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My Stalled Writing Career

BS"D

Here's a book review that sort of picks up where I left off on lj:



Magic Hours: Essays on Creators and CreationMagic Hours: Essays on Creators and Creation by Tom Bissell

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


Anyone who knows me for more than five years, whether online or off, can tell you that I used to be absolutely obsessed with becoming a professional writer. I even had some modest success; nine of my short stories were published and I spent four years as a copywriter for Rabbi Wein’s Destiny Foundation.

About two years ago, all that changed. I began working full-time at a law office in Manhattan, and though I suppose my commute time could have become writing time, I used it for reading instead. Except for the reviews I write here on GoodReads, I hardly write anything anymore. I just can’t seem to get myself motivated. And I feel really bad about it.

So when I heard Tom Bissell, author of this book and creative writing professor, in an NPR interview, I thought his book was just the thing to give me a kick in the pants. In the interview, he spoke about Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, and Emily Dickinson – three giants in American literature who weren’t all that successful in their lifetimes. Heck, Dickinson was a complete unknown in her lifetime. And though Melville had been a successful writer before the publication of Moby Dick, his masterpiece was panned by the reviewers, which was basically the end of his career. From then on, he shared his writings only with family and friends. He died believing himself a failure.

“How many unknown or midlist writers are in exactly that predicament today?” asked Tom Bissell. The next generation’s literary genius could well be struggling right now, undiscovered. My husband and I looked at each other, wondering it could be either of us or perhaps even both. No doubt, any aspirant writer who heard that interview wondered the same.

So naturally, I hurried to get the book on special inter-library loan. At first I was told it was so new, the other library wouldn’t allow it, and then another library came through as a complete surprise. So when I got hold of it, I dropped what I’d been reading till then and launched right in. My eagerness had a practical side, too. Renewals aren’t allowed with inter-library loans.

With all that excitement, I guess it was inevitable that I’d be disappointed. It was a good book, but not the life-changer I’d been hoping for. It’s actually a collection of essays about a variety of creative artists, not just writers but filmmakers, an actress who does voice-over for video games, and a polemical “historian.” The essays on writing were definitely my favorite, especially “Writing about Writing about Writing,” which reviews some of the writing books I’ve read myself, notably Bird by Bird by Anne Lammott and On Writing by Stephen King. Bissell names John Gardner’s On Becoming a Novelist as his personal favorite. It was a life-changer for him, much in the way that Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande was for me. I expect the books are similar. John Gardner wrote the introduction to my copy of Becoming a Writer.

When I was unfamiliar with the artist under discussion in the essay, my interest varied. The voice-over actress was interesting, but I couldn’t wait to get through the polemical historian’s chapter. If there’s one thing Tom Bissell proves with this book, it’s that he can rake someone over the coals when he wants to. And that brings me to the essay called “Grief and the Outsider,” which is about a group called the “United Literary Alliance,” a bunch of bitter aspirants railing against the publishing industry that has repeatedly rejected them. And yet one of those aspirant writers whose work Bissell thinks is such junk came up with what pretty much defines my life as a writer at this point: “To be a good parent to your family won’t make you a better writer. But it’ll make you a better person.”




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Comments

( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
netiimvzaviyos
Jul. 16th, 2012 01:40 pm (UTC)
I have somewhere around 3 to 5 book ideas swirling around in my head. I've resigned myself not to doing much about them until all of my kids are in school.
kressel
Jul. 18th, 2012 12:42 pm (UTC)
BS"D

May Hashem help that when you reach that stage, you'll do better than I'm doing.
vettecat
Jul. 16th, 2012 04:57 pm (UTC)
Sorry it was disappointing but glad that at least parts of it were enjoyable.
kressel
Jul. 17th, 2012 01:13 pm (UTC)
BS"D

May Hashem help that when the time comes, you'll do better than I'm doing.
vettecat
Jul. 17th, 2012 05:41 pm (UTC)
I don't have any desire to write, but thank you for the good wishes.
kressel
Jul. 18th, 2012 12:42 pm (UTC)
BS"D

Oops! Meant that for Rivka above.
carlalute
Jul. 31st, 2012 01:50 pm (UTC)
I'm trying to do the pro-writing thing now as well. While writing is a love and passion, it's a job too. Particularly if you're trying to tackle it at a professional level.

But consider this, while you're being a good parent and working at law office in Manhattan (sounds like a TV plot), you're also gaining fresh experiences and getting a chance to observe life at a certain angle.

While that may not manifest itself as a story right now, it can easily become story fodder.

Do you feel bad because you really truly want to be writing, or do you feel bad because you don't want it as much as you did?

If the former, it may be a matter of just making time to stare at a blank screen until something comes out. But if it's the latter...maybe it's just time to take a break and live life for a bit, let the writing come back when it's ready.
kressel
Jul. 31st, 2012 04:29 pm (UTC)
Do you feel bad because you really truly want to be writing, or do you feel bad because you don't want it as much as you did?

You know, I thought it was the latter, but now I'm reading On Becoming A Novelist by John Gardner, and my heart flutters at the thought of writing again. It's just that I figured that if I'm really going to be good, I'm going to have to revisit a certain time in my life that I may not necessarily want to make public. It was when I was a Luna taken advantage of by an Alex-wannabe.
carlalute
Jul. 31st, 2012 07:55 pm (UTC)
I realize they say write what you know, but I have as much or more fun using writing as a means to explore and understand.

I was harrassed by a guy kind of similar to Draco back in Junior High. I didn't make the connection until later. But I got caught up in the idea of Harry and Draco becoming friends and writing a story to explore redemption as a process. Long story short, I used an attraction to Hermione to motivate Draco's change, which means he spends a large portion of the fic slowly making peace with her...first changing his behavior and eventually giving an actual apology.

When I finished the fic, I realized it had been extremely theraputic for me. I had put myself in the shoes of my bully, and gotten the apology I always thought needed. (Draco bizarrely taught me a lot about empathy.)

Sometimes good writing can come from a place of pain, but life is a full spectrum. If not going back there is what's stopping you from writing, why not let the writing take you place you want to go.

kressel
Aug. 1st, 2012 05:32 pm (UTC)
Possibly the best writing advice I ever got is to write either your most cherished wish or your deepest fear. I got a story about a college rabbi out of that. I was dreaming of grad school then. G-d answered by sending me to an employer who started me off in paralegal school. I no longer work for him, but I sure do love the program. It's sort of taken the place of my writing for publication.
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