Friday, September 05, 2008

Funny Footnote to the Byron Katie Post

When I first discovered Loving What Is (below), I wanted to tell everyone. I started ordering books for people. But then I stopped out of some merciful realization that my well-meaning impulse might be insulting to others. As Byron Katie writes, "If you want to alienate your friends and family, go around saying 'Is it true?' or 'Turn it around" if they're not asking for your help . . .. It's uncomfortable to believe that you know more than your friends and to represent yourself as their teacher." Amen. So I stopped ordering books for people, but I did blog. :-)

The Best Book on Writers Block, Ever

I have a shelf full of books on writer's block. It is one of the key problems authors face in Booklab (though they rarely label it as such), and I'm honored whenever I can help. I've faced it myself, and I read whatever I can find on the subject. Many books are smart, interesting, informative and comforting, but for the most part they don't really change anything. They can lessen the burden, but none I have found truly lifts it.

Then I discovered Byron Katie's book Loving What Is. She's been around for years with a fascinating model for questioning your thoughts and freeing yourself from the tyranny of what she calls "your story," the litany of mind-pictures and words that make up what we call reality, whether present, past or future. To understand Byron Katie's Work (capital W, "The Work," the process for which she is known), read her books and also watch the helpful videos on her website that show it in action.

To my knowledge she doesn't address writer's block directly, but here's an example of how I observed The Work zapping blocks. She asks participants to write a judgmental statement (the harsher and more rudely honest the better), and then analyze it using her four questions and what she calls a "turnaround." [NB: Before trying this, please read the book and visit her website -- my thumbnail version is not sufficient!] Her four questions (1. Is it true? 2. Can I absolutely know that it's true? 3. How do I react when I believe that thought? 4. Who would I be without that thought?) effectively challenge the statement in a way that most people's minds can accept.

Statement: I have writer's block

Question 1: Is that true? (Yes, of course it's true)

Question 2: Can you absolutely know that it's true? (Well, no, not absolutely. But it feels true.)

Q2: I invite you to commit to a yes or a no. (Okay, no. No, I don't absolutely know that it's true.)

Question 3: How do you react when you believe that thought? (Depressed. Like there's no use. Lazy. Unworthy of my title or position in this university. Secretive. Sad. It makes me want to write even less.)

Question 4: Who would you be without that thought? (Wow, if I didn't have that thought? Much freer. Loose. Open. Unburdened. Happier. Able to write freely like I did when I was a kid.)

Turnaround: Now turn the statement around. [NB again: there are several ways she teaches you to do this, and I'm still learning how to do the turnaround] 1. I don't have writer's block (opposite of the statement); 2. (substituting the word "my thoughts" for "writer's block") I have my thoughts (or "I only have my thoughts" or "My thoughts have me.").

Byron Katie does NOT ask you to drop the thought "I have writer's block." Trying not to think about something doesn't work. Instead, she asks you to analyze it, to submit it to the rigor of the four questions and the turnaround. The more you shine light on this area of your own mind and your story that plays in your mind, the more you free your mind to drop the thought on its own.

The result? Nothing short of miraculous. Once I questioned my own self-analysis of writer's block, and once I began helping authors in this office question theirs (I don't try to be Byron Katie Jr., but I lead them to learn The Work directly from her), things changed. Writing began to happen because there was no Story saying that it shouldn't or couldn't or that we were good or bad people if we did or didn't do it. For my own part, I began writing more as I did as an unfettered teenager, when I poured out my thoughts in spiral notebooks and enjoyed the process for its own sake. It wasn't enough just to question the thought "I have writer's block," though. I had to question a whole host of persistent thoughts that made up My Story, the one I have carried around in my brain for so long. The Work is ongoing, and whenever writing stops for painful reasons, I will continue to do The Work on my thoughts.

Byron Katie likes to describe herself as "a woman without a future" because she has questioned the thoughts that used to lead her to write a Story in her mind about what the future will be. Having no future helps blocked writers as well, by guiding us to question the future-stories about what we're writing (this will be a bestseller, this has to satisfy my agent, this won't be crowd-pleasing enough, I have to earn a big advance, etc.). As writers without pasts, and without futures, we can just be, and thus unburdened, we can just write.

Will it be any good? Who knows? In a hundred years the world will be populated by all new people and it won't matter. But for right now writing is happening, and that's the first step, yes?

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Cary Goldstein's Talk -- the Reviews are in!

