Category Archives: Writing

Creative Energy

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It’s a topic I come back to many times, because it represents a core truth for me.

I can write only what feeds me, what gives me energy.

I watched many eager writers through a strenuous, two-year MFA program, and I was reminded again and again that one of the most important doors our students could learn to open was the one to their own best writing energy.

Sometimes what waits to be discovered is form, the particular form that speaks to each writer.  Not that any of us should be limited to one genre if our interest reaches wider, but there is usually a right place to start, novel or picture book or easy reader, nonfiction or verse.

Often what waits to be discovered, too, is a particular topic.  Many first novels are autobiographical because we all have issues rising out of childhood aching for resolution.  And what better way to resolve them than to create a person more capable of sorting them out than we ever were?

But after that start, after the first manuscript or two or three that mines the big stuff, how do we keep going?  For my part, I have learned to watch for anything that sizzles.  I don’t pick up an idea because it’s cute.  (That goes without saying.  Anyone who has read my work knows I have little interest in or skill for “cute.”)  I don’t take on a topic merely because I think it’s something I can sell.  I don’t even try out an idea because I believe it is important.

I immerse myself in a new project because it comes knocking on my brain with a certain electricity attached.

I am currently in a period of waiting for editorial notes on my latest novel.  While I wait I keep my hands—and my eyes—off the novel I’ve just sold so as to be able to approach it fresh when those notes come.  And so as not to go off in directions the editor won’t be expecting.

But I’m not just waiting.  I am slipping every day deeper and deeper into a pool of ideas.  Trying out my next project.

Some of the ideas I’ve tried out have let me know that they aren’t ready.  One, an early reader I started and abandoned years ago, came tumbling out of my computer and clicked this time.

But then I was back to the pool, searching for electricity.

One thing I found floating around was a young-adult novel I worked on a few years ago.  I had nearly 200 pages of a first draft and months and months of meticulous research when I ran out of energy and put it aside.

Very firmly aside.  When my agent, who had read those first pages, wondered why I didn’t return to it I had a half-a-dozen very solid reasons.

Recently, though, I found myself reading a YA novel in verse with an electric current running down my spine.  “What if?” I said to myself for the first time. “What if I tackled that abandoned novel again in verse?  Would that make a difference?  Would working in small pieces and different voices give the story more energy?  Would the different approach demanded by verse enable me to drop out some of the detail that overwhelmed me in my first draft?

And suddenly, character after character, verse after verse began to bloom in my mind.

Because that’s the way it works.  At least it’s the way it works for me.  When an idea is right it acts like a magnet gathering iron filings.  Everything . . . everything flies to the idea, enlarges it, energizes it.

The notes on the novel I’ve just sold will come, and I’ll find my way back inside that other energy that inspired a very different story and bring it to fulfillment.

In the meantime, though, in the meantime, I wake with my brain sizzling!

This . . . this is what I most need to say, to do, to be!

What greater privilege is there than being able to live and work where my deepest energy compels me?

Writing is …

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Writing is incarnational.

Flannery O’Connor

Your Book’s Best Friend

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The best friend your book will ever have is your editor.  From the moment you have a contract in hand, that’s the most important thing to remember.

Your editor is on your side.  You and she want the same thing: for your book to be the best it can possibly be when it hits the market.  For it to read the best, look the best, sell the best.   And in the process of achieving that goal, your editor brings to the table something you need profoundly . . . perspective.  Remember, you have been in near solitary confinement with that manuscript since its conception.  At this point both your manuscript and you need the light of air only a good editor can bring.

But let me step back for a moment.  Sometimes an editor can be your book’s—and your—best friend even before she has offered that contract.  I couldn’t count the number of times I’ve had a developing writer come up to me with an editor’s letter in hand asking, “Does she really mean it?”  It’s always a letter that praises a manuscript and makes thoughtful suggestions for revision without yet making a commitment.

Does she really mean it?  Yes . . . and yes . . . and yes!  Editors don’t have time to encourage writers whose work they don’t want to see again.  Moreover, while we have no legal obligation to return to an editor just because she has invested time and energy in our work, why wouldn’t we?  If the recommendations feel right, run with them.  Thank her for her insights and return to her with the new draft her comments draw forth.  You have nothing to lose and a possible contract to gain.

And once you do have a contract in hand, once an editor is truly yours, I have just one piece of advice, but I’ll say it many times.  Listen!  Listen . . . listen . . . listen!  Yes, it’s your manuscript, and it will remain your manuscript, but it’s better to hear what you don’t want to hear from your editor—while the work is still fluid, still can be shaped and improved—than from a reviewer.  When you hear it from a reviewer your book has been set in stone.  Revisions are no longer possible.

I have a rule of thumb that has served me well in working with editors.  I listen.  I don’t defend.  If I don’t understand, I ask questions.  Then I listen some more.  Even if I’m certain an editor is wrong, that if I do this thing she is suggesting the entire piece will come tumbling about our ears, I never say so.  I just keep listening, keep asking.  Once the dust has settled—and the more dust there is the more time it takes to settle—I find that critical comments fall into three different categories.

