Tuesday, April 28, 2009

And the Lesson of the Susan Boyle Story Is . . . ?

Not what you might think.

That is, not what you might think -- if you are an author or will-be author.

You've most likely heard of Susan Boyle, the Scottish singer whose jaw-dropping performance has inspired adoration worldwide.

She appeared on Britain's Got Talent, an English program similar to American Idol, the famous amateur talent venue, on April 11.

Since her televised audition, millions upon millions (120 million, so far) have watched Susan Boyle sing "I Dreamed a Dream" on the video-sharing site, YouTube. And many of those millions have watched her video again and again, and yet again.

. . . Watched the awkward first moments on stage . . . her unlikely physical appearance . . . the smirks and snickers from the audience . . . the smarmy questions from Simon Cowell, well-known as the verbally bruising judge on American Idol.

And then the moment comes when she sings. Her voice is beautiful and strong and hopeful. It is professionally trained and disarmingly real -- sounding a bit like Julie Andrews, or Judy Garland.

In mere seconds, the audience is on its feet, clapping and cheering. Even Cowell's face transforms, and the smile he wears as he gazes up at her, stage microphone in her hand, is sweetly beatific.

This is Susan Boyle's miracle. She inspires "the better angels of our nature" in those first seconds when the contrast -- between our expectations of her and what she actually delivers -- cracks open our hearts like walnuts.

Her sweetness and soaring talent force us to find our own sweetness. We can't help it, really. We go there willingly, overjoyed at her triumph.

All around the world, people have the same response -- only too happy to clap, tear-up, and cheer. National differences dissolve. They mean nothing. For her audience has become humanity.

Of course, the sheer magnitude of our response to Susan Boyle is not because of our unbridled interest in a talent contest video.

It's because Susan Boyle is completely . . . herself. The self who is immensely talented. And the self who contradicts all expectations about appropriate self-presentation for very public consumption.

Beautiful on the inside, she forces us to see our superficial standards as silly and empty. Honest and guileless, she forces us to see their opposites -- qualities our celebrities so often express -- as, again, silly and empty.

Not that we actually think these things.

Watching her performance, we absorb her meaning instantly. Beyond any capacity for thought, there's something about Susan Boyle that we just "get." Even the Simon Cowells among us do.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Now here's the question. What is the lesson of the Susan Boyle story for authors?

There are, actually, many lessons, but they all begin with this. By embodying the dream that authors so often have -- the dream of achieving a breakthrough triumph -- she both raises and answers the question of how such an achievement is possible.

So here is how it's possible. How she did it.

Susan Boyle has been singing since she was twelve years old. Her talent surfaced early, so she performed locally many times. In her thirties, she took weekly voice lessons for several years (acting lessons, as well), and, in between working and caring for her elderly mother, performed whenever she could.

From this part of her story, the lesson for authors might be that the cultivation of even a very obvious talent requires support -- teachers, venues, and the encouraging applause of a community -- in order to grow and develop, over time.

Then, there is the element of timing. Susan Boyle has said that she's ready now, whereas she wasn't before (there was one disastrous audition when she was so nervous she could barely sing). And since her mother passed away two years ago, at ninety-five, she no longer has her former primary-caretaker preoccupation.

For authors, the lesson is not that your life needs to be empty of responsibilities. Rather, that by giving yourself all the time and training you need to strengthen your talent and psyche -- so you can accept public attention without wilting -- you are respecting your own proper timing for the unfolding of your gift.

Still another aspect of Susan Boyle's life was crucial for her success. She was deeply motivated by a desire to make her mother's wish come true. They had watched Britain's Got Talent on television together, and, Susan said, "She thought I'd win, if I entered."

To posthumously please her mother, she did. And whether she wins the final round of BGT or not, she has won millions of fans, worldwide.

For authors, the lesson may be that the single most important reason for cultivating your talent, beyond your joy in expressing it, needs to be something larger than yourself. You need to have some vision for your work, a purpose beyond yourself -- if not someone you love and want to please.

One last aspect of the Susan Boyle story stands out: Her strength of character. Apart from her gracious and forthright answers for reporters, her response to the unimaginable pressure of sudden global fame and adulation has been very instructive. It confirms what we see in her -- that she is genuine, through and through.

Asked whether she'd consider a "makeover," she has repeatedly said no, not right now. And though she has acknowledged that, in her own words, she "looks like a garage," she has also said: "I look like Susan Boyle. What's wrong with that?" Indeed.

