I leaned back in my chair and shrugged. I expected to feel something––elation, relief, joy––but instead felt nothing. In fact, it seemed rather anticlimactic. I was done, but I knew I wasn’t finished.

During my last semester at San Francisco State University, I took an independent study class with the Head11741 of the Creative Writing Department. I was to work one-on-one with her to plan and write a specific project. I chose my novel. Though I had a completed draft, I needed guidance on how to revise it. I sent her a synopsis and the first fifty pages. Her response was unequivocal. It was too long. She was right. At that point, it had tipped past a thousand pages. No publisher was going to take a chance on a debut fiction that was longer than three hundred. I’d heard this advice before, but it was the first time I took it seriously. I needed to butcher this thing.

She pointed out the repetitions in the novel, both on the plot and sentence level, and advised that I cut down word count by having characters talk to each other. I took her advice (though the one about characters talking to each other would drastically change a novel that was about the problems caused by people who don’t talk to each other). I made other serious edits. I took out the magic realism, which was quite frankly was amateurish. I dropped a few characters and truncated or excised scenes to tighten the plot. I edited the novel down to a little over five hundred pages. Not the three hundred or less I was aiming for, but still a pretty significant achievement. When I delivered another fifty pages to my instructor, she was more circumspect.

“Your characters are getting away from you,” she said. “Have you ever thought about writing this in third person?”

In other words I needed to distance myself from the text. Ironically in earlier versions the novel was written in third person, but it demanded to be written in first. Yet my instructor was right. These characters were running roughshod over me. I needed to wield more control.

After I graduated in 2009, I embarked on rewriting the entire novel in third person. I spent the next year on the revision, making more editing choices, truncating more scenes. Once completed, the story had become tighter, more focused. I had a better sense of what it was about thematically.

And yet, I was dissatisfied. I kept fiddling with the narrative, cutting scenes, adding others, or rewriting them altogether. Something wasn’t right. At first I thought I was being a perfectionist or that I was reluctant to let go after having worked on it for so long. By spring, however, I realized what happened. In trying to gain control over the narrative, I had also cut out its heart. The story needed to be in first person. It needed those clashing voices.

987799I rewrote the novel yet again, using the previous revised version as a template. Of course certain scenes and passages had to be rewritten, cut out, or added but the final version was essentially the same. All those voices I had trouble capturing now resounded beautifully, painfully, joyfully.

I set the manuscript away while I worked on other projects, but when I returned to it with fresh eyes, those fresh eyes still saw problems. As I reread the novel, my dissatisfaction with it grew. As much as I wished I had conquered all my problems, I was faced with the possibility that my novel just wasn’t any good. I continued to tinker away, adding scenes, rewriting sentences, and constantly obsessing over whether the novel was “good enough,” until one day, after toying with the idea of rewriting whole sections, I came to the conclusion that I was never going to be satisfied with it. It wasn’t because the story or characters weren’t good enough. Rather, I realized that I had changed. I was no longer the person or writer who had conceived this story over twenty years ago. My perspectives had changed. My writing style had changed as well. The only proper response to my novel was to simply let it go.

Yet I wasn’t entirely ready to let go of my characters. I still believed they deserved to have their story told. Since it was 2012, roughly twenty years after I first conceived the idea for the novel, I began to wonder what happened to these characters during that time. This gave me a whole new infusion of ideas. With very little preplanning I dove into a new novel. I had no idea what I wanted to do with this new novel or what I wanted it to be about (though a few ideas had percolated in the back of my mind). Rather, I just followed my instincts, taking it one step at a time. I wrote every day, a few pages here, a few paragraphs there, refusing to second-guess myself. I wrote down any idea that came to my head, no matter how wacky. As the novel progressed, the narrator’s voice became more humorous and snarky. I played around with structure and style, 518oQLsZroLincluding footnotes, twitter posts, and text messages (though hardly revolutionary, this was a new approach for me). By the end of that summer, I had completed over 98,000 words, which, through the revision process, I’d whittle down to nearly 96,000, a far cry from the 180,000+ behemoth that I had originally written years ago.

I had never written that way before and it was liberating. I trusted my instincts and took what I learned over the years to heart. I wasn’t afraid to take paths that the writer I used to be would have never had the confidence to take. There were ideas that I had included in the first draft that didn’t make it to the final rounds, but that’s okay. I learned that to get close to the results I wanted, I had to be willing to jump off a few cliffs and trust that the earth below was soft. I learned to take risks. But, more than anything, if working on this novel for twenty years has taught me anything, it was that I also had to be willing to risk failure and learn to give up. It was only by giving up on my novel that I could write the story that deserved to be told.


