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Monday, February 12, 2018

Learning to Write

I'm a teacher, a journalist, a broadcaster, and an author. I am not just one of these things, I am all of them. I'm also a guitarist who occasionally writes songs. I am a father, a husband, and a friend. I try to be as good as one can hope to be at all of them. There are occasions I fail. Sometimes fail miserably. I'm not perfect. But I do know this. I have learned much along the way. And I am better, I believe, at every one of these parts of me—these aspects of myself—than I was the day before. It's a matter of incremental steps.

I could write much about this notion of growth when it comes to fatherhood or being a good marriage partner, I'm certain of this. That's probably a different blog post or better left for the therapist's office. So, what I want to write about instead is writing and growing as a writer. 


I have published six books. The sixth coming out this April. I have a memoir manuscript being shopped around now that I'm proud of and feel strongly about. It's received some good interest from potential publishers. We'll see where it goes. I'm also working on a new novel—very early stages—and I am determined for it to be the best writing I've done. For certain, I know I write this now NOT because I want to reveal to you all my accomplishments or want you to think how special this guy is, how talented, how wonderful. I write this because I want you, the reader, and all the other writers out there to know, even after all the writing and work I've done, and being humbled by all the wonderful writers in Chicago, I still believe I have not yet written my best book.

When I go back and re-read my earlier works, I question nearly every word. I read much that I would now change, re-write, massage, tweak. Not because I think it is bad or unworthy, but rather because I am not the same writer I was when I wrote those earlier books. Hopefully, I'm better somehow, have more insight, more skill, and not just technically or as a crafter of words, but more skill as a storyteller with something worthy to share. This said, my desires are not truly about being better, but rather about whether I have grown. Grown in many ways. Grown as a person, a father, a husband and a writer, with all of these "growths" contributing to the writer in me. 

Writers read a lot. I read a lot. Tons. My wife laughs at the number of books that come in the mail. I admire so many writers. Especially some wonderful contemporary writers in Chicago. I could name them, but I would miss many, and I don't want to do that. If you follow the literary scene in Chicago, you know their names. And others you may not know, under the radar writers with much to say. They are extremely talented. I read their work and I shudder. Could I ever write that well? But then again, I know that I do write well. I wouldn't still be doing this, have another novel coming out in the spring; I wouldn't have publishers interested in new work or have been humbled and honored by the awards I have won. Not the National Book Award (Seriously?), or the Nobel (LOL), but awards of value and recognition—Chicago Writers Assocaiton Award, honored at the Chicago LIbrary Foundation's Carl Sandburg Literary Awards dinner, the Royal Dragonflly, The Eric Hoffer Prize.

So why am I writing all this? To pump myself up, as writers often need to do? No. I write this to acknowledge that writing is a journey. It is not about perfection. I write this in the belief that the art of the written word is a moving target. Art in all is forms is much the same. Painters change and reinvent themselves and their work. Songwriters do it, too. They grow into new artists with something new to offer. Think of the Beatles. Is the album Revolver better or just different from Abbey Road? And when the surviving members listen to those old records, do they wish they could change a lyric, a harmony, a note, alter the way it was produced? Yes, they do think that sometimes. McCartney has said so much. But their work is what is for the time that it was created, the time along an artist's growth journey, and that's what it should be. 

I will continue to grow. And I hope, continue to find new ways to develop for me and for those who read what I write. And I will move forward and try not to overly critique every word, every theme, or plot—vague or not—and try never to question what I am. For at least in part, I am a writer. 


Monday, February 5, 2018

Submit Your Work

Every single time.

Students, workshop attendees, friends who want to write all say the same thing: "I have this material, and I think it's pretty good, but it probably isn't, but I don't know, and I'm afraid to send it out, and so it sits in a file on my computer."

Or...

Other writers,  beginning and accomplished, say: "I have some work that might fit for that, but no, it's not good enough, or it needs more work, or...or...or..."

Putting your work out there as an artist—any kind of artist—is an act of courage. Beginners and veterans alike struggle with self-doubt, concerns about whether something is perfect, whether it is finished. Here's the truth: It's never perfect and it's never finished. Art never is.

If you wait for perfection, you'll never share it. And art is not art if it is not shared.

