Friday, October 2, 2009

Creative People Have Two Jobs

In a roundabout way, I learned of a new book on creativity: Ignore Everybody by Hugh MacLeod. Then I learned of some fascinating notes on the book at Derek Sivers's website.

Sivers is no slouch when it comes to creativity--he knows whereof he speaks, having created the awesome that helped so many independent musicians stay independent.

One of Ignore Everybody's main points is that most creative people have two jobs. Ouch, my friends say. Can't I make a living at what I love?

Well, yes, if you really really want to. That means (1) amazing luck, (2) incredible hard work, and (3) sometimes years of not earning enough to rent a teepee. I've watched so many writers quit their day jobs when The Book Idea comes along. I've watched them suffer with the pressure of trying to write to make that six figure advance, when they never wrote a word before. Better to take that pressure off your creativity, not flatiron your book into being. Books don't like that.

You may not like this post this week. You may be a worthy dreamer who hates your cubicle life and wants to break out into the wealthy world of published authors. Most of us aren't. We're midlist, which means our books sell OK but not enough to pay all the bills. The most I ever earned from royalties in a year was about $30,000. I loved my book which earned that, but it was written without the pressure to earn big bucks.

I was able to, because of my day job, stay creative. That's the point, isn't it? How to stay creative in a world that doesn't really like it.

That's why MacLeod's book is so timely.

This Week's Writing Exercise
This week's exercise is pretty simple. Read the book review for Ignore Everybody on Derek Siver's site then write your own list of what it takes for YOU to stay creative.

Is it about ignoring everybody?
Is it about paying attention to a few trusted people?
Is it about a room of your own, a la Virginia Woolf, or a kitchen table a la J.K. Rowling, or a great Internet cafe that keeps you bubbling with stolen dialogue lines?

Enjoy making your list. Let it simmer all week.

Responding to What's Out There--Writing Letters to the Editor

In my novel, Qualities of Light, there's a triangle of love interests. Boy likes girl, girl kind of likes boy, girl falls in love with another girl. Not so unusual these days. To make matters even more tangled (a key element of novels), the love affair begins during a family tragedy, an accident that causes the girl's young brother to fall into a coma. The accident, of course, is caused by the girl. Or so she believes. And her belief causes the main dilemma of the story.

Considering the questions exercise from last week, I was intrigued by this one, and it became the pivot for my book: Is love something you can expect, something you can delight in, when you are in deep trouble? When you have almost caused someone you love to die?

My novel has several layers of these kinds of questions. I enjoyed not knowing the answers, exploring the topics.

One topic that fascinates me is how gay or coming-out teenagers cope with their lives. So when a colleague pointed me toward an amazing article in last Sunday's New York Times magazine, I had to respond.

I decided to write a letter to the editor. My experience sparked an idea for the writing exercise this week.

Writing Your Passion
The article was called "Coming Out in Middle School" and author Benoit Denizet-Lewis interviewed some very interesting teens who did this and had various experiences. Molly, my heroine, struggles with the same issues real-life gay and straight teens face--acceptance and rejection, self-identity, the beauty of falling overwhelming in love at last. In writing the book, the struggles of my heroine and other kids like her became my passion. So I wanted to send a passionate response to this wonderful writer, Benoit Denizet-Lewis.

Letters to the editor are a chance for low-risk passion statements. They may never get published, of course, but they're a chance for you, the book writer, to get your ideas, thoughts, and words to readers who might not otherwise touch them.

My letter isn't a model of great Letters to the Editor, but here it is:

Dear Editor,
"Coming Out in Middle School" by Benoit Denizet-Lewis spoke eloquently of the challenges teens and pre-teens face when they discover they are gay. Finally our society offers support for GLBTQ youth, the necessary emotional shelter they need as they come to terms with who they are. I especially enjoyed reading the discussion of how old youth are when this awareness happens--much younger now, and thankfully much more supported.

