FAQ: Take Joy, a review (sort of)

I think it appropriate that the book I will review today will be Jane  Yolen’s Take Joy, due to all the joy I’ve been taking in my new camera over the weekend. I’ve been finding the joy again in my photography that I’ve been delaying for so long because film has become such an encumbrance that I end up saving rolls of film for months–my latest batch included shots from San Diego Comic-Con last July, a trip I took last August, several rolls from my Christmas travels, as well as a variety of smaller events in the last six months–and by the time I get to see them again, the pictures have little meaning. I didn’t play with pictures as much as I used to when in photography classes because I don’t have the time to play in the darkroom making the exposure perfect (though how tempting it has been over the years to find a place I can build a darkroom, especially this last year because my uncle offered me his enlarger….).

Getting the digital camera, even in the first few days of use, has given me back that joy. I’m starting to remember the way I used to play with angles and ligh
ting and the strange subjects I used to seek out. I have done a little of that playing with my camera phone, but that’s more of a toy than a passion–when you’re dealing with a 2 MP camera, there’s only so much art you can create.

(I have a point, really I do.)

This is an important process to me, because I occasionally do a freelance article here and there, a wedding here and there, that kind of thing. I’m taking some pictures for our kickboxing teacher in a couple weeks to help him promote his new dojo. But I’d been feeling lately that I was losinig my chops. All my pictures ended up coming out the same–lots of flash burn, standard compositions, nothing out of the ordinary that gives you that wow factor. Competent, but not excellent. Even the pictures I posted in the last few days reflect those ways of seeing, though I love the salt shaker post because it’s something different, something new I tried after learning a few things about indoor lighting (the bane of my photographic existence).

So, what does this have to do with writing and with Jane Yolen’s book in particular?

The whole book is about that discovery process, giving writers permission to find that joy that I have been rediscovering in my photography. In the first chapter Yolen quotes Gene Fowler, “‘Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until the drops of blood form on your forehead'” and immediately refutes him: “I suggest you learn to write not with blood and fear, but with joy.” She says to forget about publishing, because it’s out of your hands, and to focus on the joy of your craft–of writing a story well, of really digging in and living in the story.

A very good premise. I mean, after all, why write if you don’t find joy in it? I write. I think I’ve said it before here. I have a story, a retelling of a Scottish fairy tale, that I’ve been working on since my last year at BYU, in 2001. It’s gone through many renditions, and the most I’ve ever finished was a novellette for a folklore class in grad school. Then I threw out the entire setting and decided to change it all around, and have gotten all of 10,000 words written since then in the new setting.

Why haven’t I finished it? Because while it brings me joy to live in that story, it doesn’t bring me enough joy to make it worth my time to write every night after doing a very similar activity at work every day. I fully admit I may never be a published fiction writer (I am a published non-fiction freelance writer over and over, but that’s a different market), and that’s enough for me to find the little joys in the little bits of writing I do from time to time because publication isn’t important to me–what’s important to me is the story in my imagination.

And mostly because I find that same kind of joy in being an editor to far better books than I could probably write right now.

For those who don’t have that push-pull of using up that creative energy before you can set pen to paper (metaphorically speaking), Yolen’s book will have much fodder for the imagination.

Though I must say that the whole numinous “the mystery of fiction,” “the mystery of the writing process,” bleh. Don’t make it all mysterious, as if someone with a little talent and a lot of effort can’t figure it out. There’s nothing mysterious about the combination of putting in the time to do something you love so that you can develop the inborn talent you have into something better. It’s work, but if you find joy in it, it’s time well spent, in my opinion.

But that may just be my practical Midwestern upbringing coming into play. Doesn’t mean that there isn’t mystery in the art, and if that motivates you to seek joy in creating art, whatever your art is, more power to you.

Back to Take Joy–as you have probably already guessed, this isn’t so much a review as a disjointed essay borne from a few ideas I’ve plucked from its pages–Yolen says
that “These stories grace our actual lives with their fictional realities. Like angels they lift us above the hurrying world.” I really like that idea. I don’t know if I can recapture what it is that caught me about that particular passage, but I’ll try.

As I was driving home the other night a program on NPR caught my attention. It was a Romanian professor by the name of Kodrescu (spelling? who knows?) who was speaking about the power of memories, how we create memories that didn’t actually happen and turn them to pedagogical uses, how we change memory to fantasy because sometimes fantasy feels more real than the reality it is trying to reflect.

How to express this? That talk really said something to me the other night, but now it’s slipping from my mind, and I can barely even remember who the speaker was at this point.

At any rate, I think what I’m trying to say is that sometimes in fiction we find more truth than we do in the reality we’re seeking to interpret. I’ve said this before about fantasy, about its wonderful metaphorical magic. We can talk about struggles, the epic battle between good and evil, the shades of gray, the variety of human existence, in so many ways in fantasy that we can’t do as well in realism sometimes because of the power the metaphor gives us–the power that the fictional, the fantasy (meaning the numinous, the fantastic, as well as simply the fantasy of making up a story), give us to assign multiple meanings and to interpret and reinterpret.

That the stories can “grace our actual lives with their fictional realities” can mean so many things, and I’m losing the ability to express what I’m trying to say.

At any rate, the book is a good read, and I think nonwriters as well as writers can benefit from the idea of taking joy in the art you pursue–remembering why you do what you do.

Of course, writers will get even more out of it, because she’s got some solid advice for writers in there about taking rejection well, the elements of a good story (beyond a simple anecdote to a fully drawn drama), finding your voice, even a whole section dedicated to specific practical advice. I love the little interludes, the little bits of wisdom between chapters. One such, before chapter 5, is especially apropos for anyone who writes historical fiction, fantasy, or other genres that require lots of research:

For a writer, nothing is lost. Research once done can be used again and again, a kind of marvel of recycling. As writers we need to be shameless about thieving from ourselves.

For example, I did two books on the Shakers–a nonfiction book called Simple Gifts and a novel, %3
Cem>The Gift of Sarah Barker. And it is no coincidence that the round barn I discovered in my historical research, I then used as a piece of setting in the Sarah Barker book. It later found its way into my young adult science fiction novel, Dragon’s Blood.

Good research swims upstream where it can spawn. (p. 41)

So there you have it, as one of hopefully a lot of writing book recommendations here at Stacy Whitman’s Grimoire, couched in an essay on finding my photography chops again. Check out the book–you might find some gems that help you find joy in your own writing.