GET ON OVER TO MY BLOG, YOUR SHELF LIFE
Dear Readers, Writers, Authors, and Others,
My new blog for writers, authors, and those connected with the publishing business is up! Check it out at YOUR SHELF LIFE. Yep. How long will you last? How long will you last emotionally and physically in the book trade? And how long will your books and their influence last? Is it worth it? How to make it better?
After WINNING FOURTEEN NATIONAL AWARDS with four books that are ABSOLUTELY GORGEOUS, the truth of the words of that great capitalist, STEVE JOBS, has stuck me full force: "GENIUSES SHIP."
Or in the case of writers/authors, AUTHORS SELL.
If you want to stay alive in this industry, your book better sell. That's true whether you're self publishing, trying to find an agent, have your first book in bookstores for the first time, or ar the president of Random House. Especially the latter. Book companies are having a lot of trouble these post-financial world meltdown. So are the rest of us, right?
Whatcha gonna do to make your literary masterpiece, designed by the best designers, outsell winners like Curse of the Vampire Cleaning Ladies? (No, that's not a real book, but vampire books are so popular, expect it along any day.)
That's what I'm working on now. Go to YOUR SHELF LIFE to see my solutions.
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This is what I wrote after coming back from BEA last June '08:
Welcome to my Writers' Corner. This is where I attack––or at least write about––issues we writers and authors face.
This has been a good year for this writer. I won a total of eight national awards for my two books. Yes! Here's the info:
May and June 2007 were good months for me. Stepping Off the Edge won six national awards. I was a finalist for the Benjamin Franklin Award in the New Age (Spirituality/Metaphysics) category. My book, Stepping Off the Edge, was one of the top three books in that category. I later found that Stepping Off the Edge won a Bronze Medal in the IPPYs, and was a finalist in three categories in the 2007 Indie Excellence Awards––Self help, Memoir, and Spirituality. (These contests are so big that you're an award winner if you're a finalist, sort of the way that Academy Award nominees are considered winners.)
As if that weren't enough, my novel Numenon won (!) it's category, Religious Fiction in the 2007 Indie Excellence Awards. The 2007 Indie Excellence contest was the only one I could enter Numenon in because it is still a galley! My printer FedExed the required copies directly to the contest; they arrived on the last day they could be judged––still smokin' from the presses.
That wasn't all: Numenon won Best Books of 2007 in Visionary Fiction (USABookNews.com) a few months later, still a galley.
I just got back from my first year at Book Expo America, the largest book marketing event in the USA. Whoa. It is big! In addition to meeting celebrities and walking off with a ton of signed books, I met great people, some famous, and had a ball. Surprise, surprise! I always thought of marketing as akin to root canals. No. It was fun.
And, even though I expected to have my signing come and go with me sitting there with all my books, people flocked to the booth. I ran out of books before people I'd promised them to could arrive. Wow!
Talk about exciting––this changed my point of view about writing this web page. In previous posts, I've been whining about the difficulty of writing, then the hardship of being published, and finally, how much work getting a book through the publication process is.
Moan, moan, whine, kvetch. I'm done with that.
It's true that writing is a difficult, labor-intense, and demanding profession, but the rewards are there. It's possible to win, as the last months have shown me.
I want to tell you a story. When the email came telling me that Stepping Off the Edge was a finalist in the Benjamin Franklin Awards, I sat at my computer staring at the monitor with tears running down my face. "Oh, I can't believe it. I just can't believe it," I sobbed, reading the announcement again and again. "I can't believe it . . . ."
An inner voice cut my disbelief short: "Why can't you believe it?" I ducked, knowing I was getting a Message. I'd heard that voice before: It writes most of my books. This particular inner voice is powerful, unequivocal, and always right. Impossible to ignore or mistake for anything else.
"Why is it so impossible? You've been a straight A student most of your life. You worked more than full time for three years writing that book. Then worked harder attending to every detail of its publication.
"Don't you think other people can see that?" Oh. Maybe having so little confidence was false modesty. Or a self-indulgent delusion of inferiority.
And then the voice popped out the real issue, "Don't you believe that I see what you deserve? Don't you thinking that I will reward you for your hard work and your faith in Me?
I was bowled over. I experience that Voice as God. Stepping Off the Edge is about spiritual experience and living a spiritual life. I pray to the entity I feel all around me all the time.
It had called me on my weak point: not believing that I will be rewarded; not believing that what I write applies to me.
Faith. That is the issue, isn't it?
Don't we who do our work as well as we can, checking and cross-checking, rewriting until we're google-eyed; don't we who say we believe in something beyond this pile of rocks and blood that we call earth; don't we think that we not only deserve to win, but will win when the time is right?
That was what all the "I don't believe it was about." Lack of faith that the Creator heard my prayers and that I would be rewarded. And that my work was good enough to stand up to anyone's.
