Writing Recovery 101

Tags

, , , , ,

There is a lot of wisdom to be found in 12 Step Recovery programs that can carry over quite nicely into the realm of writing or any other artistic endeavor.  As you may know, a central theme in recovery is how to obtain and keep your serenity.  Let me tell you, when it comes to writing, I tend to have little to none of that magical quality, that sense of balance, peace and general OKness.  That is, except when I’m actually writing. Go figure.

My hours, days and hence life, tend to go like this:

7 AM -OMG, this is the funniest, best Space Opera ever written. I will now pause to compose my Nebula acceptance speech.

7:15 AM – OMG, this is the worst piece of crap ever committed to paper. What was I thinking?

8:30 AM – I like this idea, but there’s no market for it. Should I even bother with it? Start over? Go eat all the stale candy canes off the wreath on the neighbor’s front door?

8:40 AM- How will I spend my millions? Will I be benevolent or evil?

9:00 AM- OMG, got a rejection from that agent I met last year.  Might as well quit writing entirely. I’m wasting my time here.

And so on and so forth.  Occasionally, a rejection or rough writing day hits at just the wrong time, like right after I find out my cat has herpes or the washing machine freezes solid, and I crumble beneath the weight of it all.  It is so hard to keep the faith at times like these.  It seems impossible to be at peace with perceived failure, to be OK with the constant denial of the dream. I can go down the rabbit hole of despair quicker than The White Rabbit himself and often do.  Luckily, I’ve learned a few essential truths that get me out of the hole, and I don’t waste much time down there anymore.

When I’m caught in a spiral of despair and hopelessness, recovery slogans come to my rescue.  Short, simple and profound, they stop the spiral and snap me back to reality.  In regards to writing my current favorite is “Do the next right thing.”

What’s the next right thing, you might well ask?  Well, I’ve got a recovery quote taped above my computer from a little book called Courage to Change. It says, “Today, when faced with choices, I will opt for the path that enhances my self-esteem.”  What enhances my self-esteem? Getting words on the page. Even bad words feed me like nothing else. Better than a mani-pedi, better than yoga, better than a raise, a new puppy or yes, even chocolate.  So the next right thing means stop moping, sit my ass down in front of the computer and start typing.  Pick up that broken scene and keep going.  Start a new one. My characters will lead the way out of the hole if I let them.

Here’s another slogan that helps in dark times; “Let go and let God.”  When it comes to writing, this means letting go of the book deal, the agent, the reviews, the marketability, the genius or lack thereof, all of those outcomes that have nothing to do with telling the story.  I can only write effectively if I let go of all expectation and just let the words flow and trust that I’m compelled to do this for a reason, that God, The Universe, Santa, Rudolph and/or the Winter Warlock, are crazy jokesters who’ve got my back, no matter what the front looks like at the moment.  All that other stuff will be waiting for me when I leave the safety zone of the desk.

The Buddha Abides

The Buddha Contemplates Plot Points

I could go on and on, but here’s a final one for you; “First Things First”. First write the novel, story or poem, then worry about its marketability, its state of perfection, whatever reactions it might incur, whether it’s any good or not, later. Much, much later.  The First Thing for every writer should be to write, painters to paint, sculptors to sculpt.  And if you find yourself losing your serenity, chances are it’s because you’ve drifted away from your center, your story.

The Curse of NaNo

Tags

, , , , ,

I swore I wasn’t I wasn’t going to participate in NaNoWriMo this year.  I mean, I’m hip deep in a rewrite of two previous NaNo novels that I’ve mashed together to form one big Frankenscript of a dystopian future fantasy. It’s pretty much taking up all my time.  And after that, the queue is full.  There’s that awesomely crappy first draft of another past NaNo that I’m still in love with. There’s both the sequel and prequel to that last Epic Fantasy that I finished.  Then there’s life, job, marketing the novel that’s already published (miracles do happen), five cats, a dog, a yard that was genetically altered by aliens to never stop growing no matter how cold it gets, and all that other non-writing stuff that is nevertheless important, like this blog, which I’ve been shamefully neglecting.

