Seeing Beyond Myself

We’ve recently had some lovely frosty, clear mornings in mid-Michigan and I’m glad I had my camera handy when I was dropping off my son at school.

Mornings and evenings in cold weather are what make the dark and dreary winter months more bearable, and may even lift them to a level more on par with the wonder of springtime.

There are so very many lovely things in this world, to be found in all seasons.

We woke up this morning to a beautiful dusting of light snow, though most of it is melted now. The trees are all bare, but for a few that keep their leaves rather tenaciously, like the oaks. Puts me in mind of a little poem I wrote last November I’ll share with you here.

I think that may be the last thing I painted, an entire year ago! I’ve been getting the itch to paint again, though my usual spot in the sunroom has been taken over by model trains for the winter.

The waning months of the year are when we start getting those “Top Whatever of 2012″ lists sprinkled across various media outlets, and before that silliness begins, I’m taking a moment to analyze my own year.

I’ve spent most of my free time in 2012 sewing clothes for myself, contributing to the Sew Weekly, and editing a novel. It’s been a very self-focused year. I was convicted of that this morning. As we near the beginning of Advent and the beginning of winter, I hope to turn my thoughts and efforts more toward others, which, as a writer who tends toward introversion and introspection, can sometimes be difficult to do.

I wonder if you’ve ever had the same epiphany, that your life, energy, and efforts were too focused on yourself. Assuming the world doesn’t end in a few weeks, what are you going to do differently in 2013? Where will you put your efforts? Will you spend your time entertaining yourself and thinking of ways you can further your goals? Or will you conscientiously look for ways to serve? I want to look beyond myself and I pray for the passion and focus to do so. I want to be one lone oak leaf that, in dying to self, can live in such a way that my efforts ripple outward and touch every corner of my pond.

“All is amazement and confusion.” — A Review of Detroit City Is the Place to Be

One of my avowed reasons for starting this blog is to bring you reviews of books about or set in Michigan, and/or written by Michigan authors. While I intend to review both fiction and nonfiction, both new releases and those decades-old, my first review (nonfiction) is oddly timely as the book has just released. I found it calling to me uninvited on the front table at Schuler Books & Music, a Michigan independent bookstore with locations in the Grand Rapids and Lansing areas. I hadn’t planned on starting reviews until 2013, but I cannot help but press you to buy this book. Even at hardcover prices it is well worth your hard-earned cash.

Detroit City Is the Place to Be: The Afterlife of an American Metropolis by Mark Binelli

Refreshingly nonpartisan and presented without the author’s own ego and agenda getting muddled up in things (a flaw so common in nonfiction books that take on difficult subjects), Detroit City Is the Place to Be is simultaneously a lesson in how we got here and how we might possibly get out of here. A Detroit area native (though he now lives in New York City), Mark Binelli covers almost every angle of the problem of Detroit, including historical and current racial tensions, the explosive growth and painful contraction of the auto industry, the eroding tax base and lack of resources, the distrust of outsiders, the blight, the fires, the violent crime, the music, the ruins, the drug culture, the despair, and those small, shimmering pockets of positivity (one almost can’t call them hope just yet) that while things may not quite have bottomed out, the city really has nowhere to go but up.

Binelli weaves a comprehensive and yet somehow still comprehensible tapestry of facts, statistics, and personal stories that gives the reader the big picture of Detroit but doesn’t miss the importance of the details. Even for a Michigander who has been hearing and reading about Detroit’s decline for decades, there are plenty of jaw-dropping moments. In these pages we meet real Detroiters: UAW members losing hope, teen moms grasping a better life for their children, “hustlers” coming up with their own work when jobs are nonexistent, concealed pistol enthusiasts, urban prairie dwellers, guerrilla lawn mowing brigades, and many more. Whether they stick with Detroit because they can’t afford to move or out of a solid sense of loyalty to their family history and their city, they are in it for the long haul and they are not (quite) ready to give up yet.

As one of those people says in Binelli’s book, “Detroit isn’t some kind of abstract art project. It’s real for people. These are real memories. Every one of these houses has a story.” And as Binelli himself says, “Detroit, if anything, is a place where the past cannot be shook loose. It hangs on, tenaciously, creeping over the city like a slow-growing mold, until–this begins to seem inevitable, if you get into a certain mood–the entire place will be nothing but past.”

