Marlon James and Notes in the Dark

canstockphoto15617395A good story makes you ask better questions. It’s scrawled twice in the margins of my notebook. I took notes last week in a darkened audience, attending a lecture by the 2015 Man Booker Prize winner, Marlon James. He received the award in October for his sprawling, intense novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings.

One of things on my writing hit list this year was to seek out better writers and better writing. I am fortunate to live in a metro area for some of the big name writers who give lectures, but I’ve also watched a lot of videos, listened to audio books and stepped up my reading habits. It isn’t that I’m seeking some sort of osmotic reaction. It’s that I want to live in that world where writing matters, where people value telling really good stories.

While whinging on about this novel I’ve been treading in for the last three years, a writer friend responded with silence. What? She hesitated. “Maybe you should write something else.” As I have done with numerous people, I adamantly held on to the premise that this must be done. This was the novel that was going to teach me how to be a proper novelist. I needed to just work through it. My argument has come to sound hollow and unenthusiastic.

After another mucky, miserable writing session yesterday, I flopped down on the couch. It was time to quit trying to ram through the novel – this door that would magically unlock the novelist within. I’m on a third rewrite and feel like my compulsion to finish and do it right will eventually stop me from writing it at all.

Marlon James shared advice he’d gotten early on: “Write about only three things: what you love, what you hate, and what you’re deeply conflicted about.” 

canstockphoto7418437That quote has been playing in my head repeatedly. The novel I’ve been working on is rooted in the past, in things I once hated and loved and things I’m no longer conflicted about. I wasn’t asking better questions. I was asking questions for which I’d already found answers. It makes sense that I’d be sick of the whole damned thing and unless I could bring something new to the story, it wasn’t worth writing.

Today I pulled down the story board cards, packed up the notepads, filed the drafts in a binder and backed up all my digital records. I’m taking the month off from working on it and diving into another story. Since it’s November and I have some writer friends who have been hemming and hawing about participating in National Novel Writing Month, I’ve had a change of heart and will give in to this particular, peculiar compulsion. A little free range writing might be fun. Or not.


This post by The Bloggess made me laugh so loudly this morning that I woke up my family.

And then that one time on twitter we all just became human and I laughed until I gave myself a headache.

It reminded me of volunteering on kindergarten registration night, when I had to request documentation for enrollment, to include birth certificates. An acquaintance arrived with her kindergartner, older son and a newborn. I smiled and proceeded to ask her for a copy of her birth control. I morphed into the worst volunteer ever, as I had to keep leaving the table to stop laughing and/or dying from embarrassment.

If you wonder how artists spent their days, I just finished a fun read in which I learned that having a wife, servants, a drinking problem and Benzedrine are really the tricks of the creative trade. Having none of those, I did also find that on average, many creative talents worked a solid 3-4 hours a day and spent a lot of time going on walks. I can do that.

Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey, Editor

For those of you participating in NaNoWriMo, best wishes!

For those of you not participating, keep your eye roll at the ready, as writers lose their minds but always, always know their word count!

45 thoughts on “Marlon James and Notes in the Dark

  1. “I smiled and proceeded to ask her for a copy of her birth control.”

    That is the kind of mistake that requires you to keep a straight face and with as much impatience as you can muster, repeat the question.


  2. I read in my first NaNoWriMo-esque draft from May too little joy, too much toil. But good to know it can be easy to pump out the word count if you commit to that. But that’s just the start of course. So I’ve been writing what brings me joy, here on my blog, and I’ll tilt back to it or elsewhere when the time is right. Glad you’re doing Yoga. Not sure if the comparison holds, but I used to beat my body like a mountaineer doing Yoga and it didn’t work, for what that’s worth. Trying to learn to listen, easier said than done. Good luck.


    1. I’m not sure I’m fully committed to the NaNo thing, but the thought of working on something new is lightening my load.
      If there is any way to take the joy or restorative effects out of something, I’ve done it. I got crazy with the running until I was constantly injured – I finally had to learn to listen to my body, to my age and to my level of commitment, which seemed to be completely out of sync. That “everything in moderation” thing seems such a difficult concept to master.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. You’ve done it again Michelle! I was in tears because that it usually me saying stuff like birth control. The funny part is that I would do it while I was bartending for a bunch of drunk people who would repeat my mistake all night. Keep writing Michelle I love your writing and I usually read it when I’m in a crappy mood and it helps turn the tide. Thank you for also sharing the NaNoWriMo I think I will have to throw my hat in it and see if I really am cut out to be a writer.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Sarah. I would think bartending would provide some good material for writing! I worked as a waitress at a truck stop for a year and wow, there are some characters I’ve kept on mental record.