Oh, NaNo, you lovable, insane quest for words you.

My friend Pam talked me into it because she’s doing it and well, I hate to be left out.  So fifteen days in and this completely unnecessary Space Opera has taken over my life.  Screw the rewrite, my mind is on Mars, fighting many-tentacled aliens and giggling maniacally over the sheer silliness of it all.  But I love it.

But is NaNo satisfied with this, with being way ahead of the game at 32,094 words?  Apparently, no.  While out walking in a boggy field taking pictures of fog the other night, I was possessed by the spirit of some unrequited story somewhere who’s author never discovered the joys of reckless abandon.

The Bog of  Untold Stories

The Bog of Untold Stories

Upon returning from the bog outing, an unasked for storyline crept into my head.  Two characters began talking, interacting, and conflict happened. Suddenly, when I’m supposed to be sleeping, I’m diving into a completely new and different novel! Well, I’ll just jot down a few notes, says I.   1,500 words later I come up for air, blinking at the vision of a whole new world unfolding at my fingertips.

Why, NaNo, why?  And get this. The new story is a romance.  I don’t do romance. This story doesn’t have a single alien, ghost, wizard or vampire in it.  But the characters, ordinary people in an ordinary town, won’t shut up.  They’re bossy and insistent. Their lives are spinning out in detailed, fully choreographed scenes. I defy any writer to ignore that sort of gift from the bog.

Honestly though I know this story has been fermenting deep within my psyche, out of sight, just under the judgmental radar of my critical mind.  Romance?  These characters seemed determined to care more about their personal relationships than saving the world. Go figure. Probably it will be boring and trite and unmarketable, but the beauty of NaNo is that I don’t care.  Once the spigots of creativity have been opened, there is no stemming the flow.  I feel it is my sacred duty to listen to the voices and provide them with an entry into the world outside of my head.  Whether anyone sees them or not is an entirely other matter.  It is the love affair with story that is the heart of NaNo, a romance that makes all stories possible.

But seriously NaNo, romance?

Alas, Pepperoni, I knew thee well

Tags

, , , , , ,

Okay, you asked for it. Well, not you personally, dear reader, but there’s no shortage of those who question.  I’m always befuddled when folks ask me why I decided to become a vegetarian right when we’re about to start eating.   Is this really the moment they want to hear about the disgusting conditions in slaughter houses?  The artery and brain clogging effects of red meat?  The horror of their meat animal’s life spent in a cage, immobile, sick and most likely insane? My personal belief that the misery of a factory-raised animal carries over into the psyche of those who eat them?  Being the overly-polite person that I am, I usually stick to generalities.  I tell them it’s a matter of health, spiritual, and environmental concerns.  I’ve noticed that these people are usually more interested in seeing if they can upset me by noisily enjoying their flesh eating than in hearing my reasons.  But, having been a carnivore for forty years, I really can’t condemn anyone for eating meat. I don’t even believe vegetarianism is for everyone. I mean, even the Dalai Lama eats meat due to a blood condition.

I didn’t come to this choice easily.  Though I’ve always leaned (far) in the direction of compassion toward animals, I could never quite bear the thought of giving up all meat, especially . . . pepperoni.  To never eat a pepperoni pizza again seemed like too cruel a fate to self-inflict.  And pepperoni’s close cousins in deliciousness, salami, pancetta, prosciutto, and God help me, bacon.  How could I live a full life without them? Would life even be worth living?

Then came the day I went to a Zen Buddhist retreat to hone my meditation skills. Well, this is plain asking for it, obviously.  I’d already cut back on my meat eating ways, slowly working vegetarian meals into the rotation more and more, though I lived with and cooked for a devoted Iowan carnivore who grew up on pot roasts every Sunday and steaks the size of doormats.  I found out that if I put in enough cheese, he’d survive the night long enough to reach his roast beef sandwich at lunch the next day.