This is not a book of solutions. It’s not a plan to rightsize a monolith of the nearly bygone modern industrial era. It’s not a crunchy, hippified manifesto on returning to subsistence farming and turning abandoned houses and factories into artists’ studio space. It’s not a vision for a utopian society of light rails, rooftop gardens, and flashy tech jobs. All of those elements are to be found in Detroit City Is the Place to Be because there are earnest people proposing scenarios like these, but they are not exactly championed by Binelli. Rather, like a good, impartial journalist without  an ax to grind (amazing, right?) he puts it out on the table for the reader to chew on, bones and all. He leaves the situation in all its absurdly complicated glory because to come to the end and present a “solution” to the problems plaguing Detroit would be the absolute most naive and insulting thing to do. Real life is complex enough. Real life in Detroit is perhaps even more so. And it’s refreshing to read an author who gets it, who knows that you can’t solve a problem like Detroit with a five step plan imposed from the outside.

We naturally want a tidy solution to be discovered (as though people just haven’t been looking hard enough for the past, oh, let’s say 80 years). But we do a disservice to the people living the nightmare on the ground in Detroit (or in other complicated, violent, and seemingly hopeless situations, as this can all be extrapolated to other post-industrial towns and even to volatile areas of the world such as the Middle East) when we imagine that a few policy changes or a few new companies moving to town will solve the problem. Short of a sudden and unprecedented inflow of free money (which doesn’t exist, of course) the rebuilding of this great city will be slow and painful and no one will be completely happy with it at any stage.

Though I’ve never lived in Detroit, both sides of my family are part of its history and growing up we took several trips a year down I-75 to visit grandparents and cousins. Like an intercontinental funnel, various streams of my ancestors made their way first to Canada from Ireland, Scotland, England, and Germany. After pit stops in Ontario ranging from 10 to 125 years, they entered the United States through Detroit. They were farmers, machinists, shop girls, cigar rollers, cabinetmakers, printers, ad men, mechanics, and middle management in retail stores. And slowly over the past two generations they have fanned out from Detroit and are taking my family history west, north, and even to the Eastern seaboard. But Detroit feels like the center of it all to me, the crux of family history. Detroit is where my people are buried.

My great-grandparents farmed land that got swallowed up by the creeping suburbs (and may now very well be in the process of returning to nature, as it were). As a girl, my grandmother performed traditional Scottish dancing at the opening of the Ambassador bridge. My first experience with a race other than my own was playing with my grandparents’ black neighbors. My grandfather’s basement was peppered with tools he had probably pilfered from GM. A Thanksgiving pastime when we visited the Detroit area after the leaves fell was to drive around and gawk at the enormous suburban homes of basketball stars, musicians, and executives. Now people go to gawk at decay.

As a realist in general, I cannot be wildly optimistic about the future of Detroit (and the bulk of Binelli’s book certainly didn’t nurse any idealistic notions that may have been trying to take root in the deep recesses of my subconscious, despite his more hopeful conclusion). But as one who trusts in the transformation of individual lives through the work of God, I can’t be hopeless either. I agree with Binelli’s implicit message that policy changes and business tax breaks and film crews cannot save Detroit on their own. But the spirited people who refuse to leave, who patrol their neighborhoods, who create beauty from ashes–those are the ones who, one by one, family by family, can keep hope alive.

For those of us on the outside, it’s good to remember that before you can save something you must care about it, and before you can care about something you must be educated about it. Detroit City Is the Place to Be is an education. It’s Detroit 101. Whether readers (like myself) use what we learn to try to make a difference is up to us. But we couldn’t have a more concerned, honest, and gentle teacher than Mark Binelli.

I highly recommend this book to every Michigander; to anyone interested in big cities, the post-industrial age, urban planning; to anyone tempted to write Detroit off as a lost cause. It will ground you in reality even while it points to a faint light in the distance that we may reach if only we are brave enough to travel a treacherous road.

Note: The quote in the title of this post is from a description of the city of Detroit after the Great Fire of 1805, found on page 45 of the hardcover book. The quote reads in full “The town of Detroit exists no longer . . . History does not furnish so complete a ruin, happening by accident, and in so short a space of time. All is amazement and confusion.”

