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This dispatch comes to you from the hour of the wolf.
Not that I can’t sleep, no, the last thing I want to do is fall back to sleep. My brilliant idea would vanish. It came to me as I emerged from dreamland. You know, “when the mind is too weak to tell itself lies.”
When the mind is too weak to tell itself lies.*
The Holy Grail of altered states.
Here it is, pre-dawn, black bear still foraging for garbage in the alley below my office window, while my fingers prance around the keyboard as if they’ve broken out of jail.
The mind is too weak to tell itself lies! Write quick, PJ!
Conventional wisdom would appear to have no traction in the crepuscular hours. My principles aren’t up and running yet, they can’t obscure the truth. You might say that, having not yet showered or checked my email, I’m not quite me.
Trust me, I’m writing as fast as I can.
If this is an ode to early-morning drowsiness, we should hear from more writers. Novelist Nicholson Baker likes to arise with the birds because he finds “the mind is newly cleansed, but it’s also befuddled.” He discovered that he “wrote differently then.”
Joy Williams—I’ve quoted her before—she says,“A writer loves the dark, loves it, but is always fumbling around in the light.” She reminds me of artists who say they see better in the dark.
Marcel Proust took opium to induce the desired effect. Charles Bukowski drank. Some writers practice “morning pages,” streams of bafflegab becoming ever more truthful. At least that’s the idea. You shovel hard with great faith—and doubt!—endless shovelfuls of gravel, superficial overburden, tons of it. Somewhere down there lies the bedrock of meaning. Maybe.
What about monks? Every night at three a.m. the search begins anew for…what? Meaning? God? Freedom? A monk’s life is a Zen koan, a cosmic question. Never mind an answer—beware the answer!—just show up. Faithfully. Doubt keeps us coming back for more.
Thomas Merton was a Trappist monk-poet-existentialist. Here’s what he says about faith and doubt:
“Faith means doubt. Faith is not the suppression of doubt. It is the overcoming of doubt, and you overcome doubt by going through it.”
That’s it, that’s the truth. We have to push through. At dawn, my mind is too weak to warn me away.
Ah! The eastern sky is lightening. I gotta go.
An hour from now my best interests will be hijacked by appearances and the everyday mind, and I will be buried under gravel, again.
* “When the mind is too weak to tell itself lies,” is a line from The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paulo Giordano.]
It’s a full moon rising over western Tanzania.
The ragged ribbon of moonlight you see down there—that’s a rough and tumble highway known affectionately in south-central Africa as the Hell Run.
And that 5-ton truck—look closer—it’s a load of car tires in a metal cage. At the wheel is a hungry looking Tanzanian and riding shotgun is a large Sikh. Up ahead, three boys stand on the road, forming a roadblock. What are children doing up at midnight?
And who’s that mzungu with them?
The mzungu is me. I’m the white boy making my way back to Zambia after steaming my way up Lake Victoria and then hitchhiking through Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania to resume my duties as a hydrological field officer in the Zambezi River basin. My last lift dropped me at the edge of this sleeping village, and I decided, what with a full moon and all, to keep going.
I was confidently vanishing into a valley when these kids called after me. I yelled back, “What?” and they said, “Simba!” and I said to myself, “Simba-schmimba.” So much talk about simba, but how many people have actually seen a lion with their own two eyes?
“Simba eat man yesterday!” the oldest kid shouted.
So, there we are as the tire truck approaches. The boys, bless them, are going to commandeer this vehicle. The truckers have no choice but to let me climb aboard, not in the cab but in the cage, which the big man locks, and off we go.
Oh, what a magical moonlight ride! I’m not sure I’ll live to see the dawn. Seriously, what’s wrong with me?
When the truck stops unexpectedly in the middle of nowhere, I’m sure they’re going to kill me, but, no, they’ve stopped to strip an abandoned car of its tires. The cage door opens long enough for the highwaymen to toss in the tires and lock the gate and here we go again.
What a moon! The earth seems unearthly. I have never felt so far from home.
I’m in God’s hands, now, although I can’t say I believe in what passes so conveniently as God. And yet…and yet I would appear to have faith in something. This brilliant night seems to hold something of value for me, but what? Truly, is there something wrong with me?
Years later, I discover the words of a writer who speaks about “faith in the joyous tragedy,” and I think, yes, that’s it! At the edge of the abyss—an inexplicable trust.
“Whoever was born with faith in the joyous tragedy, with enthusiasm for the ironic mystery; whoever sings YES; whoever risks disharmony because he desires beauty…”
According to Nikos Kazantzakis, a Christian mystic, this counter-intuition is “the supreme human achievement.” If he’s correct, then our everyday minds have things utterly ass-backwards.
“The Muse most worthy of the real man is Difficulty. She chases the easy victory away from life and art: the kind of victories that humiliate the victor.”
