Monday, January 30, 2012

So You Wanna Be A Writer

People always say that they want to be writers. This is an obvious lie. Anyone who wants to be a writer could be one at any moment simply by sitting down and writing something. It doesn’t even have to be on a computer. It doesn’t have to be grammatically correct. It doesn’t have to make sense. It just has to exist. Writers write. End of story.

But, of course, nobody wants that. That’s boring and hard, too, and it doesn’t mean anything unless someone tells you that you’ve done a great job, right?

Research on children has demonstrated that praising their intelligence often causes them to fear taking risks and to avoid challenges. Why? Because the kids think that if they’re smart, things shouldn’t take effort. In the same way, there is a mythology around talent. You’re either a great writer, or you’re wasting paper. You’re good at math, or you’re failing our nation and our future. You can dance, or you can shuffle self-consciously around the floor in the desperate hope that you will soon turn invisible. This is a problem in our culture, because it gets cause and effect completely backward.

The truth is that a) you can get better at the above things and b) getting better takes work. A lot of work. In his book Outliers (which I haven’t read, I’ve just heard about it and looked it up on Wikipedia. Sorry), Malcolm Gladwell asserts that in order to master something—anything—you have to spend about ten thousand hours doing it. How long is that? About five hours a day every day for five and a half years. Every single day, by the way. No weekends. No Christmas. Forget Columbus Day, which is fine because it’s contentious, anyway. If you’re going to work a typical work week, it’s going to take closer to eight years.

So. When people say that they want to be writers, they don’t mean that. They don’t mean that they want to spend ten thousand hours to be a writer. What they mean is that they want to be born brilliant. They want the work to be easy, and—preferably—over with already. What they really want is to jet off to book signings and have everyone agree that they’re geniuses.

One of the questions I get most often—from adults and children, by the way—is “how can I get published?” Often, these people haven’t actually written anything, definitely nothing that resembles a finished book. These people just want to jump ahead, skip the work, imagine themselves up onstage winning an award. But writing a novel or working on any piece of art isn’t like competing on American Idol. It's not all glamour.

All art is a labor of love. Love of what? Love of whom? Love of art. So my advice is that if you want to be a writer, start writing. 

Friday, January 27, 2012

On Trying To Be Better

image copyright Arenacreative/

Thank god for Vincent Van Gogh, who wrote, “I do not at all despise the mediocre in its simple sense. And one certainly does not rise above the mark by despising what is mediocre. In my opinion one must at least begin by having some respect for the mediocre, and know that it already means something, and is only reached with great difficulty.”

I’m entering a master’s program this summer, to get my Master of Fine Arts degree. Vermont College of Fine Arts has a program specifically for writers of children’s and young adult literature, and that’s where I’m headed. This is what people ask me about the program, “Why are you going? You’re already published.”

Well, the answer is that I’m going because I think I can be a better writer. I can read more widely than I do. I can think more deeply, write more creatively. “You’ll probably be better than most of the people in your classes,” my well-meaning friends say to me. Well, I seriously doubt that. How can you have a “best” in a roomful of artists? But even if there is a best in that room, the best can still get better.

Another friend worried that the program would limit my writing too much—make it MFA-ified. “Do you think it will be more limiting than being told to write a series about a girl who bakes cupcakes?” I asked this friend. No, it won’t. I’ve dealt with plenty of limits in my career. This MFA will be like opening the cage door for the canary. I’m not sure I’ll even have the guts to fly toward the blue sky. But at least I can hop around on the grass a little.

I love what Van Gogh wrote to his brother about mediocrity, because he’s right—it’s only reached with great difficulty. It isn’t easy to plot a book! It isn’t easy to write convincing dialogue! I’ve struggled over characterization and pacing and denouement, which I never know if I have enough of, and I’m still not a genius. But one cannot get better by giving up.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

I’m Nobody, Who Are You?

Photography by BJWOK

I'm Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there's a pair of us—don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog – 
To tell one's name – the livelong June – 
To an admiring Bog!

Ah, Emily Dickinson. A nobody, scratching away in her attic. This is our romantic idea of a writer. Someone who loves writing so much that she does it for its own sake. She doesn’t want to be famous. She just wants to express her ideas, even if it’s to the empty air.

I wish I felt that way. So much of why I write—and why I suffer—has to do with the ego.

“Does it ever bother you that you’re not more famous?” my cleaning lady asked me once. “So—when is that J.K. Rowling-style money going to start rolling in?” asked someone at a party. “How much money do you make?” asked a sixth grader at a reading. (The answers to these questions are, by the way: Yes, Never, and It Depends.)

Yes, it bothers me that I’m not famous. It bothers me that I don’t win awards. It bothers me when some moron on Amazon who can’t even spell gives my novel one star and a review like, “Booooorrrrriiinnnggg!” Those books take years to write and are dismissed in a word. How soul-crushing.

