You see, I show her most of the articles I write before posting them and she offers her insights, which I greatly appreciate. She is a tough critic. If I can get a piece of writing past her, I feel as if I’ve truly accomplished something. Not only does she end up making better what was there in the first place, but she also often adds her own contribution, which more often than not, finds its way into the finished product.
One of the constant refrains I hear from her is that, while the posts I do on writing “aren’t bad,” I need to do more on dual diagnosis. As usual, she is right.
We had the following conversation the other day:
Susan: You need to do a post on dual diagnosis. It’s been a while since you did one.
Me: I know, but sometimes I really don’t know what to say. The issues associated with dual diagnosis, in my case, depression, and drinking, aren’t always present. Since I don’t feel like I’m really struggling I don’t feel as if I have anything to offer on the subject.
Susan: It’s because you’re not struggling that you really have something to offer.
Hence, this post.
It’s been years since I’ve struggled with either depression or alcoholism, at least for very long.
The shortest, most honest answer I can give is because I wanted to get better.
I believe this is the most important factor in the successful management of dual diagnosis. Unfortunately, we cannot get better for anyone other than ourselves. And no matter how much or how hard others want us to get well and despite their best intentions, no one can do it for us. We have to want it—we have to want it more than anything.
So the question arises, then, what have I done to manage my dual diagnosis over the past several years?
What follows is a discussion of what has worked for me. I am not a medical doctor or a licensed clinician, both of which I suggest you contact in dealing with dual diagnosis. I am only sharing my personal experiences.
That having been said, here are some of the most important elements that go into managing my dual diagnosis:
First, I take responsibility for my choices and actions. With regard to alcohol, I believe that I am the only person who can pour a drink down my throat. Just as importantly, I believe I am the only person who can stop me from pouring a drink down my throat. I can only rely on myself to keep myself sober. Similarly, I can only rely on myself to combat early signs of a depressive episode and try to keep it from escalating into a full-blown state. This is an enormously empowering realization and one I would not trade for the world.
Second, I have found a combination of medicine (none of which is addictive) that works for me. I know many people are against medication and that is fine. What I also know is that I need medication to function. Too many times I’ve tried to go without and the result was always the same: a depressive-alcoholic episode of various intensity and length. What is also true is that I did not happen upon this combination of medicine the first time. It took repeated efforts. Medicine is seldom an exact science in the case of any illness; more so when dealing with brain chemistry, of which we know so little about.
Third, I socialize with healthy people. Being around such people is one of the most important components of my success.
Fourth, I have developed my talent and a true passion for what I am good at—writing. Writing has become so important to me that I can’t think of what it would be like to not have writing in my life. It has been a coping mechanism and so much more.
Fifth, I eat three meals a day and sleep on a regular schedule. I cannot begin to emphasize the importance of these components in my recovery process. Though they sound simple, they are truly “secrets” to my success.
Sixth, I am in a healthy loving relationship. Gone is the addiction to drama that has characterized previous relationships. Here to stay is the steady, daily love that truly nurtures and sustains.
Seventh, I see a substance abuse counselor AND a psychiatrist to manage both elements of my dual diagnosis. I take one illness just as seriously as the other. And I allow the two professionals to work in conjunction, that is, each knows the other, and both have my permission to communicate.
I’ll stop there, because I want to hear your thoughts, comments, or questions concerning anything I’ve said so far.
Please know, also, that I realize I have a long way to go—for example, I need to incorporate exercise into my daily schedule, but this is some of what has worked for me thus far.
The most important thing is that there is effective treatment for dual diagnosis. You just have to be persistent and know what to look for.
All the best,
Well, to modify an old adage, you can take the teacher out of the classroom, but you can never take the classroom out of the teacher. I loved acquiring knowledge and sharing it with students, some of whom were undoubtedly my best teachers.
When I left academics I turned to fiction with the desperation of the drowning. And literature was the lifeboat that rescued me. I am a Political Scientist by training, which means for years I hadn’t the time or the inclination to read much fiction. Having failed out of high school, I hadn’t even read some of the classics that everyone reads. But in my mid-thirties I discovered and nurtured an intense love for fiction and creative writing.
Over the course of a decade, I have learned that just like in the academic world, writing effective fiction requires an enormous amount of research. It took me a long time to realize that the same research methods I’d used in graduate school were applicable to writing fiction.