What I want to leave you with, writers, is the knowledge that if you do good work, the universe will notice it. You will be rewarded.
Presuming you do your inner work, too. Clean up your nasty bits: the know-it-all attitude, the sense of entitlement, sloppy execution of your manuscripts. Dump intellectual pretension. And the beaten dog attitude, which is just as deadly as "I'm better than you."
Have hope, writers. You can be published. You can win national awards. I have.
(I'm still working on book sales. That's harder, though I invite you to check out what I wrote that won. You may find a wealth of material (and nonmaterial––I write about the spiritual life, after all) to fill your soul and spur your writing on.)
That's it. Be sure and check my blog. That's where my day to day insights and outbursts go. (I've been posting articles as I finish them. I've got a new one up for small presses and self-publishers about evaluating book covers. Another one looks at literary quality and sales. The mass market vs. literature conundrum. Check the archives.)
The Writers' Corner remains one of Spurs Magazine's most visited pages. Thank you for your part in that, whether this is your first visit or umpteenth. You are the reason I write this page-- along with me and my need to share my truth with my fellow writers. In our communion, we will write the history to come. The future of our planet and race.
PS. If you've been here previously, note that I cut the article in half. I was so big that it wouldn't eve show up on my screen when I tried to edit it. I've put numerous links between the two pages, like here: GO TO PART TWO.
WRITERS' CORNER DIRECTORY: THE INDEX WILL TAKE YOU TWO WRITERS' CORNER 2 IF THE ARTICLE HAS BEEN MOVED THERE.
www.sandynathan.com Sandy Nathan's Official Web Site
"I envy you. I really envy you. You can write. I have a degree in literature. I can't write. I tried, and I can't."
Someone who liked the first 50 pages of one of the books I'm writing said this to me recently. His tone told me just how much he envied me. I tried to tell him that trying has nothing to do with writing. I don't know if I got it across. This page is an attempt to tell other trying writers the same thing. I hope to permanently remove my readers from the trying ranks. When you see what it takes to write, you'll either join the ranks of the writing writers, or do something that appeals to you more. Like fishing.
This is a brisk, bracing read, going to the core of what it is to be human, which is the heart of writing. If you read this page when I first posted it-- what you're reading now is a different animal. My life has changed irreversibly, and so has this article. In addition to being more comprehensive, I have added pictures. Acknowledging what the the Internet has done to us: Having to read anything longer than a paragraph without pictorial relief is considered abusive. I won't abuse you!
In the articles below, I'm not talking about writing cookbooks or how-to books or guides to this or that thing/place/activity. I'm not talking about the nonfiction stuff that the "How to Get Published" books tell you has a decent chance of getting into print. I'm talking about what you gotta write because your soul will perish if you don't. About writing that matters. About writing from the heart.
I value and respect writers of guides and all that nonfiction stuff which is a durable, profitable commodity on bookstore shelves. These books are useful. Look at AAA guidebooks. What's more valuable than a AAA book when you're looking for a motel? It's just that-- when you're on your deathbed, will it matter that the guidebook you wrote got the name of that motel in Visalia right? On your deathbed, you're much more likely to regret that you didn't leave your kids a well-written guide to life illustrated by what happened to you. You're more likely to regret not setting down the story of your family's coming to this continent. You're more likely to regret that the novel inside you will remain there forever.
That's your soul telling you, "I oughta write that down. I need to tell the story of...." Your soul. The voice of the universe squirting through you. When you pay attention to that voice, your life will change. You may not end up a best selling author. You may not make a million/billion/trillion bucks. Get a Hollywood contract. You may not even get published. But you can take your work down to the friendly neighborhood copy shop and have it bound for your kids. You may get into a Writers' Group and meet some neat people, like I did. You may have your life turn in the direction it was meant to go. You may turn out to be the person you always knew you were. (Which is the only way you'll ever be happy-- by being the person you were meant to be.)
This is an adult article. That does not mean its about S-E-X. This article is about something more basic than sex. Some famous author whose name I forget said he wrote with his genitals. (He was actually more specific than that.) The famous guy got it wrong. He writes with his life force. The animating principal of his existence. Lots of names for it: Soul. Chi. Shakti. Kundalini. Essence. Eros. I call it writing from the heart. We're talking about reaching and writing from the deepest levels of human being in this essay. This article is food for the adult in you who wants a deeply satisfying, joyful life. It's a harder read than most on the net. If you're my kind of writer, you'll be moved to keep reading. I think you'll find it worth the effort.
TO START WRITING:
If you're reading this, I assume you're already writing. Shopping lists at least. Everybody writes something. The way to start writing what you really want is: Just do it! (I think Nike owns the exclusive right to use those words. Amazing society we live in. So-- buy some Nikes and just do it.) Start writing. You don't have to search for a topic much, either. Just write what's in front of you! That Master's Thesis that you were supposed to finish five years ago! The book you already have a contract to write. (Poor baby!) Your journal. A letter to your mother, father, ex-spouse. To the collection agency. Great places to begin. You'll find that writing is not about letters on a page. It's about you. Your soul's desire to express. Your ability to become all you are intended to be. And all the shit that keeps you from doing it.
