On Being a Pantser

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I expressed excitement in my last post over having time to plan for NaNoWriMo, but that planning will not include outlining, deeply developing characters, or anything of that nature. While no approach–being a “Planner” or a “Pantser”–is the “right” approach and every writer is different, I don’t have to ponder long to know I’m a Pantser.

I know I’m a Pantser because I am a Pantser when it comes to writing short stories.  Most of the time when I begin, I have a character and possibly a situation, and mayyyybe a vague idea of what direction the story might take (and generally, I end up being wrong about the direction), but that’s pretty much it.  Sometimes, I start with nothing at all. One of the best feelings in the world is when I’m finished writing, I feel as if I’ve woken up from a really interesting dream, or feel as if I’ve just been reading really good book. I love the slow realization that I wrote that story–it didn’t even seem as if I were writing, but rather reading and watching the events unfold. For me, the un-known element plays a large part of the fun of writing. That’s the playtime element that makes me want to keep writing, the fun, the reason for getting up early in the morning.

If I plan out my stories ahead of time too much–if I flesh out my characters too much, if I know what will happen each step of the way–then my mind balks at this and suddenly the task of writing ceases to be play and becomes more like writing a dissertation, a research article, or a narrative for a program review. All writing is not fun, in other words, but the writing I do early in the morning for personal fulfillment and enjoyment ought to be.

I started writing originally as a very small child. I don’t know exactly how old I was, but not too long after mastering the basic skills of reading and writing, it occurred to me that I, too, could write and that meant I could make up my own stories and write them down. I could write things that didn’t exist in the world yet. And for me, most of those things are settled so deep in my unconscious that planning them out too much robs them of their magic.

This is what happened to me with the last novel I tried to write.  I got a pretty solid idea based on these people and this experience and it held a lot of promise, but because I wrote it for a novel-writing class, it met its ultimate demise because we had to outline a bit more than I like to do.  We didn’t outline too much (the professor was good–very flexible on allowing us to choose our process), but the small part we did outline was too much for me. Also, the fact that I wrote the chapters as class assignments literally made the novel work and not as much fun as it otherwise would be (I got an A in the class and great comments on the chapters, though). We moved shortly after writing those chapters, then, and the rest of my life launched forward, leaving that novel in its wake.

I don’t want to write that novel now. I have already invented stories about those characters (although I’ve never written one of them down) and as far as what those characters meant to me, I have now answered all the questions I had about them and the themes surrounding that would-be novel, all by merely thinking about them often enough.  I have no desire to tell that tale any longer. Would that novel have been completed if I’d done it for NaNoWriMo, with no rules except putting fingers to the keyboard?  Maybe.  Would it have been written if I weren’t worried about getting an A in a class?  Maybe. But who knows.

This is not to say I don’t plan.  I have the POV choice made, a main character (not fleshed out, but in existence), a couple of other characters, and the general idea of the structure. In short, I did the same amount of planning that I do for a short story.  I think a lot of my planning takes place in my unconscious, though, and to bring it too soon to the conscious frames the ideas too much, solidifies them too much, limits them too much.  It’s better to keep them in the amniotic fluid as long as possible, in the dreamworld as much as possible, until I’m ready to open the tap on my keyboard.  This probably means I need to edit far more than I would if I were a planner, but maybe not. No problem. I can edit.

Rather, my planning involves figuring out how to write 50,000 words in a month.  How many do I need to write each day, then? What if I have to take a day off? (I refactor the numbers). How early will I have to get up? Will family mind if I write in the evening while we’re sitting outside? What will I do when my brother and his family visit? (I refactor the numbers). What’s my game plan here?

I do that kind of planning.  Just not the planning when it comes to the fun, the magic, the story.

November is NaNoWriMo!

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Get ready, fellow writers, for the literary marathon known as NaNoWriMo.  I’m sure you’ve heard of it, where writers of all types attempt to write 50,000 words of a novel in a mere month.  I have heard of it for years, but every year, it never quite makes it onto my mental radar until the second week in November, or more likely, as I’m contemplating when to buy a turkey for Thanksgiving. By then, that ship has sailed until the next year when I again don’t think about it until it’s too late.