Does that explain why I was hitchhiking the Hell Run? A test of some kind.
“Life should not be comfortable; it isn’t to a person’s advantage to have it so. Nor should art. Never have the masterpieces of life or art been pleasant or easy. They are always rugged peaks to be ascended by the few.”
Kazantzakis, my brother! He says that contentment—even the absolute perfection thereof—only perfects our “little selves.” Easy victories don’t begin to serve our greater needs.
“If you respect your own soul, you have to spend yourself… be willing at every moment to gamble all you have, so that you may practice your strength. So that you may never lose the assured feeling that you can do even without victory and are ready to begin again.”
To hell with victory! Does the conventional mind even know what winning means? I mean winning in the larger sense? My everyday mind, what would it know about what Kazantzakis calls “the brave and hopeless YES!”
The brave and hopeless ‘Yes’
My first novel, , fictionalizes my Hell Run adventure. It was written before I had ever wrapped my wee brain around “the brave and hopeless YES.” And yet it perfectly defines my young protagonist as he negotiates his own Act II dilemma.
The essence of my novel—that’s it!—the brave and hopeless YES.
Look again, PJ—hasn’t it become your main article of faith as a writer? Perhaps it’s every writer’s act of faith. Is it? I’d like to know.
That dim landscape down there—it’s the writer’s life—and there we are hitchhiking the Hell Run of our imaginations, making our way along that ragged ribbon of moonlight by the grace of the brave and hopeless Yes!
(Quotes are from “England: A Travel Journal” by Nikos Kazantzakis.)
Most writers yearn to publish a book. No surprise! Writing conferences, blogs and professional journals are mostly aimed at book publication. Five years ago, I wrote about magazine publication as an option. Since then, the traditional book market (especially for picture books) is even tighter. And the digital/app market for picture books? Unless you are an author/illustrator, or your work is already illustrated, you're pretty much out of luck. Apps are expensive to make and developers usually look for established authors or a branded series.
So why not write for magazines? You'll get some rejection letters, but aren't they're always a part of the writing life? For non-fiction articles, you may have to write the dreaded query letter, but don't we all need practice with them? The only other disadvantages are smaller checks than a book advance and your moment of glory only lasts a month.
But consider the advantages:
1. You don't need an agent to submit.
2. Most magazine pieces are short - not as time consuming as producing a novel or picture book.
3. Using a different slant, you can often reuse your research for another piece.
4. You might see your name in print without waiting for years.
5. Often a wide audience sees your writing and you needn't spend hours on promotion.
6. You don't get wacky book reviews in professional journals.
7. Your magazine piece could earn additional money through reprint rights.
8. There are a bundle of contests and prizes to be won in the magazine world.
Next month I'll interview a senior editor at Highlights. Stay tuned.
|Photo Credit: Magnus Manske|
We dined at one of the most respected French restaurants in New York City last week. After the main course, a woman pushing a two-tiered cart laden with cheeses arrived. “I am the commis de trancheur. Which cheeses would you care for?”
The ‘commis de what?’ We decided not to ask.
“A Brie, a Cheddar and a Blue, thank you.” My mother-in-law pointed as she spoke.
“We do not have a Brie. That is a Boursault, produced by Grathdale Valley Farm in Vermont. It is made from cows milk. The Guernsey cows are milked only once per day, and fed organic Bahiagrass laced with millet, sorghum, and clover. They add a touch of oat grain and rye. It is produced in small batches and procured only by the finest establishments. The farm is renowned for...” And on it went, for each new cheese we tried to select.
She lost me at Bahiagrass. And she never described the taste.
This pronouncement of facts by a waitress with a fancy French label supplanted our status as ‘welcome guests’ or even ‘diners who want cheese.’ We became ‘ignorant peasants in need of education.’
Is this what research-happy authors do to readers sometimes? Condescend, prove ourselves, or slip in one more fact, while ignoring the central plot point?
Just because you’re enjoying a meal, does not mean you want a lecture on the entire recipe. Research details, like herbs, should be carefully plucked, washed and chopped to support the plot.
Our cheese waitress left a bad taste in my mouth, like a spoiled sauce. With a similar feel from other servers, my emotional connection was fractured. I wouldn’t return, or recommend it. It was a reminder to me not to treat readers this way. Like restaurants, authors can depend on ‘word of mouth’ marketing as a key to success.
How to do it is another question. How do you keep the details in check? Have you ever found an author who put you off so much that you wouldn’t read them again, or you actively recommend against them? If so, why?
|Sharon Wildey Calle|
After a week's vacation in the "Land of Enchantment" (New Mexico), I have come home inspired and ready to write.
My only challenge... How do I recreate the diverse and magical spirit of this environment as a setting for a story?
