Tag Archives: motivation

The Secret of Living Well


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Perhaps the secret of living well is not in having all the answers but in pursuing unanswerable questions in good company.

Rachel Naomi Remen

On Staying Alive

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I’ve been thinking about it for a long time, noticing the elements of my day that bring me joy, that wake me into aliveness.

The waking isn’t automatic.  I don’t open my eyes each morning to say, “Wow!  Another day!”  Rather, I wake into an ordinariness I treasure.  (How aware I am of standing close to a time when I will, inevitably, look back on this very ordinariness as golden.)

I wake, get up, dress, meditate and exercise, then gather myself a lovely breakfast.  A spinach-bacon omelet this morning with homemade guacamole tucked inside, grapefruit topped with a sprinkle of granola, and a chai latte.

Then I settle into my study, surrounded by books, by reminders of Vermont College of Fine Arts where I once taught, by photos of my family and beloved friends, and I dive into my computer.

That’s what it feels like most days, this thing that happens when I sit down to the computer, a deep dive.

And in that immersion I come most fully alive.

Sometimes the dive is into very cold water.  Can I do it again?  Is what I’m doing even worth the attempt?  What in the hell is wrong with this manuscript?

What in the hell is wrong with me?

In the balance between sitting down to do again this thing I know for certain I can do and tiptoeing out over the abyss of something I’ve never tried before, I tend to favor the tiptoeing.  Which sounds nice in the telling of it, but the living of it can be as eerily uncomfortable as the language of this analogy.

It is, however, the very tension that comes with stepping out over the abyss that keeps me knowing I am alive.  I have encountered people who thrive on the adrenaline that comes with jumping out of planes.  That kind of rush does nothing for me.  When I went whitewater rafting to research a long-ago novel, I spent the entire three days imitating an oily puddle in the bottom of the raft.

But the challenge that comes with learning something new, struggling to put it into words!  That is a whole different kind of adrenaline.  And a whole different kind of aliveness.  At least for me.

Recently, I have been trying to create a picture book that could be a worthy companion to my most recent The Stuff of Stars.  I have been working on it for months.

My first attempt turned out to be too like the original.

My next couple of attempts bemused both my agent and my editor.

This attempt . . . well, this attempt . . .

A friend recently passed a quote on to me.  It was Kim Stafford quoting a jazz musician.  He said, “Creative people are comfortable with not knowing . . . yet.”

I would say that “comfortable” is too strong a word for me, much too strong.  I’m not the least bit comfortable with not knowing where this attempt will land, but I’m committed to finding out.

I’m tiptoeing over this particular abyss because I read a book called Seven Brief Lessons on Physics by Carlo Rovelli.  I read the book three times, in fact, and still keep pulling it out and dipping into it again.  Because I fell in love.

I fell so hard that I set out to write something to be shared between an adult and a very young child, words based on the mysterious excitement I draw from my first real encounter with quantum physics.

I know.  I know.  Of course, I don’t understand quantum physics.  I don’t pretend that I do.  I have no meaningful background in science at all.  But the description of a universe that comes into being through interaction, in which reality is a happening and we are a happening too, in which we are part of everything and everything is part of us thrills me.

It’s that kind of challenge . . . and that kind of excitement that wakes me into aliveness each day.

And keeps me writing!

Feast on Your Life

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The time will come when, with elation, you will greet yourself arriving at your own door, in your own mirror, and each will smile at the other’s welcome, And say, sit here. Eat. You will love again the stranger who was yourself. Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart to itself, to the stranger who has loved you all your life, whom you ignored for another, who knows you by heart. Take down the love letters from the bookshelf, the photographs, the desperate notes, peel your own image from the mirror. Sit. Feast on your life.

Derek Walcott

Pure Junk or the Great American Novel?

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I find it interesting and a bit amusing, entirely understandable, too, that I seem to get the strongest responses from my readers out there when I use this blog to talk about my own failures, the places I trip up, the projects I struggle with, the manuscripts that, after all that struggle, still get turned down.

I understand.  Of course.  Especially I understand how difficult the journey is for those of you out there who have been writing with all your hearts, often for years, and have yet to be published.  Or were published once or twice, perhaps more, and can’t seem to make it happen again.

