Lenore Myka2018-05-04T11:08:35+00:00

Doing Something New

Doing Something New

I was reluctant to read George Saunders’s much-celebrated book. In the past, I have appreciated his work, though some stories have felt too sentimental for me. But I have no reservations about Lincoln in the Bardo. Bottom line: it’s a masterpiece.

I loved this book for many different reasons. As a writer, it comes down to one quality: Saunders is trying to tell stories in new, innovative ways. As I have long told students, all the stories you could ever imagine being told have been. The challenge is in the way you tell them.

The most recent Writer’s Chronicle issue republished Saunders’s keynote address at this spring’s AWP conference. In his presentation, he talks about his early days as a writer, climbing various metaphorical mountains so that he might stand beside literary giants like Hemingway and Carver, until one day he discovered it was better to climb his own hill, in his own way. Saunders stumbled upon his writing gifts. He’d doodled things in the margins of a legal pad he’d been using at work. When at home he overhead his wife laughing out loud at what he had written, he had an epiphany: this was what he was good at.

I think Saunders’s story has two important points worth noting. Yes, we should write from our identified strengths. That’s how you begin to understand how all those stories that have already been told might benefit from your own special version of them. But in looking at a work like Lincoln in the Bardo, I know Saunders didn’t stop there. He hasn’t, for the past thirty years of his writing career, been coasting on his gifts as a humorist. His latest novel shows the world that he is still striving, still improving, still (for lack of a better word) experimenting.

The goal should always be to push against our perceived limitations–as artists and as human beings. That’s what makes for the best in art and life.


The Bookshop

The Bookshop

Unlike many writers who worry about the integrity of a book being irrevocably altered, I don’t mind a film adaptation. Of course, I generally feel the books are better. But film is a different medium, and demands different things of a work. And there are lots of great movies (and more recently, TV shows) that honor the spirit of the books they’ve adapted. There’s also the fact that movies can draw attention to an excellent book that has been otherwise neglected by readers.

So while others might be shocked by the audacity of the filmmakers recreating Penelope Fitzgerald’s The Bookshop, I’m thrilled. I love Fitzgerald’s books. And this particular film might just do double-duty, reminding us not only of a great literary voice but also of those oftentimes unknown individuals who devote their lives to books: bookshop owners.

My guess is more of Fitzgerald’s books have been sold in actual brick and mortar stores than on Amazon. And despite all the predictions about digital media killing the indie bookstore, local bookstores from my perspective, are experiencing a golden age. When I travel, I seek out these shops. On vacation in the Adirondacks this summer, I discovered The Bookstore Plus. Whenever I visit cities in which I’d resided, I visit bookstores; Harvard Bookstore and Politics and Prose are just a couple of those.

Here in the Tampa Bay Area, there is a growing literary scene. Whenever I’m in Tampa, I visit Inkwood Books. And here in St Petersburg I’ve been ordering again and again from Tombolo Books, and am always happy to see their pop-ups around town. I’m eagerly awaiting the day they’ll have a permanent shop location.

My first bookstore was Talking Leaves in Buffalo, NY. As a sometimes lonely and isolated teenager, this place offered no small degree of solace for me. Bookstores–like their publicly-funded siblings, libraries–connect communities, not only physically, but through the shared love of the written word. It’s not hyperbolic to say that books save people. I know they’ve saved me.


Breaking the Rules Revisited

Breaking the Rules Revisited

My mother and niece, Avery, at Chautauqua

I had a great week at the Chautauqua Institution, taking in speakers and events, jogging the grounds, and conducting a writing workshop with five fantastic women writers. But the event that seemed to draw the most attention was the brown bag lunch I gave on my very last day as writer in residence there, a talk entitled “Great Writing Advice You Might Want to Ignore.” The audience had an abundance of terrific questions and comments.

As noted in one of my previous posts here, I’ve been circling around this topic for some time. Writing is intuitive and rules can oftentimes challenge the intuition. Rules, in and of themselves, are not bad. But they need to match the person and the individual circumstances. The wrong rules or advice at the wrong time, and all hell breaks loose.

Here is just a short list of writing “rules” I determined I needed to break, in order to reinvigorate my creative process:

1) Write what you know. I’ve found it better to write about things I know nothing about so that my imagine can run wild.
2) Write every day. Sometimes, our brains and hearts need a break. Writing isn’t just about producing words; it’s also about living.
3) Don’t take breaks. This is a lot like the above, but is more often applied to that time when you are about to conclude one project. Many of us need space and time to fill the well; launching off onto another, new project, may be premature.
4) Find an artistic community. Community can be a terrific thing, a great source of support. It can also foment envy and anxiety, as we measure ourselves against the accomplishments of others. Envy and anxiety can be paralyzing.
5) Write through the pain. We’re told artistic pursuits are hard, sometimes even painful. But they shouldn’t make you miserable. If they are, consider why you are doing what you’re doing; chances are, your motives are wrong.

