Writing

The Un Cover Letter

frustrated-writerI guess it's fair to say I've been feeling a little frustrated lately. I've been struggling to settle into a new writing project. For once, I'm actually happy with my day job, but I don't derive much satisfaction from it. I've gotten to a point in life where I've achieved a measure of contentedness but lack direction. I guess you could say I don't have a real sense of purpose at the moment. Anytime I start feeling this way--it comes at least once a year, generally--I start flailing about and trying to figure out how to completely change everything. Once, that resulted in my joining the Peace Corps. Another time, it resulted in me going to grad school. And for about three years in a row, it meant that I applied to a bunch of writing fellowships and residencies and was summarily rejected from all of them. Somewhere, in the midst of all the application-filling-out and cover-letter-writing, I felt the need to blow off a little steam. Here's the result.

Dear Selection Committee:

I am not writing to apply for the 2014-2016 Big Deal Fellowship. I mean, honestly? I know what you're thinking. You’re thinking, Ah, perfect, cover letter number 13,472 telling me why some schmuck is an ideal candidate for this fellowship, remind me again why I volunteered to be on this selection committee when I could be mainlining the last season of Scandal? But good news: This isn’t a cover letter, and I’m not going to brag about my short story publications (there are only three, anyway; like that’s impressive?) or tell you about the residencies I’ve landed (zero) or detail my teaching experience (almost nonexistent!). I’m not going to convince you that you should choose me over every other, probably more qualified, applicant.

Because let’s face it: You could do better. It’s not like I’ve written over half a novel by consistently dragging my ass out of bed every morning between 5:30 and 6 a.m. just so I can squeeze in a couple hours of writing time before I shuffle off, bleary-eyed, to my full-time job. And even if that were the case, I certainly don’t stay at my desk, chipping away at paragraphs for eighty-nine minutes until, in that ninetieth minute, I finally, finally feel like I’ve hit my stride—only to look at the clock and realize, as usual, that the moment I have become fully submerged in the world I’ve created, oh look, time to get in the shower so I’m not late for work. Certainly not. So why on earth would I try to make you understand how valuable the simple gift of time would be to me? It wouldn’t. I’ve got all the time in the world! Seriously, besides my job, I’ve got no obligations. No second job as a freelance writer, no family or friends to attend to, no bills to pay. It’s a free and easy lifestyle for this slacker.

What’s more, I hate kids. I say this only because of the whole teaching component of the fellowship. I guess college students don’t really count as “kids,” but they’re close enough to give me the creeps. All that idealism and interest and enthusiasm—ugh. I got saddled with a teaching internship as a graduate student, and let me tell you: Having to twist myself into a knot to come up with ways to allow the students to build from what they knew to what they didn’t? That was no walk in the park. That class was an Intro to Literature class, full of non-majors; can you think of anything worse? Because it’s not like I believe that helping students develop an aptitude for creative writing could possibly engage them more deeply in their other studies.

And like I even have a project to work on during this fellowship. It’s not like I have a plan to finish a full draft of my first novel by February, send it to a handful of trusted readers, and be ready to revise, equipped with feedback, by the time this fellowship rolls around, aiming to complete a polished manuscript during my stay at Big Deal College. Like I’m that forward-thinking. Please, I’ve barely written two pages of a novel that borrows devices from horror fiction to tell a story set in rural Alaska about a fourteen-year-old girl who ############* while struggling to find her place in the male-dominated world of dog sled racing. You’re on crack, Selection Committee.

I’ve taken up enough of your time, trust me. I’m not even going to get into how my happiest and most productive time was the year I served as the fiction editor for The Greensboro Review, how working with emerging writers to revise and prepare their stories for publication was maybe the most fulfilling job I’ve ever had, or how thrilled I was to find out that this fellowship includes an opportunity to work on creative and editorial projects for The Big Deal Review. You don’t need me to kiss your ass, and I don’t need your fellowship. So we’re good.

Sincerely, Jamey Bradbury

*Plot spoiler has been redacted

Freedom Is Overrated: On limitation as a catalyst for creativity

the-exorcist-pea-soupA couple months ago, I walked out of my local movie theater and into a dusky night, chatting with my friend about the movie we’d just seen, when I noticed a man walking behind us. A little thrill danced up my spine. The next morning, I would discover that my friend had noticed the guy, too, and had the same two thoughts I’d had:  He’s following me and I wonder if anyone else can see him? The movie we’d just seen was It Follows, and our sudden paranoia came from the film’s plot—a simple concept that finds the protagonist followed by a ghoul that can take the form of anyone (living, dead, strangers, people she knows). That’s it. It’s just a ghost, and it follows her around—and it’s the most unnerving horror movie I’ve seen in a good handful of years.

