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Telling the Truth

May 24, 2011

Let’s be honest. Good writing is, as Anne Lamott says, about “telling the truth,” and so I am going to say what I’ve been afraid to say for years, and what I especially have not said on this blog.

Like many mom-bloggers, I want to be a writer. A published one. Except I’m afraid I won’t be, and that all of you will be instead. In my head, I’m certain that the publishing business is a game with only a finite number of winners, and you will win, and I will lose. And then I will be a raisin shriveling up in the sun, stinking like rotten meat, festering like a sore. Except I’ll still look like me, just with more wrinkles. I’ll be sitting in a dark living room in suburban Philadelphia, surrounded by cats, with a bowl of brownie batter on my lap, lamenting what might have been.

And while I value the connections I’ve made and the relationships I’ve formed from “mommy-blogging” (ugh, that term), more than anything, I want people to like what I’ve read. I want them to want it, to share it, to feel it.

When I started a blog, I did it because I knew it would improve my writing and give me an outlet. Once I got immersed, though, I—like many bloggers—started to see it as an opportunity for fame and fortune and a book deal. I agonized a bit about page views. I tried to read more blogs so that those bloggers would visit my site and read me and fall in love and never want to leave. I asked my husband to help me make business cards for BlogHer, and when I had a ton left over and sitting in my diaper bag, I gave one to my yoga instructor, who, quite surprisingly, became my friend. (She lives around the corner. That helps.) I’ve even considered passing these cards out to moms at the library or the grocery store. “Oh, your baby is so cute. I just wrote about tantrums on my mommy blog. Here.” Luckily, I haven’t gone that far. But I may.

Then, when I had less time to peruse blogs while letting my children eat their breakfast crumbs off the floor so I could finish a post (which I’m doing right now), and actually go out somewhere to work, I had to let go of the addiction. I had to stop worrying about page views and comments and what other people were getting and what I was not getting. I remembered why I wanted a blog in the first place: to write. For the seventeen months that I’ve been doing this, I’ve written more consistently than I have for years. I’ve become better, even–dare I say!–found my voice. I write because I have something to say, and I feel much better once it flows out of my fingers rather than hanging out in my chest and making me bitter. I actually like taking pictures of my dirty house and messy cabinets and posting them in The SuperWoman Chronicles for someone else to see. It makes me feel less oppressed by domestic activities. Thinking of myself as a superhero or making my worries humorous for the sake of a post detaches me from some of the moods and feelings that drag me down. If no one else, I entertain myself. I think I may even be a nicer person.

What blogging has taught me is that what is most important, what matters to me most, is that I am developing as a writer. The only way to do that is to keep writing, not fret about who is reading.

This is perhaps why Anne Lamott’s writing memoir, Bird by Bird, was such a relief to me as I paged through it these past few months. She addresses the question that all of us novice writers ask from the very beginning–how do we get published? And she says that this job is not about publication, but about writing: “Writing can give you what having a baby can give you: it can get you to start paying attention, can help you soften, can wake you up. But publishing won’t do any of those things….” This is something I’ve grown to realize as I read more and more from published authors. Unless I write a book that gets published and subsequently made into a movie, my life won’t be much different than it is right now. I doubt I’d be able to buy a new house with my earnings, or even a housekeeper. I’d still have to listen to my daughter scream in the supermarket; I’d still be cleaning up crumbs from around the coffee table and wiping piss from the base of two toilets. A published book would be nice, but it’s not going to make my problems go away. Or the things that make me happy–my children, my husband, a good book, dinner with friends, margaritas.

So I’m glad Anne Lamott visited me in my dream early this morning, her dreadlock bangs sparkling in the afternoon sunshine. (I know what you’re thinking—this blog has practically become my dream journal. And so what?) We sat in a garage surrounded by a bunch of beat up lawn chairs and a broken refrigerator, and she quietly nodded and listened. Come to think of it, the garage belonged to Erica, my best friend from sixth grade. Sitting here hours later, writing this post, it’s clear to me that I dreamed about Anne Lamott because her book left such an impression on me, but she also taught me I should be writing about my sixth-grade friend’s garage, and her house, and how we used to choreograph dance routines while her mother watched General Hospital. And how the following year, she was really, really mean to me.

Here are just a few nuggets of wisdom I took from the book, words and phrases rolling around in my subconscious that led to my special, unconscious visititation from Anne Lamott.

–”The writer is a person who is standing apart, like the cheese in ‘The Farmer in the Dell’ standing there alone but deciding to take a few notes.” So that’s why I always feel left out!

