Category Archives: Creating meaning through writing

A note to a character in my story, 2008

I came across this in the small notebook in which I started planning a 2008 NaNoWriMo story. It reveals more about its author than the character, but it was a good start. It let my creative mind know I was serious about finding a way to connect with it.

I’m not sure how to coax you out. I feel quite ridiculous for even attempting it. I don’t know how to contact you and whether you want to be contacted at all. I’m sure you’ll be offended by all my attempts because they will prove, as everything has always proven, that you’re not being heard or understood. No matter what I write it will in some way be a misunderstanding, as that previous sentence was – just for making any assumption at all.

Maybe you’ll think I’m trying to use you – and you’ll be right, because I want access to your story – but maybe you can look at it this way: we can save each other’s lives. Without me, you’re a ghost, half-formed, incomplete, and fleeting, but still existing and wanting to exist, solidly. I know, I’m not very inspiring, like some writers – I haven’t committed at all, have very little to show, my list of “clips” is pretty small and too, I’ve hardly written any stories – so I’m obviously a novice. And too, there’s the fact of my inconsistency.

I tend to lack faith and lacking faith is deadly. So I get enthusiastic about something and then when the enthusiasm cools I go off and do something else. That’s partly a result of feeling lost and unheard – you know what that’s like. We’re kind of alike.

Though I see a lot of ways we’re different.

And you, you’re going to help me out by the very fact that you exist, by giving permission to tell your story I think a rock will be lifted from my chest.

There’s this weight, you see, and its incredibly large and dark and it smothers and strangles me. It rises up into my throat and I can’t breathe easily and sure as hell can’t gather enough air to actually infuse the meaning that needs to be given life. You know about this.

I’m going to try not to worry about the fact that I don’t know your name, don’t have a plot, don’t have much of anything. I’m going to wait for the story to unfold.

I’d be angry too. Here I am trying to insist one of two things, both of which are probably wrong. The first being that you are me, that everything about you is a metaphor for my life. That makes you too convenient, takes away the validity of your being. The second is that you’re just a character, that you’re my imagination, not real. That denies the actual realness of everything you’ve experience through me and every other sentience which has birthed you.

I keep having flashes of you, images. The first, I think you’re about eight. You’re skinny and slightly snub-nosed and your straight dark brown hair is light at the tips from a lot of sun. There’s a village scene. You’re standing outside. Patiently standing there.

What if, after all these years, you found somebody able to hear you? What if it meant finding your way home? What if you could trust in somebody and be assured that all those meanings were understood? What if I tried to write it all, make it coherent?

Would you feel betrayed by my admission that I’m hoping you’ll cure me? That you will solve my problems? That’s what I’m hoping, to be honest, that after that I’ll be unburdened, that I’ll be unrepressed, that I’ll stop stopping myself with that internal critic, the one who says I have nothing to say. That I’ll be able to write.

Can we come to an agreement?

On the inside front cover, I wrote this:

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Making a Career – Writing as a Hobbyist

the writerAt the end of November, when the residual effects of the move and settling in seemed to taper off, I sat back down with my trusty computer and started to write again.

Over the last few years, fiction writing has seemed to be a more and more viable option for writers to make a living – made more so due to e-readers and the vacuum that existed momentarily when traditional publishers couldn’t fill readers’ desires for ebooks. The ensuing indie-rush is well documented by others who have been following it longer and with deeper understanding than I have (see The Passive Voice, Hugh Howey… etc. etc…).

I’m in a weird state of limbo, personally and professionally, which may set me up to be in a good position for attempting an indie career. First, by having stayed home with the kids when they were young, then needing to be flexible for our various international moves, employment stability (other than the freelance copy-editing) was never my focus. Even if I had wanted that kind of thing, that is. By conventional standards, I’m not in great job-market shape but I have the time and energy to devote to creating a home-based livelihood.

I am So. Not. a Career. Person – in that traditional sense. That generally expected and single-minded trajectory is soul-killing to me; hence the “professional traipsing” found in my ‘about me’ page. So, while I’m willing and eager to work hard on my writing (to improve it so it makes sense and is a pleasure for others to read) and I have reached a point, twenty years in the making, where I’m excited to send it out and see if it resonates with anyone — I may not be full-time, career writer, material either.

In a recent article, Kristine Katheryn Rusch, points out how the indie publishing landscape has changed. In the past few years it seemed like anyone could make some money penning books (in certain genres, especially) and throwing them up on amazon.com. That writing world wasn’t for me either – first of all, it required tons of social media presence (I lasted about 3 months on twitter with one or two feeble-death-throes thrown in for good measure and I have happily withdrawn from even my personal facebook doings. God, I’m such a hermit!). There was also the tactic that worked for some (who, one hopes, haven’t qualified as career writers, but who did manage to at least make some money): put your drafts up for sale and see how many suckers you can reel in. For obvious reasons, that was a no-go for me too.

