Tis the season for accounting. It’s the time of year when we let ourselves have that second cocktail or slice of pie while we ponder our achievements in 2018 — successes, big and small, that justify the savory treats we’d typically deny ourselves. Even our failed feats deserve reward—Hey, at least we tried. I think that the truest gift we give ourselves at the end of the year is the guilt we spare in favor of joy, celebration and rest. We delight in the details that make life worth living. How novel.
We can all agree that there is no point in starting a new dietary or exercise regime—not yet—and let’s give thanks for that, too. It’s time to let ourselves go for these final hours of 2018. I do give credit for rumbling oneself off the couch for an afternoon walk, which counts as both enjoyment and exercise. I love seeing bundled-up couples teeter-tottering like sleepy bears past our house, their children trussed up in quilted jackets: mini Michelin-men. They are my signals that it’s okay to sit inside on the couch, curled up beneath a fleece throw to write, and watch them pass.
This would be the perfect time for an inspirational post, wouldn’t it? Here’s to a bright new year! Or, maybe one with a boot-strapping finish: Let’s get to work in 2019!
I could take cues from the writers shouting their 100 rejections—or is it 100 submissions? (Are we still against the word “submitting”?) If you want my count, it’s 132 total submissions (including journals, residencies, grants), 8 publication acceptances, one waitlisted residency, 32 “please send more work” rejections, and 25 submissions that I’m waiting to hear on. Oh yes, and I’ve written 123,130 words in the form of three essays, two works of flash, four poems, and one novel. I also received a few personal notes from editors whose generosity buoyed my spirits, even if they were technically rejections.
This is all fine accounting, and it’s important to measure. My annual tallies help me see year-to-year progress across all categories: words written, works completed, total submissions, encouragement to submit more work and (yay!) acceptances.
But the point of measuring isn’t a checklist. Or statistics. Or even acceptances.
A few years ago, I watched David Sax’s animated short of Ira Glass talking about writing and creative work (“The Gap” – 2 minutes, 18 seconds) and it unsettled me. The video starts with Glass saying that, as creative people, we begin with killer taste, but it takes work to develop our abilities into chops that can deliver the level of creative excellence that we admire. Though his message is meant to be encouraging—the point is to keep trying, to keep making work and not give up because it isn’t “good” yet—I felt like an imposter when faced with his claim: “We get into it [meaning, creative work] because we have good taste.”
I mean, I like what I like, but I have never once punched myself in the arm and marched confidently into a room, leading with my sense of taste. Taste, or a fear that mine isn’t “good,” is what sometimes puts me off from hanging out with other writers, as much as I long to (or think that I do.) Taste at a writing conference or workshop often means:
a) conversations about authors I’ve never read or books that I should, often famous ones bearing the modifier “seminal” (see: Proust, Ulysses, Moby Dick);
b) who I know in the literary world, meaning, how many famous writers I can count my worth by;
c) a list of the hippest things I’ve read recently, which places a person on a spectrum of cool (thank you, David Naimon, for helping me discover contemporary writers whose work I’d be less likely to find on my own); and
d) I am asked to prove myself on a pecking order of credentials: where I got my MFA (hint: nowhere), my history of fellowships and residencies (Hedgebrook or MacDowell, anyone?), how many books I’ve written (does self-published count?), my recent publications (Hm, I’ve never heard of that journal) and what I’m working on now (sorry, not ready to boil down my unfinished novel to jacket copy.)
A translation: at conferences and workshops, one thing writers do is summarize a person’s value and worth by her tastes: the classics she’s read, the writing she’s drawn to, her publication history, her educational pedigree, the famous writers she has studied with or knows socially.
In the last year, I’ve come to a different place on taste. Taste, in its shallowest form, has no bearing on a person’s merit as a creator, or her artistic production, especially if she is not producing work. If you’re not testing and trying things out, as Ira says, then all you are is a person with taste who talks about writing (or painting, filmmaking, etc.) As all the greats have said, the best way to be a writer is to write. Butt in seat. Fuck taste. Fuck fame. Just write. Don’t stop. (I’m paraphrasing.)
The value of taste (for me) comes through accounting and reflection. Throughout the year, I’ve kept a list of writers whose work I’ve read, re-read and admired. Italo Calvino. Frances McCue. Rebecca Solnit. Patti Smith. Mary Ruefle. Claudia Rankine. W. G. Sebald. Ursula LeGuin. James Baldwin. Cynthia Ng. Min Jin lee. Terrence Hayes. Joyce Maynard. Elements of their style, their diction, their form and areas of focus have influenced my writing; their work has helped me name the topics that I’m interested in. Faith and spirituality. Gender and feminism. Cities and place. Immigration and racism. Families. Sex, death and space. By investigating and cataloguing work that resonates with me, I’m coming to understand the point of my own work. What I read does say something about my preferences, but the point of exposing myself to that work is to create a field of data points that reveals where my writing fits in: what my work stands for, where it’s different or unique from that of others, what legacy it carries forward, what insights it explores and who might be interested in reading it.