There are many more, but I’ll stop there for now.


Hate Revision? Get Over It

Hate Revision? Get Over It

This week I’ll be teaching a workshop at the Chautauqua Institution called “Re-envisioning Revision.” It’s for writers who have a draft of a larger work and are ready for the next step. The workshop is small; revision isn’t a popular subject.

Why is revision such a tough sell? I think a big piece of it is our educational system. Revision has become synonymous with copyediting, while being nothing remotely close to it. In high school we were told to rewrite our work, but this usual meant we should correct our grammar and spelling. This is not revision.

The other reason I think revision is a tough sell is because it’s the real work of writing, and many people just don’t want to do this work. That early draft is so exciting to write, we have so much fun with it. It’s got to be perfect, right? And then we go into a workshop and the other participants, our first line of readers, tell us what they didn’t understand, what made no sense, what was missing and confusing and discordant. Some (many?) of us expected something different, mostly that the other participants would tell us how amazing the story or poem or essay was and how we should find a publisher for it. It’s a bitter pill to swallow. We feel defensive of our work, defeated by the feedback, discouraged and overwhelmed by the mountain of work ahead.

This pattern depresses me, mostly because I like revision and (quite frankly) have no patience for people who want their egos coddled. I like to tinker and fix and make things better. I like to problem-solve. Mostly, I like to step back from my work and discover what it is really telling me. Revision reveals to us the mystery of writing. It shows us how we may set out on one path and end up somewhere entirely unexpected. The mystery is in how this happens. Being open to the mystery is where revision starts.

If you hate revision, I have only one thing to say to you: Get over it, already.


Cultivating Community

Cultivating Community

In a week I’ll be headed to the Chautauqua Institution to serve as writer-in-residence for their final week of summer programming. Chautauqua was a place I visited as a child with my family, and I have lots of fond memories. Returning decades later will no doubt be surprising and special in its own way.

Opportunities like these are important. As artists we work so often in isolation. Going to conferences and residencies and other places that support artistic exploration cultivates a sense of community that many artists lack in our day-to-day lives. It’s hard to explain to neighbors and colleagues and even family members why we’re motivated to do what we do, especially when oftentimes there’s no obvious reward for all the hard work and thought that goes into it. Meeting others with shared interests and goals reminds us we’re not alone in our creative pursuits.

Over the years, I’ve learned so much from the people I’ve met. I’ve been inspired and usually leave with a feeling of rejuvenation and excitement. Some of my closest friendships have arisen out of these experiences. I’m looking forward to making friends and connections in Chautauqua.

But I also understand that these opportunities aren’t always possible for folks. If you can’t get a residency to cover the costs of the travel and missed work time, it’s hard to justify taking the hit. Many people (most people?) can’t afford to do this. Which is also why organizations like Creative Pinellas matter so much: community can likely be uncovered in your immediate environment. It just might take a little digging around, some effort to get it started.

And if you are saying that community cannot be uncovered in your immediate world, I offer this: Back in May a friend and I became writing buddies. After a conversation we realized that were were each at similar stages in our creative writing projects and that serving as “partners” might assist us with motivation. Each week we share with one another the work we’ve accomplished and tell each other what we’ve been doing. We provided support and encouragement and accountability to one another. We serve as sounding boards when things are rough, give each other reading suggestions, ruminate on the day-to-day challenges that can both impede and inspire creative work. And because my friend  lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, all of this happens via the internet.



Keep On Keepin’ On

Keep On Keepin’ On

A long while ago, I ran a marathon.

For years before I thought: No way in hell. The occasional 5 and 10k were more my speed. Slow and easy and not too much pain: my speed. And then a friend suggested we do a half-marathon together. We joined a nonprofit organization fundraising for the event, which locked us in a bit more. And by the end of our first training week, we’d decided to do the entire 26.2. We finished together; we weren’t breaking any records (unless those records were for the slowest marathon ever run). But we finished. And honestly it was AMAZING.

I’m running a marathon again–with my manuscript. It’s the first draft and I’d say I’m at about mile 16 or 17. If I recall my other marathon, the one that involved real running–those were tough miles. You’re on the other side of this challenge, but you’re not yet seeing the finish line. You can visualize it, can visualize crossing it, but you’re really ready to be done with it. You’re pretty tired and water isn’t enough. You’re imagining an undercooked ribeye, a pile of salt, a bubble bath. The people cheering who’d really motivated you at mile 8 and 13 have begun to irritate you; in fact, you kind of want to tell them to shut up already. You want to run faster but you know that’s the worst idea of all: you’d only be increasing your chances of hitting the infamous wall.

But still: you’re in it. And like hell are you going to quit now. After all, it’s less than 10 more miles; you’re in the single digits.

Everyday, I want to write a little faster. But everyday, no matter how much time I put in, the page number is about the same. I set the pace a while back and have been plodding along and though it seemed unlikely I’d reach this point, here I am. I can visualize the finish line. It looks really nice. Still, I’m not quite there yet.


