Smash the oligarchy, finish your novel, de-clutter your workspace, make new friends: Here’s how!

Listening to Rachel Maddow this morning talk about U.S. medical response teams getting pedicures in Puerto Rico when they could be saving lives, I sort of blew up with rage, a blinding, heart-pounding, sweat-inducing epithet-shouting fist-banging rage that had probably been smoldering in my solar plexus for months and just had to erupt  …

… which reminded me: Finishing School can be a powerful tool for starting and sustaining your own personal program of political action.

Which is sorely needed as if you didn’t know. So here is the gist of it: In Finishing School we break our big goals down into little jobs that are doable in a limited time, and then we assign times to these tasks and agree with someone else to do these things and then we watch with pleasure as these little completed tasks turn into major accomplishments.

It began as a method for writers to get their manuscripts done, but has been used for all kinds of things and there’s no reason it can’t be used for political activism. In fact, it’s ideally suited for political activism because political activism is a large important project that depends for success on many small discrete actions, some of which are, frankly, not all that exciting to do. And that’s what Finishing School is all about.
Say you need to call your congressional representative but you haven’t done it yet. Even if you have not read the Finishing School book (better yet: Get One Here ) and even if there is no Finishing School group operating in your area, you can do this simple thing. You can connect with a friend and just say, at 1 o’clock on Thursday, for instance, I am going to take two hours during which I will make a phone call to my representative.

That’s the Finishing School method in a nutshell. Why two hours? Well, you might get done sooner. But you might not. We like to allow more time than is necessary. Maybe you are a little nervous about doing it and need a few minutes to get settled in. Maybe you want to make a note of exactly what you’re going to say. Maybe you want to get a cup of coffee. Maybe you do it right away and then get fired up after the first call and want to make more and so you have some extra time to keep going. Maybe you find that you don’t even know for sure who your representative is or what their number is and you have to find that, and in finding that you call someone with whom you then chat for 15 or 20 minutes and then something happens and your two hours is interrupted. But you still have time! Since you have set aside a full two hours, you’re still going to get this one thing done! And getting this one thing done is super important!
So you get it done and that is the whole thing right there.
Danelle Morton and I wrote a whole book about this method, and in the last few months I have written about 9,000 words about just this one idea of using the method for political activism and am trying to marshal them into a coherent thesis, but it seems silly and kind of perfectionistic to be doing all that in isolation when the basic idea is just so simple: Set a time, notify a buddy, and do the thing!
Oh—and when you’re done with the time period you have set, then you also contact your buddy and say you’re done. That’s it.

How can you sit in a chair and write at a moment like this??!!

Speaking of tools of cultural defiance,  in past periods of political drift and relative stability you could at least make an argument for retreating from the news space in order to write a book or think about pretty things. Right now, with Donald Trump in the presidency and the unprecedented unfolding of scandal and chaos in the federal government, it’s hard to think of much else. It raises the question, frankly, of duty: those of us with expressive ability, with special knowledge, with access to media, we more or less have to do more than just speak up. We have to consider changing our lives: seizing positions of responsibility, public office. We have to think of reorienting our lives toward a decade or more of struggle to reclaim all that may be lost over the next few years.

Finishing School is actually a relevant tool in the political struggle as well as the creative struggle. It’s a kind of getting-things-done method for the rest of us.

… tools of cultural defiance

The point is that the creative artist does not work in a cultural vacuum, nor usually in a culturally benign space. The creative artist works in opposition to the given environment; we live in conflict, in open warfare, with the tangible world we must live in. How we accommodate, how we buckle under or openly revolt or quietly subvert … these are the various guiles and styles we use. But the essential point is: We live in opposition to the given.

On page 48 in our book Finishing School: … Danelle Morton and I make the point that, at least in the wealthy, consumer-oriented West, one mammoth evil we must fight, elude, or accommodate, is the omnipresent marketing machine.

I’m done!

I woke up this morning and realized I’m done with the novel. It came like a revelation: I’m done!

That is, a good draft is done. There is more work to do. But this is a milestone worth celebrating. And it came to me as if from a dream, on the last day of the year.

To be honest, I really wanted to create a beautiful, brilliant, polished, publishable draft of a complex and demanding novel by the deadline of Jan. 10, 2017. I really wanted to be the solitary artistic hero who creates masterful works of genius in complete isolation, who emerges from hermetic solitude with a gleaming perfect masterpiece.

That was my wish. At times, I believed I could do it. I knew, however, that such wishes are not always realistic. They are, in fact, one reason I created Finishing School in the first place.

As Jan. 10, 2017, approached, I saw that if I rushed, I might be able to solve the structural problems and make the right decisions. But many of those decisions require real thought and reflection. I was concerned that if I rushed it, I might make changes I later regret. I needed more time. And I needed an outside opinion.

Now I know. Indeed, the draft is finished. It’s a good draft. But it’s not ready for publication yet.

So my next step is to find the right independent editor. I have identified a few whom I will contact privately and I will look around a little more.

I know what questions to ask. I know what to do next. I’m eager, actually, to put certain fascinating and demanding structural questions in someone else’s hands for a while.

So … I’ll keep you informed about Famous Actress Disappears.

Meanwhile, and more to the point: Happy New Year! Buon Anno!



Each piece of the novel must have energy

I have to focus on what is in front of me.

I get lost in the intricacy of the structure. I have to remember that at any given moment, the reader is in the present, reading the text, and if the text is engaging, if there is energy there, that is the crucial thing. The totality of the novel experience, the ultimate outcome, is the sum total of all these moments.

Meanwhile, the reader and I must each have some faith. I must have some faith in the reader, that the reader is attentive and generous. The reader must trust the experience of the prose and by extension must trust me, the teller, that I’m not a total jerk, that I’m not being arbitrary, that I have a plan.

