Robert Caro’s “painstaking process”

I’m tinkering with a nonfiction book idea. By that I mean, I have a book in mind that I’d like to write, and in fact have written bits and pieces of it and collected some research for it, but I have yet to find the right voice, tone and format to tell the story I’d like to tell. I have a long history of getting overwhelmed when attempting longer work, partly because of the sheer volume of information that one needs to research, sift through, organize, and access while writing. Then there’s the organization of the writing itself; will an outline help, or maybe chapter summaries, or should I just wing it? And then there are the technological and logistical choices: Can I store all of my research within Scrivner, and also write a draft in the same program? Will I like that method? Maybe I should use Word, and keep my background info in PDF files. Maybe I will go old school and print all my research out and organize it into a giant binder that I will lug everywhere I go to reference as I am writing…?

So it was with the utmost respect that I read about Robert Caro’s writing routine in the New York Times last weekend, because Caro seems to have a methodical, precise, and disciplined approach to producing books. Caro is a biographer, and his fourth volume in a series about Lyndon Johnson has just been released. Yep, you read that right: four volumes — 36 years and 3,888 pages. This most recent book is 712 pages. You can imagine how much information Caro has acquired in his research of LBJ to produce four lengthy volumes on the subject. You might not imagine that Caro does not use a computer. That’s right, the man has produced thousands of pages of meticulously researched nonfiction without a computer.

The NYT, along with a Q&A on how Robert Caro spends his days, posted a slideshow titled “Robert Caro’s Painstaking Process.” Caro’s process includes walking to an office he maintains (not in his home). He wears a suit to “work”:

Whenever I go to work I wear a jacket and a tie, because I’m inherently quite lazy, and my books take so long to do, and my publishers don’t bug me, so it’s so easy to fool yourself into thinking you’re working harder than you really are. So I do everything possible to make myself remember this is a job I’m going to, and I have to produce every day.

Caro has written all the drafts of his books longhand, on legal pads. “He doesn’t start typing — on an old Smith Corona Electra 210, not a computer — until he has finished four or five handwritten drafts. And then he rewrites the typescript.”

Caro maintains a “master outline” on a large bulletin board which, from the photos, it appears he marks up with a pen, or perhaps crosses sections out once he’s completed them. He monitors revisions with a proof of the table of contents that he turns into a checklist and posts on the same pinboard. All of his notes/research are in filing cabinets.

I’m impressed by this process in part because of its old-fashioned, computerless nature, but also because of its a) success and b) meticulousness (at least from outward appearances). In our future-is-now technologically advanced times, I suppose it’s easy to view handwritten drafts as romantic in some way, but I have had a fascination with Caro’s type of process for a while now. The fascination stems from the fact that as a person who grew up pre-Internet, this used to be my process. I wrote all of my college papers this way, by hand first, followed by a second or third draft that came about as I was typing my handwritten version into a computer. I sometimes miss that process for the absoluteness of the concentration it generated. There was a lot less mental background noise, and a lot more focus.

It’s hard not to contemplate, as I struggle with whether to use Scrivener or Word, and as I battle my own will to try to refrain from using the Internet in the midst of a writing session, or as I try to figure out (for the 50th time) how any writing program’s outline function works, how much time I spend working on technology rather than working on writing. There is a separation that’s happened, a lot more background noise, that forces more distance between my thoughts and what I write. In any case, Caro’s process is one to think of when you find yourself spending a morning organizing electronic files, or importing documents into Scrivener (or whatever writing program you use) or having to turn on Mac Freedom. Not because anyone’s process is any better than anyone else’s, but because sometimes technology has a way of making certain things seem important, when all that really matters is the writing that gets done every day.

