Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Storysurfing: The New Writer's Act

Every time I've participated in some kind of online writing forum over the last few years, there is always a long, hotly debated, and unnecessary thread about what makes a "real" writer and "real" writing. Because blogging makes publication so accessible for everyone, there are a precious few who would like to define "writing" as something other (almost anything) than putting words on a blog. Many participants (usually the unpublished ones) get very hung-up on whether or not they're "real" writers.

And then there's the self-descriptions of those who are writing, or writing and publishing, or writing and posting. You look at an author's mini-bio, and they're described in one or two of the following ways: short story writer, essayist, novelist, biographer, blogger, reviewer, journalist, writer, storyteller, author, nonfiction writer ... all of which clutters up people's ideas of what a writer is or does, and limits the writer's own perceptions of what he or she is doing when inspiration strikes and they make the effort to put words on a page.

Any "real" writer knows in his or her bones that the essays, stories, novels, and blogs are all different consequences of engaging long-term in the same activity. No matter what your final product is -- an essay in Harper's or a blog read by your friends or oral narratives told at a storytelling festival -- they all come from the act of attempting to take experience and shape it into story. It doesn't matter whether that story is fiction or nonfiction, short or long, read by millions in book form or ten people looking at a blog.

We need a new word for this act, to cut through all the crap about what constitutes a "real" writer, and I've had one in mind for a long time: storysurfer.

Why storysurfing? This act, that of reaching into or out to experience, life, memory, and trying to shape it into a narrative that might resonate with others, reminds me a great deal of windsurfing. You are at the same time pulling and being pulled, letting go and holding on, riding the elements and letting them take you. That's what writing is, the whole act. All those titles above -- essayist, novelist, blogger -- they just describe the product. The act is its own thing, separate from the end result and separate even from the experience it's pulling on.

Beginning writers will often hear, if they're taking a workshop or in an MFA program or reading a creativity self-help book, that "a writer is someone who writes." But there's more to it than that. It's not just putting words on a page. Storysurfing is a full-body act. A storysurfer is someone who rides life, and harnesses their experience to the page.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Dear Vida: Why I'm not helping up the submissions percentage this week

The much-discussed 'count' by Vida: Women in the Literary Arts shows a saddening lack of women writers represented in literary publications, daily publications, book reviews, etc. Here's one sliver of a reason why:

9:30 a.m. The children have breakfasted and nursed, been toileted and diapered, medicined and vitamined, swept off and wiped. The baby is down for her reliable morning nap (the afternoon one is hit-and-miss, and requires long periods of holding and rocking). The 3-year-old is playing happily with his train tracks on the floor after I spent 20 minutes helping him set up an elaborate layout with plenty of bridges, tunnels, curves, and switches.

I've had two cups of coffee and even the breakfast dishes are washed. The new album from Bright Eyes is playing. So while Alex sleeps and John plays, I sneak out a story that I've been writing and rewriting for 5 years, and am hoping to send to a journal this week. (Even though I still feel shaky in fiction, creative nonfiction being my strength, and this journal has off-handedly rejected several of my nonfiction essays. But they mentioned on Facebook that they're looking for stories, so I keep working. When I can.)

I sit down on the rocking chair slightly out of sight, rest the clipboard on my knee, and uncap a pen.

John looks toward the kitchen. "Mummy, I want a hug." Gripping Percy the green engine, he trots over and climbs onto my lap.

Five minutes later, and again ten minutes later, I ask if he's ready to play with his tracks again. "No," he says, running Percy up and down my arm, "I just hugging now."

And in no time flat it's time to get the baby up and make lunch.

Of course I'm going to put the story down and give him a hug. There's a tug, an "I wish I could just have half an hour and then get lots of hugs," but there isn't really a choice. Does this make me not-a-writer? Are you a writer only if you push away the hug and stick to the story? No. It just makes me a writer who doesn't get things done very quickly. A writer who is always tired, and always trying. I'm betting a lot of women writers who are also caregivers find themselves in a similar position.

(I did attempt to keep working by offering to read John the story I was working on. While he was patient enough, and I always do a fair bit of editing while reading aloud, it is a bit hard to engage in serious rewriting when you've got your "This is George. He was a good little monkey and always very curious" voice going on.)

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

On the Purging of Books

Last week I did a little book purge. If you're a book lover, you've probably done this. This weird thought process: "Why did I keep that again? Oh, right, because I thought referring to a bunch of first-in-series mystery novels would hep me finish my own. But this was crap. Don't care if she's famous now, I yawned all the way through it. Chuck ...