Literature has long been inspired by place. The Grapes of Wrath, Gone With the Wind, To Kill a Mockingbird
- each of these transports us to a very specific time and environment.
Much is involved in scene setting. To give a true sense of place, one must incorporate the following: physical environment, people, culture, language, and history. It is challenging to not let your setting interfere with (or upstage) your plot. It must be seamlessly woven in between your characters' actions and dialogue.
As I sort through my photos, maps, and free brochures, I think of the people I met, the cultures I experienced, the landscapes I hiked through. I'm not ready to resign my memories to a scrapbook or picasa gallery just yet.
But I am
ready to share this adventure through storytelling.
What are some of the ways you incorporate a sense of place into your writing?
Are there certain children's books/authors that you feel do this exceptionally well?
Who doesn't love a good list? Certainly, Buzzfeed readers do. On any given day of the week, Buzzfeed offers lists of advice from Wizard Chic: 10 Ways to Look Like Less of a Muggle
to the 25 Most Awkward Cat Sleeping Positions
This week, Buzzfeed was one of several websites to focus on lists for writers. I have to admit, I got sucked in - I clicked on each one. So, for this week's reading pleasure, I give you my favorite lists of the week:
Click through, and then fill out your list:
- Did Buzzfeed miss any stages?
- Mashable certainly missed some quotes -- any favorites?
- How close did you come to Rory Gilmore's list? (Full disclosure - I scored a 78. Not even close.)
With the New Year just around the corner, resolutions for 2013 come to mind.
I resolve to write one picture book manuscript each month. How will I keep that resolution, you may ask?
Reading the daily PiBoIdMo
posts during November inspired me to do a little writing each day. Now I didn't say good
writing. I do have hope that the act of writing each day will eventually lead to good writing. Or even really
good writing. Or one day (gasp!) a published book!
Here’s to a creative 2013!
Do you have a New Year’s writing resolution?
|Peter Pan Illustration by Kathleen Atkins|
How do you enter the magical world of your young readers?
To get into the right mindset, I think back to how I felt as a child. I also get lots of ideas from my students (I teach elementary art).
But how do you tap into that world if you don’t interact with children on a daily basis?
One resource is Edutopic’s list
of winning student blogs by children ages 6-13. It’s a great way to research how today’s kids spend their time, what they care about, and what they find funny. (Notice how many of the blog titles include the word, ‘Awesome’.)
Another resource I love is the New York Times’ blog, “Kids Draw the News.
” On this site, children submit illustrations to accompany articles on current events. It’s a great way to discover how children view the world. Plus, their illustrations are a hoot!
What resources help you enter the world of young readers?
If you’ve read my eBook, Story Structure to Die for, you’ll remember how my near-miss in Hollywood launched me on a quest to discover…
How fiction REALLY works.
I was privileged to hear from Jack Lemmon and Eva Marie Saint (yes, this was a few years ago) that a screenplay of mine they had applauded nevertheless, unfortunately, devolved into melodrama.
[Melodrama: n. a drama characterized by extravagant action and emotion.]
It took me a while to understand that my “big finish” had distracted me. My protagonist lost track of his own story. Instead, he ran around trying to save everyone else. I thought it was a great Hollywood ending, extravagant, excessive, tearful, and indeed it bamboozled many judges on its way to emerging as one of eight finalists in a competition with over 4000 entries from 14 different countries.
But it didn’t fool judges Jack Lemmon and Eva Marie Saint.
Why? I failed to keep the focus on the protagonist when it was needed most. I rushed into Act III without nailing my hero to the cross. Sure, he was on his knees, but I let him get back on his feet because I was anxious to shove him headlong into a melodramatic conclusion.
I didn’t hold my protagonist back; I didn’t ride him all the way down to the kind of self-doubt where a change of worldview becomes the hero’s only option.
Where good becomes great.
Think of George Clooney in Up in the Air. Or better yet, Paul Giamatti in Sideways. The writer took that wine connoisseur to such depths of self-loathing that he chugalugs the contents of a winery’s wine-tasting spit-bucket.
There’s a man on the verge of freedom.
As for my protagonist, I released him into Act III too soon. He wasn’t yet a free man. He hadn’t yet turned his back on “who he was”. Act III is all about the new man.
Jack Lemmon and Eva Marie Saint must have been unconvinced that my protagonist had struggled sufficiently with the heroics of transformation.
As a result, they could agree that my story was “good”, but in the final analysis, it was a few essential beats short of “great”.
We’ve all watched films which, while “good”, were not memorable. When I’m deeply moved by a story, I’m often not immediately aware of how the writer did it. It takes some reflection. Almost always, I find the answer in the degree to which the hero takes care of business.
The business of his own salvation.