“This is our goal as writers, I think; to help others have this sense of–please forgive me–wonder, of seeing things anew, things that can catch us off guard, that break in on our small, bordered worlds.”

–”You get your confidence and intuition back by trusting yourself, by being militantly on your own side. You need to trust yourself.”

–”The rational mind doesn’t nourish you…. Rationality squeezes out much that is rich and juicy and fascinating.”

And lastly…

–”We write to expose the unexposed. If there is one door in the castle you have been told not to go through, you must.”

I was going to pick this book for the Maladjusted Book Club, but I know that many participants have already read it. So while this post is a Maladjusted Book Club of One, please share your own ideas on what makes good writing, or if you read it, what stuck with you from Lamott’s Bird by Bird.

Please, enter the castle with me.

 

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{ 30 comments… read them below or add one }

Alex@LateEnough May 24, 2011 at 10:25 am

I love bird-by-bird, and I relate to my priorities and understanding of writing and blogging changing. I have had to consistently look at my life, my choices and my writing to make sure that I was on the path that I wanted to be on and that had enough room for my family, interests outside of writing and my writing (not just blog promotion). It’s has been hard to continually shift as I get off-track. But as you said, I am so happy to be writing on a regular basis and to have improved.
Even on days when writing is the last thing that I want to do.

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Melissa Sher May 24, 2011 at 10:42 am

I want to commend you for your candor. But, I also want to remind you why we, your loyal readers, stick around. You’re a phenomenal writer. You write from the heart. You are able to give words to what so many of us our thinking but haven’t been able to articulate. Thank you for your blog and your writing. And, one day, if there is a movie about your life, I’ll be first in line. But, if there’s not… I’m still thrilled that I get to read “you.”

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Jana May 24, 2011 at 8:22 pm

Mwah! (That’s the sound of a kiss. Any better ideas on how to spell it?)

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Justine May 24, 2011 at 10:51 am

Jana, I love your honesty here, although you’ve always been that way to me. I also think you’ve voiced the concern and ambitions of many bloggers who share this space with us.

While I didn’t start my blog to get published, I also started to obsess about numbers (comments, views, etc.) and it became unhealthy. I had to remind myself that the blog was for and about my daughter and my journey in motherhood before I loosened my grip on the superficial. It was tough. These days, I write when I can and am thankful for the handful of folks who continue to read my work. Many of them have also become friends and this is the surprising thing about blogging that I never anticipated. This genuine, supportive community who helped me through so much.

So for me to obsess about numbers and people who’re either faceless or nameless to me feels rather inconsequential compared to the friends I’ve made in the blogosphere. When I see a familiar name commenting, it gives me tremendous satisfaction, in a “hi, my friend” kind of way. And it makes me smile. These days that’s plenty enough for me.

I did start another blog, justinewrites.com, to talk about less personal things to help establish myself professionally since I would prefer future employers to appreciate my writing and not what I did over the weekend with my family or my experience with toddler tantrums.

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Jana May 24, 2011 at 8:21 pm

It’s not something I anticipated either, these relationships. Why can’t we all live in the same neighborhood, dammit? Then we can meet for drinks. I have taken great comfort–I’ll have you know–in the thought that if I have to go to Chicago, I could hopefully meet you. :)

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Heidi May 24, 2011 at 11:00 am

Thank you for voicing exactly what my struggle is with blogging! And I think the fear that has kept me from writing consistently ob my blog is fear of the dead space. Of no comments. Of no one reading what I have to say. Of no one validating me and my words. But I think the importance is in me loving what I have to say and writing because it is always something I’ve loved. Regardless of whether I never see a comment. Thank you for the timely reminder.

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Jana May 24, 2011 at 8:20 pm

I will comment!

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Kate May 24, 2011 at 12:12 pm

I remind myself this all the time – focusing on the result just impedes the process. Whatever the results are, it is the process we can control and enjoy.

I hope you find your way to print.

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Denise Nielsen May 24, 2011 at 12:50 pm

I blog. I have followers. I get some comments. I love getting feedback, and having my words resonate with some person in some way. But it doesn’t drive me. It is the act of writing that interests me, and if you get beyond that and start to fret about numbers and metrics and followers, the writing seems to fade, become less than what it is.

I love reading your blog posts, Jana, and I think you are a terrific writer. Publishing is a tough business, and there will always be books you think that are terrible which get published, and books you read that humble you with their quality and which may also send you into despair at the thought that you cannot write so well.

But you can write well and you do. If you want to write a book, write it. But write from the heart. As an editor I see many books that are written seemingly for a specific purpose – to be published. They have the right ingredients, the right mix, they target the right genre and audience. But without passion, without real feeling, they never really come to life. Publishing is not be the goal. The writing is what matters.

