Novelists for Life Cybergroup
On my novelists e-group, we are always discussing writing. The processes of writing, the challenges, the failures and successes, what scares us about it, how we triumphed over an obstacle or a block. During one of our discussions on writing, a member of the list, Angel Shannon wrote:
ishmael reed says “writing is fighting.” and the brother is right! Writing is fighting your internal editor, fighting your boss at work who wants you to do overtime while you sincerely need to get back to your characters who are in the midst of something that only you can resolve; fighting your kid(s) who want you to jump in the four inch pool with them ….. fighting the husband/lover who wants you to jump in the bed and rock his world while you sincerely need to find out who shot john in your novel; it is fighting the urge to throw it all away sometimes; fighting the thoughts that tell you you are on the wrong track because after all, this is your— what? third year writing this thing, and you could have had two MBA’s by now—it is so, so hard yet so exhilarating at the same time. it is a fight to get those words in the right order, on the right page, in the right chapter, in the right section. writing involves moments when you’re fighting to write and it’s just not there…and you’re looking at that calendar thinking “i’m never gonna make that deadline.”
but what i truly feel writing is, at least for me, is that it is an existence. a way of being and seeing and understanding my world. me and my writing have grown together and it has been a lesson in patience…. writing forces me to be and learn patience. every writer—every beginning writer, let’s just say—needs to know that yes, writing is craft and practice and workshops and networking and learning how to write a synopsis …. but even more than that, it’s being patient with oneself and with the whole process. and it’s also being patient enough to know when to leave a story be, to set it aside, to work on something else….to admit when it truly is not there and you don’t know enough about the character or the story or whatever….
was listening to alice walker and joyce carol oates—two tapes that I have—both authors say they can spend almost a whole year doing nothing but writing notes, jotting ideas, writing down snippets of dialogue in their notebooks until they feel, in their hearts, that the story is truly present. one could say that’s a waste of time. i say, it’s proof positive that they—being older writers—have learned that this thing truly is about patience.
[Note: You can read Angel’s online diary at: http://www.avshann2.blogspot.com]
Angel’s words really ring true for me. I think the progression of the definition—first: writing is fighting, then writing is patience—is how I’ve developed my relationship to writing. Actually when I started writing, writing wasn’t fighting. Writing was fun. Writing was pure expression. Writing was a reaction to stories that wouldn’t stop repeating themselves in my head. Writing became work four years later when I became bored with what I could do naturally. My recounting real-life experiences was good, but I wanted to do something “interesting,” something that would challenge and interest me as a reader. That’s how I stumbled upon speculative fiction.
I was writing the sixth story of my four-year “career.” When I finished it and read it over, it was fine. There was nothing wrong with it, but it was yet another recounting of yet another event in my life and I was BORED. I reread it, searching for some key to making the story a more interesting experience. I found a compelling element, a moth on the wall in one of the scenes, and I thought: What if that moth was special in someway? What if that moth came to deliver a message to the characters in the scene? If that moth were delivering a message, what would that message be? Suddenly the moth became a message from the ancestors (who lived on another planet) telling one character it was time to consume the “nectar” of another character. That’s how “Of Wings, Nectar, and Ancestors” was born. Once I went fanciful with the plot, I went fanciful with the language too. I wondered, how would a people related to moths communicate? Would they talk? Would they use their bodies? And I began piecing together an alien identity for the main character, WaLiLa.
After “Of Wings, Nectar, and Ancestors,” writing became crafting. I became more aware of what I was creating. Well, suddenly, I was creating rather than recreating what had already happened. The fictional elements of my writing grew and I began creating “pieces.” I was seeking, not only to tell a story, but to introduce tones and sensations to the reader’s experience. I thought immediately of Jean Toomer’s book Cane. Reading his work is like stepping into a sensory environment. Every time I read Cane I came away with specific feelings, and I thought I’d like to approach each story with a commitment to interjecting visceral sensations in the writing. Writing became a whole new ballgame.
When did writing become fighting?
Writing became fighting when I became an “adult.” When I got a 9-to-5 and the novel I had been feverishly writing during a 12-month traveling fellowship was no longer a fun diversion. With limitations on my time, the novel became something “important” to “work” on. Then I had to fight. I had to fight my impulses to sleep, I had to fight talking on the phone, I had to fight my own indulgence and keep turning to the page. I believe writing is fighting not only because the writing process is difficult, but also because of the context the writer is forced to write in.
Two major contexts that make writing fighting are:
Writing is an all-consuming act because there is so much mental work involved. The brain needs space to work out plots and characters and resolutions. This becomes challenged when children or work or money struggles enter the picture. Writing in the vacuum of no responsibilities feels completely different. With nothing else tugging at your sleeve, it’s a million times easier to focus, to commit, to lose yourself in the work. Whereas, when the rest of life is spinning around you, you have to set alarms to wake up a few hours earlier. You have to answer the phone with “I’m writing,” instead of “hello,” to prioritize the writing over the delicious option of a fun phone conversation. You have to tell the people you love most in the world, “Not now, later.”
