Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Biting the Nail: The Discipline of Writing

My guest is award winning author, Vincent Zandri. Zandri’s writing has been described as “poignant and shocking” with “depth and substance, wickedness and compassion.” He wrote the critically aclaimed As Catch Can. Vincent's new book, Moonlight Falls will be released later this year.


How does someone who works full time as a freelance writer and photo journalist, a father, and author, manage it all? And do it so well? I hear he has an alluring partner who helps...


“Where do you get your discipline?”

That’s the question I’m asked most frequently about my solitary writing life. Most people who work according the programmed schedule of job and career find it inconceivable that a person can actually roll out of bed, face a blank page, and begin to make words. Yet, as writers, that’s what we do. We create and in order to create we have to have discipline. Discipline to work alone, according to our own rules, according to our own high standards, according to our own priorities and curiosities.

Acquiring discipline isn’t so hard when you are passionate about your work—when you have a desire not only to write well, but to do it better than anyone has done it before. At the same time you have to develop a skin of armor in order to feed the obsession. The first most important lesson of the disciplined writing life is learning that you’re not always going to be successful. Most of the time you will fail and must face the resulting rejection head on. That’s the most difficult thing about discipline: carrying on with your work unabated, even in the face of rejection.

So where does my discipline come from?

As clich├ęd as it sounds, I can only tell you that it comes from deep inside. It’s not something I have to work up; so much as it’s something I have to feed on a daily basis. Discipline means waking up early every day, day in and day out, and writing. It’s writing everyday in isolation no matter what’s happening in my life. Be it sick kids, angry spouses, insolvent bank accounts, a broken toilet, a terrorist attack… I write no matter what. Hemingway called this sometimes impossible but necessary process, “biting the nail.” And anyone who has the discipline to write every day no matter what, understands what biting the nail is all about. Writing, like the discipline it requires, can be an awfully painful process.

Back in 1992, I wrote in my published essay, A Literary Life, “In the morning, weariness begins with darkness. It surrounds me inside my kitchen like a weighted shroud, cumbersome and black. It continues as my fingertips search and locate a light switch next to the telephone, above my son’s hi-chair. White light stings my eyes when I flip it up. There is a clock above the sink…I interpret a big hand and little hand that have not yet made 6:00AM.”

Those were the days when I wrote in the mornings, worked a fulltime job and received rejections everyday. But still, I crawled out of bed and wrote. I guess all these years later, I can truthfully say, discipline is what I had in the place of sleep, in the place of comfort, in the place of security and success. Discipline was and remains the bedfellow I seek when I am at my most lonely.

Eventually the discipline would reap its rewards.

In the 12 years since I’ve earned my MFA from Vermont College, I’ve published three novels, with one on the way this winter. I’ve been translated into numerous languages. I’ve published almost two-dozen short stories, countless articles, essays and blogs. I’ve traveled “on assignment” to China, Turkey, Greece, Italy, France, Spain, Africa and more. Along the way I’ve met wonderful people, seen wonderful things, witnessed atrocities, unspeakable disease, hunger and corruption. I’ve written about much of it. Some of it, I’ve simply stored away in my brain for some future story or novel down the road.

For all its rewards, discipline demands stiff payment.

Because of my priorities, I’ve failed at two marriages and many more relationships. I’ve lost friends and lost the faith and trust of family members who have come to think of me as unreliable or flaky at best. Because after all, I tend to use a holiday like Christmas as a time to work, and when family events like birthdays come up, I might be traveling or locked up in my studio with my significant other…Well, you know her name. It starts with a D.

I have managed however, to find a way to balance time with my kids. Not that it’s always been easy. Children are a distraction, no bones about it. But they are also fuel for your discipline. I’m not entirely certain that I could have achieved any kind of success without them. Children open up emotional vaults that would otherwise remain sealed shut. You need to expose the contents of these vaults in your prose.

