How to support a writer in eight (easy?) steps

Useful articles about writing—that actually say something I think is important and needs to be said—kept popping up in my inbox this week. These have been about how to better understand the writer’s psychological orientation.

This is good, because writers are, to a certain extent, misunderstood, so demythologizing writing and writers requires hearing from working writers (rather than reading biographies about writers-put-on-pedestals).

The following article I’ve selected is written by Robbie Blair, new to me, but written with honesty and clarity. The article comes via Seattle-based Writer.ly, a helpful startup for writers and those who employ them. I’ve met Writer.ly’s owners, and they’re very nice, although very busy, as one is when starting a business.  

Flow!

Now, from experience and years of research, it’s pretty clear that the biggest fear about dealing with writers (that is partially true, sadly, according to even more research) is that we are more vulnerable to mental illness than “normal” people and should be kept at arm’s length or handled with kid gloves. Writers, along with other creatives, are labelled early on in life as “different,” and then shoved into the proverbial garret to write alone.

We don’t make the consequent isolation easier to bear when that poor person who has cooked for you dares to disturb your sanctum only to be shouted at because you’re finally experiencing flow. They meant well, only to have their head bitten off. Oops. No more cookies, no more visits; now you’re really on your own.

Often, I suspect that people who do not identify themselves as creative shove us out of the way and then ignore our needs because we fascinate, but also terrify them. Normal people (people who do not write) have no idea what to make of us.

Writers like Robbie Blair, however, inform those who keep their distance; or, worse, pander to writers’ egos, becoming rather useless ‘yes-men’ who only tell us we’re great, furthering our descent into depression if we don’t get published. Key to survival with a writer: provide food and be honest, but not so honest we cry.   

So here is a list of how to treat us better; we don’t merely need a patron and financial support, we also need … a whole lot of other things too! Enjoy, and pass it along and go to the author’s site and leave a comment where it will do him some good.

support-writers

Beyond my personal experiences as a writer, I’ve also been close friends with more writers than I can count. (That may just be because I’m bad at math, though.) I have relatives who write, I have friends who write, I’ve dated people who write … I’ve seen the relationship from many different angles and figured out a few of the best ways to support the writers I’m close to. While it’s important to remember that there’s no “one size fits all” option, these eight tips provide a solid starting point for supporting the writers in your life.

1. Learn about and respect their writing process.

I could give a great many details about how to support me as a writer, but most of you have never met me before so that will only do so much good. I’ve worked with enough writers to know that, while we’re similar in many ways, we are not a homogenous group. Writing is not a predictable process, and each writer develops their own approach to it over time. Rather than assuming that your writer functions in specific ways, talk to them about their unique process so you can understand it a bit better.

My remaining tips won’t reveal any super-secret desires that your writer is trying to hide—so if your writer contradicts any of the items on the rest of this list, just ignore that particular bit of my advice.

2. Don’t lie.

If you want to express interest in something your writer is crafting, then that’s fantastic—so long as you’re actually interested. Sure, some writers will feel put off if you don’t love their work as much as you love them, but you’ll be doing them a disservice if you pretend to like something that bores you to tears.

Authentic interest is something we crave—but don’t offer interest if it isn’t real. If you want to become interested but aren’t yet, try asking gentle, open questions about the story. Note that some writers will not enjoy this at all while others will enjoy both the attention and the opportunity to further formulate their ideas. If they’re comfortable talking about their work, guide the conversation toward the elements of the story that actually appeal to you.

3. Provide edible/quaffable support.

Many writers appreciate a good snack while they’re working. Sadly, many of us also have terrible snacking habits. I myself tend to make peanut butter chocolate chip sandwiches when I’m facing a deadline. If you can provide tasty yet moderately healthy snacks (like fruits, for example), you’ll be helping out in more ways than one.

Also, just like cars need gas and Santa needs to spy on little children while they’re sleeping, most of us writers require caffeine to operate. (There’s actually some interesting neurological stuff going on that explains this writerly addiction.) If you keep the kettle on or make sure there’s always coffee available, we’ll love you for it.

4. Get them to write, right now.

Not talk about their writing. Not brainstorm. Not organize. Not research. Not read articles on LitReactor.

Write.

Just write.

Writers face what I refer to as an “inertial barrier.” It’s difficult for us to get started with writing, but once we’ve gotten there it gets progressively easier and more enjoyable. We tend to be quite practiced at procrastination techniques, especially the ones that make it seem like we’re working on our story, but this only serves to increase the inertia. If you give us an extra push toward simply writing, you’ll be helping us get the momentum and energy required to get past the inertial barrier.

