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.

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.

Making Your Writing A Habit

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One of the most challenging elements of being a writer is the art of habit-creation.  I am not talking about writing when we are inspired, of course. When we are inspired, writing comes easily.  We look up and three hours have passed….how did that happen?  (Don’t you love it when that happens?)

No, inspired writing is not the problem. The problem comes when we are uninspired. When we are tired. Or cranky. Or scattered. Or wanting to eat pizza and binge on Better Call Saul. As with anything that requires daily habit to keep on track, once I allow myself to slip up and not write for a day (or two, or three) it becomes that much harder to get back in the game.

It’s not that we can’t catch up if we fall behind–it’s just more difficult. And if we aren’t careful, months can pass before we realize we have fallen off the writing horse and it has now galloped on ahead, four towns over. I liken it to exercise.  Several months ago, my husband and I were in the habit of running (albeit slowly. Jogging is probably a better word for it since neither of us would win any races, but it sounds so much sexier to be a “runner,” no?) 3.2 miles at least three days per week. The other four days, we walked that distance, often a little more. Then, one day, for reasons I don’t remember, but which fell along the lines of  “what a DAY! Let’s go get pizza!” and while we walked, we walked to the local pizzeria, which also has $2 beers on Tuesdays.

And you know, that was not a big deal on the surface. It was just one day, right? The problem was, the next day, with our bodies loaded with carbs and our minds still equally exhausted (because that never really goes away. If you wait to do the important things when you are feeling at the top of your game, you’ll never get anything done),  we were equally uninspired and instead took a shorter walk around the neighborhood instead. The next day, same thing. And so it goes.

Yesterday, however, I decided to get back in the swing of things and when I got home from work, I donned my running clothes, stretched, and hit the road.

Let me just say, it was every bit as terrible as I thought it would be. Whereas a few months ago, I could run that 3.2 miles easily and feel as if I could run another mile at least, yesterday evening, I thought I was going to die.  I ran slower than ever  and the entire time,  I imagined scenarios in which I passed out from heat-exhaustion and concerned neighbors had to rush out and dial 911. I made it 1.5 miles (barely) before deciding to walk the rest of the way. While I was glad I started running again, it would have been so much easier if I hadn’t ever stopped.

(Runners everywhere are laughing at me and my pathetic 3.2 miles, but alas, I have never been speedy.  Still, the idea wasn’t speed, but physical fitness and the knowledge that if I wanted to, I could outrun a zombie in the event of a zombie apocalypse. Right now, a zombie would catch me for sure. All because I got out of my little training habit).

Bit by bit, little by little, we build ourselves into who we want to be. We live our lives the way we want to live them, and this is reflected in our habits. This is true of any habit, which it is so important to do your best to stay on the horse, keep pushing ahead, even if you don’t feel like writing (or running, or whatever else it is you do).

So, what did I learn from this? Here are some thoughts on how to making writing a habit:

Schedule Your Habit. Probably the biggest thing you can do is to make time in your schedule for the important things you want to do, which will include writing. Understand that our lives are filled with a ton of tasks that need to be accomplished, but if we really want to do something, we must schedule time and make it a priority.  Then, prepare for your habit. Charge your laptop. Tell people you will be working from 5:00 to 7:00. Etc. I have read that the best plan is to do everything important “before 8:00 am” and I agree with this, although for me, it’s a far stretch to do “everything” important before 8:00 am since I also value my sleep and have to also be at work by then. This is why I have to move some of these things into the afternoon (i.e.: running). I do try to write in the morning, though, when I’m fresh, because writing is more important to me than running. It’s all about making priorities and living accordingly.

Have Smaller, Achievable Goals. When I am training for the zombie apocalypse, I have a goal of 3.2 miles, three days a week, with walking the other days. When I am writing, I have a goal of 500 words per day Monday through Friday.  I can write beyond the goal, but that is the goal. It’s modest, achievable, and I’ve found that by having smaller goals I can meet, I am more likely to write beyond my goal.  I also have smaller goals–finish this short story by the end of the day, revise this short story by next week, send out this one to ten journals by Monday, etc. This is just what works for me–you might have different goals and this is fine. Know thyself and what motivates you, but have a goal each day so you can concretely say you have “met” the benchmark you have set for yourself.

