In Hozier’s Work Song, I noticed a point in the beginning when the chorus catches a breath. It’s difficult to hear if you are caught in the beauty of the song, but now that I’ve heard it, I think it’s one of the loveliest moments.
Have you ever thought of the pause before a note? The sound is full of promise and effort. By it we realize that the people behind the songs we love are human; they, like us, need air.
When we know these artists are creatures like us, we feel closer to them. If we wanted to, we could also make art that would leave an audience breathless. True beauty comes when we lose the fear of letting our humanity show.
Writing a story is like growing a flower in the sense that you can’t rush it. The plant won’t bloom if you don’t give it the care it requires: some need more water, others wither if you give them too much.
I learned through gardening and writing that it’s best not to control things too much. If you smother anything, it will suffocate. The blooms in my garden prove that the wait, though taxing, is worthwhile. So do the drafts on my hard drive.
Flowers that take longest to grow are not necessarily lovelier. The zinnia and the Morning Glory both take my breath away. In this way, long stories are not better: a thousand-page Dostoevsky immerses me, as does the short A Christmas Carol.
The same is true for poetry, even free-verse. I have gained much from fantasy novels as well as history books. There is no point trying to control everything because, if loved enough, flowers and stories are always lovely.
I’m familiar with the sensation of wanting to finish writing sooner. Rushing a story will not make it better. A seedling must be tended with patience if we want flowers; good novels require the same care. We should let each novel grow as tall or bold as it wishes.
We cannot control everything–if we do, we risk destroying it.
I’m turning away from methods that promise a novel in thirty days. Instead, I’ll focus on watering the flowers: nourishing the story and treating it as if it were alive. I know the story will be happier in the long run, and so will I.
Recently I learned that a friend with whom I had been very close a few years ago died suddenly. I don’t know the details and don’t think I could handle getting into them. It has unearthed a whole new set of emotions in me, things I had only read about before in books.
There’s the personal shame, the wish that I had been a better friend and not lost contact. It storms with the logical bit of me which says there is no way I can keep in touch with everyone all the time, that sometimes friends drift apart because life works that way.
There are the echoes. In the days since learning of her passing, I’ve found myself remembering almost every conversation we ever had—vividly. Scraps of advice about hair care and whether a certain artist could sing. Memories of that time we bonded over an online game. And when we agreed that a book we had both read wasn’t so great after all.
I remember music she had recommended to me and know that those songs will never be the same again. At this moment, Whisper by A Fine Frenzy comes to mind—with the haunting lyrics I’m down to a whisper / In a daydream / On a hill… It has always been a beautiful song but now it takes on new significance.
Every soul matters. Every friend does, too. It doesn’t matter if you only ever met them online—now I know that, when you learn they are gone, it hurts all the same. It’s confusing at first, and then emotions come flooding in, and you find yourself wishing to go back to that summer a few years ago…just for a while.
Take care of your friends. If ever you feel the nagging sense to say hello, or suddenly remember their birthday, don’t waste a chance. Take care of yourself because people do care about you. And—I would do well to learn this—if you lose someone, it fixes nothing to blame yourself.
I don’t know the details, but I do know we will never chat again, and that song will most certainly make me tear up for the rest of my life. Take care of your friends, even if they seem fine—and take care of yourself.
Do you know your biggest obstacle against creativity? As a writer, perfectionism has kept me from making a good deal of progress. Much is said about Writer’s Block or the phobia of cliches being reasons why we don’t make progress. We rarely address a hidden problem. It’s the idea of striving to write a scene identical to what we see in our heads.
It’s easier to daydream than to write. It takes no effort to hold an image or play out a scene in your mind. Depending on how long it’s been marinating there, we struggle to get it on paper. Nothing on the page can do justice to what we imagine during long nights of insomnia, and this frustrating truth can keep us in a loop—write, rewrite, repeat.
Rewriting is necessary, but how do we know when it’s time to stop? It’s tempting to believe that if we rewrite a scene enough, it will become identical to what we see in our heads. With this myth deceiving us, we don’t notice when it is time to move on to other scenes. At what point do we wind up rewriting so much that we undo the story instead of making progress?
Since the beginning of April, I’ve been working to ensure my series will be finished. A day does not pass when I don’t write a page of backstory. In this ritual I expand on world building, delve into characters, and elaborate on their motives; I work out things readers might never find out, things I as an author must know.
I’ve been using basic legal pads. This makes a difference, because when I use pretty journals I’m afraid to ruin them. Every night I fill a page and store it in a binder. Disciplining myself this way, I have begun to sort through the jungle of my fictional world. A few years ago I confused myself by seeing one book instead of the world, and it was a disaster when the time came for revisions.
These pages of backstory won’t make a novel, but I’ll have a map to follow. Seeing my progress as I gather pages into the binder has made the end more achievable. With the big picture in mind, I don’t focus too much on one chapter; until the series is published, nothing’s set in stone.
There were scenes pining to be written which I ignored by rewriting chapter five over and over again. Perfectionism blinded me to reveals that deserved attention, if only so they would be well-done in the future. First drafts aren’t perfect and we’re not meant to spend all our time on them.