A writer’s daily habit

The November/December issue of Poets & Writers magazine contains a motivating piece by Bay Area novelist Ellen Sussman about her daily writing practices. (Alas, not available online.) I’m always intrigued by the different ways in which writers approach their work — some people write at night, some in the morning, some can’t eat while writing, some must snack all the way through a writing session. Ahem. Some write longhand, some type on a computer. (One of my favorite descriptions of writing process is that of Truman Capote, who wrote lying down, sipping coffee or sherry, depending on the time of day) I was at a Litquake panel on the art of the novel last month in which author Bharati Mukherjee said she writes a first draft of her novel on a laptop, closes the file and does not refer to or open it again while she writes a second draft. She does the same thing for a third draft, essentially writing the novel from scratch three times! She did not, she said, recommend that method.

Anyway, Ellen Sussman’s piece was straightforward and made me realize, in addition to giving me some new ideas about how to structure my writing days around a 3-year-old and household chores,  that I need some writerly confidence. First and foremost, Sussman recommended this:

Repeat after me: ‘I’m a writer. It’s my job. It’s what I do.’
If you embrace that statement, then you can begin to develop the practice of writing. You go to work everyday. You sit your butt in a chair … and you put in your hours just like everyone else who goes to work.

I know this, of course, but I haven’t been doing it, or acting like writing is my job, which I very much would like it to be. Even if you have a full-time job and a houseful of kids, Sussman writes, you have to commit, even if it’s only to one hour a day. “It’s your other job — your writing job — and you can’t neglect it. Do it. You’re a writer.”

Sussman goes on to describe her writing days (5-6 days a week, every week). She sets working hours (9am-noon) and a word count minimum (1,000). If she doesn’t hit her minimum, she goes back to her desk after lunch. She meditates for 5-10 minutes before she begins and blocks the Internet with Mac Freedom for the 3 hours she’s supposed to be writing.

She divides her time into units of one hour each. For the first 45 minutes of each hour:

You do nothing but write. You don’t stop writing. Then, no matter where you are at the 45-minute mark, you get up from your desk. You take a 15-minute break and you do something that lets you think about the work but doesn’t allow you to actually do the work.

Sussman says she waters her garden or puts in a load of laundry, for example. She doesn’t check email or make calls or do other writing-related work. After the 15 minutes are up, when she’s back at her desk for the next unit of time, she sees that her unconscious mind has been working over her material and she’s full of new ideas. The 15-minute breaks allow for physical rest from the computer, too, and a way to get through your writing when you have a tough day (only 30 more minutes and I get a break!)

Because of this schedule, Sussman writes in her article, “If I have to rewrite a hundred pages of the novel, I know that I can do it in a month. I don’t despair as I would if I wrote a couple of pages one day and a couple of pages a week later.” So efficient! She says her writing practice allows her to take risks, since if it doesn’t work out, “I sit my butt down the very next day and start over.”

Do you have a writing schedule? What do you do to keep the rest of your life at bay while you getting your writing done?

On being realistic

I had to take my car into the shop the other morning and ended up riding the No. 1 bus downtown to work, instead of my usual, numbing underground train route. The crowded bus ride ( for without fail, the No. 1 bus is always crowded) over Nob Hill and through Chinatown brought me back to when I first moved to San Francisco 11 years ago. I used to live on the dodgy downward slope of Nob Hill, and I often rode that bus to work. Some days — sunny days — I walked, because I could not believe I lived in such a place. The Edwardian architecture, the glimpses of sparkling blue between the blocks, the squeals of the cable car and the calls of merchants in Chinatown selling their wares —  my living here felt impossible and dreamlike.

The other day, when I pushed my way into the packed aisle I remembered the smell of that bus, and I suppose it was the olfactory memory that made me pensive. It took me a few moments to identify the sharp tang of ginseng. When the smell became recognizable, I longed to write the sentence: The bus smelled of ginseng. And then I had an epiphany of sorts: I should be writing about San Francisco. Why am I not writing about San Francisco?