But not THIS year, my friends! No, this year, NaNoWriMo (National Novel-Writing Month) made it on my radar with almost three weeks to mentally prepare. Go me. I’ll need that three weeks for sure since I am not a novelist. YET.

I write short stories. I relate to short.  Little bites. Condensed pieces of what could be a piece of a novel, a single character or two, a couple of places….I can do short stories. That’s not to say I don’t have novel ideas in me. I do. I have ideas bopping all around my mind, but I shove them aside because I’m not a novelist (see the circular reasoning there? The “fixed mindset”?).  I take parts of them and make them into short stories–little pieces of them, little manageable nibbles.

But not in November.  This November, I’m going to start with the biggest idea that’s been knocking around inside my mind for a year or so and go to town on it. I’m going to write and write a bunch of crap that will be a 50,000 word horrible novel because it’s NaNoWriMo and I think it’ll be good, if only pschologically.  After all, if a person can write 50,000 words in one month, then they can probably write 25,000 the next, if they wanted to. After all, we don’t know our limits if we don’t push ourselves. And it’s not like I can’t do it, I tell myself. I’ve written and defended a quantitative dissertation.  I’ve gone grocery shopping by myself with five children ages five and under (pro-tip: it takes two carts and bribery).  I’m pretty sure I can do this.

I’ll keep you updated.

Missing Spoons

Every few years, I open the silverware drawer and find only knives, two forks, and one spoon.

“Where are all the spoons?” I ask.

Everyone shrugs and offers their opinions. They got left outside. They got thrown away. Someone took them to work or school for lunch and they never made it home. Lots of theories.

The forks are likewise absent.

Eventually, I break down and order them in bulk and once again, the silverware drawer is overflowing.

But the spoons and forks are still out there in the world. In the trash, or under the dirt in the backyard.

The Lump of Clay

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Yesterday, I read a draft of a short story that I recently retrieved from its “rising” place. I marked out time to “read and make comments” to it, got myself a cup of coffee, and sat back to read.

Oh, boy, was it rough. It read not unlike the above clay face in the photo above (which my eldest son brought home from elementary school and has inhabited my bookshelves ever since).

I took a sip of coffee and slashed through the first two pages. Nope. Nope. Nope.

I wrote notes to myself in the margins on what changes needed to be made.

Then I read on. Okay, well, I liked that….let’s bring out that element more….I kind of liked those eyebrows. The eyebrows work.

Revising is like this at first.  No matter what you are revising, you start with the big stuff first before you get down into the weeds. Whole scenes. Characters. POV. We aren’t at the sentence level yet. Not even close.

Because so far, what I’ve got written is clunky, molded as if created from clay with small hands lacking dexterity.

My job in the revision process is to hone, to shape, to redo the eyebrows and give depth to the eyes.

For me, that takes time.

 

Letting Your Writing Rest and Rise

I hate to read anything that I’ve had published. Why? Well, as soon as I get over the general excitement of another one in the books and hot off the press, I settle down to read the final published project and cringe. Why didn’t I change that scene? Why did I use so much passive voice? What was I thinking? How did no one not notice the stance shift going on on the third page? Holy crap!

After doing this recently, I decided to try out the “double-rise” method of editing, a term which I just made up today (after not being able to find a good picture of a marinade and decided to use one of my photos of no-knead bread from a few months ago—and yes, the bread was as delicious as it looks! But I digress) and which I’m trying out right now with my latest project:

To begin with, the first goal as I’ve said in other posts, is just to get the first draft written. This is an area where I certainly struggle the most, so it’s worth saying again: Just get it down and get it written—even if you have to write the damn thing in pencil.

But then what? My advice (and the advice of many others who are better writers than I) is to set the piece aside for long enough to get some emotional and psychological distance from the piece. For me, that’s about six to eight weeks—long enough to nearly forget the piece entirely. When this happens, I then drag it out from the bag or the drawer—wherever I stowed it—and read it again, this time with a critical eye. I read it out loud and mark up anything that doesn’t work. Believe me, after two months’ time, the major faults of that story will shine like oil on a pimply nose.

