Tag Archives: thoughts on writing

Scriptura, Interrupta

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Let’s face it, sometimes life gets in the way.  In typical fashion, I come screaming around a corner, trying to do two things at once and SMACK! I run head first into it.

It is now Friday and I’ve gotten nothing done.  Nothing. Zip. Nada.  The children have both been desperately sick with a nasty flu bug – high fevers, excruciating headaches, and other assorted symptoms too disgusting to talk about.  My brain is just a hunk of non-functioning gray matter taking up space in my skull right now.

The Novel lurks in a desk drawer like a restless demon.  In the middle of the night, I can hear it scratching and banging, begging for attention.  I ignore it. The sheer daunting nature of fixing what is wrong with it, imagining more things that might be wrong with it scares the bejabbers out of me.

At two-thirty in the morning, as I fill a glass at the kitchen sink, I contemplate killing the whole project.

In my gut I know I won’t kill it and then I wonder why the hell not.  As I place cool wash cloths on a child’s fevered brow, I carry on this internal argument.  At dawn I find myself asleep at the wrong end of our  bed, curled up like a small dog.

I need to give myself a bit of a break. I am tired, half-sick, and over-caffeinated.  I begin to doubt every single thing from my use of punctuation to my ability to construct a story to whether my voice is really mine.

The absolute worst thing any writer can do is ignore the natural voice.  It would be like Taylor Swift trying to sing an aria from La Boheme. I’m no opera aficionado but I know that the result would be…painful.  If anyone tries to tell Ms. Swift that she should cut a CD of operatic classics, she should take her hair and whip that person across the face with it.

My voice is pretty well-defined.  Good thing because I’m a lousy imitator.  I know its range and that’s what bothers me sometimes – is it too limited?  Can it ever be richly layered, complex – like a very good wine?  Wine, not whine…

My voice is sounding a bit strangled right now because I’m hyper-ventilating.  Taking a deep breath, I open a book I’ve acquired entitled, A Passion for Narrative by Jack Hodgins.  There is a passage that shines like a lighthouse’s beacon through coastal fog.

When the Irish writer John McGahern was asked how to write good fiction: “he replied that first you write one good sentence, and then you must write another good sentence to follow it.”

Alistair MacLeod said basically the same thing.  He said he takes a long time to write because he’s careful with his sentences.  He writes one sentence.  He ponders it, speaks it out loud.  Then he writes another.  It is a slow, careful process.

This book by Hodgins also recommends throwing down a first draft quickly, with no editing or revising.  Ha!  I think that’s my problem.  I keep forgetting that The Novel is still in shitty first draft stage.  It’s not supposed to be pitch-perfect and it’s ok for parts of it to be horrible, ridiculous, unfettered, and foul.

There’s life: horrible, ridiculous, unfettered, foul.  In the next moment, it’s sweet, lovely, and deeply satisfying.  Writing is no different.  Sometimes, the writer must just slow down and take a deep breath.  And, some Advil.

“Coming to You Live from…A New Corner!”

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Like writing in the middle of a freeway…

When last I bitched…er, I mean groaned…er commented on my workplace surroundings or lack thereof, I was writing from a sketchy, rather sticky laminate countertop smack dab in the middle of our kitchen.  Like being in the flightpath of JKF or LaGuardia.  No peace, no privacy – not even from Alyss the Cat.

Things are different now.

Last night, after a long and emotionally taxing week, Hubby dutifully moved furniture up and down two flights of stairs, patiently inhaling dust and cat dander on my behalf.  The purpose?  To give me some semblance of an office, a private corner – literally – where I can wool-gather without fear of being trampled in a stampede of children.  Where I actually have a door I can shut if things get too loud downstairs (or in my head).

Similar to mine…

The walnut desk I inherited from my mother; it was built around 1860 and sturdy it is not.  Its creaky hinges and frail joints may or may not hold up for long under incessant pounding of the keyboard. There is a padded leather insert where the laptop sits.  I just can’t lean on it as I am prone to do when thinking. Fingers crossed it will be ok.

The chair…hmmm…there is little good I can say about it except that I can adjust its height if need be.  The little wheels catch on the carpet and it is coated in dust and Alyss fur.  It needs a good cleaning.

The corner is not as cramped as I had feared it would be.  Although there is all kinds of bad feng shui – it’s a corner and my back is to the door – I have a large picture window to my left that overlooks the street.  I can watch the progress of sun and cloud; I can watch acrobatic squirrels race along the power lines as they head for the large maple in our front yard. I can peep at pedestrians as they pass,invent stories about them.

