As I’m sitting at the cafe this morning, writing my latest Expat Focus column, I keep telling myself “I’m working. I’m working.” I used to tell myself (and others) “I’m writing. I’m writing. I’m writing.”
The simple shift in words seems to have finalized a shift in attitude I’ve been trying to maintain, and I am grateful to one of my writer heroes, Dinty W. Moore, for the advice.
In October’s column for Expat Focus, I wrote about what expat spouses do to occupy ourselves, since in the case of my husband’s company, we are not allowed to work. For me, of course, writing (and writing-related activity) takes up the majority of my time. But I think it easily translates to other creative fields: when we say we’re “writing” or “painting” or “drawing” or “singing,” what others hear, and (more importantly) what we might hear is, we’re “playing.”
Mr. Moore, who I regularly stalk on Facebook (but didn’t really expect had time within his myriad of writing, coaching, editing and publishing duties, to see my posts, let alone read them), replied about the column:
You are lucky, and smart to be grateful, but another truth is that when people see you on your laptop and ask “what are you doing?” and you answer “writing,” they quite often don’t take it seriously. When asked what you are doing, give the truer answer: “working.” -Dinty W. Moore
I pay attention to writers I admire: in their written word; in who influences them. And when I am fortunate enough to receive words of insight or encouragement from them, I try to internalize what will make me grow. This takes time, sometimes years.
I’ve been lucky to have incredible writing mentors. One of the most common challenges I receive from them is to take myself more seriously. I used to think this meant they wanted me to change my personality, but I began to realize that taking myself seriously means, rather, to take ownership and authority of who I am and what I write. It is so that even when I self-deprecate, it is not from a need to buffer myself against rejection, but to humor, relate, or shape narrative or conversation with intent and awareness.
But for someone who has spent a lifetime honing the ability to undermine herself before others have the chance, it is a hard habit to break. But not impossible. I simply try to spend more time watching and listening to people whose character I admire, and more time reading the work of those writers I feel are skillful, strong and engaging.
There is a small contingent of writers (the ones I’ve met in this category have almost all been inexperienced and unpublished) who argue that they don’t read, because they don’t want it to influence or interfere with their own creativity. I’m not referring to the method of stopping external reading while working on a particular piece. I’m referring to those who refuse to read at all to prevent any tainting of their own, unique, creative “genius.” Huh!?
Of course reading should influence and
interfere with inform creativity! If I’m stuck, I read. If I want to be more familiar with a subject I’m writing about, I read. And when I want to relax at night and unplug my brain, I read less challenging, but highly entertaining magazines or books. Even these, in turn, contribute to the inspiration pile.
And while the majority of writers, particularly good ones, extol the virtues of reading, my own method may still be a bit quirky. When I’m writing or prepping to revise an essay, I read and re-read certain writers. I do this not just for new material to stimulate me, but to get into the emotional, or speculative, or humorous state of someone whose writing evokes what I hope to evoke in my piece.
For example, if my mood is unsettled and I need a piece to be more telling, more reflective, I pick up Barbara Hurd, or Phillip Lopate, and suddenly my mind calms, and I end up with the right emotional approach for that piece. If I want to be snarky (I rarely want to be snarky), I pick up Sedaris (and then regret it). And so on. Yes, my humor is still me, my reflection is still me, the me in my piece is still me, informed and influenced by my heroes of pen and paper…and keyboard.
Sometimes the writers we love post quotes by other writers, or take a moment to post something inspirational to a fledgling writer. Each interaction does, and should influence us, if we allow ourselves to be fluid enough.
Reading and choosing to be informed or influenced by other writers does not curtail our own originality or undermine our unique voices. Reading other writers simply sparks our own electrons to navigate similar circuits for a little while.
Today, I can’t stop being grateful to Dinty W. Moore. I have devoured each of his personal books, and brought his craft books with me to South Africa.
I occasionally work up the nerve to pester him at conferences. He’s always gracious and patient (if you know me, you understand that challenge).
Like everything I read that I allow to influence me, I know I will never become Dinty W. Moore.
It would take an entire personality transplant for me to be that reserved, cool and dryly quick-witted. And that’s okay. Because that’s not me, and it’s not the point. I don’t need to be Dinty W. Moore to be influenced and persuaded by him to push myself harder to take myself and my writing more seriously.
Maybe we thank those writers who help shape us. Maybe we accept we’re all one big pool of creative motivation and simply move on. However it works, it works. Writers who read good writers become better writers.
Happy Writer Wednesday, friends.
P.S. This isn’t the first time I’ve posted about the influence of Dinty W. Moore. One of my most frequently read posts, Man in the Jaws of a Crocodile, was inspired by Mr. Moore, who posted a quote that framed a conversation that made my heart melt. If you haven’t read that post, I do hope you will.
P.P.S. I often joke about “stalking” my favorite writers, but in truth this never amounts to more than my obsession with uniquely signed books, a little happy dance upon seeing my favorite authors, or sending them a note of thanks for a specific piece or book I loved. The happy dance has become known as the “Dinty Moore Dance” by a few of my fellow writers from Chatham (you know what I’m talking about, Katrina) who witnessed this unfortunate shuffle at AWP a few years ago after I had a little too much red wine and my first Dinty W Moore sighting. In my mind it looks like the Snoopy dance, but in reality it’s more like the dance of the Ed Grimley character from the heyday of SNL. And I’m okay with that, too.