Category Archives: Susan’s Writer’s Journal

Labor Pains

In my writing space

I’ve never actually given birth (my daughter is adopted) but from what I’ve heard and read, there are some similarities to writing a book—which I have done.  Of course, there are many huge differences. Discounting cramped hands and a neck and shoulders locked in “flight or fight” position despite ergonomic equipment and regular massages, giving birth to a book doesn’t usually bring much in the way of physical pain.  And true, your book, once delivered, doesn’t require regular diaper changes, and won’t eventually cast withering glances at you when you do something uncool. But just like a child,    your book only truly belongs to you so long as it is not yet in the world.  Once it has left your body, after a long process of struggle and labor during which you have alternatively cursed and cried and, perhaps, required some numbing anesthesia (pimento cheese and “Dance Moms” worked best for me), your literary baby is no longer yours to dream about.  What will she look like?  What will her future be?  Will others embrace her warmly or handle her roughly?  Will others love her the way that I do?  The time for fantasy is over.  Like a real baby, your literary child has become a separate being and will have a life of its own—a life that you cannot bend to your will, no matter how hard you try.

Of course, the timetables for gestation and early infant development are hugely different. The Creation of Anne Boleyn took six years for the DNA to become fully formed flesh, and the birth itself is taking over a year.  Of course, this is because I’m doing it the old-fashioned way—with a press rather than a home-birth and straight to an e-book—and like other methods of birthing, may eventually become obsolete.  I hope not—for reasons that I’ll save for an editorial some day.  But the old-fashioned way certainly requires patience!!  You may be told, mid-way through the pregnancy, that you need more exercise (my original editor, an inspired midwife, packed me off to England to do interviews.) You may think you are about to give birth several times, only to be sent back home and told it was a false labor.  During the last stages, you are cranky and temperamental, you eat too much, you cry easily, you get into fights with your loved ones.  And finally, when the baby emerges—at first only seen by those close to you–she is still a mess, covered with your blood and requiring a good clean up before she can go out in public.

And then, even though she is all tidy, you have to wait a long time before you can present her to the world.  And there’s still so much work to do!!! Permissions to obtain, author questionnaires to fill out, proposed outfits (covers) to decide among, and birth announcements (blurbs) to be arranged (a process during which you try not to think about how many such requests you have turned down yourself).  And then there will be copy-editing (largely a matter of making sure the child learns to speak in grammatical sentences) which can be tedious and contentious if you are attached to your own odd ways of putting things.  Page proofs!! Public Relations!  What to do when the rights to the illustration you really, really want can’t be obtained!  Decisions about this, decisions about that.  And most difficult: continuing about your business while you wait…. and wait…. and wait.

It’s the waiting—where I am at now, with a March 2013 pub date–that’s the killer.  As when you are expecting a baby (or awaiting an adoption, as I was when Cassie was born), it’s hard to think about anything else, or DO anything else.  This stupendous event is on the horizon, and they expect you to continue to go to work? To have normal social interchange (i.e. not about your baby/book) with friends?  To brush your teeth, take a shower, get dressed occasionally? And worst of all, to WRITE ANYTHING ELSE? I don’t wanna!!! I can’t!!!! I won’t!!! And so, the articles that I am committed to write stare at me accusingly, glowering in their pre-conception state: “So you think now that this baby is coming, we can just be ignored?”

My daughter, Cassie

I’m struggling to concentrate on anything except my two babies: the book one and the human one (now thirteen) to whom I remain faithful.  She will always be more important.  As for my husband, he’s fine with my state of distraction; the Tour de France is on the television.

And, as with many pregnancies, although just a few months ago I couldn’t imagine ever going through this again, the idea for my next book is already beginning to gestate.  She’s just a little bubble of thought at this point, a “hmmmm…” more than a plan.  Even so, it startles me to think that I actually am imagining bringing another book into being.

Socrates/Plato believed that some of us get pregnant in body, and others in mind.  The ancient duality is false, of course, for pregnancy is not mindless and many women manage, quite successfully, to birth both kinds of babies.  I once mourned the fact that I was not able to be one of them.  Not anymore.  I have my wonderful Cassie, and a new book baby soon to jump out of my arms and into the world.  May the world treat both of them warmly!!