5. Give them a territory.

If you’re living with this writer, one of the best things you can do is give them a specific territory that they can organize or destroy as they see fit.

For example, I need absolute organization to work effectively, but I don’t need a lot of extras. I can set up an organized writing desk anywhere in the world. But others need a bit of clutter. Others still need a sense that they’ve emotionally charged the space. Some work best in outright chaos. Now, there are limits to how much a chaotic workspace can be functional; my father is a wonderful man, but his office is a fire hazard. Still, up until it’s absolutely unbearable, let the writer make the space their own. Our environments play a significant role for our emotional states, and if your writer feels uneasy they aren’t likely to write.

6. Encourage them to take care of themselves.

Writers have high-stress work, little natural social time, and (generally) sedentary lifestyles. We often fail to take care of ourselves and, as a result, crack under the stress. Rather than pressuring us to make our deadlines (I promise, we feel enough pressure already), you’ll be doing us a big favor by encouraging us to do basic emotional maintenance.

Emotional maintenance is another one of those things that comes in different forms for different people. For me, it’s yoga, meditation, and long walks. For others it’s ping pong, socializing with close friends, and eating a balanced breakfast. Whatever helps bolster your writer’s emotional resources will help them stand strong against their various challenges.

7. Do more than pat them on the head.

My guess is you’re reading this because you want to help a writer in your life, not because you’re a writer yourself. (Though maybe you are, in which case you’ll have an advantage on this one.) Even if you don’t feel you have much to say about writing itself, you’ll run into problems if all you do is congratulate your writer on a job well done over and over again.

Your writer will start to lose respect for your opinion. They’ll realize that you’re not going to give any in-depth feedback, and that makes you kind of useless. So giving support is great, praise is great, and it’s fine if you like everything that your writer produces—but you’ll need to be specific with the things that you especially liked, items that may not have worked as well for you, and so on.

By all means, however, check in with your writer before you start giving critical analysis; sometimes we’re just looking to see if the content is functional and enjoyable on a basic level, and other times we really do want that pat on the head.

8. Leave them the fuck alone!

It’s rare to get into the flow state for writing—and it’s incredibly valuable. I’ve produced 40+ pages in a sitting because I got into the flow of it. Don’t disrupt your writer, don’t ask questions. In fact, as much as you can, try to disappear. And if your writer is in the zone but you had plans? It’s his or her turn to take the dog for a walk? You know they have to wake up early and it’s currently 3 a.m.?

Just leave them the fuck alone. One of the most supportive things you can do is treat that flow state as sacred. I know it’s a pain to change your plans while they stare at a screen and type, but don’t worry … this doesn’t happen very often.

Oh, and here’s a bonus tip that has little to do with their writing and everything to do with your own: Don’t make stupid spelling or grammar mistakes. Even if your writer is nice about it, odds are they’re judging you for typing “their is alot of things on my mind.”

And that’s it for today. How about you? What’s worked in supporting the writers in your life? If you’re a writer, what support can others offer that would be most beneficial to you? Let us know in the comments, below.

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To Anyone Who Has Ever Loved a Writer (an explanation, not an apology)

I’m not sure why I’ve spent my life trying to understand and explain, to the extent that’s possible, how writers tick. Here’s a writer who gets it and helps explain the tug-of-war between the need for solitude and the often oddly-timed need for company.

Women and the Personal Pronoun

Having trouble with the letter “I”?

silenced

Much is written about the silencing of women, without understanding the ways in which we silence ourselves.

If someone asks you directly what you want from life, can you answer? Equally difficult might be the question, why do you want to be a writer? Sometimes, these answers lie so deep in our inner being, that reaching the reasons why requires gaining access to the “I” self we simply don’t talk to often enough, largely because we’ve been conditioned not to.

The problem with being conditioned not to ask ourselves direct questions (“Is this what I want?” “Am I happy?” “What is it I need from life?”) is that we become voiceless; we silence ourselves, and so we become complicit in our inability to be heard by a society that isn’t necessarily encouraging us to have specific needs focused on what’s going on in your inner landscape.

You might even feel lost in your inner landscape; I know I’ve been without a map often enough. Whereas you might know precisely what your kids or significant other wants, you might not be able to put your finger on your own wants and needs.

Even in this day and age, even in a society that promotes women’s issues, it’s rare to be asked a direct question about who you are, what you want, and what you need. If I ask you to tell me about yourself, your life, and why you want to write, what will you answer? You might be stymied. It might be the first time in your life someone has asked you directly to account for what’s going on inside of you—and that’s understandable, but it’s not acceptable for our society to ignore this about ourselves, and I’ll tell you why.