Perfectionism is our friend when it reminds us not to settle for sloppy writing. It becomes the enemy when it stops progress. If years have passed and you can’t move forward but universes continue to expand in your mind, it’s time to reel in that perfectionism.
I’m allowing myself to outline scenes for the second and third novels. They’re not the final breaths on which I’ll tell the story; they’re not perfect. My goal is to have material for editing; these scenes will also help me have an idea of where I’m going. In addition, when I get bold scenes out of my mind, it’s easier to focus on edits.
Every creative medium has its challenges. Have you worked out how to beat yours? Does perfectionism loom over you like it does me? If you have overcome that habit, I hope you can give some advice! Let’s help fill the world with stories by removing blocks from each others’ paths.
We are fortunate to be living in a time when poetry is once again becoming popular. Instagram poetry is on the rise; it’s easy to post our work for thousands to see. If we learn the use of hashtags and posting times, we can build an impressive following. It is a breath of relief, since there had been a time when many claimed poetry to be dead.
As time changes, so do the poems that define a generation. What we share on social media has a different feel from the poetry of old. It’s designed to grab attention, to stop someone mindlessly scrolling to read a snatch of art. Much of modern poetry bears a minimalist quality. Literature evolves with the people who write it, changing with society.
Sometimes I am nostalgic for classic poetry. I’ve been reading Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Edgar Allen Poe. Last week I focused on Robert Frost, who was considered the first American poet. His most famous piece, The Road Not Taken, is still taught in school. I wanted to go beyond that and learn about the author himself. I wanted to read the lesser-known pieces.
Robert Frost was born in San Francisco in 1874. His father, William Prescott Frost, Jr., was a journalist; his mother, Isabelle Moodie, a Scottish immigrant. The family hoped his father become a lawyer, but William Prescott Frost had a rebellious spirit. It led him instead to become a teacher, an editor, a politician. After his death in 1885, the family moved to New England, an area that would inspire much of Robert’s poetry.
He discovered poetry at the age of fourteen, and a year later published his first poem in his school newspaper. Though his mother was proud, his grandfather warned him that “no one can make a living at poetry.” Two years after his marriage at the age of twenty-two, Robert tried to please his family by seeking an education in Harvard. He was drawn to philosophy and the classics, but claimed “It wasn’t what I wanted.”
Disappointed in Robert’s artistic ambitions, his grandfather gave him a farm in New Hampshire on such terms that he was committed to it for ten years. Once that time was up, Frost sold the farm and moved to England with his wife, Eleanor. They found a home in Beaconsfield, a little town near rural Buckinghamshire, and lived a comfortable life. During this time, his first two books were published.
A Boy’s Will and North of Boston were received by the English with great enthusiasm. Of North of Boston, Wilfrid Wilson Gibson wrote, “Mr. Frost has turned the living speech of men and women into poetry…Tales that might be mere anecdotes in the hands of another poet take on universal significance because of their native veracity and truth to local character.”
What makes his work so special? An essay by Mark Van Doren titled The Permanence of Robert Frost explains: “Whether in dialogue or in lyric, his poems are people talking…The man who talks under the name of Robert Frost knows how to say a great deal in a short space, just as the many men and women whom he has listened to in New England and elsewhere have known how to express in the few words they use more truth than volumes of ordinary rhetoric can express.”
Frost returned to America in 1915 to find himself suddenly famous. His books were on sale everywhere, and he was hailed a leader of “the new era in American poetry.” He bought a farm in New Hampshire and lived there for five years. In 1938 he moved to Boston, and later to Cambridge; wherever he went, he took a bit of the land which had captured his heart.
Frost’s poetry crosses many styles and subjects. His focus on farming and field work makes him very much a poet of the people. He has written sonnets and works of lyrical beauty. He has written epics which were adapted into screenplays. I prefer his shorter pieces because they can be memorized; we can take beautiful verses into our own souls to fill idle moments. One such example is the poem Nothing Gold Can Stay:
Nature’s first green is gold, Her hardest hue to hold. Her early leaf’s a flower; But only so an hour. Then leaf subsides to leaf. So Eden sank to grief, So dawn goes down to day. Nothing gold can stay.
Robert Frost’s twenty year wait for publication serves to remind us that not even those whose work became classic achieved fame overnight. Some didn’t get published until they were old; others weren’t discovered until after death. An author should never write for the sole purpose of publication. If we do this, we risk writing stories that lack soul. I write more about this in my review of Anne Lamott’s memoir, Bird by Bird.
Literature gives voices to things which normally wouldn’t speak, such as stars or houses. Robert Frost spoke even for ghosts and the forest. In The Sound of the Trees, he gives us a glimpse of their minds—
They are that that talks of going But never gets away; And that talks no less for knowing, As it grows wiser and older, That now it means to stay.
Skilled poets raise the voice of each gust of wind. They also open our ears so that we, the readers, can understand what the breezes whisper. Poetry is on the rise, and we can expect a new era of poetry worldwide. I am eager to find out which of these new voices will live to be classics.