I was deep in a digital funk yesterday.
I’d created a Word document, which, after closing, I couldn’t reopen. The file extension was beyond the ability of my Word program to open. How the heck does that happen?
Two hour’s work down the e-drain.
With a debilitating feeling of being hard-done-by, I donned my trenchcoat and went for a walk in the fog.
A speech about “The Advantages of Adversity”, that’s what I’d lost. How ironic! All my first thoughts, my raw material, memories, facts, connections, a web of meaning—all vanished in the e-ether.
Fresh air usually revives me, but on this especially funky day, every step marched me deeper into despair. I’m going on a retreat, I thought. Deep country, unplugged, that’s what I need. Since I’m a digital idiot, this kind of funk overtakes me not infrequently. Uphill I trudged under a canopy of spruce into the foothills of Mordor, trudge, trudge, trudge…
I enjoy climbing. Peaked cap pulled down so that I can’t see the slope, I perceive the road as level. It’s a little mental trick that never fails to thrill me.
Unable to reference the incline, there is no hill, no hill working against me. My organizm is working harder to walk, yes, but there is no hill trying to defeat me, no antagonism, no psychology of struggle, just the indisputable facts of physics. It never fails, I feel quite unlike myself, as if I were on Jupiter under the influence of a more powerful gravity field.
Moving about on strange planets takes me out of myself.
Suddenly, a thought out of nowhere: “The rewrite will be better.”
Rewrites are always better.
What just happened? I knew immediately what had happened because I’ve been exploring it on this blog for years—our belief systems. Good things happen when our “B.S.” outlives its usefulness. My belief system (victim mentality) had been left behind at the bottom of the hill.
I didn’t need it on Jupiter.
Wow—self-pity was weighing on me like an evil spell, which is what belief systems are. They are strategies, structures, rules, biases, attitudes, fears, all the necessary limits by which we negotiate this gloriously superficial life on planet Earth. When I shed the B.S., I became available to the truth:
My rewrite will be better.
Fictional protagonists, same thing.
The best fictional characters are cursed with belief systems that are not so easily jettisoned. The degree to which they hold fast determines the intensity of the drama. Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. Listen to him: “I stick my neck out for nobody.”
That’s the screenwriter telling us what every reader needs to know at the outset of a story—what’s the hero’s belief system?
With that pitiful attitude, Bogey’s trajectory is set. Events will conspire to undo his belief system. Bogey will eat his words or we’ll demand our money back.
Sure enough, the love of his life (Ingrid Bergman) shows up and ushers Bogey to the depths of self-loathing. Remember the scene where she pulls a gun on him to get the letters of transit to America. He says, “Go ahead, shoot. You’ll be doing me a favour.”
He doesn’t care if he lives or dies. Now he can jettison his belief system. What good is a belief system if you’re on death’s doormat? Ilsa notices him waking up, lightening up. Now she’s in his arms. Look at Bogey, he looks a little lost, but now it’s all flooding back, the noble guy he was at the start of the war. You can see it in his eyes. He’s catching a glimpse of the truth, who he really is.
He’s rewriting his script.
The rewrite will be better!
As we know, Bogey sticks his neck out as far as a neck can go. He shoots Major Strasser, sacrifices his one true love, orders her to escape Casablanca with her husband so together they might bolster the Resistance against Hitler.
And, look… there goes Bogart in his trenchcoat, walking into the fog, a living martyr.
Time for me now to man-up and rewrite this speech.
(Btw… what the heck is a “docx” file? Is it, like, some kind of curse?)
“By believing passionately in something which still does not exist, we create it.”
You know, I just can’t quite get my head around that kind of mumbo-jumbo.
“The nonexistent is whatever we have not sufficiently desired.”
Who am I to refute such optimism? Neither am I able to promote it.
That said, just last week I began a talk by telling a personal story that seemed to prove the truth of that aphorism. I was speaking to an audience of writers and readers at our local library:
“Years ago, while I was living in an alternative community in Oregon, my girlfriend dumped me. Heartbroken, I begged off work, parked my sorry ass at a café and picked up a periodical that featured a commentary on a Buddhist sutra about “Loving Yourself”.
“‘Love Yourself: this can become the foundation of a radical transformation…’
“Under the circumstances, I was willing to consider the thesis. Love yourself. Hmm… I read on:
“‘Don’t be afraid of loving yourself. Love totally and you will be surprised: the day you can get rid of all self-condemnation, self-disrespect…will be a day of great blessing.’
“The more I read, the more I liked it. It seemed so do-able. Just, ‘love yourself’. I read it again and again. The day went by quickly with this dictum reverberating in my cranium like a mantra. ‘Love yourself, love yourself, love…’ My spirits lifted.
