Two Careers

Few writers, at any stage in their career, can make a living solely off their writing. Most of us have a full-time career, what we often call a “day job.” While most of us dream of focusing all of our time on writing, our energy would be better spent learning the skills necessary and reaping the benefits of managing two careers. Here are a couple of skills where I’ve found my writing and my corporate life complement and strengthen each other.

Public speaking isn’t easy for anyone. It requires a pair of skills: writing and speaking. I have found that my ability to do this well at the office has grown as I’ve learned to read my creative work before an audience. In both cases I must compose remarks that introduce, deliver, and engage. I have found the creativity with which I do this in my writing life carries well to the corporate setting.

Project management skills entail the ability to methodically and in an organized manner get work done by forming a team and facilitating the effort of others toward a vision. Having these skills serves my writing career in too many ways to count. Because of my background in project management I know how to break down work, prioritize and sequence tasks, and apply timelines to accomplish them. I also know how to engage others and join forces to accomplish much more than I ever could alone. These serve my writing, workshops, readings, and promotional events––anytime I need to collaborate with others creatively.

As you consider it, you will soon find many overlaps, large and small, between your two careers. You will also find that having two (or more) careers isn’t that uncommon because many others have seen the benefits.

One Year Anniversary

Tomorrow, 10 September, will mark the one-year anniversary of the release of my debut novel, The Confessions of Adam. In recognition of this milestone, here are three take-aways from the experience. 

  • Involve Others. You will not be able to launch your debut alone, and you don’t want to. Engage the skills of others to help shepherd your book into the world. I enlisted an eager and willing team of friends with diverse skills such as event emcee, graphic designer, web plugin integrator, book club leader, and small business owner. Some of this was organic as I worked to create a local launch of the novel and let my needs be known, but in the end I had a base of people who were creatively engaged with me and vocal advocates for our unique effort.
  • Keep Writing. It is critical that you start and make progress on your next project. You may find you’re consumed with the book you’ve finished and have stopped writing. This may seem prudent or even helpful in the short-term, but once the excitement wanes, you’ll be left only with the writing. Make sure it’s not a blank page. The writing is the only part of the process that you fully own. Keep doing the work. I kept writing. It became a solace.
  • Tend to Everything Else. Over the last year I’ve seen voluntary and involuntary job change, the one-year anniversary of the death of my mother, the birth of my first grandchild, a close friend traverse cancer, and a global pandemic. The rest of life marches on even as this momentous goal you’ve worked toward for so long is realized. Give the people and events of your life their needed attention and consideration.

And remember to take a moment to enjoy it all. To use David Gibson’s phrase––life is gift, not gain.

First Book Club

On Saturday evening, August 29th, I will attend my first book club where The Confessions of Adam has been read and will be discussed. I’ve been invited to come and talk about my debut novel. These readers aren’t rookies. They’ve met monthly, enjoyed dinner, and read books together for over two decades.

As I prepare for the conversation, I’m pulling my notes from research, considering what I might read if asked, and gathering a few extra books, bookmarks, and author cards. But what I know is this––what I bring to this group of thoughtful readers will pale in comparison to what they will give me. They have taken the time to read my novel and I will receive an hour of reader insight––listening in as readers talk about their experiences with my book. Such conversation is invaluable as I work on my next manuscript. Such feedback informs and educates a writer like none other can. It’s a rare opportunity for which I am grateful.

The Gift of Routine

“I’ll quit when it stops being fun.” You’ve heard that one, right? Maybe you’ve said it. How about this one. “Life’s too short not to enjoy what you’re doing.”

Writing every day can feel like a rut, a bore, a routine of going through the motions with little to show for it. Many days the work can feel empty of passion, a flat obligation. I’ve felt all of this. And if I’m not careful, I find myself yearning for something else. Instead of settling into the routine, I find myself seeking excitement, wishing for the extraordinary, trying to engineer something new.

I’ve come to believe there’s another way—an accurate way—to look at our daily work.

Life is gift, not gain*. The daily routine, the repetition of sitting down to write at the same time each day, this practice of day in and day out effort is a gift. It’s part of the created order. With the first rising and setting of the sun, repetition and routine were invented. Structure was created for us to inhabit, as a form for our lives. 

In routine we are given a place and a peace. To seek something else is to fail to see the Creator’s gift in the daily pursuit of our creative work. For all of us there comes a day, or a period of time, when we cannot do our work. When a circumstance preempts our routine. During those times we wish we could go back to the routine, back to the ordinary. So enjoy the work each day brings––the delight of the ordinary, the gift of routine.

*This is one of the many ideas developed in David Gibson’s Living Life Backward.

We’re Insecure and Lack Confidence

“Yesterday evening, I started my novel. Now I begin to see stylistic difficulties that horrify me. To be simple is no small matter.” 

– Gustave Flaubert in a letter to Louise Colet, 20 September 1851

When Flaubert wrote the sentences above he had just started work on what would become the first novel of modern realism, a French classic, and a world literary masterwork, Madame Bovary

When starting a new project (and deep in the throes of one) an author will encounter feelings of inspiration and the sense he or she is on a mission, but just as quickly as these gifts of perception arrive, they will disintegrate into feelings of uncertainty—both in the conceit of the project itself and in one’s ability to pull it off.

Every author travels this terrain. And with every manuscript. Of course we cannot know what will be the fate of our work once it is out in the world, should it be so successful as to find readers. For this we can be grateful. If Flaubert had prophetically known what his new project would come to be, wouldn’t he have been further “horrified?” If I knew no one would ever read my novel-in-progress, how would I carry on?

It’s true, Flaubert was attempting to break with convention, to write in a new way, but such somersaults are attempted to some degree with every project. Every author is attempting the unknown, seeking to climb a mountain of her own invention, one he has never before seen.

