Friday, June 25, 2010

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Nothing Ever Happens to Me: A Writer's Lament

Write what you know: it's one of the most harped upon aphorisms when it comes to writing. And as a result, I sometimes feel I should restrict myself to writing kids' stories, or fantasy, or very soft sci-fi. In fantasy worlds, the "what you know" is all in one's head. No risk of getting in over one's head.

Because...in the real world, how can I compete? I've had a boring, peaceful life, really. I come from a big but fairly average middle class family, my parents got along very well, no one had any major vices or addictions, we had no serious long-term illnesses or family skeletons, I was home-schooled for much of my education and therefore missed out on high school drama, I've never been to college, never been drunk out of my mind at a bar, never committed any crime worse than speeding on my way to church, wouldn't have a clue how to obtain illicit drugs or pull off any grand larceny - well, you get the idea.

And sometimes I think, what business do I have writing? So many of the books out there are filled with experiences I can't even begin to fathom.

But then again, not only do we all have extraordinary moments in our lives, but many of the ordinary moments in our own lives are far outside the ordinary for others. Not only that, but good writing is able to take this one step further, and find the extraordinary even within the ordinary.

So I've been daydreaming. Remembering.

I remember speeding down the hill on a steel-runnered sled, over and over, sometimes deep into the twilight hours with our runners striking sparks wherever ground was exposed, and the cold making my face so stiff I smiled just for the way it felt to smile. I carry the memory of rolling down a grassy hill, spotted with dandelions - and last year's cow pies, dried now to clean grassy pucks we could pick up and throw around to gross each other out. I remember hunting garter snakes on sleepy summer afternoons when the air was heavy with bees' buzzing and humidity. I remember turning over stones and old boards, and startling the living daylights out of myself when I did find a snake. I remember picking raspberries in the big field behind our house, pushing one inch further and one inch further after the really big berries, until there wasn't a bit of my legs left unscathed by those darned prickers.

I remember a warm May night in Lourdes, France, when for a few hours, I walked hand in hand with a beautiful Italian boy who spoke as little English as I did Italian; and before that, another night in Biloxi, Mississippi, where I fell in love with a rather nerdy English guy, and -

One night in Mississippi....

I know what it's like to watch the sun come up behind the Bavarian Alps on a frosty day in early spring. And I've seen the sun go down in a blaze of glory behind the evergreens on a shimmering night in the Pacific Northwest with the temperatures a record breaking three digits.

I know of a spot in Monroe, New Hampshire where every Friday night, people from all walks of life - characters all - cram into a big old work shed to play music until the wee hours of the morning. I've been there nights when it was too crowded to get inside, and I stood talking with other outcasts in the cool, sweet night air, with music spilling out of the windows and the sky so clear the whole of it glowed: stars beyond stars beyond stars.

And, of course, there are the more everyday things: a baby's smile, the smell of chocolate chip cookies fresh out of the oven, daffodils blooming year after year, the herd of corgis next door going completely bonkers because they see a bird, or a leaf, or hear me slam the oven door....

All of these memories and thousands more I carry with me. There are stories in them for the seeking.

There are many stories I could never write. I could never write gritty crime novels, for example, at least not without a major life change and/or a tremendous amount of research. But maybe - just maybe - I can be a writer all the same. It is, I would say, all about not only knowing your limitations, not only accepting them, but embracing them: digging deep into what you have seen and heard and felt, seizing on those things that are beautiful and true and all too often overlooked. I may only be able to write about the everyday, but perhaps I can be the one who makes someone out there stop and see those everyday things for the first time in a long while.

A toast: to the ordinary. Long may it live.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Things I did this weekend (some more momentous than others)

1. Went for a seven mile walk with the dog. Lots of good thinking time, and it was absolutely lovely out there this weekend: seventies and sunshine. About time.

2. Mowed the lawn. Not exciting, but it looks nice.

4. Went to the library for still more books. Mostly light-reading brain candy this time - mysteries and such. Hey, it's summer. Speaking of mysteryish stuff, how come nobody told me about that Robert Goddard guy before now? I really enjoyed Beyond Recall. A little bit of ickiness, but mostly just implied, and his writing is superb - strong characters, vivid descriptions, interesting twists and juxtapositions. I'll be seeking out more of his work.

3. Finished filling up the brain dump notebook I've been using for several years now. Bittersweet, that. Rather than starting a brand new one, I'm switching to a small black leather-look Miquelrius notebook I've used for other things in the past. It's bulkier than the pocket Moleskine, doesn't have an elastic strap to keep it together in my purse, and doesn't open flat...but it does have pretty decent paper. I think I can manage.

4. FINISHED MY NANOWRIMO NOVEL!!!!!! Woo-hoooooo!!! I can't tell you how psyched I am about this. I stayed up way too late last night finishing it, especially considering I have to be at work early this morning, but I was so close, I knew I had to press on if I was going to get any sleep. I think I wrote about five thousand words yesterday...the finish line kept moving on me, and I kept discovering additional scenes that really needed to be in there to make the whole thing make sense. It's still very short, but considering my usual tendency runs the other way, I guess I can live with a short but relatively cohesive plot.

