Everything I’ve learned about writing this year I’ve relearned by watching the Olympics [series Part Two]

On Monday, I brought up some thoughts inspired by 10 days spent watching the recent winter Olympics in Vancouver on TV. Here are two more lessons I culled which offer relevance and perspective for writers:

Expect to earn your medals every time.

Snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis kinda blew it in Torino. She hotdogged her way to a second place in women’s snowboard cross when she had the gold medal practically around her neck on that last slope.

Jacobellis has had to live that down for the last 4 years and went to Vancouver hoping to redeem herself. It didn’t quite happen: this year, Continue reading

Everything I’ve learned about writing this year I’ve relearned by watching the Olympics [series Part One]

Hi everyone! I want to thank Jeff at BookLife for inviting me to take the reins this week at his wonderful, must-read blog. There are few things I love more than blogging about and for writers and writing, so it’s an honor to do so at one of the smartest writing blogs out there.

Anticipating the content of my posts this week has been rather challenging: there’s so much to write about! But it came to me on Saturday as I realized my interest in the Olympics was beginning to wane. 

I’d seen all I needed to see of curling, short track speed skating, downhill, bobsled, snowcross and the like. But the Olympics always linger in my mind long after the network has packed up its cameras and talking heads and returned to regularly scheduled programming. 

Witnessing (live or on TV) the prowess of the world’s athletes is always inspiring to me. I grew up in a sports household (baseball, basketball, track and field, gymnastics, soccer, football, softball, volleyball, tennis have all been played with regularity by at least one member of my immediate family), so I’m already in the practice of appreciating the work that goes into excelling at sports. 

But the world’s finest athletes perform with a caliber and grace that takes human experience beyond what it means to be fit or a sound competitor. These are the titans of the modern day, and like the titans of the past, the masses can’t help but idolize them as the demi-gods they truly are. 

This week, I offer the series, “Everything I’ve learned about writing this year I’ve relearned by watching the Olympics” in three parts. As writers, we have cobbled together our own hopes and dreams for becoming the future titans of the literary world. We have much to learn from athletes, and this Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I’ll give examples that show how writers can learn from the trials of Olympians.

Today I’ll talk about discipline and perseverance.  Continue reading

Happiness as a By-Product: An Interview with Jessa Crispin, Founder of Bookslut.com

Back in August of 2009, Jessa Crispin, the founder of Bookslut.com (I wrote a comics column for them for a year) posted a short essay on The Smart Set about writing and the writing life that referenced Booklife, largely in a negative sense. This caused me quite a bit of anguish, to be honest. It’s one thing to get a negative review on a novel; it’s quite another to think, even for a second, that you might have written something actively harmful to people.

I intended Booklife as a helpful guide that combined advice on how to navigate your way through the myriad of potentially distracting and useless tools and opportunities provided by the internet with modern advice on a host of more personal issues related to writing and being a writer, based on 25 years of experience. Crispin saw it at least in part as potentially manipulative or cynical, and placed it in the context of the many new “get-rich-quick” books that detail how to do internet marketing and the like.

After a more careful examination of her essay, however, I came to the conclusion that a difference in defining terms like “contact” might be part of the problem–that, in fact, whether you were to call someone a “contact” or an “ally,” the same points applied: in all of your dealings with other people, whether about your work or generally, be a sincere human being.

Of course, there’s also the uncomfortable truth that no one is ever going to perceive your book exactly the way that you intended for it to be perceived. In coming into contact with the world the text changes, given an additional dimension by readers. Nor do I think Booklife is perfect–part of the point of the book is to continually test it, to not only use it but to also define yourself as a writer by what you disagree with in the text.

That said, I decided it would be interesting to interview Crispin about issues related to the modern writer’s life and Booklife. The results are great—rock-solid advice and insight.

At least one of her answers deserves special emphasis, since I think it’s becoming a major problem in the largely hierarchy-blind world of the internet: “I do worry a little that the modern age has taken the failure stage out of the creative process. Now if you can’t get your manuscript published, it’s because the publishers are cowards, can’t see your genius, and you can self-publish it (and then send out slightly crazed emails to critics). There is a lack of humility, a failure to recognize that getting knocked on your ass is actually good for you.”

There’s also nothing in her answers that I would disagree with; indeed, there’s nothing in Booklife that would intentionally contradict the idea of focusing on the craft and art of fiction over the need to promote your work. Does that mean I won’t be making some changes in the second edition? Not at all, and one of those changes will be to add an introduction to the Public Booklife section that references Crispin’s Smart Set essay, and makes doubly or triply clear the context in which I am providing that information.

So, without further preamble, an interview with Jessa Crispin—with sincere thanks to her for doing the interview.

Continue reading

You Are Not a Gadget…Or, at Least, You Shouldn’t Be

One of Matt Staggs’ links last week was to a New York Times Book Review piece on Jaron Lanier’s book You Are Not a Gadget. I haven’t read the book, but the description of its main points really resonated with me, especially because I’m currently taking a break from Facebook and my personal blog.

This part of the review made perfect sense to me:

Mr. Lanier, a pioneer in the development of virtual reality and a Silicon Valley veteran, is hardly a Luddite, as some of his critics have suggested. Rather he is a digital-world insider who wants to make the case for “a new digital humanism” before software engineers’ design decisions, which he says fundamentally shape users’ behavior, become “frozen into place by a process known as lock-in.” Just as decisions about the dimensions of railroad tracks determined the size and velocity of trains for decades to come, he argues, so choices made about software design now may yield “defining, unchangeable rules” for generations to come.

This argument and others from his book mirror my own concerns about new media. Even as I’ve embraced much of what new/social media has to offer, I also strongly recommend, in Booklife and in my lecture for MIT, thinking about what you’re doing and remembering the importance of balance. In particular, these points:

(1) New media tools like Facebook and Twitter are exactly that—tools. They are not strategies. Just getting on Facebook, creating a blog is not a strategy or a plan. I can’t repeat that enough.

(2) It’s when you mistake the tools for a strategy that you begin to not only become tactical and reactive but also limited in your thinking because of the limitations of the tools.

(3) The most successful writers in the future will be the ones that stop responding in Pavlovian fashion to our current need for that little food pellet in the form of a response to a Blog entry, Twitter line or a Facebook status message.

(4) Further, the tools which you help realize both a creative project and create interest for it are constantly changing. Thus a focus on the tools is a focus on what will all too soon be the past.

(5) A focus on tools thus also means that you are in some ways limiting your options by letting the limitations of the tool and the preconceptions the tool engenders shape your project. Don’t let your imagination become a lackey to a new media tool. If a tool controls your actions, it to some extent controls your imagination.

Lanier’s book also seems to make strong arguments about not supporting mob behavior on the internet, something that we’ve seen too often—in which sheer force of numbers seems to win an argument, even when there hasn’t been true or logical discussion of the issues. Nuance suffers and the facts tend to become distorted.

Food for thought–and a book I’ll be picking up shortly. Amazon has an interesting interview with the author here.