But I digress.  The clincher was that during this Buddhist retreat, everything was done as a meditation, including eating.  We were served a vegan lunch and were instructed to visualize and give thanks for every step in the process required for this food to reach our plate.  The cook, the grocer, the delivery driver who brought the groceries to the store, the farmer, the earth, the seed, the rain.  Lovely thought, isn’t it? Then try inserting the sacrificial animal who gives its savory life into this chain of gratitude.  Visualize the butcher in the slaughter house who pole axes said savory animal.  Visualize the life of the factory animal, treated as a crop instead of a living being, with no life outside of a cage or a stockade.  Yummy.

Later, during a walking meditation, I pondered this conundrum.  It seemed so clear to me that I finally needed to follow my natural instincts and give up meat for real.  But . . . the pepperoni pizza!  The bacon!  How could I stand it?

Then a very clear thought came to me.  This is such a small sacrifice to make in the large scheme of things.  An animal gives its life, not just at the end of its brief time on this planet, but its entire life, from birth to death. It has no life, so that we may eat it.  I don’t need meat to survive.  I don’t need meat to be happy.  I don’t need to condemn one more animal to a miserable existence.  There’s no going back after a realization like that.

That was about six or seven years ago. I’ve lost track.  It doesn’t really matter to me, as I’m not counting the days.  It turns out it was easy after all.  Yes, the first year or so I’d get hit with cravings.  I still yearn for a pepperoni pizza every once in a while. And yes, I had a slip here and there.  I bought a pepperoni stick for my dog and ate half of it myself.  I snitched bacon off a serving tray.  But the desire faded rather quickly, especially as I found my taste buds getting more sensitive as the memory of salty, greasy flesh faded from my tongue.  I signed up for a community farm service from which I picked up a bag of locally grown veggies and fruit twice a month, and had tons of fun learning how to cook new and exciting vegetables like beets, parsnips, burdock root, all sorts of fun weird things.  My carnivore partner adapted just fine, and cooked himself a steak whenever I was out for the evening.

Over the rainbow chard

Over the rainbow chard

And now for the gruesome details: Why am I veggie head, you ask?

  1. Health. Everyone knows it’s healthier.  Everyone knows Americans eat too much meat.  As long as I’m careful about getting the proper amount of protein, minerals, vitamins etc., not eating meat is just about one of the healthiest choices I can make for myself.  Proof is that my good cholesterol levels are so high the bad cholesterol doesn’t have a chance.  This is without getting into the whole hormone issue, and the Mad Cow issue, and steroid issue, and on and on.
  2. Environmental.  The cattle industry is one of the most destructive forces out there, destroying wild lands, encroaching on rain forests, polluting the water, justifying the elimination of endangered predators like wolves, destroying the forage of other wild animals, etc.  And then there’s the slaughter house effluvium. Ew.
  3. Spiritual.  I happen to be the sort that believes in the sacredness of all living beings.  I don’t want to feed on the enforced misery of the beings at our mercy.  We are stewards of the earth, not parasites and marauders.  Yes, I carry spiders outside.  No, I do not deploy slug bait or put out little boxes of toxins whenever I see an ant.  If I found out that like the Dalai Lama, I had to eat red meat to stay healthy, I would make damn sure my meat wasn’t raised by agribusiness but by a local farmer who allows their animals a regular life cycle, out in a field with grass and sunshine, raised by its own mother, allowed to run.  That’s a bare minimum.

That said, I don’t expect everyone to give up meat.  The only thing I would ask is, be mindful and grateful for it when you do.

Supergirl vs. The Scrubjay: Tales of a Writer’s Secret Identity Crisis

Tags

, , , , , , ,

Have you ever been cursed, as in hexed, jinxed, given the old stink eye?  If you have you know it’s no laughing matter.  It happened to me once several years ago and I’d like to tell you how I valiantly overcame The Most Dreaded Flapping Curse.  Some might say that a curse is really a negative suggestion that through its uncanny connection to a core fear worms its way into the cursee’s subconscious and undermines their confidence.  As I am a profound adherent of magical thinking, I will stick to thinking of this as a paranormal matter.