My writing simply wouldn’t be the same without kids. Now that they’re almost grown up, I still keep them as close as possible without smothering them. When it comes to my children, my philosophy has always been, hug them, tell them you love them, and make them laugh once a day. You’d be surprised how well this works. Also, don’t be afraid to tell them the truth. They know when you’re lying. If you can’t spend time with them because you have to feed the discipline, be honest about it. They will appreciate you for it and come to respect you.

Case and point: it’s a beautiful Saturday afternoon and I’m writing this article. My children are home, just outside the closed door of my studio, where I can hear them engaged in some sort of friendly argument. I’m not doing anything with them per se. But I’m here with them, for them.

This month alone I will write and published 36 short architecture and construction articles, three major blogs, present a revised version of The Concrete Pearl (my fifth novel) to my agent, write one or two features, engage in pre-publicity for Moonlight Falls, and maybe, if there’s time, pen a new piece for my personal blog. In between all this, I’ll juggle time with the kids, time for exercise, time to tip some beers with friends, time for a few road trips, time to be by myself and read. Have I mentioned the discipline required to read books?

One word of warning, the discipline, no matter how beautiful a bedfellow, does not always respond lovingly. Even after you’ve scored a major book contract or two. During my second marriage, I suffered through a writer’s block that lasted five long years, a period during which I published not a single word. The block just happened to coincide with my oldest son’s nervous breakdown and the onset of severe depression (see “Breakdown,” http://www.blnz.com/news/2008/11/12/Breakdown_8563.html). At that time, as I neared bankruptcy (after receiving a mid-six figure advance for As Catch Can), I never once stopped working, never once veered from the discipline of waking up every morning and trying to write. “Trying” being the key word here.

Looking back on those difficult years, I realize I wasn’t writing so much as I was just typing, but the process helped me cope with some very difficult and serious issues in my life. If nothing else, the discipline to write can be a mighty powerful therapy.

Eventually the damn breaks, as it did in my case, and I made a return to good writing and publishing. I’m not making millions by any means, but I make a decent living as a freelance journalist and novelist, and that’s all anyone can honestly ask for.

The late great Norman Mailer also understood about the financial ups and downs of being a fulltime writer. But more importantly, he understood about the discipline of biting the nail. He wrote 2,500 new words a day right up until the end when his kidneys failed him. It wasn’t the disciple or the talent or the mind that gave out, it was the 84-year-old body. I’m told he died with a smile on his face. Not the kind of smile that accompanies peace of mind, sedated painlessness, or “going to the bright light.” But the kind of smile that only a disciplined writer can wear; the sly grin that means you’re about to embark on a brand new adventure, and that you can’t wait to write about it.
###
Vincent Zandri is the award winning author of the critically acclaimed As Catch Can, Godchild, and Permanence. His new novel, Moonlight Falls will be published this winter by RJ Buckley. A full-time freelance writer and photo journalist, he is also a Stringer for Russia Today TV. An avid traveler and sports enthusiast, Zandri plays drums for the New York based punk rock band, The Blisterz. For more information on Vincent Zandri and his publications, visit, www.vincentzandri.com, http://www.facebook.com/vincent.zandri?ref=profile and http://www.journalism.co.uk/12/articles/533696.php

41 comments:

~Sia McKye~ said...

Vin, welcome to Over Coffee! I'm so glad you could make it.

I have plenty of good strong coffee, tea, homemade goodies, help yourself.

Several things struck a chord with me as I read through your article and one that really stood out:

"The first most important lesson of the disciplined writing life is learning that you’re not always going to be successful. Most of the time you will fail and must face the resulting rejection head on. That’s the most difficult thing about discipline: carrying on with your work unabated, even in the face of rejection."

I refer to it as having Rhino skin and I agree, that is the hardest time to continue writing--facing rejections. I think part of what pushes me on, at least, is believing in yourself.

Vincent Zandri said...

Yeah, what a racket...A MFA writing teacher once described the "book business" as a 3 steps forward, 5 steps back kind of thing...You just have to learn to carry on as best you can despite all those things you have no control over...Eventually, if you hang around long enough, you achieve some kind of success...