In a lot of ways, It Follows is a throwback to the movies made during a period I think of as horror film history’s “sweet spot”:  from 1968, when Rosemary’s Baby hit theaters, to about 1982, when John Carpenter gave us The Thing and Stephen Spielberg teamed up with Tobe Hooper for Poltergeist. The movies made during this period have a lived-in, authentic feel that modern movies don’t quite deliver. Even with ghosts invading The Fog’s Antonio Bay and John Hurt giving birth to an eyeless, silver-toothed squid in Alien, movies from that era manage to feel realer to me than anything studios have come out with in the last twenty-odd years.

In his excellent book on this period of horror movie-making, Shock Value, Jason Zinoman provides a clue to why I find the scary movies of the 1970s and ’80s so effective. “[Special] effects back in the seventies were expensive and what was possible was limited,” he writes. “[…] There was an element of innocence about the business in the low-budget films of the seventies that allowed the directors to do things differently, to take chances and try crazy ideas.”

Or to put it another way:  Cool shit happens when you’re faced with limitations.

In the horror movies of the ’70s and ’80s, limitations of budget, technology, and the experience of young filmmakers led to both authenticity and creativity. The special effects back then weren’t always so special. The pea soup that demon-Regan vomits in The Exorcist, for example, flowed through a tube attached to Linda Blair’s mouth, whereas nowadays, FX teams would digitally add green spew in post-production. But the hands-on, jury-rigged, soup-out-of-a-tube method allowed for an in-the-room realness CGI could never conjure:  When the pea soup shot across the room and hit actor Jason Miller (as Father Karras) in the face (instead of the chest, like it was supposed to), his disgusted, shocked reaction is 100% genuine. The honesty of his surprise reverberates from the screen and becomes a way of drawing the viewer into the scene more deeply.

Zinoman also points out that limitation can be a catalyst for outside-the-box thinking. In some ways, the young filmmakers behind Jaws and The Texas Chainsaw Massacre were tumblr_m7wqe0PEri1ql8mddo1_500limited by their own inexperience. But, as Zinoman points out, the fact that Wes Craven didn’t know what a dolly was or how to use one meant that he used a handheld camera, instead, to film The Last House on the Left, giving the film a documentary feel that made it one of the most gut-wrenching films audiences had ever seen. Steven Spielberg didn’t initially set out to keep the shark in Jaws hidden for most of the movie, but when the mechanical shark created for the film kept malfunctioning, the director was forced to shoot scenes without it. Not only did not seeing the shark intensify a sense of dread and suspense in the audience, but it forced Spielberg to figure out how to use his camera to convey movement and point of view in a way that’s now studied by film scholars.

This is the advantage of limitation:  When you’ve got an obstacle, you’ve got to find a way around it. A lot of times, the solution ends up being more interesting than anything you’d planned on doing before you discovered something standing in your way.

*

Robbie Pickering: You get creative with what you actually have. Limitations are actually great.

David Huntsberger: But do you limit yourself in script writing? Like, “I want to write one where it takes place way out in space…” Or I know I have no money, so I’ll cram a guy into his apartment, there’s no location changes, not a big cast.

Pickering: …I think it’s good to do that…I think sometimes putting those limitations on yourself in writing can help.

- From Professor Blastoff, episode 206

In theory, writing should be the easiest thing in the world. All you need is a piece of paper, a pen, and an idea. But the apparent ease of writing doesn’t account for the fear that 99% of people feel when faced with the dreaded Blank Page. I feel it. Every time I sit down to write something new—be it a short story, a book, the chapter of a book, the first sentence on a new page—I stare at the vast expanse of blankness and think, Why is this so hard? Just write words, dummy!

But Zinoman’s got the answer to this mystery, too:  “A little freedom can be a good thing, but too much can paralyze.”

If you can do anything, how do you know where to start? When micro-budget filmmaker Robbie Pickering recently visited the hatch on the Professor Blastoff podcast, he talked about how small budgets and limited access to equipment often result in better or more creative filmmaking. “I hate having that much freedom…I actually think all the bells and whistles, it gets to a point where, if you can have everything you want, it’s actually not as good—you don’t get as creative.”

Limitation: Not only does it foster creativity; it can lessen the fear and paralysis of unlimited possibility.

