Friday, July 31, 2009

ART versus ENTERTAINMENT? I'm impure, doubly so. A Confession.

I've written books that I've seen as primarily entertainment, and art happens in the process.

I've written books that I've seen as primarily art, and entertainment happens in the process.

These are distinctions that happen in my own head. I would like to report that the books that I've written for the sake of art -- novels and collections of poetry -- are harder, more grueling than the books I've written with entertainment in mind. But I can't.

Some have been. Some haven't. The burdens are different, but, for the most part, equally weighty.

A few other things.

While writing children's novels, I never dumb anything down. If anything, novels for younger readers use every ounce of my imaginative effort. They wear me out much more than a novel for adults -- I use different muscles, but ones that are weaker within me.

And, sorry to report to all those out there who think LA is an art killer, my conversations with producers -- though sometimes baffling and sometimes full of double-speak -- are more often than not conversations with extremely smart, well-read people with artistic vision. Those conversations have pushed me to write in a way that's more philosophically sound and liberated me to be more visually wild -- cinematic.

There is a notion that writing to entertain -- writing commercially -- is how we as artists cop out, sell out, give in. And that writing art is how we maintain our own artistic vision, that's how we remain pure.

I've realized recently that I'm polluted -- but doubly so or equally so as an artist and entertainer.

Because I've gotten in touch with my desire to entertain (with art happening along the way), I've also gotten in touch with the impurities in my desire to make art, and I've realized that my desires to make art are just as impure as my desires to make entertainment.

When making art, I want respect. When making entertainment, I want readers. Sometimes I get neither, sometimes a little of one, the other, both. I can never predict.

Both impurities impact me as a writer. I don't live in a hermitage. I'm a human being who lives among other human beings. And I have no strong desire -- as some writers do -- to do something as grand as withstanding the test of time. This, in fact, never really dawns on me.

Does this mean that I don't ever write anything that is purely for my own joy or enlightenment -- without any expectation of respect or readers?

Well, damn, I find joy in all of it (and requisite despair).

I love the challenges inherent in every project, and, frankly, those distinctions I make in my head between art and entertainment are getting blurrier. This fall I'll work on a novel that I consider to be such a convolution of both that I really don't know where it will sit, even within my own self-made constructs of art and entertainment.

I often talk to writer friends who don't want to take this suggestion or that from an editor. They say it's for artistic reasons. Maybe an editor is asking them to sell out to readers, but maybe not. And sometimes I wonder if artistic vision isn't a bit of hubris, a bit of laziness, or something else altogether -- maybe just the pervasive cultural perceptions about art and entertainment?

Still rowing...

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Time versus Talent

Anders Ericsson is one of the world's leading experts on talent, and he doesn't believe in talent.
When I first heard of him when I came to FSU in 2004 and read his work, I assigned my grad students one of his psychological abstracts. (His work has been widely quoted -- yes, in Outliers, too, I've heard. I haven't read that book myself.)

Basically Ericsson says it comes down to this 3-4 hours of deliberate practice per day for ten years. That's what it takes to rise up to a national or even international status in a field, whether soccer or opera singing.

It's not talent. It's time.

I like to talk to my students about this because Americans are believers in a number of things about the creative process that I think are odd and off-the-mark.

#1 is Talent.

#2 is a second cousin to talent and that is Inspiration.

and #3 is that writers -- especially writers -- need to work in solitude ... to create their own voice...

The talent myth is problematic. It sends all the wrong messages.

There were writers in grad school who were stronger writers than I was, bound for greater things. And there were writers who people pretty much wrote off -- they'd never make it.

Now, looking back, I can see that sometimes a lack of time invested in craft was seen as a lack of talent, when, in fact, that writer was just greener than the others ... Or perhaps the really strong writers couldn't put in those last years of work.

The result is that the most talented don't necessarily have books. They have great, fulfilling lives, but not as writers. And that some of those who were written off have many books under their belts.

I'll go on to say that the hardest writers to teach are those who are the best writers on the first draft, those writers who blow you away in an off-handed in-class writing exercise, those with "talent."

Now I do believe in a certain amount of talent. There are those who have a natural ear for language, those who are intuitive about human nature, those who have rejected that the sun is a circle with lines coming out of it, and, instead see the world for what it is. (I'd argue, too, that many of these folks were either raised by great storytellers or went to plays or read a lot or or or ...)

I also believe you can drum some language into people by having them read the greats. I believe you can teach literary taste by reading the greats. I think you can teach people how to watch people and how to listen. Sometimes you can even teach people to un-see and then re-see the world. I believe you can teach writing. No question. (But I'll get to this on another day ... because I also think you can teach yourself ... if you've got a well-stocked library on hand.)

