Fearless Friday: Beginnings

I started this post series “Fearless Friday” several months ago as a way of sharing other bloggers’ and writers’ work, as I felt the need to be more generous with this space. I’d had the good fortune of a good-sized readership and wanted to spread the wealth. It landed with a thud in terms of contribution and required a great deal of work to put together. However, I can be a stubborn cuss and I think anything worth doing is not only worth doing well, but worth doing long term and with patience. So I start afresh…

It seems fitting to talk about beginnings. We often sabotage ourselves by measuring the present moment through the lens of the past or expectations of the future. Unwritten novels, blank canvases, and tunes only heard in one’s head – this is the outcome of not starting where you are and an inability to shut out the noise of a society that only recognizes endeavors in statistical outcomes. I’ve been thinking a lot more about beginnings and middles – which is essentially process, because that is where any creative person spends most of their time. It is that magical, invisible time when it’s just you and what you’re doing in the moment.

Welcome to Fearless Friday.

Feacanstockphoto13410470rless Fridays are about lives lived in spite of our fears, living a life that is about curiosity, compassion, and courage. If you just got published, something wonderful happened to you, you witnessed an act of kindness or bravery, or you have someone in your life who amazes you, drop your story into my contact page or email it to TheGreenStudy (at) comcast (dot) net and I’ll run it on a Fearless Friday. If you’re a blogger, it’s an opportunity to advertise your blog, but this is open to anyone who would like to share.  These will be 100-300 word stories, subject to editing for clarity and space.

Debut Novels

Over the last few years, my reading has taken on a particular intention – to teach myself how to be a better writer. At first, I delved into the “classics”, never wandering too far afield for fear that my literary education would have gaps. I’m over that. After Joyce and Faulkner and Hemingway, I’m so over that. While my reading has always been eclectic and organic (one book referencing another and another until I’m reading about hissing cockroaches in Madagascar), it is now done with notebook and pen in hand. No matter what I’m reading, I learn something new about writing.

44011737Last week, I finished reading Clifford Garstang’s The Shaman of Turtle Valley, a debut novel that explores cultural and family conflicts (and similarities) when a soldier brings his Korean wife home to Appalachia. What I enjoyed, and learned from most, was the author’s use of first person POV from each of the main character’s perspectives. This can sometimes go awry in a novel, but Mr. Garstang did a good job of writing characters with distinct voices.

This is the second debut novel I’ve read over the last few months, the first being The Fourteenth of September by Rita Dragonette. Both Garstang’s and Dragonette’s novels are by older authors with unique backgrounds – a fact that speaks to me for obvious reasons. The stories they wrote were engaging and kept me reading faster and faster in my anxiety to find out what happens.

Full disclosure: I was sent these books to read by publicists at JKS Communications who represented and were recommended by one of my favorite bloggers, Donna Cameron, with her book, A Year of Living Kindly. Also full disclosure – I’m a very critical reader and a working writer, so I do not write book reviews as a matter of practice. That people still send me books after I tell them this, just delights the hell out of me. I get to read books and talk about them and don’t feel compelled to pander. Yay me.

As a writer, debut novels are also wonderful learning tools. Most people don’t write a seamless novel out of the gate – it’s the nature of writing experience. The architecture of a debut novel tends to be more obvious than in a second or third novel. As a writer, I can nod my head knowingly when I see what the author was trying to do. I can see the inner workings of structure, the strengths and weaknesses, and discover solutions to problems in my own work.

Before the Debut Novel: Shitty First Drafts

First novels also make me think about courage and perseverance. The end piece of a creative work – the marketing and publicity, is the smallest sliver of the whole process. A novel that has been fomenting for decades, worked at for years, edited for months, is the crux of the writer’s life. That’s where the time is spent and the only way to spend that much time and love is to be invested in the process, not the outcome.

The surest route to halting all creative thought is to think about results – the one piece in the process over which a creator has very little control. When my head is full of those thoughts, it seems like a lot is riding on the opening sentence – a sentence that will now not be written because there’s too much pressure. I shut down. The birthplace of a writer’s block.

12543While I hope someday to have my own debut novel, I will forever reference Anne Lamott’s assertion in Bird by Bird that “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts.” I am learning to love my terrible first efforts – being in that space where I just sound stupid, like I’m writing a fifth grade essay about the Tower of London (it was dreadful and accompanied by even worse drawings). The willingness to be awful, in addition to reading with intent, has changed my writing for the better.

If you’re a creator, what thoughts stop you from beginning?

How do you counter that?

Any favorite debut novels?

20 Comments on “Fearless Friday: Beginnings

  1. I find that one of the best spurs is coming upon a really really good novel that, for whatever reason, seems to start a creative ‘conversation’ in my head. It probably won’t be anything like the story I’m working on, but somehow an energy will be communicated, like a good strong breeze that makes me think I too have something worthwhile to create. It’s too easy for writers not to read – for all sorts of seemingly valid reasons: fear of losing your own ‘voice’ or of finding out you can’t really hack it after all. I’ve found some of the best spurs in young adult fiction – writers like Richard Peck and Sharon Creech, Geraldine McCaughrean (The Kite Rider), Frances O’Roark Dowell (Dovey Coe), David Almond (Skellig and Kit’s Wilderness). You can learn a lot about the craft of writing from such books, tight plotting, spare and often lyrical writing, striking characterisation etc. And not only that, you can be transported too.