You'll find very fast that writing is about the parts of yourself that want to keep you a small, whining, discontent worm blaming everything and everyone for why you didn't make it. Including why you didn't/couldn't write. You think I have no right to say this to you? Then you aren't a writer. Wait until you hear what I say about myself. A writer knows the fight is within. And what that fight is about. It's about telling the truth when everything in you wants to lie.
I STARTED WRITING:
The story of how I became a writer is interspersed with stories of other writers' journeys, tips from a bunch of them, and very important information about psychopathology and the fine arts, especially literature. And a word or 500 about transcendent processes and experiences. It all starts with the mind. That's the voice in your head that runs the whole show, until it is somehow beaten into submission so the deeper you can come out. You'll have to cajole, seduce, therapize, terrorize, bribe, or otherwise get around that mind of yours if you intend to write your dreams.
The mind is not all bad. It's contents can be useful. I have watched every facet of my mind-- my scuzzy, dirt slinging, lazy, compulsive, manic, groveling, suffering-obsessed, condemned-to-failure mind-- for as long as I can remember. Only recently did I start packaging it's contents as salable fiction. You know what fiction is? A way to tell the truth without getting sued.
How did I start writing? By writing what was in front of me.
That's obvious. I grew up in a place where being smart and educated is considered really cool. The San Francisco Bay Area. I learned how to write so I sounded smart. And also how to write with correct grammar and spelling. All the "ly"s in place and the punctuation and such just so. I learned to use big words so only other smart people could understand me. The rest were scared, which was the point. My Master's Thesis in Economics was 250 pages of the most painfully erudite, grammatically correct, boring crap I can imagine. I tried to find it to quote a sentence or two. The universe was kind enough to swallow it, grandiose title, "The Municipal Service Cost of Leapfrog Sprawl," and all. My thesis advisor said it was one of the best theses ever produced at San Jose State.
Maybe it was. It was also as dead as the goldfish floating in our horses' water tanks. That thesis held none of my soul, only a glimpse of my values, and was pretentious in every overblown word. It said, "I am smart." Ego. It also got me the degree I wanted at the time.
Do you know that this smart ego thing is about? Fear. Fear that people will see you're just an ordinary schmuck underneath it all.
Egoic writing is head driven, the opposite of what I'm talking about. The educated ego's motivation for writing is, "I've got two master's degrees (or more). I'm smart. I have lots of opinions and ideas. I also have a fancy job title. Made a lot of money, etc.. A person of my position should write a book. If I write a (great) book, my existence will be justified." This is the biggest writing block for smart people: "I have to write a masterpiece to justify my existence." This underlying and most-likely-unconscious thought/attitude causes writer's block. It's pure ego and has to go if your writing is to be better than bloated fish.
The other end of the spectrum and what keeps bright, intuitive, perceptive people who aren't educated from writing: More ego in the feeling that "I'm not good enough. I can't compete with those smart guys who've been to college [finished high school]. Not having a degree(s) and a bunch of big words makes me unable to say anything true or valuable. I'm a nothing who not only can't write, but shouldn't write. If I do, I'll step out of place and the Universe will crunch me." This is ego, just as much as the puffed up academics'. It causes writer's doubt. And paralysis.
Readers who don't consider themselves educated enough should read: It's All Over but the Shoutin', by Rick Bragg. This is one of the most simple, lovely, haunting memoirs I have read. A tribute to the author's mother, family and country. Powerful. Tough. Beautiful. Utterly truthful. Rick Bragg is a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for the New York Times. He's from a "white trash" family in Arkansas and grew up in abject poverty. His mom supported the family by picking cotton and ironing after her alcoholic, abusive husband abandoned her with 3 boys. Rick Bragg graduated high school. Also put in six months of college, getting maybe C's in both. He can write anyway. Oh yeah, after 20 years of journalism, Harvard let him in for a 9 month stint, but he'd already made his reputation by his reporting. I also recommend It's All Over to my overeducated, excessively-intelligent readers. Devour this book. It's humbling.
Exceptionally neurotic people can have both attitudes, "I must write to justify my existence and I can't write/compete with anyone because I am essentially inadequate." This leads to insanity. I am one of the lucky folk carrying this double whammy. I have the abiding need to write, to justify my existence, among other things. And I when read E. Anne Proulx or Halldor Laxness, I go into shock. How can I ever command language like they do? Get the nuances? The depth of experience? Therefore, I can't write at all.