The three feet of wall that I face is badly in need of painting. The colour is a hideous no-colour colour.  I want to paint it sunset orange in protest.  Don’t be hasty, I tell myself – the colour must be given careful consideration.  It has to be something soothing but energetic, something that will compliment the strange Canadian light quality that I have yet to figure out.  At the very least, I need some art work in front of me.

My only other major concern is that this corner is in my bedroom.  The bed is mere inches away and perhaps a bit too tempting should I fall into a mid-afternoon slump.  What is to stop me from falling out of my chair and into my bed for a wee nap?  It would not be a productive habit to get into…

By and large, I am optimistic about my corner.  It’s a place, if not a room, of my own.

The Light

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A potentially sanity-saving email from The Literary Man popped into my inbox this morning.  A writing prompt.  “Write about light,” it said.  Fear and worry have threatened to render me useless, mute, and paralyzed.  I lay in bed this morning wondering if I could even summon one word again, let alone sentences, paragraphs…ah, banshee are dramatic creatures…

And so, some light.  Thank you Literary Man!

I woke,pulled curtains aside and discovered a morning dripping in light.  Gone was the heavy air that had enveloped the city in a dirty, yellow haze.  The dawn was crystalline, pale blue like an aquamarine dipped in water.  Tree leaves fluttered, outlined in razor-sharp relief, ridiculously green against slate gray shingles and blue sky.  Fear was lifted from the world. I threw back the covers and watched columns of dust ascend, remarkably disciplined for dead skin and cat dander, into the sunlight. Coloured prisms twirled on the walls like strings of gems hanging in a breeze.  The clarity of light outside terrified and mesmerized.

Looking away from the window, my eyes met heavy dark furniture, dull walls, duller carpet.  If whitewash were at hand, the whole house would be put to the brush.  Everything should reflect the sparkling light; I wanted it to careen off every possible surface.  How could light be captured in such morose surroundings? Would it not flee? An incandescent bulb would no longer seem adequate, an inferior imitation to this brightness. Clouds formed in the west, deadly filters of this faultless light. I closed my eyes; in and for an instant, darkness fell again.

Blinders and Earplugs

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A baby raccoon peered through my kitchen window this morning framed in a wreath of grape-vine leaves, his little masked face dripping with rain.  I wanted to pinch him he was so cute.  His expression said, “Make it stop, this incessant rain, so I can dive headfirst into your garbage bin and turn your backyard into an open landfill…please!”

I declined his pitiful request, cute as he was.

I suffer from heat induced orneryness.  I sprained my ankle playing soccer with a creature with more legs and talent than myself (a dog not the raccoon), the air is tropical-rainforest-humid and my furniture is either melting or my glasses are.  It’s only June.

No central air yet though we are reduced to walking slowly, living almost naked with curtains and windows open wide to catch any semblance of breeze (my apologies to our neighbours).  One by one our neighbours have surrendered and the steady thrum of air conditioner compressors can be heard up and down our street.

We will only surrender when our refrigerator threatens to go on strike.  But as I walk the dog I fret about the humming coming from the other houses.  I think, “You know, maybe it’s time.  Maybe an algae bloom in the dog’s water dish is not a good thing.  We could sleep under the duvet again…how I love the duvet…”  And then, the ultimate:  our neighbours are, quite literally, cooler than we are.  Ya, that worries me but still, I resist.

I feel the same when I’m up to my elbows in writing – either on The Novel or any other project – and I hear, “Oh, I’m writing a book.”  [Irrational Banshee Response or IBR for short:  How dare you type words in the my universe There’s only room for MY epic struggle!]  Or, “So and so is having a book launch this weekend…” [: How dare she take up a book editor’s time with cheap hors d’oeuvres?] and, “So and so’s memoir got picked up by a publisher!”  [IBR:  well, shit.]

Yes, they’re called Irrational Responses for a reason.  When my peers pull ahead, I get more irrational than usual.  (You don’t want to know how bad that is).  I think:  Jesusmaryandjoseph, I’m not finished yet!  I have no agent.  I have no publisher. I wonder if I should mail this thick wad of paper off to someone – anyone!  I descend quite quickly into a sloppy panic attack.  I get caught up in a race that has millions of runners and I’m at the back of the pack.  In reality, I run only against my over-active imagination           It makes no difference that these other writers might have started their projects years before I did.  It makes no difference that one of them might have 6 months to live and so is in a bit of a hurry.  I don’t think of that.  I just think:  oh, shit!  I’m late, I’m behind.  I must have been left behind at some point in my childhood.  Maybe in a pub.

