Sunday, July 24, 2011

You Lookin' at Me?

Do you want to make money, have a million followers, or be recognized for the quality of your writing? Creativity expert Julia Cameron believes that every writer must identify their "True North". True North is the outcome that would bring you real satisfaction with your work.

If you can't name your personal True North, it's hard to set goals that will lead you in the right direction. Some creative people write great stories but are frustrated by the fact that they can't earn a decent living and have to hold down many jobs. Others sell their work, but feel like they have to stoop to the low tide of the market to earn any dough. Then you have the unusual predicament of a hugely successful author like Stephenie Meyer. The final book in the Twilight saga sold 1.3 million copies in the first 24 hours after its release. But Meyer believes that today she could write a much better version of Twilight -- because now she's developed a true sense of craft. Though she says she's got mature stories to tell, Meyer says can't write when she feels people looking over her shoulder.

Yikes! After selling more than 70 million copies of the Twilight books, finding the creative solitude that feeds her True North must be nearly impossible. Meyer says that even her mother tries to tell her what she should be writing. Still, she knows that get to the heart of the matter, she's got to put distance between herself and the rest of the world.

Those mystical moments when creative ideas are born can be thrilling. Last Thursday, I took my coffee down by our stream. The sun hadn't risen above the trees but the weather was already steamy. Early morning felt like a dream my brain forgot to end. Then I got this sensation that I wasn't writing alone. I turned my head and saw I had a follower. He had horns, lean legs, and a white tail. Maybe he was just thirsty, but I think that deer was trying to find his way into my plot. Can't find peace and quiet anywhere!

Sunday, July 17, 2011

The Long March to Success: Rachel Simon

Many folks think that writing careers are launched by a random bolt from the sky. But most are the product of ceaseless work. The tale of Rachel Simon, a friend whose book "The Story of Beautiful Girl" recently made the New York Times Bestseller list, offers an antidote to the magical thinking that surrounds the writing industry.

When I met Rachel, we were both in our first post-college jobs. I wasn't sure what to do with my English degree. Journalism didn't seem attractive, but I still wanted to write. Rachel was not a journalist, but she had a clear vision of the kind of writer she wanted to become. She never let the drudgery of her day job keep her from working on stories. Over time, her strong work ethic and well-defined goals helped her get a story selected for "consideration" by a literary journal. During an entire year of waiting, Rachel's story got lost and was eventually rejected by the publication. Infuriated, Rachel's anger pushed her into entering a story contest -- which she won. When she went to accept her award, she took copies of her story to hand out at the event and used the opportunity to meet professionals in the industry.

Guided once more by her goals, Rachel worked to sell her first book, before she even had an agent. After winning a contract, she did whatever it took to sell more books and make people pay attention to her writing. Her publicity events were funny and fearless and she never backed down from the endless challenge of getting people to notice (and buy!) her work.

When her second book of fiction did not set the world on fire, Rachel had to work through a long period of self-doubt. Ultimately, her instincts led her away from fiction and into memoir. This brave decision was a key choice that transformed her view of herself and her family. It also showed her she had the power to tell many kinds of stories. Riding the Bus with My Sister was translated into a host of languages and made into a TV movie.

Though the success of the memoir opened a new path for her, Rachel still taught writing as a part-time college professor. Then, after years of teaching, her position got cut during a budget blood-bath. Grieving this sudden loss, Rachel turned the termination of her job into raw material for her next work. The Story of Beautiful Girl has now pushed Rachel into the national fiction limelight. Her book was recently highlighted by Jennifer Weiner on Good Morning America as one of this year's great summer reads.

If Rachel's path teaches anything, it is that successful writing careers rest on a foundation built from tremendous discipline and the ability to rebound from disappointment. She works with diligence and wisdom whether she's helping students, meeting her writing schedule, or throwing a party.

Becoming a good writer requires us to become the best version of ourselves and that often means turning away from more seductive pleasures. Rachel says, "The most valuable tool in a writer's toolbox is the word no." Say no, she says, to anything that distracts you from your writing. This advice reminds me of the motto on a statue in the Annenberg School where Rachel and I worked at our first jobs. The bust of Moses Louis Annenberg reminded everyone that, "Sacrifice is necessary for achievement." Yes, Moses, it certainly is.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Word Ethics

Most people who thrive as writers have built their success on three qualities:1) Skill, 2) Luck, and 3) Work ethic. It's an equation that can be rebalanced in a few ways. If you are incredibly skillful, like Scott Fitzgerald, you might need less luck. And if you're really lucky, like "Twilight" author Stephenie Meyer, skill may not be the key. But even lucky, talented authors can't survive without a disciplined approach to the page.

Many young people want to be writers but they absorb their ideas about the field from images in movies and publicity media. Some actually believe that all published writers get the beach house, prepaid. This is a hilarious notion for those of us struggling to meet deadlines while we wait for our freelance checks to roll in. Apart from writing, most authors have to maintain teaching jobs or speaker schedules to keep their financial boat afloat. Last week I taught writing workshops to students in Philadelphia and raced home to write after nightfall. Yet even some of my most sensible clients seem to think my address is Easy Street USA -- maybe that's why my checks arrive late.

Writers don't get paid holidays and they finance their vacations with 60 hour work weeks before and after each break. When I have a three day weekend, like last week, I usually have to write at night to make up for lost time. But I'd still do this job even if I never got another day off. I started writing stories and journals when I was a kid in primary school. If I have to go a day without writing, it's only because I'm forced into it. Sure it's a bit of a compulsion, but it's the only way I know how to stay limber and hit every deadline -- and it's a common practice with most writers I've known. Even Stephen King, who could survive 300 years without selling another book, keeps a rigorous writing schedule because his personality will tolerate no less.

A long time ago, I saw a diagram for helping teens choose a career. In the middle, it said: "Do what you love". This message was surrounded by concentric rings which explained that: a) doing what you love, helps you define who you are and develop your true talents, and b) developing your true talents helps you become the person you were meant to be. So if you think you are the kind of person meant to obsess over words from morning 'til night, and cool your heels 'til your financial payoff arrives, a writer's life may be just for you. You can write on the porch in summer and on the couch when it snows. Just be prepared to do a lot of scribbling before you get the beach house. It comes with a nice view and a hefty mortgage.

Next week: A true tale of how a phenomenal work ethic built a path to the New York Times Bestseller list.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Fireworks in the Library

Conflict lies at the heart of every revolution. It set things off in 1776 and rocks our politics today. Great writers also embrace conflict as a tool to move society forward. Authors like Edna O' Brien chafed at the injustices promoted by organized religion and sexist norms. Though her books are revered today, they once served as fuel for library bonfires.

People with a strong creative impulse often find themselves at odds with society. O'Brien felt suffocated by a religious education and poured her discontent into The Country Girls, a tale of independent girls who resisted the constrictions forced on Irish women. Her work -- which advocated birth control -- was banned, burned and belittled before it catapulted her to the top of the literary heap.

Practically every work O'Brien wrote was censored by the Irish government under the Censorship of Publications Act of 1929. The authorities found her stories to be "indecent or obscene". But she later won a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Irish Book Awards in Dublin, as well as the Los Angeles Times Book Prize.

It's a quiet day today, but a writer can find the seeds of conflict anywhere. There are firecrackers shaking the forest while mountain laurels explode across the hills. Tonight, those rowdy fireflies will be back and the fireworks will start again. So much rebellion, so much material, right here in our woods.