Don’t Let Them Squash Your Creativity

With all the roles that many of us have to fill throughout the day—friend, employee, spouse, parent, consumer, and so on—the creative self can be one of the most fragile. Even though for many of us the creative self is deeply embedded and even essential to our sanity, it is also easily crushed.

Many forces stand ready to squash the creative self. You no doubt have been struck by these enemies. Even the most successful people are prone to these creativity crushers. To name just one example, there are the naysayers. These are the people who tell you, either directly or in some other dismissive way, that you just can’t do it. You’re not good enough. Or you’re not as good as you used to be. Who do you think you are? Nobody asked for your creativity.

Growing up, I always felt vaguely embarrassed about wanting to be a writer. I feared that if I said too much about it, I was simply opening myself up to mockery. It felt so pretentious to want to write a novel. Who was I?

So I hid it. I wrote my first novel almost secretly. When I would go off to write, I would be vague with family and friends about what I was doing, telling them simply that I had work to do. In college, I was so paranoid about my roommates reading over my shoulder that I developed a secret coded language in which I could write when others were around, which I then had to decode later.

Today I am still tempted to let my creativity be squashed, not so much by naysayers, but by other enemies such as procrastination, the pressures of life, fear of rejection, weariness.

Yet the words, the ideas, keep bubbling up. When the ideas come, I think, I have to write this. Why is no one else saying this? I find myself writing as fast as I can, letting the momentum carry me. In those great moments, the creativity blasts right through the doubts, tiredness, discouragement, and second-guessing. I write. I create.

This semester I am working with an outstanding group of writers in a course I am teaching in the new M.A. in English program at Azusa Pacific University. The theme of our course, which I write on the board every week, is, What is possible for me as a writer?

Part of our work involves breaking down obstacles that discourage creativity. I will mention only two of them here, which stall many writers:

1. Nobody cares whether you create or not. The world is not asking for your work. Nobody is out there saying, “The world is a diminished place because you are sitting there not doing your writing.” If you don’t write, they won’t know or care. The world will go right on.

2. The market is already glutted. Mountains of work are already being rejected every day. So who needs you in there adding to that pile and struggling to compete?

Harsh, I know. I’m reluctant to even mention those things, but for many writers, it’s not as if these dark thoughts don’t already plague us fairly regularly.

So why keep writing?

Let’s look at that first obstacle. The world may not be asking for your work and may not think they need it, but the world in fact may be a diminished place without your writing. Think of your favorite author. Would your life be diminished if that writer had not written the books you love? Of course. For example, I love the novels of Thomas Wolfe and William Faulkner. Some of the most meaningful hours of my life have been spent with their words flowing through my head. The world would be a much shallower place if they had let obstacles to writing stand in their way, and for both of them, there were many obstacles.

You may or may not have the wide impact of those two writers, but picture one reader who reads your words at just the right moment, who is challenged, inspired, or entertained by exactly what you have to say. You have made the world richer for that reader, and perhaps many others, even people who haven’t been born yet. Write for those readers. It’s worth it.

As for the second obstacle, the glutted market, it’s true. Amazon boasts around 8 million books, more than the world needs for a lifetime. Online and print magazines, newspapers, website, blogs and other sources have an almost infinite number of articles, videos, lists, and other material available. There is no shortage.

And yet, as a reader, don’t you still find yourself searching for something new, something that fills a particular need that sometimes you can’t even articulate? Be the writer who writes that for someone else.

As a writer, I have known the joy of connecting with readers. Not as many as I would like to have connected with, of course. But I have known the fulfillment of connecting with that individual reader who gets what I’m doing, who loves it, who needs it. That’s what keeps me writing. I’m not willing to let anything crush it.