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Jana May 24, 2011 at 8:19 pm

This is timely, important information. I agree with you, that when you write a book, it has to be something you feel deeply about. Lamott says that you have to write something you believe in, or you won’t want to finish it. It is so easy to get sucked in by the idea of a pretty label, a pretty cover, someone accepting you. And that’s another reason I like this book so much–she says to put all worries of publication aside so you can just focus on making the writing really, really good. Such great advice from her and you. I’m going to dive in to a few of her other books soon. And yours, when it peeks its head out. :)

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Sarah May 24, 2011 at 12:57 pm

I started a blog a little less than a year ago and have seen some of the same pleasures that you mention, especially detaching from feelings and situations that I would have dwelled on relentlessly in the past. And yet, in the very same moments I find myself reflecting on how much I have enjoyed writing for my blog, I also wonder when I’m going to actually *do* something with it. It’s tough to enjoy the activity for what it is without needing validation. That said, I love your writing and would totally buy your book.

p.s. I just taught “Dream Deferred” to a class of high school sophomores, so your post felt extra relevant.

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Jana May 24, 2011 at 8:17 pm

Sarah, I wrote another post about Hughes’ poems last month (http://anattitudeadjustment.com/2011/04/21/dreams/). And since you’re a teacher, let me welcome you and commend you for all you do. It’s a hard friggin’ job.

But yes, don’t worry about comments. Just write. And by saying this, I’m also implying that I will be sure to comment. :)

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Jane Greer May 24, 2011 at 1:15 pm

A real writer writes because she can’t NOT write. You’re a real writer.

Some real writers nonetheless pursue book publication, and their persistence makes the difference between a fine book being published or nor being published. You may be one of these writers. I, on the other hand, have never cared to pursue publication. In my life, the very best things have simply come to me, as gifts, because I had worked hard enough to be ready to receive them. When I TRY to make things happen, they go wrong. You may be one of those writers.

And, really, the world needs to rethink the word “publish.” It means “to make public,” which means that you ARE published. Yes, yes, I know: yous is just one of a gazillion great, good, mediocre, and awful blogs, but let’s be honest: if you published a book, it would be just one of a gazillion great, good, mediocre, and awful books. And yes, I understand that it means something for a publisher to WANT your book, but remember that merely being published doesn’t make your book any good. Look at the vast number of horrible books on the market.

So just do your work, love your husband, be with your little ones, live your life, and keep writing. It’ll all be good. In fact, it’ll all be the very best.

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Jana May 24, 2011 at 8:15 pm

Thanks so much, Jane. I do think that blogging and the internet has changed our mentality of “publishing.” I can very much feel part of the writing community because I’m writing and my posts are a couple of clicks away like any writers’ posts. I guess I keep thinking that the key is to make some money at it. But I don’t think I could ever give up teaching. So since I have a way to make money (albeit very small amounts), and I write regularly, I do think I can call myself a writer. Still, the term is like a pair of new shoes I’m trying to break in.

So glad you visited, Jane.

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Sarah May 24, 2011 at 1:17 pm

Oh my dear Jana. Telling the truth is always the best you can do. So I’d say you are off to a good start…with wherever you are going…and with months of wonderful blog posts behind you (I guess it’s not really a start then, is it?).

While I’m not on a mission to write a book or to get published, I understand the complexity of toying with what to write, how to write it, what to leave out. The endless amount of questions that come: am I really a writer? When on earth will I have the time to write? Should I make the time? Am I too preoccupied with me and less occupied by THEM (you know, the kiddos)?

I haven’t written about my weekend at Kripalu like some of my blogger-companions did. For me, that weekend was very personal and, while I appreciate all of the wisdom I gained from Dani Shapiro, it is hard to express how it all reached me and what it all meant. The one thing I will relate, however, is the statement that came up over and over again throughout the workshop. So simple, maybe even cliché, but I guess I just needed to hear it (over and over and over) again and let it sink into my soul:

Get out of your own way.

The words are there and the craft is there, now you just have to point your arrow at those things beckon your attention, get out of your own, and tell the truth.

xo

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Christine May 24, 2011 at 7:58 pm

Indeed this did come up over and over, and with every reminder I felt I was pushed closer to what it is really all about. It also helps to have a little support from friends, and a place to talk about it all!

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Jana May 24, 2011 at 8:12 pm

Christine told me about that, and I love it. I am working on getting out of my own way. I’m out of yours, too, now that you’ve designed my site. So tell the kiddos to do the same thing. Let them play video games, eat cake. You write, sister.