I have a writer colleague, who will go nameless, who said once during a bookstore event we were sharing, that when she is finally finished with a manuscript, she is certain it is exactly how she wants it. Every little corner of it. That is probably true. She's an excellent writer. But I would argue that she is only finished with it, that is only perfect, at that very place and time. At that very moment. In time—weeks, months, years, or decades—she will look back at that work—even a published work—and see something she wished she had done differently. I guarantee it.

There is not one piece of writing—published books, short stories, essays, journalism—that I have "finished" that at some point in the future I have not wanted to adjust, change, rearrange. A word here. A sentence there.

Perfection, like inspiration, is elusive.

And that fact brings me to this:

SUBMIT YOUR WORK.

The Hemingway Foundation of Oak Park, Illinois is open for short story submissions. The HEMINGWAY SHORTS contest is all-inclusive—beginners, veterans, writers of all types are encouraged to offer their work. And one of them should be you. Write no more than 1500 words and submit for a chance at publication and a grand prize of $500.

Here's the link to do just that: Submit—Hemingway Shorts

Put your work out there. Make it the best you can, but shun perfection. You can tweak and edit and rework ad nauseum. Just let it go. It will do you good.

Art must be shared.




Tuesday, January 23, 2018

On Winter Writing

Your intuition knows what to write, so get out of the way. — Ray Bradbury.


Last night left a dusting of snow on this morning of dim light and colorless sky. The temperatures were in the 50s yesterday. Today, we'll get no better than 34 degrees. I had to turn on the heater inside the writer shed an hour early to be sure it would be tolerable to remain inside for a few hours of navigating my way around what I've been writing. Still, there's beauty in the harsh air and the bleakness of a late January day. It's the shades of gray, the hues of white and black, and just enough chill in the air to remind you that we have some time to go before the newness of a spring. This is what I might label as the time of anticipatory despair. I predict more winter gloom before the light of a new season.

And this is exactly how I feel creatively.

It's not unusual. It's the norm. Anyone who creates feels this. What am I doing? Why am I doing it? Is this any good? Is anything I've ever done any good? Will I write myself out of a cold season into a warm one? I've had a sliver of success with my writing. A few awards. Relatively good reviews. But it's not about the outside accolades; it's about the inside accolades. 


Don't worry. This is not going to be some navel-gazing piece about artistic self-doubt. How trite. Pathetic. Boring. Instead, this is about how this sort of gloom, this kind of mini despair, is useful. Even needed. To get to the spring, one must endure winter and all its cold and seclusion and all those shades of gray. Just below the snow that has settled on the barren branches are the yet unseen buds of seasonal blooms. So, the writer puts on his heaviest boots, his thickest coat, his densest wool cap and trudges forth because he knows that if he can hike his way through the weather, knowing there is something good on the other side, he will discover some kind of art. He's been here before. He's questioned it all before. But he knows seasons change. They always do. He knows he's doing what he can. He knows there's something down there below the surface, under the snow.

Three hours behind the walls of the writer shed produced 2,464 words today. Time and space will let me know if any of them are any good.






Monday, January 15, 2018

#dayofwriting

I can't stop myself from taking notes. While having morning coffee, I jot things down in the little notebook that I carry with me most days; I send myself cryptic comments in a text or email when all I have is the phone. I talk through my thoughts—out loud—when I'm driving the dog to PetSmart to give her a bath and write one-word-remembrances on an old business card I find in the car's cupholder. And then, at some point, usually early in the morning unless it is bitterly cold—temperatures below 20-degrees—I head to the writing shed and get to work. If not, then to a local coffee shop.

I'm calling this entire process, this never-ending work of writing. #dayofwriting. 

Every writer I know keeps notes, is always thinking of writing, is hearing dialogue at a grocery store checkout and stealing moments from it. A well-known Chicago writer recently revealed at a reading that she got the title of her collection of stories while in the shower. Or was it while washing her hair? Anyway, you get the idea. Writing is...all the time. It's #dayofwriting. In reality, it's #nightofwriting, too. Dreams come to us and we awaken, searching for our notebooks to write it all down. 


Writing is a 24-hour gig. Not that it's digging latrines or delicate brain surgery. Not that it requires the bravery of a soldier or policeman; not that it employs the smarts of an MIT mathematician. But our heads are always churning, thinking, developing, observing, sensing, shaping, massaging. This is not a complaint or the rant of a look-how-special-we-tortured-artists-are writer. No, it's only a clarification of the work.