IBRs are a common malady among writers.  Peer successes are hard to take.  It’s much easier to pat a peer on the back (either in person or via a nice email) and say, “There, there.  I know, honey, I know.  It’ll happen.  Just keep writing.”

Blinders and earplugs are needed to block out extraneous sights and sounds.  That way, when my neighbour turns on his air conditioner prematurely or writes a sordid memoir about his relatives faster than I’m writing mine, I can type away in blissful (albeit sweaty) ignorance.

Every Grownup is a Miracle

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It’s oft been said that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.  But, what if it does kill you?  You’ve learned nothing and you’re just…dead.  I have to think that while you’re in the process of dying, you’re not taking notes on what could be gleaned from the situation.  “Wow, this would make an awesome story…” Lights out.  More to the point, writers can use what didn’t kill them to craft good stories.

Flannery O’Connor said that anyone who survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days . This quote is often used by writing teachers as a way to ignite a spark in students.  Look back, open the dusty trunks of childhood for your story material.  Chances are, there’s more there than you think.  Dive in, get dirty.  You can always take a shower after…

Sick with a nasty cold, I’m laying about reminiscing about childhood.  There were a few dodgy situations.

  • Traveling anywhere by car.  There was no 55 mph speed limit then and no seat belts.  I roamed the car freely as a child, like a small dog.
  • Owning large hoofed animals.  When I was very small, my father used to throw me on the back of Shannon, a horse who stood about six storeys tall.  He’d slap her on the ass and use a stopwatch to time how long I stayed on. Good times.
  • Owning more than 15 cats.  One of the first photos taken of me shows me in a playpen buried under a pile of cats.  They were clearly trying to smother me; my mother was clearly letting them.
  • Flying with my father.  Bless him, his favourite time to go up in his little Cessna was after happy hour.  With me.
  • School.  I was very, very small and let’s just say I had a long awkward phase (I only grew out of it about a year ago).  If I’d been born into a litter, I would have been the runt.  I was bullied from kindergarten until about Grade 11.  In Grade 11, I got a car and discovered bullies don’t like to be chased around school parking lots by a crazy girl behind the wheel. They respected my driving skills after that and left me alone.
  • Swimming in the ocean.  No one mentioned rip tides and the fact that sharks liked to hang out around sand bars.  One day, I got pulled out and drifted over a mile away from our cottage (by a rip tide, not a shark).  My mother dozed on the sand, unaware and my sister was doing her utmost to seduce the lifeguard and having some success as he didn’t hear my plaintive cries for help.
  • Saint Bernard dogs.  There were three who tried to eat me on a daily basis.  It’s true that dogs can smell fear.
  • My mother’s habit of falling asleep with a lit cigarette in her hand.  ‘Nuff said.

All of these incidents are true and there are more.  Back in the Sixties, parents didn’t hover.  Children roamed the neighbourhoods like packs of wild dogs – unsupervised. We also roamed the halls of our own houses, rummaged through drawers, ate baby aspirin like it was candy…There were no “helicopter” mothers back then.  My mother adhered to a strict regimen of Valium and martinis.

We were sent off to school and I think most of us came home.  In summer, we were kicked out the door after breakfast and we wandered home in time for afternoon snack. I wonder why no one died.  I wonder why no one got crippled from diving into a shallow swimming hole in the Potomac above Great Falls.  No one I knew disappeared.  Was I just lucky or have things really changed that much in this world?

I send my kids off to school every morning with my heart in my mouth.  So far, I’ve avoided the regimen of Valium and martinis mostly because my doctor refuses to prescribe me the Valium and martinis aren’t my fave.  Some days I eye the wine bottle…don’t we all?

I’ve bought a fresh notebook and it will be devoted solely to “Notes on Childhood.”  There’s a lot of material there, to be sure.  Thanks, Miss O’Connor.  You were right.

From Breakthrough to Breakdown

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Like most writers, my head is full of voices,words and phrases all the time.  It rolls words around and around until they take shape as something useful.

This past Friday was an exceptional day.  I pulled up The Novel and my fingers could barely keep up with my brain.  I wrote until I could look away from the screen and still see words floating in front of my eyes.  I was in The Zone.  Whether any of it is good is quite beside the point.

I didn’t re-write, tinker, or edit.  I just went flat-out as if I was driving across an endless empty desert; no traffic, no speed limit.  The kids came home from school, I kept writing.  The cat needed food, I ignored her and kept writing.  Darkness fell over the city; I kept writing.  And, then…

Screeching halt.

I think my engine died in the middle of the word “the.” Yes, it is possible to have such a tiny word go unfinished. There it sits, on the page, “th–”  The stream of words dried up so fast it was the opposite of a flash flood; it was a flash drought.