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Writing Journal, #5 – Apollo and Dionysus: Gods of Writing

An ancient image of Apollo

I’ve been in absentia for a while…. at first because I was finishing the book (got it done the day before Thanksgiving!), then because I was in recovery, then catch-up with other stuff.  But also, writing for me is like making a fire.  It can be very hard to start up, and may have to smolder awhile before it catches.  Then, when it does, the blaze is fierce, consuming everything standing in its way.   As it dies out, sparks remain that still can be ignited.  (I was tinkering for days even after I’d sent the manuscript off.)  But now that it’s been dormant for a couple of weeks, the fireplace is stone, cold dead.  I even have trouble writing emails!  It’s another reminder for me of how much the writing process, even when you are extremely disciplined, is organic:  although we can harness it, train it, contain it, we can’t really bend it to our will.  And that’s the way it should be!

In my graduate writing seminar, I introduce the notion that two “gods” govern writing:  Apollo and Dionysus.  (You can make them female if you like!) Apollo is the critic, the editor, the pruner, shaper, bringer of order to the chaos.  He clarifies, sculpts, is ruthless in getting rid of the extraneous, the unbeautiful, the ponderous.  It’s essential for the writer to make friends with him, to learn that nine-tenths (probably a conservative estimate) of writing is actually re-writing.  Unfortunately, too often we grow up experiencing him as the cruel “red pencil,” cold and unforgiving, who cuts at the heart, deflates the spirit, and robs us of our confidence in what we think and say. To escape his wrath, we cover our ideas with pretentious prose and verbal fog, learn to play by the “rules”—or just stop writing altogether.  It breaks my heart—truly, I’m not indulging in sentimental exaggeration here—to see how many of my students have been depressed and deadened by the would-be gods of “rigor” and “professionalism.”  We spend weeks in my writing course bumping those tyrants off their thrones.

Dionysus, the god of intoxication, is that unruly source of inspiration, creativity, desire, love, hunger that makes us want to write something in the first place.  And after too many years being caged (by school, by lack of confidence, by self-doubt) we have to learn to release him, have to get in touch with what we really want to write about, what we love, what we fear, what we dream. For those of us who went through graduate school, this can be much harder than making friends with Apollo! (Actually, a lot of academic writing, while it looks like Apollo, in fact needs a good editor desperately.)  But Dionysus can get out of hand, too—when we fall in love with, get drunk on our first ideas, our first drafts, or indulge in narcissistic self-disclosure (the most popular form of writing today, it seems), or are unable to hear criticism.   So we spend a lot of time in my course learning to give and receive each other’s responses honestly but warmly.  In this, I’m helped by two other metaphors: the sweetheart and the editor (I think these come from Natalie Goldberg).  The sweetheart—who always speaks first! –looks for what is lovable, the editor looks for what could benefit from the clear (not cold, but clear) eye of Apollo.  We never offer critique that doesn’t have both of these elements.

Experiences of your own to share?


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Writing Journal, #4, Metaphor

I was going through some old papers yesterday, and found a piece I wrote five years ago, for a grant application.  We were supposed to write on the theme “What Writing Means To Me.”  I didn’t get the grant, and it wasn’t the first time.  If you write, particularly in competition with others, you have to get used to rejection; it comes with the territory.  But I thought I’d share the first paragraph of that essay with you:

“It’s four in the morning, and once again I wake up in the clothes I wore yesterday, having fallen asleep on the couch, television left on, teeth unbrushed.  An infomercial for a fancy machine that can cut shapes and letters is my alarm clock, telling me that yesterday’s programming has ended but today’s has yet to begin. A half-drunk Sprite, an empty container of cream cheese, and my bra, eagerly removed after a day of campus meetings, are on the table next to me, the debris of my mini-orgy of mindlessness the night before.  At 6:30 my daughter will be awake, wanting to know where her library book is; at 7 my dogs will begin their ear-piercing demands; when I get back from their walk, my email will already be trilling.  But right now it’s still just four, my time-out-of-time, my stolen hours.  And I’m going to meet my lover.  We will have only a couple of hours, and, as with all love affairs, they may not go as I would like them to.  We may look at each other, wordlessly, wondering why on earth we are together.  We may struggle to re-connect after too long an absence. We may fumble and grope with built-up longing.  We may feel nothing.  Or, it may be a union so exquisite that I lose all sense of time and place.  However it goes, we cannot stay away from each other.  We are partners for life, and when we are separated for too long, I feel as though I am dying.”