4 Important Elements of Harper Lee’s “Go Set a Watchman” that Readers are Overlooking

After 55 years of waiting for a follow-up novel to Harper Lee’s classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, readers finally have the new book in their hands, and many are shocked by certain elements of it. The most unpleasant surprise in Go Set a Watchman for many readers is that the beloved Atticus Finch, one of the great American literary heroes of integrity and justice, is an aging racist in the new book.

I spent the entire day reading Go Set a Watchman, but rather than do a typical review, I want to focus on four issues I think are being ignored in the early reviews and discussions of this novel.

1. I believe it is a mistake to see Atticus Finch as simply older and more racist than he was in Mockingbird. Instead, I think he is essentially a different character in Watchman than the reconceived Atticus in Mockingbird. In other words, there are two Atticuses, created by the author to fit the needs of the particular book.  

Why is Atticus Finch so different in Watchman than he is in Mockingbird? The publication history of the two novels is crucial in answering that question. Lee submitted Watchman to her editor in the 1950’s. The editor, enjoying the childhood flashbacks the most, urged Lee to write a novel set 20 years earlier, focusing on those elements of the story. In doing so, I believe Lee created an alternate version of Atticus Finch. He is a different character in Mockingbird than in Watchman, though carved from the same materials.

Mockingbird and Watchman are not really sequels or prequels to one another. They are separate treatments of the same core material. Even the outcome of the trial that is central to Mockingbird is different when it is referred to in Watchman. Lee never expected to publish both books. She did not need to keep the characters completely consistent between the two books. She had the freedom to adjust the characters to meet the needs of the particular book. One implication of this for readers is that if they don’t like the Atticus in Watchman, that doesn’t need to “ruin” the Atticus in Mockingbird for them. They can choose whichever conception of the character they like best.

The Scout character in Watchman, who is more commonly called Jean Louise, also strikes me as significantly different from the Scout character in Mockingbird. It’s not simply that she is twenty years older in Watchman, it’s that I don’t think she is simply a grown-up version of the Mockingbird Scout. She is a reconceived character. She is not radically different in the two books, but different in ways that novelists often change the personalities and other traits of their characters in later drafts of the stories.

2. If Harper Lee had written Go Set a Watchman now instead of in the 1950’s, I think there would be an even greater outcry against it from readers.

If we didn’t know that Lee wrote Watchman before she wrote Mockingbird, then I think the changes in the character of Atticus Finch would be even harder for readers to accept. If Watchman had been written in the 21st century, I think readers would have protested it as a cynical modern treatment of a beloved 20th-century American hero. Why, they would have complained, did Lee turn the justice-loving man of integrity of Mockingbird into the racist cranky-old-man of Watchman?

As it stands, I find it fascinating that Lee saw that the character could be written as both of those men. The relationship between Scout and Atticus is more complicated in Watchman than it is in Mockingbird, but what is fiction for if not to shed light on such intricacies of human motivations and relationships? We have had 55 years of Atticus as an unblemished saint. Now we also have him as a fascinating and contradictory man of his times.

3. Go Set a Watchman is not only about race. Its brilliance extends to other areas that are not getting enough attention.

Much of what I have read in reviews and on social media about Watchman has focused on the racial issues the book raises, but when I read the novel, many other elements of it also stood out to me. Like Mockingbird, this novel richly captures small-town Southern life in the middle of the twentieth century. It brings to life the feel of what it is like for Jean Louise to return from living in New York City and be thrust into the family life, church life, and social life of the place she grew up in. Lee is a masterful storyteller who uses humor and passion in creating vivid, memorable scenes.

One of my favorite chapters appears about two-thirds of the way into the novel, when Jean Louise’s Aunt Alexandra hosts “The Coffee,” a reunion of Jean Louise’s former classmates and other women of the town, almost none of whom Jean Louise wants to see. The social satire of this gathering targets the way the women dress, the way they chatter on about their husbands and children, the way they reveal their prejudices, and other details of Southern life. It is beautifully handled and worth reading the novel for. It shows that Lee was a masterful novelist of manners, among her many other gifts as a writer.