Rusch’s article is a straight-shooting description of what one needs to do to be in this, and make a living with it, for the long haul. Those characteristics include (as I paraphrase them):

  • a nearly constant desire to tell stories and a single-minded focus on doing that
  • repeat performances of – write a novel, publish it, sell it, write a novel, publish it, sell it
  • don’t stop doing the above two things ever, or your sales, and therefore your livelihood decline. Go! Go! Go!
  • always be on top of figuring out ways to make your business better. It is a business and you must keep up with the market.

Given what I know about the traditional publishing route (“Oh, here,” say the publishers, “let me wrap you in this contract while I hang you on a spit. It’ll keep the juices in while we put all your work in perpetual “e-print” so you can never get the rights, or cancel it at our whim…you’ll taste much better at the end of your little writerly career seasoned with just a *taste* of royalties.”), the only sane response is, ““HAHAHAHAHAHAHA, WHY would I want to go in that direction?”

Now, informed by Rusch’s (and others’) educated assessment, I may be having one of my characteristic “Ohmygod the big picture is a scary picture!” moments, so maybe later I’ll have to admit that this post should’ve been taken with a grain of salt, because this was all SO DO-ABLE!!!  But… meanwhile…

this is how it looks at this point, knowing what I’m going to currently aim for, knowing what I know about both my limitations and my strengths:

– I don’t currently have any backlist to speak of. Nor do I currently have ‘frontlist’ – therefore, I will not sell anything until I have something.

– I am a slowpoke and will find it challenging to keep up with reader demand (should readers demand anything from me).

Those two things alone will make reliable livelihood generation a significant challenge.

Therefore, my option is to work on indie-hybrid publishing at my own speed and on my own terms.

This post is simply serving as evidence that I’m not going into this blind. I know what it takes to “make it” and frankly, the me I am on this date in 2015, is NOT naive enough to think “Oh, I’m the great exception! Read my work, it’s immediate best-seller-millions-making-stuff! I can rest easy now!”

I am totally ground level.

Basically, I’m in a — one-word-after-another, eventually get to decency and work on the next piece — kind of situation.

Therefore, the only rational direction – for me – is to simply do what I love, because I love it for as long as I can with whatever time I have. No matter what, since I will continue writing regardless of its financial viability, I’ll just keep writing. That doesn’t mean I’ll necessarily put it up for free, but it doesn’t mean I’ll give up on it. Any sales will be considered a blessing and reward for service on behalf of readers and myself.

I like what Deena Metzger wrote in A Brief History of a Feminist Mind,

“Literature has taught me the value of a body of work, of the slow, deliberate, heartfull development of form and idea so that one’s work and labor might contribute to the community and the future…”

though I don’t take it so far as her eventual conclusion that art or writing that succeeds commercially is inherently not fully developed or “heartfull,” and it occurred to me that the age old argument between “commercial” artists and “literary” artists is most likely and purely a difference in working process. Some people can produce like crazy and other’s are more slow. I like to hope I can embody a happy medium. Heck, do your art and live your life, right? In this day and age, to live a life requires economic exchange. It isn’t a sell out and I’d say it’s better to make your art support you than support yourself doing something artless.

Quoted on Rusch’s post, Suw Charman-Anderson says, “

“When you do something you love for a hobby and then try to turn that hobby in to a business it can suck all the joy out of that thing you do… If I’m ever going to write again, I need to reclaim it as something akin to a hobby. It’s not, at this point in time or at this point in my life, a business…”

Rusch continues, “But she doesn’t enjoy writing any longer, so she’s trying to recapture the joy. What writer among us can argue with that? I think that’s a wonderful, valid goal, and I think if you scratch a lot of writers who’ve “quite” writing, you’ll find that they, like Charman-Anderson, have simply given up writing in public.”

So, I’m following the joy. Does this doom me to failure? I don’t know. If the system (definition? The ability to write, publish, and find readers) is dependent upon my entering this work with a mindset of marketability, then maybe yes. If, however, all that I need is to remain true to my vision and the stories (or essays or poems) that ask to be told through me, and then see them into “print” and out into the world at whatever speed and abundance works for me, then no, that’s not failure.

There are many ways to be a writer. Scrambling after publication in journals, showing my wares and hoping for the favor of agents and publishers, always trying to keep up with supposedly fickle and voracious “consumers” ? None of these things are my style. None of them will work for me.

