I've been pitiful in terms of writing production lately. I have all these ideas - snippets, really, like tiny pieces of a much larger map. But so far, I'm not going anywhere. I'm certainly not coming up with anything substantive enough to generate 1,000 or 1,500 words per day (you know - so when Oprah asks me how I'm such a prolific writer, I can tell her about my "disciplined approach to my craft"). This morning, as I sat on my usual place on the couch, staring at all my favorite books on the shelf across the room, it occurred to me that perhaps my little shrine to other people's writing wasn't doing me any favors; that I'd made a bit of an idol out of all those pretty covers and stories that move or inspire me, which means that I start each day thinking about all the great writing other people have done, rather than what great writing I might be supposed to do. (Let that last sentence be an example of how far I've strayed from the goal...)
So I dismantled the shrine, leaving only the Dictionary, our wedding pics, and the baseball Steve caught off a foul ball pitched by Daisuke Matsuzaka at a Red Sox game earlier this season. My beloved books are now in piles on the floor of the office. It will be fun to see them up again in a few weeks, once I'm free of whatever misguided thoughts I had that being near other people's finished books would help me get started on mine :)
I'm also coming off a long reading dry spell, filled with books I couldn't bring myself to finish (don't worry, author friends - none of them yours! I was attempting to read some of the classics I missed along the way; apparently, I'm still not insightful enough to be swept away by their wonder...) But yesterday, I found some inspiration as I read another AMAZING novel by Anna Quindlen: BLESSINGS. I read her recent RISE AND SHINE last month, and loved it equally, if not more. What astounded me most about these stories was how detailed they were, in all the right ways. Her words captured the essence of the places, scenes, and people with exactly the right balance of show-don't-tell. And she gets the emotional pitch of family dynamics exactly right. Beautiful stuff. Not to mention that the stories were so good, I forgot to be a writer-in-training and was totally caught up in the characters.
Quindlen started out (and still makes a living) as a nonfiction writer; my parents have used her savvy Newsweek articles for years to initiate conversations with my sister and I to figure out what we think about everything from the latest political kerfluffle to the role of family in our growing lives. I'm amazed that Quindlen can write fiction AND nonfiction at the same time, all of it good enough to stand on its own merits rather than on her accomplishments on the other side. Talk about raising the bar!
I've always felt that fiction was beyond me as a writer - partly because I made enough dumb choices in my 20s to give me plenty of material for nonfiction, but also because I'm in awe of those of you who plot storylines on a big board with post-it notes, create people who aren't real (and yet by the time you're done with them, they totally are), and weave sub and sub-sub plots effortlessly through it all, tying everything up in the end. How do you do that? I feel like Anna Quindlen's little sister, following her around trying to learn to be a grown-up writer :)
Quindlen's example makes me wonder if there might not be more room than we think to write freely if we don't box ourselves in.