      I’m off on a sluggish start for NaNoWriMo, but I think that might be my modus operandi at this point. It’s just nice to start off on something new. Give it a try, you might enjoy it.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m not going to lie Michelle, I’ve had some candidates for the loony bin when I was bartending.
        Writing has come to a standstill for me also…
        I’m not sure if it’s because my kids love to run me into the ground just saying ‘Mom’ 5,000 times a day or if I’m catching a cold and fogging over. If you need back up let me know! I won’t write it for you but you can throw some frustration my way. Hopefully that helps.


  4. I love you as a writer. I see a lot of the fundamentals it takes in you, just to an extreme. Simply being, you show magnificent range of emotion. Higher levels of emotion correspond with intelligence. They are on a continuum. Keep on writing.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Seriously out of all the blogs I follow you simply are the only one i take the time to truly read. I have a reading disability that caused me to miss the mark on the ACT’s so its difficult for me to stay reading stuff that isnt pure facts. You’ve got me tuned in. I gladly support your reads. I feel like I’m ranting but I just really feel passionate towards you as a writer.


  6. Enjoy your free range writing 🙂 When I find myself bogged down in my novel, I write out of order. I write chapters and scenes as they come to mind and file them aside, to be used at a later point in the WIP (I’m actually at a point like that now). Sometimes it helps to get things moving in the right direction again. Best wishes…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I wish I could write out of order. Sometimes I can be very linear in my thinking, but I suppose that is what all this writing is about – finding out what works for each of us. I have discovered that I work better as a planner, rather than a pantser, which shouldn’t have surprised me but did.


  7. I like your post and love the humor in the ‘birth control’ blooper. I’m trying to learn to write, and find reading what others write helps me. One passage I go back to from time to time really helps me. It’s from Louise Penny’s “The Nature of the Beast” and talks about a blocked painter who was struggling to make a positive looking painting of someone she didn’t have positive feelings toward. Once she recognized her true feelings, the painting revealed its own truth and she became unblocked. Write your own truth – whatever that is at the moment.


    1. In writing personal essays for this blog for the last few years, my own truth isn’t nearly as interesting to me as it used to be. This is one of the joys of writing fiction – figuring out what someone else’s truth is, but it is also the most challenging for me. I’m relatively new to working on a novel and it’s apparent that I have a compulsion to write one – whatever that one might be.
      Thanks for taking the time to read the post and comment!


  8. You might find that you’ll never look at those story board cards again. Possible? It could prove to be incredibly liberating.

    That post by Jenny Lawson got a mention in the New York Times. It’s taken on a life of its own. A monster.

    In the original James Bond books written by Ian Fleming, Bond is a Benzedrine addict. He also converted a lesbian named Pussy Galore to heterosexuality with his superior lovemaking skills. They don’t—they can’t—write ‘em like that anymore.


    1. I could only let go, thinking it might be an option to return to them, but a new storyboard has been started and I’m enjoying myself.

      Jenny Lawson was in Minneapolis last week, but she was at the U of M – it’s a pain in the ass to park there, so I decided not to go.

      Ian Fleming is one of my least favorite writers, but more due to the plot devices and subject matter. No one will ever accuse him of being a nuanced storyteller. I’m on a Faulkner reading jag right now, so in a totally different mindset.


  9. “Write about only three things: what you love, what you hate, and what you’re deeply conflicted about.” Good advice. I often feel this in my gut — but it bears closer scrutiny and clearer remembering!


    1. We often see, over the course of a writer’s career, that they return again and again to the same themes. I wonder about that, because for me, writing is akin to learning. I hope that those three things continue to change as I write – I’d hate to still be working out my childhood angst years from now.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I hear ya! My own goals are not quite so lofty — years from now, I hope to not still be working out my childhood angst…in the same ways that I do now. As long as I can keep deepening in my craft, I’ll cut myself some slack on the recurring themes. Or…at least I’ll *try*. 🙂


  10. My life is a random note. I don’t know why you worry about writing a novel, It seems you do well enough here.


  11. What a great insight about your novel, Michelle. Sounds to me like a twice or thrice in a lifetime visitation. Peace, John


  12. Thank you for this post. I love the quote! And good luck with NaNo. I am doing the nonfiction version (NaNonFiWriMo or National Nonfiction Writing Month, aka Write Nonfiction In November). It’s been very helpful to have this challenge to write every day. My book WILL be done by the end of the month — well, the first draft, anyway. And I am so invigorated by this process that I am already planning my next book, if I can just decide which of several ideas to pursue.


    1. Unfortunately, I’m a tad (a lot) behind schedule in terms of word count, but the impetus to do NaNo is creating a new second novel that I’m excited about. I really enjoyed listening to that lecture by Mr. James. Sometimes quotes can be pithy, but others quite clarifying.

      The process, I’ve found, is everything. Focusing on the writing and shutting out all other noise is the best workshop I’ve ever attended. Best wishes to you on your nonfiction work!


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