Make the changes you see—rewrite all you need to, add and delete scenes—and after all that, you may feel up to sharing the piece with some people in your writer’s group, if you have one (and you really should have one). After all, you don’t want to share something too rough—you want them to focus their critical energy in the most efficient way possible.

But here’s the second-rise part….after you make some more of those changes, put it back in a “drawer” for another few weeks. Give it some more time and some more distance before making the “final” edits and beginning the process of sending it out. I am hoping that by allowing it to have a second rest—a second “rise”— that I can have even more distance, which will help me edit myself even more successfully.

This is what I’m going to try with the next batch of projects I have. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Starting From Nothing

I have always found it fascinating to hear how writers get their ideas or how they begin their stories. For me, stories sometimes begin with watching someone closely and imagining what it would be like to be them—or if not them, then someone in their lives. Then, that maybe gets juxtaposed with an unrelated idea in just a way to make a story emerge. Or it begins with an object or an item and a character. Or it may begin by putting someone in a situation and seeing what they do to get out of that situation. Or it may be a bunch of half-truths knitted together all slip-shod and rumpled just enough to make a story.

But on rare occasion, when I’m feeling very free and exploratory, I just start writing and see what happens, where my ideas take me.

Don’t get me wrong…I have a kernel of something before I begin. An image, maybe, or an idea of a character, but mostly, the beginning is dreamy, ghostly, ephemeral. It’s hard to pin down. And pinning it down isn’t the goal….the goal is to see what emerges.

And much of the time, it’s total garbage at first—a weaving of plastic grocery store bags and corn husks. Or a castle of damp playing cards. A tower of cans and bottles.

But sometimes—the best times—something sturdy and completely unexpected emerges. And suddenly, I’ve created something out of nothing.

Which is one of the main reasons I write.

Writing in Pencil

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I am a recovering perfectionist. That’s probably the best way to put it.

You may feel that being a perfectionist is a good thing? After all, how can a quest for the ideal ever be a bad thing and shouldn’t we always try to do our best?  Well, a job well done is important, and I am not advocating sloppy work, but perfectionists can become stalled and unable to function simply because perfection is hard to achieve because it’s, well, perfection. Perfectionists know this on a cognitive level, but deep down, they feel that if something can’t be perfect, then why bother tackling it at all?  Or many have the idea that, more often than not, the results of their work will fall far short of perfection and this realization causes them to become frozen in their own doubt.

That’s how it is with me, anyway, but over the years, I have learned to cope with this paralysis in order to be moderately productive in life. When it comes to writing, this is where pencils come in.

I love all writing implements, but I have a special love for pencils. Pencils with large erasers. 

When I am in doubt about my writing, frozen in front of a computer screen (and while I know we can hit “delete” on a computer keyboard, it’s just not the same thing, psychologically), when I’m not sure where to start, I drag out a yellow legal pad and open up my pencil box (pictured above).

“Write something crappy,”  I tell myself. “Go on. It’s just for fun!”

I start writing then. I don’t allow myself to stop, even if I think what I’m writing is stupid, because the idea is to just get started. In pencil.

Why pencil? Well, for one thing, it’s casual. It’s breezy. It’s reminiscent of school and homework, nothing serious.  One of my high school classmates (I couldn’t tell you who) once said–when catching me doing math homework in pen–that doing math in pen is like picking your nose with a wire hook. I needed to be able to EARASE!  He was genuinely mortified that I couldn’t erase and the same is often true with writing. Therefore, pencils bring me back to the world of homework and drafting ideas and sketching concepts, not official “sign-this-in-black-ink” documentation thoughts of which pen evokes.

Pencil lead is ephemeral–at least theoretically. I have journal entries going back 30 years that are written in pencil, so I’m not so sure it’s as ephemeral as we think, but because it is so easily erased, I think of it that way. Pencil isn’t meant to be lasting, which allows me to write something that is equally ephemeral. When I write in pencil, I say to myself, “This is not permanent. I will improve this. This is just for now.”  And that gets me going.

The yellow legal pad also plays a role–legal pads are for jotting ideas, notes, brainstorming….they aren’t for preserving forever. When combined with pencil lead, it’s the perfect recipe for a paralytic writer to overcome perfectionism.

You can erase this, pencil says. It’s okay if it’s crap.