The novel/stories I have been writing for the past year take place in the Maryland/Washington DC area. They take place in two different time periods, neither of which is the present. Why am I making things so hard on myself? is what I thought as I clutched the handstrap and the bus lurched over Nob Hill to the financial district. We passed Grace Cathedral and its maze for walking meditation. We passed the dinginess of the Stockton Tunnel, and the fruit markets along the sidewalk on the edge of Chinatown, with their makeshift cardboard signs all in Chinese. I wanted to get out and look, and to write. (Alas, I had to get to work.)

Now of all times, I thought, when I am juggling work and being a parent and on any given day who knows what other obligations, I should be writing about this place, about the present, or at least a not-so-distant past that I have lived through and remember. I should not be writing about a place that’s a 6-hour plane ride away, that I don’t get to visit freely for research because whenever I am there I am also tending to a 2-year-old who does not have any interest in long car rides and visits to libraries. I should not be writing about a time period that requires a lot of research, research that my local public library cannot help me with, because its historical collection is focused on the West Coast, not the East. I should not be writing about a place that is so small and obscure that detailed research requires buying books that are out of print or are $45 and only come in hardback.

It’s almost as if I set out to make writing a book as hard as I possibly could.

It’s almost as if I’ve set myself up to fail, on purpose.

Why am I trying to prevent myself from writing a novel? is what I thought as I watched an elderly Chinese man struggle to the door of the bus with his cane, a ball of plastic bags in his free hand that would later be filled with fresh produce and perhaps steam buns or ginseng root. Next to him sat a well-dressed blonde, texting someone named Fletcher on her iPhone, and while thoughts about writing and self-defeatist behavior rushed about in my head I was conscious of an affection for these people on the bus, for these characters I know.

A few posts back, I mentioned an article in which an LA Times TV critic offers her 10-step guide to being a working mother and writing a novel. No. 10 on her list? Realistic expectations.

 10. Realistic expectations. I suppose there is someone out there who could write the Great American Novel while working full time and raising three kids, but I’m not her. My two books are Hollywood mysteries, which I didn’t have to research because I have written about the industry for years. I think they are very good books, well-written and fun to read, but they aren’t going to win a Pulitzer. That will have to wait until the kids head to college.

That is perhaps the scariest of McNamara’s suggestions. If you are a perfectionist, as many writers consider themselves to be, this is some hard advice to swallow. But there’s something to be said for being realistic, for making things easier on yourself. After all, writing a book is hard enough without putting unnecessary obstacles in your path.

Every day I write the book.

Or so sang Elvis Costello.* I cannot say the same.

The other day, Nichole Bernier tweeted a link to a year-old piece on the LA Times’ website, “A Working Mother’s Guide to Writing a Novel.”

Wow, did I feel ashamed after reading this piece.

I know, it doesn’t do to compare yourself to other writers who work in different, seemingly better ways. And by better, I mean, more productive. Comparisons only lead down a path of guilt, self-disgust, writer’s block, etc, etc.

But I digress.  This working mom, Mary McNamara, offered a list of 10 things that need to happen in order to successfully juggle work, motherhood, writing, and the rest of your life. (If indeed there is one.) The list is, I think, both motivational and sobering, and not just for writing moms and dads but for anyone who happens to be juggling other roles in their lives while attempting a writing career. Some of McNamara’s guidelines are fairly obvious: Have a laptop, for example, because you as a busy, working parent don’t have time to write longhand, then type it up, and you’ll be writing in various locations such as cafes, your kids’ ball games, the car, etc. Other suggestions are less obvious: Be discreet about what you are doing, because talking about writing a book and writing a book are completely different things.

The piece of advice that got me was this: “You have to write Every Single Day, and I mean it. Obviously there are exemptions for death and illness, but it’s like dieting or working out — if you start skipping one day or two, it’s all over.”

It’s not like I haven’t heard this advice before. Of course you have to write every day, is what I thought as I read the piece. And then I saw it. My inability to stick to writing every day had landed me where I am these days, which is, well… nowhere in particular. I have started a novel (or two?) and written several short stories in the past few months. Some of them I’ve completed, some of them I have not. In the past two months, I’ve written almost nothing, and have even lost track of what my most current project is/should be.