Let me explain. 

When I've conducted readings or workshops, I am almost always asked this question: When do you write?

I default to this answer: I'm a morning writer, mostly. I like early in the day. Can't write for more than a few hours at a time. I take a break and sometimes I get back at it later.  




But that's only the actual writing, the physical putting fingers on computer keys and trying to type out something that makes sense. The real answer to "When do you write?" is this: Every single moment of every single day. It's all the notetaking, the research, the staring into the sky, the walks around the neighborhood, the meeting at the college where I work when I should be thinking about curriculum and I'm instead wondering what my character is supposed to say in that critical scene when his father dies. The real work is being done between tiny slivers of time when I am doing something else. 

#dayofwriting

So, with this, I thought it would be fun, on a semi-regular basis, to post a video, a photo, a thought with the hashtag #dayofwriting, and document, for lack of a better word, the writing "process." Not always, but now and then, when I'm doing the work—the physical typing or just talking through something, daydreaming or hurriedly jotting down a nugget of information—I will share it at #dayofwriting on social media—Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. I'm currently trying to flush out a manuscript, so it's a good time—or maybe a bad time—to embark on this little exercise.

We'll see. Happy #dayofwriting. 




Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Why I Write

I just read the final words of a wonderful book. It could have been the last sentences of many, many wonderful books that have sparked a new fire in me, but this time it was Patti Smith's Devotion, a short, soulful work on writing, the process of creation, and the call from something heavenly that turns the pen to write. 

There is now for me, as Patti writes, a "call to action" and a certain "hubris to believe I can answer the call."

Patti Smith, Courtesy Miami Book Fair
This is what great works do. They ignite.

When I was the writer-in-residence at the Jack Kerouac house in   Orlando, working in the same room where he clanked out on his old manual typewriter the first draft of The Dharma Bums,  I was overcome daily with the urge to rush into that bedroom space and inhale the DNA left behind, to ingest the mystical powers of the art of creation. 

In the attic space at the Ernest Hemingway birthplace home in Oak Park, Illinois, where I was honored to take on the duties of the foundation's writer-in-residence, I again was compelled to write, to accept a great artist's energy, and try to convert it into my own.

Kerouac's Orlando Home
So why do I write? To be like them? To copy? To emulate? To steal the light of their brilliance? No, it is not this. Instead, I write to be bigger than myself, to create something fine and layered in meaning, to discover what the greats had, what they found so unforgiving, so necessary a task. I write because there is no other way to exist. I write to resolve some phrase that needs care, to adjust a sorry sack of words into enduring sentences, memorable prose or poetry that will hang just above the moon to shine a soft light on what gazes below it, who wishes on a star. I write to discover, to illuminate, to wander and to wonder. I write not to mimic the greats but to become who I am through them. They are necessary, they are inspirations, they are godlike, but they are only images, reflections, monuments to what I strive to do every single day—write.
Dylan Thomas' Writing Shed in Wales

In my writing shed, my modest 8X10 studio on the property where I live, I keep an original watercolor of Dylan Thomas' boathouse. On the wall, I will soon hang a sketch of Albert Camus by artist Nick Young. And I'm planning to print a photo of the Kerouac home in Florida where I lived for that glorious summer and tack it to the planked wall.

L'Algerien by Nick Young



Each is a reminder to create something worthy of sharing, to write as one must in order to do far more than, as Patti Smith wrote, "simply live."

Why do you write? Why and how does it call you—that muse, that mysterious whispering spirit?


Thursday, December 28, 2017

Commit to Writing in the New Year

Here's my New Year's resolution...write until the well is dry.

I am convinced we need more writers in 2018; more fearless, more brave, more courageous writers. Not that we don't have them now. We do. But more is better. More is necessary. Humans are meant to tell stories, to shine lights on our lives, our dreams and fears, and shared realities. But to do this, it takes more than simple desire or nebulous inspiration. Writing—fiction, nonfiction, personal essays, memoir—is essentially a hard-won discipline.

I am fortunate to conduct workshops of all kinds from time to time, and much of what I hear from writers and would-be writers is this: I can't find the time. How do you find the time to write?