Jeanette H said...

And still you keep going...such courage. There are many ways to measure success...that is one of them.

Anonymous said...

One way to measure success is the tenacity to continue to make work, I'll agree. I think another is to not have burn out while acheiving this. Sounds like you have learned ways to have some reality based time...what I mean is, sounds like children ground you. Otherwise, let's face it, as creative individuals, the reading, writing, observing, might become hard to escape from if its embedded in everything you do. An alluring, supportive partner helps as well :)

Vincent Zandri said...

Once you've been in the fiction business for a while, you learn to take both success and rejection with a huge grain of salt...You begin to write what you want to write based on your own curiosities...No one or no thing can stop that drive, nor the discipline required to make it happen...

Vincent Zandri said...

Dear anonymous...
Assuming you are a woman, are you married? LOL! :)....
VZ

eluper said...

And that's much of the trick of writing, "take both success and rejection with a huge grain of salt."

If you place too much importance on the great reviews you get, then you can't help but be devastated by the bad reviews. Not that I've ever gotten a bad review! :-)

Great blog entry, Vince!

Vincent Zandri said...

Reviews??? It's not the media reviews I sweat...It's those pesky amazon reviews from independent readers...a bad one of those can ruin your whole day or make run to cabinet for the 12 gauge side-by-side...Good luck with "Bug Boy" Eric...
VZ

Ken Coffman said...

It's not like writing is a race or macho weight-lifting contest, but I feel the same way: regardless of where I am today, I want to be the best damn writer of this generation, though I wouldn't have the courage to state it as plainly as you, Vincent, I recognize that fire-in-the-belly that gets us up at 4:00 and work-work-working.

Anonymous said...

I agree regarding rejection~you have to have enough belief in your own work to press on past every hurdle~ =)

~Selene

Kat Sheridan said...

Ah,Discipline. Not a skill I've mastered yet, but I'm working on it. Sounds as if you've learned to harness that energy and just keep going. And a five-year writer's block? Ow! Now I don't feel so bad. Mine's only been six months! You're an inspiration, and it sounds as if I just need to force myself to sit down and give it a shot every day. Good luck with your work! And Sia, as usual, a fun and interesting guest!

Now, I understand you have brownies around someplace. Are they frosted, by an chance? Not that I want the brownie, but I could always lick off the icing!

Vincent Zandri said...

Further truth be told I was also in a very bad marriage at the time in which my then sig other had a real tough time with my writing, often issuing the dreaded complaint "Your writing is more important then me." We sometimes be out socially and it would pain her to admit that I was a writer. Not that we need Yokos and Johns as sig others, but it does help to have a supporting partner. But that support must not be taken for granted of course...

Vincent Zandri said...

By the way: I wanted to thank Sia for inviting me to this blog...Maybe all aren't aware but the recent tornado that passed through Sia's area did damage to her home and she had to wrestle with putting things back together plus get this blog together. Sia, when I'm out your way on tour, I owe you at least a cold beer...and a steak!!!
Vin

~Sia McKye~ said...

LOl! Make it a cold dark beer and I'll take you up on it Vin. It's all the aftermath crap that is a pain in the butt. The invasion of the contractors...my animals going nuts with said invasion...normal life on hold. Writing? what writing. Sheesh.

Yes, Kat, I have brownies and knowing your penchant for frosting...*rummaging in the cupboard. ta dah! Frosting. Just for you, lolol!

jillypoet said...

Brilliant, as usual Vin! For me, dicipline is the hardest thing to come by. It comes and goes, even if the passion is there. Not to put a feminist slant on the discussion, but do you think it migh be a little harder for a woman--that is, a woman in charge of young children in constant need of entertainment...--to achieve and maintain discipline?

Lucky me. We're almost neighbors, so when I can manage to lose the kids--I know I can count on you to be my drill sergeant!

Anonymous said...

