Posted by: Judy M. Goodman | February 2, 2009

Shop-worn Epiphany

Someone called too early this morning. It’s karmic, I suppose, me not ready to face the world no matter what time he calls – or is it that on the days the universe knows he’ll call, it forbids sleep to find me the night before. Whatever the mechanics, he usually talks Grade-A piffle that sticks in my mind like the jingle “Let’s All Go the Lobby.” Yes, I’ll admit it I don’t give a monkey’s if the current Swedish weight loss fad is eating blindfolded. [Ed. Note: Not quite sure what “monkey’s” refers to in that context. My knowledge of the phrase “freeze the balls off a brass monkey” (which does not refer to a simian) leads me to think “left testicle.” Yet that makes no more sense than “bursting appendix,” “gold tooth,” or “antique harpsichord.” I heard the usage in a British movie and the actor’s reading made it seem most expressive of what I felt. Of course, etymology being my raison d’etre, I would not resent edification on that point. Or even on the more basic: why a monkey’s whatever?]

Though my brain was fizzing and popping like Rice Krispies in Diet Coke, I dutifully wrote down “Ali Smith’s the First Person and Other Stories,” because it was a creative exploration of voice. The fuzzy brain haze ordered me to search the online library catalogue, and I blindly, hoarsely, and absently did its bidding. I doggedly chased down the panacea for my writing malaise – this incidence of which, though only a few days old and following, as usual, a white-hot writing streak, already seemed ancient. I just knew that consulting not just Smith, but a plethora of writing gurus is all that would cure me.

Yet, as I madly researched the seed meant to grow into this post rather than writing it, I had the well-worn, often repeated epiphany. In my case, it was the memory of interviewing a working, though not well known, writer in Los Angeles. She talked about the part of writing she called a “Creative Coma.” In this state, she would find a way to freeze out all distractions and interference and spend most of the time at low-level consciousness. In the end, she realized that her deep consciousness had been working something out. She, then, came out writing, even if she could not remember any part of the mental journey. She had simply sidestepped the blind Swedish dieters and cleverly conceived advice and found an unobscured path to writing.

When I said “madly researched,” I wasn’t exaggerating. I scanned hundreds of online library catalogue entries trying to find the exact titles and authors of certain examples. Not to mention misspelling Al(l)i Smith, Sara(h) Paretsky, and the author of a book I mistook for Fondling Your Muse before finding the correct title. The six hours I spent trying to find the correct keywords and subject headings appalled me. The OCLC online catalogue claims to have no “nonfiction” or “humorous” books on “writing fiction,” yet, if you ask for “fiction authorship” you’ll find thousands of entries. Of course, when you just try to weed out the novels, you’re told there are no results at all. Adding “humor” to anything, really fouls up your search, even though, as a stand-alone, it will yield hundreds of thousands of items. When I had to delete most of that information, I felt like Monty Python’s bare foot had landed on me. I wanted to wander around with a diaper on my head screaming “My bwain hurtz” And all that time I could have been writing feels like it’s been flushed.

It barely scratches the surface to name just these few from writers of whom I’ve heard: Rita Mae Brown’s excellent book giving extraordinarily basic advice ranging from choosing your writing utensil (she believed no first drafts should be written on a computer – wonder if she’d changed her mind) to choosing a classical course of study in college; Stephen King’s memoir, also a good one, I heard, but I preferred the near parody on same by John Warner, Fondling your muse, which focuses on what a writer can do before reaching King’s stature; Margaret Atwood; Elizabeth George; Eudora Welty; Marge Piercy; and Terry Brooks. Not to mention the ocean of collected essays or interviews. I even found one manual (probably of many) on writing Flash Fiction.

The epiphany in its purest form is that almost every writer with an author-sized ego has written or considered writing a writing manual. I wondered whether ego or money were enough to push them to write about writing rather than write what they normally wrote. Can Stephen King or Marge Piercy actually have as many avoidances as I do?

I prefer not to imagine how confused I’d be if I read every dang writer’s manual, author essay or interview, and every fiction how-to ever published. However, a creative coma would be far more productive. Not that the ego-burdened authors have nothing valuable to teach! But, as Warner’s counterpoint to King’s memoir points out, unpublished writers do not have the clout or freedom that a Stephen King might. Maybe young writers need to read about perseverance. I don’t know if Hemmingway wrote a manual, but he had trunks of rejection letters. Harry Mark Petrakis, too, may not have written up his seminar, but to learn how terribly embarrassed he was to have to delivered iconic pastries to funerals so his family could survive his drive to publish was somehow comforting. There is no comb sufficiently fine-toothed to bring forth each instance in which the sincerest form of flattery will benefit a novice writer. At best, these are not blueprints for success. They simply brainstorm solutions for the kinds of problems facing all young writers chasing first publication.

The major disadvantage to reading about the act of writing is that, when you research you are not writing. Currently, I’m reading Hillary Waugh’s jolly interesting [Ed. Note: Okay, I watch too much imported British TV.] Guide to Mysteries & Mystery Writing. Before getting into writing tips, he tells the genre history and form beginning with Poe creating the mystery and culminates in a chapter called “Female Private Eyes.” Notably, neither Chicago writer Sara Paretsky nor her hard-boiled PI V.I. Warshawski who appeared in the 1980s appear. While I found the exclusion particularly irritating, the extremely well written Warshawski novels had not held my attention very long after I met the inspiring Paretsky. The gritty, tough-assed dick, whether running on testosterone, estrogen, or motor oil and computer chips (see Lee A. Martinez’s hilarious the Automatic Detective) is not my milieu.

So why am I reading a leading police procedural writer’s insights on writing mysteries? Partly, I suppose, because, as a local SF writer once told the Off Campus Writer’s Workshop, whatever discipline, genre, or context, writing is writing. However, one well-written novel can teach a writer more than four writer’s guides. It may take a teacher, editor, critiquer or mentor to help the writer to apply these lessons, but readers experienced in a genre with no interest in writing make wonderful beta testers. So, I’m paring the long list of manuals I’ll read and, whenever I can sit up and think, I’ll be writing rather than reading about authorship. There will be plenty of time for reading in waiting rooms. Don’t misunderstand: the critique of a writer with no experience reading or writing a specific genre is extremely helpful. So find your local Jane Circle and get writing!

PS You’d better believe Tamara Sellman’s upcoming Magical Realism manual will remain prominent among the remaining guides.


  1. I love Rita Mae Brown’s STARTING FROM SCRATCH and Stephen King’s ON WRITING, but the book I often come back to is Burghild Nina Holzer’s A WALK BETWEEN HEAVEN AND EARTH: A PERSONAL JOURNAL ON WRITING AND THE CREATIVE PROCESS. Her take on exploring your own inner world helps me focus on my own universe. But none of them can beat talking with another writer who knows your work. I had lunch today with another writer from my Below Sea Level Novel-Writing Seminar, and she said just the thing to help me understand that I’m freezing in writing a certain character because she is a secret-keeper. So my task changed from writing her particular plot points to finding a way to help her unburden herself. And it’s working! Praise the Universe for sister writers!

  2. Amen!

    Characters who won’t give up their secrets can be terribly intriguing when they’re not impossible to deal with. I don’t envy you tacit characters. My problem is usually the opposite, characters who won’t shut up. Sensory overload!!!!!!

    Good luck, Glenda!

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