Wednesday, May 13, 2015
Author, editor, coach Jordan Rosenfeld talks about A Writer's Guide to Persistence, writerly dark nights, Amy Schumer, drought, and why being a better person can make you a better writer
Jordan Rosenfeld is arguably one of the kindest people on the planet. She's the author of Night Oracle, Forged in Grace, Make a Scene, Write Free, and her newest book, A Writer's Guide to Persistence, a toolkit for writers that every scribbler needs to own. Her work has appeared in AlterNet, DAME, Mom.me, The New York Times, The Rumpus, The Washington Post, Writer's Digest magazine and more.I'm thrilled to have her here. Thank you, Jordan!
Why does a writer have to be persistent?
First, let me define persistence, because it's easy to equate it with "slogging" or something equally negative which has a negative connotation. My favorite definition of persistence, which I actually stumbled on after writing the book comes from Patch Adams, that famed real doctor played by Robin Williams in the movie of the same name, who could work miracles with his patients and has this gorgeous outlook on how we can serve one another better. He describes persistence as "Hanging in there, joyfully." What makes a writer able to be persistent, to hang in there when doubt, discouragement and rejection come to visit, is one's passion and love of the writing more than the need for praise, validation or fame. Or, as Brenda Ueland says in her lovely little book, If You Want to Write "The moment I read Van Gogh's letter I knew what art was, and the creative Impulse. It is a feeling of love and enthusiasm for something, and in a direct, simple, passionate and true way, you try to show this beauty in things to others." And a writer has to be persistent because all great things take time to manifest. Not only the literal work, but the person him or herself--we deepen, and thus the work deepens--the more we invest in it. Those things that come quickly and easily often have a cost, or don't last. No one wants to be a flash in the pan. I want to talk about the Building Boundaries chapter, because so many writers feel if they are not published, they don’t have the right to tell people not to drop by, or to cancel dinners.
It comes down to this: we have to legitimize our writing to ourselves first, or no one will ever believe or respect us. The most serious writers just write and write and write. Every time I see someone post on Facebook that they will NOT be posting on Facebook for the foreseeable future to finish writing a book, I cheer for them. That is healthy boundary setting and a good reminder for the rest of us. It's really no different, however, than a mother remembering to take care of herself so she can be the best mother she is capable of--a writer has to find ways to make time to write, thus turning away friends and canceling dinners--if it matters to her. It's just non-negotiable in my book--to write, you have to shut out the world at times, and that means your loved ones, too, and hopefully they knew that going in when they met or married you ;-) Your children are just out of luck. What's more, writers who don't make time for their writing, in my experience, end up martyrs, or resentful, or cranky. If writing is your purpose, your joy, your gift or just a way to express yourself, then you'll start to feel badly when you don't do It. Pretty simple. Boundaries are just necessary.
You mention that criticism and doubts come with the territory--they do indeed. What’s the best way to deal with them?
I like to treat criticism as though it is all a stream of illegible nonsense spewed from a mean drunk--in the case of the critic, the criticism may stem from meanness, or a different aesthetic, or a need to sound important, or a difference of opinion, but it has less to do with me, and more to do with where the critic is. I also always say that truly good critique (I differentiate helpful critique from cutting criticism) has a spirit of improvement--it strives to help you make the work or your vision better. It seeks to understand what you are trying to do, and support that with insight. But also, a lot of writers don't give themselves necessary space between the making of the writing, which is fresh and vulnerable, and getting feedback, and thus even helpful critique can feel like negative criticism. You need to know your own level of tolerance, and how much room you need before you are ready to hear it. And a really good friend you can call up and moan to who will prop you back up and remind you that it's all going to be okay.
So much of this extraordinarily helpful book is about loving the journey, instead of focusing on the outcome, be it reviews or sales or fame, but rather, what you personally get out of it. I find that incredibly healthy and sustaining. Can you talk a bit about that, please?
I wrote Persistence, or rather, the seeds of it, at a very dark time in my own writing practice. I'd had two agents represent two novels that did not sell. Then I had a baby and lost momentum in my freelance writing life. I basically felt that my writing career as I knew it was over by the age of 34. In searching for inspiration, I recalled Rilke's words to Young Mr. Kappus in Letters to a Young Poet, which I first read at the age of 15, then again at 21, in which he advises him to go deep into his soul and ask the question "must I write?" I tweaked the question and asked: "Will I still write if no one is reading, if I'm only doing it for me?" And the answer was a resounding yes. And from that place came this rush of relief, that there was still something inside me that felt compelled to write even if no one was listening. So I started writing blog posts sort of cheering myself, and hopefully others, on through these writerly dark nights of the soul. And out of it came this book, which I eventually envisioned as a guidebook, as though for hikers on a rigorous trail, for the challenges of the writing craft.
Anne Lamott once said in a talk I heard (I'm paraphrasing) that we think success will fill our emptiness and assuage our sorrow and make us happy; instead, it just adds pressure to all those pre-existing issues and makes us more neurotic. Success is just a byproduct of your work and life--and there are lots of kinds of success. If you become overly reliant on praise or reviews or fame, then what happens to you when those things end or change as they are wont to do? So you have to create a writing practice, a foundation of meaning inside you that doesn't shift so easily.
I also really love the worksheets you provide. Are these things you have always done yourself? How did you come up with them? They really seem to be the best kind of cognitive therapy, where you prove to yourself the things you fear have no teeth, simply by facing fears and then facing the facts as you have them in the minute!
I am an optimist at heart--and optimists are born, I think, out of circumstances where all the other people around them are pessimists--I'm naturally wired to look on the bright side because not too many people in my life did. I was an only child, a latchkey kid--always writing and reading. I like to cheer people up, and I'm also married to a psychologist who is also a Buddhist--we talk a lot about people and the psyche and the ego, and being present, and a ton of other things about how the mind and heart work. So I think that intersection is the genesis for these ideas to try and shift people out of stuck places. I'm also a HUGE believer in adding in physical movement. I experienced something of a revolution when I started to exercise really for the first time at age 35. And my mood completely changed and my focus became so much clearer. So I believe that half of the time we are stuck, the best thing we can do is move our bodies In some way.
What’s obsessing you now and why?
Good question. I've been spending a lot of time here in my drought stricken California thinking about our human tendency toward convenience, disposables, instant gratification, and how this has led to such terrible impact on this gorgeous natural world we so take for granted, and how, if ever, we can change. I'm also obsessed with the intersection between belief and health--placebos and faith healing and mind's ability to heal body, and the way our emotions make us sick. Oh, and comedian/actor Amy Schumer who just sticks it to patriarchy, pop-culture, gun-culture, republicans, and more.
What question didn’t I ask that I should have?
You asked lovely questions, but If I may say one last important thing it would be that If more writers spent time focusing on what makes them genuinely passionate, ecstatic, purposeful, better human beings, I suspect that a lot more writers would find themselves producing work that does, in fact, lead to publication more quickly because authenticity and vibrancy are very attractive to others.