Writers in Films: What They Get Right, What They Get Wrong

MV5BMjE3NDM1NDgyN15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMzg4MDQyMQ@@._V1._SX349_SY475_The silver screen rarely gets it right when it comes to writers, which is funny since TV and film are written by them. Understandable enough. It’s hard to take a largely cerebral activity and make it visually exciting. Most movies rely on clichés and stereotypes. Either writers suffer from massive writer’s block, which I suppose offers some form of internal complexity or obstacles, or from sophomore slumps after successful first novels. By and large fictional writers are lonely, navel-gazing losers who are always broke has-beens or never-have-beens.

The Showtime series Californication is one example. Starring David Duchovny, the series was about writer Hank Moody who was suffering a sophomore slump after his first novel God Hates Us All was turned into a fluffy romantic comedy. Moody turned to blogging, but spent most of the series brooding and humping every woman who came into his path. Or, at least, that was what I read about the series; I’ve never watched the show. Still, the fact that Hank was yet another writer with writing issues shows just how much of a cliché this type of writer is in film and television.

But not all characterizations of writers are as trite. There have been a few that at least captured what it means to be a writer. The movie Wonder Boys (2000), starring Michael Douglas, did a good job of portraying how writers think and act. In the Wonder Boys, Douglas’s Grady Tripp, an English professor and former wünderkind writer, has been slogging away on the follow-up manuscript to his first magnum opus. Tripp is frozen by expectation, both in his personal and professional life (notice how his name is Tripp, as in “tripped up”). Wonder Boys smartly dealt with the choices writers must make to hone their creative intuitions, delivering one of the best writerly advices I’ve ever heard––good writing is all about choices, a piece of advice that worked well for Tripp as his manuscript was meandering over a thousand pages and his affair with the married college administrator turned into an unplanned pregnancy. The movie, of course, was adapted from the 1995 novel by Michael Chabon, which in turn was a follow up to his successful debut, so the book and film had an honesty that most movies about writers lack.

Stephen King’s suspense thriller Misery (1990), about a writer (James Caan) who is held hostage by the fan of his successful mystery novels is an ironic twist about the relationship between writers and their fans. When Caan’s Paul Sheldon decides to kill his popular heroine Misery Chastaine, one of the novel’s fans Annie Wilkes (Kathy Bates) wrecks vengeance by holding him hostage in her home and tortures him until he agrees to spare Misery. But Misery is really about the pressures all popular genre writers feel in trying to strike a balance between pursuing their own artistic endeavors and pleasing a very fickle and often conservative readership who don’t like change.

Adaptation (2002), the Spike Jonze-directed and Charlie Kaufman-penned adaptation of Susan Orlean’s bestselling non-fiction book The Orchid Thief, is a meta film about the process of storytelling. The movie perfectly captures the creative process of a screenwriter (Nicolas Cage) as he attempts to adapt a largely un-adaptable book about the orchid trade. But it also does a good job of portraying the insecurities all writers feel as they embark on a new work, especially in a medium that demands commercial success over artistic expression. Going back and forth between fiction and reality, the movie soon blurs the difference and shows that all good fiction is ultimately a bit of both. The Coen brothers’ Barton Fink (1991), likewise is about the hell all writers face when they make a deal with the devil in Hollywood, selling out their artistic expression in favor of fame and success. Sunset Boulevard (1950) also takes the “Hollywood-is-hell-for-writers” turn when a screenwriter (William Holden) literally makes a bad turn while trying to outrun creditors when he stumbles into a decrepit mansion owned by one Norma Desmond (“I am big. It’s the pictures that have gotten small”). Forced to hide out at her mansion, Holden’s character is pressured into writing Desmond’s come-back picture and ends up getting a couple of lead bullets into his chest for the trouble. The relationship between the writer and the star had never been so good.

