Long ago, a woman wrote to an advice columnist and confessed, "I don't love my husband. What should I do?"
Decades later, the columnist's savvy answer is still a huge part of my life as an author, writer, daughter, sister, aunt, neighbor and friend. It was so smart that John Mayer even turned it into a song.
Before I share the answer, let me ask you: Do you love telling stories?
Do you love commas?
Do you love getting rejected?
In the last ten years I've sold nine novels, one collection, and more than sixty short stories. My work has been featured in nationwide magazines, on the shelves of bookstores, in lists of award nominations and occasionally (delightfully) the list of the awards themselves.
My long, winding path to publication will continue to spool into the future, or will if I have anything to say about it. It's made of bricks (not necessarily yellow) and each brick was forged by something akin to love.
But not always love itself. In four words, the columnist taught me something very powerful. Love is a verb.
It's not something you feel. It's something you do.
Love is a tough, demanding, bossy verb that demands daily action.
Did you love today?
Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love), whose presentation about creativity and success is a must-see on TED.com, recently took issue with Philip Roth (more than fifty years of literary grandness) when he said writing is "torture." You can read about it in Avi Steinberg's column in The New Yorker online. I like Gilbert's optimism and Roth's grumpiness and Steinberg's idea that Roth is making a "serious joke" – that he is welcoming a new writer with irony.
Writing is not actually comparable to torture. But it's also not always pleasant. As far as I can tell, the road to a long life as a successful writer (loosely defined as not going financially, emotionally or mentally bankrupt) requires three levels of daily love:
1. Love storytelling.
Love the way you can fall into your imagined worlds and your characters so completely that you emerge and are astounded at time has slid by around you. Love how you can weave a narrative that snags your heart or grabs you by your brain stem and refuses to let go. Love that you are bringing something unique and never-before-seen onto our ephemeral, chaotic planet.
Sounds lovely (no pun intended). Hard to do, however, if you've been struggling for weeks, months or years on the same piece, lost in a quagmire plot with molasses pacing and characters who refuse to act in any rational way. Maybe you've shown it to your writers group and they hate it. Maybe you hate it, too. But hate is a verb, just like love, so turn that frown upside down – No, sorry, got distracted there by some feel-good advice.
No matter how we, no matter our motivation level for the day, no matter how many versions of the same piece are sitting on our hard drives, the verb "to love" means going to our stories with grace, compassion and forgiveness. It means giving ourselves permission to be wrong or impulsive or frustrated, because love includes all of these things.
2. Love writing.
Which is not the same as loving the rules of English. (Notice my sentence fragment?) In my composition classes, I work with many adult students who struggle with constructing sentences, using appropriate tenses, and avoiding other errors. Usage problems often make them anxious, but those problems don't actually stand in the way of successful storytelling.
In fact, in my workshops and critique groups, we don't comment on one another's spelling, grammar or other mechanics unless the situation is so dire that basic understanding is affected. One writer I met was extremely upset about this, because he was very keen on pointing out everyone else's comma errors. Unfortunately, exquisitely constructed sentences mean nothing if the story is dead behind it. Many writers I know can't spell or punctuate very well, but they have people who help them.
I digress. Loving writing can mean loving grammar, but moreover it means loving the way sentences, paragraphs and pages can delight the senses, dazzle the intellect or move us to great emotion. It means appreciating these gems in what we read (writers must be passionate readers as well) and seeking to create, revise and polish our own jewels as many times as necessary.
3. Love the publication process.
This is a hard one for me. As much as I delight in seeing my work in print, it can be torturous (sorry, Ms. Gilbert) to fling work into the ether, wait to see if it is accepted or rejected, and then repeat the cycle as often as needed. A former teacher's advice on this has saved my sanity more than once. He recommended staying so busy writing, revising and submitting that you don't have time to worry about the process. This worked – almost – when an editor who'd requested my first novel sat on it for two years before deciding to buy it.
Publication these days includes all sorts of options, each with its own advantages, disadvantages, joys and headaches: unresponsive editors, flighty publishers, scam agents, e-book conversion problems, bad cover art, etc. To approach the process with fear or loathing is to miss the opportunity to learn, grow and adapt to our modern ways of bringing stories to readers.
One important question remains: What do you do if you can't love? Perhaps your heart has shrunk, or been damaged, or is rusty from disuse. I doubt any of these things are true, but here's where the D word comes in. Discipline. You do it because sometimes we have to do the hard things whether we want to or not. R gives us good words, too. Ritual. Routine. These help ease our way (as long as we avoid Ruts).
And there's a Q word, too, but four-letter Q words have no place here. Save them for Scrabble.
Love is a verb, said that columnist so long ago. Verbs require action. As writers, we can choose to love all aspects of writing. We can practice love as hard as we can. Then, and only then, can we reap rewards from the place where dreams come true.
Sandra McDonald's first collection of stories, Diana Comet and Other Improbable Stories, was a Booklist Editor's Choice, an American Library Association Over the Rainbow Book and winner of a Lambda Literary Award. She is the published author of several novels and more than sixty short stories, and earned an M.F.A. in Creative Writing at the University of Southern Maine.
Four of her stories have been awarded the James A. Tiptree Award Honor List for exploring gender stereotypes. As Sam Cameron, she writes the Fisher Key Adventures for GLBTQ and allied teens. The first book in that series, Mystery of the Tempest, recently won a Silver Moonbeam award for YA literature. Her latest Sam Cameron book, Kings of Ruin, hits bookstands in March 2013.
Visit her at www.sandramdonald.com
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