Here's the answer: There is no time to write. You have to make time. And in 2018, I am kicking all of us in the collective posterior, including myself, to...just...do...it.
 
I'm pretty disciplined with my writing but just like you, I falter. There certainly was a time when I would say exactly what many of you say—I don't have the time. Now, writing is a part of my existence. I make time and refuse to wait for "inspiration." If you wait for some higher power, you may never write. For those trying to get to this point, I have a suggestion: In 2018 take part in what I call the Take Ten writing project. It's pretty simple. And even if you already have a disciplined routine, this project might help to renew your commitment. 

Here's how it works in three easy steps:

1. Get a notebook. Something you use daily to dedicate to your writing. This can be a file on a computer or a nice leather journal or even a simple spiral notebook. 

2. Write every single day. I know you've heard this before, but the Take Ten approach is a bit different. This time we want you to focus mainly, at least at the beginning, on simply creating a routine. You want writing to be like brushing your teeth, habitual. Find ten minutes. That's it. Morning, lunch, before bed. Find a spot that yours. On the train, on the couch, at the kitchen table.

3. Lastly, write for those ten minutes and only those ten. Time it on your phone, your watch. Write anything. If you think you can or want to write longer, DON'T. Just write for ten minutes. Then, after ten days or so, write as long or as short as you like. But, and here's the key, from here on out keep writing at that time of day and at that same place. After ten days, the routine is likely to have become sealed somehow. If you set the routine in cement, the writing will come. 

Routine is what you are looking for. It's the bugaboo of the discipline like it is for anything worthwhile and Take Ten helps you to set that routine.

The approach is not unique, but it is simple. And the less complicated, the better. You can do this.




Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Surrounding the Writer with Great Things

Many of you know I have a writing shed. It's an 8x10 studio in my backyard of my home outside Chicago. Nothing fancy, but it's my singular space. I built the interior myself. It's heated. And inside, I have surrounded myself with wonderful things. Not a lot, but special items that either inspire me, motivate, or simply make me feel creative.

In your artistic space—whether it be where you write, sketch, paint, sculpt, sing, post in your daily journal entries, or mediatate—are you surrounded by beauty, love, comfort, your muse? Without sounding too pretentious, is that space "holy?" Not necessarily a place associated with a divine power, although it can be, but rather a sacred space of pilgrimage? When you enter this place, you should melt into it. There should be transformation. And sometimes the "things" we allow inside that space are what can help do that for us.

Here is what is in my space.

My shed has many books, but not all of them, only the ones that truly inspire and stimulate my own work.

Art from loved ones gives me comfort. The photography is my son Casey's work. The bowl is my son Graham's. The tree painting is Jen's, my stepdaughter. And there's the pen Graham made. I use it to enter notes in a journal.  
There are remembrances. The hat is from the trip to Cuba with my boys; a baseball I caught in the stands at old Comiskey Park along the first base side; a photo of myself with a number of writers honored at the Chicago Library Foundation's Carl Sandburg Literary Awards. And an old typewriter just like the one in Hemingway's home in Key West. I found it in an antique shop decades ago. 

On my desk, a watercolor of Dylan Thomas' writing shed above a boathouse in Wales, a gift from Leslie, my wife, that I will forever cherish.

Silly things, too, like a Jack Kerouac bobblehead. I spent three months in 2009 as the writer-in-residence, living at Kerouac's Florida home. And against the wall, one of my two acoustic guitars. It's the old Yamaha I bought when I was 16 with the money I'd saved from delivering the Pittsburgh Press newspaper to my neighbors. The guitar still sounds great.

 
Now and then I add items, but not many. Recently, I purchased an illustration, a print by my friend and colleague Nick Young. It's a portrait of Albert Camus. Camus' book The Stranger is on my top twenty list of all time. The framed print is on its way by UPS and there's a spot on the shed's wall waiting for it to arrive.



Fill your space with what invigorates, soothes, or stimulates you, and rid it of anything that takes you out of that experience. Build a place for solitude and daydreaming, where you can get out of your own head. Eliminate the distractions and embrace the creative.

Henry David Thoreau wrote, “The world is but a canvas to the imagination.”  Take his advice and paint your space with all that triggers the beautiful, the daring, the expressive.