On Money and Art: An Awkward Intersection

On Money and Art: An Awkward Intersection

Yesterday, I received a check in the mail for an article I wrote that will be appearing in the next issue of Poets & Writers Magazine. It came just a few days after the Creative Pinellas Meet-Up in Clearwater where, among other topics, we attendees discussed the pleasures in being financially rewarded for our artistic work. The arrival of the check reminded me of that conversation and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. I have complicated feelings around money, especially when it comes to my own writing, feelings that I haven’t entirely reconciled and am unsure I ever will. And of course there is this unavoidable irony as well: I’m writing this blog as a result of the generosity of Creative Pinellas in awarding me an artist’s grant.

Nonetheless, there’s something about attaching a price tag to what we do that makes me unsettled. Yes, I am furious with the general practice of not paying authors for published work. I also understand that places that don’t oftentimes don’t have the means to do so, theirs being a labor of love as much as my writing is to me. Far worse is the increasing prevalence of boutique publishers that require authors pay them for the production of a manuscript.

Beyond all this is simply the fact that we’re measuring our worth the way the rest of our capitalist culture does: through financial gain. But art is so much more than the money it reaps. And so many terrific artists don’t ever see a dime. It reminds me of the ways in which the American educational system has been corporatized. Education is now a means to an end, rather than the means being the end–or better–the means just being.

I suppose what I’m saying is this: Yes, advocate for yourself as an artist. Yes, demand, when possible, sufficient compensation. But please don’t let money be the driving force. For one thing, you’re less likely to be successful at it if money is why you’re attempting to do it (and frankly there are much easier ways to make money than writing novels, even terrible ones, believe me). For another, your art risks being corrupted by perceived market trends, which oftentimes results in art that is less authentic and true. The latter can have larger implications for society and culture.

Part of art’s responsibility is to agitate. Part of its responsibility is to question the status quo, to scrutinize it. When art becomes the status quo, we’re all in big trouble.


(Not) Reading While Writing


(Not) Reading While Writing

I’ve heard more than one established writer say that each new project is like starting from ground zero. I certainly feel this way. Each story and essay and book is an experience of learning how to write all over again.

Where others might be discouraged, I’m content with this fact. Writing is a process of learning; feeling like a novice indicates to me that my curiosity and desire for intellectual inquiry are still fully intact. (Rue the day these things no longer exist in me.) Also, new projects have their own set of rules–process can’t be duplicated. What exhilarates me about this is that my sense of my limitations are always being challenged. So too, is my identity as a writer.

Most recently, I’ve discovered that I’m not simply a fiction writer, but a nonfiction writer as well. This is because the project that knocked on my door demanded it be written as creative nonfiction. I have little formal training in this, but that made me all the more eager to try my hand at this particular challenge.

Being a good student, my first impulse was to read books about writing nonfiction, followed up with research that might inform my subject. This was what I did with my first book, and the unpublished novel I wrote. But something inside me said this wasn’t the approach to take this time. Though I walked out of the library with a stack of books in hand, I never opened them. I still haven’t. The words flow; the writing is happening. I mark segments where I might want to do some research later, but for now, I’m just not following that path. I’m not at that stage in the process and maybe I never will be.

Sometimes, the best thing you can do for your writing is not read other people’s writing on a similar subject, or in a similar style. This decision, like all the other many decisions you need to make when writing, relies on intuition. So whatever one can do to keep that lifeline alive, do it.



Withholding in Writing

Withholding in Writing

I recently read the book My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout and was struck by how brilliant Strout is at withholding information. The book is filled with white space–physical and metaphorical. So much is left unsaid which makes the novel all the richer and deeper. I highly recommend it.

Despite the adage “show, don’t tell,” writing is an act of telling. Writers use words to tell stories, to share experiences, to convey emotion and making meaning. But a common error of young writers is that they can oftentimes tell too much. They underestimate the intelligence of their readers and explain everything, sometimes ad nauseamIt makes for tedious, boring prose.

More experienced writers understand that not telling is as important as telling. Withholding information creates mystery and tension. It gives the reader a chance to imagine, which is a necessary part of reading, a part of it that makes it a rich, multilayered experience. It also mimics real life since so much of human interaction is about what’s not said, and its relationship to what is.


A Change of Scenery

A Change of Scenery

In the last post I wrote about the importance of doing other things in order to fill the creative well. One of the activities I find most helpful–particularly when I’m feeling stuck–is travel. Even a day trip can clear up the confusion. Sometimes we need new perspective on and distance from our work. Travel has always done that for me. There’s also something about being in a new, unfamiliar setting that shakes things up. I think this is because we’re apt to pay closer attention to new places, to note things that are unusual, strange, or beautiful, mostly because our environment is novel.

An important lesson from travel–novelty. It’s something worth cultivating in our own day-to-day lives, at home.

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