But my mistake is in writing for the ego in the first place. What is an award? Who can really give a piece of art an award? It’s ridiculous, when you think about it. Art is an attempt to express something. And, yes, some things are expressed wonderfully, and it’s great to notice that, and in those thoughts I believe that awards can have meaning. But then I remember that Twilight was on’s list of “Best Books of the Decade,” and I know for sure that awards are nothing but marketing tools. That’s it.

No, I think that the trick is to try to be more like Emily Dickinson, and write for the sake of writing, and to hope to never be Somebody. Because, except for the money, (which is good for everything from socks to swimming pools), being Somebody is nothing but a burden. It keeps you locked in the cycle of the need for approval. The admiring bog, who may have been touched by your work, but probably have just heard your name and want to take a picture of themselves with you to go on their facebook page. Why would anyone want that?
So, to my cleaning lady, I say, “I’m famous enough to keep doing what I like to do, so I don’t really need more.”

Monday, January 23, 2012

A Prayer

Dear Creative Spirit,
Give me the strength to resist,
and the urge to eat chocolate all day.

Lead me not into temptation,
For no art comes from
Avoiding art.


Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Grind

Once, when I was speaking to a class of fifth graders, a student asked me, “Why do you like being a writer?”

“What makes you think I like it?” I asked her.

She looked so disappointed that I had to backtrack and say that of course I loved it, and it was a great privilege to write and all of that. Which is true. But the opposite is true, too. I don’t always love it. Sometimes, it feels like a grind.

Students love to ask me what inspires me, and I work hard to tell them what they want to hear—that my readers inspire me, or funny moments in my life, or people I have loved. But the truth is, I am most often “inspired” by my mortgage. Writing is my job.

But how sad that sounds! I’d love to be one of those Natalie Goldberg writers—limitlessly fueled by inexplicable fire, by true passion. When you feel that way, what beauty! Writing is a joy! And yet. And yet. Sometimes, it is Monday morning. Sometimes, I just want to lie in bed and listen to my daughter breathe, or lounge about on the couch all day, reading. But I have to write, because the novels do not write themselves.

And so I go to work and I try. Sometimes, the writing is awful. And sometimes it’s good. Then again, sometimes the writing is awful even when I’m feeling passionate about it.

I like to think that writing is sort of like going to the gym—I, personally, never want to do it. It is only once I’ve begun that I start to enjoy myself. And once it’s over, I’m happy. I feel better. My mind is clearer. I never, ever regret showing up to write and doing the work, even if the writing is bad. Just as I never, ever regret going to the gym, even if I have to lie down in the middle of TurboFit class (I sometimes have to do this.)

So—what inspires me?

The only thing that inspires me is the work itself. That’s it. I start, and I keep going. It doesn’t sound romantic, but I guess it is. The labor is the love.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Fear No Art!

I wrote a crappy little poem this morning, but in that crappy little poem were two lines that I like: The secret of our lives is to be here/ And breathe, and trust in all the living air. I like these lines for two reasons: 1. It seems to express something that I really believe, and 2. Although I believe that, I really didn’t know it until I wrote it.

Sometimes, when I am lying in the darkness with my husband, I say to him, “Tell me that everything is going to be okay.” And he almost always says, “Everything already is okay.” The first few times we had this conversation, I was annoyed, because my husband didn’t seem to understand what I was asking for. I wanted assurance that everything would stay okay FOREVER. Duh! But, of course, what I finally realized is that my husband is right. What is the point of having anxiety about the future? It only ruins our present life, and prevents us from living fully. The now is what is important. And, at those moments when we are together in the dark—how could there be greater perfection?

Even lives of great tragedy have moments of grace, of beauty. That is what it is important to remember. Here is what I am thinking about Art lately: the act of creation is art, and is what brings us closer to God/ the holy spirit/ the universe/ our humanity. There is undoubtedly a powerful force of creation in the Universe. You can call it God or the Big Bang, or whatever you like, but something at some point came from nothing. From nothing! The universe cannot help creating itself.  And we, who are made from it and in its image, cannot help ourselves, either. When we try to stop the art from flowing, things get ugly. We can choose to create, or we can choose to destroy. (Not creating is a form of destruction—the thoughts are rejected before they are formed.) This is why you must keep doing your creative work, even if you’re afraid that you stink at it. Did the Universe stop at creating rocks and stars? No! It didn’t say, “Oh, an asteroid belt. This makes no sense. I give up!”

Fear no art! Good art can come from bad. Look at my two lovely lines that illuminated all sorts of thoughts for me. Creation is the way to understanding, and in that understanding is peace. I trust this living air. I trust that all of this writing will get me somewhere. And I trust that the somewhere it will lead me to is a sense of more deeply being here. 