Now how easy or hard it is to teach certain writers goes back to scientific research as well -- that I can't name because I have no memory for such things. The idea is that when you start something new -- say learning a foreign language -- you make great leaps in the beginning -- huge ones. You get drawn in by how quickly you're learning ... If I threw you into Paris, you'd have some good French skills in a six weeks. You could be fluent in six months -- at cocktail parties and on the street dialogue. But if you wanted to be bilingual? Really take your French that last final, stubborn inch? Well, that's going to take years ... True too with writing.

And so the students who are really fantastic in a first draft are hard to convince that their work is great, but it's not exceptional, and then you have to tell them that the final, stubborn inch will take possibly a decade ... maybe more ... of intense focus? Well ...

(Now, why some people go on to gut out 3-4 hours of deliberate practice per day for ten years and why other give up along the way -- and perhaps for very healthy reasons -- is another question for another day ... Remind me ... )

The talent myth is especially damning because it allows certain writers to think that they don't have to work all that hard, that writing isn't blue collar. It isn't white collar. It's more like feathery, winged collar...

because much of it relies on ... myth #2 Inspiration.

I started to become really worried about inspiration as a pervasive cultural concept when I was on the road as N.E. Bode, my pen name as the children's book author of THE ANYBODIES Trilogy and other books ...

Kids kept asking at every single Q and A, "What was your inspiration for these books?"

I wasn't quite sure what they wanted ... a special teacher? My Aunt Rita who always loved me? God? My dog Tippy? (Fake dog name to protect my real dog's identity...)

Basically, I tried to tell them -- while giving credit to all those who have been encouraging as well as those who spurred me on because I wanted to prove them wrong -- that I don't rely on inspiration. If I did, I'd like sit around most days in a hammock not writing anything at all. I'd start a lot of books and never finish them.

I explained that writing is work, that I dig in, and make stuff up then work and rework.

I have given them the old Chinese proverb, "When there is no wind, row."

But with my grad students, I go a step further. "When there is no wind, row. And when there's wind, row. Basically, just row."

I also do believe in inspiration however. Every once in a while -- it comes and goes, and, well, was persistent pretty much the whole time I was writing The Prince of Fenway Park (as Julianna Baggott) -- I'm struck by inspiration. I'm pretty unaware of it because I become unaware of everything but the page, everything but my characters moving in their world. Time goes by. My stomach eventually hurts and I wonder why. Well, because hours have passed, and I'm hungry ... These are blissful times ... Blissful. But I have to work toward them, and I have to work in their absence.

I row.

Now go on and row.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Criticism, Rejection, Jealousy, Loathing, Bitterness -- Not Necessarily in that Order

a guest blog by Julianna Baggott -- she and Bridget really see eye-to-eye on this stuff.

Back before I got my first book deal, I was teaching a class at my dining-room table. One of my students was Sharon Mitchell, who came to me with a book deal already in place. It was, in fact, a "two-book deal with Dutton."

I went to bed thinking, two-book deal with Dutton. I ate breakfast to the tune of two-book deal with Dutton. I took care of the kids with a soundtrack in my head that played only one song -- two-book deal with Dutton.

And so when my agent -- see previous post -- came calling, I was soft in this way too. I wanted a two-book deal with Dutton.

I was jealous, yes, pissed off, sure. I was bitter. Not at Sharon. I loved Sharon. (Her first book Nothing But the Rent went on to be #2 on the African American Bestsellers List!) But at the whole publishing side of things.

But this is what I tell my students: BE NOT VAGUELY BITTER. Vague bitterness makes you say snarky things to the bag boy at the grocery store. Vague bitterness makes you cut people off while driving. It hurts your relationship with your dog, etc ...

HONE YOUR BITTERNESS, I say. Take the bitterness as energy and let it lead you back to the computer, to the work.

I also still had a set of teethmarks in me from the soured deal with the small university press that bowed out on my collection of stories. I got some good old-fashioned loathing going out of that.

This is what I sometimes say about loathing. POLISH YOUR LOATHING LIKE CHROME. Again, let it be your ROCKET FUEL. Take its energy and let it lead you back to the work.


I dig Zen. I'm all for it. If you can do Zen, then, man, do it. Be at peace.

And do I wish that I didn't feel loathing, jealousy and bitterness? Of course. Do I wish I were a better person? I do. Do I strive to be a better person? Yes.

But I do feel these things, and I've decided to accept them as the gift of energy they give me. I don't use 'em to beat myself up -- or not for long, at least. I use them to go on.

I have a natural chip on my shoulder -- youngest of four, always scrappy, always having to prove myself. I take care of the chip. The chip has been good to me. I don't feel entitled. I have to work for it. I work.

