Friday, June 10, 2011

The Writer's Fantasy

Hey, writer: what's your fantasy?

Spielberg calls and wants to adapt your story for his next blockbuster, which is guaranteed to win both critical acclaim and bonanza bucks.

A publisher calls: she wants the story you're struggling with AND has developed technology that can lift it directly from your brain onto the page so that the story is in the perfect form you imagine it to be, not the slightly altered form that you're capable of actually writing IF you were actually capable of writing it and not stuck, yet this form of ESP is enough work on your part that you will also get to bask in the glow of work that's hard but not too hard.

Whew. Neurotic much?

OK, so what I experienced this week isn't perhaps a writer's ULTIMATE fantasy, but it's close.

The rejection was wrong. It was all a mistake! They want it after all!!

Actually, the mistake was probably mine. In the past 18 months, I had submitted (according to my spreadsheet) three pieces to this journal. In April, I received the third rejection. It was their really nice rejection, very encouraging, but it unmistakeably said "no."

I try for humility but I am not immune to the writer's ego, so I was (ahem) mildly perplexed at this disagreement. The story I had submitted had received some recognition (though not publication, sigh) previously. I was proud of it. The journal I had targeted was really its perfect destination -- the subject matter fit, the revelations fit, the themes fit.

And yet: the rejection. Nobody's favourite thing. However, I'm getting enough of them that I am increasingly philosophical. Lots of good writing is out there, making the rounds. This piece will find its home. Something will appear. Blah blah "positive self talk" blah.

I also joked, semi-seriously, with my sister and husband and a writer-friend or two: "What is not to love about this piece? What is wrong with this crazy, crazy world?" That kind of thing. However, and this is important to me, I tried really hard to allow for differences of opinion about the fit between this piece and the journal -- without making either of us wrong.

Then, this email from that journal offering publication, with a contract, even!! The rejection had been for a different piece, something I'd submitted long ago.

Rejoicing ensued.

The publication credit itself will be great, and when it's closer to time, you can bet I'll do some shameless self-promotion.

Truthfully, though, I'm most happy that I was able to continue to believe in the piece and in my judgment for sending it to that journal, even when I thought the journal disagreed.

Because publication isn't about a fickle finger of fate in an insane world. It's about human choices. Humans make choices, and other humans disagree, and nobody has to feel embarrassed or talentless or stop writing or putting out publications, and nobody is wrong, and let's join hands and sing kum bah yah.

We want the same thing, whether we come at it from the writing or publication side: we want good, solid writing to be available to thoughtful readers who are interested in expanding their horizons.

Maybe THAT is my ultimate fantasy.
Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Lessons from The West Wing

Ahh, The West Wing. I won't even try to explain why I have been watching the entire series from start to finish. It's not as if my life is devoid of other tasks. And it's not as if I've been watching episodes 24/7, either: just regularly. And often.

I also don't know why, when I need to rejuvenate my introverted self by spending some time away from people, I want to spent time with some of the talkiest, most egotistical, and most challenging "people" on the planet. Okay, I really do know that answer, or at least partly. I want to because I learn about writing.

Here are just some of the things I've learned.

1. The characters are active. I started to say "stuff happens," but it "happens" because the characters make it happen. "Stuff" doesn't just rain down from the heavens.

When the President experiences angst, it's because he's just authorized the assassination of the Qumari Defense Minister or he's about to get called out for not telling voters he had MS. CJ says something damaging at a press conference and hates herself for it. For about ten seconds. Then they suck it up and do other stuff.

On the show, people are engaged in what they're doing. Characters are gleeful, frustrated, gloomy, hopeful, annoyed, you name it, because of events. Even when Toby is sitting in his office bouncing that ball, it's because he's done something, surprising stuff has happened in response, and he needs to spend time figuring out what to do next. Plus, that kind of reflection is pretty rare.

My take-away: make stuff happen. Rather, make your characters make stuff happen. Not every character can work in the White House. But every character can be engaged in doing something that is important to her. All those feely things, the angsty things, the observation-of-life things, are interesting because they come from action.

2. The show thinks I'm smart. Who doesn't love feeling smart? Not every part of every storyline is resolved or explained. I have looked up stuff from throwaway lines (Smoot-Hawley, anyone?) because I wanted to. The show posits a complicated universe. Good people are in situations where they have to choose a course of action (see #1) from among the least of several evils.

And speaking of complicated, the show finds some good in everyone. Only the rare antagonist is wantonly destructive. Even the Qumari Defense Minister looks like a normal visiting dignitary when he's in the Oval Office. (No horns!) In the show, the antagonists are the protagonists in their own stories -- their actions make sense to them. They want what they want because they want it, not because it's Donna's week to have a storyline and someone has to be mean to her.

Contrast this attitude toward smart viewers with any of today's police procedural-type shows. The "clues" to whodunnit are layered in early. Okay. But at the critical "figure it out" point, a character "remembers" that clue, and we see that shot all over again, possibly in black and white to show that it's just a memory, JUST IN CASE we don't make that connection. Y'all. I got it the first time, thanks.

My take-away: readers are smart, too. I'll likely never write a character who cusses out God, in UNTRANSLATED Latin, in the National Cathedral, or who argues in UNTRANSLATED Spanish with a visitor in the Mural Room. But it's okay to write about complicated people who do interesting things and run up against resistance from other complicated people who are doing their own interesting things. Readers can figure stuff out. And they LIKE to!

3. Communication is important. What's not to love about a show in which several of the main characters are speechwriters? And the ones who aren't write white papers, position papers, and memos? And every desk has a stack of reading material several feet high?

I love a world in which you see writers work, and their work is important. In one of the episodes about the creation of a State of the Union address, Communications Director Toby Ziegler is shown wandering the halls in the middle of the day. He mutters to himself, he knocks his knuckles against the glass cubicle walls, he stops to stare at nothing, he wanders closer to Josh's office. He goes in search of pie. He's writing. I recognize it immediately. And the speeches he and Sam write, with input from everybody, set policy. They are important.

I love that world because I love to imagine that writing is important in my world, too. Well, the writing I do as work is important to my clients, and it's important to me. I hope it's important to my client's customers, too.

Sometimes I know it is. Several years ago, I wrote a few things for a nonprofit group because I believe in the group and its work. Recently I was reminded of those pieces and was proud to see them again. Proud that the group wanted to re-use them, proud of the quality of the work, proud to remember that they had touched people and are out there again, possibly touching others.

My take-away: get back to work, and do your best work, whether it's your own creative work or work (also creative!) for a client.

Oh. Yeah. Back to work. Okay. What's next?