4. The release of Watchman reveals that Lee owes her editor a big thanks for compelling her to set aside this book and write Mockingbird instead. Watchman is a good book, but by itself, it would not have become a classic.

Most readers’ first encounter with To Kill a Mockingbird is in a high school literature class, where it has been a standard text for decades. The book has all the features that create a beloved classic—a compelling young narrator who shows courage, grit, and humor in confronting challenges young readers can relate to, a plot that offers conflicts that are universal in scope, a memorable setting, an engaging writing style, and other elements.

Watchman is also an entertaining and well-written novel, but it is much more targeted toward adults. I believe that if it had been released first instead of Mockingbird, it would have enjoyed some success and then gradually faded into the literary background. Lee’s editor’s instincts were correct in pushing the author to bring to the forefront Scout’s earlier story. This shows the crucial and often overlooked role editors play in the creation of literature.

The Best Five Answers: What Time Period Do You Wish You Had Been Born In, and Why?

I have always felt that I was born in the wrong era. Like the main character in the film, Midnight in Paris, I always felt I would have fit in better in the era of some of the literary geniuses I admire from the 1920s and ‘30s—writers like Thomas Wolfe, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Gertrude Stein. This week’s question was:

What time period do you wish you had been born in, and why?

I received some fascinating responses to this, and it was hard to choose the Best Five Answers. A surprising number of respondents said they are content with the era they were born in. The 1800s was a popular era, and so was the future. Will Cook would have been happy to have been born in 2125, when he imagines he would have a “half-synthetic, half-flesh body,” and Kay Smith would like to have been born in an unspecified time in the future “when women are treated as fully human in the church.”

With many great responses to choose from, here are the Best Five Answers, followed by next week’s question:

5. “16,000 BC in current day location of Cyprus. Pretty sure I could have walked to Atlantis and witnessed the true precursor to the pyramid civilizations before global meltdown and flooding covered them. (Yes, I am serious and, no, I’m not a nut!).”

–Robert Green

4. “The same period I was born in, 1983. The reason being is I’ve gotten to see so much technological changes/innovations as I’ve grown up. One of the first things I learned to do was operate a record player. CD’s took off and now digital downloads are the norm. Same goes with music videos, used to VH1 or MTV was the go to place for that, now you can pull up YouTube and see just about any video you want. The Internet also has made it easier to stay in touch, reconnect or make new friends.”

–Nathan Webb

3. “Before watching Midnight in Paris, I probably would have answered the question with the 1840s because of the music, fashion, and historical events. After watching Midnight in Paris I realized, like Owen Wilson’s character, that I wouldn’t want to be born at any other time than I was. He rightly says something along the lines that the present is unsatisfying because life is unsatisfying. This, right now, is my Golden Age.”

–Sara Flores

2. “I wish I had been born in the 2200s because then I would probably be able to teleport. But hopefully the world’s resources wouldn’t be decimated by then….”

–Abbi Mleziva

1. “I would be born in 1935, I would be but a child as the war swelled and then ebbed, just old enough to have been able to look up over London into a rumbling sky filled complete by thousands of USAAF B17 bombers, each guided by diesel propellers leaving four elegant streams of blue trailing behind the formation. Fighter escorts aligned like geese surround the bombers top, bottom, and side. The entire earth would rumble as countless thousands of steel bombers and fighters ripped through the grey London skies on towards Germany–the might of American economies of scale and mass production all slowly growling out over the English Channel to break the back of the Axis. Minutes pass and finally the sky would be empty again for hours before evening when the steel birds would come limping back overhead, bombless and bleeding black smoke. These thunderous fleets of aircraft will never again be witnessed—technology raced ahead so quickly that war waged in the skies is now invisible and supersonic and remote. Men don’t take to the sky by the countless thousands lined as far as they eye can see now. And this I lament because of its ephemeralness. It must have been a strangely harrowing sight to peer up, nine years old, bright blue eyed, and see no sky but only smoke and steel.”