In order to move forward with the writing day by day, I have to have faith that if each scene is worth reading then the work as a whole will hang together even if, at times, I lose sight of every detail and every twist, every nuance and heartbreak, every betrayal and victory, every back story and every motive …


Does checking in with Twitter work just as well?

In using the Finishing School check-in method, I wondered if using Twitter be just as effective as checking in with my one creative buddy.

My conclusion: Nope. Tweeting a check-in is not as effective as checking in with one individual and having it reciprocated.

For the check-in to work, it has to be acknowledged and reciprocated. Someone has to read  or hear your check-in and acknowledge it and then do the same thing. Otherwise, you’re just sending something out. The behavior is not reinforced. You don’t get acknowledgment and reciprocation. The energy is not reflected back to you.

When someone checks in with you and says, “I’m doing this creative work and I’m starting now,” and you acknowledge that, bang, in that moment, you experience the knowledge that somebody is doing a thing that is a good thing, a thing you support, a thing that is the very thing you also want to be doing. You experience a moment of hope: If this person is doing it, then I can, too. Moreover, since this person is doing it, I sort of feel like I should be doing it, too. I want to be in the game.

Responding is key. Do I hear back from the Twitter world? Not really. It’s not a one-to-one thing. Do I know who is reading that tweet? Not really. Do I know it’s a person who knows me and knows what I am up to and supports me in it, and is doing the same thing? Not really. It’s not a definite, clear transaction.

Pairing off with a creative buddy and communicating one-to-one works best.

So get a creative buddy who will notify you when he or she is beginning work, and agree to notify each other. It doesn’t have to be a long thing. Just, Hey, I’m starting work! And then, Hey, I’m done for now, I did my thing, I’m logging off!

Should my creative buddy in Finishing School be a friend?

In using Finishing School to stay focused and motivated, to finish a creative project, to beat writers block and avoid procrastination, the creative buddy relationship is key. And here is something interesting: The creative buddy doesn’t have to be your friend.

Finishing School works by elevating and highlighting the one creative activity you want to enhance. We focus on it and give it time and energy. We make space for it in our lives.

If your creative buddy is a friend with whom you share many other activities and interests, you may become sidetracked when you check in. Having a creative buddy whose only role is to support your creative work helps focus your attention on that one thing.

So it is best if the creative buddy check-in is the main activity you do together. You are creative buddies. That’s the paramount thing. Keep it simple.

Checking in with a creative buddy: It works, so I do it

Checking in with a creative buddy as part of the Finishing School method might seem corny to a cynical bastard like me. But it works. So I do it.

It’s a method. It’s not cool or beautiful. It’s more like putting gas in the car. It works. It gets you where you’re going.

Checking in with a creative buddy in Finishing School strengthens the will to finish. And finishing is important. So I do it.


Five Holiday Tips for Writers Writing About Their Families

If you are writing about your family, gathering for the holidays can be a real test of nerves—especially if you have not yet told them you are writing about them!

It can also be a golden opportunity, great for your work. You have a chance to interview your “characters,” test your assumptions and freshen your dialogue.

Herewith, five ways to alleviate the dread by using these encounters in your work.

  • Write down your expectations. You may be certain than your aunt always reacts one way, always says the same thing. Write those assumptions down before you her so you can test them out at holiday encounters.
  • Ask questions. You are in a unique position for a writer: you can ask questions of your “characters.” They may surprise you when they respond. You can ask about their pasts, their opinions, their values. You may not use this information in your work but it can stimulate you to take the story in a new direction
  • Listen carefully. The best way to write good dialogue is to listen carefully for the way people phrase things.
  • Pay attention to your body. The body always tells the truth. If you are with a character who angers you, note how that anger or that fear shows up in your body. These descriptions will enhance your storytelling, taking reaction out of the mind and into the physical.
  • Take notes. Writing down what you see and feel gives you some sense of control in circumstances where you may have felt ignored or like a victim. You can take out your notebook while things are going on to remember you have a point of view and do not have to be swept into someone else’s drama. If anyone asks you what you are doing you can say truthfully, “It’s so special to be together at the holidays, I don’t want to miss anything.”



Splitting one novel into three

I realized that I had three novels joined like Siamese triplets and had to begin the awful work of snipping, disentangling, hoping each one would eventually breathe on its own.

I kept looking for ways to make them work as one. Only abject failure after long labor could persuade me how impossible was the task.  I so wanted it to be possible that I tried and tried to make the material work. Again and again I saw that it would only be a murderous, insulting, hideous journey for readers, and they might well hate me for it, as it would feel as though I had ruined three perfectly good novels trying to knit them into one.

I love each of them. The first, Famous Actress Disappears, which I am currently finishing, is the most accessible and fun. I have merely entertained myself in the way I imagine others would want to be entertained–with a mordant wit, darkly satisfying, and snappy dialog part Chandler, part Shaw, part my own dark-night self-murmurings. I pray it is well-received but it is a vicious world out there. What I consider fun others may see as self-conscious, pandering, faux-ribald showmanship, boring and self-involved.

The second novel is a whole dark jungle redneck saga and the heart of the three, called Burning the Rain Girl; at its heart lies the fulcrum of reality and fiction.

The third, which might be called How Lives Intersect in Desperation and in Grace, is a long meditation on the two fictions that precede it and the nature of this thing we take for reality. It might end up more as a novella.

Also, not to be disregarded: There are perhaps 60,000 words of the protagonist’s therapy sessions that may form the basis for a fourth novel. That’s some favorite stuff that I love that I just cannot really make work in the current format. Sheesh. The things you learn when you commit.