If you have this dual problem, I recommend therapy. If that doesn't work, try a trip to Lourdes. Participating in sacred purifying rituals. Or what I do: Therapy, Lourdes, rituals and write like crazy, knowing you will think whatever you write is garbage. Don't worry about this. Your readers will let you know. (If they say it's garbage, your intuitive hit about yourself was right. Great. Keep writing anyway. It's therapeutic.)
I guarantee that some of this is operating inside you if you are a "trying" writer. It's gotta go. More has to go. Everything you think you are has to go.
We just talked about ego-driven, intellectually based writing. You can write a book from this position. Lots of them are out there. They smell like those goldfish, once you get your nostrils tuned. Why isn't this ego-based work good, as compared to Rick Bragg's book or some of the others I'll talk about below? Ego driven work doesn't have juice. Passion. Feeling. Purity. It doesn't touch anyone in an essential way. It's cold. If you're writing such a work, you may not be able to finish it. I've done enough of writing based on ego to know. The juice, the connection to your soul, is what will keep you going to the end. Writing a complete book is a real bitch, I'll tell you. It will test your character more than anything.
If you keep writing, your ego will get ground down, or will stay inflated, depending upon your career choice. With exceptions, academics don't seem to loose the compulsion to show off how smart they are. Writers in other fields learn to write intelligibly, unless they're lawyers. Obfuscation is in their job description.
AFTER WRITING AT SCHOOL, I WROTE AT WORK:
After finishing several thousand years of school, I ended up being an economic analyst and writing about regional economics for a county government. A very good exercise. I found that when people hire you to do a job, they do not care how smart you are. They just want you to do the job as outlined and answer their questions. I wrote a lot as an urban economist. Book sized puppies. Shorter puppies. Paragraph long pupettes. Mostly about sewage, for some reason. It's big in planning circles. I learned that if I wanted to keep my job, people should understand what I write.
I want to share my most amazing accomplishment as an urban economist. Shortly before leaving my job (they did not fire me!), I completed a series of countywide forecasts of employment by industry and location. The forecasts went from the 1970's to about now. I wasn't just me doing this: Our whole research department was involved. I was in charge of the economic forecasts. They were good forecasts made by a bunch or really smart people with the best computer support and most complete data available. The incredible part is-- WE MISSED THE ENTIRE COMPUTER REVOLUTION! Yes! We were that county. The home of Silicon Valley. Our forecasts-- my forecasts -- missed the most important economic breakthrough since the Industrial Revolution. Why?
Well, it's not easy. I mean, if you think you could do better.... No. What we expect in the future is determined by what's in our heads. That's why I'm sharing this. You see, early in the forecasting process, I did a bunch of linear regressions. (You don't want to know what these are.) They said, with extremely high statistical reliability, that employment could be almost anything 20 years in the future. Anything. The numbers we'd collected from the past helped me nada. So, my coworkers and I guessed. Which is to say, "We fitted some curves..." And other economist talk.
Which meant, we guessed according to our existing theoretical economic biases, plus the content of our (unconscious) psychological programming. Okay. My folks were really poor during the Great Depression and were scarred by it, becoming successful as a result. Both of my parents thought the Depression could come back at any time, so they stockpiled. I was more hopeful. I thought the world would continue in its current wretched state indefinitely, pulling back from disaster in lurches and jumps forever, while never really advancing. "Muddling through," they call it. The colleague I worked with most closely was not so hopeful. A secret Marxist, he felt that we would not "muddle through" as a society. Rather, the downtrodden and disenfranchised would rise, throw the bureaucrats and capitalists out and establish a new world order based on something other than the profit motive. During our forecast period, things would be getting bad enough to spawn the Revolution. We talked a lot in Economist, using equations and things, before releasing our forecasts.
Which missed the entire personal computer revolution. Apple. IBM. H-P. The Internet. Venture Capital. Silicon Valley! Megabucks! The whole nine yards! We missed it. Arggh! Fortunately, they disbanded our department shortly after we did the forecasts and no one found out. But do you believe it?
If you're looking for a revolution, make sure your mind allows for the one that happens. We coulda' been billionaires, my buddy and I. Betting on the right horses from ground zero. The poor and downtrodden taking over Silicon Valley? Hah! Are you kidding? Nonprofit motives? Double Hah! A bunch of kids in their 20's took over the Valley on their way to becoming billionaires. Watch what's in your head. It may have nothing to do with reality, but it determines your future.
WHERE DID THE WRITING GENIE TAKE ME NEXT? BACK TO SCHOOL!
Obviously, I needed a new viewpoint after those forecasts. I went back to school, this time in Marriage, Family and Child Counseling. This provided the counterpoint to the intellectually driven writing I did before. Did you know your brain has two halves, and that they do radically different things? And that feelings are as important as thoughts? I didn't. That feelings mattered and you could make a living paying attention to them was a revelation. The writing that came with counseling was just as much a revelation. I already knew about grammar and punctuation and spelling, but this counseling deal offered a new writing outlet: The Personal Journal! Where you bare your soul to yourself-- and hopefully no one else-- on paper. Without editing. Picking up on the pure, deep well of intuition always pouring from the inner fountain.