At some point in this process, I feel confident in what I’m doing to move onto a computer.  Not that I think it’s perfect, but by then, I’m at the “it’ll do” phase and I’ve passed the perfectionist hump. Sometimes, I will write a whole first draft in pencil and then re-invent the new draft as I write on the computer, adding scenes, taking whole new angles, changing POV, etc. but the bones of the thing are down in pencil.

Then, once I have a draft on the computer, I shred the yellow legal papers covered in pencil. I love doing that, too, and it’s also an important part of the process, for me.

So, if anyone out there suffers from perfection-induced writing paralysis, you might try digging out a pencil or two, with a nice new eraser, and see if this works for you!

When the Water Rises…

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Let me begin with the disclaimer that our family was not hurt by Hurricane Harvey.  We are all okay and so is our house. So is most of our neighborhood.

But on Saturday night, the 26th of August–technically the 27th of August since it was 1:30 am–the shit got real. This picture is our street in from of our house. The water slowly began to rise and cover the street, which it had done in the past, but still, it was pretty intense. I–along with my neighbors, whose flashlights I could see in their windows, or dancing under umbrellas as they ran out to the street to get a more intimate view–couldn’t sleep and paced the house, checking the front, the back, the sides, for water rising to the house.

I focused on a tree in our front yard and made a plan that if the water went past that tree, I’d take more drastic measures–waking everyone else up and moving our special items to the second floor. All the photos and books….

We are lucky to have a second floor. Many people are not so fortunate.

To cut to the chase, the water never made it past that second tree and by morning, it had drained away considerably.  But in the morning, some of our neighborhood (closer to the bayou) had flooded as the water rose and the bayou and their houses became one. Now, they have their houses turned inside out on the street–piles of sheetrock and flooring and couches and furniture piled outside their homes.

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This photo was taken hours after the original flood where the bayou looked like the ocean. That grass wasn’t even visible then–the water had subsided considerably by the time we took this photo.

Other parts of Houston looked like this:

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And this:

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I waited to write this because really, there is not much to say.  What can you say? It rained damn hard and the city flooded?  It’s no one’s fault–it’s nature. It’s no reason–it’s nature. It happens. It is what it is. Humans have war. Humans have death. Humans have floods. We can’t escape that, no matter where we live. Where we live does not matter–the water can always rise, or fires can burn, trouble can find us.

My family was spared, but most of the people I know had some loss, whether it be a car, a house, or their favorite personal items, even the life of someone they loved.  I have nothing to say to that to bring any kind of justice to it. There is nothing to be said except that I am so very sorry and it really sucks and we will have to move on.

That’s the thing. You never know when the rain will come, when the water will rise. One day, all is going well, and the next day, you’ll see signs to “gas your car, a storm brewing in the gulf.”

Then water will rise and it will creep past your door and enter your house. All the important things you keep close to you will be under water. When the water drains away, the heat and humidity will bring on the rot and the mold.

It is what it is.

So in the end, there really is no takeaway from this other than three things, according to me:

First: When the waters rise and your world floods, you need to love one another and help each other out as best as you can because in the end, you are a human in a wide world against oceans and wind and rain. So, hold each other up. Help one another gut houses, move belongings, bake bread, do laundry, give fellow humans a place to rest. Love one another.

Second: When it’s not raining, appreciate the calm.  Write about the rain when it’s calm. Reflect on what’s important when it’s calm, but remember. All good art comes from pain–everything has a price and this is the price of art.  So when it’s not raining, take time to hone your art, drawing on the bank of that pain.

Third: We may need to learn about letting go. I have not lost anything in this hurricane, but I have in the past. I have had to throw out books and papers and clothing from water damage and it’s heart breaking. But those are just physical items.  What matters–what really matters–is the ideas, the thoughts, the knowledge, and that is not so easily destroyed.

And with that, we can start again.

Embracing the Post-It Notes

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Last week, my daughter introduced me to the concept of bullet journaling. If you want to read more about this method of journaling, you can do so here, as well as many other places. That’s what I did, anyway, and before I knew it, I had spent an entire afternoon engulfed in website-Pintrest-YouTube-knowledge gaining of the mysteries of bullet journaling.  As my daughter suspected, I had all of the markers of a budding bullet-journalist:  an intense love of planners and organizational systems (check), a love of all writing accoutrement (check), an addiction to paper (check), a collection of journals and a penchant for toting one around in my bag at all times (check), and generally, a love of anything to do with putting pen to paper (check).

