Sunday, December 19, 2010

Keep Calm and Query On!

If you've read much of this blog, you know that Winston Churchill's slogan during the war, "Keep Calm and Carry On!" has become a rallying cry of sorts for us here.

Going through intense withdrawal from the car, the job, the microwave, the drying machine?

Keep calm and carry on!

Winter Vomiting Virus come to hang out with you for a bit?

Keep calm and carry on!

Your boiler breaks in the middle of the frigid winter, leaving your home heat-less and forcing you to camp out within your walls for a night?

Keep calm and carry on!

And it strikes me, now, that this is also excellent advice for a writer.

If you want to write, if you've dreamed of writing, or if you love the way words sweep, sleep, or creep together, then chances are you've hit your moments of crisis.

Perhaps you've hit that wall where you sit down at your computer, and all your brain can say to your fingers is: It ain't happening, today, man. No way, no how.

And even though you respond to your brain by saying, Hey, I promised myself I was going to at least get one page a day, no matter how terribly awful and dreadful the writing is, your brain simply lays back and falls asleep, while the little blinking cursor of Microsoft Word still mocks your efforts in perfect rhythm.

Or, maybe you've gotten those glorious 200 pages of a novel, and you've revised it, and you've reworked it, and then you've revised some more, and you've asked a friend who is also a writer to read it, and you've incorporated her revisions into further revisions, and then you look at it and you speak to it as if it were a real, live human: You exist! YES! You are here, all 200 pages of you!

But then, perhaps, agents and editors aren't--for some strange reason--as thrilled about your 200 pages as you are.

Or, perhaps you've crafted two novels, and both have been published. Yet you sit down again at the computer, and your brain still won't release the critical voices that would prefer you sit quietly and do something else with your time. For goodness sakes, clean out your belly button lint already, will you!?

Whatever form your writing foe takes, Keep calm and query on.

No matter how little you feel like it, no matter how futile it sometimes seems, you must keep writing. You must continue to send out queries. You must continue to make contact, believing that the words you scribe do possess all the possible power and beauty in them to affect one life.

One small life.

In one--just one--possibly big way.

When I was in my third year of teaching, I gave a novella assignment for my 11th grade students to complete. Over the course of three months, they would be required to write 70 pages of fiction.

They flipped.

I relished the chance to challenge them with something of which they thought themselves incapable.

But every one of them rose to the challenge. Week after week, they crafted their pages, brought them into our classroom, and we shared our woes, joys, hopes, and fears about writing with one another. I gave them the challenge because, Lord knows, I needed it myself.

Sometimes, the process of writing can become so mystified and covered in an aura of secretiveness, or placed on the top of some hierarchy, or portrayed as only accessible by the smartest, or the most educated, or the "talented" or the "gifted."

All of that is one load of crappola.

I would have to side with Toni Morrison on this front, when the Nobel-prize winning author powerfully claimed, "If anything I do, in the way of writing novels (or whatever I write) isn't about the village or the community or about you, then it is not about anything."

Some of the best stuff I have ever read wasn't produced in the highest escahalons of society, or by those who would seek to make a name for themselves for that purpose alone.

Indeed, to this day, the best poem I have ever read was one written by a previous 7th grade student of mine named Mike. He called it, "Walking at Night," and it moved me more deeply even than my other favorite poem, "When You Are Old," by the great Yeats himself.

All this is to say that to write you only need two things: a heart and a pencil. (Well, maybe a pair of hands and some paper would help. And while we're at it, throw in the brain, and a desk, maybe a room with a view...)

You do not need a degree. Indeed, one of America's greatest authors, Gore Vidal, never even graduated college.

You do not need permission. Indeed, many of the world's most powerful works were written by people who had teachers that told them they would never do anything of value.

You do not need money. Look at the words of Anne Frank--they burn with the fire of redemption and love, yet her room certainly had no veranda.

You do not even need praise (though if you are a writer, you certainly think you do). No matter what anyone says about your writing, there is only one person's opinion and voice that truly count: your own.

And should you choose to wade through the waters of fear, worry, criticism, and lack of discipline, you may find that the words you craft do, indeed, end up making a difference in one life.

And that life may be your own.

So yes: keep calm. When it seems a hopeless endeavor, and you're onto your fourth novel, and you feel like something isn't clicking...keep calm! Just keep writing. Keep reading. Let yourself continue to believe you need to create, and that the words you craft may, indeed, reach the village one day.

And yes: query on. When it seems that little you write makes an entry into the world, remind yourself that this is the case for all writers--even the truly remarkable ones. They craft pages and pages and pages that will never see the outside of a desk drawer, or a hard drive. Keep writing, and keep sending your work out into the world, whether to magazines, publishers, agents, or even the trees and the birds (more than a handful of poets have honed their own lines reading them aloud to, yes, the birds and the bees). Query on!

You never know when one word may meet another and start a relationship that just won't quit, and hey, don't you want to be around to watch what happens from there?