That’s market differentiation and positioning. That’s brand. That’s audience. And, yes, it’s taste. Taste is not about proving anything, I’ve come to realize, but about revealing what’s most important about the work I feel compelled to create and share. Taking a year to write a novel has taught me this. When I’m alone at 5 am with a cup of coffee in my living room, I don’t think consciously about taste, I think about the work—but my tastes form the backdrop that shape my writing.
For the last ten years, the idea of writing a novel has been my white whale. (See how I worked in a Moby Dick reference, even though I haven’t read it?) I’ve said publicly that I didn’t want to commit years to what could ultimately be a failed project—something I would never finish, or an imperfect work that would never see the light of day. This crooked reasoning channeled my focus into essays and short stories, which was actually a boon—as I’ve learned, it takes immense staying power to write a long-form work in the margins of a full-time job.
My professed disinterest for “languishing” over a novel did me a great favor: under the cover of fear and failure, I instead focused on craft, class by class. I learned how to take apart and piece together short works. I learned how to finish, refine and publish that work. I studied the professional behaviors of practicing artists along the way. The simple truth is, I needed this time—ten years—to develop my chops, as Ira says. I wasn’t ready to write a novel from the get-go, at least not a “good” one, and I’m glad I didn’t try just because it felt like I should in order to keep up with someone else.
E.L. Doctorow says that writing a novel is like driving cross-country at night with only your headlights to guide the way. That is how I’ve written my novel, part by part, chapter by chapter, not because someone told me to, but because it felt like the right way to do it. Experience has taught me what it feels like to rush through creative work (thank you, NaNoWriMo) and I knew rushing was the wrong way—but the lesson I learned from NaNoWriMo was the fortitude to keep going all the way to the finish. No stopping to revise. Just write. I only knew this from experience. From doing the work.
Before writing this novel, I’ve never been so diligent or slow or patient with a creative work in my whole life. I was purposeful, too, about the space I afforded myself. I did not volunteer for extracurricular activities that would have distracted focus from my writing. I gave myself head space by declining pressure and encouragement to discuss my novel before I was ready. Other than a few writers at the Breadloaf Sicily workshop, I have not shared my work with other writers for feedback, as I might otherwise have done. After I finished each chapter, I shipped off a PDF to my husband on two conditions: one, that I needed a person I could deliver it to who would hold me accountable for writing, and encourage me to keep going; and two, that there would be absolutely no feedback, commentary, critique or suggestion, any of which could derail me. As Maud Casey, my workshop leader, framed it, line edits on diction, plot, scene, setting character, etc. are revision-level concerns. The novel needs to be complete before I go there. Don’t worry, just finish it for now. (Phew, and thank you again, Maud.)
It is in measuring that I’ve come to realize these things. Like, holy shit: I’ve written nearly 125,000 words in a year! By accounting for my past work, I see the strides I’ve made in my present. Understanding where I’ve been, and the tastes and habits that have led me here, are helping me shape my goals in 2019—meaning after I put my soon-to-be-finished novel to rest, when I will have mental space to think about something different for a while. In 2009, I wrote 5,000 words. In 2013, I made it to 13,000. In 2016, I was up to 68,000. In 2017, I was just shy of 75,000. In addition to volume, I can also look back on the quality and depth of my past work and see how my sensibilities for nuance have deepened, if not my taste.
For me, a more productive word, rather than taste, is instinct. I often like things that others don’t, and who cares? Writing, or the creation of any true art (versus commercial art), is not a popularity contest. There is no substitute for doing the work, like there is no substitute for knowing what you’re deeply drawn to, what you want to say and being able to sense when you’re on the right path to expressing it. Intuition, instinct, nuance—those are the elements I’m made of, and what I want to hone. I see the measure of that maturity in my work when I count the increasing number of acceptances and “try us again” rejections that I’ve received since 2009. Watching the count build each year isn’t so much about winning as much as proof of development: my artistic mastery has shifted from a stage of acquisition and learning to refinement. Where I once could only see the organism and major organs, I can now discern cells. Funny how whole worlds begin to open up at that granular level. Each contains a multitude.
For 2019, I’ve sketched out a list of resolutions, many of which are focused on the nurturing and advancement of my writing life. I want to do a weekly dedicated WRITE NITE, and continue my early morning writes, to which I credit my increased production. I’ve vowed to read my work (at least once) at Hugo House’s Works in Progress and get my King County Library card so that I patronize my local branch rather than buying books brand-new. I suppose I could add Moby Dick to my reading list—another thing that I’ve long protested against doing, but maybe I just haven’t been ready for it.
I hear that the whale gets away in the end. That sounds kind of interesting.