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The Best of the Blogs: An Accidental Collaboration by Eliza Langland and Erica Brooks

/Intro by Fiona Smith/

www.ShortbreadStories.com is reaching the grand old age of Four, and as a result we’re becoming a little irrespective in our old age. So we thought it was about time we had a ‘Best of the Blogs’ for all of our original members to reminisce and for our new members to enjoy our achieved material for the very first time. Here is a wonderful piece from Eliza Langland and Erica Brooks which shows us just how inspiring ShortbreadStories can be.

By Eliza Langland and Erica Brooks

An introduction by Eliza Langland: This is the blog piece by Erica Brooks that set me thinking. This is the blog piece made me read her stories. This is the blog piece that set me thinking about how to answer… and what came out is, I think, worth sharing:

Erica Brooks wrote the following for the Guest Editor’s Blog on www.shortbreadstories.comOkay, it’s true confessions time. I’m a fraud. I feel like one, at least. I have two stories up on Shortbread, both of which have gotten some (much appreciated) positive attention, but here’s my big secret: both of them were written at least two years ago, as part of my creative writing dissertation at university. The truth is, I’ve hardly written anything since I graduated in 2007. Now, I’m not looking for a free therapy session here. Rather, I want to explain just why all of you writing on this site put me in such a state of awe. You know why I haven’t been writing? Fear. Well, and a bit of laziness too, but mostly fear. It’s terrifying to stare at a blank page (or screen) and suspect that you don’t really have it in you, or that hostile eyes will read it, or worst of all, that it will be bad writing. But everyone here sits in front of that screen and plugs away, and in the process we have created a place where that sort of thing is allowed. This is very rare. I’m immensely grateful for the intelligent, supportive readers and their comments. But I’m even more grateful for the existence of all these scribblers, fearlessly putting all these gorgeous stories out there and slowly convincing me that, maybe, I might have the guts to do it myself again soon.

Eliza Langland wrote: (by private email to Erica)

Tuesday, 25 August, 2009 13:12

Hi, Erica, I’d love to pass on a little bit of a tale about my writing that might chime with your current writing collywobbles and maybe go some way to addressing those fears you expressed in your editorial address. Please let me know if I may and I’ll contact you again. All the best Eliza

Erica did and what followed was a little email exchange.

Thus: Date: Thursday, August 27, 2009, 7:07 PM 

Hi, Erica, Here’s the thing. “There was this writer who knew his stuff was good. He just needed approval from outside himself to validate it — or so he thought. He was always reading on dust jackets what reviewers said about other writers but his stuff wasn’t in print so there was no validation there for him. He was always hearing what other people said about other people’s writing they’d read. They’d recommend it to other people and on and on and so on, but his writing was in his head so no recommendations for him there. He just wasn’t sure he had anything to write about or, if he ever did find something to write about, he’d be able to do it justice. And he worried. What would people think of him, if he dared to commit something to paper? Commitment.

“That was something he struggled with in other ways too. Then one day he wrote a story – well it took longer than one day but you know what I mean. It was a good story. It was long. It was well formed. It had clever metaphor woven with tight narrative. It had engaging characterisations and, furthermore, it was written in a style that perfectly matched its subject. It was economically written with not a word out of place, not adjective too many, not a paragraph overblown. There was even one person, a significant person who knew what she was talking about when it came to writing, who read it and pronounced it a piece of perfection — and asked for more.

“Now the writer really started to worry. He hadn’t written another one. It had taken so long to write that one; it had come to him apparently out of the blue he knew not from where; he didn’t know if he’d ever be able to write another one. After all, he didn’t know how you wrote a story, not really. Every time he started to try to write a story he found he didn’t actually know how it was supposed to be done. But somehow, by some miracle (nothing to do with him) he’d written this gem. In fact, if anything, it was because it was so good, he feared nothing else he wrote would ever hold a candle to it. The more he thought about writing a story the more he realised he didn’t have a clue how to do it, where to begin, how to plan the ending, how to get into that place where the words flowed. He just didn’t know. But here were all these other writers effortlessly writing away prolifically, engagingly, entertainingly … being published. There were even some writers he didn’t think were all that good who were being published! How did they do it? How did they do it and he couldn’t? He looked at the blank page, the computer screen, the empty notebook, the backs of envelopes with nothing scribbled there, the scraps and notes and doodles of nothing … and the screens and pages all stared back. And then the writer remembered something.”