Raving on paper. That's what I did. I've kept my journals. They can be used as evidence, if I ever feel like whining as a way of life again. My journals blamed everyone but myself for what went on in my head and life. "If only he/she/they would do this/that, I would be fine. The dirty so and so... If I could control him, life would be great." Written in ALL CAPS, LOUDLY.
Writing is a process of purification. What comes out in your writing is who you are. What my early journals said was that I held a lot of anger and had a long way to go. Some people publish their work at this stage and make a lot of money. Rappers. Rock singers: "Hey, I feel mean, you know the scene, Lets get high and make people cry....." You know the rest : "Let's do drugs, blow up the place, kill the cops, spit in their face. Abuse the chicks, rape and destroy. It's okay-- what we say. So-ci-ety made us this way." Chorus: "We're justified. WE ARE JUSTIFIED!" My journals were like that-- but I have no musical talent and Rap hadn't been invented yet, so here I am, a housewife with a turbo instead of a cultural hero.
What you write at each stage expresses who you are at that time. It's appropriate and fine, unless you get killed or arrested or beat up for saying it. You might even get rich, if your pants are big enough and you look mean. Such writing may be appropriate as an expression of where you are, but its probably not the highest flowering of your soul.
This is the other end of the spectrum we began above. What if your great book is all passion, feeling, juice-- and no intellect? Ever been to a New Age store? Mush. The heart centered writing I'm talking about requires everything: Intelligence, emotional savvy, brilliant intuition, verbal virtuosity, discipline, maturity, and grace. Oh, yeah, a message.
AUTHOR SANDY NATHAN IS THE WINNER OF 14 NATIONAL AWARDS!
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DOES ALL THIS MEAN?
WRITING IS A TRAINING PROCESS
As the computer jocks say: Garbage in, garbage out. You can express yourself in writing as you are right now, with all your limitations, prejudices, hang-ups, cultural, racial and ethnocentric biases. (You don't have any choice, anyway.) But do you think Leo Tolstoy repeated the tired truisms he'd learned from his family and friends around the palace when he wrote War and Peace? Did that masterpiece come from the conventional, trite ideas of his social class? What he picked up in the 'hood-- his 'hood? Or had he been out feeling and experiencing and living with all his heart and mind and soul, observing and writing like crazy, before he wrote it?
To write as well as you can, you gotta grow. You gotta feel the ebb and flow of the universe though your being, your cells, your bones. Also your fingers. If you're a writer, you have to write what's going on down. And you have to learn to write well. Journal! Write! Take classes, workshops, get in groups. You have to get out there and learn and change, especially emotionally. Especially emotionally. And spiritually. The better you are at capturing the subtle and not-so-subtle essence of every instant, the better writer you'll be. The larger your world view, the better writer you'll be. The better human being you are, the better writer you'll be.
When I was studying counseling, we studied a whole bunch of theories and techniques, from Freud's, to Adler's, to behaviorism, to psycho drama, RET, all the way to the airy-fairy Transpersonal Psychologies. [My favorites.] The whole ball of wax. Do you know what one professor said about all this? "It doesn't matter which one you pick. What heals the client is the therapist's inner state. Who he/she is as a human being." Your soul heals, not the stuff jammed in your head. Sort of the same as the rancher who visited a fancy show barn and said, "I never knew a barn that had a calf worth a damn."
What writes in you is who you are. Your soul. Your essence. Becoming a good writer requires finding that hidden jewel and letting it talk. Simple. A hint: It's inside you.
Some good ways to grow/find/explore the inner world: Meditation. Prayer. Scripture reading. (Your choice of scripture) Tai chi. Martial Arts. Tae kwan do. Capoeira. Psychotherapy. Reading every decent author you can get your hands on compulsively. Travel! Everywhere! Art galleries, exhibits. Music: study, play, appreciate! Regular education: High School, Adult Ed., Extension Courses, College and University Courses, Graduate Courses. Degrees! Get them! Believe it or not in this age of cynicism, you can learn through the regular educational system! And credentials matter in the world. Take other courses, too, at alternative places. Go for it! Study everything, but especially what brings you closer to yourself. Philosophy. World Religions. Anthropology. Sociology. Literature. Wonderful, exciting subjects like Economics and Statistics. Econometrics! Computer Sciences. Hit the educational system at the highest point you can reach. Do you have to be educated to be a good writer? No. Check out the Rick Bragg book, for one. Getting an editor to look at your work will be easier if you have some initials behind your name.
YOU GAIN FROM GROWTH AND EDUCATIONAL ACTIVITIES IS:
Discipline is defined as the ability to get the job you're supposed to be doing done when you really want to go to the beach. Or, when all your friends are rioting over social problems that you have the sense will still be there at the end of the term, though your grade point might not. Without discipline, you will unable to write a post card.