A commenter (who isn’t me, but we must be channeling each other) on Kriswrites said, “Will I ever be in the group of long-time authors? If I try to answer that now, I emphasize only competitiveness, instead of joy — It will come down to one step at a time, taking whatever step I can manage, and then repeating. Business or hobby; it doesn’t matter. More, it’s about my own joy.”

Knowing what does and does not work for me actually has something in common with sound business strategy as I consider long-term viability, and so I am approaching this as a hobbyist with a business mindset. I’m starting with realistic goals: write publishable work, make the best product I can. Find my audience, no matter how few or far-flung they are. And by extension, spread my joy.

Income after expenses is gravy.

Story, a perennially hot topic it seems, gets its definitions hashed out with such regularity that you’d think it could be easily expressed, second-nature like, especially by a writer.

You’d think a person who was writing ‘stories’ would know what they were. But I’m starting to believe that, like beauty or harmony, story is something that you know when you see it but it’s hard to pin down.

For some reason I keep holding onto the notion that the things I write , in order to qualify for anyone else’s recognition that they’re stories, have to portray conflict in an obvious way and have characters who act in response to the conflict and who are shown experiencing the effects of their actions but whose own internal experience of and reflection on their experience is secondary. I end up judging the things I write harshly – characters are weak, plot is weak, answers come easily BECAUSE I’m actually interested in exploring the internal experience.

I’m not sure how much time I should waste trying to wrap my mind around the various definitions of story so as to prove my stories are weak, or trying to disentangle plot from story and structure from the conveyance of meaning.

It’s  convoluted. Instead, I’m thinking it’s better to just write what needs to be written and then see if it resonates with anyone else.

Today, I’m liking this description that isn’t really a definition:

Stories connect events and create meaning; they also connect people to each other.
 –Philip Martin

I can at least confirm that I’ve got stories in which there are characters and events and some degree of meaning comes out of the connection.

The one I’m working on now is experimental (aren’t they all?) in that it was conceived out of a dream – something notoriously tricky to harness when one desires more than a smidgen of regular logic – but I figured if it could be worked into a story then I’d have some confidence that my lumpy and lopsided creations actually have a future.

The first installment of its draft-form is upcoming.

"String Web" woven sculpture by Machiko Agano

tracking Story through imaginal lands

I will tell you something about stories
(he said)
They aren’t just entertainment.
Don’t be fooled.
They are all we have, you see,
All we have to fight off
illness and death.
You don’t have anything
if you don’t have the stories.
Their evil is mighty
but it can’t stand up to our stories.
So they try to destroy the stories
let the stories be confused or forgotten.
They would like that
They would be happy
Because we would be defenseless then.
He rubbed his belly.
I keep them here
(he said)
Here, put your hand on it
See. It is moving.
There is life here
for the people.
And in the belly of this story
the rituals and the ceremony
are still growing.

– Leslie Marmon Silko (Ceremony)

* * * * * * * * * *
"String Web" woven sculpture by Machiko AganoIt’s an odd time we live in, relative to the time humanity’s been humanity. We’re different in the stories we tell, in our demand to be entertained.  We don’t recognize stories as Story, we call them Truth or fiction (lies), we pick them up and drop them again.  Our stories come and go so fast that we don’t learn them, we call them news. We learn to ignore them. It’s hard to see if ritual and ceremony are still “growing in the belly.”

Who passes down stories in families any more?  I don’t mean family stories, per se, but stories of ourselves nonetheless.  Maybe it’s a result of being a literate society, we find our stories in books. Or on TV. Maybe that’s not a bad thing, but I think it causes us to think that deep stories are separate from ourselves – they have to be in print, on paper or pixels, in order to be meaningful. How much is memorable, though, in the end? Is there life “here, for the people”?

Meanwhile, among the small talk, we learn to tell small stories to ourselves about ourselves.  My self-story, for some reason planted early into my psyche, was that my life had no story. That I was just a product of 1970s American suburban upbringing. Nothing to see here, move along.

“We are…less damaged by the traumas of childhood than by the traumatic way we remember childhood as a time of unnecessary and externally caused calamities that wrongly shaped us,” says James Hillman in The Soul’s Code.

But what about those of us whose childhoods seemed boring, fruitless, not full of trauma (real or imagined) except in how being given only the surface of things is traumatic?  I think Hillman is right to say this, “Our lives may be determined less by our childhood than by the way we have learned to imagine our childhoods.” The 1970s and 80s, suburban sprawl, school days, highways – all imagined, all imaginal and as such, full of Story. I have long denied them their right, have denied meaningfulness out of distaste.

I think I write merelCarry Me in Your Dreamsy to find Story. Every story I tell, whether in fiction,  non-fiction, poetry or drawing, is a search for a line, a thread of meaning, for something coherent. I believe that somewhere there must be signal in the noise.