But the difference between filmmaking and fiction writing, as Professor Blastoff’s David Huntsberger alluded to, is that when you’re making a movie, the parameters are usually set for you by an outside source. The era you live in hasn’t developed CGI yet, or you’ve got a set budget, or you have to get all your principle shooting done in so many weeks. When you write a story or a novel, though, no one’s setting limitations on you. So you’ve got to create your own.

Another way of thinking about limitations is in terms of rules—and people who write science fiction and fantasy, in particular, are probably acutely familiar with the importance of establishing the rules of how things work when building a world. But even if you’re writing a realistic drama set in the modern-day real word, you have to establish certain rules—and, in doing so, you begin to place limitations on your characters, and yourself, that can create obstacles, advance the plot, and lead to ideas that end up surprising you.

improve-my-writing-skills-bear-attackSometimes, the very circumstances of your initial idea create their own limitations. When I started writing my first novel, I knew the main character would be a thirteen-year-old girl who lived in rural Alaska. This established several limitations immediately:  My protagonist couldn’t run to a neighbor’s house for help if someone was coming after her. The setting and climate meant she faced obstacles (intense cold; wild animals) anytime she stepped foot outside. Even her age created difficulty: one major hurdle she faces throughout the book is how often her own actions result in her father grounding her or the local school threatening to suspend or expel her.

Setting limitations isn’t just about the nuts and bolts of plot, though. It can foster creativity in prose, too. Another limitation I gave my protagonist—who also happens to be the narrator of her own story—was her voice. She has a very particular way of speaking and of seeing things. Nearly everything she cares about is related to the natural world; nearly everything she’s learned has come directly from the time she’s spent outdoors. Having established this, I knew there were certain references she’d never make, certain modes of description she wouldn’t have access to. This meant that there were a lot of things I couldn’t write, and a lot of old writing tricks I couldn’t rely upon. But it also forced me to really think about how my protagonist would interpret the world—the comparisons she would make, the metaphors she would come up with. Limitation, as a result, forced me to break free of certain tics I’d developed over time and helped enliven my writing.

So this is what I do now when I’m confronted with a blank page:  I take something away. I say no. I take a look at the idea I have and I ask myself, “How can I make circumstances more limited for this character?” Another way of phrasing the question might be:  “How can I make things worse?” Because if you ever seen a horror movie, you know things are going to get worse before someone figures out how to escape the serial killer, how to exorcise the demon, how to banish the poltergeist. The phone is going to go dead. The killer is going to turn out to still be alive. Every room is going to be locked, and ever road is going to be a dead end. All the options will be taken away, and that’s when things will start to get interesting. That’s when the cool shit happens.

The Worst Advice

Woman reading a bookThere was one thing that used to drive me nuts about my old job in Vermont. For two years, I worked for the novelist John Irving as his “literary assistant.” The job mostly consisted of transcribing the handwritten pages of the novel and screenplays he was working on, but there was also light filing, emailing, scheduling, trip planning, and errand-running to do—typical office-type chores that I neither particularly looked forward to nor really minded taking care of. I also opened his fan mail and typed up his responses to those letters. This task could be a lot of fun, especially when the letters were from young readers. I could imagine my high school self feeling compelled to write to John after having read The World According to Garp for the first time (something I never actually did). Letters from teenagers who’d just finished A Prayer for Owen Meany or kids who wanted to know why John had left certain parts out of his adapted screenplay for The Cider House Rules were sweet and enthusiastic, full of a guilelessness the letters from adults rarely possessed.

A good percentage of those young letter-writers, of course, wanted advice from John about how to be a writer. This is what drove me nuts—not the request for advice, but John’s response. He’d offer pretty typical words of wisdom (write as much as you can, write about what interests you). But, more often than not, he’d throw in one last recommendation, which boiled down to: Read everything you can now because when you become a writer, you won’t have time to read.

Arrghh! What?! This is the piece of advice that would send me up the wall. What kind of maniac tells kids to read now because writers don’t read? Also, it was a bald-faced lie: John read. I’d seen evidence of it. Hell, I’d picked up novels from the local bookshop for him, and I kept his magazine subscriptions current, and I’d had conversations with him about things he was reading!

And while I wasn’t a successful, published novelist whose schedule was filled with speaking engagements and book tours and research trips, I was still technically also a writer—I was working on my first novel at the time—and I read. I read a lot. On one hand, I had the time; I was far away from family and friends and lived in a very quiet town, so I filled the hours by reading, managing to get through 85 books in two years. On the other hand, I had arguably less time than John, considering I was not only chipping away at my own book but working a semi-full-time job, plus picking up ten to twenty hours a week waiting tables at a local restaurant. And I still managed to read, Irving.