The reasons you or I might have some trouble with the use of the personal pronoun, making it so we are effectively silenced when someone asks us about ourselves, are complicated—much more complicated than the feminist movement has ever been able to get at the root of, in my experience.

The reasons we all have trouble from time to time with the personal pronoun has to do with how we’ve been socialized. This is less a gendered issue than it is a societal one—meaning that everyone, female and male, is affected by this problem, to a greater or lesser extent.

Men are silenced, too, in somewhat different ways.

Men are silenced, too, in somewhat different ways.

I noticed quite awhile ago that in spite of numerous literary works and academic studies regarding women’s voices, being silenced, and the inherent differences between the way the sexes communicate, the feminist movement—brave, bold and daring at its best—has never been able to make substantive changes in the ways we communicate. 

The problem? Our very language itself, as well as the nature of the culture we’re raised in. You’ll find that you can’t have one without the other; I’ll explain.

We are all raised in a culture that uses certain, very specific, metaphors to describe life experiences. Our culture privileges language use that is “straight as an arrow.” We like to “get right to the point.” If you live in a culture that doesn’t do this, it’s likely you’re not from the West, and, most likely, you’re not an American. In America, in particular, everyone, male or female, is raised with the same set of expectations. It’s a linear culture. We expect our answers to be simple and straightforward.

In fact, I’m having trouble writing this sentence without using the standard metaphors we usually rely on. How do I find another way to say “straightforward”? I’ll have to use my thesaurus. How do I find another way to say “stay on track”?

The key to our language use are the ways in which language choices are determined by cultural values. Although we aren’t usually consciously aware of the underlying “why” of why we say the things we do, those sayings are, not-so-subtly, in my experience, shaping not only how we speak, but also how we think. We are never set free from the expectations of our culture as long as we use language unconsciously.

How does this affect you as an individual, especially one who is, perhaps, confused about what you want from life? If I had you sitting in front of me, would you beg me to “get to the point?” Even feminists say these things, which leads me directly to my point (for which my linear readers will, no doubt, thank me). Even those of us who promote humanist and feminist agendas are not free of our language use, because we’re never free of our culture and all its expectations.

Here’s the core of the problem: We might speak using the metaphor of linearity, but it isn’t how we think. We’re curvature-type people, we humans. We tell stories that go around and around. When asked to explain something that just happened to us, we might not start “from the beginning”. We’re maddening like that. It isn’t just women, either; men do it too. The human brain doesn’t work precisely the way our slapdash “time is money” culture would like.

And so those who need more time, more words, more creativity, are silenced in the face of the tapping foot of the impatient, narrow-minded linear metaphor. Another factor that contributes specifically to the silencing of women, however, is more pernicious and less easily spotted, and it feeds into the linear metaphor neatly. It is the culture we exist within, the culture of scientism, which is inherently distancing, mechanistic, and dehumanizing.

In case you don’t know what I mean, consider that until fairly recently, it was considered bad manners to speak in the first-person pronoun. One used the less personal pronoun, “one,” to describe one’s wants or needs. It was (and still is) considered grammatically correct, and although that’s useful when grammatically-correct writing or speaking is called for, it symbolizes the problem, which has to do with impersonalization, the distance between “I” and “one”.

Further, if you listen carefully enough, you’ll begin to notice that we not only live within a culture that privileges linearity; we also rely on a vocabulary of numbers, weights, measurement, and mathematics—the vocabulary of science. Although this part of my argument is too large to adequately address in one short piece, I will suggest that if you eliminate the vocabulary of science, as well as linear metaphors, from our language, there wouldn’t be much left to say.

Try it for a day; see if you can condense (a word borrowed from scientific experiments) your conversations into that which does not rely on science or linearity. It will prove (a science word!) to be a challenge. This is especially true in the land of academia, which is imbricated (my favorite academic word, which simply means “bricked in,” as in, “the woman was bricked into the wall, buried alive”) in scientific terminology, over-relying as academia does on proofs, hypotheses, and problems to solve.

So, if we are raised in a culture that uses two particular methods to express itself—one, the metaphor of linearity, and the other the vocabulary of science—then what should those who are caught in between do when they are voiceless in response to this impersonalized, mechanistic, linear methodology of thought? Feeling like you’ve been absorbed by the Borg yet? You should.

Silencing-Women

This societal silencing has been going on for a long, long time.

