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!

Finding Your Voice

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So, I just finished teaching my 5 week summer class–hence my temporary disappearance from this blog. I don’t normally teach anymore in my current role (just one class in the summer) and I find that teaching, while exhilarating on one level, works a part of my mind that leaves me emotionally exhausted at the end of the day. I am out of practice, I suppose. Or maybe, because I am not in the trenches every day, not teaching a several-course load anymore, I am even more aware of the challenge I face as an instructor–hyper-aware of the difficulty of reaching students who, largely, don’t want to write, don’t care about writing, and don’t see it as relevant.  Many of them feel that writing is only for budding English majors and for “arty” people, but the rest of the world needs “real” subjects such as math and science.

So, with that in mind, I always begin the term by letting them know that the ability to write–just on a competent level–is relevant to them. I explain why: No one in the work place can escape writing a competent email, for one. Even now, in our video world, we will largely deal with people via the written word. I explain how I come from a family of business folks and all of them write more than I do (a slight exaggeration, but I will say they write almost as much as I do). I get some nods after this sales pitch and once I feel I’ve gotten some buy-in from at least a few folks, I move on. Yes, world, you have to know how to write. It’s not just for us English-y peeps.

The other half of the class, however, doesn’t believe that writing is irrelevant, though. No, these folks feel it is very relevant and hence, they are terrified to do it because they don’t believe they do it well. They don’t believe they can do it well. That’s the other part of the sales pitch. I have to reach those folks as well.  They feel they are “not good writers,” and therefore, they have a deep fear of being in freshman composition, which they have to have to move on with their goals in life.  And yes, some of them are NOT good writers, for whatever reason, mainly a complete lack of practice and training over their entire K-12 educational experience. They CAN be good writers, but they are going to have to work at it and put in some hard work to make up for the fact that they haven’t written an entire paper in years prior to college.  Yet, practice is everything! I once told my older son, when trying to explain to him the importance of writing when he was in high school that just as when he stopped swimming for a few weeks, he gained time and lost the edge, what did he think would happen if he stopped reading and writing often? All skills take practice, including writing. Especially writing, given the complexity of the skill. How on earth can you get better at something if you don’t do it?  I try to sell this concept to the terrified students. You absolutely CAN write, I tell them.  You are just as smart as anyone else here, but writing can be difficult and like anything difficult, you have to practice it.

They haven’t practiced when they get to me. I’m not blaming anyone, mind you.  I am simply noting my experience from what I see as a professor and a mother, both.  Even at the high school where my kids went (a good one, too. We moved to his location because of this school), there is a huge differential between the Pre-AP and AP English classes–where they write essays now and then, although still not enough, in my opinion–and the “Regular” English classes where they hardly read a book and never write one single essay over the course of the semester.  I’m not exaggerating–I saw it first hand. I see it with students who, when writing the very first “diagnostic” essay (and don’t know me yet), will write at the end, “I am sure you aren’t reading this anymore, but if you are….” because they are certain no one actually is reading their work. Someone in their past didn’t read their work–it’s obvious.  And as a parent, I know that it was only once my dyslexic kid (who took “regular” English classes) got into college did he learn how to really write with any kind of compentency, only because he had to write tons of papers and expend a lot of effort doing it. Shocker.

I can tell the students who have a mastery of writing because they are comfortable with their voice. They may make mistakes, but they are calm, relaxed, familiar with writing.

New writers posture. They pretend to sound writerly because they view writing as something foreign, something they can’t claim for themselves. I see this all the time in students who write essays in a stilted voice. Or they can write a fairly-competent essay in first person, but when asked to change the tone to third, they clam up because they have no experience doing this–a skill they will need to finish a college degree. They talk circles around a subject because they are scared of language and because they are scared of language, they are scared to explore and play around in a way that allows them to learn.

My job is to talk them out of doing that. I will meet with them in my office and ask, “What did you mean here?” and point to a convoluted sentence that makes zero sense. The students will hem and haw and then I’ll say, “Just tell me in your own words what you meant.”  They will do this and I’ll say, “Write that down.”

“Write that down?”  They are distrustful. They don’t want a bad grade.

“Yes, write it down. Use your own words.”

“I can do that?”

I tell them yes, they can. They not only can, they should. Write it in your own words.  Use your own voice, just like you speak. Then, if you have to, you can neaten it up later and fix general grammar errors, but over all, your writing needs to be your voice.

I never fail to see relief on their faces when I say this. When I tell them that they can be themselves on paper, with their own ideas, their own words. Writing IS for them.

With luck, they will even write more often, even after they leave Freshman Composition.

 

 

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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Spying On The Neighbors (Confessions of a Writer)

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Okay, I feel I should begin this post with two disclaimers:

First, if any of my current neighbors are reading this, you can rest assured that I would never spy on you. You should know that the houses in our neighborhood are designed and constructed in such a way that makes it impossible for us to look down into each other’s backyards or look into one another’s windows through the kitchen. Very thwarting, but it keeps the good-will flowing, and now you don’t have to look at me with suspicion when we meet at the mailbox.

Second, I am making a confession here, but please judge me kindly. If any readers lived next door to the reality-TV situation I’m about to describe in this post, you’d be spying too. Especially if you are a writer.

With those two disclaimers out of the way, let’s begin.

Writers observe. We are the ones in the grocery store noting your purchases of kale, cookies, ibuprofen, white wine, almond milk, cat food, and roach traps.  By the time you pay, we have your life worked out and a short draft written in our heads about your vegetarian diet and cat addiction. We are piecing together why you need white wine and wonder whether you realize the ingredients of Oreos are far from being vegan? Then we wonder how do the roach traps fit in to the developing narrative. Those aren’t very animal-friendly–you must be very fed up with your roach problem. Now, we have imagined you with roach traps lined up all over the house, which causes great philosophical angst for you and this morphs into an existential crisis, causing you drink more white wine, which explains the need for the ibuprofen.

