Weekly Musing: If Writing Has Taught Me One Thing, It’s Taught Me…

I love watching and listening to the interviews Bill Kenower conducts on Besides asking questions that show he has read the book the author is promoting as well as general writing questions, he always asks at the end of the interview ‘If writing has taught me one thing, it’s….’

This is my absolute favorite question. I look forward to the author’s answer because you can see the hamster running around the wheel in their mind as they ponder it. It’s fun watching the expression on the author’s face change. Up until that question, the author is usually relaxed and exhibits confidence in their answers. They are talking about the book after all; it’s easy to discuss where the idea came from, the process, what you’ve learned. But when that one question comes up, it’s Whoa! The uhs and ums come out. The writer breaks eye contact to stare at the ceiling, perhaps willing the deity of their choice to quickly inspire them. It’s a fascinating bit of people watching.

I love this question because as a new writer it’s illuminating hearing the answers. Many authors cite writing has taught them to be patient, persistent, and to have confidence in their abilities. Others have cited writing has taught them how to be a better person in that they are more aware of the world around them, to treat people better, and to listen more. Another common answer is writing has taught them to be themselves, to be comfortable, and confident in who they are.

I must admit, depending upon the interview I’ve just heard or watched I find myself changing my own answer. I guess it’s because the answers provided get me thinking about how the author came to that conclusion.

So if I ever get the privilege, this is how I would answer it, at least at this point:

If writing has taught me one thing, it has taught me to stand up for myself. Being a writer is what I feel like I was meant to be. Being able to express myself also means exposing myself to criticism. This has been both good and bad but what has amazed me is how I’ve been able to handle it. If someone has a constructive criticism, I can choose to entertain their comments or ignore them, sticking to my story how it is written if that is what I as a writer feel comfortable with. When it has come to the other kind of criticism, I have yet to back down from my work. I know what the intention of my piece is and what the thought process was behind it. If someone finds it offensive, that’s fine but I simply don’t see the need to apologize.

This is vastly different from my approach in other areas of my life. Normally I would be upset and feel a lot of guilt at causing anger in someone. I would apologize even when the cause was not something I did that was harmful. Just a matter of one person taking exception to something even when there was no malicious intent. But as I’ve taken writing more seriously, I find myself slowly able to stand up for myself. I don’t get defensive or unnecessarily apologetic as much. I remain calm and if there is something I should genuinely apologize for, then I do.

It’s funny to think that a profession such as writing, one where the writer is subject to all kinds of comments, criticisms, and analysis, that it could actually improve one’s self-esteem. Writers are told to develop a thick-skin. I used to think that referred to putting on a brave face in public and accepting quite quickly not everyone will like your work. Instead I’ve learned developing a thick-skin isn’t simply referring to one’s work but one’s life as well.


Weekly Musing: You’re My Inspiration

I’ve touched briefly upon what spurred me to become a writer but I haven’t talked about who my inspirations are, both good and bad. What I mean by that is, which authors do I admire, who in my wildest dreams would I love to be like, and which authors have I read that made me roll my eyes, sigh, and think ‘God, I hope I can do better than that.’ So today I’d like to wax a bit on those writers who have inspired me.

My absolute favorite author is Ken Follett. When I started reading his works, I think it was the first time I realized how much historical fiction I actually read and was the genre I loved the most. I was introduced to him by my spouse, who lent me a copy of The Pillars of the Earth. I loved the book. I loved the time setting, the story, and all the characters even that scumbag William Hamleigh. I started reading other Follett books, haven’t gotten through all of them yet, and my absolute favorite of his books is A Dangerous Fortune. Besides the tremendous amount of research that goes into each Follett book, the biggest thing I admire the most is the depth and complexity of his characters. He can juggle several major characters creating wonderfully entangled relationships. The characters feel like real people. They act like real people. His female main characters are always strong and complex. They are women with brains who buck the social constraints of their time period yet never come across as being out of place or too ‘modern’. Their motivations maybe for love and family, tropes most writers go to, but it never feels trite.

Follett’s characterizations and ways of seamlessly weaving in historical facts and details are a model for me. If I can achieve even an eighth of that, it would be a huge accomplishment in my mind. In A Dangerous Fortune, the book is set in the late Victorian era and Pilaster family’s wealth is centered in the banking industry. This is something most people aren’t familiar with so Follett has to educate the reader but not get the reader bogged down in all the boring financial terms. Instead of taking several arduous paragraphs to explain this, like some authors who shall remain nameless, he sprinkles it throughout the narrative in short, easy to digest paragraphs. He gives it the probiotic treatment. Just long enough to explain why it is germane to the story but not enough to glaze over the reader’s eyes. This approach is something I hope I can do in my own narratives because it is too easy for me to get caught up in the nerdy details I find interesting.

Another one of my favorite authors is George R.R. Martin. Like a lot of readers, I became aware of him via the show Game of Thrones based upon the excellent series A Song of Ice and Fire. His writing style is very different from Follett’s and modern writers I’ve read so far. He has this wonderfully dense, sensitive, lyrical quality to his prose. Sure some lament this but I find it refreshing; it makes his work and voice stand out. I’ve read some of his earlier short stories and am completely jealous of his early works because you can see his uniqueness even when he was a teenager. If I could put together prose a fraction of a fraction as beautiful as Martin does, I’d be exhilarated.