A record number of Georgetown faculty turned out to dine and chat with acquisitions editor and chief publicist (yes, both roles can reside in the same professional) Cary Goldstein from TWELVE. What struck many participants about Cary's talk was how affable he is, and how easy it was to communicate with him about books. The myth is that New York editors expect formal interaction and prefer stiff introductory letters that will make or break your case by paragraph two. The reality is that they're just people -- smart, well-read people with a lot of experience in publishing -- but human nonetheless, and a good deal more approachable than folks in many other professions. I've been getting e-mails all afternoon from faculty who were inspired by the event and who are interested in thinking about their work for a larger audience.

Academic vs. trade is an interesting choice. Most recently hired scholars choose academic for professional reasons (tenure), but that's not a sufficient reason to choose one press over another. Scholarly work should be crafted to speak to colleagues and to work beautifully within the university press publishing realm. Trade work -- even if based on the same research -- must be written differently, and operate in a way that meets the demands of a fickle and volatile book market. Cary emphasized the importance of the work itself -- not the pitch for the work, or the stature of the author, or the needs of the market, although all those elements are important -- but the art of the words on the page and the way they do their job.

As conceived by founding editor Jonathan Karp (the editor behind Seabiscuit and The Orchid Thief among many others) TWELVE only publishes twelve titles a year, so it is committed to a challenging combination of selectivity and success in a way that other presses are not. It can't hedge its bets by publishing 50 solid choices, and hoping that ten break out. Every book should pull its weight both in the intellectual arena of The New York Review of Books, the few other book reviews that are left (Cary cited NYTimes, Washington Post, and San Francisco Chronicle as the last three papers with separate book review sections, and I've heard the latter is in flux), in the intellectual blogosphere, and in the bookstore. It's an enormous challenge, and one that it was exciting to hear about from such an exceptional publishing professional and one of its two intellectual guiding forces.

Write your book in five (days, weeks, months) or less, guaranteed!

I confess to being occasionally charmed and even lured in by those "write quickly" schemes. They're all over the internet, but they've been with us forever -- smiling gurus promising that you can produce a draft of your nonfiction book or novel in a specified and seemingly short period of time.

To a certain extent I believe them. We make a much bigger fuss about writing than it actually deserves. Writing is really just a sibling to speaking, and many of us speak all the time -- eloquently -- about things we believe and care about. What you can say to a friend in a few hours of chat on a beautiful drive out into the country you can surely share on the page. Usually, however, something is lost in the communication between brain and page, and that's where I end up having a job to do. If writing were as easy as speaking we'd have a completely different set of books in the bookstore because there would be so much more available and (I suspect) the bar for publishing would become much higher. The more people who actually write their work, the better for letters generally, because the more there will be to choose from which would give editors the luxury of being even more selective. (which I love and to which I gladly pay subscription fees) is the best of these, to my eye. Mediabistro courses are taught by working professionals with exceptional credentials -- kudos to them for getting people who are fruitful in their chosen fields to teach -- and I've written here before about how much I enjoy them. Here are just some of the "write quickly" titles they offer: "Start (and Finish!) Your Screenplay in Three Months"; "Weekend Warrior: 2-Day Film School"; "Write Your Young Adult Novel in Three Months." (As a note, I only recommend their in-person courses. I took one online and it was dreadful, but the in-person ones have been amazing.)

What charms me about all of these "write quickly" schemes -- whether or not they completely work all of the time -- is that they kickstart amateurs into the world of working, professional writers. People who earn a living from their pens don't have the luxury of writers block or delayed projects that stretch on for years. Writers in history from Henry Fielding to Helen Fielding have understood the art of writing quickly and well. A poet friend of mine is currently writing a poem a day for a month, just to see if she can. Are they by definition either bad poems or good ones? Of course not -- they're just words, and as such some will "work" and some won't, but they're as valid as any other poems she writes. It's a marvelous scheme.

But of course this leads to a touchy question -- can you write and publish serious academic work quickly as well? I believe you can, and that many of the best-published scholars do. The trick, however, is to have a rich fund of ongoing research upon which to draw so that you are regularly plucking the fruit of it and offering it up as conference papers, articles, and books. There is a certain bravery to simply getting the idea out there and sharing it with colleagues without slaving over it for years. In future posts I'll ponder scholarly books that were written (relatively) quickly and also managed to be very good or even excellent.