Remind Yourself Of The Reward (And The Consequences).  I have always been a writer and while I have had short stories, articles, and academic articles published, I have done so slowly and in spurts. Why? Because I have made other choices in my life at the expense of my writing (not that I have any regrets. If I had the chance to go back and do things differently, I wouldn’t change a thing other than getting rid of cable sooner and spending less time watching baby animals on YouTube). My writing career has been haphazard due to these other priorities taking place–some of them were noble, but some of them fell akin to going for a walk to the pizzeria instead of staying focused.  So, when I am tempted to not write for a day, I only have to remind myself of the short story I wrote five years ago that was still unedited when I started seriously writing again. Five years slips by quickly, people. “Just one day” of not writing can add up, day after day, and suddenly, you realize you haven’t progressed and you have a fairly decent draft of a short story sitting in a file somewhere for the last few years. If you had made writing a habit, that story would be published by now.

Schedule Vacations. I am a huge advocate of taking mental breaks, though. So while this is going to sound counter-intuitive, I feel it is important to allow yourself some planned vacations from your habit. Not too long, but small vacations can give you much-needed perspective. The key here is “schedule” the vacation.  Going back to the pizzeria trip that derailed our running goals, that could have been avoided if we had planned to walk to the pizzeria in the first place. If we run three days a week and we know there is a special deal on Tuesdays, then we could have scheduled our runs on other days and made a plan to walk to the pizzeria on Tuesday. The same is true for writing. I sometimes just need to think–unhindered from the idea that I am supposed to be doing something else.  This is why I don’t require writing on the week-ends (although I often write anyway). Or if I decide, in advance, “I’m taking a mental break on Friday and going to the beach” and not writing for a day, as long as I make this plan ahead of time, as long as it is scheduled, then it will not have the debilitating effect of derailing me in the long run. It’s all mental. It’s not the fact that you aren’t writing–it’s the lack of discipline and feeling of failure for not sticking to your plan that derails you in the long run. If you feel you have given into temptation, you are more likely to do it again tomorrow, but if you schedule the break, then you have control and accountability.

Log Your Success. Keep track of your days of writing and whether or not you met your goals. This can be jotting it down in a notebook or ticking it off on a to-do list or calendar. Whatever works for you. It can be incredibly helpful to see your progress and, again, hold yourself accountable. This is how you can also avoid five years passing without returning to a short story draft you wrote. Or thinking, “I wrote this, when?”

Keep Trying. So, as a fallible human, despite your best efforts, you might still follow the siren call of that unplanned pizza night, metaphorically-speaking. If it does, don’t waste time beating yourself up over it.  Just lay out your running shoes–or charge up your laptop, or sharpen your pencils–and start all over again. You can catch up. You’ll just have a rough patch at first.

Happy habit forming!

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On Creating Characters (Spying On The Neighbors, Part Two)

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Welcome back! So, before we begin, let me reassure you that this post will ultimately deal with how to develop character in your writing. Promise.

I do, however, need to back up a bit. In yesterday’s tale, I made it seem as if I saw the former trio of neighbors for the first time as I watched them from my twin daughters’ bedroom window, but this is not actually the case.  That was just the first time I realized they might make good story fodder. A few weeks before that incident, however, they had already begun contributing to my fictive rendition of their lives.

See, when they first moved in, I didn’t actually know who had moved in. I only knew that someone had bought the house, a moving van appeared, a general ruckus ensued, and after the dust settled, the kids and I baked the new neighbors some chocolate chip cookies, stacked them on a paper plate, and trotted around the corner to their front door. We rang the doorbell. We waited. And waited. We could hear movement inside the house, but no one came to the door. Then, just as we started back down the walk, the kids excited to eat the cookies instead, the door opened. The younger woman—who was about my age at the time—answered the door.

“Can I help you?” she asked. She had her hair wrapped in a towel and clearly, we had interrupted her—maybe she’d been in the hot tub—and I felt bad. I hadn’t meant to intrude on her life, but when we moved in, our other neighbor across the street brought us cookies, so I was trying to learn some civility and be more like her.

I apologized and bumbled around, telling her we had made them some cookies—welcome to the neighborhood! She opened the door a little wider and I introduced myself and each of the kids. Then, however, instead of taking the cookies, she explained she didn’t eat cookies or allow her daughter to eat them either. Cookies had sugar.  Sugar wasn’t good for kids.

She eyed my brood of five, who saw where this was going and began to inch closer to the cookie plate. You have to move fast if you want the competitive-cookie-edge at our house.