However, the author did not cover a huge and essential aspect of teens coming out: What happens when a teen finds out they are gay because of a sudden love interest? I explore this topic in my new young-adult novel, Qualities of Light (October 2009, Spinsters Ink). Perhaps the teen has always dated boys and suddenly falls in love with a girl. What happens when the teen's friends, who are heterosexual, make fun of the new pairing? Is it safe to tell parents, who may not support the sudden change?

Unlike Denizet-Lewis's subjects, these teens may not know how to make the transition. When researching for my novel, I found few books treated this subject, few served as literary mentors for teens falling in love with their best friends, as my heroine Molly does. A vastly different experience than the gradual coming out of the profiled teens in Denizet-Lewis's excellent article.

It's timely that this article comes out at such a ground-breaking moment in our history, when states are legalizing gay marriage and accepting that love is love. What we need is more literary models for teens who experience the sudden awakening of the heart and wonder how to reorient their lives to its truth.

Mary Carroll Moore

Stand Up in Print--A Way to Practice Your Book-Writing Passion
Do you feel it's important to stand up for something in print, be heard--before your book sees its readers? Find an article to praise and comment on. Editors of publications like both. They work hard to find good material and they love it when readers notice that.

Scan your local newspaper or a monthly magazine this week and find something that connects with your book topic. Craft a response. Mention your book (in progress, if that's true). Send it off. See what happens.

PS Most Letters to the Editor can be sent by email nowadays. Just follow the guidelines--they usually need your name, address, and phone, although the last two items are usually not printed.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Power of Unanswered Questions

As someone who loves it when the ducks are lined up, I used to hate unanswered questions. Problems I couldn't solve, dilemmas unresolved, drove me nuts. I worked hard at applying solutions to every problem.

I felt great when the issue got fixed. I tallied up answers like gold.

Then I began writing books. Books are large, unweildy events, worse than organizing a family wedding. Hard to predict what will happen. Hard to plan entirely. Full of unresolved problems and big questions that may not get solved until the final draft. My first books were nightmares, partly because of my need to solve every problem right away. Luckily, back in the olden days when I began publishing, I worked with patient editors who taught me the power of the unanswered question.

This may not be your issue--at all! But if it is, read on.

Love the Questions Themselves
Rainier Maria Rilke, the German writer responsible for the beautiful volume Letters To A Young Poet, said, "Have patience with everything that remains unresolved in your heart. Try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books written in a foreign language. Do not now look for the answers. They cannot now be given to you because you could not live them."

Rilke's point was that hanging around with questions leads to the best answers. You need time to live your way to the answers. There's real gold in the questions themselves because they open up the creative self.

I've often asked my book-writing classes to begin a list of questions about their books-in-progress. Add to the list, one question daily, and let yourself muse and wonder about what the answer could possibly be. Once I became patient enough to try this myself, I saw great improvement in my writing. It was as if a creative faucet got turned on.

I wasn't just working my problems to find solutions; I was creating something new. My random, creative, wondering and wandering writer inside was excited.

Does Unanswered Equal More Creative?

Why are unanswered questions so helpful for book writers? Why do we need NOT to know everything before we begin our writing process?

Theme, subtext, and inner story all emerge from the random, creative side, not the linear left brain of the writer. You can't get good theme by going after it directly. It bubbles up. It surprises you. A writing mentor once told me: "If it doesn't surprise you, it won't surprise the reader." You'll have a too-predictable plan, leading to an unoriginal and uninspired book.

This week, make a list of unanswered questions. Things that are worrying you about your outline or theory, plot or characters, theme or beginning or ending. Let the list simmer. Let the questions become part of your breathing and living each day. When you get the bubbling up of a possible creative idea that addresses your question, listen and take notes.

Your muse is talking.

PS This exercise isn't just limited to writing. I've used it to create answers to tangles with family and friends, health issues, everything under the sun. It's fun, creative, and it works.