As New York Times bestselling author Steve Alten states in his post on the role of research in the writing process, research is of enormous importance:
“[It] is the elixir that reinvigorates your storyline, opens your chapters, and liberates you when you’ve written yourself into a suffocating closet. It makes you an expert in things you know diddley about, and elevates you from a wannabee to an author.”
In addition to books and articles, resources like Google and YouTube are invaluable for finding the information I need to write cogent, convincing scenes. I would literally be lost without these tools. And I will say that for writing international scenes, in particular, Google Earth has been enormously helpful.
Currently, I am working on a series of thrillers. I’ve discovered that writing them requires a tremendous amount of research. Writing fiction has allowed me to do what I’ve always loved doing: sharing knowledge with others. And for that I am grateful.
How much research do you do in writing your books? Do you find it pleasurable or burdensome? Do you use books, articles, and the Internet to maximum advantage? I look forward to hearing from you.
All the best,
She is locked away from the world with nothing but a dictionary and maybe a thesaurus. She sits endlessly before a typewriter (or a computer without Internet access) and digs deep into the inner recesses of her mind, forming great phrases and poetic images ex nihilo, and feverishly typing page after page in linear, chronological order.
I know better now. Yet sometimes I still have a hard time acknowledging the extent to which a novel is a process and a result of the efforts of many individuals. The myth of the solitary writer clings to the recesses of my mind with all the tenacity of an outdated stereotype.
Why is this?
Part of it has to do with the nature of the creative process. In some ways it is you and only you confronting the stark reality of the blank page. Novels are not written by committee. It is a matter of you, person versus machine, as you try to conjure up the fantastic images necessary to the creation and completion of your literary endeavor.
What we often fail to realize, however, is that writers, unlike heart surgeons, have more than one chance to “get it right.” We may only have a nebulous idea to begin with. But put something down on paper and you can rest assured the people you’ve chosen to read your initial efforts will offer feedback in some way, shape, or form.
I think a good deal of the anxiety of writing can be relieved by realizing that before the novel is published, it will pass before the eyes of several people. In addition to beta readers, there are editors, both content and line, that will help clarify your ideas and polish your prose. You, yourself, will go through more versions of a draft than you ever thought possible.
But more broadly, even, is this: the world of literature and art exists as a template upon which to build and fashion your own ideas. Nothing is created in a vacuum and nothing is inherently original. It is the way we combine more or less familiar ideas that matter.
What we do bring to the task that’s unique are our own personal experiences and worldviews, products of the events we have experienced in life.
At the same time, we should feel that we are of the world and that we write with the world behind us.
As Natalie Goldberg says in Writing Down the Bones, “It’s much better to be a tribal writer, writing for all people and reflecting many voices through us, than to be a cloistered being trying to find one peanut of truth in our own individual mind. Become big and write with the whole world in your arms.”
Such thoughts inspire me, comfort me in times of need, humble me, and encourage me to get on with the writing.
It takes a village to write a book. And for that, I’m grateful.
In Samuel Beckett’s famous play, two men, Vladimir and Estragon, wait for Godot, a character who never shows. Whether we believe Godot serves as a reference to God, or represents any of several conditions/states critics have identified over the years, it seems clear that the playwright makes a very important point about the futility of waiting for something to happen.
Before I started writing on a regular basis, I used to adopt an approach to it similar to that of the main characters in Beckett’s play. I would wait for inspiration to hit before beginning.
Seasoned writers may chuckle at this, partly in recognition of the futility of such an approach, but also because of identification with the writer who earnestly and patiently waits for inspiration to hit before engaging in the manual task of writing.
“The manual task of writing” may seem an odd choice of words, but it is just that, isn’t it? Writing involves a physical effort, a connection if you will, between the brain and the pen or the brain and the fingers as they work the keyboard/typewriter.
Writing is as much a physical act as it is a mental effort. If you need proof of this, think of the difference between the bestselling novels we’ve all written in our heads, and the first drafts of the actual manuscripts that sit on our desks.
This is not to denigrate the role inspiration plays in writing. We have to start some place and an idea that seems to come from the blue is often as good a place as any.
But I’m of the belief that inspiration mostly comes after we start writing than any time before. I don’t know how many times I have sat down in front of the keyboard with absolutely nothing to say, and before I knew it, I had written a paragraph, a scene, or even a blog post 😉
There is something that happens when we physically engage in the activity of writing that does not come from pure thought alone.
