Tuesday, May 31, 2011

THE WRITING LIFE, PART II: I'D RATHER BE WRITING

ARTICHOKE AND TELEPHONE WIRE,
ANGELUS AVENUE, LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA.
My whole philosophy of the writing life could be summed up in four words: I’D RATHER BE WRITING.

I’d rather be writing than taking a class about writing, teaching a class about writing, complaining about writing, or having long, wind-bag conversations about writing. I’d rather be writing than watching TV, gossiping about other writers (which is saying something), or idly shopping, talking on the phone, or eating (ditto). I'd rather be writing, it turned out, than be married. I'd way rather be writing than working at a job I loathe, which is why I have no other job.

I wouldn’t always rather be writing than reading, or taking a walk, or cooking, or playing the piano, or going to Mass, or talking about books as opposed to writing. But I’ve been extraordinarily graced to have come to writing so relatively late in life (I was 43 or so when I started) that I intuitively knew I didn’t want to waste a single second. I intuitively understood that if you want to write, you have to sit down and write. I intuitively understood that unless you're independently wealthy, you have to be willing to walk a constant tightrope of how you're going to write, plus pay the rent and eat.

Whatever your financial status, you have to be willing to bear the constant tension of the gigantic gap between the writer you wish you were and the writer you are. And if my credo is "I'd rather be writing," my story has turned out to be "Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you." [Matthew 6: 33].

SUNSET BOULEVARD,
SILVER LAKE BOULEVARD OVERPASS
WHOOPS!
When I started out, I took two classes at UCLA extension, the first from David Ulin, who went on to become editor for several years of the L.A. Times Book Review, and Bernard Cooper, memoirist, short-story writer, novelist, and art critic, whose work and person I tremendously admire. One night, Bernard handed back our essays and in one of the margins I found scribbled in black pen: “You’re a terrific writer.” I stopped breathing. I wasn’t sure that was true, I suspected Bernard wrote the same thing on everyone’s paper, but that was all I needed. I never for a second considered getting, say, an M.F.A. after that. That single kind, generous statement, and the fellow feeling behind it, have silently nourished my work for sixteen years.

Soon after the second class ended, me and another couple of gals decided to form a little group. We would meet informally every other week, critique each other’s work, give moral support, share information. We proceeded nicely for several months and then I noticed one of the women was sort of jabbing at my work for  what she saw as political incorrectness. Then one day the other one showed up, announced, just a tad smugly, that she’d been taking a workshop (unbeknownst to us) with some kind of hot-shot L.A, writing-workshop giver and had submitted her work and won a prize. And right then I saw the handwriting on the wall. Till then, I had actually thought that writers operated by some moral code that was loftier than the rest of the world’s. I dropped out of the group, have never felt moved to join another, and to this day, for better or worse, rarely show anyone my work before it goes out to my agent, or a magazine, or an editor.

Another way I've been blessed from the beginning is that I have an almost violently protective urge toward my writing. I had wanted to write since I was six. I couldn't get to it for thirty-five years because of my drinking, and fear, and sloth, and spiritual bankruptcy. I had given so much of myself away--body, mind, soul--out there in the bars that when I finally began to write I felt toward it as St. Maria Goretti did about her virginity which was that she would rather be stabbed to death (at the age of twelve, no less), than yield it. I just thought: NOBODY is going to undermine me. NOBODY is going to tell me this is not the calling of my heart. Nobody is going to lay their repulsive, monstrous, cowardly, lemming-like political correctness or Phariseeism or pretentious literary blowhardism or shallow commercialistic (is that a word?) lies on my writing and wreck it for me

I had quit my job as a lawyer to begin writing, and from the start I viewed it as a job that you make your bed, get dressed and show up for every day. Flannery O’Connor wrote for four hours every day; I would make four hours a day my goal. I would serve an apprenticeship, probably for the rest of my life, which so far has certainly proved to be true. I worked and continue to work like a pack horse, for the first ten years in pretty much complete obscurity.  Sometimes I put in more than four hours, often less (and in one way, of course, you are "writing" twenty-four hours a day), but rare is the day that I don’t write at all. I keep a journal. My freshest energy is in the morning so I try to tap into that. I spend at least an hour every day answering mail, not that I get that much mail, but answering it other than mechanically takes thought and time. I try to remember to say please and thank you to the people with whom I come in contact, professional and non-professional. I try to be conscientious and timely. To my knowledge, I have never failed to respond to a letter of thanks or encouragement or shared trouble/questing, or a query from a fellow writer or would-be writer unless it was from the few stalker-types I’ve encountered, but that’s another story.