It happened quite casually during a conversation with two friends.  The subject of the much-coveted flying dream came up.  We all talked about how much we loved to fly, how great it was to soar high above the earth, etc.  Then the other two began to complain about how tired they got from all the flapping.

Wait.  Flapping?  Aghast, I explained to them that one needn’t flap in a dream.  One might, as I always did, soar like a rocket, like Superman, arms extended, expending no effort whatsoever.  That’s when I got the stink eye.  They believed this was cheating, or just not right.  Well, I laughed at their pedestrian misery until the dreaded night came when I started to fly and found that I had to flap furiously to get off the ground.  I could barely clear the treetops.  If I slacked off I plummeted like a rock.  Oh, I was so mad.  I cursed the cursors.

How the writer likes to see herself.

How the writer likes to see herself.

You might be wondering what this has to do with writing or anything else of import.  Well, lately I’ve read several blogs offering two quite different views on writing.  One view presents writing as a nearly mystical process in which the writer gleefully takes the hand of their story-spewing muse and skips down the jewel-lined streets of their unlimited imaginariaum. The other view is that of the writer alone and miserable, slumping over a sweat and blood stained keyboard, shuttered from the world of sunshine as each word is painfully chiseled from the marbled block of the scribe’s tortured soul.  (I may be exaggerating these views slightly.)

Both of these realities can be true at any given moment of the writer’s day, life, and career.  I’ve always come down on the gleeful skipping side.  As I contemplated writing a post about this phenomena that wouldn’t completely cheese off the tortured bleeders, I looked up and witnessed a scrub jay flapping to beat the band, skirting across the sky pell-mell on his way to screech at squirrels.  This triggered the memory of The Flapping Curse and naturally my tortured blogger’s soul instantly made the connection.

I am intimately familiar with those times when writing is like extracting teeth with a plastic spork.  However, my main struggle comes in the moments before writing, when an inexplicable force field arises, consisting of the fumes of self-doubt and the toxins of Anticipated Failure.  Once I plunge through the force field and reach the keyboard, I am in my happy place.   At these times I like to think of Douglas Adams’ instruction on how to fly:  just fall and miss the ground.   Mostly I’m able to fall through the doubts and miss the ground. Instead of face planting into the keyboard I find my fingers moving across it and the cinema of the mind in full swing.  Sorry, bleeders.   Writing is fun.  Writing is bliss.  Even when it’s hard and ugly and painful, it beats just about anything else I can think of doing (except maybe hopping a plane for an all-expense paid trip to Maui, but I’m talking about my reality right now.)

The Bleeding Curse unfortunately tries to insinuate itself into my mind again and again.  The curse insists that I haven’t suffered enough at the keyboard to be authentic, profound, deep, honest, and all that painfully extracted self-revelation stuff that the voracious reading public demands.  I think maybe I’m having too much fun.  Maybe I need to agonize more. Learn proper grammar.  Oh god, the sinkhole of shoulds is wide and vast and bottomless.  Having fun is cheating.  It just isn’t right.

But wait.  I remind myself that I’ve earned the right to soar, Supergirl style, at the keyboard. I’ve been at this work my entire life.  It just happens that most of the agonizing happens when I’m Not Writing.  It took many years of stealing writing time, carving out twenty minutes three times a week, or an hour here and there, to gain a fierce appreciation of being able to write, of cherishing the time that I’ve fought for and defended against all common sense and financial concerns.

I overcame the Flapping Curse by getting angry, by quite deliberately taking control of my dream, and firmly telling my subconscious that yes, I can fly without flapping. I’d like to think that we all have this superpower, to take control of our dream, to own it, and to become enthused enough with the power of story to soar at will.

Truth is, all who would fly have to flap.  We have to flap to get off the ground, to clear the treetops, but as our arms grow strong and our vision expands, we get to glide sometimes, and exult in the currents.   We have to do the work and we have to fight off curses, and sometimes the results aren’t what we expect.  Swimming dreams have replaced my flying dreams.  Now I sail through water like a shark, or perhaps Auquagirl.  Just please don’t ask me how I breathe down there.