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Who Do You Think You Are?

image copyright Simon Howden

I’ll never be a great writer. I’m not putting myself down here, I’m just stating a fact--an obvious fact. I’m no Edith Wharton or Charles Dickens or Jane Austen. I’m just Lisa Papademetriou. If God had wanted me to be a great writer, she would have given me a name that was easier to spell. 
But that doesn’t mean that I’m not a good writer. And it doesn’t mean that nobody cares what I have to say. When I think about the books that have influenced my life the most, the first one that comes to mind isn’t The Scarlet Letter or  Anna Karenina, though I loved both of those books. It’s The Cat Ate My Gymsuit, but Paula Danziger. Is that book the highest achievement in literature? All I know is that it was the right thing at the right time. It spoke to me; it reflected my life. It was very, very important to me.
I once sat down to dinner with a man who insisted that Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was the greatest book ever written. I said that I didn’t think it was possible to determine what the greatest book ever written was, but he wanted to argue about it. (This man was in his sixties, too--a testament to that book’s universal popularity.) So I guess that--in this man’s world--Harry Potter is the best book ever written. In my world, there are no best books, only books that speak to me, or books that are beautifully written. Or books that are engrossing. It’s subjective.
Still, my demon likes to insist that if I’m not going to be great, I should just stop. “You’ll never win the Newbery,” he taunts. You’ll never win the National Book Award! Who do you think you are?” It’s tiring to listen to him, and it doesn’t get me anywhere. Do these doubts help finish my novel? No. 
So when your demon starts to scream, Who Do You Think You Are?, just answer, I’m me. And keep on doing your thing. Squirrels don’t worry about being the Best Hole Digger that Ever Lived. Lions don’t worry about being the Best Lion. Writers shouldn’t worry about that junk, either. How is it helpful? The point of reviews is just to help sell your book. If they don’t have anything nice to say, then they are not your concern. 

Here is something that someone once told me: Art is not a competition. Artists can be competitive, though. But that doesn't necessarily help the art. What does "winning" really mean, anyway?
The trick is to be so engaged with what you’re doing that you don’t have the time or interest to care about what others think of your work...unless, of course, we’re talking about a fan who has contacted you to thank you for what you’ve produced. *Then* you should have time.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

You Don't Have to Get A Koi Tattoo

Image by SOMMAI

I once read this article about Michelle Obama, and she said something like, “I love to get up at 5:30 and exercise. That’s my ‘me’ time.” I read that and rolled my eyes. “Yeah, five-thirty is my me time, too, Michelle,” I thought. “And I like to spend my me time asleep in my comfy bed.”
I liked this thought so much that I started repeating it to people. They always laughed and agreed with me. “You’re so clever,” my demon whispered. “People like you. And they secretly hate people who exercise, like Michelle Obama.”
There was only problem with this thought--it left me feeling tired and out of shape, because I never exercised. 
I recently went to a Bikram yoga class. For those of you who don’t know Bikram, it’s an intense form of yoga performed in a classroom heated to one hundred and four degrees. Yes, I know. That’s hot. 
As I was doing this class, I was sweating in places that I didn’t even realize had sweat glands--like my knees. It was hard. And my demon was having a ball. “Just look at these people around you!” it screeched. “If you want to do this, you’ll have to get a koi tattoo! You’re too fat to do this. Everyone else is flexible and wearing teeny bikini wear. What do you think you’re doing? Why don’t you just sip some green tea and start a wind chime collection? You’re becoming the kind of hippie that people despise!” And on and on. It did not help that the back wall featured a poster of Bikram himself--the guru--near-naked and sitting on a tiger skin rug. Oy, you should have heard what the demon thought of that.
And it was hot. Like, super-hot. Like, “This is why I moved away from Houston,” hot. The class was an hour and a half long, and it was hard. The teacher kept saying things like, “Extend your back fully. It’s supposed to hurt. Keep going.” 
The door was unlocked. I could have gotten up and left at any time, but I didn’t. And, at the end, I felt amazing. Not just because my muscles felt fluid and elastic and my pores felt like they’d been squeegeed clean...but because I did something really, really difficult. More difficult than getting up at five-thirty and going for a run. I powered through the absurdity, and the pain, and the humiliation, and I felt good. 
And do you know what I did the next day? I got up at six in the morning and went for a run. Seriously. It was my me time.
Because I decided, frankly, that I wanted to feel good more than I wanted people to think that I’m funny for dissing Michele Obama. I wanted to be healthy. 
As I ran down the tree-lined bicycle path near our house, I kept thinking how much easier it was to run for two miles than to do hot yoga. This was a breeze! So what if it was 25 degrees out? (It was.) I was warm; I felt good. I got home and put on some Madonna, then made breakfast for my dog. Then for myself. Then for my husband and daughter. Then I took the dog for a walk and emptied the dishwasher. Then I made lunch for my daughter. I was wide-awake and energetic, and nobody else in the house was even awake yet--except for our cocker spaniel. 
And what did my demon have to say about it? Nothing. Not one blessed thing. Because it was seven fifteen in the morning and I was Vogue-ing and I didn’t have a wind chime collection or a koi tattoo. 
Demons disappear in the face of power. That’s the thing--they’re bullies. They can’t stand up to you once you shout them down. 