“Oh. Okay. Well.”

Such went our first meeting.

The second meeting occurred a few weeks after that when she showed up at our door.  I smiled when I saw her. Maybe she felt bad about her previous decline and made us cookies? Or maybe she had a question about preschools? Maybe she wanted to go to the movies? I invited her in, but she declined and stood there on the doorstep with her daughter dressed in a pink ruffly dress, eating a popsicle.

Then she asked me if we had a CAT? A black and white cat? Because if so, this was a “courtesy visit” to let us know that our cat was sitting on their outdoor furniture and if it happened again, they were going to take the cat to the pound.

Oh no.

I explained to her that the cat was not ours, but belonged to the neighbor across the street (the super nice one who bakes people cookies without awkwardness).

“The cat is always at your house,” she said. “And we are allergic to cats. We cannot have cats on our outside furniture, so this is a courtesy visit to let you know to take care of your cat and keep it inside.”

“You said that,” I said, once I found my voice and stable ground, “but the cat really isn’t our cat. You’ll have to talk to Flora. It’s her cat. But Flora is really sweet. I’m sure she’s going to help keep the cat somewhere safe.”

She harrumphed, thanked us, and strutted across the street to harass Flora. Welcome to the neighborhood, indeed.

So, long story short, a narrative of this family had begun to form—even before they began hosting their frequent parties.

Before we continue, though, I should say that I wasn’t tempted to write about this woman yet, or base a character on her.  Mean, small-minded cat-knappers do not by themselves make strong characters.  And why? Because the characters of great stories need to have some type of realization through the course of the story. Characters need to have some epiphany for the story to exist at all, but the previous run-ins I’d had with this person indicated that she, in her current state, was not capable of realization and change.  I’m not saying she didn’t have reasons for her behavior–I’m sure she did. We all have something going on–but at that point, I couldn’t see them or imagine what they could be. So there was no story. After all, not everyone is capable of having an epiphany  at every moment of their lives and clearly, this woman was not about to be dissuaded in her quest to box up Flora’s cat and cart him off to the pound. (In fact, she DID do this, a month later, but I’ve already turned this into a soap opera as it is. But don’t worry. It ended well and Flora got her cat back although he had to live inside forever after).

The Grinch can only be the Grinch if his heart is capable of growing. The ghosts of Christmas appear in Scrooge so that we can learn why Scrooge came to be Scrooge and only then we can understand how he might have the ability to change and grow. Hamlet can’t just rant and whine for the entire play….eventually, he has to make things right, however late. The grandmother in “A Good Man is Hard To Find” has to recognize the humanness of the Misfit and thus her own humanity. And so on. The upshot here is that we can’t have a story based on hateful people who steal cats, unless the hateful cat-stealer has something else going on, something to help us see the mustard seed of redemption. And I just didn’t see the potential for that yet. So, no story.

But then they started hosting parties.

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(Now we actually do have a black-and-white cat. Cats love to adopt us.)

Not long after I first saw the younger woman in the hot tub from the twins’ window, they held their first party.  It was no big deal, really–just some music and people drinking–completely normal partying. No one fell into the hot tub or danced on the outside furniture from which the cat had been ejected. I know this because I combat-crawled across my daughters’ bedroom floor as they slept and peered through the blinds. Okay, I’m not proud of this, but as a child, I read Harriet the Spy more than ten times and not much had changed for me in that department when I reached my thirties. At the time, I was in grad school as well and, living in the suburbs, I took what story fodder and entertainment I could get.

From there, they began to hold small parties every night.  After the child went to bed for the night, the mother and her daughter would have four or five different men over for drinks. Every. Single. Night.

Wow.

Starting about nine every night, I could hear their voices and know it was time to crawl across the floor and, ducking just so to keep out of sight, I’d watch the older mother waltz in and out of the sliding glass door with drinks. I’d watch the younger woman slow dance to music with her arms above her head as the male guests watched. They laughed and smoked cigarettes and played music and what on earth were they up to over there? I guess you could say that it was at this time that I found the sympathetic quality, the detail that helped me to see the younger woman’s redemptive abilities, the oyster inside the shell. Because however cruel she may have been to the cat, and however rude she had been to her new neighbors, no matter what they were up to in their back yard each night, I now had a better sense of the humanity of this woman.