–Brian Kraft

Now I invite you to respond to the question for next week:

If you could improve your life in one way, what would it be?

Forty-Seven Different Endings? Some Lessons from Hemingway about Revision

For the past several weeks my students and I have been immersed in the novels of Ernest Hemingway. I have had the pleasure of teaching a course on him and William Faulkner this semester. In most literature courses, we study only the final, published drafts of novels and other works of literature. That gives us the chance to enjoy the final masterpieces, but it doesn’t reveal much about the torment the author went through to make the book as good as it is. How many revisions did it go through? How many false starts were there? How much bad writing did the author produce before he found discovered the right way to tell the story?

A new edition of Hemingway’s masterpiece, A Farewell to Arms, was published earlier this year that sheds light on his careful, sometimes agonizing writing process. Depending on how you count them, Hemingway produced up to 47 different endings. The exact number is tricky to determine because some drafts use bits and pieces of other drafts and therefore are not completely distinct from one another. The editors have grouped the 47 drafts under nine categories, such as “The Nada Ending,” “The Religious Ending,” “The Live-Baby Ending,” and so on.

Examining these very different endings reveals much about the creative process of writing a novel. Here are a few points his methods illustrate:

• Even very good writers are capable of very bad writing.

Hemingway may be a brilliant, Nobel Prize-winning, best-selling author, but some of these drafts are just bad. One of the “Nada” endings, for example, says, “That is all there is to the story. Catherine died and you will die and I will die and that is all I can promise you.” The first of three “Funeral Ending” drafts says, “When people die you have to bury them but Continue reading

Is Literature Still Necessary? (Part 2) “Literary Labor”

Note: This is the second in a series of posts that will consider the question:

What does literature have to offer (if anything) that no other art form or media (such as video games, social media, movies, TV shows, etc.) can match?

To view the first post in this series, scroll down or click here.

Literary Labor

by Bethany Wagner, APU Honors student

After a long, exhausting day in the classroom or at the office, a book offers what no movie or TV show or video game can: the chance to kick back on the couch with a steaming mug of tea…and get to work.

Work? Who would want that at the end of the day when The Bachelor is on? Yes, reading is work, oftentimes hard work. But it is not the tiresome work of scrubbing food off plates or hauling stacks of dirty clothes to the Laundromat.

It is the work of figuring out what Dickens meant by that mysterious allegory, and deciphering exactly what apozemical means, and trying to solve who killed so-and-so before Sherlock Holmes does. Most of all, it is the work of finding how your story—where you come from, who you are, what you believe—fits into the story you hold in your hands.

Would I have been able to refuse the White Witch’s Turkish delight? Would I have been unselfish enough to make the ultimate sacrifice like Sydney Carton? Do I agree with this character’s philosophy? Do I agree with that author’s depiction of religion? Some questions are harder to answer than others, one book more difficult to place yourself in than the next, but all pull the reader into the story, and all call the gears of the mind to work—not to monotonous drudgery, but to a joyous, satisfying work that engages the imagination.

Compare the feeling of finishing a movie or video game to that of finishing a piece of fine literature. At the end of the average movie, I might think something along the lines of, Well that was cool…I guess it’s time for bed. A particularly good, thought-provoking movie perhaps leaves me with stronger feelings of contentment or conviction. Finishing a video game might leave me feeling a bit more accomplished, although there is always the nagging thought in the back of my head that maybe…just maybe…all those hours in front of the screen pressing buttons might have been better spent elsewhere.

But after turning the last pages of A Tale of Two Cities, The Great Divorce, Paradise Lost—even books like Harry Potter, a little bit less of a “task” to read—I have no regrets. I did it. I read the words, entered the world, took my part in the story, added my voice, and thoroughly enjoyed it (even when I came across words like apozemical).

