Tag Archives: writing life

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.

 

 

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Mom, Writer, Time Traveler

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When my daughter came home for lunch today, I was in the year 1910.  In Ireland.  Needless to say, I had a hard time having a rational conversation.   She thinks I drink during the day, I know she does.  No, I’m just a writer.

Sometimes I get so deep in a story – it could be in a time and place completely foreign to the year 2011, Toronto – it’s very hard to snap myself back into the present to deal with my “real” life.  During a normal weekday, I could travel from Vermont to Scotland to London to the flanks of Vesuvius or down the street, depending on what I’m working on.   My mind refuses to stay in one spot.  I’m a wanderer, a gypsy, who sits down every morning and allows my mind to run wild – wherever it will. What never changes is, at roughly 3:30 every afternoon, I have to return to the present; to my kitchen, to greet the hordes returning from school.

This transition is never easy.  Sometimes, I write until the back door crashes open, getting the bejesus scared out of me.   Other days, I’m smarter, getting up from my chair at around 3 or 3:15 to let the story ebb away like a falling tide.  The latter method is a lot less jarring but it also means my day has not been as productive as I’d like.  There hasn’t been the complete immersion that is so sweet and so all-encompassing.  It’s the feeling that I’m swimming in a story that makes the writing so satisfying.  Then a small face appears at my side. The face is speaking to me.  It’s asking for food/drink/homework help/something not related to anything I’m working on…I blink stupidly as if long in the dark and suddenly exposed to blinding light. 

When I’m really deep in a story, I disconnect from the whirl of life around me.  I am here but not here.  I will not be “here” until the story is down, the problem solved.  Questions have to be repeated; answers are terse.  My temper is short – especially if I’ve been jarred out of my make-believe world suddenly or unexpectedly.  Worst is when I’m far away from my computer.  Writers can be grumpy creatures indeed.

I’ve said it before that I dream of having an idyllic, secluded space to write in for as long as needed.  Sadly, life intervenes, as it has to.  Otherwise, I might become a hollow wraith floating around the planet – disconnected from the real world.  The real world offers a wealth of material – I just have to remember to tune in and feel it.  The real world keeps my feet on the ground, warms my heart, and gives me sweet Goldfish flavoured kisses at 3:45 every afternoon.  1910 Ireland can wait until tomorrow…

Miss Scarlett, I Don’t Know Nothin ‘Bout Birthin Babies…

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I’ve been longing for the South recently…warmer weather, pecan pie, peach pie, peanut pralines, any kind of pralines, warmer weather…ok, any kind of pie…

For some reason today I began thinking of Gone With the Wind and Margaret Mitchell – a story and a woman synonymous with the South.  It’s been a long time – too long – since I read the book.  Ms. Mitchell was what they call now a “one hit wonder.”  Sadly, it wasn’t her fault as she got hit by a car and died in 1949.  Perhaps we would’ve heard more from her – an amazingly gifted voice with a keen understanding of  the complicated place she came from (lest anyone think the South is just the land of magnolias, pecan pie and quaint accents).  When I think that GWTW was her first published novel, I can hardly fathom it.  No one had ever read the manuscript before it ended up in the arms of an editor.

Some days, I think giving birth to triplets without benefit of an epidural must be easier than giving birth to a novel.  Or for that matter, any fully-formed piece of writing.  I’ve had short stories drive me to tears, make me eat entire pizzas, and endure hours of pain bringing they emerged into this cold, cruel world.  Writing, like pregnancy and child birth, is hard work and can, at times, cause me to utter howls of misery.  Sometimes, it’s like an out of body experience.  I’m Miss Prissy, standing over my toiling self, wringing my hands and mewling, “I don’t know what to do!” 

I remember being a new mother for the first time – it was scary and the amount of conflicting advice made it more so.  It’s happening with the book too, leaving me overwhelmed and confused.  I attend seminars, workshops, and writing classes – much like the Lamaze classes I attended. Proper breathing; proper punctuation.  I learned about something called swaddling; I learn how to develop characters.  But once that baby is ready to come out, anyone who stands over me, trying to be helpful and murmuring about my happy place is likely to lose a testicle (Dr. Donovan, I’m so very sorry).  Novels, like babies, come in their own time and in their own way.  Some arrive gently; others have to be hauled out kicking and screaming.  Once born, they have to be raised-harder still.  They rarely behave the way the books or classes tell us they’re going to.  Some characters are easygoing; others refuse to settle down and go where you want them to.  Some require an exorcist.  While human baby mortality rates are low in the 21st century, it cannot be so with first-time novel attempts. 