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Suzy Hayes May 24, 2011 at 4:05 pm

Edith Wharton said:”There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.”

I can’t be the candle. I learned that long ago. But when I write, I’m a mirror.

S

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Jana May 24, 2011 at 8:11 pm

I’m baffled. Who is the candle? Do we all just want to be candles, but we’re all just mirrors? Foggy ones?

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Kate May 24, 2011 at 4:16 pm

I don’t think there’s anything to confess, really, although I admire your honesty. Writers write to be read–it’s as simple as that. I too have always had a motivation to write, and in my case, that motivation was probably at least indirectly responsible for my very misguided decision to go to grad school. Now I feel like at least I am writing about what I care about. At least I’m putting it out there. If nothing more ever happens than that, it will still be something. Someday maybe I’ll be brave enough to share about more of my life–but this is where I feel motivated to start.

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denise May 24, 2011 at 4:27 pm

My head bobbed along as I read your post because I identity so readily with your thoughts and experiences. I nodded, nodded and nodded some more. Meeeee toooooo.

It’s been awhile since I’ve read Bird By Bird, but your selected quotes do a great job of encapsulating my take-aways. Writing is not publishing.

Sarah and I both attended Kripalu. I also have thought much about Dani Shapiro’s advice–and have reflected on “Get out of your own way”. The other one that fuels me is this:

Enjoy writing in the dark.

Meaning, enjoy this time–when no one is awaiting your next novel or memoir. When you are a raw, undiscovered talent, you’re free to just write the words as they come, in the dark. (She wrote a great post about it later… http://danishapiro.com/2011/05/on-writing-in-the-dark/)

Thanks for this great post.

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Jana May 24, 2011 at 8:11 pm

Thanks for sharing that. I have realized, in my musings (ha!), that writing a sophomore book after a good first one must be really hard. I saw Kathryn Stockett speak recently about The Help , and she said she was purely terrified about trying to write again after the success after this first novel. And before that success, she submitted the thing to 60 (yes, 60!) agents. What a story.

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Kristen @ Motherese May 24, 2011 at 4:55 pm

Like Denise, I read your post nodding right along with all of the truth you offer here. I’d like to tell myself that I write for myself and that I don’t really care what other people think, but that would be a lie. And it’s been a struggle for me to balance the pure act and art of writing with my more complicated desire for approval. More than anything, I’m grateful for you and other like-minded travelers out there who are walking the same road with me.

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Jana May 24, 2011 at 8:09 pm

But you’re so good at gaining approval. It is practically impossible to ignore one of your posts without commenting. That’s a gift that not many people have.

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Sarah May 24, 2011 at 5:42 pm

Must read this book! I am in a very similar head space as you (although my dreams have been, alas, much weirder) regarding writing right now. This will be good for me, so thanks for sharing!

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Jana May 24, 2011 at 8:08 pm

Your dreams have been weirder? Well, I need to know. And yes, read the book! You’ll love it.

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frogmama May 24, 2011 at 7:11 pm

I have to be honest. I kind of hate you. Because you nail every post. You never seem to have a bad writing day. Of course, I also really, really like you, and that’s why I come back. I share a lot of your feelings about having a blog. I also cringe over the term “mommy blogger.” It’s so instant oatmeal-y. I’ve contemplated quitting my blog many times but always come back to it. It gets me writing regularly. I enjoy story telling. Like you, I’ve come to realize that you can’t fret about who is reading you; the steps needed to ensure that everyone is would be a full-time job.

Anne Lamott is one of my all-time favorite writers. I love her quote “A hundred years from now? All new people.” Puts everything in perspective. As do you! Nice post.

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Jana May 24, 2011 at 8:07 pm

I had no idea you read my blog! I am truly flattered, because I love your blog. It’s witty and smart, and I always assume a comment from me is the last thing you need; that you’re “above” comments because you write elsewhere. As far as that quote goes, I love the idea of thinking of ourselves as part of history, that all of our small worries and concerns are minor compared to the vastness of life and human existence. Which, I assume, is what Lamott means.

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Christine May 24, 2011 at 7:57 pm

Well I think you know that I loved this book, and frankly anything written by Anne Lamott. She’s just refreshing and wise and wonderful. As are you. I also think you know how I feel on this subject since we’ve discussed it so much. But I’ll say it again, just write. That’s all that matters, and if you do, the rest will be what it is supposed to be. I truly believe that. As I believe that you are a tremendous writer, and you know you always a have a cheerleader in me.
xo

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Nina May 24, 2011 at 10:12 pm

LOVE Bird by Bird. And wow–I’d love Lamott to visit me in my dream. You picked out some great quotes.

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