Excellent article, Vincent! I understand the need to write as well as the distraction of family extremely well. I have 4 kids, 2 still at home. I don't have an office or studio, merely the desk space at one end of the dining room. That's MY space and is supposed to be sacrosanct. You can be sure with a 17 & 13 year old - plus friends banging in and out, it hardly ever is unless it's about 2 in the morning. I tend do to my best work late at night until I can't keep my eyes open anymore. It's as well I don't have an office or I'd probably forget to fix meals, cart kids around, or even see anyone.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Dellani, then there is the whole thing about wanting to use the computer too, lol. I have a 14 year old and it's a struggle at times and late night works well for me at times, as well. A solution has been to set up a router to handle two computers. He can use my laptop and I'm buying a set of headphones for him so when his music is blaring, I can at least work. Unless it's papa roach or nickelback then I'm bopping with the music and working, lol!

Now punk music? hmmm. I understand there are those here that do a bit of drumming with that, um, music? lolol!

jillypoet said...

PS: Just to prove you are so right about rejection...before I read this article this afternoon, I recv'd a rejction from a journal I REALLY wanted to be published in. An hour later, I received news that one of my poems is being printed as a broadside. Thick skin, patience and perseverance! Definitely needed in this business!

~Sia McKye~ said...

Jilly, I don't think that's a feminist slant, I thinks it's reality. It's not just the kids, it's household chores, dinner, homework, talking and spending quality time with your kids. Discipline comes into play even more. They're only with us a short time as kids before they move out. We have to be there and really, it's a joy. Well most of the time, lmao!

Cheryl Kaye Tardif, author & marketing coach said...

Great interview, Sia, and the coffee is always great! :-)

I'll admit, I fight with discipline sometimes. It can be easy to get distracted by LIFE. I know that as a writer and published author I have evolved to adapt to the changing climate around me--whether it's kids, noise, dogs, neighbors, more kids--and we're talking 18+ now.

Self-discipline is perhaps the greatest challenge a human being faces. It's that muse that strikes and wanrs us to take notes so we don't lose an idea. It's that niggling reminder to make a list of all the to-dos for the day. Sometimes it just watches and laughs while we cave to other activities.

In the end, I still have enough discipline to make suer I accomplish at least one thing related to writing or promoting every single day. And most times I do at least 5 things. I find setting weekly and monthly goals helps keep me on track, and if I do stray one day, I give myself permission and make sure I make it up the next day.

Like many writers I often do my best work late at night and I have even pulled a couple of all-nighters when I'm really inspired.

I look at this very simply: is this a hobby or a career? For me it has always been a career. And that means I work fulltime at least 8 hours a day. I'm very lucky to be able to do this fulltime now. In the beginning I had to fit it in around a job.

Thanks for inviting me over, Sia. And thank you, Vincent, for sharing your experiences!

Cheryl Kaye Tardif
http://www.cherylktardif.com
*Check out Lancelot's Lady on Textnovel.com and vote thumbs up!

Cheryl Kaye Tardif, author & marketing coach said...

Discipline should also remind me to proof my comments more carefully, especially since I am dyslexic. Doh!

CKT

~Sia McKye~ said...

lol! Cheryl. I haven't figured out how to set up spell check here. Lord knows I need it because my fingers connecting with my brain plus speed, somethings bound to slip. :-)

I know for me, discipline is keeping track of all the balls I have in the air on a given day. I have monthly and weekly goals. I don't do bad, but like you, there are days...

Vincent Zandri said...

Spell checking??? I think I spelled dam like damn...Now that's why our wonderful publishing houses have copy editers...Hey Jill congratulations on the poems, that rocks!!!! And thank you all for being so kind regarding my blog. I look forward to all your comments regarding all my books and Moonlight Falls when it comes out...So now I am off to my Blisterz rehearsal...Punk rock for the over forty set anyone????????
VZ

Ti said...

Balance is hard to achieve and when there are kids involved, it really takes discipline to keep the balling rolling. I totally "get" the distraction comment. So true. Nice post.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Punk what?

Ti, thanks for stopping by. Kids always throw the schedule off some how, some way.

