Tuesday, 27 November 2012

A Writer's Survival Kit: Making a Literary Life

I've mentioned the book I'm currently reading on writing 'Making a Literary Life' by Carolyn See before, but now I just have to mention it again as it has saved me from a crippling block (and almost meltdown)! 

Yes dear readers, last night I was in the throes of lamenting the big bad block and so out of a need for self-consolation, I went to this writing guide to see if it could help me. (Usually while afflicted with writer's block, I can't bear to read someone else's theorising on writing - I prefer just to crawl into a corner and shrivel up until a bolt of returning words find and reawaken me again...) But no, last night, I thought I better take some action. 

And I can tell you - there hasn't been a funnier book written on writing! This book is laugh-out-loud hilarious. I love the author's casual light-hearted attitude she takes to the whole 'craft.' It's so fresh and new and bubbly and exciting. (I always approach writing 'guides' with a pinch of salt, hold them at a metaphorical arm's length just incase you know - their thesis does not sit entirely on par with mine - but this one, this one is so different!)

I headed to it in a frantic search looking for advice on writer's block (even though I goddamn know every last offering there is), but instead found solace in the scathing wit and humour she writes with on every page.

For example, on rejection, she is of the opinion that for every rejection slip we get back from publishers, we should send a thank-you note, just to dispel the inherent negativity that comes with such a knock-in-the-teeth. She speaks of editors as suitors for us writers to pursue and woo and as pre-programmed... plastic ducks: '...editors, playing 'hard to get' at every level, are programmed to act like those plastic ducks you used to see in 99-cent stores. Their little heads with their pink bills are set to wag back and forth: no, no, no, no, no. But the thing about those ducks was: With timing and concentration, you could put a drop of water on their bills, and from then on they'd nod yes, yes, yes, yes, yes! How do you get the duck to do that? It's certainly possible; it's part of the game.'

She has a point! They can be broke down, if we just approach them in the right way, at the right time. And if not, to not let ourselves get broken by their rejection. She then goes on to make the point that rejection (what we writers so fear) is a process, not an event, a process that must play out: 'So you send them a manuscript, and they send it back. Believe me, if you were Jesus Christ himself, they'd send it back."

She maintains that you write them a thank you note in return for their rejection slips and goes on to tell of a few of her own experiences in this aspect (very funny I might add!) The way to diffuse this rejection bad ju-ju is to send back a polite thank-you note that lets the editor in question know you have not 'died' from their dismissal but are simply carrying on the rejection/acceptance process of what she terms comically as 'cosmic badminton.' 

Haha! That's one way anyway to diffuse the whole mystique of approaching editors and to de-fang - even make light of - rejection!

She goes on in the next chapter about how to deal with success, if it comes and tackles the taboo subject of the writer's 'ego' on a very humorous basis: 

'Outside of having children, or dying, nothing more dramatic or life-changing can happen to you than to see your work in print. Oh, maybe winning the U.S. Open or the America's Cup, but I'm not sure about that, because those are fleeting moments, gone almost as soon as they happen. When you've something in print, even if it's a recipe for heirloom tomato aspic, you've bought a ticket in immortality's lottery. Part of you is floating in another universe, and until every last copy of whatever-it-is, is burned, smashed, and gone, you are, because of that little scrap, not bound by the rules of time. ...This is when your ego tends to go stark raving mad... You always suspected the world revolved around you, but your mother set you straight. By the time you got to kindergarten you realized there were other kids, that you were just one of many. But now, look! The proof is undeniable: Right there in the newspaper: 'Making Love Can Keep You Fit', and there's your name right underneath it! Or there, in the campus magazine: 'Adios Barcelona.' Nothing in the world is going to persuade you that there's anything more important than seeing your name in print - not the Ebola virus or World War Three or the love of your life.'

Well yes, there is no feeling quite like seeing your name in print, but her exaggerative qualities are what make the writing really hilarious here. She ratchets up the pride here just enough to pique familiarity as to amuse.  You'll find yourself sniggering along to her train of thought while reading. Here is jauntiness and fearlessness in the face of stereotypical pomp, - balls - for lack of another word. Most writers treat the craft so solemnly, especially when writing about it. This is a book on writing which talks in common sense and with a  wink-wink-nudge-nudge style effect as if saying - 'ah go on, admit it, this is how we writers really feel.' 

But she offers sound advice too. Like for example, when a piece of your work is published and you want others to read it, she advises to send them copies (even your enemies), because if you're relying on friends and family to rush out and read your stuff, it just ain't going to happen. They have their lives to get on with (point duly noted.) And besides, 'nobody could ever love your work enough. Have you heard the phrase 'That kid's got a face only a mother could love'? Your work is your child; you're the one who has to love it, even though it may still be a little funny-looking.' True enough. But nobody ever pointed it out to me like that before - thanks Carolyn!

Also, when confronted with someone who says they saw your piece in whatever, a reader so to speak  - don't, under any circumstances, ask them what they thought of it (for chances are, Carolyn notes, they'll say something you don't want to hear...) Instead, she advises to reply with the standard one-size-fits-all-situations answer 'No Kidding,' and smile politely. Let them say more if they want, but you just smile on regardless. What a gem! If  only I'd followed that advice before, I'd certainly be one or two critical insults down.

Most importantly, she also remarks that it doesn't matter what these people think of your work, whether they read it or do not - it only matters what publishers and editors think of it. After all, they are the ones controlling whether you can do it for a living or not. Exactly. (And again, advice I need to retain a vice-grip upon).

I am now into the second part of the book which deals with the techniques of writing and already it's still written with a humorous, original premise. Nothing predictable about this book! If you want to read a book on writing, I'd highly recommend this one. From laugh-out-loud observations to witty sarcasm to straight-up common sense do this-or-don't to lilting sweep-you-along romantic idealism, the authorial voice is always surprising yet relevant and right. And I suppose writing - the craft, the profession, the life - is made up of all these aspects too.

I'll end with her passage on beating discouragement in writing and in life (for the two are inexplicably woven together, are they not?) and being proactive:
"That's it, isn't it? Do we cry, or do we go out sailing? Do we eat dog food when we're poor and old, or do we make gourmet carrot soup? Do we sit on the couch or go out for a walk? Do we fall in love or make some poor bastard's life a living hell? Do we look out the window and groan about our wasted life, or do we make a plan to see if we can live our dream? Do we go through life asleep or try to wake up? 
I hope I'm wrong, but I imagine that about 90 percent of the human race is snoozing along, just going through the motions. And 100 percent of us dull out some of the time. It takes miracles, white magic, wonders, to jog us from our slumber. What if we really were masters of our mind and life? What if we were God-in-action? What would we do then? 
Everything we write is some kind of answer to that question."

Indeed. That's all I needed to know for now to get me back on the unblocked path. Thank you Carolyn.

~ Siobhán


  1. Righto you've convinced me. I'm putting this book on my Xmas list!

    1. Hi Thea, yes, do - you won't be disappointed! :)

  2. As an author myself, I know Carolyn See would be so pleased to read this! So Siobhán do her and yourself the honor of sending this to her!

    1. Margie - I may just do that! She is the biggest advocate of sending thank-you notes to authors - 'charming notes' she calls them, and urges us to write one every day (!) to writers who inspire us.


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