But I’m getting weary writing this so I’ll close and start up again another day … or you could write back to me and tell me what the writer remembered. It has to do with the way he wrote that first story. It would be good if you could tell me what that was rather than me because then you’d take ownership of the secret that is no secret at all. It’s a secret we all know but keep forgetting and it’s funny when we remember it because we laugh and then wonder why we seem to have to be reminded of it. It’s a secret that contains a conundrum, a conflict of ideas. It’s a secret that scares some people but calms other people right down. It has to do both with commitment and freedom, discipline and abandon, right and left brain working as one. You know what it is, Erica. You know what it feels like to be in it, because the evidence is in your story therefore you have the resources to experience it again. But I won’t spell it out in case you’ve got it already. I’ll send this off and trust, if you’re still reading thus far, you’ll take it in the spirit I’m sending it. Now it just so happens I was a victim of crippling self doubt once upon a time. I’m glad now because, in my line of work, it helps me empathise with people who’re dealing with it themselves. I’m not touting for business though. I don’t think you need therapy. I do think you are a superb writer. Maybe you just need to hear that a bit more often until (and I suspect your talent will never let you become complacent or arrogant if that’s what’s worrying you. It’s too fine for that.) … until you let yourself believe it. And then, when you remember the secret you already know, you’ll get productive again. Any of this help? Let me know. Yours with enormous respect and admiration, Eliza. See ya, pal.’ 

Erica Brooks replied: Date: Friday, 28 August, 2009, 9:41 AM

Hi, Eliza, This had me stumped at first — naturally, since it’s a riddle with no clues except in the person reading it. So I’m the riddle, which is the scary thought that spawned the story to begin with. What do we all know (what do I know) about writing, but still forget, over and over? Then all these anecdotes and bits of advice came back to me, including:

-A friend who said to write a little each day, without hope and without despair.

-An introduction to a Jack London book that quoted him as saying he firmly believed, each time he finished a novel, that he would never write another one again.

-Anne Lamott’s advice in Bird by Bird, that you might write six pages of shit before you come to a sentence that actually does what you want it to do, and says what you want it to say… but you wouldn’t have written that sentence without first writing six pages of shit.

-A novelist I met at a friend’s wedding a few months ago, who agreed to let me e-mail her, but warned that she would always, only, ask the same thing every time: What have you done? (I still haven’t e-mailed.)

-The writing tutor who quoted some other writer as saying a novel is like a long car trip at night — you can only see as far as the headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.

-More Anne Lamott advice: don’t ‘save up’ the good writing, because it doesn’t work that way. The writing gets better by being written.

So while I puzzled over the puzzle (which was really me), all these bits and pieces rose up and swirled around the backs of my eyes, all these little whispers, until I did, in fact, remember what I always forget. So here’s my answer to the riddle: Here’s what he did: He remembered that his first story, that other, perfect one, hadn’t existed either before he wrote it, and that he hadn’t known, when he’d started it, anything about it at all. He’d started it without a single thought of metaphor or characterization, or any of those other things that were so good about it. But the thing was, he’d written it. So he sat down with a blank sheet of paper and wrote “Once upon a time” or “The cat yawned and stretched” or maybe “Morag hadn’t killed her husband yet, and she was very proud of herself”, or maybe something else. And each sentence that he wrote posed a question, and the answer was the next sentence, which then asked a question of its own. And so he was writing again, because he was. You’re a life coach, right? Thank you very much for this — it helps a lot. With awe and gratitude, Erica

“Once they let you get away with running around for ten years like a king hoodlum, you tend to forget now and then that about half the people you meet live from one day to the next in a state of such fear and uncertainty that about half the time they honestly doubt their own sanity.” Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72

Eliza Langland replied: Friday, 28 August, 2009 11:42

Yikes …I (no shit) read everything you wrote with a little tear in my eye. Well done. Well done. Well done. Wasn’t completely taken with the “what have you done’ question but in a way she’s made her point … without having to send a single email. Have a great day whatever you do with it. Thanks for such a great reply. Eliza XX

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One thought on “The Best of the Blogs: An Accidental Collaboration by Eliza Langland and Erica Brooks

  1. Brilliant. Just so very supportive and caring and inspirational – thanks to Eliza and Erica and thanks yet again to Shortbread that keeps us all trying and actually believing that one day we’ll hit the jackpot – Cheers – Diane

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