I’m still in labour.  It might be a year before this story is born – I hope it’s sooner because no one who lives with me is going to want to bear witness to the pain and the howling that will ensue if it goes on too long.  Everyone will be wearing hockey helmets and er…protective devices.  Hopefully, a story worth reading will emerge.  I harbor no expectations that it will be an epic masterpiece like GWTW.  I’ll be incredibly thrilled if it is published, more thrilled if family members wait until their out of earshot before howling.  Nonetheless, I’ll begin the next one before too long because like that woman on reality TV, I just can’t help making babies…er, I mean stories.  Some day maybe I’ll feel like I know what I’m doing.

Clarification Needed

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This is what I get for writing on a Friday at the end of what has been a crappy week.  Certain readers of Write or Else misinterpreted my previous blog, thinking that I was publicly lamenting the end of a love affair.  [Insert hysterical laughter here].

I wonder, if George Clooney and I ever embark on our long-overdue love affair (once he sees reason about dating someone his own age), if I would ever lament the end of it in a public forum.  Well, writing about it is way more likely than me going on “Dancing With the Stars,” so…well, we’ll have to see won’t we?  [Oh, for God’s sake, I. Am. Kidding. ]

Here’s what I was actually going on about:  parenting and how absolutely unbelievably mind-smackingly difficult it can be sometimes.  “The Rock of Truth”  was fiction as in a make-believe product of my sick, exhausted little mind.  The metaphor, truth as a 1,000 pound rock, is something I made up.  I have not been hit by an asteroid and there is no need to call the Mounties.

Whew.  I hope everyone’s on the same page now.  I hate causing kerfuffles with my writing but it’s happened to me a lot lately.  I don’t set out to write controversial pieces; in fact, until lately, I shied away from even reading them.  However, as I’ve gotten older, I have become less sensitive to controversy.  It’s what my mother used to call the “I-don’t-give-a-rat’s-pattooty” mentality that comes with age.  I apologize if I’ve misspelled “pattooty.”  I wouldn’t say I actively court controversy; I just don’t give a rat’s  ass (much easier to spell) if someone disagrees with me.  Misunderstandings, especially personal ones, I will still work to correct but that might change in two months when I turn 50.

Don’t say you weren’t warned.

When Lightning Strikes…

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Some people can predict lightning before it strikes – they get tingly sensations in their extremities, the hair on their arms (sometimes even their heads) stands straight up and a few seconds later, BAM!

I’m not one of those people except when it comes to getting verbally zapped by one of my writing teachers.  Right now, the hair on the back of my neck is standing straight up because she is gonna hurl a bolt at me like Zeus from the top of Mt. Olympus.  Any second…why, you may ask, would a nice lady writing teacher wanna do a thing like that to a sweet wee banshee like me?

I’ll explain:  To continue along the Greek mythology vein, I have not one but two Achilles heels.  The first is that I am a fast, reckless writer.  I’m just not as careful as I could be.  I get an idea, write it, and too often, submit it.  My second Achilles heel is that when I get busted for being a fast and reckless writer, I hurl a few lightning bolts of my own – usually at myself.  I ignore the good points and focus only on where the piece has fallen short.  Which gets me exactly nowhere.

In the calm after the storm, I ask myself:  could this energy be harnessed in a more productive way?  Perhaps I might consider writing a piece, walking away for a bit  and then re-visiting it.  Perhaps I could be more c-a-r-e-f-u-l instead of writing as if the Hounds of Hell are chasing me?  Problem solved!

Not so fast…

When an idea comes, I write it down with great enthusiasm.  Before I know it, I’ve got five or six pages – which is awesome!  Sort of.  Often, though, the five or six pages are conflicting, confusing, and wayward.  So, I keep going, thinking more is better and it will all work itself out.  Ten to fourteen pages into it, I still have no idea what the characters are doing – even though they might be very busy climbing mountains, talking, petting llamas, killing each other.  Why?  What drives them?  What has brought them to the point of climbing the Andes while moaning about global warming and half-heartedly trying to push each other over the odd cliff?