When I read McNamara’s advice I saw what my casual attitude of late with regard to writing has done to all aspects of my writing, the routine, the output, the quality of that output, and my motivation level.

It happens that I have recently resolved to get more exercise. My workout routine has gone much the way of my writing routine. I go to the gym once or twice in a week, then miss the next week, or multiple weeks. McNamara is right — skipping a day or two, or a week or two, means it’s all over. I have just as much trouble getting back to working out, and getting back to the fitness level I was in before, as I do getting back to my writing when I’ve been away from it.

So what’s the fix? I have grown accustomed to giving myself a lot of slack in recent months. And by slack, I mean making excuses. You’re doing the best you can, is what I frequently tell myself when I let my daily life take over my writing life or my workout routine.  You have a kid to take care of, a dog to walk, work to do, a relationship to maintain, dinner to cook, sleep to get, etc. etc. After reading that piece, and after trying to run at the gym for the first time in months, and after sitting down to write today and not being able to remember what project I was last working on, I see that I have not been doing the best that I can.

McNamara writes that she arranged with her husband to write at night, while he put the kids to bed. She cut out a lot of other activities. There are plenty of moments when I have been lounging about on the couch in the past few months (or years), in the evening, after my son has been put to bed, and I’ve been doing nothing in particular, which is to say, I’ve been watching TV and/or reading headlines and checking Facebook and Twitter on my iPhone. I have been telling myself, when my guilt about not writing or blogging or doing whatever else makes itself known, is that I am doing so many things during the day that I deserve these few hours of nothingness. In truth, some days I do need a bit of nothingness. But not every day. I could be writing during those times, is what I thought when I read McNamara’s article.

And so. I see now that writing every day involves breaking out of habits as much as developing new ones. It means snapping out of laziness and a cycle of excuses. And, toughest of all, it’s about being a hardass about making writing a priority, not something you can set aside because a preschool event has come up, or because you need to buy groceries, or because you feel like doing nothing instead. Writing, if you’re serious, is not a special hobby you get to when you’ve cleared your to-do list of everything else.

___

*Back in the day. The Charles and Diana aspect of this video seems baffling now, though no doubt in 1983 I thought it was great.

A journal about writing

As you are probably aware, I have been battling numerous life events that keep coming between me and writing. A seemingly endless number of viruses wiped out the whole household this winter. And there have been lots of visitors and houseguests. Travel, while inspiring and a nice change of pace, tends to destroy my writing routine more than either sickness or guests. There’s more travel coming, and, starting in a week or so, I’ll be filling in a couple of days a week at the newspaper where I used to work as a reporter and editor.

When the routine gets thrown off, it’s hard to remember what I was doing before. I feel totally disconnected from writing. It’s tough to feel any sense of accomplishment when you’re interrupted in your process so much. That’s not to say you’re not accomplishing anything – it just feels like you’re not.

Which is why a couple of months ago I starting keeping a journal about writing. I use a fat little turquoise-blue Moleskine datebook. Every day that I do something — anything — related to writing, I make a note of it in the datebook. Yesterday, for example, I noted that I added 767 words to the short story I’ve been working on. On April 12, I recorded that I had written 1,000 words on the same story. I write down when I’ve written blog posts, too, and what they were about.

Not all of my entries detail what I’ve written, however. Let’s face it: not every day turns out to be a productive writing day. On March 29 I scribbled that I had submitted a story to two lit mags, and that I researched some quotes from The Great Gatsby to use (maybe) in the novel I am (sometimes) writing. So I didn’t advance any of my WIPs, but I was still thinking about and working on administrative tasks related to writing.

I make notes on the unproductive days too. I want to remind myself that I am trying, that not every day is a perfect writing day. On April 1, for example: “Tinkered with C_____ story. Added a graph or so. Switched to working on novel. Wrote a new opening graph. Didn’t like it.”

