Jane Eaton Hamilton

"At the bottom of the box is hope." – Ellis Avery.

Tag: The Adequate Writer

The Adequate Writer

The Adequate Writer: The non-advice of how I write

by Jane Eaton Hamilton

IMG_8439

 sketch: Jane Eaton Hamilton 2014

How I write?  (Do not do what I do unless it’s fruitful for you.  This is non-advice gleaned over years of living with my idiosyncratic brain, and will not apply to everyone.)

I start with set but limited intentions.  A story, I say to self, 3000 words, go.  An essay, I say to self, longread, go.

I write scattershot.  I slam a metaphorical hammer into a metaphorical mirror-brain for all those pretty glittering silvers, that  debris-field.  I’ve got 26 letters: slurpy, corkscrewed, percussive, hot-bladed, shivery.  My job is to shape “bs” and “q”s and “es” and “rrrrrs” into sensical passages.  Get letters to tinkle out, fall into nothing sharp at first, messes of lines like snortable black coke, every edge ruffled and bleeding into the next.  Use them to compose some uneven, sloppy sentences and paragraphs while my eyes pretty much roll back in my head waiting to see if there’s a topic there, any topic there, a sentence, a phrase with energy, a sliver of glass that could cut someone, cut me, something to begin with.  If I sit in one place long enough–an hour, two hours–it’ll arrive.

I see my brain as something that keeps language recycling, always good for a new burst.  It just needs the cue, and the cue seems to be that one good phrase or sentence.

Like Hemingway said in answer to what is the hardest thing about writing: Getting the words right.

I get rid of the pre-writing, the casting about, the baloney.  Those couple of hours’ work.  Snap.  Gone.  New writers think they need to recycle these.  I might be able to use this in a poem, they say.  Or writing teachers tell them to.  Thinking that way makes you small and hoarding, in my opinion, where writing needs to be expansive to make itself known.  What I know after many years of doing this is that, barring my incapacity, there are always new words; if I accessed them to write one piece, they’ll be there for the next.  So I toss those bad paragraphs out.

At this point, I don’t have a clue what’s going to happen next.  Really.  Story, 1500 words, has to be done today.  I’d kinda like to write about weaver birds and the plight of songbirds in the Mediterranean.  So this was the line I kept:  My mama a woolly mammoth, hairy-legged, 100 feet tall and broad as a shack.  What I had there I liked.  I knew my character was s a kid and that her mom was scary, so that gave me context.  I could even see that woman’s legs.

So I said, Surprise me, little line.  Take me along.  Tell me where you wanna go. After that, it was like grabbing someone’s hand.  Where to?

More pre-writing and as I went, I tossed, I honed, I worked hard with each sentence and paragraph–is this one pulling its weight here? Any extra words? I ask all those questions writing teachers are forever telling you not to ask, all the editorial questions:  am I repeating words other than for affect, what motifs am I running, here, does this make sense, what does it sound like, feel like, look like, taste like around the protagonist? That editing that’s supposed to come second draft, third draft, fourth, I do it as I go, rewrite sometimes 7 times, sometimes 20 times. Over and over till it sounds ok and suggests the next thing.  I think that’s how I learn the story. Getting the words right drags me forward to where the story is heading.

When I was writing my short story “Smiley” I was thinking, Why the hell is that character collecting bird nests?

I trust my noggin. I really trust my noggin, so I just try to get out of its way.

And also I was thinking, because that particular story felt so transgressive and dangerous to me, You can’t write that.  Oh, for god’s sake, you really can’t write that. When I found out what that kid was going to do with that nest he found, I was as shocked as anyone else has described being.

Also, I do a lot of chasing down obscure research questions like What is an owl’s favourite tree to perch in, go.  I could not write my stories without google because the anwers I get to the questions I ask shape where that story goes, change the plot, define what the story will become.

It is chaotic and messy, my head, and in it, not a thing is linear.  It’s looping and tangential and writes itself in curves. Yours is probably different. It’s true what they say. You have a unique voice inside you, unique stories but also your own style. The best writing advice is probably, always, Discover your idiosyncracies and work them. 

The Adequate Writer: A state of writing grace

JEHhand3
hand, Jane Eaton Hamilton, unknown date
There is a thing that comes over my brain when I can write well–a vacancy. It could be likened to Bev Daurio’s “round room without windows,” because it feels like a scallop of emptiness inside a clean, white, rounded bone, a beautiful meditation room with blowing cream drapes, but it’s sensate even in my limbs as an awareness of what I have to call clean energy, the shimmer of a mirage felt rather than seen. A meditation? A dream without a dream to fill it? I can juggle five or ten disparate things at the same time as one might, I’ve heard, in a manic state, when links between ideas/inputs/sensations are readily apparent and can be braided. It doesn’t matter how ordinarily jarring the information appearing is–it will in this rare capacity make a kind of fictional sense for what my characters are undertaking. The world opens its possibilities all at once. Yet this state of writing grace is as far from manic as anything could be; it’s calm and open and peaceful. Whatever difficulties were inherent in the manuscript previously will be unlocked.
Not the kind of unlocked where you come back the next morning and groan at all the ridiculous you’ve unleashed on the text, but the kind of unlocked that sends manuscripts out into their futures.
 
