Sunday, January 30, 2011

A Ramble: Kindling, Including a Method for Dealing with Writerly Dramatic Despair

8:25 p.m.: "Kindling" has a lot of meanings for me right now. I am just home from Kindling Words, the annual and extraordinary writers', illustrators', and editors' conference in Vermont. I have my Kindle, loaded with manuscripts I ought to be reading at this moment; but I am so tired from the conference and January in general that my brain feels like kindling . . . the little pieces of wood you'd feed to a fire to help it grow. Or is that the right word? I don't know. My mind is mush.

Perfect time to write a Ramble, yes?

(Tinder? Timber? Tender timber? I haven't built a fire in forever.)

I think these will turn out to be monthly Rambles rather than weekly ones, as promised at the beginning of the year, because clearly when it comes to writing weekly ones, I vacuum. But monthly, surely, I can manage.

(Say this all together now: Ha! Ha!)

Kindling Words, for all that it has turned my brain to twigs, was as lovely as the first time I went. . . . A different kind of loveliness, the loveliness of an old friend and different responsibilities and expectations, rather than the oh-wow! discovery of everything it had to offer the first time I attended in 2008. I led the editorial strand this year, which is for editors only, and as part of that, I gave a speech on insiders and outsiders, eels and goldfish (long story), to the whole group, expanding on some of the themes and ideas in "Morals, Muddles," among other things. I wanted this speech to be VERY IMPRESSIVE, to be worthy of KW and all the great writers there, but because of that, I had a terrible time getting started or even settling on a topic -- for a long time I was half writing this insider speech and half writing a speech on the rights of readers vs. authors (which will doubtless show up later somewhere eventually, probably here). I've written enough speeches now, especially under pressure, that I felt confident that eventually the speech would come together as it should (a normal step in my writing process, Overconfident Orating); but by Monday, I had so much (self-imposed) pressure on myself to be VERY IMPRESSIVE that I slipped into another normal part of my writing process, which is Dramatic Despair. In dealing with it, I think I hit upon a technique that may be useful to other writers, so I share it here:

WRITE THE ABSOLUTE WORST THING YOUR IMAGINARY AUDIENCE COULD SAY ABOUT YOUR WORK. Because then the absolute worst thing will be out there, SAID, and you won't need to fear it any more; and that will give you the freedom to keep writing what you have to write, and damn the torpedos, because you've already identified them and taken away their sting. (This is kind of like having a Day of Vacuum in print form: You defang it by acknowledging it and turning its venom to your own ends.) For me, this took the form of writing a draft of my speech in quasi-poetic form, where I led the audience through a history of all my failed attempts to write this damn speech, and I made it into a sort of theatrical piece, where various luminaries in the audience stood up and shouted "NOT GOOD ENOUGH!" at me at various points. And I was then going to turn it around at the end to say that KW is a conference where things are always good enough, because it's an atmosphere of love in which we do our best work, and have everybody chant "GOOD ENOUGH" together at the finale. Cheesy, yes, but once I had articulated the idea of [writer-whose-work-I-adore-name redacted] and [ditto] and [ditto] standing up to tell me I was awful, contrary to my attempts to be VERY IMPRESSIVE . . . Well, nothing I wrote was actually going to be so bad that those particular people were going to do that, because of their good manners, if nothing else. And recognizing that (and sleeping on it a night) freed me up to write the speech I wanted to write, which, while perhaps not VERY IMPRESSIVE, at least had some good ideas and good lines and an interesting arc to it, and was satisfactory.

SO: If you are finding yourself stuck out of fear of what your editor or your mother or critique group or Kirkus will say about your work, write the absolute worst thing you can imagine them saying, in all its awful, particular, snotty, snarky glory. Then recognize that actually they will not say that, either because they love you (your editor, mother, and critique group, hopefully), or because your work is not actually that bad (this is actually true: you are just in a fit of Dramatic Despair). (And if it IS that bad, your editor and critique group will help make it better before Kirkus ever sees it.) And you have plenty of time, and it will all be okay. And, really, it will.