It would be consoling to know that even someone with a long-established career can share the experience of being turned down.  But the consolation is more than misery loves company, even though misery does.  It’s recognizing that failing—or at least failing to get the reception we need—is just part of a complex and very nuanced process.  An inevitable part, especially if we are taking risks with our work.

The hardest thing about staking our lives on creative work is the difficulty of knowing, truly knowing when we are hitting the mark.  I remember so clearly how it felt to write my first novel. I didn’t have a clue whether the words I put down on paper day after day were pure junk or the great American novel.

The feedback that followed publication soon let me know that my novel was neither.  But if my work had never been published, the question would still be out there.

Writing is very much like singing.  If you’re singing in the shower—or anywhere else for your own pleasure—others’ opinions about the sounds you’re making don’t matter very much.  (Unless you are disrupting your housemates too badly.)  But professional singers have vocal coaches, because they must please an audience, and none of us can hear the sounds we are making accurately from inside their own heads.

Writers need reader coaches.

Recently I happened to tell a non-writer friend about the great number of readers I have had for the novel I’m just finishing.  And she said, “I’ve never thought of writing as a group activity.”  I was surprised at the term “group activity” applied to this solitary process of mine.  But the more I thought about it, the more accurate that description seemed.

It isn’t just my agent and editor I depend upon . . . and reviewers once a book makes its way into the world.  I depend on other readers, usually writer/readers, who can look at my work half formed and see both possibility and impediment.

Writing is a little bit like living.  None of us can truly do it alone.

I’m better at judging what I’m writing while I’m writing it now than I was when I waded into the cold water of that first novel.  But every time I try something significantly different from what I’ve done before, my “better” isn’t so great.  Pure junk or the great American novel?  The question arises again.

And sometimes I can feel great confidence in a piece only to have my agent say, gently, “I think we’ll put this one aside” or to have the intended editor say, “Try again.”

I once had an editor call me after I’d delivered an already-under-contract manuscript for a novel and ask, “Marion, are you all right?”

That one took a lot of revision!

The lesson here?  We may work alone, but we cannot survive without one another.  To go on creating, year after year, we must surround ourselves with those who have judgment and honesty . . . and a whole lot of compassion.

Nobody asked you to write that novel

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My favorite thing to remember about novel-writing is an observation I saw taped to a friend’s wall in her office in graduate school: “Nobody asked you to write that novel”. Therefore novel-writing is a choice–you can always stop, always keep going. You are free to do whatever you want. Most novelists come to writing novels because they have been avid readers. Almost all novels, because they are capacious and hard to contain, are imperfect. Normally, “perfect” and “ambitious” cannot co-exist in the same novel. Therefore, most readers have plenty of opinions about how even a wonderful, beloved, and thrilling novel might be made just a little better. And so we try it. And we discover that it is both harder and easier than it looks.

  1. Be the tortoise, not the hare. You learn a lot by taking your time, paying attention to what is going on around you, and keeping at it. Every draft is first and foremost an exploration before it is a work of art. You have to finish exploring before you begin shaping, so it is all important to get to the end of the first draft.
  2. Read a lot. You take in a great deal of knowledge without intending to. Familiarity and pleasure breed ease. When you read other novels, you get models of what to do and what not to do. When you read other sorts of literature, your idea of what a novel is shapes itself by contrast. And every subject requires some sort of research, if only to stimulate your own ideas.
  3. Look and listen. Never hesitate to watch people, eavesdrop, and ask “innocent” questions. You want to know how individuals comport themselves. Novels thrive on the energy of real life. Characters in novels seek to emulate human variety. You cannot know human variety and maintain good manners at the same time.
  4. Exhaust your own curiosity about your project before showing it to someone else. Let your own ideas play out without getting input from others, then, after you show them your work, use their responses as input to push you forward. It may take you several drafts and a long time to come to the end of your ability to tackle a given subject, and when you do, you might be satisfied or dissatisfied with your product. If you are dissatisfied, the input of others will give you ideas for how to shape your novel further. If you are satisfied, the input of others will let you know if your novel is readable and accessible.
  5. Focus on enjoying the process and let the rewards, such as they are or might be, take care of themselves. If you love the process, you will be happy. If you focus on possible rewards, you will be unhappy.

So, even though nobody asked you to write that novel, you may, you should, and good luck to you!

Jane Smiley from an interview with Publisher’s Weekly