“Hemingway able to rekindle brilliance despite excesses” read the headline above David Brooks’ op-ed column last week in the Dayton Daily News. I knew the excesses would be mostly alcohol, but I was keen to read what Brooks meant by “rekindling.” All of us who write need to know how to keep feeding the fire.
Along with his suggestions to perform the “professional routines that served as a lifeline when all else was crumbling” and strive for “moments of self-forgetting,” it was Brooks’ third item that really grabbed me. In his estimation, when you try to serve the work, you “[focus] on each concrete task and [do] it the way it’s supposed to be done.” To me, it also means elevating the work while deflating the ego around writing. That inspired me to speculate on how you, as a writer, can do this.
- First of all, discipline yourself to not only show up, sit down and stay there until you’ve honorably done the work you intended but also strive to lead a disciplined lifestyle that allows it to happen, for example, incorporating physical and spiritual exercise, avoiding excessive drinking, eating and other work-killing indulgences Hemingway had trouble avoiding in his later career.
- Ask trusted, knowledgeable peers for their opinions about your drafts and then consider every suggestion they offer, even to the point of trying each of them in the work. (If a change you’ve made doesn’t work out, you can always return to the original, so be sure to save it.)
- Research exhaustively to find the facts, all of them, and not just the ones convenient to your truth. Writing fiction? Doesn’t matter. You still want credibility, fairness and verisimilitude. That might mean participating in experiences you’d rather not have. A female writer friend wasn’t crazy about going to a gun shop to handle guns, but her male character loved them, so she went. I didn’t really want to attend a Bob Dylan concert at Hara Arena while I was writing The Psalms of Israel Jones, but I went anyway and discovered a key detail which significantly impacted what happens in my climactic scene.
- Serve others, because it serves your work, too. Share all you know about the writing process with writing peers who have less experience than you. You learn right along with those whom you would teach.
- Bring your work to the attention of agents and editors humbly and appropriately; i.e., help others bring it to the world. Preparing the manuscript professionally, researching markets, preparing the pitch and querying: these are basics you can master through study and experience. Then, when your work is accepted, you’ll need to respond to agents’ and editors’ suggestions for rewrites before deciding to take or leave them. (My recommendation: mostly take them.)
- Following publication, stand and deliver. Even large traditional publishers will expect you to mostly market your work by yourself. Doing it well requires mega-doses of humility. Bookstore and coffee shop owners, teachers, editors, bloggers and conference leaders will often help you if you ask them kindly, respect boundaries and expect nothing. With zero expectation (but much hope), I’m ecstatic when someone gives me a chance to publicly serve my work by serving them, for example, using every available resource, from social media to the U.S. mail, to help assure a book-buying crowd at my readings and signings.
Finally you stand before those who might enjoy, even need, your work and introduce these eager strangers to the concretized vision that once existed only in your head and heart. Now let your baby go to suffer possible rejection, indifference, even early death, in its quest to find enduring love. Then get off-stage and begin again.
Speaking of Service . . .
I recently met local “volunteer photographer” Bill Franz, of Oakwood, when he photographed me as Artist of the Week for his Dayton at Work and Play Facebook page. Follow the link, and you’ll see that he takes wonderful photographs of local art and artists, often to promote good causes. I saw his current Dayton Outdoor Exhibit at Aullwood Farm and enjoyed it immensely (it’s up through June 26). I think you will, too. Supporting others, Bill deserves our support. Be sure to walk around the Farm!