It's a rough draft, and it has some timeline issues and scenes with major rough edges and a few loose ends that need to be woven in, but on the whole, I am very pleased with it. It's more "me" than just about anything else I've ever written - no one's style but my own, for better or worse. And I felt like I really knew the characters and, actually, rather liked them all, even the bad ones.

I'll give it until the end of the summer before I start editing. But as first drafts go, it isn't as bad as it might be.

I'm going to celebrate tonight by buying myself ice cream...and possibly a copy of this year's Writer's Market. :-)

Things I learned from this novel:

a. I work best on paper. Absolutely no question in my mind anymore. I switched to the Neo for awhile in the middle and did OK, but I'm just more comfortable with pen and paper (or, sometimes, typewriter), especially (for some reason) for dialog. Even today's long slog ended up being me writing a half dozen pages with pen and paper, transcribing, going back to pen and paper, transcribing...etc. The words flow without an issue on paper, but on the screen, they come awkwardly or not at all. I do think it's better to transcribe pretty quickly, though, or it's easy to get bogged down in a moment and lose track of the overall arc of the story.

b. I do best if I don't over plan or over think. Times when I sat down and just went with the flow turned out much better than the scenes I planned ahead of time in excruciating detail. Looking back, much of my best writing was done during NaNoWriMo, under a time crunch. That said, the best writing is the writing I was doing without a lot of planning, but with a slower method of writing - I really do like the handwritten work. I was writing spontaneously, but not so quickly the ideas came out ragged.

c. It's really better to just keep slogging through with a project. I had some major gaps between when I wrote the first part and when I finished, and although it worked out just fine, it did take awhile to get back into character, so to speak. I have a few of my other novels I want to finish up, and this is one reason I've put them off. It's a lot easier to finish a story when you're in a place where you can see the characters clearly, feel them, know their motivations and weaknesses and goals, than it is to come back years later when you have to get to know them all over again.

But it's finished! What a rush! I know it's only a matter of time before reality sets in again, but I'll ride this wave as long as I can.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Visual Typewriter

I don't recall anyone posting this before. Has everyone seen this?

I'm not sure whether to laugh, cry, or cheer. Or all of the above.

"All that's missing is the smell of ink"? I'm thinking...it's a bit more than that.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Writing on Wednesday: Sketching the Words

Bagasse Composition Book
My current carry-around writing book, complete with ever-growing doodle.

Two of my brothers are artists of one caliber or another. For one brother, it has become a vocation in graphic design and painting; for the other, it is a passionate on-again, off-again hobby.

Like most artsy types, both of them went through childhood and adolescence and into adulthood with a sketchbook always in evidence: a tattered bound book, ready at a moment's notice for doodles, cartoons, sketches, skeletal ideas to be filled out later. Most of what went into those books was strictly for practice, and stayed within those pages; not valueless by any means, but having served its purpose already. A few ideas stood out, and were brought out and restated in more complete works.

For whatever reason, until the last few months, I've tended to approach writing with a far more formal air. For the most part, I've worked on one project at a time, and taken each project very seriously, no matter the content. Abandoned stories, long and short - and I have a number of them - made me feel miserably guilty.

But something clicked for me recently. Part of it is that I've gone back to using nice cheap composition books, I think. Part of it is just a dawning realization that it's OK to play with writing. It's OK to just practice. It's OK to try out and reject. Yeah, it only took me about twenty-five years to figure this out.

So I've been "sketching". I'll sit there with my notebook as I drink coffee before work, or at lunch, or on the couch in the evenings, and write whatever pops into my head. I might scribble down a scene, or the start of an essay, or a conversation between two people I don't know yet. I'll pick at a picture the way I might do for a poem - which, oddly, I've always been less strict about. I'll take an object or a face or a situation and write around it, without worrying if it's going to go anywhere. Now...I've had my brain-dump notebook for awhile now, but this is a different concept. That notebook is more quick notes, fragments, comments on works-in-progress: nothing very long. In this notebook, I write as much as I want of whatever I want - and if it doesn't pan out, I move on.

The notebook is starting to get full; filled with overlapping pieces of stories, fragments of poetry, disjointed thoughts. Is this better than my "old" organized, serial style of writing? I'm not sure. All I know is that I have three short stories and some potential blog posts that will almost certainly get finished, and a whole assemblage of other bits and pieces I can probably use elsewhere. It gets me writing. And for once, I don't feel guilty about the mess.

Monday, June 07, 2010

'Nother excerpt

"Make me a word," I said, "A word of my very own."

Grandma was forever making up words - words that sounded like what they meant and words that didn't; words rootless and words that would turn out to be not new and not made up at all, but something ancient she'd caught gently, cupped in mind fingers like some little feathery thing, to hold for just the right safe moment before letting them flutter off free.

"Make me a word," I said.