The exercise of keeping track of what I am accomplishing (or not) related to writing is helping me tremendously. When I have unavoidable breaks in my routine, I am now better able to pick up where I left off, to remind myself that I am accomplishing something, even if it’s only a paragraph or two. I now keep my fat little datebook in my laptop backpack, so it travels with me and my computer to the neighborhood cafe where I do a lot of my writing. Part of the work of being a writer is managing your expectations and reminding yourself of what you’ve accomplished so far so that you have the courage to keep going. The journal helps.

good reminders

I’m coming out of another fog. And I don’t mean that swirling white clouds are lifting here in San Francisco — it’s quite sunny here at the moment. It’s been another two weeks of sickness and sleep deprivation in my house, which does horrible, terrible things to the writing routine. (If it can be said that I still have one, after the very unhealthy winter we’ve had.)

When I am unable to write, whether physically or mentally, or just because there are too many other life obligations in the way, I become incredibly frustrated. Perversely, lack of quality writing time makes me expect more from the time I do have, and from the project I’m working on. Which generally results in…you guessed it, nada. Duh. Who can write under those kind of circumstances?

I know I’m not alone. Christine over at 80,000 words posted today that she was frustrated at not having time to work on her novel, but then managed to write in her journal instead, thus fulfilling her need to write in some way. What a great reminder it was to read that! I put so much pressure on myself in the writing time I do have (Must. Accomplish. Something. is pretty much what it sounds like in my head.) that often I end up accomplishing nothing at all,  being paralyzed by indecision about WIPs, or just generally ratcheting up my aggravation and anxiety around writing. Not good.

In the comments on my last post, Richard, author of the thoughtful blog Narrative, wrote that “being stuck is part of writing” and that “much suffering comes not from the problem but wishing you didn’t have the problem.” To accept the anxiety about writing/not writing is to help yourself move past it. Good advice. It’s not easy to accept your inner turmoil surrounding the way your writing is going (or not going, as the case may be) but it is effective if you can come to terms with it.

And so, I’m giving myself permission to work on something else while I have a moment. Sometimes it’s important to acknowledge that you like to write, and just write. Sometimes writing a longer manuscript is less about the writing than about thinking about the writing, or about time passing while your brain processes what you have so far. Sometimes being sick makes you lose your place, your focus, and your routine, and you have to claw your way back to productivity however you can.

 

On writing fiction and nonfiction

I spent the month of January working on a short story that I saw as part of a longer work of fiction. I had some time to think about writing on the plane ride home from AWP, at which time I wrote out, in a notebook, several pages of description/plot outline of the novel I was writing. I’m writing a novel! is what I thought. I’d been thinking and writing about my characters for a while, but suddenly the storyline seemed clear. All I need to do is sit down and write this thing, is what I thought.

Instead, something kind of interesting has happened: I started writing nonfiction again. You may remember that for many years I was an avowed nonfiction-and-nonfiction-only sort of writer. I came from a journalism background and couldn’t separate myself from the facts, or so I thought. While enrolled in my MFA program I took 99.9% nonfiction workshops and got mad about James Frey and that woman in my workshop who thought it was “cool” to fictionalize her “memoir.” I felt (and still do) that nonfiction is given short shrift in literary circles. On the other hand, I learned that some seventy-something percent of books published are nonfiction. That nonfiction sells; that as an unpublished writer you have a better chance of getting a nonfiction book out there than a novel, let alone a collection of short stories.

I’m a practical sort, and all of those rules and career possibilities appealed. I wrote a travel memoir for my MFA thesis. I was happy/proud/relieved to have finished it. Then I put it away. Because wow, I was sick of it. I hated it. I did not think it was my best work. A while later I got pregnant and couldn’t (hormones?) write a word. And after the baby was born … it was strange, but I found that I couldn’t write a word that wasn’t fiction. A friend suggested that perhaps reality was suddenly too intense and thus fiction felt more comfortable. Maybe so. I’m still not sure.

