Archives for category: Handrails in the dark

Stuckness. It’s a thing. There are days when my dialogue falls flat on the page, and my scenes feel stilted and false. When this happens, I know it’s because I don’t understand my characters well enough.

Who are they? What makes them tick?

I’ve been working on this list of questions to help me get underneath their skin. Even if these questions never get answered in the novel, they help me think about my characters in new ways, to root beneath their surfaces and sniff out the secrets they’re hiding.

– What is she afraid of?

– Who does she admire?

– What haunts him?

– Who does she not like that she “should”?

– Is there something she suspects, but is afraid to find out?

– What does he want more than anything else?

– Who do people think he is versus who is he really?

– Is there something he fears getting caught doing?

– Does she have irrational feelings towards someone or something?

– What does she admire about herself that she wishes others would notice?

– What important thing is he ignoring?

– What question does she dread being asked?

– What is her body saying that her mouth is not?

– Are there any places she avoids going? (where + why?)

– When does he pretend to feel something that he does not?

These questions never fail to unearth good, juicy stuff that gets me closer to what should happen next. Stuckness, begone.

My yoga teacher has been reading this passage to us before class lately, as we sit cross-legged, heads bowed, on our mats. It thrills me every time I hear it.

You don’t have to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait. Remain still and solitary.

The world will freely offer itself to you unmasked. It has no choice. It will roll in ecstacy at your feet.

Franz Kafka

It’s Friday afternoon. Time to wipe down the whiteboards filled with jotted notes + to-dos. Time for quiet, and breathing, and reflection. Time to write.

Happy weekend.

I’ve been deep in the embrace of The Sick over the past few days. Coughing. Sneezing. Hacking. Sopping up bucketloads of snot with tissues that quickly become drenched and disgusting. Waking up at 2 am, and 3, and 4, tangled in sweaty bedsheets, head spinning, eyes pounding. I turn crotchety when I’m ill; skulk around in pajamas, curse at every sneeze and chest-wracking cough.

I wish these hours could be devoted to writing, but alas – my brain colludes with my sick body, and refuses to cooperate.

Instead I’ve been reading, for short stretches here and there.

The Paris Review has helped the hours pass more easily. Their interviews are phenomenal. Look:

Haruki Murakami, interviewed by John Wray

So many gems in this one – where to start? How about here:

I’m not intelligent. I’m not arrogant. I’m just like the people who read my books. I used to have a jazz club, and I made the cocktails and I made the sandwiches. I didn’t want to become a writer—it just happened. It’s a kind of gift, you know, from the heavens. So I think I should be very humble.

I wonder what kind of sandwiches he made for the jazz club?

Another favorite:

I think that my job is to observe people and the world, and not to judge them. I always hope to position myself away from so-called conclusions. I would like to leave everything wide open to all the possibilities in the world.

Love, love, love.

William Gibson, interviewed by David Wallace-Wells

To the interviewer’s question about how he feels about Neuromancer today, he had this stunning reply:

When I look at Neuromancer I see a Soap Box Derby car. I felt, writing it, like I had two-by-fours and an old bicycle wheel and I’m supposed to build something that will catch a Ferrari. This is not going to fly, I thought. But I tried to do it anyway, and I produced this garage artifact, which, amazingly, is still running to this day. Even so, I got to the end of it, and I didn’t care what it meant, I didn’t even know if it made any sense as a narrative. I didn’t have this huge feeling of, Wow, I just wrote a novel! I didn’t think it might win an award. I just thought, Phew! Now I can figure out how to write an actual novel.

Though it seems incredible that he would say such a thing, I often feel that way about the novel I’m working on now. If I get to the end of this, maybe I can figure out how to write an actual novel.

And this made me inexplicably happy, because while I don’t start at page one every day, I do revise constantly, and somehow I had started to feel guilty about the habit:

Every day, when I sit down with the manuscript, I start at page one and go through the whole thing, revising freely.

Revising freely. Two words that say so much. The whole interview is full of goodness; these are just scraps.

Time Lost and Found, by Anne Lamott

A lovely, but pointed, essay on why it’s so important to take the time to write, even when you don’t think you have any:

“…creative expression, whether that means writing, dancing, bird-watching, or cooking, can give a person almost everything that he or she has been searching for: enlivenment, peace, meaning, and the incalculable wealth of time spent quietly in beauty.”