And now: REJECTION is an indespensible part of my creative process.

I think that with 15 books people would assume I don't get rejeted as much as I once did. But rejection is still a very real part of my day-to-day, as well as criticism. I put a lot out there. I send out a lot of ideas and full works ... I have a lot of stalled novels that didn't make it, probably never will.

Nowadays, rejection knocks at the door. I welcome it in. Offer to take its hat. Offer a beer -- or, depending, something a little stronger ...

Rejection means I haul a piece back in and rework it, rethink, rewrite ... sometimes use for scraps ...

(If you see the comments on my FB page about my post on AGENTS -- check out MICHELLE HERMAN'S POST on the destruction of her first book. Don't do that! Too precious. If you think a book's not working -- as I often do -- use it to build a fecund junkyard ... I'll talk about the importance of a fecund junkyard when I discuss THE EFFICIENCY OF CREATIVITY. AND , check out Michelle Herman! She's great.)

I don't ususally get all worked up anymore. But, here's the bargain. I don't get worked up about rejection because so much of it is subjective. But if rejection is subjective, acceptance is too. Therefore I can't get worked up about either. I occasionally break this rule ... But that's the rule.

I have to love the process of writing -- or at least love the sometimes excruciating and intimate daily engagement with the process. THAT is mine. That and that alone.


Of course, then we must give the work to someone else. No one can expect to improve if they write in a bubble of self. I'm a criticism junky. A hundred people can say it's good, but I'll only hear the one with a critique. (This is probably a Darwinistic survival trait. I don't fight it.)

Now, I don't like criticism of a finished product. Nothin' I can do for them then, is there? At a certain point, it's like watching people drown ... But ... good critics should be worshipped. I have an assistant who is fantastic, thorough, tough. He reads everything before it goes to anyone else. (FRANK GIAMPIETRO -- he does one-on-one tutorials as well. You can email him about them. He's also a brilliant poet, author of BEGIN ANYWHERE.)

And I do now have the benefit of working with editors on my books -- at various times in the process. I know there's this catch-phrase that EDITORS DON'T EDIT ANYMORE. But I can say that MY EDITORS, by and large, HAVE BEEN GREAT HANDS-ON EDITORS. And so I've been lucky -- with minor exceptions -- very, very lucky.

I'll be blogging about all kinds of things you can do to learn your craft -- MFA programs, tutorials, conferences ...

With my students, I often do a pie chart of WHAT IT TAKES TO BE A WRITER. We start out with things like -- how much of it is talent or connections or ... And our pie chart is usually 90-95% talent to start with ... but by the end of the talk, we've switched it to 90-95% of things like doggedness, resilience ... the traits that help you to survive the writing life.

I can't say enough that, for me, it's the process that I truly love. I'll use negative forces in myself to get my butt in the chair ... but once it's there, and I'm engaged in the process, I'm hooked.

In the end, I protect that relationship -- the one I have with words. Everything else is else.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Writing About Writing -- with requisite neuroses

Guest Post by Julianna Baggott -- author of 15 books, including novels, novels for younger readers, books of poetry, under her own name and various pen names.

I've never written about writing in a blog, not really, though I've written about writing plenty. I'm afraid, I think, that if I start writing about writing in blog form I won't be able to stop. Writing is, for me, the disease and the cure. It's how I breathe. And my relationship with writing is as intimate and real as any of my relationships.

I write in a storm -- my daily life is messy, loud, vexing, ebullient -- and I've been writing about the storm -- the external realities of my life.

But here are a few things I should blog about, really, because these are a few questions that come up again and again.

1. Who are you? A bit on pen names.

2. On being prolific which leads to a discussion of THE EFFICIENCY OF CREATIVITY.

3. On the balance of writing with kids.

4. Doggedness -- I just read a post by Dani Shapiro on her complicated feelings about the word. I use the word all the time.

5. Talent versus Hours.

6. Agents.

7. Why I believe editors do still edit.

8. How to improve -- a few writers I know who do one-on-one tutorials, plus conferences, writing groups, online supports ...

9. Cross-training -- why it's important for me to write in many genres.

10. Reading as a Writer -- a different kind of reading.

11. Criticism and Rejection -- the upsides.

12. Mapping -- How I shape a novel while allowing it to shape itself.

Over the course of the next few weeks, I'll post on all of these topics., alongside Asher's posts, detailing her storm.

I hope these things help ...


Saturday, July 25, 2009

Charles Grodin and the Apocalypse

So I'm out for a walk with my 12-year-old son and I tell him that I've heard good news -- the recession is ending.

"They're just saying that because they know the apocalypse is coming. Of course the recession is ending! So is global warming! So is the world!"

"That's a little dark."