Oh no, this post is growing much longer than I intended it to. Yes, the point, I’m getting there. Really.

I’ve been thinking a lot this month about the interplay between writing fiction and writing nonfiction. I went to a panel session at AWP on how to decide whether to write something as fiction or nonfiction. All of the panelists seemed to see little difference between the two, which I found both shocking and oddly appealing. One part of me wanted to yell, no, you’re wrong! You can’t just label something that happened fiction! You can’t just embellish nonfiction for dramatic effect! But even as I sat there I was thinking about re-writing my stodgy stick-to-the-rules travel memoir —without regard to, well, the rules. How would it turn out?

I’m not saying I wanted to go back and make things up. But somehow that panel gave me permission to think about writing my experiences in Korea as if they were fiction.

I’ve been writing only fiction for a few years now, and liking it. Struggling with it, but liking it. I got a story in a small lit mag called Clare. I was a finalist in a Glimmer Train Short Story Award for New Writers contest. I started writing a novel! And then. This post was named a finalist in a food blog contest held by Creative Nonfiction. As a finalist it won’t be published though, so I thought, I should really do something with this. And suddenly I saw that this snapshot of experience I had in Korea was not a standalone piece. In a way it wasn’t originally; it was a between-chapters interlude/vignette in that 275-page travel memoir I wrote five years ago. But all of the sudden I saw it as the end of an essay, and that essay flowed out very easily. And I remembered how much I like writing nonfiction.

Here’s the thing: Fiction writing is good for nonfiction writing, and probably the reverse is true as well. There’s a freedom in fiction that allows for considering all of the possibilities: the order in which events occur, who’s involved, where, etc. In nonfiction you’re limited by the facts. You can change the order in which you reveal a string of events to the reader, but you can’t change the order in which events occurred. And something about the freedom of fiction allowed me to rethink how to present material that five years ago ended up sitting limply in chronological order, hammered into boring, lifeless submission.

The limitless possibilities of fiction have lately felt an obstacle in the short stories I’ve been writing. What if my main character does this? Ooh, maybe I could have her do this! Or this! My indecision knows no bounds and has the power to bring any writing session to a halt. Should my character have brown hair and a blue coat? Or blonde hair and a red one? What if she doesn’t wear a coat at all?

And yet, giving myself more choices in writing a new essay about my experiences in Korea helped. I chose to leave some details out. I chose to tell the story out of order. I chose to relate three separate events that seemed unrelated before but actually provide lovely dramatic effect when layered together. I think it worked.

Oh, there it is finally, my point: Loosen up. Blur the lines. Get your genres confused. See what happens.

*Yes, I have been meaning to write my promised 2nd post on story cycles but some things have come up. Mainly, the entire family has been sick AGAIN for most of the month of February. I promise, I’m getting back to it. Really. Coming soon to a blog near you.

on (not) letting go

Two events have me feeling a bit unsettled. Over the weekend I sent out my short story to be reviewed by the members of the writers’ workshop I’ll be attending later in the summer. This morning I returned the proofs of another short story to the editors of the magazine that will publish it in the fall.

When is a piece of writing complete enough to be sent out into the world? I know that I’ve done all I can to both of these stories for now. Last week my head was swimming from looking at them so many times. I could no longer read them and see where change could occur. I could no longer read them, period.

And yet: I did not feel that the story I sent to the writers’ workshop was quite … well, it just wasn’t there yet. I wanted more time to think about it. If I did not have the workshop coming up, I would have put the story away for a few months then come back to it. I would have written another story that included one of the characters from this one, which would have helped me develop that character further in the original story. It’s likely I will still do that. But I know that the raw story is out there somewhere, and while that’s OK (I am, after all, looking forward to getting feedback on the piece, and there needs to be room for feedback) I feel uneasy about it, too.