At that short little word, my mind heard the end-of-day whistle blowing.  More than that, it was Friday – time to clock out. My brain was adamant and there was nothing left to do but snap the laptop shut and make a pizza.  

In the wee hours of this Monday morning, my brain was back on the job. Somewhere in the world, dawn had broken and my brain was ready even if my body was not.  The gates opened; a flood of words streamed through, keeping me awake for hours. 

Weekend over – back to word work.

Tinker, Tailor, Writer, Why

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I confessed to my husband yesterday that I did not make much forward progress on The Novel last week.  This type of confession is dangerous because it leads him to think I sat around watching Oprah reruns and eating the proverbial bonbons.  What I could never get him or anyone else to understand (unless it was a fellow writer) is that although very little forward progress was made, I did a tremendous amount of writing.  Except that it was re-writing, re-positioning, re-vamping of characters and the like.

Enter The Tinker.  Or, more correctly, The Tinkerer.  The story had been going along swimmingly until I started to over think it (as I tend to do with everything, not just writing).  I could feel my mental wheels start to sink into the mire and slow until the entire enterprise had ground to a complete halt.  

The problem with over thinking is often it is never a huge item that starts the derailment – it can be quite small.  I find myself muttering, “There is no way Esmereldarina can be carried off by trolls on the back of a Welsh pony; it has to be something stubby, shaggy, and attitudinal like a Shetland…”  Of course, I come to this realization thirty pages after I’ve already written the troll/pony scene…and so…

I go back and tinker.  Then I find more things to tinker with and more and more.  Soon, I’m back at page one rethinking whether or not I want this story to be about trolls who use ponies as transportation anyway

Hearing this sad tale over coffee yesterday morning, my husband came up with a great suggestion.  In his nerdy line of work where they hardly give trolls a thought, they use something called “parking lots.”  These are like storage documents where they put random thoughts and tinkering ideas for use or consideration later.  I could use a “parking lot” document to write down all of my doubts about the minutiae without actually destroying all of the progress I’ve made.

Key to writing any story of any length is to get it down.  Tinkering destroys that possibility.  If while I’m  having heroines kidnapped by equestrian trolls, I can harbour the idea for exchanging the ponies for four-wheel drive quads in a parking lot document for use (or ridicule) later.  Then, its head down, keep on writing. 

This week I vow to make good forward progress.  If I have to fill up a parking lot, so be it.  Save the tinkering and tailoring for later.

Writing & Crying

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I read something interesting the other day about writing that connects emotionally with readers.  Because of my menopause brain I can’t remember where I read it, who wrote it, or what it said specifically (helpful, I know) but the gist of it was if a writer doesn’t have an emotional connection to what they are writing, readers likely won’t either.  Or, something like that.

Although I lost all the details, the general tenor of the article resonated with me.  I am sometimes moved to tears when I write.  Something about a turn of phrase, a subject matter, or the response of a character strikes an emotional chord in me.  The article said this is a good thing.  I’d always thought I was just overly emotional, irrational, and/or hungry when it happened to me.

The emotional connection cannot be forced- the result can be melodramatic, sappy drivel; the readers will see through this and be moved only to throw the book across the room or into the trash,which is not the hoped-for response.  I’m not saying tears must flow in order to write heartfelt prose but if they do, don’t try to stem them.  Grab a Kleenex and let the river run.  If you are tempted to stop and analyze “Why is this making me cry?”  – don’t overthink it – just go with it.

Of course, if you’re writing a comedy, tears might be a bad sign unless they are the result of laughing very hard. Generally speaking, you know what you’re writing about and if your emotional responses to it are appropriate.  The only time this isn’t true is if you think your writing is crap.  Writers are notoriously hard on themselves and thus not capable of rational judgment.  If your second pair of eyes turns green and runs for the toilet, then perhaps it is crap.  If they put the manuscript down, dab their eyes and heave a big sigh, chances are you’re onto something good.  And real.   Keep it and pass the Kleenex. 

 

Holy Writing/Wholly Writing

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about holy callings.  Feeling rather adrift and bereft of inspiration in the last week or so, I pulled up Elizabeth Gilbert’s web page and clicked on the tab entitled “Thoughts on Writing.”  Her words usually jumpstart my focus.  She says, ” I believe that – if you are serious about a life of writing, or indeed about any creative form of expression – that you should take on this work like a holy calling.”

If a person has figured out what turns their crank – be it writing, veterinary medicine, or making waffles – that pursuit needs to be…um…pursued with laser-like focus.  Someone who knows they were put on this earth to make waffles must make the waffles; he or she must become deaf to the naysayers and immerse themselves in the world of waffle batter, waffle irons, and pray at the altar of waffles on a daily basis.

