Category Archives: Writer Banshee

There Are No Accidents But So Many Questions

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I am here by accident.  Well, not here on earth…well…actually, since there is an 11 year span between me and my sister I stand corrected on that score…

I am on my blog by accident – today.  I was sitting here thinking of ways I could procrastinate (again).  I’ve already cleaned the bathroom and dyed my hair.  I’ve read the newspaper and played with the cat.  I’ve answered the door (thank you, Fed X!).  Fresh out of ideas, I was in the process (or so I thought) of logging onto Facebook.

My fingers had other ideas.  They know what I should be doing and set about typing WordPress instead of Facebook.

Traitors.

As every writer knows, procrastination is the devil on your shoulder.  The little voice that says, “Hey, wouldn’t you rather motor up the Don Valley Parkway and look at fall foliage?” or, “Hey, wouldn’t you rather scrub the toilet?”  Rationally speaking, the answers to both questions would be no.  The DVP is a pain in the ass and so is the toilet but this is what happens when a writer feels compelled to procrastinate.  Suddenly, inexplicably, there is nothing more important than a bunch of yellow and red maples or the disgusting state of the toilet.

Writers, as stated by many famous ones, are world champion procrastinators.  If procrastinating were an Olympic sport, we’d all be gold medalists.  The smart writers sit placidly in front of their screens and daydream.  The ones with ADD (like me) paint rooms.  Let’s just say partners and spouses can tell that you haven’t been writing all day if the house is a different colour when they get home.

Why do writers procrastinate?  What is it about our genetic/personality/dysfunctional make-up that necessitates avoiding doing the very thing we claim to love so dearly?

I have a theory:  fear.  Every time I sit in front of my screen, I am terrified that no words will come.  This fear is now magnified by the fact that I’m on antidepressants.  I’m cheerful and calm these days but the creativity seems to have dried up like a desert lake.  I break out in a cold sweat just thinking of writing; I walk in a wide arc around the computer.

When push comes to shove and my fingers get moving, I’m usually fine.  If I’m not, I vow to write my “one square inch” and be done with it.  However, it’s really hard not to feel enormously guilty about less-than-stellar efforts or results. Guilt does not always yield creative results.

Worse than procrastination is hard work that doesn’t necessarily yield a tangible product at the end of the day.  By sitting down at the computer for four to six hours, I’m not building anything that you can sit on, I’m not solving the debt crisis in Greece, I’m not finding a cure for cancer.  I’m not earning a dime from that four to six hours of effort.

So, why?  How many writers, day in and day out, ask themselves that very question?  Is it worth the guilt?  The ever-mounting bills?

The other evening, my daughter was discussing what she wants to do when she grows up.  Her (current) career choice is not one that will garner her a huge income, ever.  I blurted out, “If you love what you do, that is the most important thing.”  I caught some looks.  I felt guilt and sadness wash over me.  Is love enough?  What a question.

 

 

Faith

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Blank page: could be good, could be very very bad. Coffee could be spiked…it’s all good.

Over an impromptu coffee with one of my writing teachers yesterday, I poured my heart out about The Novel and its 1) lack of direction, 2) lack of completion and my general mental illness regarding same.

My teacher, a wise and beautiful woman, nodded knowingly.

“Yes.  It’s the nature of the beast,” she said (or something to that effect).  “Why do you think so many writers off themselves or drink themselves into oblivion on a regular basis?  Being a writer is lonely, hard, thankless, and only undertaken by those who are mentally ill to start with.” (Or something to that effect).

A dark cloud passed over our cafe magnifying the sense of Gloom.

Instead of walking out of there and popping into the Kilt and Dagger next door (a not-so-charming pub perfect for a disconsolate sort), I walked to my car feeling strangely buoyant.

Yes, it’s true my mental instability knows no bounds but I think what my friend did was renew my faith.