Friday, January 6, 2012

Broke Twice

In Texas, we have a saying: “You ain’t nobody ‘til you’ve been broke twice.” That’s right. Oh, sure, it takes guts, smarts, and luck to go from poor to rich. But you haven’t really proven anything until you’ve lost it all--and gotten it back again. It’s one thing to try, try again until you’ve succeeded. But succeeding *after* a big, fat failure? That takes character.
One of my first writing assignments was to adapt an illustrated series of books from France. They were supposed to be funny. There was only one problem--when the texts were translated, they didn’t make any sense. That’s the way with humor. It often doesn’t make sense across cultures. For example, in China, stand-up comedians always explain their jokes. They say something like, “In Shanghai, it’s so crowded that you have to dig a hole just to change your underwear.” And then, once people laugh, the comedian adds, “Because there are so many people in Shanghai!” Not exactly how we do it in the U.S.A. 
Anyway, so I re-wrote this French story and made it hilarious. To me. And to my editor. And to the higher-ups at the publishing house. Even the French author thought my version was hilarious, and said that he wished he had written it. (No kidding--he really said that.) Then a television producer called. She was considering getting the rights to the books and wanted to know if I might be interested in writing for the TV series. I was so excited--this was going to be a huge break for me! Then I got THIS review from School Library Journal: “though the colorful cartoon artwork is appealing, the weak writing will discourage repeated readings. Buy extra copies of Dav Pilkey's "Captain Underpants" books or Daniel Pinkwater's "Fat Camp Commandos" adventures (both Scholastic) instead of wasting money on this one.” Thanks, School Library Journal! That was mighty encouraging!
The devil in me *loved* this review and *still loves* this review. That review came out in 2003, and even now, sometimes I still think about it. When I do, my demon gets all gleeful. “You stink!” my demon gloats. “Stop wasting paper and killing trees, you piece of crap! Go get a real job at Starbucks.”
And some days, I think about doing that. I mean, Starbucks has a good healthcare plan. But oh, you’d just love that, wouldn’t you, Devil? You’d just love it if I stopped writing. 
Remember this: Taking away what makes you happy is the Devil’s Agenda. He wants to stop all creative pursuits and leave you with nothing that brings you joy. 
This is how we stick it to the devil: we work. We work consistently. We work fearlessly. We work, and let the quality take care of itself. 

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Why Satan Loves Reality TV and Hates Your Writing

Nobody talks about Satan anymore. It used to be that people acknowledged that the world was full of temptations. They externalized it, named it, knew it for what it was--a manifestation of the dark forces in the world that would lead us away from a happy, productive life. They knew that these forces were tricky, and that they could whisper in our ear. They whisper things like, “Don’t eat that salad. You have a sniffle. Dark chocolate helps that.” Things like, “Don’t work on your novel right now. You need to relax first. Just watch a few cute videos of kittens on youtube.” Things like, “You can’t exercise this morning. You got up three times last night to pee. You’re tired. Sleep in.” Sometimes these voices are funny. Sometimes they’re seductive. Sometimes they’re harsh. And, often, they work. We fall before we even know we’ve fallen. We had every intention of sitting down to write--but, somehow, a phone call derailed us, then a pile of laundry, then a long lunch. Suddenly, we’re out of time, and we haven’t done anything we needed to do, just stuff that entered our brain and sat there, demanding our attention. 
And then the evil demon voices really have a field day. “You’re lazy,” they hoot, “you’ll never be a writer!” They cackle their evil cackle and leave us feeling empty.
These demons need to be wrassled to the ground.
There is an entire self-help culture out there based on the idea that there are positive, inexplicable forces out there that want to help you. But anyone can see that this is a dangerous world. I’m here to tell you that--while that may be true--I know the opposite is true. Just as sure as the wave will seek the sandcastle, there are forces that want you to fail, that want to destroy what you create. Yes, that’s right, I believe the world is full of demons and devils, and I believe that those demons are hellbent on making us unhappy. Not actively miserable--that might actually be enough to snap us into making a life change--just unhappy. They want to remove the joy in our lives so that we are left with vague feelings of ennui. They want us to feel that something is wrong, but leave us unable to figure out what it is, so that we try to fix it with a new hairstyle. And we lost something when we stopped acknowledging the power of those forces. They are powerful, and they are real.
And it is our human work to defeat them. How? By doing our work. By living a quality life. By treating ourselves and others with kindness, always. 
So if you are someone who is blocked in your life--this blog’s for you.