Hearts and Minds—Win Them Over, Author That You Are

Man on ladder among many laddersSorry, didn’t realize I was clicking my pen. Was it loud? Too loud, I think.

I don’t want to give you writerly advice today.

When I returned to creative writing in earnest, I was quick to want to share my insights. And I still have quite a lot to say. But why should you listen? At this stage, I can attest to the fact that my ability has grown. That means I had some learning to do. That means my understanding was less-than-thorough when I was most enthusiastic to preach. What would author-me after twenty more years of effort have to say to the present author-me? How will my focus differ then?

Why should you listen to me now? If you perceive yourself as sitting on some lower rung of this ladder, and you want to be here, then by all means, ask how I got here. I’ll tell you. And I’m usually careful with what I say. If you sense nuance, I’ve probably meant it. Probably. Some part of me meant it. And by the way, you’ll have to pass this juncture sooner or later to ascend to those lofty realms above. You cannot skip rungs. But you can move quickly. Some cover this terrain in their twenties yet lose momentum, while others will start in their thirties and rise steadily upward. Some will have meandered, like me.

I won’t tell you today that you should follow one generative technique over another. I use many and leap between them with reckless abandon—whatever propels me forward, that’s what I’ll do. At times I’ll think I’ve hit upon a clever new trick only to hear that others before me have written entire books on the topic. Doesn’t matter, though. I’m not interested in reading those books.

Lucky me, I have an emotional barometer that lets me know when I’ve bogged down. Whenever I’ve veered onto the wrong creative path, I’ll become irritable and depressed, fulminating against the world’s shortcomings in general and mine in particular. And then, out of some survival instinct (and for the love of those nearest and dearest), I’ll forsake my pride and make the change and tweak my approach to the problem. I call it “cheating fate,” because when I most need this sort of hopeful upsurge is when I’m at my most fatalistic. So I’ll tap the bootlegger’s optimism and make the j-turn, and it always works, sooner or later. There used to be a lot more “laters” than “sooners”—now, I might make the turnaround in an afternoon.

All this is abstraction, I know. Whether you like it or not, you’re actually getting a taste of how my journals run–loads of abstractions until I’m impatient with them and finally spit out something concrete, some minutia from the day that betrays my disposition, a final sentence or two summing up my true message. Today, for instance, was the first of two days off from work. I spent half of it sitting in sunshine on my couch reading The Ghost Map, a book about a cholera epidemic in the mid-nineteenth-century London.

That may sound pleasant enough, but I started the day off bitter, mulling over work—even during my precious shower. I stomped around doing chores, raging for hours. What a waste. I was looking forward to my day off, too–not because I don’t enjoy my clients, I do, and I really do value these months of intense interaction with people. But I’m an introvert, and living like this is overstimulating, and my energy and emotional resilience become depleted. I need bulk time alone to recharge and don’t always get it. This is not the ideal environment for creativity. I wouldn’t be an author if I had to live like this year round.

But never mind the big picture. At least today I didn’t ruin my tea as I did yesterday when I failed to notice the electric kettle had clicked off and wasn’t boiling water. No time to let the kettle cool and boil fresh water or to wipe off the old kettle and make tea the conventional way. No, I had to hop in the car and drive in Atlanta traffic half-comatose for over an hour while sipping weak tea.

Of course, some lessons come slowly. My old kettle still sits in the living room on the marble-slab table, next to scraps of green tissue paper, unread books, and a large tin of my poor dead dog’s ashes–all covered in dust.

What the hell is my point?

Ah, here it comes….

Writers: Find your voice. Follow your heart and your head. Win hearts and minds. Follow writing advice that makes sense to you at the time you need it. Follow the rest with the fervor of religiosity only if you wish to clone the work of the author giving it.

That’s all I have today. Back to cholera.

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