A famous writer once remarked that he only wrote when he was inspired. Then added that he made darn sure he was inspired at 9 o’clock every morning.
And let me just say that as much of an outliner as I am, I leave a lot of room for creativity. I may have only a very basic idea of what needs to happen in a scene before I start writing it. But when I do I usually find that my creativity becomes engaged through the very process of writing. Writing generates its own momentum, its own form of inspiration.
When I have a hard time getting going, I just try to come up with one word. This often helps me think of a sentence, which in turn generates a paragraph and before I know it, I’m writing. There is something magical to it after all, isn’t there? But there is a concrete step one can take in bringing this magic about. For I have found that actually writing is often the best way to actually write.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the matter.
Now, granted, I may go overboard in my efforts to organize my research and just about every other aspect of the writing process.
How, you may ask?
Good question! In addition to the rather structured way in which I approach writing (as I’ve mentioned in my last two blog posts), there are other aspects of my process that mark me out as, well, in the loving words of my significant other, an “anal retentive freak.”
I have books about writing next to my computer, which I guess isn’t too bad. I keep 3-inch binders of articles relevant to my work in progress. Maybe that’s not terrible either. I do scene cards for each of my chapters, and I keep an excel spreadsheet that lists the major elements of each scene. “Okay,” you might say, “that sounds reasonable.”
Here’s where it starts getting a little dicey. I keep a running bibliography of the sources I consult during my research. I make out a 3” x 5” index card for each source, to which I assign a letter of the alphabet. Then I take notes from the source on a 4” x 6” index card and put the topic, source letter, and page number, at the top. I then organize said cards into categories. I place these notes in an index card file box separated by little cardboard dividers with a category on each one. “Hhmm,” you might say.
I also keep a file box replete with organized categories for things I come across when I am just reading for pleasure. For instance, if I come across a wonderful description of a nose, I’ll write it down on an index card and file it under a category called–you guessed it–“Noses.” In addition to body parts (e.g., eyes, ears, hair, and smile), I have categories like “Imagery,” “Emotional Description,” “Dialogue,” and “Gestures.” If this wasn’t enough, I construct time-lines on butcher paper and keep Excel spreadsheets on characters. And I haven’t even mentioned sticky notes yet.
Okay, by now you may be rotating your index finger in a circular motion next to your temple and whole-heartedly agreeing with my girlfriend’s assessment.
So, I am a little, um, well, let’s call it “organized” when it comes to writing.
But just when I was starting to worry about myself, I came across this quote by William Blake:
“He who would do good to another must do it in Minute Particulars; General Good is the plea of the scoundrel, hypocrite and flatterer: For Art and Science cannot exist but in minutely organized Particulars.”
Recently, I’ve started reading The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism, for I know very little about the topic. One thing I am learning is that what at first glance might appear arbitrary in good fiction is often the result of very conscious, organized efforts on the part of the writer. This is not saying that excellent writing cannot emerge from less organized efforts. But I have to say organization works for me.
I’m interested in hearing your thoughts and experiences re: the role of organization in writing.
In “Being There,” Sellers plays an idiot gardener, whose simplistic outlook on life, formed by watching television, is mistaken by the rich and powerful as wisdom for the ages. The movie reminds us that just being there is often reason enough to succeed.
Indeed. According to some analysts, showing up is 80% of the secret to success.
What does this have to do with writing? More specifically, what does showing up mean if you are a writer?
First, it means putting yourself in front of the computer every day, or however often you choose to write. It may sound simplistic, but showing up at your computer (read typewriter or notebook, for those who choose to go old school), ready to write is probably the most important thing you can do to advance your writing goals.
I make a ritual out of showing up to write. I get my coffee (often laced with a shot of espresso), put on some classical music and sit in front of my computer. If I’m currently working on a piece of writing, I’ll start before I’m fully awake. I have tremendous faith in the power of the unconscious, and I find that being half-asleep helps the creative juices flow. If I’m not writing that day, which usually means I’m researching for the next book), I’ll check my accounts and go through e-mail and other things that need attending to before I begin my research.
Showing up also means things like going to your writing group when it meets, and perhaps attending conferences or other functions where there are writerly people. It is important to place yourself in situations where there are people who share your interests, even if you don’t feel like doing so at the time. I used to get caught up in worrying about such gatherings until I realized that showing up is really all it takes. I used to construct various scenarios in my mind about how things were going to go, or should go, until I realized that 99% of the things I worried about never happened.
