Thursday, May 1, 2008

Guest in Progress: Rebecca Flowers

I’ll be brief, the quicker to get you to this wonderful piece by novelist Rebecca Flowers, author of the newly released novel Nice to Come Home To. Special thanks to my pal/former student Carollyne Hutter for alerting me to this book—which I just added to my amazon list—and for hooking me up with Rebecca, who proves below that she is funny AND smart (with allusions to “Project Runway,” The Great Gatsby [!!], and one of my husband’s secret obsessions, the movie The Karate Kid.).

Here’s the description of Nice to Come Home To, which takes as inspiration Jane Austen’s Sense & Sensibility:

“Everyone around Prudence Whistler, thirty-six, seems to be settling down. Her girlfriends have married and had babies. Her gay best friend is discussing marriage with his partner. Even her irresponsible younger sister, Patsy, is the single mother of a two-year-old. But when Pru panics at losing her mediocre boyfriend of two years-and begins to see the door to her traditional family life closing-she accidentally finds something even better: a new definition of family and happiness.”

DC-area residents take note: Nice to Come Home To is set in Adams-Morgan!

By Rebecca Flowers

I went to a good writing school, got an M.F.A., then spent the next dozen years or so trying to unlearn what I'd learned there. An M.F.A. doesn't tell you how, I'm sorry to report, to write a book and get it published. It does teach you how to defend and protect your ego, and how to write for certain audiences (like other writing students and writing teachers). But it does not (necessarily) teach you how to get into that space where you can bang out a 300+ draft, then do it over and over again until it's just right, not losing your perspective or your patience or your self-esteem in the whole process. Here, then, are some notes on things I un-learned, while writing my first novel and getting it published, after graduate school.

1. Just Keep Swimming. A friend of mine describes writing as some of the happiest moments of her life. If we are to believe her, this writer – who, incidentally, is selling scads of books, in hardcover, right this very second – sits in front of her computer, places her long, tapered fingers on the keyboard, and magic happens. She moves from the first word to the last in a happy little spasm of poetic wonderfulness, loving her characters, charmed by them, moving them effortlessly from place to place. She does not move on from a sentence, paragraph, or chapter until it has achieved perfection. Her editor never asks for revisions. Writing, for my friend, is basically like sex. Like the best sex you ever had. Like honeymoon sex. Like second-week-into-the-relationship-all-morning-in-bed-on-a-Saturday-in-springtime sex. The kind of thing you really should keep to yourself, in other words.

Writing, for me, is not like this. It is not like sex, unless that sex is strained, laborious, and riddled with angst, doubt, insecurity and conflict. Unless it is bad sex.

Recently I described my writing life to another, less freakish friend this way: On the good days, it's okay. On the bad days, it's like being locked in a room with someone who knows me very well ... and hates me.

On those days, I'm fighting myself every step of the way. Myself goes something like this: You wrote THAT? Are you SERIOUS? God, no wonder you never had a boyfriend in high school. Why are you even BOTHERING? What makes you think you can even do this? Look, look at your friend selling scads of books – in hardcover – right this very second! Is she having to fight herself like this, just to write a decent paragraph? No she is not! She's probably written a whole perfect page, by now! Maybe you should just give this up, and go clean the kitchen. At least you'd have a clean kitchen to show for this day, instead of butt nothing.

See, the mind can play tricky games with you. It doesn't necessarily want to be doing what you're asking it to do. It would rather be solving some other, less thorny problem, or checking the email to see if anyone's written in to say how clever it is. Something, anyway, that would contribute more materially to the glory of the self. Or, at the very least, something that would numb us both out to how f'in hard it is to f'in write an f'in book.

What you must learn as a writer is to ignore all this, and just keep swimming. Sometimes writing just isn't fun. Sometimes you're called up to describe a scene or a person or just get your readers from one place to another in a non-clever way. You can't have a book chock full of cleverness, in every single word. And some days, you just won't feel clever. It's important to let that be okay. Writing a novel will take months, even years. You have to pace yourself. You have to slog through whatever weather the mind throws you – the pleasant and carefree, the wild and woolly, the ferocious and threatening. Your first job as a writer:

Just keep swimming.

2. Don't reinvent the wheel. This is not my original advice; it's the advice of some writer, some bigwig, whose name I've long forgotten. But the gist is this: especially for your first novel, don't start from scratch. You have many lessons to learn, Ralph Macchio, so give yourself a fighting chance by taking a book you know and love and using its basic structure. You'll hang your own clothes on it, don't worry. But it's really helpful to have a little roadmap to show you the way. For my first book, I chose to update Jane Austen's Sense & Sensibility. So while I battled my insecurities and desperate longing to have a clean house with 90 percent of my brain, the other 5 percent could concentrate on Austen's storyline and what I needed to do next. (I know that's only 95 percent; 5 percent of my brain is always off screwing around someplace.)

3. SHOW and TELL. I mean, what are you going to do with all that junk, all that junk inside your trunk? You're writing for an audience, so SHOW IT TO OTHERS. I know so many people who refuse to let anyone see what they're working on, ever. You have to open up to the people around you, those who care about you. You need readers, a sangha, for support. You need to hear good things about your work, and you need to know about the not-so-great things either.

But timing is important. Too early, and you may get discouraged. Too late, you're so sick of the damn thing that it would be sheer torture to go back in and correct a typo. If you can envision the end of your book, if you've had a chance to re-read the early chapters and you're pretty sure you've written for keepsies, go ahead and ask a few of your peeps to take one. A peep, that is.