“By evening this sutra is circulating in my blood stream. Love yourself, of course! When I love myself to overflowing, there’s some for others. I am finally able to love others.
“Who can love others, who hates himself?
“Love yourself, love yourself, love yourself, love…
“I’m walking home in the dark feeling fine, as you can imagine. On any other night I would have detoured into the disco for an hour, but on this night I just looked in the window, careful not to disturb these insights about ‘loving yourself’. A woman appeared at my side and took my hand. I didn’t know her from Eve.
“‘What’s your name?’ she asked. I told her. ‘What’s yours?’ I said. She replied with one of those Sanskrit names everybody seemed to have back then.
“‘What’s it mean?” I asked.
“She said, ‘It means Love Yourself.’”
End of story.
I won’t speculate upon how I conjured Ms. LoveYourself out of thin air. Perhaps Nikos Kazantzakis is right when he says it’s a function of desire. Here’s the rest of what the author of Zorba the Greek had to say about manifesting what you want:
“The nonexistent is whatever we have not sufficiently desired—whatever we have not irrigated with our blood to such a degree that it becomes strong enough to stride across the somber threshold of nonexistence.”
Desire “irrigated with our blood”, I hadn’t thought of that. Desire figures strongly in my story theory. Only the strongest desire takes the protagonist all the way. All the way to her own undoing. Which is her awakening.
By building a protagonist with such a fatal desire, that’s how a writer loves his hero. That’s the writer’s obligation.
That’s what I wanted to talk to the audience about.
I almost forgot.
(The Buddhist commentary was by Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh.)
If you missed my publishing news from my December post, it goes something like this:
Squeeeee! I have a book deal!!*
In the interim between the initial excitement and the editorial letter, there's a kind of a "did that really just happen" limbo. Luckily, I spent some of that time with family and friends but the following is a smattering of the (sometimes) bizarre reactions to my book news.
1. OMG! That's incredible! You've worked so hard for this!
The best reaction! Usually from the people who know how long I've been at this writing thing.
My response: Thanks! I know, pretty wild? Still wrapping my head around it.
2. How much is your nice, fat advance check?
Yes, people really do ask this question!
I get it, I do. Humans are curious creatures but um, really?!
3. You sneaky little devil! I didn't know you liked to write!
This was at a family dinner with a cousin I rarely see so I'll cut her some slack but for some reason this made me feel odd. As if I sit at my computer, twirling my moustache and laughing maniacally while I write.My response:
Giggle. Blush. Mwahahahahaha...
4. What's the book about?
Okay, totally legit question.My response:
5. Will it be a movie?
This question is asked with more frequency than I ever imagined, sometimes with genuine enthusiasm.My response:
Um, well, no. It's a book. And I'm pretty stoked about that!
The funny thing is, all these reactions brought up a few unexpected feelings of my own. The most heinous and surprising one being: sheer terror.
What had I done? Why not just perform naked karaoke to "Call Me Maybe" instead? My characters are my babies, and they will be "out there"...under scrutiny...possibly on Goodreads. Yikes.
And this got me thinking about #4. I think the real reason I don't have an elevator pitch is because I don't want a face-to-face snap judgement. What if the person replies, "oh, um, sounds good, please pass the blue sangria", or worse...no reaction at all.
Writing is such a fragile endeavor and mostly it's just you and the page with some idea of a phantom audience. It took a long time for me to share with others that I was even a writer in the first place (hence #3), I'm not sure why I thought I'd feel differently when I could finally say "My book comes out next year." Each new step brings its own set of fears.
So how about you Paper Waiters? How do you deal with bizarre reactions to your writing endeavors?
*I apologize if this is obnoxious. I've been squeeing an awful lot lately.
**the .gif reactions are inspired by the following awesome tumblr sites, check them out! Title to Come
, Life in Publishing
, Life of a Dude in Publishing
Editorial rejection has infected me like a demotivating virus. I have let it drive me from my office, until I rummaged in cupboards for Tylenol, tea bags and re-organization projects.
’ manuscript has languished for a few months. I know I should send out the manuscript to several new and different editors. Yet, I have had trouble pulling it out of the file drawer. It’s like my giraffe has entwined itself among the hanging files and is holding the drawer shut. I know if I coax him out, we may be able to find him a home. If he stays in the drawer, well...
that’s a sad way for a giraffe to go.
|Optimism Search and Recovery??|
(Photo by EPO: Wikimedia)
This is a notoriously subjective business. I have not tried hard enough and I will keep at it. Options include: smaller, independent publishers, agents, conference opportunities. I'm simply looking for ways to recover my optimism. I take heart in the success of other writers, especially my fellow Paper Waiters -- well done Robin and Brianna!
Anybody have ‘resurrection after rejection’ stories they want to share? How do you manage rejection? How quickly do you come back at it?
