Who’s to Blame for Your Crappy Career?

Writers like Malcolm Gladwell have popularized the notion that all you need to become a genius or even an expert at just about anything is hard work. Do I hear RuPaul?

And it’s never to soon to start kicking butt, either.  Psychologist Ellen Winner says it’s now widely believed that “with sufficient energy and dedication on the parents’ part, it is possible that it may not be all that difficult to produce a child prodigy.”

Whoa. Think about it: truly dedicated parents can get their kids to write symphonies like Mozart, paint canvasses like Picasso, carve sculptures like Rodin, design buildings like Frank Lloyd Wright, create fashion to match Ralph Lauren.  The list is endless because they can get their kids to do anything. It’s all about work, and wanting it enough. Boom.

I come from a family of mathematically gifted people. My mother’s father was a statistician; my mother tutored her peers in mathematics; my older brother aced every math class he ever took from day one.  Math was like a religion in our house. But from kindergarten on, I had trouble with the simplest computations–and I still do.

Let me be absolutely clear: I was desperate to be good at math, and equally desperate to please my mother (and my teachers), but I kept disappointing everyone. I was a good little student in most everything else, and it was a torment to me that no matter what I did, no matter how anyone tried to help me, I just could not succeed. Neither could my teachers or my tutors. And no matter how many hours my frustrated mother spent trying to get me to understand what was elementary to her,  I just did not get it. 

All that hard work only led to embarrassment and shame, and that’s what this perverse new cultural naivete has the potential to induce, despite its smiley-face propaganda: feelings of inadequacy for everyone who doesn’t make it to the top. Because the answer isn’t bad luck, or not enough talent. Nope, it’s because nobody tried hard enough!  Not you, and definitely not your loser parents.

Andre Dubus is widely quoted as having said “Talent is cheap. What matters is discipline.” And now we know it started before we got the career bug in our heads.  We know exactly who to blame when we don’t make it as writers (or anything else): Mom and Dad.  If only they’d believed in us more; worked us harder; pushed us to the max we would all be best sellers (or celebrities).  Then we wouldn’t have to spend so much time and money in therapy complaining about how we never grabbed the brass ring.

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Digital Diet? Not For Me.

Years ago, I followed health guru Andrew Weill’s advice and took a “news fast.”  I stopped reading newspapers and news web sites for six weeks.  I found myself calmer during that period, and spending more time both working and enjoying myself.  I read more books, I wrote more, I relaxed more.

Lately I’ve seen talk about “digital diets” or fasts: taking time to unhook completely from our constant connectedness.  I get that.  I actually returned my Android phone six months after I bought it and went back to a pre-smart phone.  I had found myself more obsessed with email than usual, checking it at doctors’ offices, on line at the post office, even when I was in my car stopped at red lights or train crossings.  I decided I need more free time away from work, and the phone was just too tempting.

But going cold turkey, for even a week?  I just can’t.  It doesn’t make sense from a business standpoint. Like most authors, my professional life is digital.

If my publisher or my editor contacts me, it’s via email.  If an editor wants me to write a story or essay for a new anthology, that’s how I heard.  Ditto with other authors or anyone who’s found my email address via my web site and wants to write me fan mail or invite me to speak at a conference, a university, a library or any of the many other venues where I do talks and readings from my work.

I’ve done entire book tours here and abroad without ever needing the phone.  In fact, the only time I’m on the phone for business is firming up details that have already been set up via email, and that’s infrequently.  And when I am connecting via phone, I’m often simultaneously checking details on line, or even emailing something to whoever’s called me.

Now that I’m also a visiting assistant professor at Michigan State University, a digital fast makes even less sense. I need to stay in touch with my students and also with other faculty members. That’s become specially important as I continue to work on the planning for a study abroad program I’m co-leading in London this summer.  Emails to various people and institutions in London have been legion.

The place where I can cut back, though, is Facebook.  I think I can live without cute cat videos for a week.  Who knows, maybe even six weeks…..

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

An Author’s Characters On the Loose?

I’ve been doing readings from my fiction since the early 90s and one of the common questions I get afterwards is “Do your characters ever tell you what to do?” or “Do your characters ever get away from you?”

That question is a fascinating doorway into how people tend to perceive authors and the writing process–and how they want to.