I (finally) understood that having faith doesn’t mean that some days aren’t gonna suck.  Having faith doesn’t mean you don’t feel insecure or lost. Having faith is understanding that there are sucky, bad, bitch-worthy days – sometimes these days stretch into weeks and months.  You carry on because you know somehow that this hard, lonely path is the one you were meant to be on – no matter what.  You have to recognize that insecurities and low points are are normal.  It is ok.  Writers are blessed with permission to be insecure, unstable, self-doubting, and cranky – how awesome is that!

I’m not insane.  I’m a writer.  Well, ok I might be a little bit insane but…whatever.

Do gold miners walk into the hills and see bands of polished, gleaming metal on the surface?  No, they do not.  They have to dig through miles of muck and stone to find the good stuff.  Writers are different – we lay down the miles and miles of muck and then dig back through it looking for a nugget that we may have inadvertently written.  How many times have I sifted through page after page of dreck, thinking that the bottle of scotch in the corner really needs draining when suddenly, there:  a sentence, a turn of phrase, or a passage – a nugget of something golden.

Writing is thankless, hard, decidedly un-rewarding.  It’s lonely.  No one understands why we do what we do when the chances of winning the lottery seem to far outweigh the chances of getting published.  Yes, writers are a strange breed.

We are paragons of faith.

Curiosity

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This is actually Sable Island off Nova Scotia, not my island.

The old adage goes, “Curiosity killed the cat,” and while that may be true for hapless felines, it is not true for anyone who writes fiction.  Curiosity is like oxygen.  It breathes new life into old, tired storytellers.  Like me.

Yesterday, for reasons I cannot now recall, I was perusing Google maps.  I was off the East coast of the U.S. when I discovered an unfamiliar landmass off the coast of ______.  I’m being deliberately vague here because if I disclosed what state, I might get into trouble.

Curiosity led to further digging; the landmass is a privately owned island.  Not that this is a particularly remarkable discovery – there are loads of them up and down the east coast.  Further curiosity revealed that this particular island has been owned by the same family, uninterrupted by wars, deaths, and lawsuits for hundreds of years.

Hmmmmm…private island, ancestral lineage, old money, persistent eccentricities…I smell a story.

Enter practicality, if just for a moment.  I’m not a historical fiction writer; I cannot fathom tackling the saga of such a family through the centuries.  I’m more interested (curious, if you will) about the culture clash between the generations of such a dynasty.  Immediately, I thought of all the eccentric characters I knew growing up on the coast.  Salt air breeds not only rust but decidedly colourful people.

My mind is swimming from the mainland out to this island. A mere speck on the map, its sandy shores are barely holding their own above the rising tides. A slightly crazy patriarch.  His daughter and son – both of whom left the island wanting to discover the “real” world on the mainland.  A cast of eccentric relatives.  A family at the mercy of the tides and time.  Run-ins with storms and the Coast Guard.  A history of piracy (rumoured).  A scandal from a hundred years ago.  Bagpipes.  Shoals.  Learning to accept (and love) the family you’ve got no matter how crazy they are.

Yeah.  I’m turning off the phone.  I’m going to be busy this afternoon…I’ll be on my own private island.

The Slowdown

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I sit unwashed and pajama-clad.  The kids are gone, the cat is riding a skateboard around my kitchen.  Bono croons in my ear thanks to my iPod.  I am trying, determined and grim-faced, to write something, anything.  Just a sentence.  Please, God. Just a sentence.

Good job, kid.  You’ve managed eight quasi-sentences; not pretty, not perfect but there they are – words on a page in a straight line, in English.  Why the sudden struggle you ask?

Well for one thing, its Fall.  As the weather cools, things tend to slow down inside my head.  I swear I was born to hibernate – me ending up as a human was a boo-boo on someone’s part.  I eat copious amounts of idiocy-inducing carbohydrates and think constantly about sleep.  Thoughts and movements become sluggish.  My husband should realize that my appearance at the gym last night was nothing short of miraculous.