I also have an extensive addiction to Post-It notes (check).

Extensive addiction to Post-It notes.  Bordering on pathological. I easily go through a package of post-its a week and I use them for everything. I post notes on folders, telling my future self what to do with the contents. I put notes on doors, telling people where I went. I post rules for the kids. I post notes all along my computer screen and across my desk. I post them on my bulletin board at work and on the refrigerator at home. While I keep a digital task list on my phone for domestic to-dos, for some reason, I keep a written Post-It note “to-do” list at work, adding notes as I think of new things that need doing. Every Friday or so, I will rewrite the latest tasks and toss out the old notes, which feels as refreshing as making a bed with new sheets after a rough week.

Indeed, the bullet journal approach enticed me and a few Amazon purchases and 48-hours later, I was ready to construct my journal.

I already knew it would be a messy affair, seeing as how I am not remotely artsy or pintrest-y.  Any artistic ability with a pen or pencil halted for me at the age of five and I’m so bad with coordinating colors or choosing matching flair that without my daughters to help, I’d look like wallpaper from the 70’s if I went at it alone. So I expected a visually-messy bullet journal and that was okay with me.  Artistically, I am a writer and at this point in my life, I don’t have time to not be myself and/or learn calligraphy, so I planned to just see what happened and go with it. But–and here’s the crux of this post–I didn’t realize just how much I’d hate the idea of removing Post-It notes from my life. Or at least from my daily “to-do” lists.

After all, one of the potential appeals of bullet journaling would be that I could finally remove the row of post-its from my desk and write all that stuff in the journal instead.  Easy, right? Apparently not.

I arrived at work, opened my journal, and transcribed the current list of notes into my journal, using the little “bullet” symbol to show that it was a task that needed completing. Then I tossed the old post-its in the trash.

Within minutes, I felt withdrawal symptoms.

It’s hard to describe, but I just felt anxious looking at that list, its items all in a row, one item after another. The same list that had inspired me moments ago when written on a Post-It note caused stress for me when written in a vertical list (my general plan of attack is to choose an item that needs doing and then accomplishing it. Once complete, I cross it off and choose another and so on, in no particular order except, of course, sometimes in order of urgency. My to-do list is written with two or three to-dos per post-it, in random order as they occur to me).

So, then two things dawned on me: First, it’s my damn bullet journal and if I wanted to stick a bunch of Post-It notes in the pages because it made me happy and productive to do so, then I wasn’t going to fight that battle. Bullet journals are supposed to be what works for their authors and not what they were supposed to do. If I liked post-its, then post-its I would have!  Boo-yah! I’m a grown-up and can do what I want!

With that, I picked the discarded Post-It notes out of the trash and taped them into the journal. I did write little “bullets” next to the entries and decided to cross them off instead of scratching them out, per the bullet journal best-practices, but I was okay with that.

I felt instantly better.

Which led me to realization number two: My brain thinks in Post-It notes. Who knew?

I always suspected this. My short stories, for example, are rarely linear. They circle, they jump forward and backward in time, the figure-8 around a central issue, much like a dream or my thoughts. When I tell a story about something that happened, I have long noticed that I will start off with the main tale, but then digress to a plot and a sub-plot, before rising back out of the layers to the main story again. Rarely are my ideas for other things linear either. Ideas come at all angles, like a stack of Post-It notes, layered, crooked, connected to one another at times.  Often,  my connected ideas are several Post-It notes away from one another and only by staring at the disconnection, the colors, the different inks and patterns in the juxtaposing ideas do I see the bigger picture.

In short, I think in “Post-It Note.”  No wonder I have an affinity for them.

The takeaway for me here is that we all need to embrace how we think, how we are, and delight and embrace whatever that is. We shouldn’t try to be someone that we are not or force ourselves to stick to a practice that doesn’t work for us. Especially when it comes to writing or generating creativity, whatever it is that we do.