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Archive for February, 2009

Why Write?

Why paint? Why sew? Knit? Garden? Play the piano? Play football? Snorkel? It’s funny how the pursuit of any other creative endeavor is rarely questioned. But writing? We question the validity of it all the time. Is it really an appropriate use of our time here? Isn’t it a little selfish? Maybe even self indulgent? Especially given the state of the world. These are the kinds of questions Becca posed this week. How do you find to positive things to write about in these troubled times?  Do you think the written word has the power to effect positive change?

This has been on my mind a lot recently. I keep telling my family and friends that I absolutely must stop listening to NPR first thing in the morning. It’s usually bad news followed by horrendous news followed by impending bad news. Who needs to start their day that way? Not me. Years ago I stopped watching the news before going to bed. Again, why should I go to sleep with all those dire warnings and disturbing images in my head?

We are living in unprecedented times. News, both good and bad, is literally at our fingertips. Constantly updated moment to moment. We are bombarded with the bad economy, global warming, healthcare, foreclosures, and terrorism and now North Korea wants to test a missile. Perfect. Unless we make a conscious deliberate effort to unplug on a regular basis, I think we begin living in a constant state of stress.

With all that’s going on in the world, with the economy the way it is, with two girls who will need to go to college in three then six years, I often wonder what is the point of my writing. It has not brought in much money in the twenty years I’ve been doing it. It has actually cost money in the form of classes, conferences, retreats, books, postage, and internet access. I walk through bookstores and see the shelves bulging with books already published. Who needs my words? I look at the environment and wonder if my words are worth the life of the trees it will take to create my books. I look at the stacks of notebooks I have already filled and think of all the trees I have already used just to be able to spill my thoughts and stories out of my head and onto a piece of paper. I look at the state of publishing and some would have you believe it’s nearly impossible to break into.  So, why write?

Well. Many reasons.

1. Words matter.  Words can build us up. Inspire hope. They connect us to ourselves and each other. Stories open us up windows to worlds previously closed.

2. Writing rights my state of mind. So when the doom and gloom all get to be too much and anxiety threatens to suffocate me, writing brings me back to the current moment. Here I am, in this moment, tapping my fingers on these keypads, hearing the rush hour traffic whine past. Anxiety is all about fears of what might happen. Writing drops me smack into the present.

3. Writing clears space inside my head. It can get awfully crowded in there with worst case scenarios. If they stay in the darkness of my own head it all tends to get greatly exaggerated. But, if I spill it onto the page, it loses much of its power and no longer weighs me down.  

4. If we don’t use our gift of writing, it’s a smack in the face to the universe. 

5. When I write I feel energized, focused, calm.

6. When I don’t write I feel sluggish, distracted and restless.

7. Um… it’s fun. Most of the time. Well, some of the time.

8. And again.. . words matter.  They can be a light in these dark times. The world can always use a little more light. And the world can also use people who feel connected and passionate about what they write and that passion spills out into the world. See, it’s win win win all around.

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Creative Lulls

Moods, creativity, energy, the tides. What do all of these have in common? Cycles. Up cycles. Down cycles. Ebbing and flowing. Becca wrote last week about resurrecting her writing. I’ve had that same feeling of panic as I grab my book mentors off the shelf hoping to infuse me with some inspiration. They usually include: Anne Lamott, Natalie Goldberg, Heather Sellers, Ron Carlson. I’ll also take books filled with prompts to the bookstore and write, write, write. Along with this panic there is also a dose of guilt. A thin layer of shame at wasting my time, my talent. These days I try to take a more holistic view. Every part of my life is part of a cycle. I couldn’t possibly write eight hours a day every single day. First of all, my cut-off is usually five hours and that’s if I’m on a deadline. My usual attention span is two to three hours.

When I let my writing go it is usually under the guise of housework, errands, etc.. But that is a choice I am making. Those dishes could wait. Everything can wait. When I realize I am avoiding my work I try to figure out why. It is almost always because I am lost. I don’t know what comes next whether it’s the next sentence, scene, chapter, or project. Having that downtime lets things mull in the back in of my mind. The thing is, there is a fine line between percolating and procrastination.