Vincent Zandri said...

Ya...just when you think it's going smoothly...one of the kids steps on their glasses...Boom, there goes an afternoon and 500 bucks....But we love them...right? ;)

~Sia McKye~ said...

Always, through the good, the bad, the ugly and down right scary times.

~Sia McKye~ said...

You know? I've heard so much about writers block. Some people can write through whatever disasters are happening in their lives. They channel that upheaval into their writing. Some can't write at all.

So, what clued you that "damn broke"?

Sisters-in-Sync said...

Hi Vincent,

Your post was inspiring to say the least. I am just starting my writing venture and have quickly found out that discipline is KEY! No matter how busy my "real world" gets, I insist on carving out time every single day to work on "my world". The reward of that is priceless if only to me.

Thanks so much for sharing your story.

Barb

Vincent Zandri said...

You're welcome Barb...And Sia, "damn broke" was probably totally self conscious being a writer...:)...But for some reason, I always read something with a different eye once it's submitted...Damn....:)

~Sia McKye~ said...

So, the writers block was more of a feeling that your writing wasn't up to your previous standards? Or judged as drivel by you?

But, as some point, you knew that you were back in your groove. What clued you that were? Inquiring minds, meaning me, are curious.

aries18 said...

Vincent, so nice to meet you via Sia's blog. Your words about discipline have really struck home with me. I am very disciplined when working for someone else but I have trouble when working for myself. You've shown me that it is really the lynchpin to being successful in your writing. I don't mean success as being published but success as becoming a better writer, improving over time and possibly becoming published, at least in my case. It's great advice especially coming from a successful writer. Thanks for the inspirtation!And now I'm off to find your books. I'll be watching for the newest one coming out, as well.

Sia, great guest blogger! As usual you bring us the best of the best! Brownies were delish as usual.

~Sia McKye~ said...

Wanda, so glad you stopped by sweetie. I think writing is one of those things that are never static. We're always growing, always improving. as with anything, experience comes into play. But if we're dedicated to our craft, our career really, we have to improve or get lost along the way.

I've been delighted to have Vincent here and he's been a joy to work with. I'm hoping he'll let me feature him when Moonlight Falls is released.

Vincent Zandri said...

I'd be honored and delighted to be back when MF comes out Sia...Thank you...and to answer your previous questions, how I knew that I was just typing and not writing. It's kind of like dating. You know when you're clicking with someone and not. On occasion you talk yourself into thinking it's clicking, but then, no more than a day or so later, the little hairs on the back of your neck stand up, your brow perspires and that voice inside you--your built-in shit detector--tells you, "Un uh, it ain't workin'." ...

~Sia McKye~ said...

Great analogy. It's true. Loved the way you explained it. Thank you.

Btw, I know you are a stringer for Russia Today TV, do you speak Russian?

As for Moonlight Falls, send me an email when your release date is imminent and we'll set up a date.

Vincent Zandri said...

No Russian, sadly. Russia Today TV is the 24 Hour English speaking television network for both Russia and all of Europe and much of the Middle East. Our competition is CNN and BBC. The network is trying to break into the American market and that's one of the reasons for hiring me as a stringer.
Thanks Sia

~Sia McKye~ said...

Ah, I don't know much about the network. In fact, I hadn't heard of it until you mentioned it. Hard market to break into. :-)

Vincent Zandri said...

Yah, completely foreign...literally. When I tell people I work for them in Europe or even Africa, they're like, "Oh wow, really." Over here people have no idea and when you think about, nor should they...:)
V

Other Lisa said...

Great post. I relate to so much of this.

Vince, I am over 40, and if I may say so I STILL RAWWKKKK.

*ahem*

~Sia McKye~ said...

I do too Lisa, but I like to tease Vince about Punk rock, lol! It comes from all those brothers I grew up with.

I love to tease my son about the fact that I was 'rockin' before he was born, lol!

Vincent Zandri said...

Well, I still RAWK, (ahem back atacha both...:) but I just need a little more sleep is all...;)