And finally, because I can’t end on sweetness and light when I’m feeling so blue (ha), here’s an article that made me cringe:

Writer’s Cramp: In the E-Reader Era, a Book a Year Is Slacking

This piece counts as horror, in my opinion – a tale of writers churning out 2,000 words a day, 7 days a week, like workers in a kind of Dickensian book mill:

In this environment, publishers say, producing one a book a year, and nothing else, is just not enough.

One book a year is not enough! Indeed, this entire article seems to be devoted to the notion that readers are like greedy children, stamping their feet and begging for more candy, and that we MUST give them what they want – now! – or risk them running away and finding another source to fill their neverending hunger.

Publishers also believe that Salinger-like reclusiveness, which once created an aura of intrigue around an author, is not a viable option in the age of interconnectivity.

Did Twitter kill the author?

And with that, I do believe I’ll slump back on this pillow and close my eyes for a few…

It’s Friday. The weekend beckons. Here are a few things I’ve been reading lately that are good enough to bookmark, highlight, and revisit – in a comfy chair, perhaps, with coffee close at hand:

Interview with Cheryl Strayed (The Great Discontent)

I’ve had this interview on a tab in my browser for several days. I keep going back to it, re-reading a line here or there. It’s long – you’ll want to carve out a chunk of time for it – but full of goodness. Here’s one:

“What I’ve really learned in my 43 years is that the body does not lie; the body actually tells you what’s right and wrong. If you get a sinking feeling in your stomach or a heavy heart about something, you shouldn’t do it; and if you get a lifting, light feeling in your body, you should.”

I know this to be true, even though I don’t always follow it.

How I Got A Big Advance from a Big Publisher and Self-Published Anyway by Penelope Trunk

A riveting take on one writer’s experience in navigating the publishing world. I snorted when I read this:

“It takes a print publisher about a year to publish a book, after it is written. It’s unclear what the publishers are doing during this time.”

Her “new rules for book publishing” are worth a close read, and while her path isn’t for everyone, it demonstrates that in 2012, there are PATHS. Plural. The fact that authors can self-publish alone, or self-publish with a team, or run a Kickstarter campaign, or publish with an indie press, or go the traditional route – there are more options than ever before. And THAT is all kinds of exciting.

Traveling Southwards, by Andrew O’Hagan (London Review of Books)

Every time I see a reference to Shades of Grey, or one of its spawn, I die a little bit inside. But there is one thing that DOES intrigue me about it, and that is that MILLIONS of people are reading it. Who are they? What are their lives like that this book titillates them so? Andrew O’Hagan doesn’t answer my questions, exactly, but he offers an interesting take on the phenomenon.

“Each era gets the erotic writing it craves, or deserves, if that doesn’t sound too much like I’m asking you to spank me into an ecstasy of submission.”

Letter From the Pulitzer Prize Fiction Jury: What Really Happened This Year by Michael Cunningham (The New Yorker)

This might be better classified as reading about reading, but I’ve been dying to know what happened with the Pulitzer Prize debacle. After all, isn’t it their job to award a prize? It turns out that the answer is a complicated one, but the real reason to read this piece is the tantalizing bits about the literary proclivities of the three judges:

Maureen was drawn to writers who told a gripping and forceful story… Susan was a tough-minded romantic. She wanted to fall in love with a book… I was the language crank, the one who swooned over sentences. I could forgive much in a book if it was written with force and beauty, if its story was told in a voice unlike anything I’d heard before, if the writer was finding new and mesmerizing ways to employ the same words that have been available to all American writers for hundreds of years.

Some of his observations terrified me. Like this one:

I lobbied to eliminate another because its language was sometimes strong and sometimes indifferent…I insisted that although there were plenty of good lines, there were simply too many slack, utilitarian ones.

He does offer some in-depth speculation about why the prize wasn’t awarded, the sum of which is that they felt “meh” about their options. We may never know for sure. But enough of my highlights. Just read it.

Write Like a Motherfucker by Dear Sugar (The Rumpus)

Two Cheryl-Strayed-related pieces in one short list might not seem fair, but I read this last night before I fell asleep, and this stuck with me:

“The only way you’ll find out if you “have it in you” is to get to work and see if you do. The only way to override your “limitations, insecurities, jealousies, and ineptitude” is to produce. You have limitations. You are in some ways inept. This is true of every writer…”

Happy reading.


I have this print from Austin Kleon hanging in my office.

One of the most important rules for me right now is #9:

Be Boring. It’s the only way to get work done. – Austin Kleon

I say no to more things than I say yes to. That sucks. But if I’m going to get this done, I have to sit in front of this monitor and peck away, one word, one sentence at a time, until it’s done.

Even while other people are having fun. *sob*