My Writing Rhythm Is Not 1,667 Words a Day

Except for the Almighty, who is not bound by time and space, creating any kind of art, be it writing, painting, music, sculpture, or what have you, is done within the confines of space and time. You have a space in which to work and you have time during which you may create (ideally). In fact, these were some of the most basic requirements Virginia Woolf suggested a woman needed in order to write in 1929. (Men need these things too, of course, but in her day and her rung of society, they already had them, so she didn’t bother treating that subject.) Despite our progress in nearly all things over the past 83 years, last I checked we still need time and space to create.

All sorts of advice is out there for the person who longs to write but doesn’t have the time. Get up earlier, get take-out, stop cleaning your house, stay up late after your kids have gone to bed. There’s advice to be had on carving out space. Turn an unused closet (because we all have so many of those hanging about the house) into a mini office or write at a coffee shop. But I think the real secret to writing, at least in my experience, is finding one’s own personal writing rhythm.

What does that mean? It sounds a little flaky, a little ethereal, a little pie-in-the-sky. And it can be.

I have an ideal writing space in my head, the situation which seems perfect to me. It involves close contact with nature, a strategically placed window, a room of worn hardwood floors flooded with natural light and preferably with slanted ceilings where I can see the rafters. It is a place of slowly-moving sunbeams and the perfect amount of dust in the air and a toasty cat (that never meows) curled up nearby. There is a magical unending pot of coffee and a china plate sprinkled with the crumbs of a yummy scone. When I was younger, this vision included a black vintage typewriter and absolutely no white out or correction tape (after all, the perfect space leads to perfect inspiration and, therefore, perfect writing).

And I have an ideal concept of time in this ideal world. First, it is limitless. Second, it is impenetrable. There are no interruptions in this mystical, sacred space. There is no dog barking to be let in moments after being let out because it was standing at the door whining pitifully as though someone had cruelly stolen its favorite toy. There is no mailman. There are no phone calls. There is no laundry waiting. There are no questions from small children about the location of a particular toy. There are no demands whatsoever from the outside world. The only reality that exists is the perfect room around me and the world unfolding within me.

But I cannot stress this enough, folks: This perfect writing situation DOES NOT EXIST. And if it did, I think we’d find that it’s not so perfect after all. When you look closer you realize the windows are drafty in the winter and the place is sweltering in the summer and the neighbors play their music too loud and sometime you will have to get up and go to the bathroom.

Finding your writing rhythm within the confines of real life is what is tricky. Ideals aren’t real. So what can you do to discover the times and places you are most able to focus your creativity and make progress on your art?

Perhaps it’s stating the obvious to say that this is different for every person because every person is living a unique life with unique challenges. And space and time are just the beginning of discovering one’s own writing rhythm. We work in different ways. Some goal-oriented people write to word count or time goals and that spurs them on, while to others writing to a particular goal (like in National Novel Writing Month) sounds like sheer torture. Others may try that key-pounding style for a little bit only to find that it undermines their enjoyment of the writing process and results in sloppy work that is hard to redeem and therefore choose to abandon the NaNoWriMo ship in favor of a slower pace that will result in a better first draft and a more fulfilling writing experience (um, that’d be me).

Today I read a great blog post from Lee Lueck at Sketches and Notes about gushers and bleeders (read it and then pop back over here). Lee determined that she is a bleeder while her husband is a gusher. After some thought I determined that I am probably somewhere between the two, starting as a slow bleeder and building up to gushing once I get a real solid footing and a clear picture of what is to come. I bled the first half of A Beautiful Fiction but I gushed the second half, and then I spent the better part of a year trying to mop up the blood that got on the walls and floor (my beautiful, perfectly worn hardwood floors!) through editing.

Next fall I hope to lead a session at a writers conference on finding your writing rhythm. In preparation, I’ve quizzed about a dozen or so authors I know, asking them the following questions:

  1. What genre do you write?
  1. Describe your daily routine (if you have one). Do you write at a particular time of day? Do you give yourself word count goals or time goals?
  1. Do you find that you tend to write more during particular times of year? Do the seasons or the weather affect your creativity?
  1. What do you do when you find yourself suffering from a block?
  1. What are the things in your life that break your concentration and make it harder to write?
  1. Do you have any strategies for dealing with those things?
  1. What tools do you use to help you get in the mood to write? (music, lighting, change of venues, etc.)
  1. Have you ever lost your passion for writing? What did you do to get it back?
  1. Of everything you’ve written, which book/article was the hardest to write? Which was the easiest?
  1. Do you have any advice for young writers who are trying to be more intentional about writing?