"I'm never going to read these again. But I need to keep them because when the kids turn into ravaging book hordes they'll be curious to read everything. Even the lesser novels of Isabel Allende and Michael Ondaatje (even great writers turn out mediocre books sometimes). When you're into a writer, you don't care. But then ... do I really need to keep Wyoming Stories 2? It was awful. Why have bad Annie Proulx around when I don't even own a copy of The Shipping News? Why don't I own a copy? ...

"These are disposable. But when guests want to down a thriller in bed, it's nice to have something to feed them. And they can take them away (though they rarely do). And if one of the kids is into thrillers I'd rather keep the paperbacks than try to remember the names Daniel Silva and Robert Ludlum. ...

"I can't get rid of that. The author's a friend. And not that one. It's out of print and good for reference. And those were gifts. So depressing when you get a used book that someone wrote a loving note in. Reminds me of that awful Paul Theroux memoir, and the bit at the end about finding all the books he'd gifted to his friend V.S. Naipaul, with personal notes written inside, for sale online. At least I didn't keep that book, though I did keep the Naipaul."

And on and on. If a book doesn't come alive for me, why should I keep it on my shelves? Why should I finish reading it in the first place? If you don't like a book so much the first time around, why keep it for years just in case? That's what libraries are for.

Last weekend my husband gave me time for a nap and brought me a cup of tea (husbands like Ian = good). I, of course, need a book to doze off the way that some people need a sleeping pill. I wasn't in the mood for either of the current books I'm reading -- Wait for Me, an autobiography by the Duchess of Devonshire, and Pioneer Women, letters and journals of women settling the Kansas frontier, by Joanna Stratton -- but I took one look at the pile of to-be-read books and they just made me feel more tired.

Last year, in the space of about 8 months, I read at least 6 really crappy or just mediocre novels and memoirs. I wasn't ready to take the risk again, of wasting the time and energy to figure out if a book was worth reading, and resenting the author of a crappy or mediocre book for stealing my precious free reading time.

Out came The Hobbit.

Talk about comfort food. My older sister gave me The Hobbit to read when I was 8 years old, followed by The Lord of the Rings. I read them all at least once a year for over 20 years but have been neglecting them recently. There was a time when I'd get partway through The Return of the King and start crying because I'd forgotten how large the appendices were and there was less of the story left to live through than I'd thought.

The book purge was prompted by my reading through all 4 of those Tolkien books last week. I took a look at our well-filled bookshelves and wondered just how many of those books I would ever read again, or read with as much pleasure. Why keep any books that I know I won't read over and over? There aren't many authors who fit that bill: Jane Austen, J.R.R. Tolkien, J.D. Salinger, L.M. Montgomery. Dodie Smith, Kathy Tyers, Anthony Trollope, J.K. Rowling. C.S. Lewis, Norton Juster, Dorothy Sayers, Wilkie Collins. Colin Thubron, Jan Morris, Margaret Atwood, Susan Cooper, Fyodr Dostoevsky. Some others.

The first book I ever got rid of was The Great Gatsby. I hated that book, partly because I'd moved schools several times and had had to study it 4 years in a row (#1 way to kill a kid's interest in a story: force them to study it rather than just read it). But also I just don't think it's very good. Or maybe it just doesn't speak to me. Not a big Fitzgerald fan.

Books look pretty. Well-stocked bookshelves make for a cozy room, and for book-lovers impart an odd sense of security. Maybe there will always be a struggle, wondering what we should keep and what to give away. Book are old friends, even the lesser novels of well-loved authors, even the ones we might have grown out of. But I think what it comes down to is that the ones worth keeping are the ones that inspire us, one way or another. Anne of Green Gables might not suck me in the same way it did in my early teens, but I still enjoy reading it. And I might no reread Motherland: A Philosophical History of Russia again anytime soon, but I was engrossed in it and marked it up and dip into it now and then when I'm curious about something.

Our books are like an encyclopedia of the kind of reader we are, and how that reader has evolved. For me, they also represent the kind of writer I'd like to be. Most of the books that I keep out of love are the ones that people continue to read a hundred or two hundred years, or more, after they're published, not because they're forced to, but because the story comes alive no matter how old it is.

Which is why I finally gave away Wyoming Stories 2 and bought a copy of The Shipping News. Good writers can write crappy books, but they can also write great ones that last for generations.