More sobering: I’ve gone back on antidepressants.  For anyone who has suffered from depression chronically, you know the medication can be as much of a curse as a cure.  Apparently in order to boost mood the brain needs to come to a grinding halt.  It makes no sense to me but there it is.

I have to say that the drugs have come a looooong way since I was last at their mercy.  I remember being on Paxil one bitter Calgary winter.  I was at the stove stirring something.  In a near-stupour, I stirred that pot for an hour until someone gently took the spoon away  and stood me in a corner.  I was robotic but really not too concerned about it.

Nice.  In those days, I was driving very small children around in snowy, icy conditions.  It makes me shudder recalling how completely out of it I was.  I didn’t write.  I didn’t even think.  The modern drug that I’m on now doesn’t make me quite as dopey but I am shite at parking the car suddenly.  And I don’t care.

What I do care about is the fact that my creative tap has been shut off.  The odd idea floats by but I can’t react fast enough to grab it and set it down on paper.  The Novel is literally a chapter or two away from completion.  I wrote a pivotal scene right before I went on medication.  It was bad – it careened between happily-ever-after and desperate cruelty.  Eesh.  I’m afraid to even open the file.

I could finish it.  I could wrap everything up in a neat, tidy bow and be done with it but I know it needs a substantial re-write.  I know I’m not capable of doing it right now.  Because I need a haircut and a nap, not necessarily in that order.  It’s 9:15 in the morning.

What tidings will Winter bring?

Writing the Hurt

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My favourite scene from a Diane Keaton/Jack Nicholson movie whose title I’ve forgotten is when she sits at her computer, sobbing buckets.  She is a writer and as such, she can do nothing else but write about her most unfortunate liaison with Jack, a gut-wrenching episode in her life.  She cries so much her computer is in danger of short-circuiting from salt water damage, she sits in a sea of Kleenex.  It is hilarious.  It struck a chord with every writer who saw it.

That which is written from the heart or the deepest part of your gut is likely to be the most authentic work.  Truth in writing resonates with readers.

Such writing is painful.  Probably on a par with having your fingernails and toenails systematically plucked out while simultaneously being prodded with a hot poker.  Or, perhaps if you were possessed by a demon and had to undergo an exorcism by a particularly sadistic priest.  Or, being burned alive.

That’s the kind of pain I’m talking about.

Writing produced in such a way is the writing you will have to hide from family members or publish under a nom de plume because invariably its about them – unless you’re very, very brave.  But that’s ok.  Nom de plumes are fun – I’ve already got three myself.

Writing the hurt is worth the pain.  The process is difficult.  I’ve paced countless footsteps in front of my desk, pushed myself away from the keyboard because it felt as though the keystrokes burned my fingers – the words hurt so much.  I’ve agonized – is it too much?  How can I say that?  Why does my mind go there?

What is this weird desperate need for attention that prompts writers to reveal, through the vehicle of fiction, their deepest fears and sufferings to total strangers? I sometimes think therapy would be healthier…

The Slow Slog to Salvation

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School is back in session.  The weather has turned with the abruptness of a quickly turned page.  Everyone is in “back to the grind” mode.  That includes me.

Aside from posting anecdotal blogs about our summer vacation, there is a virtual autumnal cornucopia of story ideas floating around my head.  On top of those, The Novel is close – make that very close – to being finished.  The Shitty First Draft, that is.  I’m already coming up with ideas on how to change it.

For the first time in  a while, I gave The Novel an entire days’ attention yesterday and it felt good, productive, worthwhile – like getting back to the gym does.  Sure, the muscles are stiff and reluctant but once they get warmed up, it’s like you never got off the elliptical or the stair-stepper or whatever.

The creative mind is a muscle that must be exercised regularly, given proper nutrition to build it, and proper rest to…well, rest it.  Believe it or not, sometimes the story needs to sit and stew awhile.  Having said that, I get ansty and cranky when I don’t “work out” the creative part of my brain – just like some people get homicidal when they don’t visit the gym regularly (I wish I was like that).