*

In case you writers who hate to write think I’m completely off my rocker, I’ll leave you with a couple quotes from the venerable Ray Bradbury, from Zen in The Art of Writing.

You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.

&

If you are writing without zest, without gusto, without love, without fun, you are only half a writer.  It means you are so busy keeping one eye on the commercial market, or one ear peeled for the avant-guard coterie, that you are not being yourself.  For the first thing a writer should be is—excited.  He should be a thing of fevers and enthusiasm.  Without such vigor, he might as well be out picking peaches or digging ditches; God knows it’d be better for his health.

*

For more reasonable views loosely related to this subject:

The Muse by Cindy Ray

My Hero’s Journey between the Coffeepot and the Keyboard by Eric Witchey

Writing Is Magic by Kristan Hoffman

My Year of Blogging Cluelessly: 11 Things I Learned While Blogging

Tags

, , , , , ,

I started this blog one year ago today. I began with only a vague idea of what I might have to offer, but being motivated by the solid advice that I needed to build a readership in order to promote my soon-to-be-released novel, I forged ahead in the comforting knowledge that no one would actually be reading my posts. I started out with about four followers and close out the year with 489. I’m glad I didn’t know that would happen when I started, because the only way I could get over my extreme self-consciousness and fear of exposure (paradoxical, isn’t it?), was to assure myself only those four friends were reading my blog.   Then I was Freshly Pressed after a mere month of blogging and had over 1600 views in two days.  So there went the bubble of anonymity.   Luckily by then I’d discovered that I actually have a bit of a knack for this blogging thing.  Go figure. So here are some theories about blogging I’ve developed this past year:

