Experimenting, On Manny, On Writing

Have Lots Going On: In Defense of Distraction

The New York Times’ Opinionator blog once again proves why it’s quickly becoming one of my favorite things on the internet. First time novelist and writing professor Benjamin Nugent writes in their “Draft” section (one that’s devoted entirely to writing) that the Luddite lifestyle he adapted when starting his MFA program in the rural midwest turned out to harm, not help, his writing. The whole piece, appropriately titled “Upside of Distraction” is sweet, sweet salve for a procrastinator’s guilt.

Writing a book consists largely of avoiding distractions. If you can forget your real circumstances and submerge yourself in your subject for hours every day, characters become more human, sentences become clearer and prettier. But utter devotion to the principle that distraction is Satan and writing is paramount can be just as poisonous as an excess of diversion. I tried to make writing my only god, and it sickened my work, for a while. The condition endemic to my generation, attention deficit disorder, gave way to its insidious Victorian foil: monomania.

He’s got a reassuring message for us writers with real world day jobs, too:

When good writing was my only goal, I made the quality of my work the measure of my worth. For this reason, I wasn’t able to read my own writing well. I couldn’t tell whether something I had just written was good or bad, because I needed it to be good in order to feel sane. I lost the ability to cheerfully interrogate how much I liked what I had written, to see what was actually on the page rather than what I wanted to see or what I feared to see.

Recently, I’ve noticed that my work in my nonfiction writing class and efforts as a newbie blogger have made me better at my real job. Maybe not substantively better, since it involves a very, very different kind of writing than what I do here or in class. But it’s made me better in terms of perspective, mindset and sanity. It’s like a friend once said to me when I was single and dating: “Have lots going on.” In other words, don’t hang your hopes and self-esteem on one pursuit (a creative or romantic one). Having lots going on outside my day job, real work I can see going somewhere and that I enjoy, helps ease the frustrations that come with any desk job. And when I feel as though I’m failing as a writer, or (most often) am beating myself up for not getting as much outside stuff done as I’d like — this blog post or that story pitch or that interview that would have made an assignment for class so much stronger — having a day job that’s often interesting and stimulating can be a cold, necessary reminder of what matters: it’s what’s affording me the luxury to do these things in this city in the first place. When you have lots going on, no one thing can be the measure of your worth.

Sidenote: Benjamin Nugent’s debut novel looks really good. Based on reviews, it’s family and character driven…probably the kind of thing they’d call “chick lit” if he weren’t a dude.

Chick-Lit, Experimenting, On Manny, On Women, On Writing

An experiment

I’m Manny. I’m not a male nanny, it’s short for Amanda. I’m a 26-year-old Washington, DC resident who has held various day jobs in journalism, but I’ve been told by a few pretty insightful friends that my true calling might be writing chick-lit.

At first, I was offended by this.

Sure, I’ve read my fair share of Jennifer Weiner and Emily Giffin. I adore all things Nora Ephron.  Feministing and Slate’s X Factor blog are mainstays of my Google Reader. I also have a sort of closet obsession with dating blogs that I don’t really like to talk about…

Writing about women and their experiences can sometimes involve talking about these things called “feelings.” Dissecting relationships (not just romantic ones). Exploring what it means to be human in an appealing, smart and hopefully not-too-precious sort of way. In real life, I do these things all the time. On the page, I mostly stick to facts, quotes from public officials and the inverted pyramid. And all literary hand-wringing about the term “chick-lit” aside, the truth is, I’ve been too embarrassed to admit that I might just have the “chick-lit” gene. My friends have called my bluff.

Watch me let my uncool, feeling-talking, sorta-girlie freak flag fly as I attempt what thousands before me attempt every November: 50,000 words in 30 days. I’ll post updates on my novel writing progress and include some links and thoughts on the writing, journalism, women and snark about trend stories about women. You’ll be keeping me accountable to my goal, and arming yourself with plenty of things to tease me about in the meantime. As if you needed any more.

Experimenting, Fiction, On Writing

The Writers Guide To Confidence (or This Is How You Fall In Love With Junot Diaz)

In theory, I’m going to review “chick-lit” novels in this space, dissecting the good from the way-too-Stilton-cheesy. But before I do that, I can’t help myself in writing a little about one of the things that 13503109inspired me to write a women’s fiction novel for NanoWriMo in the first place, and that something is a 40-something dimunitive Dominican anointed genius.

“But wouldn’t The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and Bridget Jones’ Diary make pretty strange bedfellows?” you ask.

Yes. Yes they would. Although now that I think about…that’d be a fun little writing exercise for another blog post…

I had put Junot Diaz‘ Wao down about midway through a month before I stumbled into his tent at the National Book Fair in September. I enjoyed Diaz’ bilingual wordplay and the book’s Dominican history lessons. But for some reason, I’d bored of the book’s narrative. After hearing him read aloud from his newer book, “This Is How You Lose Her” at the book fair, I picked up “Wao” again and finished it promptly: Diaz is just that engaging. Listening to him read from his books is visceral in a way reading the text is not: Oscar and Yunior’s cadences and rhythms and heart must be spoken to be fully realized, and only their creator can truly deliver. Diaz has a way with an audience, too; he allowed Q&A to take up the entirety of his allotted speaking time after the reading. At one point, a high school-aged girl took the mic and told Diaz that she was an aspiring writer, but she worried that everything she wrote sounded like somebody else.

Diaz dismissed her worries. All writers are derivative of someone else, he said. Then, he said — I’m paraphrasing very liberally here — “You have to read things and study them and you find yourself thinking ‘I can do this better or I can do this just as badly’.”

I can do this better or I can do this just as badly. It was kinda how I felt whenever my friends suggested I write chick-lit. I certainly don’t have that thought about say, Nora Ephron or Helen Fielding or Jennifer Weiner. I’d be lucky to write anything a fraction as well any of them. But some (not all)  women’s fiction on the shelves and on my Kindle today relies on cliches and tired tropes and unsophisticated narration. It’s certainly not Shakespeare, which makes trying a bit less intimidating.  I could do this just as badly.  Surely, I can’t be the only one who reads things and feels this way (right?)

And about a week or so ago I read a profile of an actress in a women’s magazine, and thought, I could do this better. Sure, I was biased because I like the actress and her work. But, really, a lot of us can do better than the standard intro describing the hotel lobby where writer meets celebrity, standard nut graph about the celebrity’s current hot projects, next standard graph about how “Oh my gosh she’s a size 2 but just ordered truffle fries and a Diet Coke!” and so on? (Note to any women’s mag editors who probably aren’t reading this anyway: Can we puh-lease change this tired formula? Kthx).

But once that phrase was in my head: I can do this better or just as badly, it seemed many things were at least worth a shot. Not every published writer is Junot Diaz or Zadie Smith or can write celebrity profiles like Chris Jones. But why not try, at least at first, to be among the not-so-great? It’s a little less scary. Once you’ve got some words on the page, once some work is done, then you try to be better.

To paraphrase the most beautiful line of “This Is How You Lose Her” — the half life of mediocrity doesn’t have to be forever.