Monday, March 10, 2008

About Focus, Passion, and Risk: Passion

The first time I heard the word “passion” in reference to me, I was stunned and flattered. It happened this way. I’d signed up for a writing class at UCLA extension. This was back in the late-eighties when I was finally trying to write again and Real Life and two children had derailed me. Giving it another shot. I’d written a screenplay that proved I knew how to place words on paper, but discovered I had no idea how to tell a story. I didn’t get structure. So I decided to go to school.

But as Real Life always finds a way to thwart our plans, we were going on spring break, taking our kids up to the mountains to ski and I had to miss the first class. I sent a letter to the instructor asking him to please not drop me. I wasn’t all that familiar with extension then, and didn’t realize if the school's got your money, you can miss the whole course and no one cares.

I spent an afternoon composing the note. After all it would be the instructor’s introduction to me, and I wanted to get off on the right foot. I don’t remember exactly what I ended up with, but it was light, a little humorous, and short, all things I knew should bring me a little slack for not appearing at the first class.

And it worked. The instructor wrote back that he looked forward to having me in class and was impressed with my passion for writing. Passion for writing? How had that come across? I was surprised, but pleased. I couldn’t wait for the class. I hadn’t thought I had it in me to be passionate about anything. Little old conservative, dull ME?

It was a great class. I worked hard, my writing improved, and the instructor encouraged me to enter the Diane Thomas competition sponsored by the Writers Program at UCLA extension. I did, and didn’t win, but I found out that, indeed, I had a passion to write.

I never thought the word “passion” had any relevance to me or my world. Even though I wrote fairly well, majored in English, had placed second in a high school writing contest sponsored by the Atlantic Monthly, I didn’t feel I had the “IT” factor. The best I thought I could expect was to write a good letter and have fun with the hobby of writing screenplays. But somewhere in the back of my mind—or was it something buried in that intrepid muscle pumping blood somewhere deep in my chest—I felt I could have “IT,” IF I worked hard enough, couldn’t I? If I learned some of the skills, at least I might develop some “it,” albeit not in capitals?

So “passion” came with the actual “doing.” Taking a class, getting good feedback (as well as developing a thick skin to repel the bad feedback), and focusing on the writing itself. I’ve been distracted from writing off and on since then, but I haven’t abandoned it in twenty or so years.

It’s taken me a long time to accept who I am and what I can do, to understand that the passion was always there, but might have gone undeveloped if I hadn’t made the conscious effort to focus on the skills needed to produce a structured, polished piece of writing. I’m still not there, but I “get it” now. As Curt Rosengren says on his website, “Passion is the energy that comes from bringing more of YOU into what you do.”

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

About Focus, Passion, and Risk: Focus First

"Writers write." Who said that? Flannery O'Connor or Stephen King? I can't remember, but the veracity of the statement cannot be challenged. No words on paper: no tome.

The better question might be, “How do writers manage to write in REAL LIFE?” How do they come up with a steady stream of sentences, paragraphs, story beats? Maybe some are born with enough talent and drive to block out the temptations of the Friday morning Sudoku, but for most of us, the world is full of enticements, obligations, distractions, and bicyclists smashing into trashcans, pounding on doors to harass owners about city-dictated trashcan placement. These intrusions challenge our ability to meet writing goals, but retaining focus, an outlined plan to commit to writing, helps us remain in office chairs, fingers flitting over keys, heads hunched toward screens.

But how can I ignore husband, kids, friends? Don't I need to exercise, shop for healthy food? Stay up on the election news? Clean up after my 15-year-old Labrador? Do I have to skip Project Runway, American Idol, Without A Trace?

It’s a balance, and focusing on that balance leads to symbiotic interplay between the two. In other words, pay off.

Family? Friends? We have to have them. Can't really live--or write--without them and all those obnoxious, needy, freeway-jamming, gum-chewing, rude and crude other people too. They are our characters, and the subsequent drama of their--and our--tangled relationships provide us with themes and plots. So letting people muddy up our lives? Gotta happen.

Then there's the issue of health, exercise, brushing teeth, and that no sugar rule. And the need to refill Julia Cameron's proverbial well with sunny days of rebelling against routine and late nights devoted to deep substantial reading. Plots build themselves on early morning walks, scene by scene, block by block. "To Build a Fire" gave birth to my story "Richie's Last Shot" and The Red Tent to "Honeymoon at the Oasis Hotel." Are these distractions or assets? Both.

As for the news, election or not, jury duty, the media, the Lakers, pop culture, and the biggest distraction: TV? Acts of living can shatter anyone's focus, but while they confuse us, they provide us with insights, while they frustrate us, they bring us understanding, while they subject us to banality and routine, they teach us the rhythm of patterns. These lessons, in turn, gift us with material from which we pull universal truths, the heart of good writing.

Awareness of how REAL LIFE devours both our time and our passion is all-important. The solution is deciding to do something about it--Plan. Follow through. Rejoice. And accept the idea that spending time in the act of writing is a blessing.

I used to believe that "having talent" meant writers were born, not made, and were compelled to write day and night. With no effort on their part, they could separate themselves from what other people wanted them to do and instead, blissfully compose epic novels. That certainly wasn't me. I had tasks to do at home, sometimes a job, demands of family, obligations to others. Since I was overwhelmed by RL, I wrote sporadically, fitfully, so I couldn't have been "born to write." I took this logic another step: "Not born to write" must mean I have no talent. I let this idea defeat me. Since I struggled to overcome distractions to writing, I must not have been born to write. If I was, I would let nothing stand in my way.

I don't believe this anymore. People who want to write eventually figure out some way to navigate the obstacles. They will find a balance. Writing is a choice. And choice demands focus--and action. After all, writers write.

No please! Not another blog about blogging!

Okay. After today I will never write another blog about not blogging. I promise. But I am really bad at this.

It's not that I don't think about blogging. I do. But then I stop myself. "Oh," I say. "THAT'S a good idea. I should save that and write an article and try and get it REALLY PUBLISHED." Of course, I never finish--sometimes never start--said article.

It's not that I don't like blogging. I love it. It's fun because it doesn't feel real when I first sit down to write. It's a journal. A diary of everyday thoughts. I'm free to not please an editor, a reader, no one but myself. Then I reconsider. "Hmmmm, people (all one of my fan base) might actually read what I write. I'd better make it good because I don't want to, you know, embarrass myself." So I end up spending hours rewriting and editing and then realize I shouldn't publish this masterpiece HERE. I should try and get it REALLY PUBLISHED.

It's not that I don't have time. I'm blessed with time that I sometimes waste. I could probably write a blog and an article and have hours left over for my book, my short stories, and a nap. Yet I am lazy, tremulous, distracted, worried, and completely disorganized.

JCO-how the hell do you do it?

Indeed, I know the answer. Focus, passion, and the willingness to risk being bad. Even Professor Oates isn't perfect all the time (not that that keeps her out of the America's Best series year after year). Tomorrow I'll write about focus. (See how I'm tricking myself into blogging manana?)