Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘WordPress

So what is the writing life?

with 5 comments

Marcel Duchamp, Jacques Villon, and Raymond Duchamp-Villon

“Thoughts on art, culture, and the writing life.” When I typed that blog description more than two years ago, I don’t think I gave it more than a few minutes of thought—I only knew I had to enter something in that blank space in the template. I’d been planning to start an official author site for a long time, but the actual look of the page was thrown together in an evening or so of work, and I can’t say I put a great deal of consideration into most of its components. Even the idea of concentrating on issues of writing and creativity was a fairly random choice: I only knew, as WordPress recommends, that it’s good to make the focus of your blog as specific as possible, and these sorts of issues were the only topics I could imagine myself writing about on a daily basis without getting bored. Over time, my sense of what this site could be has grown and evolved in many ways, but I’m also surprised by how much of it has remained the same. (I’m still pleased by the simplicity and elegance of its layout, which is due entirely to The Journalist theme by Lucian Marin, which I chose because of my preference for black text on plenty of white space. I still think it’s the best blog theme around.)

Yet the words I so casually typed on that first day still haunt me. Part of it is the kind of quiet confidence they try so hard to exude, which at the time was really something of a pose. When I created this blog, I’d just sold my first novel, which was almost a year and a half from publication, and my sense of what “the writing life” would be was rudimentary at best. True, at that point, I’d done nothing but write for more than four years, but the only visible results were a couple of magazine sales and a steadily diminishing bank account. For most of that time, the only kind of writing life I knew was one in which I was still essentially working for myself, while trying to get the attention of editors and agents, and although I often introduced myself as a novelist at parties, it was only with the additional caveat: “But only in the sense that I’m trying to write a novel.” It’s no accident that I waited until I finally had a book deal before putting my thoughts on writing online: I believed, right or wrong, that it would give my ideas some legitimacy, and also hoped that it might be useful to share my experiences, in real time, as I entered the next phase of my career.

My little Ponyo

Two years later, I’m still not sure what the writing life is. In its larger dimensions, it’s tantalizingly elusive: like every writer, I’m always greedy for higher sales, more glowing reviews, and other things that are entirely out of my control. It becomes slightly more clear in the smaller details. There are things about my career that I’d love to change, but ultimately, I know that I’ve been incredibly lucky to have spent much of the last decade doing exactly what I want. My routine can be challenging or aggravating, and there are mornings when I still wake up dreading the first draft of the unwritten chapter to come, but I ultimately spend each day doing all I’ve ever wanted since I was ten years old: telling stories, living other people’s lives, putting words down on paper. Like every life worth living, it comes with certain sacrifices, and I wouldn’t have been able to get even this far without giving up a great deal along the way. But I remain mindful of the words of my hero, Marcel Duchamp, which struck me so deeply that I used them as an epigraph to the epilogue of The Icon Thief: “Life is more a question of expenses than of profits. It’s a question of knowing what one wants to live with.”

Of course, the second you find a way of living that works for you, life has a way of yanking you out of it. With my first child due to arrive in just over a week, and possibly sooner, I’m on the verge of the greatest change I’ve experienced since I left home fourteen years ago to go to college. I don’t know exactly how my life will look after that point, but it’s safe to say that my carefully cultivated routine will be blown to pieces—an experience I look forward to sharing on this blog, assuming I can find time and energy between midnight feedings. And the change will be a fundamental one. Over the past eighteen months alone, I’ve written and sold two novels, along with many articles and short stories and well over a quarter of a million words of blog posts, a number that strikes me, right now, as totally insane. I’ve taken enormous pleasure in transforming myself into a kind of writing machine, but I can’t keep it up forever. That part of my life is ending now, or at least changing into something infinitely richer and more strange, and although it scares me a little, I can’t wait for what comes next. Because the more I think about it, the less I believe anything like “the writing life” really exists. In the end, it’s just life.

“Culture Shock 1913,” a special one-hour program on the birth of modernism, premiered last night on the Fishko Files on NPR. I pop up around the 10:45 mark to talk a bit about Duchamp. You can listen to it here

Written by nevalalee

December 7, 2012 at 10:08 am

Posted in Writing

Tagged with , ,

Thoughts of an accidental blogger

with 4 comments

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. When I started this blog in November 2010, I wasn’t sure how often I’d be posting, or even if the site would survive more than a couple of months. I’d spent several years blogging with my roommates after college, often writing multiple posts per day, but gradually the well went dry—mostly after we all all got girlfriends—and the site hasn’t been updated in a long time. At best, I thought, this blog would serve as my author page, with information about my novels and other works, a bio that I’d occasionally update, and news about readings and other events. The idea that the blog would become a major part of my writing life frankly never occurred to me. Yet that’s pretty much what happened: almost two years later, I’ve posted something every day, sometimes just a quote or a picture, but more often a fairly involved think piece that takes up a good chunk of my morning. And while I don’t think I can maintain this pace forever, at this point, it’s hard to imagine my life without it.

So what happened? In some ways, it’s an illustration of one of my favorite truisms about writing: the power of habit. By now, my blog routine has become deeply ingrained: after my wife heads out for work, I pour myself a cup of green tea and start the day’s blog post, which usually takes about an hour before I move on to other things—and it would feel strange not to spend the morning like this. I’ve also developed the usual tricks and mechanisms to keep going, even on days when I don’t particularly feel like writing, and although I no longer maintain a formal list of potential topics, I’m always thinking about what the next day’s post will be. In short, it’s just like any other kind of writing, which often comes down to muscle memory. And while the amount of work involved every day is relatively small, as in everything else, the effects can be large: at this point, I’ve written enough on this blog to fill two novel-length books. And while my readership has never been huge, the fact that many of you drop by on a regular basis has been enormously gratifying.

I’ve also been lucky enough to have two of my posts on Freshly Pressed over the past twelve months. There are a number of other sites that discuss various strategies to get featured there—the one on the WordPress site itself is especially useful, as is this post—but even now, I’m a little mystified by the process. My first such post, on the tenth anniversary of The Fellowship of the Ring, benefited from being on a four-quadrant topic, but last week’s post on Breaking Bad and the bottle episode was pretty narrow in its appeal even by the standards of this site. The moral, I guess, is that you really only need to appeal to one person, the editor who happens to be making selections that day, and that person’s tastes can be hard to predict. Once your blog is past a certain level of readability and accessibility, it often comes down to the luck of the draw, and the fact that I’ve done it before doesn’t make it any more likely that I’ll do it again. (Incidentally, the resulting bump in traffic is generally only temporary—although those of you who stuck around are now my new best friends.)

But it’s also worth noting that I’ve never posted anything on this site with the thought of attracting the maximum number of readers, or with an eye to getting Freshly Pressed. (Well, almost never: I secretly hoped that my post on The Hunger Games and the changing face of the box office would get picked up, but I don’t think anyone even saw it.) I’m happy enough when I can come up with something to write five hundred words about on any given day, regardless of whether or not anyone else will care—although it’s important to note that once I come up with a topic, I go through all the steps of correction and revision that I would for any piece of work that I expect to see in print. As a result, looking back on the posts from the past two years, I find that I’ve revealed more about myself than I ever thought I would, giving me a record of my thoughts and experiences over this interesting time that I’m profoundly grateful to have. Along with the skills that you naturally develop by writing like this every day, that’s really all anyone can ask of a blog like this. And I’m glad that so many of you have followed along this far.

Written by nevalalee

August 21, 2012 at 9:43 am

Posted in Writing

Tagged with , ,

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