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Archive for April, 2008

Playing It Safe

I did a self-portrait in art school once. It was a pencil drawing from a photo of me sitting by a river looking all pensive and reflective. It was okay. The teacher’s comments came back to me yesterday as I wrote myself into yet another corner and felt stuck there and ready to give up. He said that I needed to not be afraid of making a mess. That I needed to go in and really add some depth with some actual tonal changes and who cared if it turned into a huge black hole? He certainly didn’t. By trying to make a nice picture and playing it safe I ended up with a mediocre piece of art. He would’ve preferred I go in and take a risk instead of staying on the edge of what I was capable of.

So how does this relate to my current story? My writing in general? I stay on the safe shore in my stories too. I don’t let myself get sucked into an undercurrent. When I feel one tugging at me I panic and scramble back to shore. Whew… that was close. I might’ve gone some place uncomfortable or even dangerous. Can’t have that. I realize that I get stuck in this stage of revision. Instead of letting my characters go and following them into their own messy lives I re-think the narrative. Re-think instead of re-see. I try and think my way out of their current mess. And I end up sucking all the conflict out of it. All the life. I end up with a pale gray rendering of what could be a vibrant story with lots of contrasts and depth.

Instead of getting closer to the characters, getting inside them, I meander around them, moving them around like they were dolls in a dollhouse. And that’s where I’m at now. I thought I was doing this great rewrite of this story but really I just ironed out all her flaws and complications and now I’m stuck. Of course I am. What’s a story without flaws and complications? I’ll tell you what. It’s an anecdote. And a boring one at that.

Another way I get myself boxed into a corner is that I want the next revision after my group has workshopped it to be it. To be done except for some line editing. I have to be able to make a complete and utter mess of the story. To let it go wild. To add those dark shadows knowing and accepting that it may turn the story into one huge black hole. Going too far is better than not far enough. Going too far at least gets you somewhere. And somewhere is better than nowhere.

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They do. Seriously. Here are some projects that they’ve completed recently just for fun. Not for school. Not for a grade. Just for the fun of creating something.

Katie saw a memory board similar to this from Pottery Barn for about $400. She made it for under $60!

Emily loves monkeys and painted this one afternoon after school. She can rarely only watch TV. She needs to create something at the same time.

Here’s a little leprechaun Emily whipped together. Sewed it all herself.

What I love about these projects is the sheer joy behind them. They didn’t plan on making them. Didn’t add it to a list of things to do some day. They didn’t just think about making them or want to make them then feel guilty for not following through. No. They just did it. The creative spirit called and they heeded that call. My daughters truly inspire me.

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Many writers can’t read while they are actively writing their own stories. I am kind of one of those writers. I read less when I am in that writing zone. I am less able to fully lose myself in another fictional world since part of my subconscious is constantly churning ideas for my own story. I skim a lot when I am writing myself. I re-read my favorite stories, the ones I hope to write like myself one day. I can only hope that their brilliance is absorbed some tiny bit into my own writing. My mind is like a sponge when I am in this zone. Any scrap of overheard conversation, a striking image, a news story… it all goes into the compost pile. Maybe it will emerge in my current story. Maybe it will find its way into a piece years from now. Many times I have read a story that has helped something click in my own story. Hmmm… maybe my characters can be washing dishes too. This happened with a story that ended up winning first place in a flash fiction contest and being published in “Swallow the Moon” out of Oakland University. Having my two characters wash dishes led to a glass breaking which led to the central image of the story and the title. Reading leads me to ask what-if questions of my own story and characters and that usually leads to the story opening up in unexpected ways. So, yes I still read while I am writing but I meander with an open mind and open eyes as my own story simmers in the back of my mind, enjoying the rhythm of another writer’s language, truly appreciating all the work and decisions that resulted in these words on a page in front of my eyes.

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Usually when there is a long pause between posts it’s because I’ve kind of checked out for awhile. But not this time. I’m still writing. Scribbling on scraps of paper in the middle of my daughter’s music recital since this new thought may be the key to the story that I’ve been waiting for. Showing up even though I have no idea what happens next. Still keeping my creative space organized so it is more inviting. I even managed to clean and organize our art space down in the basement which was so overwhelming I dreaded even walking down there to work out. I did, but averted my eyes from the ever-growing mess. It was like this mutant creature taking over the entire basement. Well, no longer. Maybe now I can play down there. I try to keep the collage/art stuff as this time to play and not expect anything. Just to unwind. Get loose. To see what happens. It’s not like I’m trying to sell it or publish it. It’s for me. And for friends and family when I create gifts or cards. so even though I have taken all the pressure off I still find it hard to get started. I see these amazingly rich and layered collages in magazines and on blogs that I love and I want to create that. As soon as I think I want to create something specific, I freeze up. I do have this idea that might help. it’s working on a very small scale. The size of a playing card actually. I’d love to create a deck of collaged images that I can then use as writing prompts. It combines two things I love- art and writing. There’s this balance I think every artist needs between structure and the void. Even when I show up for morning pages where I can write anything at all there’s still the structure of three pages, of keeping the pen moving. We all need to find that structure for our process in general and for each individual project that lets us stay open to explore but that keeps us focused so that things get done and don’t just hover in that limbo of wanting to be created. I’d love to hear how others writers and artists handle this paradox.

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A few weeks ago I gave some writing advice to a wonderful writer in my groupĀ  who is trying to write while being a mom to a toddler. My apparently brilliant advice was to just show up each day, write a little and jot down a note or two on what might come next so you have a starting place for the next day. Since it seemed to be working for her I decided to take my own advice- something I rarely do. Well, let me just say that I do give brilliant advice. Since I’ve been following it I have created thorough mess of a draft (see previous post) and a first draft of a new story to share with my workshop this weekend. I show up, write, make notes for the next day, and then I clean up my space. Prepare it for the next session. (This little tip comes from her.) I pull up the current version of the story so it is the first thing I see on my screen. I’ve started titling each document by the date so I can find the most recent version quicker. I tidy up the computer desk. Set out my notebooks with pens on my writing desk. Basically I make the space invitingĀ  since the last thing I need is an excuse not come in here. And without jinxing it, it appears to be working…

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Is there a difference between giving up on a story and just letting it go? I’ve been grinding away at this rewrite for several weeks now and it is turning into a major structural overhaul of the original story but it still isn’t quite clicking. I let the scenes play out in my head as I go through my day, waiting for that missing piece to fall into place. I show up at the screen and watch the scene unfurl before my eyes, looking for that missing piece. I have a draft due to my writing group this Sunday and it just isn’t there. So I let it go. For now. Maybe forever. Maybe this story is as good as it’s gonna get which isn’t good enough. It’s not like I didn’t try. This is easily the twentieth revision. There’s a school violence scene which is key but didn’t work on some level. Too similar to real news stories. I shifted the time to ten years later, got out of the adolescent voice but it’s still not working. I think it can work. I believe in these characters. I think I need to let it go for now and when I come back to it I need to leave the twenty revisions behind. Start from scratch. Don’t read what I have written and think, “Oh but I love that scene” then try and shoehorn it into the story. So I picked up another story and once I started reading it I couldn’t put it down. I forgot what happened. I got that prickly feeling on the back of my neck. That “Hmmm…there’s something here” feeling. It’s a story I wrote last summer at the Kenyon Writers conference with Ron Carlson.He based the structure on a story by Alice Munro. I am into this story now. It no longer feels like metal grinding against metal. That’s the difference I need to stay aware of. Don’t give up just because it’s hard or I don’t know what comes next. But trust my instinct when it tells me to just let it go. For now or forever to be determined later.

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