By: Sharon Wildey Calle,
Blog: The Paper Wait
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Sharon Wildey Calle
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We all have our tried-and-true recipes that we return to time after time for potlucks, dinner parties, or family meals. But what is your recipe for writing success?
- If an idea excites you, go with it.
- Be open to revision, and then be courageous and submit!
- Reach out, make friends, and support other writers.
What are the ingredients that led to your writing success? (Whether your success is writing your first draft, conquering revisions, submitting a manuscript, or celebrating your published book!)
I’ll start the recipe and you can each list your choice ingredients….
Recipe for Writing Success
- 1 clever idea
- 10 lbs. of elbow grease
- 5 cups of constructive critiques
As a queen sits down, knowing that a chair will be there,
Or a general raises his hand and is given field glasses,
Step off assuredly into the blank of your mind.
Something will come to you.
~ Richard Wilbur (quoted in an interview with novelist, Anne Tyler, in the guardian)
This morning I awake to a new schedule—START NOVEL.
No shower, no coffee, don’t even get dressed. Don’t clean up the desk. No email, no surfing blogs, no Facebook or Twitter. No opening the snail mail, no Globe and Mail. No logging on to the Internet, period.
I have a speech to write—forget it. Another blog post—not now. Another eBook in the works—later! Just man up to the blank screen, PJ, and thrill to the experience of not knowing what’s going to happen.
I resist rereading The Guardian interview that sits on my desk. American novelist, Anne Tyler (The Accidental Tourist), discusses waiting for our muse—big mistake:
“[I] just go to my room and plug away. It doesn’t take very long for most writers to realize that if you wait until the day you are inspired and feel like writing you’ll never do it at all.”
I know that! That’s why I’m here confronting the blank “page”, so to speak. Perhaps I should write it in longhand, on paper, as Anne Tyler does. I’ll need a smoother pen, one of those ‘gel’ jobs. Do they even sell pads of paper anymore? You know, those yellow, legal-sized…
I pick at some crud lodged under the “L” key. I overturn the laptop and blow the lint loose.
The blank screen again. That sinking feeling. I’m reminded of something Eckhart Tolle said. E.T. and the Dalai Lama were on stage at Vancouver’s Peace Summit (2009). Herr Tolle was riffing about—of all things—Soccer. About the penalty kick.
Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the 20th Century’s Biggest Bestsellers, by James W. Hall, performs a group autopsy on the biggest blockbusters of the last century.
From Gone with the Wind to The Da Vinci Code, a dozen mega-novels reveal their common story elements:
- The heroes are mavericks.
- Forget about characters’ interior dialogue.
- The novels all contain a secret society…
- And a clock ticking down to disaster.
- An extreme sexual act of some kind, etc., etc….
I’ve tacked the list to my wall. And as I begin my new blockbuster novel…something’s wrong. It’s false start after false start. These tips are short-circuiting the inspiration that normally gives my story its unique shape.
Writing manuals — do they really help?
When I published my own writing manifesto, Story Structure to Die for, I doubted its efficacy for the same reason. My super-simple story overview reduces the dramatic thrust to its most basic idea…and yet…
Writing to formula is no way to proceed.
James A. Hall agrees. In a “Bonus Chapter”, Hall warns writers against forgetting their “honest passion”. Knowing the rules of fiction is not enough. In Hall’s own experience…
“I had to figure out how each [rule] expressed a deeply rooted emotion of my own.” Hall quotes the American poet, Robert Frost:
“No tears for the writer, no tears for the reader.”
In other words, says Hall, “It had to matter to me before it could matter to anyone else.”
So, regarding all these “how-to” writing manuals, here’s MY ADVICE TO MYSELF:
A poet dies.
Is it dust to dust and that’s it? Or is there such a thing as a lasting legacy? What can we learn in the aftermath of an art-committed life?
Does a life have meaning?
Andy Suknaski grew up in Sitting Bull country in southern Saskatchewan. He remained there, in his shack, working at his kitchen table, writing drafts on brown Safeway bags:
…this is my right
to chronicle the meaning of these vast plains
in a geography of blood
making them live.
Suknaski’s Wood Mountain Poems has been described as a “timeless classic of Canadian literature”.
The memorial service meant a 1500 mile journey to Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, but never mind. Nor am I a poet, but never mind that, either. I would forever regret missing the celebration of this beloved artist’s life.
“He spoke of himself in the lower case.”
“He always spoke of eternal things,”
A dozen people stood up at Suknaski’s memorial to savour his memory. A portrait emerged of a loner, fierce and sincere, demanding but above all, generous.
Meeting Andy, he’d enquire, “What are you reading? What are you writing?” He cut to the chase. He would examine you over his tinted aviator glasses. I’d had the pleasure, myself.