As for the proofs, I had not looked at that story in several months, and it felt very different to me after all that time. I felt that I could tweak the writing quite a bit. Is there a point at which writers feel they can stop tweaking words here and there? I think that if you’re at the point where you’re just making those kinds of small adjustments it means you’re done, and yet. I made a few small changes to the proofs, not as many as I could have, or wanted to, because I know that the time for lots of changes — just made because I wanted to make them — had passed. I had to let it go. I feel a sense of excitement that the story will soon be published, but at the same time, I’m horrified. How can that story be published?! I want to keep tweaking and adjusting and changing things. But I have to let it go. It’s time to move on to something else.

Do authors ever return to their previous books and wince? Do authors ever return to their previous books at all? I remember when I went to hear Joan Didion read in Boston and she said she never thought about her earlier works or her body of writing as a whole. She dismissed them as if they didn’t exist. “It was just something I wrote,” she said.

When does one get to the point where what you’ve written feels like that, “just something I wrote,” instead of some long process involving lots of anxiety and overprotective feelings and an inability to let go?

the perils of self-doubt

This morning I opened a Word document I hadn’t touched in several weeks. It’s the beginning of a short story* – one that I’ve gotten sidetracked from. I wrote the four pages that exist in the Word document in one sitting and I haven’t looked at them since. I had, in fact, forgotten what I had written in those pages. I mean, I knew who the main character was, and what, generally was going to happen in the story, but I had no recollection of the tone, the mood, the point of view… or even, how far I got. And, for some reason, I had convinced myself in the weeks since I created the Word document that what I had written was horrible. I remember feeling frustrated with the way the story was going when I saved and closed the document, and that feeling was what stuck with me in the subsequent days and weeks, not the good feelings about having made a start.

This morning I stumbled upon the title of the document as I was looking for the other, linked story. I read “hurricane.doc” and thought, hurricane? what is that? That’s how disconnected I have been from that story, and from writing in general. I opened “Hurricane” and began to read. And read. I was pleasantly surprised. Not bad is what I thought. And then I thought about how often this sort of thing happens: I’ve barely finished writing for the day, and already I’m telling myself it’s awful. Sometimes, as in this case, I’m barely into the story or essay that I’m berating myself about, and it has detrimental consequences. My hard drive is littered with beginnings I’ve deemed not worth finishing.

After I read this section of story, I thought about how pleasant it is to be surprised by what you’ve written. It’s a great feeling. And, unfortunately, it’s one that’s short-lived. Writing is always like this: it’s a bit of a manic hobby/profession/obsession. Most writerly people I know experience these highs and lows, the self-criticism and doubt, along with brief, brief moments of elation.

I don’t have a solution, I’m just noting some observations. These sorts of emotional ups and downs are on my mind right now, as I’ve been polishing a story to submit to the writing workshop I’ll be attending later in the summer. I haven’t been workshopped since finishing my MFA coursework in the spring of 2006, and I have little experience with fiction workshops.** I have until quite recently been focused only on nonfiction writing. I told myself that I was not good at fiction writing; that fiction wasn’t for me. Self-doubt that I listened to for a really, really long time. Even now, now that I’ve allowed myself to experiment and focus on fiction for a while, now that I’ve gotten a story accepted by a lit mag, and now that I was accepted to the workshop itself, these doubts persist. And so, I’m still nervous about sending a story off to a workshop full of people I’ve never met, run by a well-known, published author.

I’m trying to look at this way: after sending the story off, I will have a month away from it. And when I come back to it, in the workshop, it will seem (I hope!) better than I thought, just like with the four pages I reread this morning. And, after all, isn’t the point of a workshop to get feedback so that you can improve your writing?

*It might even be the beginning of a novel-in-stories… I’m not sure yet. I’ve written another story with the same characters, and it seems to be something I want to continue. The idea of writing an entire novel, now, while I’ve got a lot of other (mostly domestic) things on my plate, freaks me out. The idea of writing a novel in bite-sized chunks makes me feel slightly better about it. As long as I don’t think about the novel part.