It took two more years after my tenure as John’s assistant, but eventually I finished my novel—just this February, in fact. As a self-imposed deadline loomed during those last few months of writing, everything that wasn’t novel-related fell by the wayside, especially extracurricular reading. “The problem with writing your own book is you stop reading other people’s books,” I grumbled on Librarything, where I keep a record of what I read every year. That was in May, a full three months after I’d finished writing; by this time, I was revising my manuscript. Still, I figured my illiteracy was a result of the concentrated effort I was putting forth: If I wasn’t cramming to get revisions done by a certain time and using all my free hours to revise, I would have taken some time to read.

Sure enough, once revisions of my own book were finished and I entered the “wait and see” phase of trying to get something published, I started reading again. See, I mentally chided my former employer as I turned a page of Kelly Braffet’s Save Yourself. You can too be a writer and still read plenty!

But something strange was happening when I read now. My eyes continued to skim through sentences, and words seemed be registering in my head, but my brain wasn’t processing the information. Instead, my gray matter had absconded with the grain of an idea and was batting it around like a kitten with a ball of twine. While I was ostensibly following the plot some other writer had developed, really I was gnawing on the tender bones of my own story ideas.

I’d refocus and try again. Digest two or three pages—sometimes I managed as many as five!—then find that my mind had wandered once more. After a while, I’d give up, close the book, and sit, thinking instead of reading.

I decided once I started a new project, this would stop. I’d treat my brain like a toddler: give it something fun to do, let it run around till it wore itself out, then take advantage of its mellowed state to get some reading done. I started a short story, then did some free-writing, played around with what I thought might be something longer. But my toddler-brain was indefatigable. It couldn’t settle down; I told it that reading time was quiet time, and it laughed in my face and went chasing after a squirrel.

What’s more, it wasn’t just my reading that suffered. I’d get through an entire podcast episode before realizing I had no idea what I’d just listened to because I’d started piecing together the bits of plot that were nibbling at me. I missed scenes of my favorite television shows because I’d started thinking about how to get through a conflict between characters.

But reading was the worst, especially if I was trying to read something good. Every sentence that dazzled me made my fingers itch for my keyboard; every passage of brilliant prose had me squirming, desperate to get to my desk. Why, why, why was I reading someone else’s writing when I ought to be working on my own?

This, I now realize, might have been what John meant when he told young writers to get all their reading done early. It’s not that there wouldn’t be time to read once they started filling their days with their own writing. It’s that when you make writing a significant part of your life, you develop an itch that won’t go away, no matter how often or hard you scratch it. You can soothe the itch for awhile—a couple hours at your laptop or with your pen in hand acts as a balm—but pretty soon the itch comes back.

Picking up a good novel or short story becomes akin to walking through a patch of poison ivy. You see the end result of the hours another writer has spent toiling over words, and no matter how frustrating your time at your desk was that day, you want to go back because the thing you’re reading is proof that you can get there—you can create something worth reading. Now that I've finished writing my own book, writing feels more than ever like a drug. Someone else’s words trigger the memory of the high I used to feel after a good day’s work, when the words snapped together like magnets and I actually seemed capable of writing exactly what I wanted to write. If I could feel that way again—if I could be writing—why would I want to do anything else?

So, in his way, John was right. If you write, you can’t read. I have been reading, lately. I just finished The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett, and before that I read Stephen King’s new book, and I’m about to start a novel by Roxanne Gay called An Untamed State. I’ve even been paying attention to what I’ve read. But I haven’t been writing. I took an unplanned two-week hiatus from this blog, and I haven’t been toying around with any fiction. I’m in a dormant period, I suppose—letting the field lay fallow so the soil can become rich again. So something can grow again. I like to think that when the next good idea catches hold and I’m waking every morning eager to get back to my desk, I’ll still manage to sit down with a good book once in a while—even if I can only manage a few pages before I realize I’d rather be writing.

Lost in Translation

Erika_9_typewriterEvery time I go for a run, I think about Stephen King’s The Tommyknockers. It’s not particularly good. I only read it once, probably around age fifteen or sixteen, and I don’t remember much about it, except that it involved aliens, and Jimmy Smits played the protagonist in the movie version. Honestly, the single detail from that book that stands out at all is the typewriter. It’s an invention put together by the Jimmy Smits character, a writer who becomes possessed by aliens (I think) and begins to create all kinds of contraptions, including a typewriter that’s capable of understanding exactly what he wants to write and how he wants to write it, then does the work for him. I would kill for that typewriter.