As the weeks wore on, however, the neighbors–and often their guests–started looking up at the window and eventually, they built a fancy enclosure structure with red curtains that they could close off around the entire porch.  Which they did. Game over.

But by then, I had my story. I did notice that after awhile, the younger woman had a new live-in boyfriend.  He drove a yellow jeep and stayed all night most nights and the younger woman seemed happy with him, judging from the way she ran to him and flung her arms around his neck after he’d pulled up into the driveway and exited his Jeep. And I hope she was. I hope she is. At least she is when I get to write the story.

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You Can’t Capture Reality

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One really important–and freeing–thing about writing is when we have a basic understanding that in our modern/post-modern/post-post-modern world (now is not the time for that debate, although I always like a good “what-version-of-modernism-are-we-in-now?” chat) that no writer can REALLY capture a single reality. We can all agree on that, correct?  Most of us anyway?

Take the above photo of my sweet and exhausted Cockatiel.  Hims is really tired in this photo and when hims gets tired, hims likes to nestle in a flock-member’s shoulder, right near the flock-member’s neck. Hims gets all fat and fluffy. He squats low like a duck and him’s eyes begin to close. When hims does this, hims flock members need to be very quiet because if they startle hims, hims will hiss.

Cockatiels don’t believe in correct pronoun use. At least this one doesn’t. But the point here is that whose reality does this photo represent? The tired avian? Whose reality I can’t possibly know, but I like to construct? Or his flock member, who writes with an 91-gram warm package of feathers sinking into her neck? She feels his little hot breathing through his nostrils and has to sit very carefully because in such deep sleep, he lifts one little foot and hardly holds on.  She knows if she lifts him up gently and doesn’t startle him, he will let her kiss him on his head and he will smell like baby powder and electricity.

The same is true for writing. I can write every single description of that bird–down to his fuzzy “underbrush feathers,” as we call them, to his little scaly feet–and I will not actually capture the reality of his existance. I can also write an entire book on his personality, the songs he knows, how he escaped yesterday and spent the morning flying around the house and we found him hours later perched on the cookbook in the kitchen, chirping for someone to find him, and all I will do is bore you, but I will bring you no closer to understanding the reality of this bird.

We didn’t always think this way. In grad school, I once took a humanities seminar where we explored every single thing about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. It was a very valuable class, actually, and one of the many takeaways from that experience was reading a self-published little journal about a young man’s trip to the fair, which his father had given him as a high school graduation present.  I can’t recall the name of the book (and to be fair, I did try, just for you. I got up and spent a few minutes rooting around in the section of bookshelves where I thought I had it last, but it’s been years and hunting for it isn’t all the efficient to do just now. You’ll just have to take my word for it that the book exists and I read it), but the impactful part for me was that the teen used his journal as a type of camera.  For every exhibit he visited, he wrote in great detail describing everything, so he could remember every bit of the experience years later.  He tried to preserve the memory as clearly and as perfectly as he could–as close to reality as he could get. Not that I am attempting to distill realism into its most simple element–there is certainly more to realism than that–but that attempt to capture reality as it is is certainly something humans once believed they could do.

Now, we know that any attempt to do so is futile. As a child, for example, I remember opening one eye after taking a nap and then opening the other eye, realizing that because the pillow had been pressing on one eye and not the other, the bedsheets looked two slightly different colors of pink. I shut one eye again and opened the other. Yep. Two shades of color. It made an impression on me, even as a child, and I knew then that we can’t possibly all see the same way because even with one person, two different eyes may see two different shades of pink. I could imagine how differently two entirely different people view the world, so there could not be any actual reality in terms of physical surroundings.  It was easy to embrace this during my childhood–as opposed to a hundred years earlier–because  the shift that came with modernism (and post-modernism, and post-post-modernism, if you will) happened long before my birth. Thus, today, most people realize that when it comes to any medium, we cannot capture reality. Only shadows of it. Slants of it. One version of one part of it.  We know that if we take our journal (or camera, for that matter) to the museum and write down every single experience, we still can’t capture it all. We just can’t. It can’t be captured.

