Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The best writing advice I've read in a long time

Age 49: Day 3

What does being 49 have to do with writing? For me, everything. I've wanted to write for as long as I've known how to form letters, yet instead of making my writing a daily, weekly, or even a monthly practice, I spend 99.9 percent of my time helping other people write. Don't get me wrong. I love working with writers and editing, and helping someone get to the heart of a story. But often I find myself doing this at the expense of my own writing. This blog is an attempt to write every single damn day. For some reason, I find it easier to write on a blog--it feels less mannered and self conscious than a diary (which I've never been able to manage; whenever I've tried it, I find myself writing for an invisible reader, which makes the whole enterprise seem false). There's an audience, but it's a small one, a (generally) friendly one and the informality of the whole thing somehow gives me permission to type my thoughts off the top of my head. I'm hoping that doing some writing here every day, about what I'm feeling, experiencing, finding funny, odd, unfair, etc., about the whole process of time--and my age--marching inexorably forward will help me make writing more of a priority in general, and lead to actual decent ideas that lead to actually written essays.

So, here's the part where I share the best writing advice I've gotten in a long time. I'm on a Hilary Mantel kick. If you don't know her, she is the unbelievably amazing author of the Man-Booker prize winning Wolf Hall (if you're intimidated, don't be--it's a much easier version of War & Peace--as good, but more fun, and the names are easier to pronounce) and Bring Up the Bodies (both  chronicle the adventures of Thomas Cromwell, who rose from being the poor son of a blacksmith to being the most powerful adviser to King Henry the VIII, engineering, among other things, the banishment of Henry's first wife (Queen Catherine), the legitimizing of  Henry's second wife, the sexually voracious Anne Boleyn and so on and so forth. Cromwell is generally viewed as an evil man by history, but Mantel tells these stories from his point of view--and he comes off as someone you would absolutely want to sit next to at a dinner party. In any case, she is beyond brilliant and I am now reading everything she has ever written, including her memoir. Where I came across this not-to-be-ignored writing advice:

This is what I recommend to people who ask me how to get published. Trust your reader, stop spoon-feeding your reader, stop patronizing your reader, give your reader credit for being as smart as you at least, and stop being so bloody beguiling: you in the back row, will you turn off that charm! Plain words on plain paper. Remember what Orwell says, that good prose is like a windowpane. Concentrate on sharpening your memory and peeling your sensibility. Cut every page you write by at least one third. Stop constructing those piffling little similes of yours. Work out what it is you want to say. Then say it in the most direct and vigorous way you can. Eat meat. Drink blood. Give up your social life and don't think you can have friends. Rise in the quiet hours of the night and prick your fingertips and use the blood for ink; that will cure you of persiflage.

Now here's one of my favorite parts:  
But do I take my own advice? Not a bit. Persiflage is my nom de guerre. (Don't use foreign expressions; it's elitist.)

I think it's time to stop teaching and just hand those words over to my students, writers and myself.

Monday, July 30, 2012

The body question

Age 49: Day 2

Here I am at 49. Same imperfect body. Same question: Is now finally the time to tackle my body issues? And what, exactly, does tackling my body issues mean? One could say that it means finally, FINALLY getting rid of those extra 20-odd pounds that have dogged me since, oh, my 13th birthday, give or take. I've had decades of relative slimness and decades of downright chubbiness, but somehow, I'm always heading from one to the other, never quite comfortable in my skin. And as I look effin' 50 in the face (as the 20-somethings say) the question is: What do I want to do about this?
I know many women who, not coincidentally, are hovering around 50, just like me, and who are undergoing last ditch body transformations. Take my sister. She and her husband recently embarked on a running program called Couch to 5K and after 20 years of a pretty low-key fitness regimen, she and her husband are now doing regular 3 mile runs at sub-10 minute miles and basically kicking my butt. Me, who has been faithfully running around the reservoir for those same 20 years. (Granted, the only people I pass are people who are walking, but still.) I had lunch with another friend the other day who, after 8 years of devoting most of her mental, emotional and physical energy to her 8 year old son (she took the leap and became a mother on her own), dropped 20 pounds on the eve of her own 50th. "I'm ready to date again," she told me. "Something has woken up in me." Looking at her, at her newly revealed waist line and the emerging muscles in her arms, I felt both inspired and envious. Because I've also thought that 49 was the year to finally just freaking DO IT already. Get the body I want.
Or not.

When I was single, I used to secretly roll my eyes at married women who complained about their weight. Though I'd nod and smile sympathetically, as women do, inside, I was thinking: "What do YOU have to complain about? You're MARRIED! You have someone who loves you, whatever you look like. You don't have to be out there, describing your body type on dating sites, trying to stand out in the candy store that is the NYC dating scene!" (Okay, maybe I was a little bitter.)

Now that I have someone who loves me, and is attracted to me, and is happy to lie down next to me at night, I wonder: Is this body thing, these extra 20 pounds...are they still worth thinking about? Is it time to really put my mind to it, to push myself on those desultory runs or on my weekend swims across the lake, where I'm spending most weekends these days? Wouldn't it be nice to put all this emotional energy elsewhere and just...not think about it? I'm not talking about giving up or letting myself go. I'm talking about letting myself off the hook. Because how important is 20 pounds, anyway?

Then again, there's the lure of the hard body. It's now or never.

What do you think? (below, a glimpse of the lake I swim across--very slowly, on my back, while looking at the clouds) and hammock I would like to be lying on. Sigh.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Welcome to the first day of my 49th year

What does it mean to be looking fifty in the face? Well, looking it in the face a year from now. This blog is an attempt to find out. For women, 50 is kind of an ominous age. The end of sexuality. The end of guys ogling you in the street. (Not that they ever did all that much.) The end of being the preferred demographic for marketers. But what does it mean, really? As someone who has done most things in life on the late side, including learning to cook, having a first pet and getting married (at ages 45, 44 and 48, respectively, I'm hoping that the year leading up to 50 is one of beginnings, not endings, more confidence and ease with myself, more time to devote to passions and continuing to learn what it feels like to be married, after 48 years of singlehood. (The word husband still doesn't come easily to me but the love I felt on my wedding day is still flowing.) Expects reflections, rants, raucous musings and a real-life perspective on what it really means to be 49. Because it's not what you think (or what I used to think). Stay tuned.