Outside disruptions can dispell this nimbleness. When I am getting a “write on” I will sense it for hours before it shows itself fully. I prefer to indulge it and not break away from it, because it’s not a usual occurence for me. I can toil weeks or months without it, even while regularly engaged in a project. I can’t will it to happen, but I do note that it’s always–always–preceded by frustrated hours or days of edging up to work with increasing levels of frustration, something I would once have called writer’s block, replete as those times are with self-castigation. Not just writing self-castigation but more wide castigations: Why won’t I do my taxes? A nap mid-day? I should call X. I could finish that drywall. I could paint that trim. Why didn’t I call TD? Why haven’t I been in touch with the pharmacy? Why didn’t I cut the plants back? I should have gone shopping. I should have worked on that article due on the first. Watching a movie in the middle of the afternoon? Why am I so useless? I could lift weights. I could go for a walk. Look alive! It’s Monday tomorrow! How can I just go to bed without accomplishing anything?
But now I see this unease/writer’s block/chastisement as just a prelude to my best work. It’s part of why I believe in my routine of sticking it out each day until some significant work occurs (though usually I write through without this suppleness to help me, somewhere in the middle of my two extremes, and make do). Batter myself against failure long enough and there will come a breakthrough.

Blog post up at Gail Anderson-Dargatz’s site

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photo: Jane Eaton Hamilton 2006

Gail Anderson-Dargatz and I have known each other since she published her first book, ‘The Cure for Death by Lightning.’ She invited me to write a blog post on our favourite topic, the ins and outs of being writers. When you’re having a peak, notice she’s got blog posts up from many, many writers on all sorts of writerly topics.

“Losing the flow, for me, is a calamitous writer’s block.” Jane Eaton Hamilton

The Adequate Writer: On Writing Intensives

 

The Adequate Writer: Writing a Romance

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photograph:  Clematis, Jane Eaton Hamilton, 2015

It’s a good feeling to finish up a second draft of a novel–even a romance novel.

Novel draft, check.  Lilacs on the table. Check. Candlelit dinner. Perfect view of Seattle’s Space Needle. Check. Scintillating company.  Check.

Realizing that I dropped the dog out of the book by the first third, so it is wandering around an island by itself for perpetuity? That’s why I call myself the adequate writer.

The Adequate Writer: Your work is crap

JEHNov13_2014

sketch: Jane Eaton Hamilton 2014

We’ve all been there on the receiving end of rejections that are ill-conceived and thoughtless.  Your work is crap, these notes say, in whatever arguably neutral language they couch this in.  Your work made me vomit.  Go shovel walkways.  Go work at Goonies.  Just go away and please, please, please, and whatever you do, stop writing.

They aren’t actually that bad, and most of them aren’t bad at all.  But we feel like they are, right?

It may be that, in fact, our work is crap.  It happens to the best of us.  After 35 years at this, I still write reams of garbage, and, sometimes, I send it out.  But regardless of the status of my submissions, good or bad or in between, the stats for rejection/acceptance stay about 20-1.  Which means that I get one acceptance per couple dozen rejections.

Does being queer enter into that?  Of course it does.  Pieces aren’t judged only by merit.  Unless there’s a push for affirmative action at a magazine, an article/story/poem that is even tangentially about being queer is often overlooked.  Oh, we published a lesbian piece last month.  Not quite for our demographic.  A little too avant garde for us.

Do I care?  Yeah, a lot.  I hate homophobia, and at my age, it’s a tired old saw.  Go play with knives, already.  Get over yourselves and ask more of your readers.

But even so, if I send a piece out–no matter what kind of piece it is–for long enough, with enough diligence, it will eventually find its home, and that won’t be the bottom of the barrel, that’ll be at a magazine/journal/online site where I’ll be proud to publish and they’ll be proud to have you.

Most of being a writer is showing up, keeping at it, being persistent when the whole damned enterprise seems keyed to shutting you down.

Here’s what I know, though.  You can do one thing better than any other writer anywhere:  you can be yourself.

Authors might have talents and skills you don’t have, but you have talents and skills they don’t have, as well.  That’s the thing that strikes me over and over in this long-game:  No one can write like I do.  Often I whine and grumble about that–how I can’t stop being me for five minutes in order to write as brilliantly as, say, Eudora Welty–but really, ultimately, my uniqueness is a good thing.  In fact, in an over-crowded marketplace, it’s the sum total of what I’ve got.  My idiosyncracies?  Those are my only commodities in publishing-land.