Which brings me to my point. Despite all of this, I still run into new fiction writers who try to capture the reality of a situation and get bogged down in the details of a story because “that’s how it happened.”  Even in non-fiction, the idea of changing a detail from a memory recalled on paper shocks students because “that isn’t what happened!”  Sometimes, when trying to get new writers to see the importance of details in writing, I will ask them to describe the last time they went to the beach. What did the air feel like on their skin? What did it smell like? What did they taste? Many times, they will claim not to remember their last time to the beach very well and when I tell them to shut their eyes and just imagine what they MIGHT have felt, they appear shocked. Am I asking them to lie? They thought they were supposed to write about something that actually happened?  They are distrustful. Will they be penalized for lying?  After all, they have been told not to lie. They have been told to tell the truth.

I tell them for this activity–recalling the memory of a beach experience–it is fine to make up details, even if they aren’t exactly accurate. After all, does it really matter if they were wearing their blue t-shirt or the yellow one? Does it matter if on this particular day, they ate lunch in a restaurant on the pier or at a picnic on the beach? Maybe, maybe not, but if it doesn’t matter in the telling of the story, or describing an experience, then who cares? Not when it comes to writing fiction (and that is what I am taking about. Not news reporting. I’m not even going to go there).

This is especially freeing if you are basing a story on something that did actually happen.  Nothing will cause writer’s block faster than trying to stay true to a situation that actually happened and being unable to break free of the “reality” of the moment.  The best cure for this type of writer’s block is to understand that the event that actually happened can and should be altered so that the truth of the experience remains, but the details are changed. And you can get at this truth a multitude of different ways. You might change the gender of the character, for example, or give the person a different profession. You might change the time of day or the time of year or anything else that fundamentally tells your brain, “you are not being a reporter…you are creating, not reporting .” Rather than fighting with your perception of “reality,” you can embrace that when it comes to narrating our lives, there is no physical true reality anyway.

For the record, I am leaving out a lot of the “is there a true reality?” philosophical discussion and I am only focusing on what most of us can agree on: that we all have different perceptions for what happened, what is currently happening, and what will happen. Whether there is some ultimate, true reality is a discussion larger than this post. I am simply saying that as a writer, your goal is to evoke some emotion in the reader, some realization in a reader, some realization for that one person, which may or may not be the same for any other person. However you want to do that is fine–use all of the tools at your disposal, including removing the idea that you must remain loyal to reality as you know it.

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Writers Should Read (A Lot)

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Many of us became writers because we first enjoyed reading. I know I did. I was one of those kids who would get excited about library day at school. When my mother took me to the library on other days, I would retreat to my dad’s brown leather chair with my cat and my mom would have to make me go outside after awhile just to give my eyes a rest. On more than one occasion, my parents punished me for reading under the covers with a flashlight after bedtime.  And when, at the public school I went to in Denver, we got to choose a free book as part of the RIF program (“Reading Is Fun-damental”), this was as close as school could ever get to being Santa Claus for me, who already owned bookshelves crammed with books. I was the kid who walked to school while reading—it’s amazing I never got hit by a car—and eventually, I morphed into a book-toting teenager who read every Stephen King at least twice. I haven’t changed much from there.

I have, however, while leading writing workshops and also when teaching, found folks who write, but claim they don’t have time to read.  On one level, I get it. We only have so many hours in the day and we have to make choices. It makes sense to spend that time writing instead of reading if writing is the goal. And I understand that, except that in my experience, we learn to write by reading. New writers can learn more from reading more than anything else they do.

Reading exposes you to possibilities in writing. How else will you know you can tell an entire story as a list of rules or instructions? Or tell a story backwards? Or never use a polysyllabic word? Or spend five pages describing a cookie?

Reading shows you how to pace a story.  If you read a piece that you appreciate, it’s worth it to spend a little time considering how the writer paced the story. How did it begin? Did it hook you right away? What kept you reading? Or if a story drags, you can ask yourself where it drags and why. Then you can do the same thing with your own writing.

Reading shows you how not to write (for bad writing). Along those same lines, there is nothing to show you the effect of bad writing than to read some bad writing. Can’t stand the overly-plotted tale populated with cardboard characters? Well, now you are less likely to write one.

Reading expands your vocabulary. How do we learn words like “lugubrious’ and “soporific”? We read.

Reading allows you to appreciate different writing techniques. Just like a film buff appreciates different camera angles, a writer will come to appreciate the reasons why stories are told in first person POV or in third, or why a story should be told in present-tense or past. Reading a lot reveals the structure of stories–will it be told chronologically?  Or using a lot of flashbacks? Who are the narrators? All of these elements and more are important to writers when they see a piece of work coming together.