Today, having had several extremely good writing days after a long period of frustration and anxiety, I’m struck by how apt the metaphor still is for me.  My lover and I, for a jumble of reasons, were not getting along well.  We weren’t fighting (that was me and my daughter,) and we certainly weren’t divorced from each other.  I wasn’t looking for a new love (although I did engage in many nights of meaningless sex with Bravo television.)  But we just couldn’t connect. I would reach out—literally wordlessly!!—but it was all awkwardness, as though we were strangers touching for the first time.  “Who are you?” I thought.  “And what have you done with the beloved companion that I thought I knew so well?”  Please, please, COME BACK.

Now that we are together again, it seems impossible that we ever fell apart.  But we did, and we will again.

Are there any others out there who think of their writing in terms of a particular metaphor?  Please do share!


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Writing Journal, #4, The Jig is Up

I had just had a huge fight with my daughter, which ended in my physically wresting her iPad away (not easy; she is very, very strong), when I received a one line message from my editor: “You’d better get that book in if you want it on the fall list.” The jig is up.  Major panic. Heart thumping.  All my previous reflections on writing process seem like a farce at this moment. The ony reality right now: I had an October first deadline, and I can’t possibly make it. To make matters worse, my husband is going off to Paris on a research trip for five days starting thursday.  Can I write two chapters in two days?  No way. Although I know exactly what I want to say in them and all my research is done, I’ve never been that kind of writer. I have to pause and catch my breath at (ir)regular intervals.  I call my agent, and find myself in tears on the phone with him.  It’s embarrassing; at the beginning of the evening I was the mom, and now I have become the twelve-year-old who doesn’t have her assignment done. He is very understanding (he has three kids) and will call the press today and find out exactly how much lee-way I have.  But one way or another, I’m going to have to dedicate myself to this book with single-mindedness over the next few weeks.  So: I will now take out the garbage, make a second cup of half-caf, and disappear from the regular world.  I will keep you posted (in a minimalist way).  Wish me luck.  As one of our members, Cris Gomes says, “May Anne be with me”!

PS, After sending this to Natalie earlier in the day, my agent talked to the press today, and I have until the end of October if I want to get it published on schedule.  I’m pretty certain I can do this, so long as I stay focused and don’t get too unmeshed in my daughter’s adolescent angst.


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Writing Journal, #3, “Attention Must Be Paid”

I’ve been having a hard time with my writing the past week, and I’ve been trying to figure out why.  Every morning I’ve woken up, ready to go, and all too aware that my time for spending most of my time at the computer is fast dwindling—and the deadline I told my editor fast approaching!  Yet every day I find something else to divert me.  There’s always a good “reason”—for example, I’m writing about the television show The Tudors so I decided I needed to “refresh” my memory by watching the entire first and second seasons again.  I did notice a couple of things that I had missed the first four times around…. But probably, I would have done much better to spend an hour or so thumbing through the book digests of the series.

Finally yesterday, I called my sister, who—lucky for me—happens to be both a writer and a therapist, to whine and perhaps get some advice.  We talked about a number of possibilities, including resistance to letting my book-baby go, but then, as has been happening almost all the time lately, our conversation swerved back (or more precisely, I drove it back) to my human baby—my daughter. I’ve been doing a lot of worrying about her lately.  I won’t go into detail (she, like every kid of her generation knows her way around a computer and the internet better than I do, and wouldn’t appreciate being discussed here) except to say that she’s twelve going on thirteen.  Perhaps that tells you enough!  In fact, things have been so rocky that I even bought several books—including My Teenage Werewolf by Lauren Kessler—to help me.  I am generally not a person to go the self-help or advice memoir route, but I’ve been getting desperate.  However, almost in the same way that I wake up every morning ready to write but find some reason not to, I’ve also found reasons not to actually read those books—for example, that I didn’t have time to read, since I needed to finish writing my own book!  Anyone notice a vicious circle here?

My brilliant sister did. “You are totally preoccupied with Cassie,” she pointed out (not for the first time) to me, noting that whenever she texted me from school, everything else stopped. I had been forcing my worries underground, in order to “concentrate on my book.”  Trouble is, although my conscious mind thought this was a great plan, my heart and soul could not follow.  The fact is that in my deepest being, my real child always trumps my book-children.  I had to accept that, honor it, and do justice to it. She gave me my marching orders for the day: “Do not even try to write.  Just read the Teenage Werewolf book.”  She and I had already found a few passages that we loved—incidents that sounded just like Cassie and me—and had the sense that, if nothing else, it would make me feel like I wasn’t alone.