So take comfort. You are in creative company with Flaubert, and every other writer of whom you’ve ever heard. And those you haven’t. We’re all walking our ridge, in search of footing with every step.

The Invention of Character

There are many examples for writing students of exercises and worksheets through which to create characters. Do a search in Google Images for “character creation worksheet.” 

Are you overwhelmed? Close your browser. Let’s talk about how working writers get this done.

People present themselves in what they say and what they do. These are a result of beliefs and experiences. And all of this is alive, complex, and full of contradictions. 

We know very little of people when we first meet. We learn through doing life with them, through conversations, through time spent together. It’s a slow process. But a rewarding one. It’s what gives much of our life meaning. A person’s hobbies or where they went to school? These are simple trivia. Their tics and idiosyncrasies, their moments of insight and magnificent blunders––these are what endear them to us.

Characters are people. They are dynamic, not static. Characters aren’t developed, they’re ever-developing. I knew nearly nothing about Oren when I began to write my novel The Confessions of Adam. I knew simply that he was from Susa, a master scribe, and a proud skeptic. All of these details came by necessity of the story. Oren walked onto the set. That is how we met.

As I wrote, I learned much more about Oren. I learned his father and he had a difficult relationship. I learned his son and he did as well. I learned about his tragic romantic life, his insecurities, and loneliness. These were dimensions of him I learned through the writing, through listening, in time spent with him––not ones I invented writing a character sketch. This is life, not a lab.

Oren became a friend. He was from a culture, time, and place unlike my own. He was at once ancient and modern. I listened to what he said, how he said it, and I came to better understand him as I wrote these down. I am convinced there are nooks and crannies of Oren I know nothing about, depths of his psyche and complexities of thought he intentionally holds back, ones he himself doesn’t yet understand, or doesn’t know how to share.

When you view a character in a story you’re writing just as you would a new acquaintance, and in time, an old friend (or enemy), you have a fully developing character.

Love and Commitment (in Writing, not Relationships)

In the past, I’ve been very fond of the story I was writing. I’ve experienced deep feelings of belief in the story, a sense that it must be told and I was on a mission to do so. With my first novel, The Confessions of Adam, I had this sense from the beginning. The story felt fresh and my pursuit of it, my commitment to it, never waned. 

I assumed this would always be the case with every project and I was surprised, confused even, when it wasn’t.

With my current project, the love affair has been on again, off again––more like a negotiation than a relationship. For a long time I’ve sought but not had the same experience I did with Confessions. I’ve felt the project was a worthy one certainly, yet I couldn’t figure out what about it was particularly engaging. I’ve now completed ten drafts of the manuscript and I’m just starting to get a sense of what the project is seeking to become and how I might be invested in that effort.

I’ve come to see this as part of the creative process. Commitment must not be too tightly lashed to emotion. Commitment to a project may well need to be in place long before creative energy is found and emotional delight is realized.

Poetry and Prose

Historically these have been two separate genres. It seems even a handful of decades ago poets and fiction writers moved in separate circles, spoke divergent languages, sought different readers. In my creative writing grad school experience, a fiction writer couldn’t take a course in poetry. I tried.

This has changed. Evidence in the literature is clear. Poetry and prose are merging. And to the benefit of readers everywhere.

Here are a few exhibits of the evidence.

Apeirogon by Colum McCann, a novel. Published earlier this year, a personal and poetic telling of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, written in over 1500 short vignettes, some only a line long, others are lines repeated from another entry, one of them a simple outlined empty box.

“Only Child” by Billy Collins, a poem. The narrative, the longing-laden story of this piece causes the reader to forget its poetic form, even as its form carries weight.

Ru by Kim Thúy, a memoir in novel. One page chapters layered with images and riffs on images, the narrative flowing far below, pulling the reader unconsciously along.

And these are only a few. Now that you’re aware you’ll see them all around you.

For Beginning Writers – Conflict Creates Story

Without conflict, there isn’t story. Conflict is when your characters are established and then bad things happen to them. The more bad things the better. Conflict drives action. Conflict molds characters. Simply having a character go about their routine isn’t action, isn’t story, and won’t generate conflict.

Write conflict into your story as early as you can. Write conflict into the first line if at all possible. Your reader will not be able to help but read the second sentence if there’s compelling conflict in the first.

Go re-read your favorite short stories or novels. Conflict is the engine. Sometimes it’s psychological and has physical results. Sometimes it’s physical and has psychological results. Regardless, the conflict is what drives the plot forward and alters the characters. And if the plot sags, conflict is what injects energy once again.

For Beginning Writers – How to Accept [or Decline] Feedback

Giving feedback and receiving it are skills. Your ability to develop these skills will directly impact your development as a writer.

Good feedback…

Supports what you are trying to accomplish with your project. Good feedback identifies a problem and then leaves it to you to determine a fix. Good feedback comes in a personal note or letter or in a one-on-one conversation. This is because it’s personal and must be thoughtful and thorough.

Bad feedback…

Is feedback that’s all appreciative, all praise, unbalanced. Bad feedback offers elaborate or invasive fixes. A good reader is nearly always right about the fact there’s an issue, they are always wrong about how to fix it. You are the only one who knows your work well enough to determine a fix—and if a fix is needed. Bad feedback suggests ways to make a piece something  never intended by the writer (e.g. “this story would be great if aliens showed up and foiled the bank robbery”).

What to do? 

Act on feedback that is coming from a source that seems to 1) understand your intent and the project, and 2) is coming in the form of appreciative and constructive feedback. Be open-minded. Recognize that this is a reader who has been kind enough to give you their time at this critical point in your project. If you have questions, talk to them about their feedback. And express your gratitude.