When I hear resurrection I think that the thing has died and I have to bring it back to life. I never let my writing die. Even if I’m not actively writing, I am thinking about it. There is always some tenuous thread keeping me connected to my work. For me it’s more like resuscitation. My project or chapter or page or sentence needs some CPR. But bringing some thing back is always harder than just maintaining it in the first place. I read somewhere how it’s easier to keep a rocket orbiting in space rather than launching it out there over and over again. Same with writing. Writing a little bit on a regular basis is much easier than starting from square one again and again.

So creative lulls are a natural part of the process. But the trick is not to let the lulls lull you into thinking that thinking about writing is as effective as actually writing. I love this quote from Heather Seller’s blog:

“You must always keep changing your process!” Maria Irene Fornes says. “Because there are two of you, one who wants to write and one who doesn’t. The one who wants to write has to keep fooling the one who doesn’t!”

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This is an absolutely stunning talk by Elizabeth Gilbert at the TED conference. You must watch it. She talks about the creative process, on being a creative person and how that has come to mean being a semi-mentally unbalanced person filled with anguish. She talks about the anxiety she has been experiencing as she writes the book following the huge success of “Eat, Pray, Love” and how she needed some psychic distance between her work and the expectations of that work. This search led her back to Ancient Greece and Rome where an individual was not said to be a genius but to have a genius. There it was. That distance she was searching for. Watch it. It’s truly inspiring and for me it allows me to approach my own creative work with a little less angst and much more humility.

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If I update my blog I can then officially cross the last item off of my to-do list for today. I don’t believe I have ever crossed every single thing off in one day. What gives?

Well, I’ll tell you. I’ve been laying low lately. Usually that means I’ve slipped off the creative/motivation radar. Not this time. This time I’ve been conducting a little experiment. It’s the TV-has-been-sucking-my-soul-dry-so-I-must-do-something experiment.

TV and I have a love/hate thing. There’ve been shows that I love. “West Wing” tops the list. But I hate that I can let myself get so easily sucked into the mindless TV stupor that comes from too many channels and nothing really on. With these long gray Michigan winters I am easy prey to the idea of just vegging out. Relaxing in front of the TV. The winter inertia is then fed by the TV inertia and as you can see it can become a vicious cycle. And the thing is, I never, ever leave the TV feeling relaxed or less stressed. In fact it is just the opposite. I end up tense and jittery.

After doing some research I learned that TV puts your brain in the fight-or-flight response. And that it can take five hours to come down from that. Your body may just be a slug on the couch but your brain is totally wired and amped up. My oldest daughter has trouble falling asleep and so I wondered if it could be the whole too much TV thing.

So. We’re conducting a little TV rationing experiment around here. Not getting rid of it but really being selective about what and how much we watch. I think I’ve watched two hours total in the last five days. I’m embarrassed to admit how much less that is from a normal day. Let’s just say it’s way way less. The girls can watch a half hour after school and if they get their homework, showers,  and lunches made another show at night. Emily came downstairs last night at 7:30 listing all the things she had accomplished and asked now what? She picked up a book. Just now she informed as she turned the TV off that she watched seventeen minutes of TV.

Limiting TV has allowed me to:

• give myself a pedicure

• shave my legs

• complete a page in my art journal

• write alot

• start research on a new novel

• play games after dinner with the family

• read

• visit blogs I love

• write on my own blog

• sleep longer and better

My insomniac daughter has been sleeping better too but she maintains that the TV thing doesn’t prove anything. Hmmm.. .I’m not so sure about that.

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Becca asked us to write about our revision process. For me, revision is the only thing that lets me write. If I knew it had to be perfect the moment I put pen to paper, I’d never write another word.

There are levels of revision. Big picture, small picture. Macro edits, micros edits. I’ve come across checklists for both kinds but never really use them. Revision is more intuitive than merely checking items off a list. It’s a process I’m learning to embrace. It’s a process that is constantly evolving. It’s a process that teaches me to trust myself.