My answer is plain: Never.  And here’s what I mean.  Everything that appears in my books, every aspect of plot, setting, dialogue, characterization, action is mine.  Hell, the punctuation is mine, or as much mine as anything can be in this life of transience.  I created it all, and even if I got advice from an editor or was inspired by other writers, the final form is mine.  The words are mine,  the rhythms are mine.  It’s all shaped by me as a writer, as an artist, consciously and unconsciously.

My characters are not independent of who I am.  They don’t speak to me: I speak through them.

tricking-the-readerSaying a character surprised me is dramatic, but it’s not accurate.  I surprised myself.  Something was churning away inside, some unexpected connection got made that changed what I was working on.  This happens constantly when we write: a mix of editing and revision and creation at the sentence level and the chapter level.

But many writers love to grin and say, “Yes” in answer to the question above, tell dramatic stories that make audiences smile and even laugh.  It seems to confirm something to non-writers about what it’s like to write; it makes the whole experience more romantic and glamorous than it actually is.

Once I was nearing the end of a book and realized I had the wrong person committing murder.  It wasn’t the murderer speaking to me, or the victim piping up, or even the gun giving advice.

It was the mind of a writer spinning straw into gold. And after a long and fruitful career, I’m glad those moments keep coming.

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Block is Bunk (Guide to the Writing Life) and 24 other books in genres from memoir to mystery.

How Much is Enough?

Many authors worry about how many words they write every day.  Some even post the tally on Facebook as if they’re in some kind of competition.

And if they’re not writing at least 500 or 1200 or 2000 words or whatever quota they’ve set, they feel miserable.  Why aren’t they working harder?  Why are they stuck?  What’s wrong with them?

If that kind of system works for you, fine.  But I think too many writers start out assuming that if they’re not actually physically writing a set number of words every single day, they’re not just slacking, they’re falling behind and even betraying their talent.

Many well-known authors like Ann Lamott (in Bird by Bird) advise beginners to hold to a daily minimum, but some days it’s simply not possible.  Hell, for some writers it’s never possible.  Why should it be?

I’ve never advised my creative writing students to write every day; I advise them to try to find the system that works for them.

I’ve never worried myself about how much I write every day because I’m almost always writing in my head, and that’s as important as putting things down on a page.

But aside from that, every book has its own unique rhythm.  I’m currently finishing a suspense novel and I’ve spent weeks on one chapter.  Some would call it obsessing.  They’d be wrong.  What I’ve been doing is musing, rewriting, stepping back, carefully putting tiles into a mosaic as it were, making sure everything fits right before I go ahead, because this is a crucial chapter.  I’ve also been doing some fact-checking because guns are involved and I’ve had to consult experts. I barely have ten pages, yet there are times when I’ve written ten pages in a day on this same book.

The current chapter is the book’s most important one, where the protagonist and his pursuer face off, and it’s got to be right.  So when I re-work a few lines that had been giving me trouble and find that now, they finally work, that makes me very happy.

And if I don’t write a word, I know I will be, soon enough.

 

An Author Chooses His Favorite “Child”

Fans often ask me at readings which of my two dozen books is my favorite.

The answer doesn’t pop up immediately, because I’ve published in so many genres: memoir, mystery, literary novel, short story collections, psychology, biography/literary criticism, historical fiction, Jane Austen mash-up, vampire, writer’s guide, essay collections.

I love them all, or I wouldn’t have written them, but my 19th book My Germany has a special place in my writer’s heart. It’s more deeply personal than my other books, and it’s also the one I struggled with most.

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I’m the son of Holocaust survivors, and the book is a combination of history, family history, travelogue, mystery, and coming out story as I explore the role that Germany–real and imagined–played in my family while I was growing up and in my own life as an adult and an author.

It wasn’t an easy story–or set of stories–to tell. It took me more than five years to figure out the book’s structure of the book, and to let go of trying to force it into a specific mold. I finally realized that I could blend genres, and that set me free to follow the advice Sir Phillip Sydney’s muse gave to him: “Look in your heart, and write.”

My Germany is also the book that garnered me the most speaking gigs of any book in my career, including two tours in Germany where I spoke in over a dozen different cities, and sometimes even read from it in German.  It was a book I didn’t guess I would even want to write, and then a book that surprised me in many ways.

P.S. 4/22/15: Five years after it was published, it’s still getting me invited to give talks and readings…..

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery and you can find them on Amazon.