Oh God, now I’m hungry…

My holy calling is writing.  It is, I am certain, what I was put on this earth to do.  Whether I achieve what other humans would label “success” or not doesn’t matter.  The act of writing, of immersing myself in words all day long, is what brings deep happiness and satisfaction to my very core.  Nothing else, not even watching my kitten sleep or eating delicious waffles, brings such contentment. 

For many, many moons, I allowed myself to be dissuaded from this calling – I listened to the naysayers, I wandered down other paths that promised easy money and a posh lifestyle.  Now, I clip coupons and write.  I buy my jeans at the grocery store and write.  I don’t eat fancy restaurant waffles.  But I don’t mind.  I’m doing what I was meant to do and I am willing to sacrifice a great deal to do it. 

Of course I’ve read the words often enough, “Do what you love and the money will follow.”  I’d be lying if I said I wouldn’t mind if a stack of money appeared on my doorstep (note: stack of money should ideally be higher than stack of bills).  Holy callings are often unpopular and financialy unrewarding.  Elizabeth Gilbert is one of the very lucky few to have had a stack of money appear on her doorstep – after years of bartending, losing everything, and never giving up when things looked bleak.

Life likes to throw roadblocks in the way.  I have a family to attend to – they need love, affection, and the odd meal.  My house needs cleaning, the kitten needs feeding.  I cannot closet myself in a convent and write while my world falls apart around me.  What I can do is not give up.  What I can do is work around everything else, write around everything else.  What holy writing means (to me) is wholly writing – immersing myself in what I love – but finding a way not to drown.  Drowning wouldn’t do me any good but I must jump in all the way.

Finding a Niche to Nestle In

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Many moons ago, I took a class on writing for magazines.  Even then, those in the know said nonfiction was the best way to make money as a writer. Our instructor was a tall, stern looking woman who reminded me of a lumberjack (she had a preference for large flannel shirts). She introduced herself to the class by telling us a story, her story.  She relayed how she came to write nonfiction articles for magazines – her husband dropped dead, leaving her with five children to raise and support.  Alone.

Even now as I think back on this, I don’t know how she did it.  If that were to happen to me, I think I would sprint to my local Starbucks and beg my friend Carol for a job as opposed to diving into the uncertain, perilous waters of freelancing.  I still think what she did took an incredible amount of blind courage.  After we picked our jaws up off our desks, hand after hand shot into the air.  “Tell us how!!” we chorused.

The first thing she told us, even before she taught us the mechanics of writing an article, was to think about niches.  Not those cute little alcoves people clutter up with dried flower arrangements, but a place where you, me, other writers can call our own to write about consistently, knowledgeably, and prolifically. 

Ah, the old niche question.  It paralyzes me even now.  It’s like when somebody asks me what my hobbies are. I go absolutely blank.  Umm…I love to read.  My husband would say my hobby is spending money we don’t have.  So, reading and spending imaginary money – could I possibly turn either of those things into a marketable niche?  Maybe.

Some niches are large and brimming with competition.  Take parenting, for example, the most obvious (legitimate) niche for me.  Every other blog I read is a parenting blog.  Editors of parenting magazines and ezines are inundated.  Being a parent is not enough – what sets you apart as a parent?  Are you a Catholic parent?  Minority parent?  Single parent? Parent of a child with a chronic illness?  Alien parent who married an Earthling and who is now enjoying the challenges of raising a half-Earthling, half-alien child?  That niche might prompt a magazine editor to think, “Hmmm…we haven’t run an article about hybrid alien children in awhile…” and presto, the article is picked up.

If you haven’t had the good fortune to give birth to an alien baby, what other niches might there be?  Back to hobbies. There are as many different hobbies out there as there are people.  If you think you have a weird hobby – Google it and I’ll bet you’ll find you have company; there might even be a quarterly or monthly journal that highlights your weird hobby and who better to write for such a publication. 

I don’t have a hobby but perhaps I could write about the search for one- and the misadventures that would certainly ensue. 

In this increasingly competitive world that we live in, are, generalists are a thing of the past?  It’s true in the workforce – my peers with Bachelors degrees have all gone back to get Masters degrees and more. WOW! Women on Writing’s latest newsletter focused on whether or not specialization is key to success – I think the answer is yes.  As the newsletter says, it doesn’t have to be just one specialty – if you have more than one, write about it!  For more on this topic, check out this month’s newsletter at www.wow-womenonwriting.com  

I’m still not sure about my niche.  Is it too late for me to have an alien baby?