As of today there are 6.8 million google hits for “I am a writer.” It’s the most commonplace thing in the world, it seems (almost one hit per ten existing human beings). Some writers become authors, some make a living at it. Some are entertainers, others keep their writings private (by choice or by inability to overcome the celebrity-to-crowd ratio).  Part of me sees the rightfulness in there being many story tellers, many makers of Story, and in the proof that we’re all creative. Part of me quivers at what it perceives as my lack of imagination (to create) and gumption (to share, or to promote)), at the sense that this has to be a competition for market value. Oh dread.

Meanwhile, the thread holds and I keep writing, here, in journals, notebooks, computer files.  Aren’t there enough words out in the world already? Maybe, but Story needs to be told.

***

I finished re-reading Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony yesterday and am encouraged to keep finding my own ways of telling stories – telling the story in the way it needs to be told, even if it’s not the way it would have been told in the “old days” IS the ritual and the ceremony that can heal and make whole.

I needed to be reminded.

***
What do you know about stories and Story?
Can you hear what it is we’re whispering to ourselves? Does our entertainment tell us something deeper about ourselves?
What stories about your life have you had to let go?
Do stories help?

***
image sources : Creative Commons License Dominic Alves via Compfight
and Phoebe M-H via Compfight

sunlight leaves

Write the Way to Love

 

I know it sounds odd, but lately I don’t know what I love.  I mean I can name things I love, the things I’ve always loved, the things I’m supposed to, that which is obvious.  But the truth is, there’s a kind of distance, a numbness, a too-busy-to-really-feel how I feel about much.  Not a pathological dissociation, just a sense of going through the motions.  I can put it down to being in a foreign country, to having willingly left a home I loved and entered another place* where I don’t know whether or not I belong, to being the go-to-person at home, to not being compelled enough to work on the (ideally) fulfilling work that I know, rationally, could give me a sense of purpose.

Tributes to Ray Bradbury were everywhere right after he died.  I can’t really add anything that hasn’t already been said in gratitude for the pure happiness and play he brought to the world.  Maybe his influence was too strong – to this day I hesitate to commit to important things, fearing my butterfly decisions will irrevocably change the world, my world, in unwanted ways.  Then sometimes, I’m just bold.  We up and move overseas, I plunge into something new.

I’m not intentionally going on a Bradbury-kick, but I’m hearing again the good advice he’s given:

Love. Fall in love and stay in love. Write only what you love, and love what you write. The key word is love. You have to get up in the morning and write something you love, something to live by.

That is profound in every way and I’m a struggling disciple.

This month I’ve made a commitment to write something every day – ideally fiction, so I can disabuse myself of the notion that I’ve got no stories to tell, but realistically it can all be experimental, slice-of-life, whatever. Not journal writing/ranting, not blog posts, but snippets or more of a scene, an event, a location, and something happening, something I love, even if it’s just the floating wooden puzzle box from last night’s dream that’s the only thing I love at this moment. Put it in, get it written.

I know I love light through leaves. I started there.


* stories for another time – my extended stay in Thailand and the moves to China to Germany…

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Writing, Spirit and Courage

I believe writers must travel into wilderness and bring back what they find, envelop it in words, and release it into the world. I believe that is their ecological function and without that renewal human culture deteriorates. I believe in the sacredness and the necessity of the art..          –Stephen Harrod Buhner

I once had an acquaintance who derided me for not being into physically adventurous things.  Nevermind that I am physically active, was once a competitive swimmer and practiced aikido – if I wasn’t mountain biking or rock climbing or alternately throwing myself down mountains on skis, I was missing out, I was not “edge” enough.

Now, I may not be the most courageous of folks (evidenced by my inability/unwillingness to scathe him with a witty comeback) but as someone who wrings every assumption out through writing, who is willing to go deep and look directly at my life, find what’s at the center and what can be brought back in beautiful form, I have to say that Buhner’s reminder gives me more courage to explore a different wilderness. An equally dangerous one.

I know I hang back even though I try not to.  I know I am not doing the daring things that might be possible.  But I’m at least willing to stand on the threshold and enter, open-eyed.

I am a practicant of this sacred and necessary art, but I have not earned any right to claim ecological or cultural significance.  I understand the importance of bringing a gift back from your journey, something to heal your community, something to nourish those who have nourished you.* Maybe it’s better to not know that, though, because it contributes to “pressure to produce.”  Something that makes it less likely that anything will come of a novice’s attempts to to use writing as a spiritual practice.


Quote from: Buhner, Stephen Harrod. Ensouling Language: On the Art of Nonfiction and the Writer’s Life.

* a la Joseph Campbell and the hero’s journey

Image source: Trey Ratcliff via Compfight