In the midst of this, let us not forget the poets on whose shoulders we stand. As we breathe life once more into poetry, let us follow them down roads less traveled; only after we learn their ways can we go down paths of our own.
What does it mean to be a writer? Ask anyone who practices the craft. You might hear several answers, because people have different reasons.
Anne Lamott’s memoir Bird by Bird offers a response I believe few would disagree with:
The very first thing I tell my new students on the first day of a workshop is that good writing is about telling the truth.
Lamott offers advice on matters such as outlining, but she makes sure we don’t lose sight of the bigger picture while fussing over technicalities. Our obligation is to tell the truth, the truths of our readers and of the human race.
But I write fiction, you might say. Everything is made up. So do I. I’ve yet to try heavy worldbuilding; however, soon I will. Even then, my story won’t be an untruth. It’s set in a realm that’s very real to me.
I have yet to meet a devoted author who hasn’t felt their dream world as if they lived in it. When a writer puts soul into their story, they’re telling the truth about themselves, using words to help it be seen by an audience.
It would be nice to have thousands of readers, but it’s still a story, even if no one has read it. It would be convenient to make a living off of it, but I can’t bet on that. Lamott believes, and I do as well, that any writer who wants to write well should desire nothing more than to tell their truth.
Formerly a creative writing teacher, Lamott offers advice to improve our craft. By means of parables and flashbacks, she instructs without sounding like an instruction manual. I highlighted sentences so I can go over them again, but three tips stood out to me most.
First, she instructed her students to write 300 words daily. I found a notebook and resolved to fill a page every day, no matter how tired I am. One page seems a small goal when you start, but it’s comforting to see progress as the days pass.
Secondly, Lamott’s resolve about honest writing is powerful:
Write down all the stuff you swore you’d never tell another soul.
She tells us to take the truths that frighten us, spinning them into tales that make an impact. Even if we change names, truth remains the core of it. Readers feel it between the lines. A writer’s job is to tell the truth.
Finally, her most unpopular advice is that publishing can be overrated. Lamott made sure to warn her students that contracts don’t take away Writer’s Block. We will never be happy if we write for publication. We should write because we love it.
Writing can be bittersweet. On days when it’s hard to put words on paper, we are tempted to quit and find an easier hobby. I don’t think true writers can quit for long. Even when we aren’t writing, the worlds we write are a part of us.
Tell the truth and write about freedom and fight for it, however you can, and you will be richly rewarded.
Bird by Bird reminds us that writing can drive us mad, but it’s worth embracing this madness. It reminds us that fiction is never a lie, encourages us to soldier through rewrites and bad reviews because we’re storytellers.
I believe any writer should read it at least once. Let us never lose sight of the honesty that characterizes our work; we owe the world our truths.
Sometimes the cure to Writer’s Block—and to Reader’s Burnout—is to do something else. Some of you might have known that already, but I’ve been stubborn for years, refusing to think myself capable of taking up another hobby with the passion I felt for literature.
Then I took up gardening.
The dining room window looks like a greenhouse; I imagine my books looking on, dejected, as I speak to my cilantro or asters. The books are wondering what could have distracted me so much.
Some of my enthusiasm might stem (no pun intended) from reluctance to finish editing. It’s necessary, I know, but it’s never been my favorite thing. If given the choice between editing or planting a flower…
This doesn’t mean I’ve been neglecting Alice’s novel. I’ve made a great deal of progress since December: I drafted it, made an outline, rewrote it and started edits. The draft is decent. I have even shared it with trusted people.
The reason for this progress is my decision to include logic in my fantasy universe. A year ago I planned dozens of stories with no order for them. There was no way to discern which plot arc was more important.
Now, I’ve divided the story into trilogies, making them easier to keep in order. It’s like taming a jungle or planning a garden. Hopefully the series will be nicer to look at and easier to navigate.
Today, I edit the second-to-last chapter of Alice’s book. After that I’ll put the novel aside and focus on something new. Maybe it’ll be my garden, or maybe I’ll start the second book. After all, too much planning isn’t good, either.
This is my first Hemingway novel. It’s a quick read and struck me for being so detached. The writing style seems indifferent by nature, focusing little on the main character’s emotions and more on dialogue.
I don’t know if Hemingway’s writing is like this in other novels. It isn’t bad: the way the main character interacts with others, rarely showing strong emotion even to the woman he loves, gives the settings sheens of gray.
At first I thought Maybe he doesn’t love her as much as he thinks. Later, when his child is born, he feels nothing towards it, not even anger. Maybe it’s the war, and the drinking certainly didn’t help. Whatever the case, it’s a powerful scene, bringing out his inability to feel.
The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places.
― Ernest Hemingway
Some criticize Hemingway’s style for being too bare. We know what’s going on from what the characters say to one another. The writing is very minimal, so I could not pick it apart for layers like I have done with Dickens. You’re pulled along by its straightforwardness.
There are different styles for different authors; it’s a reminder that there isn’t a right or wrong way to tell a story. The book is worth a try, keeping in mind that some will enjoy it and others will not.
There were descriptions that plunged me in. You will find and remember them. Overall, I’m glad I read the book. It’s a powerful statement about writing style and the impact it has on a story.