As I write this I am sitting on the floor in between bookshelves in one of those buildings that are testaments to the wonders of literature—a library. Books of all sizes and colors and topics, each with its own story, surround me, and though I will sadly never read them all, I feel a sort of kinship to each one. I know that if I were to pick up any one of them, crack open its cover, and begin reading, that book would allow me to enter its world as a partner in its authorship.

A movie is a two-and-a-half-hour performance where I can tune out the world and relax. A video game lets me in a little bit deeper by allowing me to press a few buttons that result in the death of an Orc or a sword fight here and there. But it is the book…and only the book…that fully engages the mind, calling me to enter into its story, and at the same time allowing me to work at telling my own.

Why Write Books at All? A Case in Favor of It

Last week I offered a case against writing books in this new era. This week I want to give some reasons for continuing to write in spite of the obstacles that stand in the author’s way. Here are some things that keep me writing:

1. I Want to Play.

Picture a Little League baseball team. Twelve players are on the team, but only nine can be on the field at one time, with the other three sitting in the dugout. “Please let me go in, Coach!” pleads one boy who has spent too many innings sitting out. “I’m ready! I’ll give it all I’ve got! I want to play!

In the world of writing, I am that player. I want to be in there playing with ideas, telling stories, taking part in the conversation. I have sat in the dugout long enough, watching the other players, thinking, I could do that too, if only I got the chance. I want to write!

2. I Love the Connection Writing Can Form with a Reader.

The most magical aspect of writing for me, especially when I write novels, is the idea that a story that once played only inside my own head like a private movie now also plays in the heads of readers.

I spent many years writing my first novel, Song of Fire, creating a world filled with people and places that only I knew. I remember how strange it seemed at first when the book was finally published and readers would ask me about certain scenes and characters. My first thought would always be, how do you know about that? Who told you? I felt as if the person had entered my private realm, almost as if they were walking around in my brain. It was disconcerting at first, but of course it’s the whole idea of writing. As a reader, I can connect not only with living writers, but also with authors who have been dead for decades or centuries. I love the idea that Continue reading

Why Write Books at All? A Case Against It

Is writing books still worth the effort?

I know writers at every level who are asking that question, from new writers I meet at writers conferences to authors with multiple published books. This week I will make a case against writing a book, and next week I will make a case in favor of it. Please jump in with your own ideas or considerations I may have overlooked.

Here are some reasons not to write a book:

1. The Market is Already Flooded.

For me, this is one of the most discouraging reasons of all. Bowker, the organization that publishes Books in Print, reports that 347,178 new books were published last year in the United States. Let that sink in for a moment. Picture 10 books lined up in front of you. Now picture 100. Now 1,000. Now try to see a warehouse filled with 100,000. Now triple that. And you want to pour out your heart and soul to add one more book to that enormous pile?

The statistics are actually even more daunting than I have indicated. More than a million additional public domain books and reprints were also published last year, so a writer of a new book has to compete with those too. If you want to look at the figures for yourself, see the article on Bowker’s website here.

Of course I am mentioning only the books published in 2011. Let’s not even think of the millions of books published in the years and decades and centuries before that, or the ones that continue to pop up every day.

2. In the New World of Publishing, Books are Devalued.

Thanks to how easy and inexpensive it has become to publish e-books, books are no longer the valuable, prized possessions they used to be. Right now I couldn’t even tell you how many unread free downloaded books I have sitting in my Kindle. I don’t even recall the titles or authors of half of them. Those books are in addition to the many other impulse-buy 99-cent books that are there, along with a smattering of $2.99 books that I haven’t yet opened. This trend toward cheaper books is good for consumers in a way, but if a book costs about as much as a medium soda, will I value it about that much? What message does that send to publishers and readers about how much authors should be valued?

I remember when buying a book took a greater amount of thought and deliberation and even financial sacrifice than it does now. When my favorite authors came out with new books, I often wanted them right away, so I would Continue reading