Do I wish I had other styles, other skills, other talents?  Of course I do.  Absolutely I do.  If I could write like Arundhati Roy, or Karrie Higgins, or poetry like, say, Alice Anderson or Jane Hirschfield or Marilyn Hacker, or essays like Roxanne Gay, or one true sentence the way Ray Carver could, or a Lidia Yuknavich short chapter, I would die a perfectly fulfilled human being.  If I could turn a sentence like Rebecca Brown or Lorrie Moore or Mavis Gallant or Toni Morrison I would be incandescent.  But I can’t.  That’s them.  That’s their kick at the can.  It’s not supposed to be mine.

Mine is the bit I got.

And that’s a lucky thing.  Because if we all wrote like each other, reading would be a grim task indeed.

Your work is crap?  Make more crap.  Do it the Beckett way:  If you’re going to fail–and you are going to fail–fail better.

 

The Adequate Writer: Perseverance

FullSizeRendersketch: Jane Eaton Hamilton 2014

Know what separates the people who’ve published books from the people who haven’t?  You think it’s connections, talent, luck, skill, but it’s something a lot more basic–it’s tenacity.  It’s perseverance.  It’s not giving up.  It’s sticking with a piece after you screech and tear your hair out.  It’s staying put, bum to chair, for as long as it takes.

The Adequate Writer: The non-advice of how I write

IMG_8439

 sketch: Jane Eaton Hamilton 2014

How I write?  (Do not what I do unless it’s fruitful for you.  This is non-advice gleaned over years of living with my idiosyncratic brain, and will not apply to everyone.)

I start with set but limited intentions.  A story, I say to self, 3000 words, go.  An essay, I say to self, longread, go.

I write scattershot.  I slam a metaphorical hammer into a metaphorical mirror-brain for all those pretty glittering silvers, that  debris-field.  I’ve got 26 letters: slurpy, corkscrewed, percussive, hot-bladed, shivery.  My job is to shape “bs” and “q”s and “es” and “rrrrrs” into sensical passages.  Get letters to tinkle out, fall into nothing sharp at first, messes of lines like snortable black coke, every edge ruffled and bleeding into the next.  Use them to compose some uneven, sloppy sentences and paragraphs while my eyes pretty much roll back in my head waiting to see if there’s a topic there, any topic there, a sentence, a phrase with energy, a sliver of glass that could cut someone, cut me, something to begin with.  If I sit in one place long enough–an hour, two hours–it’ll arrive.

I see my brain as a bullet shooter, inexhaustible.  Something that keeps language recycling, always good for a new burst.  It just needs the cue, and the cue seems to be that one good phrase or sentence.

Like Hemingway said in answer to what is the hardest thing about writing: Getting the words right.

I get rid of the pre-writing, the casting about, the baloney.  Those couple of hours’ work.  Snap.  Gone.  New writers think they need to recycle these.  I might be able to use this in a poem, they say.  Or writing teachers tell them to.  Thinking that way makes you small and hoarding, in my opinion, where writing needs to be expansive to make itself known.  What I know after many years of doing this is that, barring my incapacity, there are always new words; if I accessed them to write one piece, they’ll be there for the next.  So I toss those bad paragraphs out.

At this point, I don’t have a clue what’s going to happen next.  Really.  Story, 1500 words, has to be done today.  I’d kinda like to write about weaver birds and the plight of songbirds in the Mediterranean.  So this was the line I kept:  My mama a woolly mammoth, hairy-legged, 100 feet tall and broad as a shack.  What I had there I liked.  I knew my character is a kid and that her mom was scary, so that gave me context.  I could even see that woman’s legs.

So I said, Surprise me, little line.  Take me along, little line.  Tell me where you wanna go. After that, it was like grabbing someone’s hand.  Where to?

More pre-writing and as I went, I tossed, I honed, I worked hard with each sentence and paragraph–is this one pulling its weight here?  Any extra words?  I ask all those questions writing teachers are forever telling you not to ask, all the editorial questions:  am I repeating words other than for affect, what motifs am I running, here, does this make sense, what does it sound like, feel like, look like, taste like around the protagonist?  That editing that’s supposed to come second draft, third draft, fourth, I do it as I go, rewrite sometimes 7 times, sometimes 20 times.  Over and over till it sounds ok and suggests the next thing.  I think that’s how I learn the story.  I think getting the words right drags me forward to where the story is heading.

When I was writing my short story “Smiley” I was thinking, Why the hell is that character collecting bird nests?

I trust my noggin.  I really trust my noggin, so I just try to get out of its way.

And also I was thinking, because that particular story felt so transgressive and dangerous to me, You can’t write that.  Oh, for god’s sake, you really can’t write that.  When I found out what that kid was going to do with that nest he found, I was as shocked as anyone else.

Also, I do a lot of chasing down obscure research questions like What is an owl’s favourite tree to perch in, go.  I could not write my stories without google because the anwers I get to the questions I ask shape where that story goes, change the plot, define what the story will become.

It is chaotic and messy, my head, and in it, not a thing is linear.  It’s looping and tangential and writes itself in curves.  The best writing advice is probably, always, Work with what you’ve got. 

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