Last night, I watched the movie The Hours for the first time in years. I discovered that it’s really overwritten, with characters philosophizing and despairing and talking at each other in a way that no one ever actually talks. But there’s a part where the Ed Harris character, a poet, says, “I wanted to be a writer, that's all. I wanted to write about it all. Everything that happens in a moment. […] And I failed. I failed. No matter what you start with it ends up being so much less.”

That’s why, when I run, that typewriter pops into my head. I try not to think when I run. I breathe, and watch the snow fall, and let my feet touch the ground in time with the beat of music in my ears. But you can’t shut the brain off. It chatters. Nonsense, worries, lists of things to do and places to go.

Or sometimes it works with an actual purpose: I begin to think about something I want to write. Running, it all seems clear. I can find the words—not because I actually find them while I run, but because the feeling of what I want to write is clear, and that clarity makes the right words seem possible. I can hold two, three, twenty, a hundred thoughts and feelings in my head simultaneously. All the everything that Ed Harris talked about: all of it mixed up, impossible to pull apart. I run, and my brain churns, and it seems easy. It's all there. Just go home and put it on paper.

But it’s never that easy. The minute I try to put into words whatever it was that seemed so clear while my shoes pounded pavement and the breath rushed in and out of my lungs, I start to fail. That’s the hardest part about writing. The translation of what’s in your brain to words on paper—words that other people will (hopefully) read and not just understand but know, down to their bones. As with any translation, though, something is always lost.

Language isn’t always enough. Which is why it’s exciting when you do read something that exactly captures a feeling or a thought or a way of seeing the world that resonates—that makes you feel like someone crawled inside your head and translated what they found there and got it exactly right. There’s joy in discovery, too, of lighting upon a new way to think about something. But I think that feeling of recognition is the greatest triumph of good writing. It’s the thing that makes it possible for reader and writer to understand each other—for us to speak the same language.

A message from Overwriters Anonymous

man_looking_at_stack_of_papersMy name is Jamey, and I have Word Count Anxiety. Right now, I should be writing an article about preparing older siblings for a new addition to the family. I am 431 words into an article that needs to come in under 600, and I've only gotten about halfway through all the helpful hints and pieces of advice I've gleaned from my sources.  How do I know I'm 431 words in?  Microsoft Word tells me.  The Word Count feature takes up less than a centimeter at the bottom of my screen, but it might as well be as big as that billboard in Times Square that's featured in every movie that's taken place in New York City, ever. I type, "Include older siblings in planning and preparing," but all I see is YOU'VE ONLY GOT 150 WORDS LEFT, YOU FREAKING WINDBAG.

I'm aware that I could turn off the Word Count feature. But tell me, if you can, how I turn off my brain. The most prominent symptom of Word Count Anxiety, sadly, is a persistent paranoia that reminds you every word you type is one word closer to hitting your max, and no matter what it looks like on the screen, you've probably already gone over. I start a new paragraph and cringe. I look at my notes and launch into the next subhead, and I physically squirm in my seat:  Hooooooow am I going to keep this thing under 2000 words, much less 600?!

Knowing that I can edit a piece down doesn't help. The second symptom of Word Count Anxiety is the certainty that whatever you write is there for eternity. No matter how many times you go back through your article, no matter how ruthlessly you cut, the Word Count feature will always, always read 610, or 605, or 602, or 601 -- but never, never, NEVER 600.

Common side effects of Word Count Anxiety include dramatic sighing; hair pulling; frequent consultations of the thesaurus to confirm your suspicion that there exists no single word to convey the suggestion that mothers breastfeed their infants while simultaneously allowing their toddlers to sit by their sides, reading pictures books, so as to make said toddlers feel included and attended to; and procrastination (hence this post).

Early warning signs of Word Count Anxiety include the apocryphal stories your parents tell about how you were SUCH a jabberbox when you were a small child. I can border on downright taciturn now, but to hear my parents talk, I never shut up before the age of ten.

There is no known cure for Word Count Anxiety.  There is, however, blame to be cast upon others. For instance, in high school, I had an English teacher named Mr. Mason; I consider him my enabler. When he would announce to the class that our papers examining symbolism in The Catcher in the Rye had to be at least five pages, he immediately followed this requirement by looking my way and saying, "Keep it under ten, Bradbury." As a teen, I was nothing but grateful for his leniency. As an adult person who writes articles for magazines with limited space, I want to throttle him.

If someone in your life suffers from Word Count Anxiety, please be understanding. Don't scoff or laugh or make comments like, "I WISH I had that problem!" Though your intentions are understandable, you don't know what the fuck you're saying.

The only treatment for Word Count Anxiety appears to be massive amounts of alcohol.