For authors, the lesson might be that the positive estimation of the world is nothing -- is, in fact, worse than nothing -- without solid self-worth. Sometimes, authors think success will give them a pumped-up value, at least the outside kind. But it doesn't work that way. The more you value yourself, the more likely it is that the world will, too.

Look at it this way: a person whose self-esteem rested solely upon the opinion of others would never have taken the stage as Susan Boyle.

And so, from this gifted woman's story, we can discern six immediate lessons (though many others exist) that are helpful to authors.

Writing talent may be a gift, but it needs to be cultivated, expressed, and celebrated -- a gift is also a responsibility.

Nurturing your talent through training strengthens and develops it, so it is ready to be shared.

The support of family and community is helpful, and maybe critical, to the unfolding of your talent -- from its modest first emergence to its full flowering, over time.

The issue of timing when sharing your gift with the larger world may be individual and tricky, but it can determine the eventual outcome. Have respect for your own proper timing when deciding whether it is time to seek publication.

Your character -- your emotional maturity -- will determine how you handle success, whether badly, or well.

Finally, what you need as a gifted writer is an additional spark, a reason to succeed that is larger than yourself alone.

Susan Boyle's spark seemed to come from her relationship with her mother. The unwavering belief of someone so important, someone she loved, inspired her to audition once more. And her mother was right.

Beliefs, like dreams, come true.

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Dog-Paddling Feeling that Fuels Writers

In defining the qualities writers need to succeed, persistence is often cited. Actually, though, it is beside the point.

The ability writers possess to doggedly pursue their writing doesn't come from an abstract quality of character. It comes from love. Writers love the experience writing gives them. And they love their vision of the writing that's mesmerizing their attention right now. But the primacy of love for writers may be easier to see in a story that mirrors it, however indirectly.

An Australian dog made minor news some months ago, after being washed from the deck of a yacht in rough seas. Shark-infested rough seas. His owners risked their own lives searching for him, but after many futile and desperate hours, they sadly returned to shore.

Meanwhile, their much-loved family dog kept dog-paddling, until he reached an island five miles away. There he lived for four months, before being found by the few people who also lived there. In time, they arranged to return him to the mainland. And his astonished family had a tearful, tail-wagging and face-licking reunion.

How did this otherwise ordinary dog manage such a feat of suvival? Was it the instinctual will to live? Was it pure luck? Maybe. What's more likely, though, is this: here was a dog who really wanted to return to his family. They loved him, and he loved them. He had a reason to survive. And it pulled him through the ocean for five miles, and got him through four months of survivalist ingenuity.

Love allows us to do amazing things. It is stronger -- in non-human and human animals, both -- than anything else. By comparison, persistence is no match for, say, shark-infested rough seas.

Love, on the other hand, keeps dog-paddling, driven by the need to return to what it loves best. Whether that's a family of doting humans. Or the all-consuming and enlivening effort of putting words on a page.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Turn Your Writing Bloopers into . . . "Blooperade"

As a writer . . . you probably know
there are creative ways of handling
just about anything. Anything at all.

What you may not know, maybe not yet, is that all those "bloopers" (which arise when you are working on something new, and perhaps never before seen) can be cause for exhilarating inspiration. If not hilarity.

Here's an example from another pursuit entirely. On the wall-mounted television at the gym the other day, a gaggle of Famous Old Golfers (names you'd recognize, even if you know nothing, and don't care to, about golf) were ceremoniously putting, and driving, and walking across an immaculately maintained, bright-green course. They were surrounded by hundreds of onlookers, politely lined up on either side of their grassy line of play.

And then, it happened. Famous Old Golfer squinted off into the distance, sighting the next drive, and loomed briefly over a tiny ball perched on a tinier tee. He swung smoothly and watched confidently as his ball soared upwards into a majestic arc, plummeting perfectly. Into the lake.

No one laughed. No one reacted at all.

Which is too bad. We all have these moments, no matter what kind of work we do. And I, for one, would have liked to see those famous old guys have fun with something that, while embarrassing, was pretty darn funny. Given the ultra-serious circumstances, and all.

Because it's a question of giving in. To the rock-bottom humanity within all our effortful endeavors. Saying Okay to whatever results. And turning our bloopers -- like the proverbial lemons into lemonade -- into, well, "blooperade."

But. How do you make something good out of a wrong turn in your writing?

First, you laugh. Then, you see if there isn't some way to turn the miscast part on its head. Or inside out. Or even just start all over again.

Jump into the lake. Retrieve your ball. And see if writing from a different perspective doesn't salvage the day.