  1. Followers are elusive and possibly mythological creatures.  This is sort of a disappointing one.  I’d prefer to believe I have 500 3-D people out there anxiously waiting to buy my next book and write glowing reviews about it when they do.  I first noticed the ‘hollow follow’ phenomena on Twitter, where people started following me even though I’d never tweeted anything and I wondered, WTF?  So I checked them out and was duly impressed by their 40,000 followers. Then I noticed that they also followed 40,000 themselves.  Okay, what percentage of those tweets do you think they even see?  So, even though I’m now consistently gathering followers every day, when I check them out, I have to admit many are unlikely to ever actually read my posts. True, just because their site is entirely in Tagalog doesn’t mean they might not be reading English language blogs, but I have my doubts.  Then there are the ones selling religion, insurance, life coaching, their own ever-so-precious fabulousness, etc.  I do not auto-follow.  Life is too short and my inbox/newsfeed/reader is too crowded.  I want to have a chance of catching the posts of bloggers I find interesting and talented.  Our word game has morphed into a numbers game, and a fairly meaningless one at that.  What does it matter if you have 40K followers if no one is paying any attention?
  2. Like invisible friends, invisible readers ARE REAL.  I call this the ‘ghost reader’ phenomenon, which I discovered while speaking to acquaintances, family members and co-workers who casually mentioned something I wrote in a blog. I had no idea they read my blog, as they do not Like, they do not Follow, they don’t do Facebook or LinkedIn, and they certainly don’t retweet.  This is the frustrating, non-participating wild card in the ever-pressing pursuit of NUMBERS.  Oh well, it’s comforting to think about an invisible army of readers, isn’t it?
  3. I am not unique.  Imagine my surprise to find the blogosphere densely populated with aspiring, emergent and struggling writers like myself, all seeking to establish a presence in the vast unfeeling expanse of the Internet.  Rather than viewing these others as competition, I prefer to think of them as allies and fellow travellers in this strange new world. That’s why I try to read their posts and share what I like.  We’re in a battle against a glut of information and words and images, so one service we get to provide as readers is sifting through the morass and giving a good writer or artist a bit of a boost.
  4. I am unique.  Okay, we all know perfectly well every story has been written and probably every topic has been blogged.  But not by me!  I have to have supreme confidence that my voice is my own and that I do have something new, fresh, and bizarrely intriguing to offer the over-stimulated world at large, for no one lives in my head and sees out of these eyes except me.  Our personal experience, strength, weakness, hope, despair and humor have value. It’s up to me to present mine in an engaging fashion.
  5. Patmos Island is part of Greece.  I’m embarrassed to admit that when I got a follow from Patmos Island I had to look it up on Wikipedia.  One of the most fun things about blogging is making connections with people from all over.  My cyber trip around the globe began when I blogged about a disastrous train ride in the Czech Republic. Because of that, I think, I picked up followers in Bulgaria, Hungry and Greece, and then as if following a cyber silk route of sorts, the United Arab Emirates, India, Indonesia and the Philippines.  I eagerly follow those who post in English to sate my curiosity about life in other countries.
  6. I must go to Greece immediately.  Nothing like photographic updates to trigger the old wander lust.  I am a sucker for photography blogs.
  7. Inspiration usually strikes in the shower, or Non-Fiction doesn’t have to be a soul-sucking drag after all.  I resisted the idea of blogging for years because, dammit, Jim, I’m a novelist, not a journalist!  I could never quite wrap my fantasy-addled head around the idea of sticking to the facts. Bleh.  Of course, truth is usually stranger than fiction, especially once it is passed through the sieve of my dented and warped brain.  Once I started listening to the rants in my head with an ear toward writing them down, I discovered little kernels of interesting stuff.  Over this past year, I’ve learned to recognize the flavor of a promising soliloquy as it gains in momentum.  If you had a secret camera installed in my house, besides being very creepy, you’d witness me often scuttling in a mole-eyed rush to my desk in order to quickly jot down my latest incredibly insightful string of real-life inspired gibberish.
  8. Everything is better with donuts, or Blogging is one of the least painful ways to self-promote.  Like most reclusive, overly-sensitive, nerdish writer types, self-promotion gives me the heebee jeebies.  It’s easier for me to write a whole novel than craft a blurb for it.  With blogging I get to focus on what I love, writing, rather than begging for reviews or doing the dreaded author interviews or (OMG) making video trailers for the book.  My new favorite BS term is “enhancing your discoverability”.  That sounds so much nicer than selling yourself.  I like to think of my blog as a strategically placed crispy crème donut on the sidewalk of cyber life, as opposed to the net and taser method of lassoing readers with an aggressive marketing campaign.  I know, I know.  If I want readers to find my book, I have to become an expert at Amazon rating algorithms and ninja marketing and all that, but here at least, I can enjoy myself.

    Cream puff swans just for you, dear reader.

    Cream puff swans just for you, dear reader.

  9. A shoddy blog is like going to a speed-dating event wearing cat hair covered fleece pajamas and those big plastic curlers in your hair. Looks matter.  Presentation matters.  Grammar (dang it) matters.  Nothing puts me off a blog quicker than an abundance of misspellings, typos and errors, especially on blogs that claim to offer writing or marketing advice.  I also love going to a blog and finding the generic Word Press message still up on the about page.  Why go public before you’re ready?  Why would anyone follow a faceless and scantily thought out blog?  Oh, yeah, to get the auto-follow.  But why, I wonder?  I forget that not every blogger has a novel or art or something else to promote professionally, but I have to assume there is an underlying need to connect with others.
  10. Lists are the free coffee and donuts of the blogosphere. I don’t know what it is about a list, but I’m a sucker for them so I assume everyone else is too.  Perhaps my brain likes the idea of the simplified information delivery system promised by a list.  Of course, the lists I usually read cover topics like: The 10 Cuddliest Sci-Fi Villains, 17 Interesting Things To Do With Rutabaga, and 5 Sure-Fire Ways To Make Your Cat Hate You, but  11 Things I Learned While Blogging would also lure me in, and if you got this far, it worked on you too.  Bwahahahaha!
  11. This post is much, much longer than it should be.  In a carpal tunnel afflicted society, scrolling is a lot to ask of anyone.

