Monday, April 17, 2006

In Lieu of Tag: Inspirational Reading

I am a big admirer of Barbara DeMarco-Barrett's radio show, Writers on Writing, which inspires me on both the writing and the business aspects of this life. So I was happily surprised, and honored, to discover that she had tagged me on her blog a couple of months ago, along with some other very interesting bloggers. Since I have been slow to respond to the tagging, and since I am an avid consumer of books on the writing life, I decided to respond instead by reading hers, PEN ON FIRE: A BUSY WOMAN'S GUIDE TO IGNITING THE WRITER WITHIN.

Before all you males stop reading, it's a great book for writers of all genders. In the tradition of Anne Lamott and Natalie Goldberg, it's part emotional support and part craft, with an emphasis on daily writing practice and perseverance. Beginners and novices can benefit from her timed writing assignments, some of which are good warm-ups, and others designed to break through inhibitions and blocks. And the big messages are not unique, but I never tire of hearing them: writing is a field where late-bloomers can have real careers, discouragement is temporary and part of the game, and the main way to become good at it is by doing it on a regular basis.

The book is made up of short chapters grouped into sections: Before You Begin, Getting Started, Tools & Rituals, Mining Your Life, Craft, Overcoming the Obstacles, and Living the Life. The organization is what makes this volume stand out from similar titles I have read. It's designed for busy people, so you can just pick it up and read a chapter of interest, or go cover-to-cover like I did. Her style is candid and personable, much like her radio persona. I recognized some of the advice from authors from her show, but I enjoyed this recognition, and it drove home the idea that the work she does on the show also feeds her work in print. It's all a part of the same process: writing, meditating on the practice of writing, talking about it with others, engaging in the business of selling, and always returning to the writing. At the core of all of it is the daily practice.

Each chapter concludes with a timed writing exercise, or several, centered on the chapter's theme. Natalie Goldberg used a similar approach with her excellent book, WILD MIND, also highly recommended. But where Goldberg's work pushes writing into a zen practice, with the goal being the experience itself of writing, DeMarco-Barrett's book channels more of a hybrid of meditation with business acumen and practicality. Here, considering the market is part of the process. The market is one of many external forces that can inform and motivate the writer. The assumption behind this book is that becoming a professional writer is a laudable--and reachable--goal. With practice, that is.

My favorite chapter, maybe because of where my head is now, is Significant Others, hilariously included in the "Obstacles" section. Its focus is on the very real concerns about how our writing practice might effect our primary relationships and vice versa. How important is the privacy of our loved ones as we explore our lives in our writing? Very. How important is it to assert your right to continue writing deeply? Very. How does one come to terms with this dangerous territory? In her words:

As a writer, you need to do two things: Set boundaries, and then take it easy. Living with a writer can be hard to contend with. Understand your poor partner may be worried, whether he knows it or not, that his entire being--every personality glitch and flaw--might someday be exposed.

And in her husband's words:

"It doesn't matter if it's fiction or nonfiction; it's what's revealed that can be upsetting...It's like stepping into cold water; after a while you get used to it. At least I did. I think."

Boy, did this ring bells for me. Not to get too off topic, but I've had similar concerns lately as I share unpublished work with my family. I write a lot about adolescence, and it's challenging for my dad and brother in particular to integrate what they know about me with what they see in the stories, which often includes far deeper conflicts than I ever experienced. They recognize settings and character types, naturally. My father is still uncomfortable with this relationship of history to fiction, and worries about what might be true. My brother is starting to enjoy this recognition, and is getting a sense of the dance between my experiences and those of my characters. What used to be weird for him is now a kind of a gift, he told me recently. That meant a lot to me, that he was able to make that leap. But it's a hard leap to make. And it's not fair for me to expect everyone to make it. It's a hard pill to swallow, but I do respect my father's discomfort with my work. It's not that he thinks I should quit--far from it. But it's a form of sharing that could be a little pushy on my part. I'm glad I am not writing memoir. But I am embarking on a novel about a liberal Episcopal minister's family, so concern about my family's feelings is foremost in my mind. I need to take DeMarco-Barrett's advice and think about what the natural boundaries might be, and respect privacy as I search for the emotional core of the story, which is not my story, but will undoubtedly creep into risky terrain.

Anyway, back to the book I set out to discuss here. Her bibliography--awesome. All the key books on craft and the writing life, some I've read, some I plan to. And several good internet resources as well. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.


Blogger Clifford Garstang said...

I enjoyed your discussion of this book, and also your digression. Love digressions. I'm a big fan (read: consumer) of writing books and so may have to give this one a look, despite the title.

8:22 PM  

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