Oh, you also have to TELL people you're writing a book. It's akin to holding hands in study hall – a public commitment. With all these people watching you, there's a better chance you'll actually stick it out. Again, choose your moment. I started telling people that I was writing a book when I had a few chapters under my belt and sort of knew where I was heading with it. Of course, I materially rewrote the book, but by then I was committed to the project.

Also, it will help people understand why you are walking around talking to yourself and weeping all the time.

4. Read a CRAPLOAD of books while you're working. It was so much easier to sit down and write if I spent an hour or so, last thing at night and first thing in the morning, immersed in a book. The language flows from the book to your brain, somehow, and you're absorbing the rhythm of good plot, solid structure. There's so much to pilfer out there! Read everything – read the stuff you're trying to emulate, as well as the stuff you might not otherwise. There is something to be learned from every book and every writer out there. It's now your job to read, as many books as you can. I myself stayed away from books about writing. I was worried about worrying about whether or not I was doing it “right.” Be your own judge here – if you can read these books while maintaining your authorial voice, then by all means. But if you, like me, can be unduly influenced by a chickpea looking at you sideways, then maybe it's better to skip them.

5. Use it or lose it. This comes, I believe, from Joan Didion. Or Annie Dillard. I confuse the two for absolutely no good reason. Anyway, the idea is this: Use it. Right here, right now. Don't save anything for a future book. There are no future books, there's this one, right in front of you, and some day 300+ pages is going to seem like a holy heck of a lot, if it doesn't already. I didn't really understand this until I practiced it myself, and I don't think Didion/Dillard was talking just about emotional states. The funny thing someone said this morning, use the profound insight you acquired from making your lunch, the relationship you suddenly find interesting – maybe the universe is trying to tell you something. This will help fill up those pages but also make your writing fresh and relevant. If it doesn't work later, ok, you can take it out. But I think part of the invention process requires us to make it work, as "Project Runway's" Tim Gunn likes to say. Finding ways to infuse your book with what is meaningful to you now, at this very moment, is what makes words lift off the page for your readers.

6. Here I would like to say something like what my friend Pimone said to me once about writing: It's bigger than God, it's bigger than the universe, it's bigger than YOU. By which I think she meant, in the service of your writing, be prepared to make sacrifices. Your safety, your security, your peace of mind – be prepared to give it all up, baby.

And I get this, to a large degree. But what I want to say is something more like, find your love, and write with it. A lot of my early writing was ANGRY. I was PISSED OFF. For the right reasons, as a lot of people in their younger days are pissed off for the right reasons. But I couldn't sustain that over 300+ pages, not so's you'd want to read it, anyway. So the big challenge for me, when I decided I wanted to write a book that others would read, was this: To find what I loved, who I loved, and work with that. I was absolutely terrified at first that the people I loved would think I was writing about them. I was afraid they would feel betrayed. And if it meant I was never going to be very relevant, I decided I wouldn't hurt anybody intentionally, if I could help it. I'm a nice girl from the Midwest. I can't use somebody's pain for fodder.

What that did mean though was to really dig deep into what I care about. That's not actually easy, in my experienced, but it's something to be cultivated. And, again, it's what lifts your words off the page.

Swallow your pride and learn a little marketing. I know, I know, but no one is going to do this for you, until you become Somebody. Meanwhile, suck it up, and write a killer (marketing people say things like “killer”) cover letter. Because unless you already have the gonnegshuns, baby, it's the only way out of the slush pile.

Pretend you are writing about somebody else. You wouldn't undersell them, and you wouldn't gush. In your cover letter you will want to describe your book, and give the agent you're submitting it to an idea of the book's selling points. In my cover letter for my first book, NICE TO COME HOME TO, I pointed out that it's based on a Jane Austen novel, that I had some creds, and I gave a plot outline that would suffice on the back of the book jacket. You want to create interest, so spend some time thinking about the selling points, or ask a friend whose opinion you trust.

I know it's not the funnest part of the job, but it's not the worst, either. I actually rather enjoyed thinking of myself as my close friend, the writer, to whom I am absolutely devoted and in whom I completely believe. It's not my usual M.O., if you get me.

7. Learn to meditate. If you can sit still for forty minutes and focus on your breathing, you can write a book.

Meditating helps you focus. It helps you cultivate patience, and fortitude. It opens the inner workings of your mind and heart for you. It gives you a calm, balanced mind. It helps you get in touch with your love, which is of course underlying everything that makes you angry. It keeps you sane. It helps you understand that bad thoughts and emotions (such as I WILL NEVER EVER BE A WRITER) are just like the passing clouds. Just weather.

Forty minutes a day, sit and watch yourself breathe. When you get lost in thought – which everybody does, which you will certainly do – don't get frustrated or annoyed, but return to the breath. You may have to do that a million times in forty minutes. Or ten minutes. Whatever you can do. Give your mind a little room, a little nourishment. You're asking it to do one of the hardest things a brain can ever do, after all.

Please feel free to email me. I'd love to hear from you –
~~Rebecca Flowers

About: Rebecca Flowers is a writer living in Western Massachusetts with her husband and two daughters. Her commentaries have appeared on NPR's "All Things Considered" and "Day to Day." Her first novel, NICE TO COME HOME TO (Riverhead Books) is currently available in bookstores everywhere. She blogs at and loves email:

Note: Rebecca will be reading at Politics and Prose bookstore in DC on Saturday, May 17, at 6 p.m.


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.