Therein lies the problem:  I write first, ask questions later.

There has to be an easier way.  Oh, dear.  I think it’s called an outline…or something along those lines.

So, to address the second Achilles heel, if I’m going to write as if I’m on a Formula 1 circuit, I should be prepared for the occasional fiery crash or almost worse, be prepared to run out of gas halfway round the track.  First of all, a piece written at  warp speed is likely to have issues.  Second of all, even a piece not written at warp speed is likely to have issues.  They always do.  Somebody, somewhere is going to have issues with something.   But I stand a better chance of avoiding crashes and lightning bolts if the submission is carefully thought out and as good as I can make it before I send it off.

Time to go deal with Zeus… carefully.

 

 

Hello Doubt, My Old Friend

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I think I don’t know what I’m doing.

This happens to me sometimes, this lurching feeling akin to throwing the brakes on at 100 mph.  So there I was, humming along at a good clip, lots of writing happening and SCREEEECH.  Full stop.

I can’t speak for anyone else but Doubt only throws himself onto the hood of my car because I let him.  I should just run him down; accelerate when I see him standing in front of me instead of slamming on the brakes.  Because I brake for him, he can then hop in the car with me and get all bossy about where we’re going and how we’re going to get there.  Doubt is a bully and a backseat driver.

Ok, enough of the automotive metaphors.  Hmmm…let’s try something else.  Hmmm…nothing coming to mind.  See?  I’m plagued now by Doubt.  It is everywhere and it is affecting my brain.  All I need to do is breathe (always remember to breathe) and know that Doubt is only a temporary problem.  Of course, it took me decades to get to this point but now that I’m here, I’m not going to let Doubt push me around.

I submitted a story to my workshop.  I knew it needed work and it was only the first 10 pages.  The beginning held so much promise.  Then, it careened around and fell apart as it went; I tried to glue it back together but it didn’t really work.  At the end of the excerpt, the main character (much like the author) is sitting head in hand, wondering what the hell to do next.   And, of course, my instructor jumped all over it.  What does she want?  What is she doing?  Why is she here, there, and everywhere?

All completely legit questions.  And, I don’t have an answer to any of them.  That’s what happens when you write without a plan or an outline or even an inkling of what’s going on.  I’m not usually a fan of outlines.  I like to loll around on the sofa until the characters tell me to get my ass up and write a thread and then another and another.  Once I have the threads, I  usually figure things out on my own.  With this story, nobody spoke to me much, there were no threads and the result was as you’d expect: rather a mess.

I feel badly for my character.  I’ve left her confused and unhappy at the base of a volcano.  She doesn’t want to be there (well, she does really – she had the opportunity to leave on page 6 and she didn’t).  She’s staying but doesn’t know why.  She doesn’t know what she’s looking for.  She is running but doesn’t know from what (aside from molten lava).  I’m her chauffeur and my sat-nav isn’t working.  We’re both lost.

The upside of all of this is that it’s only 10 pages.  I can trash the whole thing (if necessary) or prune it back until it’s 1 1/2 paragraphs without shaving years off my life.  It’s not like I’ve committed myself in 500 pages to this poor lost girl.  Maybe all I do keep is the first paragraph and toss the rest.  But, first maybe I need to slow down and give some thought to who this girl is and what she’s up to.  No, not maybe.  Maybe is the handmaiden of Doubt.  It’s bad enough having Doubt around without all of his minions.

Hey, Doubt!  Go stand in the middle of the road and I’ll get in the car…

Don’t Let Meryl Streep Drive the Bus

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[Blogger’s note:  I’m sure the amazing Ms. Streep is a fine driver.  It was just a dream.]

At last, a dream.  After a summer of spotty, hazy, useless dreams about nothing and a September of so little sleep that dreams don’t bother to form, the pre-dawn soap opera playing out in my head was most welcome.  Well, not exactly welcome.  It was a dream fraught with anxiety because it was about the two things that cause me most to want to combine booze and pills:  time and an airport.

So stressful was the dream that I had to wake myself up.  Walking down the hall to the bathroom, I muttered:  “You do not have to be anywhere.  You don’t need to get your daughter on a plane.  Meryl Streep doesn’t drive transit buses, I’m sure Ashley Judd is a very nice lady…everything is fine…”  I looked for something to write with.  No luck.  So, folks, this is my dream diary…just for today.

