So…Here We Are
September 10, 2007 | Written by admin
So here I am, trying to get used to living in the midwest. I’m a west-coaster — used to mountains, big distances between cities, and lots of ethnic restaurants. I’m also used to living close to the ocean, a relatively liberal body politic, and a coffee shop on every corner. And I find myself in Indiana.
I’m lost all the time. There are no mountains to gauge my travels, so I always assume I"m heading north. I’ve not yet caught on to midwest geography, so I’m apparently less than a four hours’ drive to anywhere — Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis, Cincinnati. Not that I’d necessarily want to go to Cincinnatti…it’s just interesting that I could. There’s not much ethinic food here — since I don’t consider Irish pubs, American-Chinese takeout, or places that serve pizza as "ethnic." (Why is it that people who own Irish pubs think Americans can’t stand Irish food? They’re always larding up the menu with things like "Dublin Tacos" and "Limerick Chicken Wings." Trust me — if I want tacos, I’ll go to a place with the word "Los" in the name.) I’m far from the ocean, the politics are what you’d call "midwest," and they’re just discovering the importance of coffee as being a key aspect of God’s overall plan for our lives.
So you know, I’m not making fun. Just pointing out that the US is a huge country, and life really is different in Indiana than it is in Oregon or Washington or California. I haven’t figured this place out yet. If you have "life in the midwest survival tips" for me, send them along. For now, it’s on to the writing wisdom…
Danielle wrote to ask, "In 100 words or less, what is the best writing advice you ever recieved?"
That’s easy… On page 71 of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style (3rd Edition), they give this advice: "Write with nouns and verbs, not adjectives and adverbs." In the words of E.B. White, nouns and verbs "give to good writing its toughness and color." Similarly, in his insightful work, On Writing, novelist Stephen King goes into great detail on this advice, pointing out that any reader can understand the combination of a noun and a verb: "Mary sighs." "Computers crash." "Book illuminate." In my experience, authors (particularly novelists, but ALL authors) tend to use adjectives and adverbs to dress things up when they can’t find the right word. But that’s nothing more than lipstick on a pig. The right word is what good writing is all about. If you want punch and strength in your writing, write with nouns and verbs.
Melissa wrote to ask, "How do you define success as a writer?"
Years ago I used to teach a workshop on "how to create a master plan for your life." At that workshop, I used to tell my audience that "success is the feeling you get when you reach your goals." That may sound shallow to you — the notion that success is nothing more than a feeling. But I still stand by that definition. If you set a goal of getting one book contract this school year, and you actually sign a deal, that wonderful feeling you have is the feeling of success.
That, of course, is why some people never feel successful, even if they’ve sold a boatload of books. If an author feels he or she deserves a $500,000 contract, but is only offered a $50,000 advance, there’s a feeling of failure. That might seem crazy to you, if you’re sitting there waiting for somebody, anybody, to offer you a thousand bucks for your unpublished novel. But that’s my point: success, more than anything else, is a feeling — an internal judge on our external work. If you teach a writing workshop and everybody pats you on the back and tells you you’re the second coming of Sherwood Anderson, you feel successful…until you read the participant evaluations, and find that people thought you wandered a lot, some didn’t appreciate your sense of humor, and at least one thought your haircut was ugly. Suddenly you feel like a failure (and it’s amazing how one bad comment can take away your feeling of success). Some days I feel like a successful father, since Patti and I have raised three pretty well-adjusted kids. (Um…okay, that’s basically due to Patti. She did all the hard work. I basically tried to stay out of the way and pay for things.) Other days I feel like a complete failure as a father — I missed Molly’s lacrosse games and forgot to attend enough of Kaitlin’s ballet rehearsals. Success, more than anything else, is the feeling I get when I reach my goals.
Is that shallow? Of course it is. That’s why I think a writer should think about more than temporary goals. Who wants to live their life solely on the feeling of the moment? I don’t. I want my kids to know I love them, whether I’m feeling like a successful father or not. I want to have peace with God, whether I currently feel like a nice Christian boy or not (and, let’s face it, too often it’s "not"). Success is awfully fleeting — as soon as your successful book starts to wane, you have to go do another one to regain the feeling of "being a successful author." So that’s why I remind myself there’s something more important than success in my life — there is the concept of significance.
Again, going back to the workshop I used to teach 20 years ago, I would encourage participants to not only have goals that would make them feel successful, but to have some sort of activity that would make them significant. And I defined significance as "making a difference in the lives of people over time." As a writer, I encourage you to make a commitment to significance. Do something that will better the lives of other people. Teach someone to read. Help them learn English. In my view, true happiness and peace in life are not found in the temporary good feelings that come with success, but in living with the knowledge that we made a difference in the lives of others. In the Christian faith, nobody ever achieved sainthood by exalting themselves — greatness was found in giving themselves up to others. I still think the most overlooked message in modern American churches is that joy is found in giving, not in getting.
Look, some of our best writers have not enjoyed much success. Poe considered himself a failure. Hawthorne never felt successful. Their "success" (in terms of book sales) came after their deaths. And some writers who acheived big success died unhappy because they couldn’t retain the feeling — take a look at the lives of Hemingway and Fitzgerald. Maybe they focused so much on their own success they could never see themselves being significant in the lives of others.
Just a thought. Appreciated the question.