There have been a number of bio-pics about well-known writers to make it to the theaters. An Angel at My Table (1990), directed by Jane Campion, is about Australian writer Janet Frame. Frame, who was brought up poor, spent eight years in a mental institution because of her eccentricities. The film does a good job of revealing the way the active and creative imagination becomes an escape valve for those who long to find their own voices. Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994), starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, took acerbic writer Dorothy Parker and her years within the Algonquin Table as its source. Yet the film was less about Parker the writer and more about Parker’s personal life, all her failed relationships, her alcoholism, and suicide attempts. It got the tortured artist treatment without getting to why Parker was an artist in the first place. The 2005 film Capote, starring Philip Seymour Hoffman as the titular writer, reveals how writers can often be social and emotional leeches using real life people as sources for their literary inspirations. The movie details the creation of Truman Capote’s seminal non-fiction mystery In Cold Blood and the relationship he developed with one of the murderers, Perry Smith. The relationship is both exploitative and tender, but the movie never offers comforting resolutions to the responsibilities of the writer to his subject. In the past decade, Hollywood has turned to the Beat writers for screen treatment, such as the forgettable Kiefer Sutherland vehicle, Beat (2000), Howl (2010), On the Road (2012). But many of these movies were more about the romantic allure of the Beats rather than their artistic output.

In the past, journalists fared much better in Hollywood than screenwriters or novelists. In Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday (1940), starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, reporters were a quirky, funny, cynical and fast-talking lot whose off-the-cuff lifestyle was worthy of envy. In fact, Hildy, as played by Russell, gave up marriage and a life in the ‘burbs to chase the latest headlines with Grant’s Walter Burns (and really, can you blame her?). The fact that His Girl Friday was written by former hard-nosed reporter Ben Hecht probably had a lot to do with its favorable treatment his profession. Grant starred as another writer, this time an inveterate alcoholic in the Grant/Katherine Hepburn/Jimmy Stewart vehicle Philadelphia Story (1940). During the 1970s, after the New York Times fought a successful First Amendment rights case over publication of the Pentagon Papers, reporters earned a respect that found its way in Hollywood films like All the President’s Men (1976), based on the true life exploits of Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward as they covered the Watergate break-ins. All the President’s Men was the rare depiction of the often tedious and mundane research that is the bread-and-butter of true investigative journalism. Despite the movie’s well-known outcome, it still crackles with tension and suspense as Woodward and Bernstein uncover White House secrets. During the 1980s, Mike Nichols directed the Meryl Streep/Jack Nicholson vehicle Heartburn, based on recently deceased writer Nora Ephron’s marriage to Carl Bernstein, that presented a less flattering portrait of the reporter.

As years of media consolidation however led to a shift away from hard journalism to celebrity fluff, the sterling reputation journalists enjoyed has dulled. Americans now view reporters less favorably than ever before. Accusations of false reporting haven’t helped. One particular well-known case involved New Republic journalist Stephen Glass. The 2003 movie Shattered Glass depicted Glass’s (Hayden Christensen) rise and fall due to his penchant for making up feature stories for the magazine. In Shattered Glass, journalism has descended to the level of spectacle that was once reserved for tabloid rags.

Other movies about writers:

The Lost Weekend (1945)

The Singing Detective (1986)

My Left Foot (1989)

Naked Lunch (1991)

Deconstructing Henry (1995)

Henry Fool (1997)

Shakespeare In Love (1998)

Before Night Falls (2000)

Quills (2000)

Sideways (2004)

The Squid and the Whale (2005)

Kill Your Darlings (2013)

List of Online Writer’s Workshops

Writing is such a lonely activity, so it’s always nice to be able to sit with, talk to, and belong to a community of writers. But fiction workshops are more than simply social gathering groups. They allow writers to talk with fellow travelers about the craft of writing. Any writer who wants to improve her writing will at some point belong to a creative writing workshop. One of the key reasons why workshops are so important is that it allows them to expose their work to other writers and offers them the benefit of having that work judged critically through fresh eyes and ears. They also help develop critical thinking skills which allow writers to single out an emotional response to a written work based on how the story is crafted. This tells them what will work or what won’t work in not only the stories written by others, but by their own as well.

Not all workshops need be local or be held in person. The Internet is proving itself to be a valuable tool for writers in developing their craft. I’ve listed various workshop forums on-line. Some forums require membership fees, while others are really email listings. But each forum provides writers with the opportunity to discuss craft in a supportive network.

List of Workshop Forums

Bakcspace: – this site requires a $40/per year membership fee.

Critters Workshop: – Sci-fi/Fantasy Writers

The Internet Writing Workshop: – e-mail listing, with a focus on romance writing, poetry, etc.

The Writer’s Digest Forum:

Critique Circle:

My Writers Circle:

Mike’s Writing Workshop – email list