My goal from the beginning was simply to make enough money to continue to write and that’s just about how it’s panned out. Writers will tell you anything except how much they’re paid but I myself am always curious and as it is something of a miracle that anyone ever manages to support him- or herself as a writer, I'm glad to share that info, too. For years I supported myself by doing free-lance legal writing and research, for which I was paid 75-90 bucks an hour. I was married at the time, so my expenses were half what they are now and I’d work maybe 20-25 hours a month, just enough to cover expenses so that I could devote as much time as possible to my own writing. I saved some money from when I was a lawyer, a little of which I still have as a "prudent reserve." 

I live very close to the bone and the huge grace of that is that I have always been able to write exactly what I’ve wanted to. I don’t think in my whole time as a writer I’ve written more than two or three query letters. I just write whatever essay or reflection I’m moved to (I have no talent at all for fiction) and then I think about where I might send it. For years, that was to literary journals and a few magazines: The Sun, Notre Dame Magazine, Portland, The Los Angeles Times Sunday Magazine back when they published—and paid good money for—essays.

I started writing around 1995 and I probably published forty essays before my first book Parched, was bought in 2003 or '04. I got a $40,000 advance and a couple of years later I sold my second book, Redeemed for $110,000. Which sounds like a huge amount of money, and in a sense is, except that your agent gets 15%, which brings it down to 96, which you get in installments, 30%, 25%, 25%, and 20% over the course of two years and to write the thing takes two or three on the back end, so basically you’re grossing 24 grand a year for four years (and way less in the not so grand years), and as it was I felt bad for Viking as the book so far has sold about 4000 copies, of which 3900 or so seem to have been to priests, pretty much each one from whom I’ve heard and have developed a relationship with, which is just one of the many treasures my particular writing life has brought.  

Parched, after selling I think 18,000 copies, was remaindered (This means you receive a letter containing the phrase "Due to low sales" and an offer to buy hundreds of copies of your own book for $1.57 apiece). And Shirt of Flame: A Year with St. Therese of Lisieux, for which I got a $7500 advance and has so far been twice the work of the other two, is coming out September 1st from Paraclete if we can ever stop arguing about the cover.

(Here's an encouraging fact for all you would-be writers: the people who design the jacket don't read your book. In fact, I once wrote an essay about how NOBODY reads your book: not your editor, not your publisher, and especially not the people who interview you, if you're lucky enough to get an interview, and more on self-publishing later). 

However, as I said, I get to write what I want. For instance right now I’m working on a book I started ten years ago, right after the event, about my “little bout with breast cancer,” as I like to call it, and how I got a load of the our medical/health care system and the “battle” against cancer and simply refused to undergo chemo and radiation, or to take Tamoxifen. No thank you! The coda being I’m still alive, obviously, and the whole thing turned into a huge reflection on the war mentality on which our entire culture is based, and how maybe there is a way to exercise non-violence toward our very bodies, and the goal of living as long as you possibly can versus the goal of living fully. Stripped: Cancer, Culture, Conscience and the Cloud of Unknowing, I’m going to call it. Now what ten, or possibly twelve, people in the world are not going to be dying to read that! So on I toil.


I’m deeply proud of all three of my books and, in fact, of all my work.

My way wouldn't work for someone else, but this is how it's working out for me. And the point is that the principles underlying the writing life apply, or should, to all of life. So I hope everyone can find something here, even if it's simply to be entertained, which is no small thing. 

Anyway, I have never been much interested—nor much invited—to be part of any literary scene. Now that is REALLY something I’d rather be writing than doing: being part of some "scene." Doggedly, blindly, write is my idea. Read, ponder, mull. Book slams where you’re rated (!?), or go from pub to pub, or shout, or scream, or perform: not for me. Once, when I was a bit more flush than I am these days, I paid 100 bucks to attend a literary awards ceremony that was super boring and for which I later learned the authors could nominate their own books! So that was the first and last awards ceremony I’ve been moved to attend.

Another time I was on a panel for the L.A. Festival of Books. Just the phrase "Festival of Books" should have tipped me off. Cave of Books, Hushed Temple of Books, I could maybe get on board with, but a festival of books? I’d avoided this annual event in all the time I’d been in L.A. but I’d been asked to be on this panel and I’m always honored to be asked to do anything that has to do with my writing, so I went. And just by the time I’d made my way across the gigantic UCLA campus, and checked in, and received my badge, coffee cup, and T-shirt, I wanted to go home.