Besides the beauty of Martin’s words, the other thing he does that inspires me is, again, his characters. If you want to know what real, honest characters that quickly become people, then read George R.R. Martin. A Song of Ice and Fire is full of morally gray characters. It is full of characters you may love or hate at the beginning of the series but you wind up switching allegiance to by the end. But it’s not just this series where the characters are like that. His short stories are full of characters with indescribable depth. I admit I haven’t read any of his other novels yet but I look forward to them because I trust the quality will be there.

And for all my fangirling with regards to at least 2 of the authors whom I aspire to be like, there are those that I aspire to NOT be like. I won’t be specific with names or titles because that would be rude but suffice it say, when I attempted to read a certain book with sparkly vampires, I had to stop. Thinking ‘Um, is this what passes for a best-seller?’ is either inspiring or depressing. Inspiring as in well, I don’t think my writing can be any worse than that. Depressing as in I could be going at this for decades, producing well-written work (I hope) and yet not get published. What bugs me about books I’ve read that I don’t finish or like is because those authors have not created complex characters, interesting settings, or have strong prose skills. What gets published isn’t an accurate reflection of quality; it’s just what a publisher thinks they can sell.

But that’s when I realized I just need to concentrate on doing the best I can. I can be inspired without aping anyone else’s style or voice. It is incredibly easy for me to look at what my idols write and get down on myself. Is it realistic to aspire to be the next Ken Follett or George R.R. Martin or J.K. Rowling? Perhaps but I doubt any of them started out thinking they would be huge authors with millions of fans around the world and thousands of people admiring them.


Weekly Musings: A Lost Love

Over the past few months, a lost love has slinked its way back into my life. But it’s not someone my husband should be worried about, although this love is quite formidable and has been in my life far longer than he could ever hope to be. This love can be found anywhere, sometimes it is small and unassuming, sometimes large and hard to miss. This love covers all things known to man and some only known to aliens. It contains all forms of expression: the good, the great, the bad, and the ugly but only the mind and the heart can make that judgment. My lost love beckons me in the form of ink, paper, pictures, and as of late, me in kilobytes. My lost love is the library.

I’ve had a library card as long as I can remember being eligible for one. Growing up, the library was my favorite place, perhaps in part because it was pretty much the only place I was allowed to go, because it held all these books you could get for free. I don’t remember how many times a week I went to the public library but it had to have averaged at least once a week. I loved looking through the rows of the books, the number of rows expanding as I got older, to find something I hadn’t read. A small thrill would go through me as I raced to get through a stack of books before they were due. Don’t misunderstand, I wasn’t trying to speed read them for the sake of getting through them, no, I wanted to make sure I understood what I read but the added factor of a due date was a challenge for my brain. I imagine it’s the nerdy equivalent to bungee jumping or something.

When I was a teenager, both the public and school libraries were transitioning into installing computers. I didn’t think much of computers. I’d played a few games on them at a friend’s house and occasionally ‘Oregon Trail’ at school although I preferred my gaming to be on a console but other than that, I didn’t see what the big deal was. I was introduced to the Internet as a research tool my junior year of high school. It was still very new, still very slow, and clunky to use. Didn’t help when you misspelled a word resulting in no search results (yes, the Internet didn’t used to ask you if you actually meant something else). As a research tool, I found it inefficient and lacking the kind of information I could find much faster amongst the books. Card catalogs and the Dewey Decimal System for the win!

But an odd thing happened to my love when I went to college. I began to fall out of love with the library. I have determined it was because during college, I read so much for school, that the idea of reading for fun, a function I had associated with the library, was squashed. The library during college was purely a means to find books I, thankfully, didn’t have to pay for in order to complete a paper. Didn’t help the library building was a reflection of hideous 1960s architecture. I’ve been to my alma mater since graduation and am supremely jealous of their gorgeous new library, designed to look like a proper library.

Even upon graduation, the library and reading had lost me as a friend and wouldn’t regain me for a couple of years. We had broken up mutually, silently, to see other people, to spread our wings. If you love something, you must let it go and hope it will return to you.

Slowly, though, I crawled back to my local library for fun and education. Upon entering the doors, inhaling the smell of ink and paper, experiencing that glorious reverent sound of silence, I apologized for my lost faith in the strength of our love.

With the opening of a new branch of the local library system this past week, conveniently close to my house, I am reminded of the power a library has in a community. It opens up worlds to people. It affords glimpses into lives of people we will never meet but who we may oddly feel a kinship to. Libraries, both brick-and-mortar and online, are the keepers of the world’s knowledge. Any time of the day, I can flip through the library’s catalog for book I’ve heard about through some other book I’m reading or via a website. There is even the possibility of contacting a library in another country for materials not available locally.

Yes, the library and I are in love again. When you offer a girl the whole world, how can you turn a suitor down?