** I took only one fiction workshop as part of my MFA — I took nonfiction workshops, publishing-related courses, and various fiction and nonfiction lit classes instead. The fiction workshop I did take was run by a sweet woman with a few story collections under her belt who did not criticize or offer constructive feedback, ever. It’s nice to have encouragement, and it was especially nice for me, since I felt so uncertain about fiction writing, but ultimately I didn’t feel I got much out of the course.

Friday things

1. Subtitles, a rant.
Can someone explain why all nonfiction books must have subtitles? Are readers of nonfiction books unable or unwilling, like readers of novels, to turn books over to read the graph on the back cover? A sampling from Amazon’s featured listings of nonfiction books:

Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work by Matthew B. Crawford
•Fordlandia: The Rise and Fall of Henry Ford’s Forgotten Jungle City
by Greg Grandin
•Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town
by Nick Reding
•The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains
by Nicholas Carr
•Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age
by Clay Shirky
•Nine Lives: In Search of the Sacred in Modern India
by William Dalrymple
•Cyber War: The Next Threat to National Security and What to Do About It
by Richard A. Clarke
•The Promise: President Obama, Year One
by Jonathan Alter
•Seaworthy: A Swordboat Captain Returns to the Sea
, by Linda Greenlaw

Or, here’s a nice example, from a book I recently read (though I’m not sure why, since the subtitle kind of says it all ): Lost on Planet China: The Strange and True Story of One Man’s Attempt to Understand the World’s Most Mystifying Nation, or How He Became Comfortable Eating Live Squid, by J. Maarten Troost

It would seem that not only do nonfiction books have to have subtitles, but the subtitles tend to follow certain (and in my opinion cliched) rhythms. There are a lot of “ands.” As in (see above), “rise and fall,” “death and life” “strange and true,” “connectivity and generosity.”

I find all this rather unnecessary (can you tell?). Look back a few years, and wow, not so many subtitles. Somehow, people figured out what the books were about, and read them. Consider Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, or An American Childhood. Consider Mark Salzman’s Iron and Silk. Consider Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast.

2. The Dust Bowl.
Yeah, that’s right, I’m talking about the 1930’s, the plains, the backdrop to Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath. I’ve been reading The Worst Hard Time, the National Book Award winner by Timothy Egan. TWHT, as is to be expected, has an obligatory subtitle to tell you what it’s about: “The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl.” (There, see? Now I don’t have to describe what the book is about, because you already know.) Here’s what I can say about TWHT: It is brilliantly researched and written in a way that pulls you through the story — not quite in the thriller-esque way of, say, Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild, but it’s very readable all the same, especially considering the topic. It’s fascinating. I’m learning a lot about American history that I did not know.  However. But. Were I to make a list of things I’d like to read about before going to bed, the Dust Bowl would not exactly top it. And, I have learned: Reading about the Dust Bowl must be tempered by reading about … something else. It’s bleak, people, very bleak.

3. Things that are not bleak.
The short story I sent out in January is slated to be published in a small lit magazine out of the Midwest. I am happy. This is progress. It will be my first fiction publication.

4. More things that are not bleak.
In the spring of 2007 I began a short story. I have been working on it off and on ever since. A short story! A mere 10-15 pages. And yet I have been unable to finish said story. There are two characters and the second character has morphed into various different people and there have been at least five major, major plot changes in the story. There are so many drafts that I have had to create a folder within the story’s designated file on my computer entitled “old versions” because there were so many Word documents I could never find the most recent version. The story takes place in Thailand, and I have considered setting it elsewhere (but held on to Thailand, all the while suspecting it was stubbornness on such points that was getting in the way of finishing the story). Still I was unsatisfied. I cannot let this story go, I cannot let the main character go.  Well. This week I did the following: I cut the second section and pasted it before the first. Wow. Wow, wow, wow.  What a difference that made, and suddenly the rest of the story is coming together. I would not say it is finished, but it is close, it is getting there. I have a hope for it that I have not had since the spring of 2007,  and that is good. Or at least, not bleak.