It’s been fun to read the varied answers and contemplate how to put them into my presentation in a way that is helpful and freeing to writers who are struggling finding the time and space to create.

I have personally found that I don’t produce good writing and I don’t enjoy the process when I’m under the gun of 1,667 words a day. I’m still working on dealing gracefully with interruptions and managing my household and work responsibilities while saving good creative energy for writing. It’s ever a process. But even though our ideals may be unrealistic, I do believe we can shape our surroundings, our schedules, and our attitudes in order to make the most of the time and space we do have.

Perhaps some of the questions above might help you determine your own writing rhythm. Perhaps you’d like to share your answers to some of these questions with us in the comments. I’d love to hear from you on how you find the time and space to create, and also how you harness those natural times of peak creativity. So if you’re reading this post as a form of procrastination (you know who you are) then here’s my permission to procrastinate a little longer in order to examine your own creative life and share a bit of it with us!

On Being True to Your Muse

Here’s what I don’t want to write: vampire stories, tales of the coming zombie apocalypse, stories about dystopian societies, YA fiction about wizards and witches, bodice rippers, cozy mysteries, romantic suspense, historical romance, romances in general, crime stories, murder mysteries, courtroom dramas, sadomasochistic fanfic, or almost anything else that seems to be commercially viable today.

Here’s what I do want to write: thoughtful, slow-moving, character-driven literary fiction that subtly asks the reader to examine herself, ask the hard questions, and think deeply about the world she lives in.

Here’s the problem: does anyone publish what I want to write? Hmmm.

Publishing is a business and businesses are all about making money (as they should be). I’m not making any judgments against publishers; I work for one (and so them making money = me getting a paycheck). But as I read about what deals are in the works at the big five (seriously, more publishing contracts for Twilight fan fiction?) I am slowly coming to the realization that if I don’t want to write what most traditional publishers want to publish, I must come to grips with the fact that my writing will perhaps not find a home at a big traditional publisher, even if there is an audience for it out there. After all, I am not so self-centered as to think that I am the only one in the world who wants to read something that is subtle, thoughtful, and literary rather than something that is sophomoric, simplistic, and pandering. (Oh, crap. Did I say that out loud?)

If this is the case, folks, then why write? Why spend the time and creative energy on something that will not bring enormous profit and sudden fame? Here’s why: because good writing is worth doing for its own sake. I know, I know, that sounds like a mother soothing her child after he is passed over for the lead in the school play (“Sweetie, you did your best and that’s all that matters.”) but stick with me here.

It feels good to be praised for our work. When we are young, praise is available from parents and teachers. We are rewarded for our diligence and creativity with good grades, a spot on the refrigerator or bulletin board, a merit scholarship, special cords to wear on graduation day. As adults, we are rewarded with a few pats on the back at work, perhaps, and hopefully a pay raise or a promotion. And for creative artists of all kinds, who are not getting a grade or a paycheck for our work, what gives that sense that others care, that others value what we create? Why, what better measure of our worth than the fact that people will pay for it? After all, if someone doesn’t want to buy what I make, what good is it?

Some food for thought: Vincent Van Gogh produced more than 2,000 paintings and sketches. During his lifetime, he sold just one painting. One. It was his Red Vineyard at Arles, which I’d wager most of us have never seen because it is not one of his more iconic works. Today, along with Picasso, Van Gogh paintings garner the highest prices at auctions, with several recently going for more than $100 million each.

The fact that he was commercially unsuccessful in life did not mean he was untalented. It doesn’t mean he didn’t create beautiful works that would one day be appreciated. And even if his work had never become posthumously popular, those who ended up with his paintings in their homes would most certainly have displayed them because they thought them beautiful and meaningful. His worth is not measured by his slim bank account in life–it is measured by his genius, his enduring expressions of beauty.

The lesson should not be lost on writers of less commercially viable genres. Commercial success would be lovely (or really, some aspects of it would be lovely though I can think of several I’m glad to live without) but it does not determine someone’s talent or worth. Just as blockbuster movies are often (though certainly not always) shallow, pointless, and artless escapades dressed up with copious special effects, some New York Times bestselling books are not art. Some are. But many simply are not.