Years ago, I shot a National Film Board documentary about Suknaski. I remember that stare. Yikes! No, he wasn’t finding faults, it was worse than that! Andy was looking for the best.
He seemed to be taking responsibility for the enlightenment of those he lived among.
“Knowing Andy, I got a sense of what it was like to live the life of a poet.”
“We penetrated deeper and deeper into the heart of darkness…”
Joseph Conrad’s famous tale concerns an expedition up the Congo River. The mission: to repatriate a company agent. And with each bend in that jungle river, the protagonist’s belief system proves increasingly unreliable.
The Heart of Darkness…the perfect metaphor for the hero’s journey.
And the writer’s.
I don’t know about you, but I begin Page One with no idea how I’ll feel when the ordeal is over.
I don’t write to explain—I write to find out.
The narrator, Marlowe, is dispatched upriver to investigate a rogue ivory trader named Kurtz.
And who is this mysterious Kurtz? We don’t learn much about him. That’s okay because Kurtz is only the goal.
Only the goal?
The goal sets the quest in motion. The goal is the hero’s excuse for getting out of bed in the morning. But the quest is…
The hero’s journey to the truth about himself.
Up the Congo, Marlowe finds “truth stripped of its cloak of time.” Losing his cultural and moral coordinates, Marlowe must…
“meet that truth with his own true self—with his own inborn strength. Principles won’t do.”
Up the Congo, the narrator’s conventional scruples are exposed as mere “acquisitions”. He likens his principles to…“clothes, pretty rags—rags that would fly off at the first good shake.”
Marlowe’s precious belief systems are…
“Incidents of the surface, the reality—the reality, I tell you—fades. The inner truth is hidden—luckily, luckily.”
Lucky, yes, because the underlying reality is shocking.
“We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster [European society], but there—the
When I came across this article about writing rooms of famous men in the Art of Manliness
, I couldn’t resist a peek.
The article includes movie-worthy libraries and studies of authors as famous as Rudyard Kipling, William F. Buckley, Norman Mailer, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and a few other notable names. Roald Dahl’s space is such a welcome surprise, I have to share it with you. You can even explore his hut here
, through the Roald Dahl museum.
I envy book-walled studies-cum-libraries, finding them soothing and intriguing. Such a collection of classic novels, well-bound references, historical essays and philosophical tomes must confer greatness to a writer in their midst. Right?
I can't help comparing my own space to these (or to the beautiful layouts in the Pottery Barn catalogue for that matter). My shelves are not picturesque. My desk is less so, with works-in-progress competing for desk space with bills, magazines, school forms, etc. Roald Dahl’s unique space is an inspiration, and a reminder that less can be more. Rows and rows of books – not necessary. Sparse solitude worked wonders for him. I wouldn't call it 'manly', but then again, his hut certainly isn’t feminine, not that it matters. Mostly, his space was well-defined, and well-used. He was so focused on his work that he often kept the curtain closed. No distractions. Oh that my space was so conducive to productivity. Of all those wonderful writing rooms, I aspire to his. Which room do you aspire to? What about your office -- how do you see your writing space?
When I woke up this morning, the first thing I did was knock on my son’s door. I knew he would have a hard time getting up for work. Last night he and a friend had gone to the midnight show of Batman.
I went downstairs. My husband had the TV on. And I saw what had happened at another theater halfway across the country. What had happened to other kids who just wanted to enjoy a movie. Like everyone else in this county, I’ve been thinking about this tragedy all day. How unexpected it was. How incredibly, terribly sad and senseless. But, I still had to work. And work, for me, meant revising my novel.
As I sat at my keyboard, I thought about my characters, their problems and their emotions. While my plot lines don’t involve tragedies like those in Aurora, Colorado, my main goal as a writer is to connect with emotional truths. I think fiction is important like that. As a writer, it’s my job to create characters that allow my readers to feel emotions in deep and meaningful ways.
Writers like Jodi Picoult and Richard Russo have dealt with difficult subjects like school shootings. Patrick Ness left me in a big puddle when I finished A Monster Calls. These are works of fiction, but the emotional truths within the writer’s words lead us as readers to deeper human connections.
That is one reason why this writing job is hard. And why it is so important.
|50 Book Pledge | Book #41: Canada by Richard Ford
Every writer, without exception, is forced to confront their own insecurity. An internal fear that takes the form of a single debilitating statement: I’m not good enough. Like poison, these four words creep up every time you put pen to paper and make you question the merit of your words. If not dealt with, insecurity can not only sap your confidence but also kill your creativity. So, what do you do? You silence it.
Be warned that this does not happen overnight. Instead, you have to tackle it each and every day. The method you use is entirely up to you. Some writers like to read a quote, others write a phrase and, still others, like myself, recite a statement. The key here is repetition because the more you do this the stronger your belief will become. Slowly the fear will lose its strength leaving you with just your words. Yes, reaching this place of belief is difficult but once you do you’ll have conquered the greatest obstacle of all: Yourself.