By the time you pay, you will feel our eyes and look at us. What are we staring at?

We smile at you. Go on. Pay. We want to know if you are paying with cash or credit card. Maybe you are even writing a check? We wait to see if you will pay with a check.

And so it goes.

But what if you lived next door to us?

So, many years ago–in a different city and different neighborhood–we bought a house and only after we moved into it, as we were arranging our twin daughters’ bedroom furniture, did we realize that the huge floor-to-ceiling window in their room overlooked the next door neighbor’s tiny back yard, which featured a giant flagstone-surrounded hot tub.

My husband and I looked at the hot tub and at each other and discussed our hope that they didn’t use that hot tub in any kind of an illicit way,  what with our four year olds able to look right down into their back yard. Maybe we needed to keep the blinds shut most of the time?

As it turned out, that particular neighbor was an older woman whose husband recently died and no, she never even went into the backyard, let alone soaked in the hot tub. After a year or so, however, she put the house up for sale and another woman bought it.

Enter interesting neighbors.

The woman who bought it was a single woman–about fifty-five, if I had to guess–and when she moved in, she brought her own daughter, who was then in her late twenties or early thirties.  She, too, had a daughter–a little thing of about two or three. I learned all this one day when, while changing the bedsheets and straightening the twins’ room, I heard the squeals of a small child. Most of my own kids were in school, with exception of the newest four-year-old, who had taken advantage of his siblings’ school day to commandeer the Gamecube.  The sounds of Mariocart lilted from the living room. Nope. Wasn’t mine.

I looked down and saw the tiny neighbor and her mother, floating on a pink raft in the hot tub, a cold drink in her hand. The daughter ran around the edge of the tub, blond hair tucked up into a short pony-tail. As I watched, the older woman came out and smoked a cigarette, watering the plants and talking on the phone.

Ooooh. Interesting. I sat down on the floor with the old bed sheets. A pattern of threes. All women. All three home on a week-day. Smoking and watering plants. And I was hooked.

And it only got better from there, let me tell you. I would come to learn a lot about this trio, but at this point, I am going to be late for work. What to do, what to do.

I guess this will have “To be continued….”

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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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On Finding a Writing Community

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The email goes around on Thursday mornings, announcing to all of us in the Faculty Writing Group that we will be meeting again tomorrow, Friday. Sarah will read her short story and if we have time, Sam has a play he’s been working on. Who will be there?

I love getting these emails, even after I moved to a different campus at our college and attending the group became more difficult.  Later, when I took time off from writing to attend grad school and then write a dissertation, they kept me on the email list and when I’d see my old friends, they’d ask when I’d write fiction again. They gave me the encouragement only one writer can give to another. When will you write again? When can you come back?

These were things I needed to hear.

I joined the group many years ago, shortly after I began working at the college, and when the faculty learned that I wrote, they invited me to attend, even though I was still an adjunct and not as connected to the college as I would be in the future. Every Friday, we met at 1:00 and workshopped stories, poems, essays, and plays.  We have workshopped cartoon novels and flash fiction. We once workshopped a Twitter story. We could bring anything we wanted to workshop—nothing was out of bounds—and the comments and support I received from this group have proved instrumental in my revisions. In fact, everything I have ever published as an adult has gone through this group and their support and ability to analyze my work has made that happen.

This semester, I made it a priority to go back to the group. I can’t always make all of the meetings, but even attending some of them has been rewarding and motivating.

Having a community of writers in your life—whether you know them online or in person—is incredibly important. Writing is such a solitary endeavor, we spend a lot of time in our minds, so good community of writers in your life can help us stay motivated and keep us accountable. While I am sure I would have still continued to write fiction after the dissertation defense,  knowing that I had this group in my corner, encouraging me, helped give me the nudge I needed to start up sooner.

A community of writers will keep you accountable.  Each semester, we sign up for a day to read our work and have it workshopped.  If I know that in advance, I will have something ready, come hell or high-water. Sometimes, a good solid deadline is all a person needs to get going with a project.

A community of writers can also give you feedback to make you a stronger writer. This group is especially good because as professors (mostly English professors although we have also had professors from other disciplines, as well as administrators), they are already skilled when it comes to analyzing literature.  They can spot patterns in my short stories, or comment on the unconscious meaning of repeating the word “green” and its effect on the story, or let me know the need to condense several characters into one.  Also, if they “get” what I am writing, I know that I’ve succeeded at least somewhat because they understand how to read in a way that many other people don’t. They also point out errors in shift changes that happen, or question a use of point-of-view, or challenge the use of an adverb, all without quashing my desire to write. I trust their advice and while I don’t have to take that advice, I usually do.

Writing communities can also give each other connections or advice.  In the group I am in, several members have published a great deal, so when one member has a question about publishing a romance novel, for example, at least one of them will have some good advice to dispense on that subject. I recently encouraged one of our newer faculty to attend, once I learned she wrote.  She fretted at first because she did not write “high-brow stuff that should be in the Norton Anthology” but rather romance novels.  My advice to her was a) we don’t judge the genre and b) someone there will know what to do about publishing a romance novel. And sure enough, several people had excellent advice for her.

If you don’t have a writing community, it might be worth your while to go find your village.  This can be an online group, but I also like the intimacy of speaking with people in person. In the actual world, people can come to your poetry reading, celebrate your novel release, or attend the performance of your play, which doesn’t always happen in an online venue. Still, whatever works for you is the important part. Having a community of friends who also write has possibly more valuable than any education or any word-processing tool. Writing does not need to be a lonely endeavor, done in a vacuum.