Then, when the writing has to serve another purpose outside of pure pleasure another element of fighting intrudes. When you’re trying to write the great American novel, when you’re seeking validation for the brilliance of your work. When you’ve created deadlines with your eye on other new novels that seem to be springing up, the purity of the act of writing is replaced by the urgency of seeking a result.
Last year I decided I needed to get serious about novel-writing, last year I decided I needed to connect with my audience, last year I built a website, last year I started the KIS.list. Last year I did a lot of fighting.
Fighting that fight made last year one of the most productive times in my writing career. [It would be false to call it last YEAR, I did all that in the space of five months.] It was gratifying to make a real presence for myself in the outside world, and it was wonderful to have an identity in cyberspace, BUT I fought so hard, I burnt myself out. I was so burnt out that I didn’t write on my last writing trip. I rested and read seven novels. I had put out so much, I was exhausted. I had to start quietly rebuilding my resources and taking in information rather than putting it out.
How do you fight to write without consuming yourself? Without destroying your health and well-being?
Now, I’ve reached the next level of relationship to writing. Writing is still fighting, but it is also, as Angel says, patience. I call it “faith.” Writing is faith. Now when I come to the computer and I fall asleep instead of writing my prescribed four pages, I fight to listen to my body. I fight to rest instead of push. I still set goals, but now I struggle to have faith that, even if I don’t push myself, the writing will be done. A few weeks ago, I fell asleep every time I tried to work on my novel. I was angry and frustrated, but I decided to surrender to it. Then, on my next writing day, I spent the entire day writing with no problem of focus or sleepiness. I use that example to remind myself, the work will be done. I am not a machine. I must sometimes give in to exhaustion and rest. Let my body work its needs out, then return to the page refreshed and begin again.
Faith is connected to patience. Faith is connected to optimism and hope. For me, faith is mostly connected to surrender. I have such a different attitude this year than last. I don’t know if this attitude is “better,” and I don’t know where it will lead me. But my new attitude doesn’t “know” what her future as a writer is. Isn’t “certain” that there will be a novel completed this year. This new attitude, schedules writing days, sets goals, and works hard to keep them. But when the writing slips through my fingers, I accept it as a piece of life, the price of keeping myself healthy and sane. And I have faith that the next day I sit down and write will be different. I have faith that the next time I sit down to write, I will deliver.
Be well. Be love(d).
Kiini Ibura Salaam
==KIINI’S ACCEPTANCE/REJECTION O’METER==
: : : August 2001 – present : : :
==KIINI’S ACCEPTANCE/REJECTION O’METER==
I’ve had a few low-level rejections this month. An editor requested a story from me for his magazine’s special issue on race. Because of the magazine’s thrust—hip, hip hop, cool—I was dubious from the beginning. I sent a story certain it wouldn’t work with the publication’s outlook. The editor who solicited the story liked it, but HIS editor didn’t. So they’re not going to use it. I ran into another magazine editor randomly, so I sent her an essay that had already been published in an anthology. Turns out her magazine didn’t want it, but it didn’t matter because I didn’t really expect it to work and it already had a home. I call these rejections low level because, though it would have been pleasant to be picked up by these magazines, it wasn’t crucial. It’s somewhat hypocritical, because I would include these stories in my acceptances if they got accepted, but hypocritical or not, I consider these rejections too innocuous to include them on the meter.
I had one acceptance this month: an erotic story of mine is going to be included in an anthology of black women’s erotica. That makes my acceptances and rejections for publications equal out at 6 to 6.
The Colonize This! reading was on Wednesday. I didn’t get the KIS.list together in time to send out the announcement for the reading. The book cover is beautiful and the essays included are on wildly diverse topics. One writer wrote about growing up with a schizophrenic mother during a time period and in a community that didn’t deal with mental health. Her mother talked to herself, screamed at invisible people and frequently didn’t recognize her own daughter. After one bout in a mental institution for the infanticide of the author’s older sibling, the mother learned how to appear normal in public. When her mother died, a friend asked the author if her mother was taking medication. The author confided she didn’t know her mother was supposed to be on medication. Another essay deals with a woman who watched her mother—who was a sex worker—put on her sexy clothes and makeup as armor to empower herself to get what she needed and arm herself against the world. And as a young girl, the author began to use makeup in the same way. Another essay was a personal retelling of a woman’s experience deciding to have an abortion and what that abortion was like. There are some extremely passionate, intriguing essays included in the anthology, and I fully encourage any interested parties to either pick it up from a bookstore or check it out at the library… I’m off to read.