The other important benefit of education is discrimination. This has nothing to do with racial discrimination. Its a Hindu/Eastern concept about being able to tell what's good for you from what's bad. Discrimination will tell you if you're moving toward or away from your goals. Developing discrimination may require screwing up a lot. Ask people in rehab centers. They learned from what they went through getting there. Mostly about what's not good for them. You gotta screw up some to tell the difference between good and bad. How much is up to you. Discrimination will teach you the difference between mediocre writing and excellent writing. It is your inner radar. You'll be able to discern when your heart is talking and when some pirate of the inner seas wants a shot at steering the boat.
The big Kahuna behind the whole process is will. Will is your intentionally, which stems directly from who you are. Will is soul in action. The use and development of will is not Victorian willpower, mind over matter, stiff upper lip. The development of will is the development of who you are. It is gentle, coming from your depths. It's not about beating yourself up. It's about doing what you need to when the time and place are right. Mother Theresa was able to accomplish what she did be cause her will perfectly mirrored and served her soul. You don't have to force the development of will, just clean up your smelly parts and keep pointed forward.
PROVIDES BOTH THE IMPETUS AND MATERIAL FOR YOUR WRITING!
WHAT WAS MY NEXT STEP TO BECOMING A WRITER? LETTERS. I wrote letters to friends and family. They wrote back, "Sandy, your letters are fantastic. It's like being there. I love them. Write more." While writing letters, I learned to throw out the grammatical conventions so carefully drilled into me by my professors. To look for colorful metaphors and analogies, such as "it hit me like a bathtub of rotting fish". I learned to value the verbal part of my brain, which always was better than the mathematical side, a fact I kept ignoring because I thought I could get a better job through math. My writing style changed. But I couldn't possibly write individual letters to all my friends as a way of self expression. Took too long. Also, I had this driven feeling that I should write a book.
Life gave me exactly what I needed. The obituary of a man who had worked for my father was published. It claimed credit for my father's life work. This made me mad. I found out the claim had been going on for a long time. That made me madder. I started a book on my father's life to set things straight. A head driven, neurosis driven, driven-driven book. All the time, I was wheel spinning. What should I do to express my fantastic potential? The gift I had to give to the world? I was stagnating, stalled, frantic and unfulfilled. What was next?! Where was Ganesh, the destroyer of obstacles? Working underground.
Hear this: Stuck does not exist. Stagnation does not exist. Even in your darkest moments, a current flows through the universe, arranging the visible world to help you. Or at least motivate you sufficiently. All you gotta do is have a tiny speck of faith in that current, even if you can't feel, see or imagine it. A tiny speck of faith. Nothing in the universe is stagnant. Even the muck in our horses' water troughs. Nothing is truly stalled, despite all appearances. You do, however, need to do cooperate. Do your homework. Clean up the mess inside and take the next step-- which will reveal itself when it's time.
THE NEXT STEP EVOLVED ALL BY ITSELF:
Do you get letters from your friends at the Holidays? We do. If you live in Silicon Valley, they all sound the same: "Hi! Happy Holidays! Here's the family news: I've just been appointed Ambassador to France after making 14 billion dollars with my high-tech startup. Molly finished her Ph.D. in Astrophysics, in addition to winning Mrs. Middle Aged America. The kids are fine. Sally is heading the space program for NASA and Billy just graduated Harvard." The letters go on, listing the family's fabulous trips and honors, including the sighting of the Virgin Mary in their hot tub.
Well, along came the Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989. That's the 7.1 on the Richter scale whopper that downed the freeway in Oakland and set San Francisco on fire. We were at ground zero. We owned a furniture store at the time. Nobody bought furniture for months after that, they were so scared. The quake was followed by the recession of the late 80's and 90's, which was really bad in California. The folks running the country in Washington never got around to noticing our plight. Our furniture store failed, and come December, I got really pissed off by the %$#$* letters about how great life was. Pissed enough to do something about it.
I wondered what it would be like if people reported what really happens in their Christmas letters. Business failures. Layoffs. Personal, public humiliations. Temptations succumbed to. Illnesses. Divorces. And the few good things that come along to keep you from killing yourself. What if people wrote about real life in their holiday missals? I began producing our Nathan Family Holiday Letter, dedicated to truthfulness in Holiday communication. All our friends got it: Some 200 were sent out each year.
Well, our Holiday Letter was a great success. Amusing. Surprising. Often hilarious. Seldom truthful. After all, who in their right mind would tell their friends what really happened to them? Or how they felt about it? One bit I wrote for the Letter actually was truthful. I wrote a couple of pages about what it's like to write a book. My father-in-law, who's written two books, liked the piece so much that he suggested I try to get it published. Readers' Digest or something. I never got around to it until now: The piece is reproduced below as, ABOUT WRITING, FROM OUR 1997 HOLIDAY LETTER.