Hey, the woman may be my younger sister, but she is also a therapist (and a brilliant one—both my sisters are), so I obeyed.  Before long, I was laughing in recognition, comforted by the fact that in her early adventures with her daughter’s teen-dom, this mom seemed to be just as clueless as me, and even having some new insights into my daughter’s behavior.  But here’s the really amazing thing:  I had been feeling physically lousy for days—headache-y, upset stomach, eyes tired, and really, really, weighed down in every fiber of my being.  I was beginning to think something was seriously wrong with me—maybe chronic fatigue?  Halfway through the book, I suddenly realized that my eyes had stopped watering, my head had cleared, and a general feeling of lightness had replaced the “unbearable weight” (inside joke) I had been carrying around.   The change was truly remarkable—so much so that I called Binnie (my sister) back and told her, along with many thanks for her brilliance, which she accepted without false modesty.  (The three of us sisters have an unspoken pact to allow ourselves this with each other.)

That was yesterday.  Today is a new day, and once again I will sit down after Cassie is off to school, confronting that icon on my desktop that contains my current chapter.  Will I click?  I hope so.  I think so.  But one thing I know: It doesn’t work for me to “not pay attention” to something that’s troubling me, hoping that I can bury myself in my work.  The effort to do so is exhausting, draining, and—for me, at least—doesn’t get me anywhere except back on the couch, compulsively watching mindless reality TV or endless MSNBC commentators (for some, those choices would be contradictory; for me, no.)

I ended my first journal with a quote from Shakespeare: “Ripeness is all.” I end this one with a quote from Arthur Miller:  “Attention must be paid.”  Yesterday, with my sister’s wise guidance, I stopped obsessing about my writing and paid attention to something that was more important.  And if it doesn’t loosen my fingers, at least it cleared my head and lightened my being.

Oh yes, and I recommend the book highly!!!


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Writing Entry #2

One of the members of our Facebook page wrote me a private email yesterday, in which she raised some hard-hitting and very relevant points. “Most people,” she wrote, “DO NOT HAVE the luxury of a lifestyle that allows free days to sit and think and accept that nothing got done or even to sit all day and write.  People, including those that love writing, need to eat. How do you get to the point where you can sit all day and think/write/not work at a job you hate and still have a house and food and heat in winter?”

I wish I could answer that last question, but I can’t, because although I am very, very privileged among academics, in that I have a reduced teaching schedule and have been given more time off to write than most, I still have my “day job” as an academic—I can’t afford to give it up, even though I’m a couple of months away from the age when people used to retire—and envy those writers who make enough money at their writing (or have inherited family fortunes) so that they can actually write full-time. Envy? No, that’s too weak a word.  I seethe with resentment, fury, self-pity!  I say ugly things about those writers to my husband in the mornings, when my emotions are usually least repressed. Some days, I just break down and cry because after so many years, I’m still struggling to “fit” my writing into my life. This semester, I’ve pushed my courses until the spring, so I can actually finish this book that I’ve been working on for years in between preparing classes, grading papers, graduate student defenses, departmental meetings.  And even so, in this relatively unencumbered time, I feel the hot breath of other obligations—to my grad students, to my newly formed department, to my colleagues—on my neck.

So: Despite what I wrote about in my last journal “ripeness” is NOT “all.”  For most of us, including me, finding the time and energy to write is a huge, practical problem. Unfortunately, it’s not one that I have solved for myself, let alone feel I can advise anyone else on.  You struggle with whatever your situation is.  If you are lucky, as I have been, it gets better as you get older.  But as privileged as I am in my present position, I’m not a full-time writer. I rail against it, I resent it, and I fantasize (I’m sure unrealistically) about the wonderful lives the full-time writers lead. (Beach houses figure prominently.) If hundreds of thousands of people buy my Anne Boleyn book, maybe I’ll be able to be one of them.  Buy my book!  Send this aging child to camp!

I want to say something else in this entry.  I’m very grateful to the person who wrote that email.  If she hadn’t, I might not have thought to clarify my own situation, leaving many of you hating me the way I hate the actual full-time writers! JK aside, the practical issues she raises are very real, and although I can’t solve them, we can still discuss them here, and share our struggles with each other.  I may have some life-experience that can help, and so might others.

She also asked how much I welcome challenges to what I write in this blog.  The answer to that is: VERY MUCH.  Please challenge me!  I don’t like writing or speaking in a vacuum; I like conversation.  It’s the way all my books have gotten written, the way I conduct all my classes, the way I live my life.  I grew up in a house in which no one got away with anything without someone else raising an objection or an argument.  And, as a fairly iconoclastic thinker (in the context of academia, anyway), I’ve gotten much more than my fair share of both helpful criticisms and stinging attacks, published and verbal.  Sometimes, they have initially hurt or inflamed me; but always—whether they were accurate or not—they gave me the opportunity to clarify and improve my ideas.

