The State of Our Literary Union

By: Michael James Greenwald

Hello, again, PLC blog followers!!!  It’s your Sunday slice of lemon meringue pie.  Tastes cool and delicious, use that sugar rush to be productive (possible side effects include acne, obesity, diabetes, and death).

Last week, I talked a bit about “Making Time” for writing, related a current literary disaster in my writing life, discovering my 122,000 word manuscript had a torpedo hole the size of Pandora (the Na’vi’s home planet not the music genome project) in it’s bow and my efforts to plug it with duct tape and seances to Herman Melville (“I’ll take Mixed Metaphor for 500, mustache-less Alex Trebeck”) had been futile–duct tape being less than affective in slippery marine conditions and Herman Melville subscribing to the Terrance Mann, post-literary-success attitude.

So, after having the Greatest Freak Out Ever!!!!!!!! on Monday, I strapped myself to my desk chair at 7AM Tuesday morning and began again.

This week, PLC followers, we’ve been talking about “Kick Starting Your Writing” and on the heels of Barack Obama’s first “State of the Union” I thought I’d talk a little about the state of our literary union.  So, here we go…

“Madam Speaker Harper Lee, Literary Vice President F. Scott Fitzgerald, members of the Literary Congress (Dickens, Poe, Twain, Sallinger…), distinguished guest authors (Chabon, Lethem, McCarthy, King, Sallis, Nichols, Green, McLane…), and my fellow American writers:

Our Constitution declares that from time to time, I shall give to the Literary Congress information about the state of our literary union.  For thousands of years, our literary leaders have fulfilled this duty.  They’ve done so during periods of writing prosperity and tranquility.  And they’ve done this in the midst of character war and personal depression; at moments of great strife and great struggle.

Again, we are tested. And again, we must answer history’s call.

Years ago, we became writers, amid very different expectations from our parents, personal severe recessions, finances on the verge of collapse, and credit cards revealing deep debt.  Experts from across the friendship and family spectrums warned that if we did not change our minds about becoming writers, did not go to law school, did not sell car insurance, did not sell our bodies for money (it happened once, let it go), we might face personal depressions.  But we acted, didn’t we, immediately and aggressively.  We fought our fear and sat in on a workshop at our local library, fought an even greater fear and introduced a short story to be workshopped, only cried a little when it was torn to shreds, yet showed up the next week with another story and cried a little less following the second time.  We met other writers who mentored us, encouraged us to continue, told us we had talent, and if we could just work at it, it would happen for us.  Then we signed up for a class, maybe at a community college, maybe with a down-to-earth writer who frightened us at first but soon had us elevating our skill level higher than we ever thought possible.

And maybe a year or eighteen months later, we had several short stories we actually didn’t hate and bought manilla envelopes and bookmarked on our computers to sit down one Sunday morning, following a Jameson shot (okay, a couple…fine, I drank half the bottle and filled my query letters with death threats–if you don’t publish my story I’ll MURDER you!!!–misspellings–I kan’t see there toes–and pleadings–please accept my short story submission so my mother can quit telling her friends her son works at Arby’s and writes “cute little poems”) and licked the gluey envelopes closed, addressed them to Harper’s or North American Review or Playboy Magazine and waited patiently for fame and fortune to follow.

But the devastation remains.  We sent over two hundred short story submissions and only received a nibble, one time, from a tiny University press out of Alpo, Texas (which wanted to put our story on their dog food cans).  Then our Dodge Stratus died, credit card debt swelled, cash from our Aussie-chain restaurant bartending job could not keep up with our expenses, and subjecting ourselves to wearing twelve boomerangs on our bushman shirts drove us to a cocaine habit.  Our recession has also compounded the burdens that we have been dealing with for a decade–the burden of working harder and longer for less; of being unable to save enough to buy a house, start a family of our own, or touch the special parts of any sober girl/guy.

For us, change did not come fast enough.  We’ve been frustrated; we’ve been angry.  We don’t understand why it seems like bad behavior from those James Patterson types and reality stars is rewarded, but hard literary work isn’t.  The promise of the literary life we’d for so long dreamed about seemed like only fiction another writer, a capable writer, could come up with.  Our depression and financial pinch even drove us to fill out that Aussie restaurant chain’s management training application, three times.  Late nights, staring at the agave-soaked worm wriggling around in the bottom of our Jose Cuervo bottle represented the death rasps of our literary dream–and even then, with that beautifully original metaphor right there waiting to be plucked, could we go home and replicate it on the computer screen?