"Adults are so naive. We're all going to have to take up moon farming."

"Did you make that up? Moon farming?"


"This is a good bit. You should write this down for your stand-up."

"I don't know if I want to be a kid comedian."

"I don't think you should. You should become an adult comedian who worked hard on comedy ever since he was a kid."

"Comics don't work as kids on their material."

"Yes, they do. Charles Grodin lived near a zoo as a kid, and he used to try to time his jokes with the random laughs of the hyenas."

"That's just creepy and lonely. That is so lonely. I mean to be the kid who can say, 'Yeah, well, hyenas laugh at 25% of my jokes!' That's just so lonely and creepy. Isn't it?"

"I'd say poignant, really ..." But I didn't win the argument, and so I'm the one writing this stuff down.

Since the wiretapping ...

I've really stepped up my phone banter.

Friday, July 24, 2009

No Money Fun

Overheard this conversation today.

"Hey," says the neighbor boy, as he sits next to my son on the bumper of the minivan.

My 12 year old son, "Hey, Chandler."

"What up?"

"I'm not using my arms for an hour."



(Okay, so this is classic me as a 12 year old. I got so proficient at elective armlessness that I could write pretty fluidly and change a cassette tape and play music with my feet.)

My son says, "Later, Chandler. I gotta go get a drink of water, which I know how to do."

About twenty minutes later, my son walks into the room just maniacally wiggling his fingers. "Ahhh! It feels so right!"

The end.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

New Rules -- If It's Irish ...

So yesterday I made the blanket family rule that, for that day and that day only, the kids could use curse words but only if they were speaking in an Irish accent.

The result? A day of feckin' this and feckin' that.

That night before bed, my twelve year old asked me what tomorrow's accent would be.


To qualify for a day of free cursing while speaking in a foreign accent, however, they have to go online, find audio clips of the foreign language and English being spoken by identified non-native speaker, find three facts about said culture, etc ... Let's do this right.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

My Kids on Gandhi

A conversation I had today:

"Did you hit your brother DURING the movie Gandhi?"


"Do you find this ironic and regrettable?"


"Are you getting the whole non-violence thing?"

"Yes. It's hard."

"I think that's about right."

Monday, July 13, 2009

When You're a Jet ...

Now, as a child, it was my one supreme goal to get all of my friends to amble into the 7 Eleven at various intervals, as strangers, and then one would start singing something from West Side Story or -- as I was always voted down on West Side Story for something from Grease -- someone would start singing something from Grease. One would start singing near the milk, and then another over by cat food -- with unified dance moves -- and then another by tampons, and another by the Slurpees machines -- all with wild, synchronized choreography. And then the whole place would be bursting with song and dance, and maybe even the other customers would join in -- maybe even the guy behind the counter ...

And so you can imagine how I felt when I was visiting one of my favorite blogs SARAH MAKES YOU STRONGER and she had this Michael Jackson tribute video up and just why this video hit me so hard. It represents my dream -- albeit enacted by Swedish people.

I mean, Stockholm? They can't even dance, and yet there they are ... all orchestrated and then, quite beautifully, they disperse, before the song is over ... That's it. Ephemeral art. And it's gone -- before the song is over -- and we all return to our individual, solitary lives.

Friday, July 3, 2009

If You Came of Age in the 80s, Here Are Some Tips for De-Aging (without surgery)

So ... Here's what I've had to sacrifice to be younger:

I no longer sing along to ICE ICE BABY -- how could I? I tell myself. I was barely born yet.

When Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" comes on the radio, I don't joke around by raising my hands in the air and pretending I'm John Cusack holding a boom box in Say Anything.

"Say Anything?" Um, sorry, I got nothing. I must have been getting potty-trained.

I've dumped Ralph Machio as my childhood crush. Ditto Boris Becker. Who?

Drakkar what? A cologne? Noir, huh? Never smelled it before.

I just don't even say the word ALBUM -- not even when talking about photos.

I NEVER admit I was scarred as a child because I wasn't ever picked to be Farrah when playing Charlie's Angels. (I was Kate Jackson and am still BITTER about it.)

Short Conversation

I say to the sitter, "The baby ate dog food yesterday. Why would a baby do that?"
My 13-year-old adds, "He also drank out of the dog's water bowl."
"You did?" I ask the baby.
"La!" the baby says, which means yes. "Bowl!"
"He's really got the whole thing down," my daughter says.
"He's consistent."The sitter, "It's cute, but it really has to stop.
"I look at the baby. "Do you hear that? It has to stop."
"La!" the baby says.
"You know it's not good to eat the dog's food, right?" my 13-year-old says.
"La!" the baby says.
"It's just not good for you," I say.
"Are you going to do it again?" the sitter asks him.