If you, like me, are a writer who finds herself or himself creating in a non-commercial genre for a more niche audience, don’t give in to the temptation to compromise your vision for commercial success. Yes, you could manufacture some of that stuff blindfolded. But don’t. There’s enough of it out there already. Create your art for its own sake. If you want it to be available to others and are having trouble getting the entrenched world of traditional publishing to take a chance on you, you can always self-publish in ebook and/or print-on-demand format (after you know it is absolutely your best work and you’ve had several conscientious and intelligent readers and an editor look it over to suggest revisions and make corrections). Art is meant to be shared, after all. But don’t silence your muse. Because if you don’t write what is in your heart, who will?

If Writing Is Packing Your Bags, Editing Is Taking the Trip

I love writing. I enjoy the actual process of putting thoughts down in words on a page/screen, and especially that mysterious reverse aspect of writing–when the act of writing actually drives your thoughts. It is fascinating to be part of the interchange between process and product, the fluid state where you aren’t sure who is in charge of the story that is taking shape.

But even more than writing, I have to admit, I love editing. Writing can never achieve on its own what writing and editing achieve together. Writing is only the very first part of the journey. You might compare it to a hiking trip. It’s packing your pack and reserving campsites and planning how far you will hike each day. It’s making sure you have everything you need, gathering the essentials of your story–characters, setting, plot, etc. But just like a hiking trip, you don’t want to stop with the prep work. You want to actually go on the journey. You know it will be hard work, but that it will all be worth it in the end.

I’m not talking about overarching revision, though that is often important, especially when you push yourself to write at a quick pace as so many of us are doing for NaNoWriMo. And I’m not talking about proofing, that necessary nitpicking that gives you a clean manuscript.

I’m talking about  looking at individual words and judging their merit. Are they hardworking or lazy? Are they unique or commonplace? Do they truly mean what you want them to mean? Is there a better one, a more complete one, a more interesting one that could be substituted to bring your writing to the next level? This is like looking down at the forest floor on a hike, noticing the individual plants and flowers and mosses, spotting the snake slithering away or the butterfly sipping nectar. It’s paying attention to the little things, because the little things are what make up the whole of the experience of the trip and they are important. If your readers are tripping over the roots or rocks that are poorly chosen words, this is your chance to  level the path.

I’m talking about looking at individual sentences with that same critical eye and asking yourself if that sentence is truly the best it can be. Does it say something important? Does it say something true? Does it say something necessary? Is it essential? Does it move the reader forward? This is like looking at everything around you at eye-level. This is seeing the path ahead, seeing the deer tip-toeing among the trees, seeing the play of sunlight and shadow on the water. This widens your scope from individual words and takes into account the somewhat larger landscape of your story. If your readers have come to a river with no bridge in sight, this is your chance to build one for them so they don’t have to slog through the mire of unclear sentences.

I’m talking about examining a paragraph and then a chapter and applying the same criteria to it. Is it unique, necessary, dynamic, clear, interesting, and compelling? These are the breaks in the trees that allow you to experience the bigger picture. They are the overlooks, the vistas, that you miss if you are too focused on the ground. These are the points at which you (and your reader) can get a glimpse of what is coming ahead in your story.

So, writers, if your bags are packed (you’ve written your story) it’s time to enjoy the editing journey. The lovely thing about editing is that this is your chance to reshape your literary landscape, to remove obstacles that trip readers up, to improve the scenery and make the path clear. And, just like a hiking trip, you can start from the beginning again, make the same hike, and notice new things every time, so you’ll want to plan multiple trips through your story.

My own penchant for editing has thrown me way off my NaNoWriMo schedule and I’m quite behind now. I took a break to finish an edit on an earlier work (possibly my 20th time doing that hike) before sending it off to a literary agent. I also succumbed to the temptation to go back in my current manuscript for NaNoWriMo and do some revising and editing. But, in my defense, in the early stages of writing a novel, sometimes that really does have to be done or else you will find yourself lost in the wilderness days later having taken a wrong turn way back in chapter 3. Better, I think, to retrace your steps now, consider your options more carefully, and take the right path. After all, blazing new trails is hard work and if you’re going to do it you want to end up in the right place. Or, to put it in terms of our packing metaphor, I don’t want to get too far into my hiking trip and find that I neglected to pack my water purifier or my tent.

Not sure where to start on your editing hike? One of the best books I’ve read lately on the subject is The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman. It’s a veritable field guide to editing success. If you take his advice seriously and apply it to your manuscript, you will end up with a far better product than you started with.

Enjoy the trip!