Maybe you'll get a brand new insight -- one you never would have had -- were it not for the miscast section that's staring up at you, right there on page 82.

Blooperade. Don't write anything without it.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Authors Have Entrancement on Their Side

People who are not -- and do not want to be -- authors, often make the mistake of imagining that those who are, and do, possess a super-human strain of self-discipline. A stellar character trait that they, alas, lack. But it isn't true.

What authors, and those working daily toward authorship, have, is actually quite common. It's the ability to enter a state of "entrancement."

Writers are entranced by their writing. They write from within the magically altered state of a light, self-hypnotic trance.

This is the only Big-Secret technique that authors rely upon. Apart from two other things equally available to anyone: Spending lots of time writing, and feeling deeply drawn to write.

But let's get back to entrancement. For a novelist, say, what happens in this state is, he'll see an inner-mind movie and hear inner-ear words. It isn't hard to do.

People who read novels do the same thing, seeing the scenes in their inner eye. It's part of our imaginative faculty -- what allows us to dream at night, and daydream when awake.

The difference is, a novelist describes what he sees and hears in writing. And he'll work with this writing, later on, shaping and rewriting, again and again. But the initial inspiration is a fairly easy inside job, since a novelist will be aware of almost nothing but the movie and the words unspooling in his mind (why it's a trance).

I have a theory about this. Authors and writers are good at entering mild self-hypnotic states because they learned to do so as childhood readers (reading, again, is also trance-inducing).

And so, authors and writers had lots of practice watching movies in their inner mind before finally declaring, "I want to write books . . . and, by golly, I will!"

From then on, entrancement became a fulltime occupation.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

The Evocative Language of Things

For poet T.S. Eliot, April was famously "the cruelest month." But it's National Poetry Month, now -- a month to pay attention to poems. In other words, words. Here are a few.

On the grass, the pigeons are still gathered where they were nested for the night. Though a few early risers are up and wandering the flagstone walks of the square. The dew sparkles. The sun dapples through the leaves of tall trees. The benches simply sit. They are waiting for someone among those rushing to work to give in, sit down, and simply be.

In lyric writing, and in poetry, we feel the evocativeness of words more intensely. That's why it's helpful for writers to study poems -- to understand how they do what they do.

One thing poems do is convey meaning viscerally, through the language of things. Poems name things, not abstractions. Trees, not nature. Bench, not public seating. Big difference. It's the naming of what's real. And we have a visceral response to such names.

Whereas, abstract language keeps us wandering around in our heads, unengaged, uninvolved with what's on the page. We step back. Soon, we'll wander off, like pigeons exploring the park. We'll be looking for writing that offers a world we know viscerally, through the evocative language of things.

To separate from the stampede, pick a bench apart and sit, is to allow the gradual enfoldment of an observing calm. It is to notice the air: a euphoria of humidity and heat. To see the pigeons give flight to the park, space defined in the lucent span of their long, slow glidings from here, to there, to there. To realize there is a presence in the trees, alive in the earth -- lifting, lilting, drifting -- an eloquence with which branches grow.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Livingness: Writing's "After Effect"

If . . writing regularly about things that truly interest them, writers feel their life force double or triple in two ways:

First, they feel the happiness of engaging with something that matters -- to them.

Second, they feel the "after effect" of regular and meaningful writing, which is an energy of livingness.

Though similar to happiness, livingness is a spontaneous, whole-body expression of being joyously alive.

It's the energy that compels birds to sing. And urges people to sing, too -- or at least hum -- when no one is around.

It is even, I think, the energy that inspires my cat, Betsey, to each evening place a toy in the middle of the kitchen floor (as if positioning a microphone), before launching into a very loud feline aria of yowls, howls, and sliding, meowling song fragments.

All day, she says not one audible thing. And then, each night, there's this performance, this aria of livingness.

But writing -- when deeply engaging (so it activates our ability to imagine, while gathering into one pursuit our fragmented attention) -- such writing can do for writers what, say, playing outdoors with abandon does for children. It can give us livingness.

Why does writing do that?

It does that because writing is a form of play (if self-directed and done for no one but us).

And play, it turns out, is how we remember who we are: through what gives us joy.

Feeling the joy of play as a result of writing, it's just a short, happy leap into feeling joyously alive -- the energy of livingness. Oh, wait.

I think Betsey is about to sing.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Why Authors Read, & Write

Books enter the lives of most authors early on, and accumulate like small sand dunes or softly drifting snow in the corners and interstices of their lives -- pretty much ever after.