Spilling a first draft onto paper is the easy part. Going back in and finding the story is the hard part. Telling the story well is even harder. But revision is what allows me to do just that. I start each writing session by reading what I already have and I take note of places where I stumble. I’m learning to trust the little nudges I get as I read my own work. Questions that come up. New possibilities that present themselves. What-if scenarios that whisper at the edges of my consciousness.

Enjoying a sense of play is paramount during this meaty part of the revision process. What if it starts on page three? What if he tells it rather than her? Why does she say that? Do that? This is when I try to tell the story to the best of my ability. I make sure that the story arc is strong, that it all makes some kind of sense, that it feels contained, that the world I’ve written about is very particular, that all the threads are woven tautly throughout and that they are all necessary to the story. Once I have no lingering doubts that I’m trying to slip something past the reader, I start reading it out loud, line by line, making sure that it flows, that each word is essential. Only then it is ready for my writing group. Once it comes back, the process starts all over. And over. And over.

(Here is a link to some unique revision strategies.)

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“Goldengrove” a novel by Francine Prose
It’s the summer before Nico’s big sister, Margaret is about to leave for college. Nico is determined to savor every moment, even helping her sister see the boyfriend their parents disapprove of. But Margaret’s sudden death leaves Nico and their parents swirling in their own grief, not quite sure how to navigate this new family of three. At thirteen Nico is left to deal with the hole her sister left in their lives. Her father disappears into his book on the end of the world, her mother finds solace in pills and a new friend and Nico finds herself drawn to her sister’s boyfriend in a fascinating but disconcerting relationship. The story is haunting and beautifully rendered. I admire how she tells a common story of death but makes it uniquely their story. The tensions of the grief against the sexual tension of adolescence play off each other in a powerful way.

“Heroines” a novel by Eileen Favorite
I love the premise of this story: Heroines from classic novels visit the Homestead, a bed and breakfast run by Ann and her thirteen year old daughter Penny. Scarlett O’Hara, Emma Bovary, Hester Prynn and others appear when they need a break from their own narrative. Ann’s job is to offer empathy but no interference that could possibly change their destinies. Penny’s story, that runs alongside the Heroines’, surprised me which is good, since it didn’t feel predictable but it also didn’t feel like it quite fit.  Also, the point of view threw me a couple of times. It’s told from Penny’s but she seemed to know so much about her mother’s past that it felt off somehow, especially when she alternated between calling her “Mother” and Ann” in the same chapter. I love how once again a writer has taken an obvious passion (for literature) and woven it into her own writing and it makes me stop and wonder if I am doing that in my own writing and if I’m not I definitely need to start.

“The Beautiful Miscellaneous” a novel by Dominic Smith
This story weaves together many subjects that I find fascinating: physics, medical intuitives, synesthesia, grief and memory. It revolves around Nathan, his genius father and his mother. His father has been on the lookout for Nathan’s gift to appear for years, sending him off to special camps to nurture or tease it out of him. But Nathan knows his talents are just that. Talents not genius. All that changes when he is involved in a terrible car accident and clinically dead at one point. When he returns, everything has changed. His way of interacting with the world through his senses is irrevocably altered. This leads Nathan and his family on a new quest to discover what it all means and how or if it changes anything. The story and the characters are rich and textured and I really admire how this world within these pages is so fleshed out and contained. It makes me want ot go to my own stories to see if each world is so uniquely its own.

“The Best American Short Stories 2008” edited by Salman Rushdie
Amazing collection. Obviously, since they are the best stories published in 2008. I read all but one. Some still stand out: a young girl is forced to marry her father’s contemporary, two young girls carry a dark secret into their adulthoods, a city is immersed in silence, a vampire sucks on lemons to lessen his lust for human blood. As I read I was struck by the particularity of each story. Every detail and every word felt essential to each and every story. I put the collection down, inspired to go back to my own writing with that same passionate precision.

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