SECRET STAIRWAY
MICHELTORENA, NORTH OF SUNSET BOULEVARD
Then I actually walked in and the first thing I heard was an extremely loud rock band. I had to literally stagger, among throngs of milling people, to the nearest humongous building and go around to the back where it was quiet and gather myself. I’m a total ham, and don’t at all mind talking in front of groups of people, and actually enjoy being on panels but I tend to get all overwrought and trembly about the nobility of writing, and the calling of being a writer, and how writing for me is a religious vocation, which is fine except that nobody seems to have the slightest idea what I’m talking about and by the end, I need to get out of there and take a really long, solitary walk.  

Which is why I've always carved out tons of time to spend at retreats, remote cabins, monasteries, hermitages, and convents. Writing conferences: oh my God, no. Writing residencies, especially ones where you don’t have to eat with (and therefore talk to, be distracted by, and cultivate a social life with) the other residents, no matter how delightful they may be: great. The Dorland Mountain Arts Colony in Temecula, California (I was in residency there when it burned down; it’s now re-opened); the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos, where you get your own casita, for heaven’s sake, for three months! Djerassi in northern California and Ucross in northern Wyoming were also lovely, and I made friends at all those places, but I happen to bear the most fruit in complete solitude. These are beautiful opportunities to apply yourself whole-heartedly to your work, and many are completely free.

DUSK, NEAR BERKELEY AND BENTON WAY,
A WINDY MAY NIGHT IN LOS ANGELES
NEXT: The Writing Life, Part III, The Habit of Art

17 comments:

  1. I'd happily be among the twelve readers of your current book, Heather! So consider this my scribble in your blog margin -- you're a terrific writer!

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  2. I feel blessed to count for TWO of the 100 non-clerical readers of "Redeemed" ( I ordered a copy for my sister). As much as I like being exclusive, I can't help but wonder why the Lord is keeping your talents under wraps. We need to hear what you have to say. Keep doing exactly what you're doing: staying away from award ceremonies and book festivals, and toiling away at your writing. It is BEAUTIFUL writing, GOOD to read, but above and beyond - it is the TRUTH.

    An aside: I was surprised to read earlier that you discovered your meditation in the Magnificat in the same manner the rest of us did - by flipping a page on May 22nd. I was sure intimate meetings and joint decisions with smart Catholics were behind that printing. I will TODAY ask the Lord to bless you - abundantly and materially. We may not live on bread alone, but we need it.

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  3. Hi there, Respectful Reader, Magnificat had definitely been in touch with me and they had to get permission from the publisher to use the excerpt, so I did know I was going to be in there at some point, just not when. I've done some reflections for their upcoming Advent and Lenten companions as well, and have signed on for a series of meditations on various Holy Days for next year, so that is a wonderful connection to have made with Fr. Cameron, and will make for fruitful writing.

    I'm a terrible exaggerator (some would say liar but those people are not my friends!) for the sake of a laugh (i.e. re the readership breakdown of Redeemed), although I really have heard from MANY priests and that truly is one of the many treasures of my writing life--of which I would not trade one second for anything. The failures, setbacks and disappointments are part of any human life; the joy, because I am able to give everything I have to my work, is the greatest joy imaginable (I'm going to write more about the sort of mystical aspect in a future post); and I am CERTAIN that the work gets out to exactly who it's "supposed" to, at exactly the right time, etc. And the writing forms me, because I have spent the time, effort and heart, whether two people see it, or two hundred thousand.

    Thank you for buying TWO copies of RDEEMED! And for the comment.

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  4. Heather,

    Thanks for writing about this matter. As an aspiring writer/blogger I can relate to your struggles. Writing is a vocation. The trick is how to make money while serving God in your vocation. You are a very gifted writer. I love your style, your frankness, your rhythmic flow. Keep writing away and let God take care of the rest!

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  5. "You should not wait until you are cleansed of wandering thoughts before you desire to pray. If you only begin on prayer when you see that your mind has become perfect and raised above all recollection of the world, then you will never pray." St Isaac the Syrian

    Heather, this quote seemed to fit the moment. As always, it's great to read your thoughts and count you as a friend. And thank you for the encouragement you have given me!

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  6. "God is not like a human being; it is not important for God to have visible evidence so that he can see if his cause has been victorious or not; he sees in secret just as well. Moreover, it is so far from being the case that you should help God to learn anew that it is rather he who will help you to learn anew, so that you are weaned from the worldly point of view that insists on visible evidence. (...) A decision in the external sphere is what Christianity does not want; (...) rather it wants to test the individual’s faith."