When a woman encounters a direct question about her inner landscape, therefore, everything she’s been taught to think is at war with the one metaphor that makes sense, the metaphor of organicism.

The metaphor of organicism includes the body, and does not exclusively privilege the mind. You will notice a few things about scientific vocabulary and the metaphor of linearity: they both came to social prominence during the rise of scientism, otherwise known as the Enlightenment, the era of Reason.

It was called the ‘enlightenment’ because its role was to cast light into the darkness that came before it, including the darkness of superstition, paganism, and what was perceived as the ‘ignorance’ of faith. This included the lack of knowledge about how the body, but most particularly the mind, worked.

Many important ideas were swept away during the Enlightenment, however. When society emerged from what became known as ‘the dark ages,’ we were no longer allowed to think like Plato (after the rise of Christianity, considered a pagan), who gave us the metaphor of organicism (an idea later appropriated by the Romantics, which only served to deepen the divide between that which is produced by nature, from all that is ‘man-made’).

The Romantics rediscovered Plato, the body, and emotion. Without them, I doubt we'd be having this discussion.

The Romantics rediscovered Plato, the body, and emotion. Without them, I doubt we’d be having this discussion.

Instead, Western society started thinking like Bacon, Locke, and Descartes, all of whom much preferred applying reason and, most importantly for my argument, logic, to life questions. In swept the rise of linearity and scientism.

Unfortunately for those of us who are not inherently scientific and linear, however, when we lost the organic metaphor, we also lost all that went with it, including metaphors relying on our bodies as a way of explaining reality. If you don’t buy into the metaphor of linearity (you don’t perceive the value in it) and you’re not inherently interested in the scientific way of approaching reality, where do you stand, especially if, now that logic is the dominant trope, we have no bodies, only brains?

I used to teach English composition at a research and development university. Frequently, my students were pursuing a science-related degree. Nothing about the training they’d received, or their life experiences, for that matter, prepared them for my style of teaching. I had one memorable day in particular when a student asked me why they had to use the personal pronoun “I” in their papers. Her question led to a 15-minute diatribe from me about the depersonalization in society brought about by the sciences and its perpetuation of emotional distancing.

For me, the reason scientism is such a problem is because it tells us that it’s okay, even desirable, not to use the personal pronoun—this means we forget to think in terms of our inner “I”. The prevalence of the metaphor of linearity reinforces the idea that we must ‘keep to the path,’ ‘keep to the straight and narrow,’ that we must not diverge from ‘the norm.’

Women's speech has always been a concern. This tarot card draws on a folk tale from The Blue Fairy Book (1889). Tarot cards are an example of non-linear uses of metaphor, as are folk tales and "old wive's tales."

Women’s speech has always been a concern. This tarot card draws on a folk tale from The Blue Fairy Book (1889). Tarot cards are an example of non-linear uses of metaphor, as are folk tales and “old wive’s tales.”

Who, under the influence of a society adhering, unconsciously, to these rigid, linear, rules, would allow themselves to meander a little, to stray from the path, watch daisies grow, or imagine himself in another, more colorful reality? To, heaven forfend, daydream aimlessly?

Finally, consider this: I think we’d agree that most, if not all, women in what we’ve come to think of as third-world countries lack what we’d call a ‘voice.’ We have no idea how an individual Pashtun woman, for example, thinks or feels about her life. We rely on educated men and women to tell these otherwise silenced women’s stories, just as the tribal woman herself relies on those from the West to tell her story, until or if she becomes educated, and self-confident enough, to tell her own story.

One thing is certain: those in the West will tell her story their/our way, using the dominant vocabulary and metaphors we all rely on to convey meaning.

And yet, these isolated, tribal women, nameless and faceless to most of us, are no more or less silenced than a woman in the West, if that Western woman, with every privilege, every social advantage, feels voiceless; that she is, effectively, silenced, by a culture that has given her a vocabulary she doesn’t identify with, and a set of metaphors she doesn’t believe in. Under those circumstances, you’re not using the language; the language is using you.

Feminism located one source of the problem for women: that we try to express ourselves while using the language of ‘the patriarchy.’ What feminism couldn’t accomplish, however, was to undo the prevailing beliefs and values that created that dominant language and vocabulary in the first place. Using a language unconsciously, we are stuck within it. Knowing that the metaphors and vocabulary binds you helps you break free of them, as well as some of their more pernicious expectations. What do you replace them with? That’s the challenge we all face, in my opinion: we must come up with a more inclusive language, one that more accurately reflects human reality—mind and body.