In our village in Ireland this summer, a 58 foot fin whale swam into our harbor, settled in to a corner where shore meets pier and rested in shallow water. The chest-high cement wall along the pier overflowed with villagers craning their necks to see over and down towards the water below.
With her nose into the apex of cement walls, able to submerge just inches beneath the surface, she rose and blew, spraying seawater from her blowhole and puffing every few minutes. It was a fascinating spectacle. How often can you watch a whale, and see its face, with protruding gray balls for eyes, and a white horseshoe mouth bigger than my kitchen, up close, for hours on end?
Sadly, it was soon apparent that our whale friend was not well. Muddy red water let everyone know that Fineena, (Irish for ‘beautiful child’, the name dubbed her by locals) was bleeding internally. No one, not the veterinarian, the whale specialist, nor the fishermen could help. This was real life, not a children’s story. Fineena lay ill for three days before dying, enduring tidal shifts which left her slick black skin half exposed above the water, scratched ragged from a gale-force storm which tossed her helplessly against the cement pier and rocky bottom. Simultaneously macabre and inspirational, from a writer’s point of view, I wonder where I should take this story. Children’s reactions were as varied as their accents. One teenage boy broke into tears. Others watched wide-eyed with obvious questions. Some just accepted it, with “That’s nature.” Can I use this emotive experience to write a happy picture book ending for Fineena? Can I use the powerful death scene I witnessed in a middle grade novel and how? Her behavior brings up so many questions and infinite story possibilities. Why did she choose our village as her final resting place? Why not the shallow creek where the seal colony lives, or another of the limitless, uninhabited coves nearby? Fineena swam past hundreds of boats with low keels, their thick-roped moorings stretching from the water’s surface to the bay floor, creating an underwater maze. How did she manage to cause no damage? Why was she so determined – was it something about the echo of human voices across the water? I wrote my initial impressions as the story unfolded. When I look back at that draft, I am struck by the richness of detail and emotion, and authenticity. The voice, using the point of view of the whale, is much more powerful than my remote efforts. So writers, you’ve heard it before: write it down, right away! Take copious notes. It matters. Readers will feel it. I don’t yet know what my final choice will be for the story, but it feels like a story worth sharing.
|50 Book Pledge | Book #53: The Time Keeper by Mitch Albom
if it doesn’t come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don’t do it.
unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your mouth
and your gut,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit for hours
staring at your computer screen
or hunched over your
searching for words,
don’t do it.
if you’re doing it for money or
don’t do it.
if you’re doing it because you want
women in your bed,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit there and
rewrite it again and again,
don’t do it.
if it’s hard work just thinking about doing it,
don’t do it.
if you’re trying to write like somebody
forget about it.
if you have to wait for it to roar out of
then wait patiently.
if it never does roar out of you,
do something else.
if you first have to read it to your wife
or your girlfriend or your boyfriend
or your parents or to anybody at all,
you’re not ready.
don’t be like so many writers,
don’t be like so many thousands of
people who call themselves writers,
don’t be dull and boring and
pretentious, don’t be consumed with self-
the libraries of the world have
yawned themselves to
over your kind.
don’t add to that.
don’t do it.
unless it comes out of
your soul like a rocket,
unless being still would
drive you to madness or
suicide or murder,
don’t do it.
unless the sun inside you is
burning your gut,
don’t do it.
when it is truly time,
and if you have been chosen,
it will do it by
itself and it will keep on doing it
until you die or it dies in you.
there is no other way.
and there never was.
~ Charles Bukowski
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I just got back from my local SCBWI meeting. It was wonderful!
Two local authors presented inspiring workshops. (Thanks Lisa L. Owens and Ben Clanton!) Before that there were fun and funny announcements from our wonderful regional advisors, and good news announcements. Always such a pleasure to hear!
Usually, people don't think of writing as something social. But, when this social component is there, it is such fun. Now that I live across the country from my amazing Paper Wait critique group, these wider community connections are essential.
Of course, there are many ways to find community. Like many writers, I find such wonderful community online. Especially at Verla Kay's Blueboards!
And in November there are even more opportunities for online community. Good luck to all those who are doing NaNoWriMo!
My writing challenge of choice is Picture Book Idea Month. It is such fun to read the blog posts Tara Lazar has been posting each day from a wonderfully talented group of authors and illustrators. (If you read only one (and I definitely advise reading more than one), you must read Day 9's post by Kelly Light. Incredible.)
I am definitely inspired from all this wonderful community! Must get back to writing!
What writing communities have you found? Do they leave you feeling inspired too?