Advice for writers—(usually) not about writing.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Moving Beyond Your Default Settings

People who know me primarily from the internet might be surprised to know that I’m actually a major introvert. I have a brash, outsized persona on social media, but when I’m offline I tend to be quiet, even withdrawn. I like going to book parties and receptions and the like, but if there isn’t somebody there that I know already, it can take me forever to work up the courage to put myself forward and initiate a conversation—and if there are snacks, it’s a lot easier to stand off to the side with a small plate of carrot sticks and cheese and crackers than to attempt to introduce myself to a stranger.

It’s different when I’m there to be a center of attention—if I’m giving a talk at a literary festival, for example, or moderating a panel discussion with other writers. In those situations, I can slip into the role of a “publishing insider” or “literary evangelist” or some such and let people come to me. They’ll ask questions, and I’ll answer them as best I can, or they’ll want to tell me about what they’re doing, and I’ll ask them questions, and offer some suggestions if it seems like they’d be receptive to the feedback. A situation like that has very narrow parameters, narrow enough that I can navigate my way through it comfortably. Without that setup, though, I often find myself holding back, reluctant to venture into unfamiliar territory.

Recently, though, I’ve been working on pushing myself into unfamiliar territory. Our current political situation has provided some opportunities on that front, as my wife and I have attended more rallies and marches in the last eighteen months than we did in the fifteen years before that. But that doesn’t necessarily force me to put myself forward and talk to people; in fact, sometimes it’s actually easier to march in silent (or shouting) solidarity than to start a conversation with the people around you.

I’ve had a little more luck since the start of the World Cup. I’m fortunate to live in a part of Queens that has overlapping communities from all over the world, but particularly South America. So one day I walked to a Peruvian restaurant for a late breakfast, but they were closed, so I ended up watching the game at a Colombian sports bar two doors down. And, actually, there was hardly anybody there, so I didn’t end up talking to anyone, but when it was over I walked about twenty minutes to an Argentinean restaurant where they had a huge crowd, big enough that they ended up seating a stranger at my table, so we got to talk for a bit, and then I also ended up talking to the couple at the next table, and I got to practice my Spanish (which the staff politely tolerated) and it was a pretty fun afternoon even though Argentina got their butts kicked. Then, the next day, I went to a bar in midtown where about a hundred Icelanders were hanging out, and though I hung back for the first half, somebody pointed and nodded at my Huddersfield Town kit during the break, and we got to talking, and then the one Nigeria fan in the bar came by, and since Nigeria had just scored a goal I had an opening line, so he and I had a really nice conversation, too.

I’m going to try to get to some more games this week, too. There’s a really great Brazilian family buffet restaurant in my neighborhood, where they already know me because I have lunch there about once a week if I can, and there’s a couple of Uruguayan cafés about ten blocks away, and I hear there’s supposed to be some Croatian bars in Astoria… We’ll see how much of this I actually get around to doing, but, so far, when I do make it happen, it’s been great fun. Even when I don’t talk to people, I’m seeing and learning a lot and feeling more comfortable about putting myself out there.

Writing can be like that. It’s easy to fall back to your default position, to stick with “safe” material that doesn’t force us to confront new stories, new subjects, that doesn’t require us to explore new ways of expressing ourselves. You might even find yourself drawn to a particular story, but because it’s something you’ve never done before, you’ll tell yourself you can’t do it. You’d have to do all kinds of research to get that right! You’ve been doing this kind of writing for so long, nobody’s going to accept that from you! What would your friends and family say if you published that!

In a previous column, I wrote about how the writing life is like what Thomas Merton called “being what one has become,” and I’d like to circle back to that concept for a moment. In order to become something, you have to open yourself up to the possibility of change. You don’t have to be reckless about it, but at some point you do have to force yourself to face the potential discomfort that comes from finding yourself in unfamiliar territory. You make your way through that territory and maybe you experience some setbacks and you step back and regroup. Or maybe you make a powerful discovery and realize this is where you were meant to be all along.

What are you holding yourself back from doing? And why? I’m not saying that if you’ve spent the last five years trying to write a novel, and you wake up one morning and think to yourself, “This sucks; I should be writing poetry,” you need to throw out your prose and dedicate yourself to verse by lunchtime. But if you’ve been hanging at the back of the room at poetry readings, and you’ve found yourself thinking, “It’d be cool if I could write poetry,” maybe that’s something to sit with for a bit. Or you’ve been writing science fiction for ages and now suddenly you’ve got a mystery idea that you just can’t stop thinking about. Or you find yourself remembering a lot of things that happened when you were younger, and seeing for the first time how they all fit together…

It’s a scary proposition—as scary as talking to a stranger at a party is for some people (like me). And, now that I think of it, writing isn’t all that dissimilar from having the courage to talk to a stranger. It’s not always going to go well; it might even be painfully awkward sometimes. But you’ll never know unless you make the attempt.


I’ve got some space left on my editorial consulting calendar this summer, so if you’ve got a novel or a nonfiction manuscript, and you’re looking for constructive feedback, here’s how I can help. If handing over your entire manuscript all at once feels daunting, I also offer a “first fifty pages” read… and if you’re happy with how that turns out, we can talk about tackling the rest.

Advice for writers—(usually) not about writing.