I am holding a baby.  A baby with red curly hair and a very stinky diaper.  He is NOT my baby.  We’re in a restaurant.  I hand off stinky baby, I am relaxed and happy.  I’ve been shopping for my daughter.  My husband comes out of nowhere saying we’re late.  His voice is panicked and pinched.  He sounds like me.

[If my husband were ever to utter those words to me, I would drop dead on the spot but as I’ve said, this was a dream].

Stinky babies are left behind as we gallop for a bus.  We have to get to the airport.  I don’t argue the virtues of cab versus bus as I normally would; I just run blindly toting all manner of luggage and shopping bags.  I’m not a good toter, especially at a full run.  We see a bus; it’s a grim affair, painted a dull gray with painted out windows – I think it was used for the deployment of Soviet troops to somewhere unattractive like Siberia.  Anyway, Meryl Streep is behind the wheel.

I have to say I’ve seen her look better.  With  floozy peroxide hair and a Tootsie Pop in her mouth, she wasn’t looking too chic.  Nor was she in a particular hurry to get her passengers anywhere.  She’s a chatty one, that Meryl Streep.  She cannot drive and chat at the same time…in my dream.  She did everything to guarantee I was certifiably insane by the time we reached the airport.  It’s never a good sign when the bus driver has to ask passengers for directions.

The old Soviet-era bus creaks up to the airport; my husband and I leap out and are magically in the security line.  But we aren’t flying – we are only delivering luggage to our daughter who is, presumably, somewhere in the airport.  Things go further downhill.

The line is long (no dream magic here) and complicated by certain actresses (I’m talking to you, Ashley Judd) allowing their toddlers to ride the scanner’s conveyor belt, in the buckets designed for handbags and spare change, as if it were some sort of mini amusment park ride.  Magically, my husband is already through (no dream magic here either -he always picks the faster line.  I have a talent, in dreams and in real life, for choosing the slowest line).

I’m getting nowhere.  I try reasoning with Ashley Judd (nope), I try crying at Ashley Judd’s feet (no luck), I try appealing to the sympathies of others in the line (“Please! Someone compliment one of her movies!”).  No dice.  I stand helplessly by as time ticks mercilessly on. [Blogger’s note:  I’m sure Ms. Judd’s children, if she has any, are perfect angels in the airport].

My husband is now talking to my hysterical daughter off in the distance.  “I HAVE TO GET ON THIS PLANE TO GREECE!” she shrieks loud enough to make any banshee proud.  I see my husband talking to an airport official who, as luck would have it, appears to be Greek.  I trip one of Ashley Judd’s kids and I am magically through the line in time to hear the airport official say there is no time to do anything more except get my girl on the plane.  No bags, no luggage, no toothbrush.  I am beside myself.  No toothbrush?  My husband stuffs her hands full of Euros, saying he hopes Euros still work in Greece, and off she goes.

“Buy a toothbrush!” I yell to the vanishing form of my daughter.  I turn around, vaguely wondering why she is going to Greece.  I turn to my husband, still in high drama mode:  “How do we know she will actually make that flight?  How will we ever know!  What about all of these bags!” (I am getting stressed as I type – this is all too realistic).

My husband is  speaking to yet another man who looks a lot like the first man.  “We will ship her bags to the airport.”  2nd man is sure the bags will get there before our daughter does.  I am not convinced.  I want to be on that plane with my little girl…

It’s all too much for me and I wake myself up.

High drama, stress-inducing airport dreams aside, having a detail-laden dream is like gold for me.  Several of my short stories (one of them  published) were born from dreams.  Dreams are useful.  Dreams should always be written down.  Don’t edit.  The crazier, the more disconnected the better.  You can shape something good out of all the craziness later.  Trust me.

Dreams often come when I’m feeling a bit stuck.  Yesterday was such a day.  I walked around the house toting either a kitten or a laundry basket in a very foul mood (me, not the laundry basket).  I knew I should write something, but couldn’t.  I even went so far as to open Word and pull up my homework for the workshop.  All I needed were two more pages so I could submit it.  I just stared….and wandered off to find the kitten.   This dream was a beacon in a very dark night – I’m not as stuck as I think I am.

Or, it could just be that I feel like being pissed off at Meryl Streep, Ashley Judd, and Greece.