Emily Jenkins (E. Lockhart) led the writers' strand at KW, which was a great thrill for me because I SO love her work. . . . I've discovered that if I first fall in love with a writer's work when I'm reading it for fun, I tend to be a little bit -- not scared of the writer, certainly, if I meet them professionally later; but I have the same feeling I did when I was a little girl meeting the writers at my papa's children's literature festivals: the shyness at how much time I've spent in their worlds vs. how little they know me, the awe at all the people who live in their brains and everything they're able to accomplish in their books, the gratitude for the experiences and thoughts and pure pleasure I've taken in those books, the squeeness of meeting them at last. And it still takes me a while to get over that, though I tend to be able to fake it till I make it pretty well now, I think. I admire Emily's work (I guess I get to call her Emily now) because it's so tough-minded, really: People always suffer real emotional consequences and complications in her books -- the endings are never unalloyed happiness. (Well, maybe in Fly on the Wall, which I just finished today. But there's an awful lot of alloying to get through before then, including the heroine spending a week as a fly in the boys' locker room. Tell me that isn't alloy.) And her heroines have very discursive minds, which clearly I appreciate, and they have way MORE on those minds than just boys, even in the Ruby Oliver books, where boys are in the titles. And they are both feminist and funny as hell. I want to reread The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks now, as well as the newest Ruby Oliver title, and go back and pick up all her middle-grade and picture books too.

Ten minutes left in this hour-long Ramble. What else do I want to say? There is a lot of good editorial talent coming up at Candlewick and Chronicle and HMH (three of the five houses whose editors attended this year) -- keep an eye on the editorial assistants and young editors at all three of those houses, because good things will be coming from them. Andrea Tompa once again brought her Graham Cracker Goodness, which disappeared from the baked-goods table in about an hour flat. We have SO MUCH SNOW here in New York, and more on the way. I got to wear my beloved eBay evening gown to the masquerade ball on Friday night, and I was snowed on while sitting in a hot tub on Saturday. These were both wonderful things.

Emily shared John Gardner's Five Questions from On Becoming a Novelist:

1. Does it create a vivid and continuous dream?
2. Does it exhibit authorial generosity?
3. Is it emotionally and intellectually significant?
4. Is it elegant and efficient?
5. Is it strange?

If your answer to any of these questions is no, GET TO WORK.



  1. Waaaait. Emily Jenkins (Toys Go Out) and E. Lockhart are the same person? Or is this a different Emily Jenkins??

  2. I enjoyed the ramble and hope to see more. If it's monthly, so be it.

    Kindling: material to start a fire...
    could be John Gardner's five questions.

  3. It was nice to read your post. Truly speaking it is an immense pleasure to read your content. It is informative.Great contribution

  4. Your talk was wonderful.. And if you have any trouble believing that it resonated with everyone there then you might have missed all of the eelish comments throughout the weekend.

    And you will forever be my hero for allowing me the joy of a breakfast dessert!

  5. Cheryl - your keynote definitely "clicked," no worries there. All weekend I heard people (including myself) refering to "eel moments" and our "eelish" selves. Thank you!

    I actually wondered if you and Emily had compared notes, given the "not good enough" theme. Just one of those nice KW coincidences?

  6. Very good ramble. And might I just add that your Graham Cracker Goodness is EVIL? I made a batch on a friend's rec and cannot stop putting it into my mouth.

  7. In each of your blogs I find something to take away.This time it is the concept of writing the most absolutely terrible things anyone, ANYONE could possibly say about something you are writing. I will apply your idea to Writing, then proceed with my next writing stint,just to see the psychology working. Because I know it will. Your blogs are always a welcome surprise. I never know what is coming out of there, but it always is something useful. Bits of humor; pieces of reality that make me say, "Well, CHERYL isn't perfect EITHER. She just said she's probably going to do monthly Rambles, not weekly ones, even though she Promised...." It refreshes me to see something like that, because it helps others of us, the ones who bite off more than we really can deal with and think we can do it anyway no matter what. It will help me, for one, to recognize my limitations for what they are and to do the best I can, regularly though slowly, rather than more than I ever thought I could, always, definitely on a weekly (daily?)basis, just because I said I would and I can't go back on THAT. Thank you, Cheryl. The Kindling Words conference sounds great, by the way.

  8. Thank you for introducing me the wonderful information.And .....Totally boring.!