We often forget that every form of communication, whether written or spoken, is selection.  For everything we say or write there are thousands of other things we don’t say.  It seems so obviously true as to not be worth belaboring here. But the fact is that it’s the one thing that critics most often forget (“Hey, you didn’t write the article I wanted you to write! You wrote the one you wanted to! How dare you!”), and it’s the one thing that we have to learn—I mean really learn, not just lip service learn—about our own work. It will always be radically incomplete.  It will always be misunderstood. It will never say what everyone else wants it to say, what they think is important.  It will never say everything that you wanted it to say.  Sometimes, you will even neglect to say the most important thing you want to say.

In theory, it seems self-evident.  But in practice, it’s something that comes only with the hard learning of sharing your ideas and having others respond. That’s one of the main reasons why putting pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, is scary; it puts you out there, where not only what you said but what you didn’t say will be there for all to see.  You never know how something “plays” until someone responds, and often you find out that what’s been heard is very different than you intended.   That, by the way, is a lesson for writing, too: learning to respond to criticism—all criticism: good, bad, wrong-headed or on the money—as a gift.  But that’s for another entry.


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Writer’s Journal, Entry 1: Turning the Switch On…

Hello everyone, and welcome to my writer’s journal!

This is a first for me, as I’ve never kept a journal of my writing process before; it’s so difficult on some days to do the writing itself, I’m usually too tired by the end of the day to write about it, and crave the soothing passivity of watching reality tv and eating bad carbs.  But I’ll keep this one light and fun—I hope for you as well as me—and perhaps it will be helpful as well.  As Ralph Keyes titles his wonderful book (highly recommended!) it takes courage to write.  And when would-be or beginning writers see only the finished products of experienced writers, looking polished and professional, all spiffed up with praising blurbs and enticing covers, they can easily get discouraged, feeling that they could never make it into to that exalted world themselves.  I hope that getting a peek at the not-so-glamorous reality of the daily life of this writer will help close that gap.  And, since I do teach writing, I will also have some practical tips on how to get the motor running, conquer your fears, and tolerate the inevitable struggle.

Today, for example, I couldn’t write.  I’m very near the completion of my book, I know exactly what I want to say in the last sections, and you’d think this, of all times, would be a piece of cake for me.  NOT.  Maybe I’m a bit burnt out, maybe I don’t want to let my baby out of my womb (it’s so warm and safe in there, and such good company!), maybe I’m just feeling lazy, or maybe—here’s something I bet you’ve never thought of—I’m actually too excited by the ideas, and am strangely afraid of turning the switch on.  Whatever the reason, I just can’t get myself back to that spot in my chapter where I left off.  I thought today was going to be a major writing day. I have arranged my schedule so I have no meetings or appointments, my husband has taken our daughter to her riding lesson.  I got a pretty good night’s sleep (for me.) The hard copy is sitting there, right next to my computer, my notes are on the desk to my right, the file is open on my desktop.  I’m perfectly positioned in the ergonomically superb set-up that I spent so much money on.  But it just won’t happen.

All writers have days like this.  At least, that’s what I tell myself, ignoring the pieces I’ve read about the rigorous schedules of this or that famous writer.  If they really work that way, I hate them and don’t want to hear about it! At any rate, I have days like this—many of them, so many you’d probably be shocked—and yet I have managed to write quite a few books.  How?  I think the key thing that I’ve learned is that writing is an organic process, with a mind of its own, and that “ripeness is all.” Ideas have to germinate, for one thing—and that can involve long periods of what feels like nothing but is actually something very important: becoming ready. Even when one is ready, the process of bringing what is “inside” to the “outside”—the page—is full of stops and starts.  If your project matters to you, then what you are doing is bringing forth and exposing parts of yourself—and that’s hard! There are periods of fear, bursts of energy, resistances and break-throughs, excitement and depression—all the things that mark any intimate, important relationship. And, as with any other relationship that matters, one has to be patient with process, forgiving of oneself when you’re “screwing up,” and sometimes, no matter how you “feel,” you just have to force yourself to painfully put one foot in front of the other (or one word after the other) until the flow comes back.

Tonight, I have to forgive myself for today.  I had hoped it would be different, but it wasn’t.  And I’m betting that today’s forgiveness will result in tomorrow’s productivity.  We’ll see.  Wish me luck.

Ripeness is all.




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