Except for the Holiday Letter, I felt like nothing was happening in my life. My friends were getting their Ph.D.s and becoming international management consultants. I shoveled manure-- metaphorically and otherwise. I was trying like crazy. I had to use all that education and brain power. Do anything to get published. Noticed. The book about my Dad fizzled. No juice. I wrote short stories and articles of various sorts. Poetry. None of it what I wanted. I always ran out of gas. Couldn't finish anything. Inside, I was frantic. Pained. Terrified. Something was brewing.
FINALLY, IT HAPPENED.....
[This is where trying writers might want to reexamine their goal. When you know the cost of good writing, will you pay it? Do you want to have inspiration pulsing out you're eyeballs and fingers, getting you up at 4 AM, chasing you down the halls, and keeping you at your computer for years, if its source is primal pain? You may decide to stop trying and take up roller blading. Or golf. Perfectly valid choices.]
Okay. At this time in my life, I felt enormous inner turmoil. Great pain. Terror. And I didn't know why. Inner doors opened. Why came out and stayed out. I suffered. For years. I cleaned out vast caverns of carnage. I got to my source, pure and naked. I earned, for the first time, the "right to write." I was cleaned up enough to do it and connected enough to myself to have something valuable to say. But nothing formed. No concrete direction. Waves of pain. Anguish. Fear. I wrote poetry during those years, which I may publish some day . Or not. Will I say more about this period? No. I just hung on, looking toward the light and moving forward as well as I could. A dark time. A very, very valuable time. I would not be able to be who I am or write like I do with out it. Writing my books would be impossible. Going through it was Hell. And its not over.
YOU HAVE TO SUFFER TO WRITE WELL?
Sorry. That's how it is. The intensity of the drive to go to the heart and sing its truth comes most easily from pain. At least for starters. Going inside and penetrating the mire of lies and illusions we call our identities is the most difficult thing a human being can do. Only saints manage it really well. It is hard and it is painful, calling for great courage. Only the most courageous warriors succeed. Alan Watts, the Zen philosopher, wrote a book entitled, The Book : On the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are. He says that our minds, families, societies, nations, and the whole human world conspire to create an illusion which we buy into. We collude with our world to avoid knowing who we really are. Why? Because who we are is so wonderful the world as it is couldn't exist if the secret was out. Instead of being the exalted beings we are, we play mental games and watch talk shows until it is time to die. When we're not doing that, we obliterate ourselves with drugs and alcohol. Most people call that life.
Only those who have the extreme need to heal, the extreme drive to get clear of what's encrusted that inner essence, are likely to have the drive to do the inner work that will set them free. That need/drive will also make them good writers. Nothing like being beat up, raped, tortured or abused to motivate you to get well. (Well, major diseases do the same thing.) Motivate you to transcend. Grow. Enough pain, and a human being will do anything. Even go inside and clean up the mess. Suffering provides the impetus to enter the inner world in its splendor and confusion, its turbulence and obscurity. However hard it is to heal, its easier than living with the psychological detritus of mental or physical rape.
Very developed people don't need to suffer to write. People who have clean inner acts according to Freud, Jung, their choice of analyst, guru or just themselves, can be motivated by the joy they get in putting out their thoughts. The joy they get in singing in praise or gratitude. The joy of being joyful. Read the saints. Yogis. Rumi. Now there was an ecstatic being! [Ecstasy: Your Birthright, Shield and Reward gives great examples of ecstatic writing.] These ecstatic beings suffer plenty. I've heard from a genuine Hindu monk who has studied lots of saints of all denominations that most great beings lead/led rotten personal lives. Think torture. Martyrdom. Poverty. Disease. Burning at the stake. Flaying. They paid for their bliss. But bliss isn't dependent upon the outer world. And bliss wins in the end.
Until we reach sainthood, the rest of us have to grunt. But don't worry. If you're meant to be a writer, your life will present you with exactly the amount and kind of pain needed for your individual growth and writing style. Isn't that neat? You may not need really big pain, preferring to extract meaning from smaller events. For instance, you can get plenty of pain just by consciously attending PTA meetings. Or going to City Council meetings. Life will give you all the suffering you need. You just have to be awake when it comes. Then you can turn it into great writing. Writers get paid for skilled observation and articulation of pain, among other things.
A great Buddhist saying that I don't really agree with: "Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional." Pain comes is an unavoidable part of life. Suffering depends upon what you do with it. Do you hang on to pain? Grovel in it? Relish it? Make it a country western song? [A great way to make money out of agony! Feeds and entire industry.] The Buddhist notion is that pain comes on its own. We create suffering.