Finally, showing up means being present in your own life. Recognize that you are a sentient being and realize that everything else can be seen as sentient. You will benefit from doing so, especially if you are a writer. This usually involves a whole lot of listening to other people and to other things. As Natalie Goldberg says in Writing Down the Bones, and as I’ve shared before:
“[L]isten to the air, the chair, and the door…Take in the sound of the season, the sound of the color coming in through the windows. Listen to the past, future, and present right where you are. Listen with your whole body, not only with your ears, but with your hands, your face, and the back of your neck.”
What does showing up mean to you? What helps you show up on a regular basis?
Next time we’ll talk about another lesson I’ve learned during a decade of writing–namely, the importance of showing up.
After you develop the two-sentence story structure (see previous post) what then?
I will say that I am an outline person, so my method involves a lot of planning up front. Pansters have a different, and for them equally effective, approach.
At some point early on I write a paragraph synopsis of the story, one that includes the two sentence structure, as well as potential answers to the story question. I try to develop an overall idea of where the story will start, how it will unfold, and how it will end (beginning, middle, and end).
Then I start fleshing out characters, answering questions about them along the lines stated in a previous post.
Next, I think of scenes (chapters) that must happen in the story. I try to devise a bang-up opening, because openings are huge, and I start to think about what the middle of the story will look like. I also try to come up with a scene in my head that looks like the end of the story.
Once I have a few scenes in mind—and I do think of them in terms of movie scenes—I set about writing the opening chapter. I write the early chapters with the middle and end scenes in mind (to the extent I can think of them).
I try to write chronologically, filling in as many of the interstitial scenes as possible. There is a lot of give and take in this process, working back and forth between developing scenes, developing characters, and following my vision of what the beginning, middle, and end of the story will look like.
In terms of writing each scene (chapter), I follow the basic format developed in prior posts, using Swain’s distinction between the elements of action scenes and sequel scenes (the two main types of chapters).
I follow this along until I have written a first draft. If I’ve followed the structure set out here, my first draft is pretty solid. There will be many revisions, but the framework of the story is pretty well established.
So much for the macro-level of novel steps involved in the novel writing process. What about the micro-level, those smaller elements that occur within chapters, such as paragraphs and sentences?
Let’s break it down even further into the constituent elements of paragraphs and sentences–namely, words. For perhaps the best answer to the question of how novels are written is one word at a time.
But we all know this. I bring it up because I want to focus on the ultimate baby step in writing a novel. The next time you are daunted by the prospect of writing a novel, try this. Sit in your chair with your WIP on the screen. Next, simply type one word that comes next, the first word of a new sentence or the next word in the sentence if you’ve left off in mid-air. Like Lays potato chips you probably won’t be able to limit yourself to just one (word).
Is this the only way to write? No. It is simply one way to write. The best way is the way that works for you. I’ve just tried to show some ways in which the daunting task of novel writing can be broken down into smaller steps.
Now that you’ve heard from me, I’d like to hear from you. What baby steps do you use, if any, to make the prospect of writing a novel less intimidating?
Did you ever see “What About Bob?” with Richard Dreyfus and Bill Murray? Dreyfus plays a psychiatrist whose patient Bob (Murray) follows the good doctor to his vacation house for some continual therapy. The psychiatrist is promoting a book called Baby Steps. I think of this movie when I think of one of the most important lessons I’ve learned after a decade of writing: namely, that breaking things down into smaller pieces helps.
Does writing a book seem a daunting, overwhelming task? (I say “book” because I am a novelist, though what I have to say most likely applies to short stories, too.) Well, it is. I don’t think anyone just plops down and starts to write a book, from Chapter One through The End.
What has worked for me is to break the whole book thing down into its component parts. The method I’m about to describe has worked for me, but that doesn’t mean it will work for you, and I’m sure different writers have different methods. That having been said, I offer this especially to “young” writers and to those writers who may want to try something a little different.
I thought we’d start with the biggest component first—the book as a whole, and then work our way down to the smaller constituent parts—synopses, character sketches, chapters, scenes, paragraphs, sentences and, ultimately, words. All of this will be with an eye toward how breaking things down into smaller pieces can aid the writing process.
I start by finding a topic I am genuinely interested in (e.g., the death penalty, fracking, etc.), and then I try to read all I can about it.