    Kierkegaard

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  7. Every year is getting shorter, never seem to find the time

    Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines


    -Pink Floyd

    Heather, here's to following your dream.

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  8. "I tend to get all overwrought and trembly about the nobility of writing, and the calling of being a writer, and how writing for me is a religious vocation,"

    Beautiful!

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  9. Bernard Cooper! I read The Bill From My Father about five years ago, and can honestly say it's one of the most delightful books I've ever read. I loved Cooper's voice; it seemed obvious he was one of the good guys. And now it's no surprise to learn he thinks you're a terrific writer.

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  10. Thanks for this series. It helps to hear you speak of writing as a religious vocation, to be so unapologetic about your reasons for writing. Since I was little, I've had the impulse to write, but for various reasons throughout the course of my life, it's seemed like something I should feel guilty about. I'd rather be writing too. Now I have kids, and I struggle with my d'ruthers as opposed to my duties--a balance I'm always trying to work out. But more and more, I believe in the validity of this work, which as yet, has gone un-published, un-paid, and mostly un-read by anyone but me.

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  11. Found you on May, 22 in Magnifcat and have ordered a copy of your Redeemed.

    I love your writing, but please keep time for mystical ponderings.

    You remind me of Caryll Houselander. Has anyone ever told you that?

    Good luck with your writng.

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  12. I too get to claim one of those 100 non-clerical Redeemed. I was thrilled to discover you had written another book. I must have read Parched, or parts of it, 20 times before I got sober. As a life-long Catholic, I was amazed when in Parched you said you converted to Catholicism. But then you didn't explain it. It is not often that you hear someone go from spiritually nothing to Catholicism. It's not exactly "Jesus-Lite". So yes, I am a proud owner of Redeemed. And I have also read it, or parts of it, at least 20 times. To know that I'm not the only divorced, recovering, "woman of a certain age", who when giving a ride home to a kind of sketchy new-comer to her home group, found herself thinking, "why does everybody else get to have nice husbands, and nice houses, and constant love all the time." I laughed OUT LOUD. Then I read how beautifully you tied it into - our choice. Our choice to turn toward God in true gratitude. That we are in good enough shape to do anything for anybody else. You got your miracle right there.

    So keep writing. There's at least one middle-aged, formerly-active drunk, enthusiastic Catholic, woman out there in whom your words resonate.

    Maureen

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  13. This is a very interesting series. Love your transparency! Am surprised you say you began writing at age 43; I figured the level of specificity in Parched was such that you were keeping a journal --somehow! -- at the time....

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  14. Whoa, thanks everybody! Tony, so good to hear from you, Betty and Augustine, keep at it, Maureen, so glad you got a kick out of the passage about driving the crazy person across town (a continuing theme in my life!), and Dan, oh I have MANY old tear-stained journals. I meant I didn't start writing with intention, as a discipline and vocation, as my life's work, till I was 43.

    I'm a Caryll Houselander fan--who could resist someone known as the Divine Eccentric?--and have the Maisie Ward biog. and some collected writings in fact right this moment near my bed, but no-one has ever compared me to her, so I will take that as a compliment!

    Thanks, too, for the St. Isaac the Syrian and Pink Floyd quotes, both great (in response to the same post: this is the treasure of having a blog!) Bill, Bernard Cooper's Maps to Anywhere is also a classic. Gnelson/Luminous Goat, I like your German paper cutouts! And Leslie, when and if it comes out, you get a free copy of Stripped!

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  15. Heather,
    Last September my sister and I rec'd this email from my brother who I shamelessly exerpt here:

    "Since I know there's nothing you girls love more than stories of converts, writers, and drunks (alas - Jesus is very fond of all three) here's a perfect trifecta. If I were in NY - I would absolutely go to this.

    King is a magnificent writer - a sort of Flannery O'Connor in our midst. If you've never heard of her - she lives in Koreatown in LA, is a recovering alcoholic and a convert. I'll wait while you queue up her wikipedia page....

    Also - there are not enough superlatives for me to say about Fr. Albacete other than you'd have to hear him in person to know what I'm talking about".

    Anyway, unfortunately I was not able to attend, but my sister and mom did and we have become huge fans since. Count us as three of the 4000 readers!

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  16. Nicely written. You have affirmed a reality that is true about writing life: it is a solitary vocation, and the only way to "execute" it is through a love of solitude.

    Really enjoy your writing: grit and warmth nestled into one another.

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  17. This heartened me.

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