Reading gives you confidence. Reading provides a familiarity with language that allows it to become second nature for a writer. You will know where the commas go because you’ve seen commas in action a million times. You know when something doesn’t sound right because you know how language fits together. Like an experienced driver making her way down a highway, these things become automatic. Also, if you read something particularly atrocious, you can feel confident by knowing that if that piece can be published, there is hope for you.

What should you read? Anything you want. I know, many of us have heard the phrase “crap in, crap out,” but I don’t agree with this. Everyone should read whatever they heck they want to and if what you end up choosing to read is crap, well, then you will learn a lesson from that.  If a character seems flat in a novel you just read, take some time to pin that down. Analyze it. What should the writer have done? What advice would you give her? Eventually, as you grow as a writer, you, too, will cringe at the adverb-laden and clunky plot-line and strive to do better. Sure, you should strive to read works you know are good and can help you see beauty and art of your craft, but the most important thing is that you read and read and read. Whatever you want to read.

How much should you read?  This is a personal choice since we all read at different rates and have different approaches to what we are reading. Some people I know race through everything they read, trying to get to the point, while others will linger. I am a lingerer and even tend to re-read entire books as soon as I finish them—or a month or year later—so counting the number of books I read is not necessarily helpful because many of them I will have read twice or more.  I will say that I read roughly a book a week, depending on how thick or dense it is, and this is not including non-fiction or scholarly texts for my day job. A good plan of action is to make time for reading, just as you would for writing. I like to read in the evenings, which I do instead of watching TV.

So, fellow writers, give yourself permission to indulge! Go grab a cup of coffee and settle back with whatever you’d like to read today.

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Stay The Course

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This week, I haven’t felt much like writing. There is no single big reason, no one thing that sticks in my mind as The Reason. You may know what I’m talking about. I think all writers sometimes feel this way, so since it’s so apropos, that’s going to be the topic for today.

As with anything, I analyzed the situation. I assessed the current goings-on in my life to see what might be the issue and came up with these theories:

  • I had to tweak my writing schedule just a bit, but given the tenuous arrangement of my writing schedule as it is, sometimes one tweak can mean a lot.
  • With the end of a semester, there are a lot of work issues that need to be dealt with, which can leave the writer part of my persona mentally-drained.
  • The college kids have new summer schedules, which doesn’t overtly affect me, but subtly seems to affect my unconscious. They are finishing something and moving on to something else, which gets me thinking seriously about all of my family and the future. This isn’t a bad thing, but it takes mental energy.
  • The high school seniors are about to graduate. See above. Times two.
  • I can’t stop reading Kim Addonizio’s novels. I love her poetry, but I guess I didn’t know she even wrote novels until I was scrolling along in my Kindle library and found one I bought years ago and forgot about (My Dreams Out In the Street). Two “pages” in and I was hooked and I read it every free moment I had. I guess it makes sense that a poet would write so artfully, but still. Her writing does not play. After I consumed that, I bought Little Beauties, which is even better thus far. I won’t even attempt to give it a review here (and I’m not done with it yet), but Little Beauties was one of those books where I wanted to reach right out to an author and send fan mail using a lot of unstable and scary exclamation points when describing my awe of her skill. Teach me your ways (!!!!!!!).  So, maybe, as I absorbed Addonizio’s brilliance, I needed to take a bit of a break and step back for a minute from my own writing, just so I could learn lessons and also not allow my reverence to interfere with my latest story? It’s a thought.
  • Then, I started thinking how I might want to write some poetry again. I never felt as if I gave poetry a fair shake, after all.
  • Then I started to try to eat healthy again and spent a lot of mental energy contemplating which foods to eat and in what order.
  • I had to resist making another batch of fried Oreos. See above.
  • A few weeks ago, I wrote for a day straight and I think I wore myself out, temporarily.  I liken it to when we go on a 9-12 mile walk on a Saturday and then temporarily hate the look of my walking shoes and have to let the blisters on my feet heal. I have not built up to writing all day at this point. I also needed to let my thoughts gel.
  • Fried Oreos are seriously delicious. No joke.
  • And so it goes….

But the upshot here is that I know I can’t stay derailed. That can’t happen. So, when I had this happen before, I allowed myself to take a three day hiatus from everything and then gave myself a little talking to. We have to move onward. We have to stay the course.

And then I wrote this post.

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