Thanks for reading my blog.  It has been a most interesting endeavor. Those of you who take the time to drop your cloaking device and Like and/or comment give me the boost I need to keep going.  Have you learned anything strange or noteworthy while blogging? (Bonus #12- Ending a post with a question encourages comments! Do you feel encouraged, or merely annoyed?)

Grammar, I be hatin’

Tags

, , ,

I did not make that up that phrase by the way.  I snatched I be hatin’ from the whirling wordpool of the too-hip-for-its-own-good Internet. It took me awhile to decipher its true meaning.  At first I thought it referred to a habit of donning sporty chapeaus, but then I realized that it indicated a distinct loathing towards a certain person, place or adorable cat meme.  I thought, oh no, another rap-ism torn from urban lingo and deposited into the dorky Middle American lexicon.

I’m not a righteous defender of grammar and those who are must be weeping into their overly strong mixed drinks right now.  I’m not here to whine about the social network and cell phone inspired degradation of the English language.  I’m here to talk about my own personal struggle against correct grammar.

I’ve already outed myself on the topic of that much maligned part of speech, the adverb.  And in my last post I confessed, in a rather wounded and self-righteous way, that I received a C in my first college level creative writing course.  What I haven’t yet fessed up to is that back in Junior High, in advanced English, I received a D.  Gasp. But here’s the thing. I received that D for the first half of the course, which was made up entirely of diagraming sentences.  Show of hands for those who enjoy this form of extreme academic torture?  I really sucked at it and still do.  Here’s why.  In the second half of the course, which consisted of actually writing essays, short stories and articles, I received an A+.  Lesson learned? Grammar is a crock.  Who needs to over-analyze sentences and reduce them to a heartless mathematical formula when one has a natural sense of the language? A poetic intuition which spins sentences so admirable and dense with adjectives and adverbs that surely the like has never been penned before?

This attitude served me fairly well and after escaping the soul-sucking vortex of University English, I continued to write in my hippie-dippie fashion and garner praise and accolades from sources as far flung as Not My Immediate Family.  Then came the blessed day I was asked to participate in a closed writers workshop hosted and attended by several highly regarded professional writers.

The critique of my first story through the workshop turned out to be a revelation, to say the least.  It turned out that in the first scene the brocade settee was having a philosophical interior dialogue while my protagonist languished off in a dangling clause that had no business being there.  The lamp had a lot to say and think about also.  It was all downhill from there.

Sentence diagramming– we meet again.  That D in 8th grade English had finally reared its ugly head and chomped me in my complacent butt.  While I was composing to my own inner rhythm, expecting readers to follow along to a score they couldn’t see, it turned out I was confusing, confounding and misleading them into swirling backwaters of clunky phrases and awkward descriptions.   However, I did not despair. Blush, yes. Writhe in humiliated agony, yes.  But despair, not so much.  Over the years, I’ve noticed something about this whole writing process.  I’ll be sailing along, everything is clicking, the words are flowing nicely and then wham, I hit the wall, and writing becomes like chewing on bricks. I can’t pen a smooth series of lines to save my soul, and my characters walk around like robots with hemorrhoids.  I have identified this pattern, which goes along these lines:  in a groove, doing well, hit the plateau, plod along, and then fall off a cliff into a poorly described and cliché ridden tiger trap of self-doubt and bloody bad writing.  Every time I go through this ordeal I believe that I come out a better writer. The pit of bad writing becomes slightly less bad, the precious days of good writing, a bit better.  So no despair, even if it does mean diagramming sentences, 101.

As a postscript, I gave my most recent manuscript to a linguist slash writer friend of mine and discovered to my further chagrin that I have no idea what commas are, for.

And so the adventure with words continues.

