Monday, March 11, 2013

Literary Mood Swings

As kids’ book writers, when we think conference, we usually think NCTE, SCBWI, IRA, or ALA.  Now that I teach at the Low Residency MFA Program in Creative Writing at Lesley University in Cambridge, MA, I’m also a member of AWP (the Association of Writers and Writing Programs).  Last week I went to my first AWP conference—a crazy confab of over 550 readings and panels with 12,000 writers spending four days trying to find connections, inspiration, and bathrooms at Boston’s Hynes Convention Center.    

Writing for young people is a relatively new addition to MFA programs so the proportion of programming devoted to our genre is much smaller.  I also noticed that many of our sessions were the first and last of the day, seemingly less desirable times.  Interpret that as you will.

Hating Your Writing: A Love Story didn’t have a children’s book author on its panel, but still seems a useful discussion for any of us. Five poets and prose writers (Richard Bausch, Molly Peacock, Daniel Nester, Melissa Stein, and Chuck Sweeney) discussed that hideous moment when your euphoric assessment of your draft somehow plummets from brilliance to dross upon the next reading.  What are these literary mood swings?  Is there ever an upside? Can dejection lead to breakthroughs and better writing? 

If any of these writers were feeling literary despair on Saturday, they kept it to themselves.  Instead they tried to share their insights on managing the emotional ups and downs of creative life.  Here are some of their points that struck me:

Chad Sweeney likened these emotional downswings to exhaustion, then commented that exhaustion is sometimes a healthy reaction, especially if you are trying to write to anticipated criticism or expectations or in a style that once fed you but no longer does so.  It can be a sign you have to figure out how you’ve gone off course—dig in or dig out—and come up with something new.

Melissa Stein suggested that there are two types of internal critics: one is discerning and can make helpful comments you should consider, the other is the bad parent (think Joan Crawford in Mommy Dearest) who insists you don’t even have the talent or right to tell this story.  Give yourself the time and space to figure out which critic is in your head and act accordingly. 

Richard Bausch spoke like a veteran.  He said it’s working that is important.  Put in the time and at the end of the day, ask yourself, “Did I work?”  If the answer is yes, you’ve accomplished your goal.  Develop a sense of calm; you can’t mess your writing up because you can always do over.  If all else fails, lower your standards and keep on going.  Remember, revision is all.

Molly Peacock agreed.  Keep your standards high and your expectations low; it helps you keep going.  But allow room for dormancy; it’s all right to walk away for a while with the intent of returning.  Furthermore know yourself and how to interpret your energies and feelings.  Peacock is a morning writer.  As a result, she refuses to make any judgments or decisions about her writing after 3 p.m.

Donald Nester said he sometimes gets unstuck by changing the form that he’s writing in a little.  Let yourself get lost again and something new might happen. Even journaling can transform material into the nugget you need to find your way.

Other miscellaneous tips:

--Be kind and compassion, give yourself permission to fail by reaching into new areas.

--Create the conditions you need for good writing--good food or walks--anything that makes you feel more open and engaged and closer to the source.

--Banish the critic and get it out there.  Then draft by draft by draft, things proceed toward grace.

--If you can’t turn off the critical voice, acknowledge it and go on.

--Always remember, things may not be as bad as you think.  Vladimir Nabokov dumped his manuscript of Lolita in the garbage, only to have it rescued by his wise wife. In other words, wait a week and read it again.


Cheryl Harness said...

a good & worthy post, Ms. Susan. That last passage was right on the money: at the very least, get a good night's sleep before casting your work [or yourself] out the window.

Susan E. Goodman said...

Thanks, Cheryl. I have tried, at least, to wait before doing myself bodily harm. With my work, not as always as patient.