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    • I used to think that reading while working on a writing project would cause me to imitate voices and then I thought “Would that be such an awful thing – to imitate the voice of Toni Morrison or Celeste Ng or Amor Towles?” We have to start somewhere and the more I write, the more prominent my own voice becomes. Reading does much the same thing for me, as it does for you. The desire to transport a reader into a story is inspired when a writer brings me into their story. It seems like magic. Magic I want to do as well.

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      • The absorbing of other voices is where the creative conversation begins back and forth. At least that’s how I feel about it. One may pick up others’ turns of phrase/idioms on the way, but then they get personalized or dispensed with in time. It’s a bit like learning to jam with a jazz outfit. You draw on/absorb other influences, but they are in the end mediated via your own experiences and capacities. Everything about it is good exercise for writing process.

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  2. The idea of trying to write a book that people will actually read or care remotely about stops me every time. And the idea I have to carry a story longer than a few pages freaks me right out. Pretty much I’m afraid of everything, which is why I’ve never achieved any of my dreams. Sigh. I need a therapist. I can’t think of any debut novels I’ve enjoyed off the top of my head, though I’m sure there are many. I’ll have to brainstorm on this one.

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    • I think there is a need to be myopic while writing, for a couple of reasons: 1) Not thinking about the critical reader (save that for the edits) and 2) Not being overwhelmed by the vastness of a novel. I’m working hard to keep my head in a scene or even just focused on making one sentence good, because I find it paralyzing to think about the whole book.

      Perhaps it is age or just practice, but I’m starting to get beyond fear when it comes to writing. I still experience a lot of self-doubt, but on a certain level, I’m comfortable with that. Like most things, we have to approach our capabilities with curiosity. What can I create? What story do I want to tell? Does this work? If it doesn’t, what will? When the focus is on the work, it’s easier to shut out what comes next, like readers or marketing. And really, until the work is done, nothing else outside of it matters.

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      • I think that’s extremely good advice – especially about trying not to think too far ahead. I’ve been reading some other bloggers, who are also novelists and more than one suggested just writing and then going back to adjust, edit and fix those things that may not work. But the main thing is to get it out, on paper, on the screen, whichever and see where it goes. Why not? In the end, truly, what do we have to lose other than our pride and that’s not the worse thing to lose

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  3. I’m going to jump in here even though I don’t consider myself a creator. When I was young and wished I could write literary fiction, I thought writers were people who could sit at a word processor or with a notebook and effortlessly articulate whatever they wanted. I didn’t realize there might be effort involved. I thought if the words didn’t flow easily, you weren’t cut out to be an author. While that might be true to some extent—in the sense that one produces something eventually—how very ignorant I was about writers and writing.

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    • Writing does tend to disabuse one of all the literary fantasies. It certainly did for me. There are a lot of parallels with exercise. You may not enjoy it and it is hard to get started, but eventually you get better and you start to like the results. One of things I learned early on was about the fallacy of the “overnight success”. Read writer interviews and you get to find out that their great American novel was 20 years and 500 menial jobs in the making. It’s nice to have realistic expectations!

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  4. It occurs to me that your comment has much applicability to life in general: “The surest route to halting all creative thought is to think about results – the one piece in the process over which a creator has very little control.” Anything that we are struggling to accomplish causes us to freeze if we think too much about the potential end. It’s why some people resist buying a house, relocating or falling in love.

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    • It really does impede progress – the outcome mindset. It’s what causes so many writers to focus on marketing and publishing over the quality of the work they need to be doing. I learned this lesson after many years of conferences, classes, and workshops – always the long learning curve!

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  5. Michelle, just read this quote on LinkedIn that I thought you’d like: “Discomfort is the price of admission to a meaningful life.” (Susan David)

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    • That quote is reminiscent of Pema Chodron’s encouragement to lean into the sharp edges instead of avoiding them, which causes a whole different set of problems. Thanks for sharing it!

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  6. Michelle, getting started with anything creative can cause one to stop dead in their tracks. That sudden stop is caused by the unknown…of will anyone like what I’m creating? Since, we don’t have much control over what others do a creative individual will need to be. ..…. FEARLESS in their journey, because at the end of the day, doing what you love will bring your life so much J O Y! I am living this right now.

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    • Sorry for the late response – spring arrived and it’s so hard to get back to the computer! Someone in my writing group said we need to think of the reader (as you say – will anyone like my work?) and I am fierce in my response to this, because whatever one is doing, it starts with you, the audience of one. You worry about audience in the edits and the marketing, but when you’re creating, you have to be there, in the moment, with you and your work. Glad that you are living joy!

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  7. You are so much fun to read! Thank you for the inspiring reviews and thanks for working with JKS!

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  8. Thanks for reading my novel. Regarding beginnings, I’ve often heard it said that first drafts are for the writer; it’s only in later drafts that we take a reader’s needs into consideration. I think that’s true for the way I work. For example, in THE SHAMAN OF TURTLE VALLEY, I began with just the main character’s perspective because it was his story I wanted to tell, but then I realized that a reader needs a broader perspective on who this guy is, so I added the other points of view, a bit like a chorus in theater terms. Again, thanks for reading!

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