See – I’m trying to justify what a lazy ass I’ve been all summer.  I envy writers who can knock out a novel in sixty days.  At least, I think I do.  When I’m staring at the page wondering whether Aunt Alexandra should laugh off the latest tragic turn to her life or throw herself off a cliff, I envy writers  that seem to have it all figured out in advance, who can make snap decisions.

But, no matter.  It’s Fall, if not officially by the calendar then by every other indication.  It’s back to work time.  Back to the writing life that keeps me grounded, happy, and whole.

The truth is, I get grumpy when I take any time off from writing.  There is salvation in the telling of the tales.

Mining For Gold

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Our recent road trip – the “Going Home Tour 2012,” (among its more polite nicknames) – stirred up a whole barrel full of memories.  As I wandered up K Street one steamy evening (only slightly lost), I wondered why I hadn’t used more of my past in my writing.  Oprah has her “Ah-hah moments.”  Mine was more of a “Duh!” moment.

I was born at George Washington University Hospital in 1961; the city – and my nation – saw huge upheavals of change in the Sixties.  Of course I don’t remember all things clearly but so many events were a backdrop to my childhood – JFK’s assassination, the civil rights marches on Washington, MLK’s speech, RFK’s death, the Vietnam protests, Watergate – Washington played a central role in all of that history and I was there, more or less.

There was a period in my  late 20’s to early 30’s where things got a little blurry.  My mother had just passed away and I was left with equal parts grief, guilt, and money.  These ingredients combined rather neatly into a period of binge partying and shopping (often at the same time).

I remember (vaguely) nights drinking in Georgetown and Adams Morgan, bad decisions regarding men, not being able to find my car the next day and walking out of a rest room in one of Washington’s best restaurants with my gauzy black skirt firmly tucked into my stockings.  If Mayor Barry hadn’t been…um…otherwise distracted back then, he might have invited me to live elsewhere.  I was Snookie with light hair and freckles.

I get a knot in my stomach at those memories but I shouldn’t shy away from them.  I should dive right in and create something.

Childhood summers were spent on the Outer Banks. Those sandy barrier islands are where most of my childhood’s happy memories come from.  In the works is a trilogy of short stories set in different villages there:  Duck, Kitty Hawk, and Nag’s Head.  Seriously, who can resist those names?  Beaches are great settings for those mini-soap operas that often unfold during summer vacations.

Last week, as we drove across the Wright Memorial Bridge, memories came blasting back.  My husband commented later that it was obvious I was re-living some of my youth.  I ran up and down giant sand dunes, I played in the surf, I smiled a lot.  Not all memories were happy but that’s ok.  Material is material; all of it should be embraced.

New York: what can I say?  Though I consider NYC an old friend, not all memories from there are Hallmark moments.  As I walked by the McGraw-Hill Building, I cringed visibly at the memory of a rather disastrous job interview.  When I was 12, my mother put me on the Metroliner from DC with cab fare pinned into the hem of my dress.  She schooled me on how to hail a taxi and told me to be rude and fake an accent.  I did ok.  But would I put my 12-year-old on a train for New York City nowadays?  I shake my head then ponder a story…

There was a guy (isn’t there always?) from the New York area. There are less-than-stellar memories surrounding his family.  They were well-to-do Upper East Side types; they had money and connections.  I was a hick girl from DC.  I was Nobody.  For a very brief moment in time, I was connected to the Somebodys.  And then, suddenly, it was midnight and I was left with some mice and a pumpkin…I grin mischievously at the thought of a scathing little story about them but I must be careful there.  Upper East Side types are notoriously litigious.

Despite my exhaustion from driving, visiting, and sightseeing, I realize this trip was a mining expedition.  Before, I was all worked up about “going home again.”  Going home again as an outsider is fine – especially if you’re a writer.  Such a position offers the perfect blend of perspective and recollection.

In the dark, damp caves of memory are thick veins of pure, pure gold – just waiting to be extracted.  Now, where’s that pickaxe?