Writing

Stop Showing Your Art to Your Boyfriend.

I was sitting in a park recently, drawing the trees, when a woman asked if she could sit down next to me and watch me draw.

“Sure,” I said. “Are you an artist?”

“I wanted to be,” she said. “I started to draw, but then I showed my drawings to my boyfriend and he said they were no good, so I quit.”

“Stop showing your work to your boyfriend,” I said.

She laughed. “Yeah, I guess I could do that.”

**

Just last week I was on book tour with Elly Griffiths, whose protagonist is an archeologist. Elly’s husband is also an archaeologist. Someone in the audience asked what he thought of her novels.

“Oh, I don’t think he reads them,” she said, lightly and cheerfully.

The audience seemed shocked, but she wasn’t bothered at all by this. “They’re just not his sort of books,” she said.

Makes sense to me.

**

I believe that anyone who loves you should be able to look at the art you’re making and say, “I love you and I love it that you’re doing this. Please keep going.” That’s reasonable to expect.

An occasional “Wow, that’s wonderful” would be nice, just like an occasional “Hey, gorgeous” is nice. It’s not a full-page review in the New York Times. It’s a compliment, given out of kindness in those moments when you’ve made an extra effort and it shows.

They could also show their love by making it possible for you to work: by watching the kids, or clearing out a space in the garage, or simply by leaving you alone when you’re working.

They could help you load your equipment into the car. They could change that hard-to-reach light bulb in your studio.

They could point out an upcoming exhibit at the art museum, or a new book, or a concert, that speaks to your work.

They could inform themselves about your art just enough to be able to explain what you do to a stranger. “My husband’s a plein air painter,” would suffice, or “My wife’s a jazz percussionist.”

If your loved ones put you down for making art, or get in the way of you making art—well, then we have a problem.

But they don’t need to love your work—especially your rough, unfinished, just-for-practice work. They don’t need to read your books, or go to all your concerts. If you were a lawyer, they wouldn’t attend your every trial and deposition, would they?

My dad’s a musician, and my mother didn’t sit all night at his gigs, gazing adoringly at him while he played guitar. She made sure he had a clean shirt and something to eat before the show. Then he went off to do his work.

Your loved ones should look after YOU. You should look after your art.

“How Do I Start My Book?” I Have an Answer to That Question.

“I have an idea for a book, but I don’t know where to start.”

People ask writers for advice on starting a book all the time. I’m sure a lot of writers get tired of trying to answer that question. There you are, behind a table at a booksigning, at the end of a long evening, trying to summarize the incredibly messy and frustrating process of making 300 pages come together as a coherent whole while a dozen other people wait in line to get their book signed. Where to begin?

But I have an answer to this question! Last week, when a woman at my event in Wisconsin told me that she wanted to write a memoir but didn’t know where to start, I told her exactly where to start.

With a box of index cards.

Pick a month in which you don’t have tremendous demands on your time and attention. Every day during that month, write down any idea you have about this book you’d like to write and toss it in a box. These can be grand ideas (“The story of my grandparents’ immigration from Poland”) or small ideas (“That time I put salt in the cake batter instead of sugar.”) Some of them might not be suitable for the book you’re going to write. Some of them might be too big, too broad, overly vague. Some might be too small and specific and uninteresting.

Doesn’t matter! They’re only index cards. Write them down anyway, and toss them in the box.

If you have a very busy day in which you have no time to write anything down on an index card, force yourself to take one minute and write one thing down on one index card. C’mon, you had time to brush your teeth, right? You have time for this.

If you hit a mother lode and come up with 40 ideas all at once, great! Write them down on 40 index cards and put them in the box.

If an idea hits you and you don’t have an index card handy, write it down on any scrap of paper. Type it into the notes app on your phone. Email it to yourself. Leave yourself a voice mail.  And at the end of the day, transfer those ideas to index cards. There is something powerful and cumulative about writing your ideas down, in the same format, every day.

At the end of the month, I hope you have HUNDREDS of cards. You should keep adding cards all the time.  Don’t stop just because the month is over.

Now what? Well, remember, this is the short version, the standing-in-line-at-the-booksigning version. But the next thing you should do is to pull out an index card and write ONE PAGE about what’s on that card. Tell the story, whatever it is, no matter how big or small it is.

Just one page. A double-spaced page, at that! We’re talking 300 words. Anybody can get 300 words down on paper.

Writing this page might give you more ideas for more index cards. Good.

You might not get the whole story written in one page. Fine. Write two pages. Or (even better) leave yourself a few notes and come back tomorrow to write another page.

Don’t worry about where that page falls in the chronological timeline of your story. In fact, I hope you write everything out of order. It’ll be fresh and interesting that way.

If you can write one page a day–a double-spaced page!–then at the end of the year, you’ll have a book.  That even allows for some days off for holidays, illness, whatever.

Now, I promise you that it’ll be a terrible book, a real mess, and it’ll be completely out of order, and there will be a million things about it that are wrong and out of whack and in need of some serious fixing–but now you have some pages to work with.

That’s how you start.

Students: Do You Have Questions? I Have Answers!

I get a lot of emails from students working on projects. I’m sorry, but I just can’t answer all of them and anyway, there are better ways to do research.

I agree with Austin Kleon’s advice,  “Students: Pretend I’m Dead!” which he got from another artist. You can find out most everything you want to know about a writer, artist, or other public figure by researching them as if they’ve been dead for a while. What do I mean by that?

  • You can read their books, or study their work carefully, including introductions, afterwords, artist statements, and so on.
  • You can read interviews and articles by them or about them. Many authors post links right on their website, like I do here. More information, including answers to frequently-asked questions, can be found on each book’s page and in the press kits. I sometimes write about my work or post links to articles on my blog, and there are years of posts to search through there.
  • Look it up! Once you’ve exhausted Google and YouTube, a trip to the library (and you might have to go to your local university library for this) will give you free access to the wonderful world of LexisNexis, ProQuest, and Newspapers.com, among others.
  • Many times, students want to interview me because they’re supposed to talk to an “expert” in earthworms, poisonous plants, etc. Remember that I am not an expert in any of these things! I interview people who are experts, but I’m just a writer. I did research. Everything I know about those subjects is already in the books. In the back of each book (and this includes my novels), I list sources for anyone who wants to study further.

Finally a word for teachers (students, feel free to show this to your teacher): Please do not make your student’s grade contingent upon receiving a response from anyone! It’s not fair to the student or to the person fielding the request. I’ve conducted hundreds of interviews over the years, and I know that there’s no real-world penalty to not being able to get an interview. You simply find another way to do the work.

Many thanks and happy studying,

Amy