No siree, Bob.

But tonight (or today, this morning, this afternoon, next week, 7:30 in the evening Australian time, because you’re up for the Federer/Murray final…), tonight I’d like to talk about how together we can deliver on that promise.

It begins with kickstarting your writing.

Our most urgent task upon deciding to become a writer, is to write.  And if there’s one thing that has unified sci-fi writers and fantasy writers, and every writer in-between, it’s that we all sometimes hate to write.  I hated it — (applause.)  You hated it.  It’s about as popular as a root canal. (Laughter.)

But when we decided to become writers, we made a promise to ourselves we wouldn’t just do what was popular–we would do what was necessary.  And if we don’t write, we’ll never be published authors, will we.

So, how do we do this?  Well, once again, experimentation works the best.  For me, I’ve learned four things kickstart my writing the best.  1) Reading a book that in some way captures the voice or emotion I’m trying to create, 2) warming up by writing a blog (which I’m doing right now),

3) listening to Gillian Welch (love me some Gillian Welch), and/or 4) taking a shower (don’t ask, I don’t know, my mother refers to me as her Womb Baby, as in I never wanted to leave the womb).

Currently, I’m writing a family saga with a ghost story element, but I’m seeking to capture the raw emotion, the stripped down realism and noire feeling of a western. I’ve found if I read about one scene from Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses I’m able to capture that voice in my head and by using this key everyday I have a good chance of replicating it. Flip Gillian on repeat on the iPod, write a short blog, and dump a bucket of water on my head, and baby, I’m SET TO WRITE!!!!!

Okay, you get yourself in the chair, put on Gillian Welch, warmed up with a blog and dumped a bucket of water on your head, but the writings still not coming.  I give you a free pass to get up out of the chair and leave the office (“no, he di-idn’t just say that”–“uh, yeah, I di-id”), go for a walk, either in the forest where you need to really listen and feel nature’s vibe (hell, hug a tree, man, smell the thing, you never know when you’ll have a character pushed up against a tree–whether salaciously or axe-murder-ly– and you want to inject a little sensory tree smell) or go to the mall and be the creepy guy sitting on the bench near the penny pool eating a charro staring at people…I’ll bet dollars to charros that creeper guy in the mall is a wannabe writer, so why couldn’t you be that creeper?

My point is, always be working, even when you’re not “in the room.”  Remember, another writer in the world is putting in the work (and will steal that publishing deal) while you’re watching TLC, taking your dog for a walk, or sleeping, so you damn well better be researching dress styles on “What Not to Wear”, working the kinks in your dialogue out with Fido, and letting your subconscious come up with some wacky plot twists.

I don’t know about you, but my writing career has had some literary setbacks this year, and some of them were deserved.  But we should wake up every day knowing that they are nothing compared to the setbacks all writers have faced.  And what keeps us going — what keeps us fighting — is that despite all these setbacks, that spirit of determination and optimism, that fundamental decency that has always been at the core of the American writer, that lives on.

The spirit that has sustained this profession since cavemen scrawled on walls lives on in you, its writers. We have finished a difficult year.  We have come through a difficult career so far.  But a new year has come.  A new decade stretches before us.  We don’t quit.  You don’t quit.  I don’t quit. (Applause.)  Let’s seize this moment — to start anew, to carry the dream forward, and to strengthen our profession once more. (Applause.)

Thank you.  God (insert your favorite writer here) bless you.  And God bless the United States of American writers.” (Applause.)

Okay, and that’s it for the State of Our Literary Union this year.

Please tune in Monday for Amy McLane, giving up her Progress Report (uh, oh, Amy, pop quiz time!!!) and I’ll see y’all next Sunday, same spot, same time, with an extra piece of lemon meringue pie just for you.

I wish you all good words!!!!!


By the way, if you all want to get to know me a bit better, check me out on FACEBOOK, follow me on Twitter, or at my personal blog.