Ask yourself what’s preventing you from being heard, being seen, being known. The answers might surprise you; but what shouldn’t surprise you is that, if you’re a woman, you’ve been taught to think in such a way that prevents access to this complex inner world, for it’s a world that is recursive, not linear, and not necessarily bound by logic or language, either. Many of our deepest truths occur without ever attaching themselves to words. Much of what we know at the unconscious level are things we learned before we ever learned language. If you insist that it’s easy to give voice to places in your mind that are pre-verbal, therefore, you’re fighting an uphill battle.

The truth is, we’re not ‘straight as an arrow.’ In many ways, we’re curved. Only one one of those ways is physical.

The Silent Dialogue: How We Create The Book We’re Reading

One of the most interesting things that happens to us as writers occurs when we read.

The real story is created as we read.

The real story is created as we read.

We conduct a ‘silent dialogue’ with the text, and, to the extent we imagine the writer in our minds, making him or her seem real as we read, with its author. This imagined collaborator, the ‘author,’ guides us as we make sense of what we read, but we do all—or most—of the real work involved.

If you take notes while you read, you will inevitably ‘talk’ to the piece of writing. You might even talk out loud. If you’re like me, you ask questions of the text as you underline phrases, or draw circles around crucial words; or perhaps, words you don’t understand; ideas you agree with, disagree with, have a strong opinion about.

As soon as you begin to interact with the text, you’ve formed a relationship with its author, but it’s a silent one (unless you can somehow meet the writer and ask him or her your questions). Even so, the real relationship you’re having is not with the writer, for you are imagining him or her, even as you imagine the characters she’s created. The real relationship you’re having is with her writing, which becomes real for you as you interweave yourself, your values, your beliefs, your experiences, into what she’s written.

How could Lizzy and Jane be so patient?

I remember the first time I read Pride and Prejudice, for example. I was 16 or 17 years old, and I found myself frustrated by the slow pace the heroine’s life was taking. I could not understand how Jane Austen, with such sanguinity, allowed her protagonist, Elizabeth Bennett, to endure months of unhappiness and uncertainty over Mr. Darcy. Why couldn’t Elizabeth write to him? Why couldn’t her sister Jane let Mr. Bingley know how she felt? Why did nothing happen?

I remember yelling at that book, tossing it down in frustration, unable to continue reading. The relationship I formed with the writer I’d constructed in my mind was one of tension and irritation. I didn’t understand a lot of things in those days, but the primary thing I did not understand was that in my responses to the text, I was creating my very own version of Pride and Prejudice, the one I interwove with my responses, my ideas, my attitudes and opinions as I read.

My frustration at how slowly Darcy and Elizabeth fall in love, coupled with the arcane, stultifying social rules of Regency England, stemmed from beliefs I had formed in an era very different for young women than the one in which Austen wrote. My responses made excellent fodder for my writing, because my values reflected the changes that had happened for women since Austen‘s era, and therefore inspired a paper on the freedoms young women in America took for granted.

As a teacher, I’ve encouraged students to respond to the text conversationally, focusing less on the author as we have been taught to think of him or her, instead conceiving the text as a piece of writing you can engage with directly, commenting, complaining; noticing similarities or differences between the writing and our own experiences.

Although this process is considered a form of reader-response theory or critique, my goal has not been to get the student to critique the text, but rather, to form ideas and responses that will inspire writing and assist in self-awareness and critical thinking skills.

The values and mores of the Regency Era baffled me

One of the most valuable pieces of writing any reader can engage in, therefore, is a journal or diary of responses to a piece of writing. By silently engaging with a text, you will find that you have many things to say. Your personal responses to any piece of writing will inspire you to create something new, and you’ll learn about yourself and your values as you interweave your own reality with someone else’s words.

To get an idea of how to inspire your own writing through responding to someone else’s work, see Lisa Ede’s Work In Progress. To understand the culture in which the idea of the reader or audience’s response to the writing, rather than the author per se, became an important discussion, compare and contrast New Criticism with reader-response criticism.

Following I. A. Richards‘ study of reader misunderstandings and misreadings conducted in 1929, theory began to center around the idea that the reader creates the text they read, that there is no textual reality that exists a priori containing one—and only one—’correct’ meaning, that instead, the individual’s interpretation matters tremendously to how we make meaning.

In addition to this, and important to me when I teach, has been trying to convey the concept that the individual author’s personality or characteristics, while ‘important’ from the perspective of imagining authorial intention, should not derail teachers from what is even more important: getting the student to value their own writing.