This inevitably leads to a host of questions and a list of what ifs that I play with until I am able to devise a two sentence encapsulation of the main story questions.
How does this work?
Here is an excerpt from a post I did a while back that deals with this two sentence structure. I am reposting it because I think it’s that important to the book writing process, and I really want to share it with you because it has helped me so much:
In Techniques of the Selling Writer (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1965; see especially pp. 131-135), Swain says we need two sentences and only two sentences to encapsulate the story structure.
The first sentence is a statement that deals with character, situation, and objective, and the second is a question that deals with opponent and disaster. That’s all well and good, but what does this look like in practice?
It is hard to improve on Swain’s examples so I will simply relate one of his here. Say you are writing a science-fiction story. Your basic idea is that humans start growing very tall and the main character’s objective is to find out why. So your first sentence that deals with character, situation, and objective looks something like this:
Sentence 1: When humans suddenly sprout to twelve-feet tall, John Storm tries to find out why.
The first sentence of story structure is posited in the form of a statement. In it, we have the situation (humans suddenly growing tall), the character (John Storm) and the objective (trying to find out why this is happening).
The second sentence in story structure deals with opponent and disaster and is cast in the form of a question:
Sentence 2: But can he (John Storm) defeat the traitors in high places who want to kill him in order to make the change appear to be the result of an extraterrestrial plot?
Here we have the opponent and the disaster that threatens our protagonist—namely, death.
This may sound simple, but framing story structure in such a way, really helps.
For my upcoming novel The Brother Keepers, I started off with a fascination for the Jesuits. After a good deal of reading and research I eventually formulated and honed the two sentence story structure into something like the following:
When a US Senator is murdered in a confessional booth in Washington, DC, Nicholas Branson, SJ, tries to find out why.
But can he do so before a cadre of religious and political officials stop him from uncovering a centuries-old mysterious treasure, one that lies behind the senator’s murder, and one that will rock the foundations of the Judeo-Christian world if found?
These are the initial steps I use in breaking down the whole I’m-going-to-write-a-novel thing, my baby steps, if you will. More will follow, but I wanted to start here.
What are some of the initial steps you use to break down the novel writing process? Does breaking things into smaller steps help you work toward the completion of your writing goal?
At this stage in my journey, I thought it might be a good time to look back and focus on some of the lessons I’ve learned about writing.
I undertake this assessment very humbly. I realize I’m a neophyte compared to writers who have been writing their whole lives. But we all had to start somewhere, and I’m a firm believer that starting late is better than never starting.
What I thought I’d do is make this a discussion/conversation/dialogue rather than me simply talking about the things I’ve learned. So, in no particular order, I’ll post a lesson and then comment on it. I will do this over the course of the next several posts–unless of course I have a burning desire to say something else. I encourage you to comment on the lesson listed/discussed, and/or to add your own at any time.
Let’s have fun sharing what we’ve learned.
One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that persistence is key.
What does persistence mean in terms of writing?
As a writer friend recently said, “ I’d need to define persistence in writing as accepting the difficulties that arise as things that need to be worked through in order to complete a story or manuscript. It means working hard, giving-up not being an option, and understanding that the ends will justify the means and all of the hard work and effort will help achieve the goal of completion.”
I especially like the part about “giving-up not being an option.” For when things get tough, persistence is what rises to the surface to help get us through a difficult spell.
To me, persistence in writing means a few different things. I’m sure you can help me think of more:
Persistence means never giving up in the face of rejection from agents, publishers, or readers.
It means writing manuscripts that you know are not salable in order to get all of the bad writing that exists in all us out of our system.
And it means writing a little bit every day, especially when you are in the midst of a work in progress (WIP).
Just remember, time is going to go by whether you work on your manuscript or not. A year from now you are going to be that much older. You might as well have something to show for the passage of time. In other words, you might as well be persistent.
Bottom line: to me persistence involves taking one day at a time and acting on it as you would wish to act for the rest of your life.
As Steinbeck wrote in Travels with Charley, “When I face the desolate impossibility of writing five hundred pages, a sick sense of failure falls on me, and I know I can never do it. Then gradually, I write one page and then another. One day’s work is all I can permit myself to contemplate.”
This leads us to another lesson that we’ll talk about soon: the importance of breaking large tasks up into smaller ones so that they become more manageable.
What does persistence mean to you, either in terms of writing, or in terms of life in general?