I’ve been trying most of my life to become an overnight sensation.
It started when I was about seven. I had read a series of books by an irritating twelve-year-old prodigy whose name I no longer remember. (One of her characters was Penelope Pomegranate – ring a bell with anyone?). Her photo was on the back of each book. She was a serious-looking girl with long, straight hair and a sensible woolly jumper. My seven-year-old self, who had previously entertained airy notions of writing books one day, was stung into action.
I began writing like a thing possessed. I had to outdo Miss Sensible Jumper before I hit twelve.
You can guess the rest. I slowly came to learn that overnight success can take a very long time.
I was prompted to reflect on all this last week by a brilliant piece of literary news. Irish writer Nuala ní Chonchúir has just signed a book deal with Penguin USA and Penguin Canada for her third novel, Miss Emily. Nuala got to write on her blog last week the words that every writer longs to type: “I am living my fantasy just now – Penguin USA and Penguin Canada are going to publish my third novel, Miss Emily…”
Nuala has certainly earned the joy of writing those lines. She is one of those talented, hard-working writers who puts in the hours, day after day, year after year. She is a familiar and much-loved name to anyone involved in the Irish literary scene, but up to now, she has not been a household name. Now, readers all over the US and Canada are soon to enjoy the work of a new overnight literary sensation.
I have written elsewhere on this blog about the cultural phenomenon of overnight success. Let’s look at Nuala’s case a little more closely. Her first work was published in 2003. Factor in a very conservative estimate of at least five years of serious, committed daily writing graft before that, and you’ve got a minimum sixteen-year lead-in to the Penguin deal.
I remember attending a workshop with Nuala three or four years ago. The topic was self-promotion for writers. Nuala told us that her income as a writer was small; I think the phrase she used was “laughably small”. This, from a working writer with several published works under her belt, as well as a steady stream of workshop gigs and appearances at literary festivals in Ireland and abroad.
I, for one, greatly appreciated Nuala’s disarming honesty about her income. It helped me to realise the magnitude of the mountain that writers have to climb.
So what can aspiring published writers learn from all this?
Before the gravy, comes the graft. The bad news is that in most cases, the graft takes a painfully long time. The good news is, when the gravy starts pouring, it tastes so, so sweet. And you get to write sentences like: “I am living my fantasy just now.”
Miss Emily, which is about Emily Dickinson and her Irish maid, sounds like a great read. Enjoy the gravy, Nuala.
I love the term “soft eyes”. I first came across it in The Wire (“Refugees”, Episode 4, Season 4) and it has stayed with me since.
In that episode, new arrival to the Homicide department Detective Kima Greggs is sent to her first crime scene. An experienced colleague advises her to use “soft eyes” – that is, to take a wide overview of the scene and let intuition and the subconscious come into play in order to spot things and make connections.
Getting bogged down or stuck in details is a problem shared not just by writers, or even creative types in general, but by anyone with a creative aspect to their work.
I am currently in the early stages of writing one of the stories in my work-in-progress short story collection. I had been floundering around for a few days, trying to work out the finer details of certain scenes.
Then I remembered about soft eyes. I zoomed out in my mind’s eye, brought the scenes into soft focus, and let my mind do its thing for a while.
Mentally, this process (or some variant of it) is what happens when you put on your soft eyes. Physically, you can help soft eyes happen if you sit back, close or half-close your eyes, do some slow breathing or shoulder rolls – anything that you find relaxing.
Linda Formichelli discussed a similar idea the other day on her blog The Renegade Writer. In a post titled “Are you pushing away ideas – and work – by trying too hard?”, Linda’s main points are:
- Focus on the input, not the output: it’s easy to get caught up in producing output, but you need to feed your creativity by absorbing other material.
- Go wide, not deep: this is the idea I mentioned above of not drilling narrowly into details at the expense of the bigger picture. As Linda says, this is intended to be an easy, relaxed process: “Just take [ideas] in and let your subconscious do the work.”
- Be playful: anyone who is familiar with the techniques of Mindfulness will know this as a creativity-enhancing technique called “habit releasers”. Brush your teeth with the other hand, or go to the cinema and see a movie at random rather than planning and booking ahead. The idea is to get your mind “unstuck”.
These techniques also tie in with some good advice I have heard from Nuala Ní Chonchúir in her short story workshops: don’t get tied up too much with plot. Instead, just get writing, and plot will emerge. This to me is a related idea, as it too focuses on relaxing and trusting the subconscious.
Try it! And after you do, post a comment below. I’d love to hear how “soft eyes” works for you.