There is a reason for this. Authors are readers first. They read the way they breathe: naturally, on impulse, as if satisfying an instinctual need. Not everyone feels this need. They have other needs and impulses, instead.

Maybe, as children, they enjoyed playing with tools, or gathering the neighborhood kids into teams for kickball or tag. Or maybe they were the kind who read books and did all these other things, too. But if they grew up to be authors, there came a time when reading took over for them, when it became a constant companion, instead of a rainy day thing.

That's when the magical possibility of being a writer happened, when they fell in love with the worlds that words create. And wanted to write into existence worlds of their own, in the same way.

Because aren't we all living a dream we love to dream? What we do each day corresponds to what we love and are in the middle of dreaming into being.

If you love your dream of being an author, that's exactly what you will dream into existence. Books will keep you company and shine a light on your path, while you write your way there.

But if you love your dream of being something else, there will be other things that keep you company and shine a light on your path. One of the best of those things may still be a book.

Books offer solace. It's why some become authors. And why most of us read.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Books -- Dripped, Not Written

Books are not actually "written."

They are dropped onto the page, one drop at a time, one day at a time. -By authors who know that, very small increments of writing are what actually create a book. Over time.

It's like this. A cold morning in December, and you want your cup of coffee. But a cone filter works slowly. Drip . . . drip . . . drip.

You check your cup once again, and see a millimeter of fragrant dark brown liquid pooling on the bottom.

It seems impossible that this could yield a whole cup of coffee -- even if you waited around for several weeks. Drip . . . drip . . . drip.

But it does.

Unbelievable as it seems, the drip . . . drip . . . drip method of filtered coffee actually works. You do get your cup of hot coffee.

And you will get your book written, using the same method.

Because, here's the thing. Dripping involves trust (yes, those words will accumulate).

It involves patience (focusing on the present day, not the future day).

And it involves persistence (keeping at it, drip after drip, day after day).

Drips, like words, accumulate. Amazingly well.

But you have to show up with your coffee mug, your cone filter, ground coffee, and boiling water to get your much-anticipated morning coffee. Just as you have to show up with your paper and pen to get your much-anticipated book.

You have to create a time to start dripping, slowly, one word at a time.

And you have to sit there, patiently, while you watch sentences take shape and form paragraphs. And paragraphs take shape and form pages . . . again and again and again. Drip . . . drip . . . drip.

It's that easy. And that hard.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Writing as Comfort & Pleasure

Out of the blue, this morning, I heard this phrase in my inner ear: Writing doesn't have to be a chore.

Okay, I thought, I'll write about that. Thank you, subconscious mind!

Writing, I wrote, on the nearest piece of lined paper, doesn't have to be a chore. It can be an adventure. A pleasurable break from ordinary life. A source of inner delight. And a real comfort.

Writing can be all these things, for several reasons. But the core reason is, it focuses your mind on just one thing, not on the zillions of things you should do, and yesterday.

Writing takes you away from all that. As in, it gives you a vacation from your most worried self, the one that keeps you running on a treadmill, day after day after day. But there's more that writing can do. Much more.

Hah, you may be thinking. Sure.

I can understand your skepticism. But I'm not suggesting anything to you that I can't prove. Although, the deal is, you have to be part of the equation. You'll have to show yourself how writing can be a comfort and a pleasure, how it's really possible.

Here's what I have in mind: A simple way to begin writing -- without dragging tons of internal pressure behind you.

First, you find about five sheets of paper, and a pen that writes smoothly. And you sit down in a comfortable spot, with something to support your paper, if you're not near a table.

Second, you think of a four- or five-word phrase that conjures a peaceful image in your mind. "Black cat, curled asleep." "One drop, water ripples long." "Mist hovers, canoe glistens." A haiku-like image is good.

Third, you read your short phrase and zone-out, letting it sink into your being, as if in meditation. Sit there with your phrase, gathering daydream-y associations. For about five minutes.

Fourth, start writing your associations down. But begin by writing down this phrase first: "I remember when . . ." And take it from there.

By giving your mind the time, and the place, and the means to play in this way -- to frolic around in its right-brain imaginative faculty -- you are giving your mind and yourself two comforting things:
  • Relaxing your tensions, you enter a stress-free playground.

  • Giving yourself the experience of writing as a form of play, you learn that your playful imagination is the best possible springboard for good work.
Try using your "writing playground" as a warm-up -- before you tackle the writing for your book. It will lead you into the work you want to do, without stress or anxiety blocking your way.

Writing doesn't have to be a chore. Create a playground for yourself, instead, and writing can become a pleasure and a comfort both.