I have some problems with this. The Buddhist idea is, if you're totally in the moment, like a Zen master, pain is clean like a razor cut. It hurts when it hurts and that's the end of it. If you're worrying about tomorrow, and remembering yesterday's traumas, then the razor feels like a sedge hammer. You get knocked around, batted around by your feelings. Memories. Cuts from the "razor" become from cuts "the knife" and then from the "butter knife". And then "chain saw" and so on. Hurting more as we struggle. We prolong pain by fighting with it. All well and good and very hip.
But my experience with pain-- including razor cuts-- is that pain lasts. Healing takes time. There's pain during healing. Is this pure pain, or is it self-created and prolonged suffering? When does pain become suffering? What if I'm not the Zen master and get lost in my mind and banged around, even though I'm doing my best? Am I wrong? Deficient? Is it wrong to suffer in the Country Western sense if that's the best I can do? Tricky topics. Next time you're suffering, think about them.
Even so, its not what happens to you, it's how you hold and use it that counts. Everything that comes to you bears a lesson. Some of it-- death, failure, illness, loss-- is real growth producing!!
MENTAL ILLNESS AS A WRITING AID!
Another writing tool available to some of us is mental illness. Affective disorders are very popular among writers and artists. Affective disorders are mood disorders, a distinct family of mental illnesses. They present a range, a continuum of problems. At one end are the depressives, who feel like shit and can't get out of it. On the other end are the full bipolars, who alternate between hideous, gutter-licking depression and flights of ecstasy, with lots of room for fun swinging from one pole to the other. Boy, can these guys write! And paint! You might have heard of Ernest Hemingway and Vincent Van Gogh, for instance. A depressive and manic depressive (Or schizophrenic, some say van Gogh was schizoid. Or bipolar and schizoid. Wow. That's an almost unfair setup for artistic excellence.)
Kay Redfield Jamison, a psychiatrist and manic depressive herself, has written an excellent study of the relationship between affective disorders and creativity: Touched with Fire: Manic-depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament. In her study of writers and creativity, she found that 80% of the writers in her study group had some type of affective disorder during their lifetimes, vs. 30% in the non-writing control group. That means the people studied experienced a clinically significant episode of depression, hypomania, bipolar disease and a few other sweeties that can make you want to die, at least once. 80% in writers vs. 30% in the control group. Suicide rates in poets, artists and writers vary from 6 to 18 times the general population, depending on the study cited. Many of the afflicted people go untreated medically, self- medicating with alcohol and drugs. The alcoholism often observed in writers may be indication of underlying psychiatric disorder. But these people are brilliant, pulling meaning out of nothing, verbal palaces from straw.
Would you like some names of writers with affective disorders? Quoting from Jamison's work, I've already mentioned Hemingway. How about Tolstoy? Dostoevski, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Robert Burns, Lord Byron, Melville, William and Henry James, Coleridge, and Virginia Woolf? To barely get started. The greats. Jamison's study didn't include contemporary writers, musicians, and painters. Why are these incredibly gifted people afflicted with such serious and painful illnesses? Genetics play a part. Affective disorders run in families.
Jamison asks the question: Can the fine discernment, the flights of the soul, the brilliance that these artist demonstrate be reduced to faulty DNA? Is that what genius is? Screwed up programming? Is that where those brilliant perceptions and verbalizations are born? In nervous systems too refined and sensitive for life in the world?
Another keen mental illness which will help your writing is OCD. Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. That's what Jack Nicholson had in "As Good As It Gets." He was a writer in that movie, wasn't he? Did you see him finishing books? Sure. Like crazy. Now, you don't have to go as far as Jack did, step on a crack, break your mother's back... Obsessive disorders are also a continuum, going from concern about neatness all the way to Jack's insane character. As long as you don't have full-on OCD, a touch of obsessiveness will help you get things done. I'm so obsessive that when I sit down at my computer, I don't get up until it's smokin' and my shoulders won't move.
Still want to be a great writer?
If you believe the last two sections, you'll go out and get raped and try to pick up some depression and OCD to improve your writing. It doesn't work that way. Some people with mental disorders don't write, sculpt, paint or poet. They just feel lousy.* No one in their right mind would go looking for abuse and trauma. These are only fun to watch on TV. Only fun if you've never been on the receiving end. Why talk about this? Because if you fall in these categories, you are set up to write. You just need one additional thing.
*These mental diseases are treatable, by the way. People with them can live very full, effective lives. For instance, Patty Duke, the actress, is a manic depressive. She writes about her illness and its treatment in her book, which I'm sure Amazon.com has.
Okay, readers, this is where my program wouldn't even try to show the rest of the article, it was so massive. I cut it here. To see what follows,
Here's a partial listing of the contents:
That's what you can see in part two. I hope you make the leap across cyberspace to get there. I think you'll find it worthwhile. The ultimate cure I describe has seen me through two books and five national awards so far.
Whether this is our first and last time together, or the beginning of something big,
I wish you well, and HAPPY WRITING!
AUTHOR SANDY NATHAN IS THE WINNER OF SEVENTEEN