Most of them are simply, Of course!  I should have thought of that myself.  Gratefully, I make those changes.

Some are I see what you meanAnd certainly it could be the way you’ve suggested, though I think it could be the way I’ve done it, too.  In those cases, too, I simply, without comment, make the changes. I figure the editor is probably more right than I can see, because perspective gives her a great advantage. Besides, if it truly could be either way, why should the change matter?

Then there is the third category, the occasional suggestion that simply doesn’t fit, no matter how often I turn it over or how carefully I examine it.  That’s where I hold my ground . . . quietly, respectfully, firmly.  I don’t make it a last stand.  I’m always aware that I could still be wrong. But usually, because I don’t take such a stand often, the editor accepts my view.  When she doesn’t, after a careful discussion, we’ve always been able to find a compromise.

Singers need vocal coaches.  Athletes need trainers.  Writers need editors.

If you begin your relationship with that knowledge deep in your bones, all will go well.

Going Home

Thomas Wolfe said it. You can’t go home again.

And yet, of course, you can.  It’s just that when you go back, home will have changed.  And, of course, you will have changed, too, so the place may not feel even remotely familiar.

I’ve just been back, though, back to Oglesby, the small town in north-central Illinois where I was born, where I spent my childhood.  A town I left more than sixty years ago.

In one way, of course, I’ve never left, as none of us ever truly leaves that patchwork quilt of early memories behind.  In another, the whole town seems to have happened to someone else.  Was that awkward, lonely girl really me?

Actually, I didn’t grow up in town.  I grew up on the edge of Oglesby next to the dusty, noisy cement mill where my dad was the chemist.  I loved everything about that place.  The trains chuffing and tooting and banging.  The bellowing mill whistle.  The smoke stack puffing out a constant column of white smoke, as beautiful, I thought, as any cloud in the sky.  The deep woods that took up where the mill and the yards surrounding our mill houses left off.

I felt safe in that remote world.  Much safer there than I ever did at the school in town where, surrounded by strangers, I started kindergarten at the tender age of four.

Through the years that followed, few of those strangers became anything like friends.  I was too much younger than my classmates, too shy, too occupied with the world inside my head, too socially oblivious.  I wasn’t set off only by the distance I lived from town, but by coming from a family of outsiders.  My parents had come to Oglesby from foreign places—California and Minnesota—and probably even more damning than that, they navigated social rules awkwardly, too.

I always knew myself to be separate, different, not part of the town.  And oh, how I longed to belong.

It took me many years after I left Oglesby to learn the skills that would give me entrance into a community, and even now I do the social dance only in the quietest ways, one partner at a time.  Sometimes what I have written precedes me into a new group, making a place for me.  And that’s pleasant if those I meet have actually read my work rather than responding to some false idea of publishing glamor.  What I have written represents my truest self.

So when the call came from an enthusiastic Oglesby attorney, wanting me to come back, wanting me, not as a silent visitor, but as myself, the woman I am now, the writer, the speaker, I couldn’t help but wonder.  Does anyone in Oglesby really want to hear me?

I agreed, finally, to a time that was months away, assuming, I suppose, if the date was distant enough it would never really come.

It did come, though.  My gracious daughter drove me to that familiar and yet oh-so-uncomfortable place.  I went with deep trepidation.  The acceptance I have garnered through the years in other communities falls away there.

We drove through the town.  So many of the old places gone.  The old school torn down, a new one in its place.  A new library, too.  The dress shop where I bought my teenage clothes, even my wedding dress, now empty.  Doherty’s Drug Store that I passed every day on my long walk home, empty as well.  (Mrs. Doherty used to give kids two scoops of ice cream for a nickel.  Mr. Doherty gave only one as the sign behind the soda counter said was right.)

Even the mill has gone silent.

I spoke at the school to the usual captive audience.  Nothing remarkable there except that I haven’t visited a school except for my grandchildren’s classrooms for twenty years.  I was interested to see that I could still do it.

Then in the evening I showed up at the library and was surprised to see the seats fill.

I was even more deeply surprised when, just before my presentation, two men came in carrying between them what appeared to be an enormous gift-wrapped picture.  Goodness! I thought.  Where will I put that?

But I needn’t have worried.  When I pulled back the wrapping, what I found wasn’t a picture to be taken home for my wall.  It was a highway sign to be posted at the entrance to the town.

 

I’m usually pretty good with words, but I was speechless!

So, you see, you can go home again.  It’s just that when you get there you may find home isn’t any place you have ever known.

Between a Writer and a Reader

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There is a profound belonging and community, an unbreakable bond, between a writer and a reader that resides in that creation we call a book.  A book is a place of communion.  A book is a place of encounter.  A book is where a dead word is resurrected and becomes a living thing, as alive as any tree, as cleansing as any river, as open as any piece of lovely sky.  A writer pours out his grief, his wounds, his pain, his darkest hours, his wondrous moments of joy onto the page—and the reader stops to drink of those waters.  Though the writer may have cried bitter tears in the making of a book, there will always be a reader who tastes the sweetness of humanity in the words she reads.

 

Benjamin Alire Sáenz