The Prodigal Muse

Tags

, , , , , ,

As writers, I suspect we all have the memory of reading a book or story that made us stop and think for the first time, “I want to do this.”  Then there are the heart-breaking books that make us think, “I’ll never be able to do this!”  Then, if we’re really lucky, we find that little gem that reignites our soul and makes us jump up and say “I want to do this, I can do this and why the hell aren’t I doing this Right Now?!”

Let me back up a little.  I’m one of those geeks who knew since second grade that I wanted to write books.  The inspiring book was “Harold the Hermit Crab” (I don’t remember the exact title, but I remember watching a documentary about the couple who created it). Back then, drawing pictures was as important as writing in the story-making process, but it was the creation of my very own world that hooked me.  Writing became my little gift, the talent that set me apart, and I gloried in the joy of gold stars and teachers’ looks of relief as a student actually Took An Interest.

Flash forward to The University.  No more gold stars.  In my first creative writing class, I earned—ahem—a C.  No matter how hard I tried, I could not write like Hemmingway, Steinbeck or any of those other Great Men that my college instructors encouraged me to emulate.  How I struggled to make my writing elegant, pithy and profound.  The Great Men’s masterful skill at composing sentences and their brilliance at touching on deep and IMPORTANT topics led me to set an impossibly high bar for my craft.  Bowing beneath the pressure of academia, I repressed my natural inclination to create fantasy worlds full of dragons and wizards and stick to ‘what I knew’, which at 22 wasn’t much.

After four years of lackluster progress, on the cusp of graduation, I informed my writing professor that I was considering applying to the Creative Writing graduate program.  He sadly shook his head. “Oh, no, you’re not ready,” he said.  I even remember him putting his head in his hand, so deep was his despair at the thought.

He was probably right, I wasn’t ready, but back then, staring into the maw of a future that I had not prepared for, being single-mindedly intent on making a living as a writer and nothing else, his discouragement blew me out of the shallow puddle I was thrashing around in.

It wasn’t like I gave up on the spot, but the poison had taken root.  My spontaneous writing withered.  I dropped the age-old habit of carrying a notebook with me at all times.  I embraced alcohol a little too tightly (At least I could give Hemmingway a run for his money on that front).  Life passed, and a time came when I did not write at all. I was frozen, for I had nothing IMPORTANT to say.

Then some god-sent casual acquaintance, over several pints of dark stout, enthusiastically recommended a quirky little book called “Jitterbug Perfume” by Tom Robbins.

God bless you, Mr. Robbins.  First and foremost, your book was playful. It was joyful. It was irreverent and silly and yet somehow deeply touching.  It reintroduced sheer glee into the act of story telling.  The prose was wild and dirty and free.  As if the marbled weight of western civilization crumbled and slid from my back, I reveled in the reckless abandon of a world infested by smelly gods, magical potions, time travelers and divine bees.

Robbins played. He played on the page in full view of everyone.  The years between “Harold the Hermit Crab” and “Jitterbug Perfume” vanished and I remembered what I loved about writing.  If he could that, I could do that. And why wasn’t I?

My muse is a dirty old man.

My muse is a dirty old man.

I picked up the gauntlet that Jitterbug Perfume represented.  As if my AWOL, besotted muse had returned from a decade long bender and kicked me in the ass, I signed up for a novel writing class at the local community college and started to write that long delayed novel while finally learning about craft, story structure, and how to let ‘er rip. “Fix it in the rewrite’ was the teacher’s refrain.  No more perfectly crafted sentences!

I must have read books somewhat similar to Jitterbug Perfume, wild books, crazy books, silly books, but for some reason, Robbins was the one who busted through the shell of my self-conscious, overly serious writer facade.  A can of beans and a vibrator as point of view characters?* Why the hell not?  Tom’s not everyone’s cup of tea, (authorial intrusion might be his middle name) but he gave me permission to be my true self on the page.  And isn’t that all that any of us has to offer? Our unique, adorable, warty, imperfect, struggling, adverb-abusing selves? All the stories have been written, or so they say, but not by us.

So, do you remember a book, story or poem that ignited or re-ignited your writerly fire?  I’d love to hear about it.

*(From Skinny Legs and All)