Shifted Visions, chugging along

freighttrain

Hear that creak and the bang of train cars moving out?

After a long hiatus, the wheels are turning once again!

2015 was a doozy of a year. Well, I take it back, it wasn’t as much of a doozy as it could have been (I mean in the scheme of things it was pretty decent, though I lost a human friend and a cat friend, adjusted to my dad’s moving in with us and began to weather the vagaries of dementia & aging, and our family continued its globalized multi-continental hijinks (if not convulsions)), we at least had a roof over our heads, good food to eat, and the general trappings of what passes for otherwise-normal in this society. Nevertheless, I hit the writing doldrums and didn’t put down hardly a word except for the basic, functional and utilitarian type.

That’s ok, though, because you know what? Previously written words don’t just dissipate. They sit on your hard-drive or in a manila folder or spiral-notebook and wait. Patiently.

When the levers got pulled and the tracks slid together and the train engineer got the all-clear to stop idling the 6,000 horsepower engine and start ‘er up slow — well, lo and behold the boxcars were still there, ready to come along behind at a slow chug.

I ran a poll with a bunch of other writerly types and confirmed that my title choice for a short story collection isn’t half bad. Shifted Visions wasn’t the top pick, but it was close enough to the leader that I could keep it – it was my favorite of the 20 or so I tested.

In case you’re interested, other contenders were:

  • Peripheral Visions
  • Light Dances at the Edge of Hope
  • In the Small Dark Hours

A few that didn’t make it into the finalists’ category are going to be used to title individual stories and one of them required a story to go with it. That’s the one I’m working on now (with varying degrees of success, I’m out of practice and -not surprisingly- kind of flighty, though I’m persevering!).

In two days I’ll also have the results of my cover poll. Maybe I’ll post my first attempts to create a book cover here and see what you guys think (assuming there is a “you guys” reading this 😀 ).

Anyway, I had to stop anguishing over the fact that I hadn’t posted here in a year and stop beating myself with the “need” to start again with something really wonderful. Just start.

Here it is, in all its work-train glory, a kind of beat-up and homely, slow-to-get-rollin’, mode of transport: a long-time-coming blog post about a long-time-coming short story collection!

Woo-hoo! (make that sound like a train-whistle, now!)

image credit: Samuel Zeller from unsplash

Letting the Dust Settle

The north wind is gusting outside – it comes racing down the Central Valley, picks up topsoil and whatever isn’t tied down. The air has a haze and is harried by the change in weather.  The house holds firm but exhales now and then as it braces itself

Each season we have days that blow past like this. They bring with them a shift. In the spring, we’ll have warmer days after the wind dies down; in the fall, the weather becomes cooler.

Although we only get the wind every couple of weeks, it feels like its flux has been continually with me since February. The lack of posting here is symptomatic of all the helter skelter.

But now I’m looking into upcoming May with an eye toward a little more stability and, if not calm, at least  being able to lean into the wind. I’m anticipating the end of my Master Gardener training program, won’t have more guests until July, have finished moving my Dad in with us, and have started toward writing again. My days have been very productive on the household front (you should see my Done List, it’s impressive, just not impressively related to writing) and I’ll continue with the yard renovation plans this month. I suppose it makes sense that my play time has focused on plants lately, spring seems to do that to me. :) Meanwhile, although I don’t have any stories in the works right now, I’ve been sending a few of the ones from Shifted Visions out to online journals.

My aim for the coming month – resuscitate a daily writing practice (of any sort, really, ANY writing is better than no writing), continue with the exercise routine that seems to be working well for me, create a base map of the yard so I have something to work from, get some summer veggies into the already-summer-like ground (trying some drought tolerant varieties, like Tepary bean and Malabar Spinach).

I’ve gotta remember that when the dust isn’t flying, when it’s settled, it’s at its most productive being soil, holding all the things that want to be rooted. Letting things grow.

National Poetry Moth

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National Poetry Moth

I hereby nominate you, dusk winged silence,
to be our mascot,
you who’ve eaten
and eaten so well every night
on the collards in my garden.
Your greenlit body
made to consume and digest and transform,
your sister sipping the moon’s flowers,
your brother beating at my window
saying (oh, why won’t she let me in?)
saying specifically what I can’t hear because I’m
sound
asleep.

I am sound,
sleeping through and into dreams.
I am oblivious liquid in cocoon,
completely undone,
waiting to be remade at dawn
having lived through being reduced
to my components like proteins in the first ocean,
timed so well that, each morning,
there’s the possibility of wings.

Poets everywhere understand the flutter in the chest,
feel the antenna of the senses quivering toward
the world
and daily,
we throw ourselves toward the light.

-Wendy Smyer Yu

***
I don’t have any plans for National Poetry Month (and Poem in Your Pocket Day, which is April 30th, is observed by a certain blogger on many other days besides just the one :) ) but I may post a few poetry related things in the days to come.

***
Image Credits: Death’s Head Hawkmoth by Trevor Hartsell on Flickr, creative commons license

Words Aren’t Working

Words and I aren’t having the best of relationships right now.
It started out decently at the beginning of February but by the end had deteriorated.

1. I learned a poem by heart. I spoke it aloud in the car, rolling it over and over. Then I returned to other poems I’d learned already and had let fall away. They came back quickly, settled right into my mind and slipped out of my mouth easily. They fit in the small trips I need to make every day. I said them even while on my bike, though quietly and under my breath (and between breaths if I was riding fast). It became an exercise in letting myself hear my own voice, in playing with the words and their meaning. It was a poem about giving oneself, about committing fully to this experience of life. It spoke to me but I’ll share it another time because the part of me it spoke to is a little wounded right now.

2. I’d set aside new writing for a bit. It was alright. I mean, I know professionals can’t do that, but I needed to keep up with other things and I’ve not graduated from hobbyist-status. I was still working on editing my own stories, though, for Shifted Visions. So, although I wasn’t acting as a midwife to words, I was at least a governess, seeing that they turn out right and can be presented in polite company.

3. I was working on a paid editing job, a translation. Translations are finicky, especially when the translators are working INTO a language in which they’ve not attained near-native fluency. It’s easy to go wrong and I started to see my approach to words change. I could imagine the text as a whole, as having its own completeness in its original form. It was a carrier of meaning in a context in which its shape made sense. Like a vessel, a bowl or cup, maybe.

So, imagine such a thing.

For the sake of illustration, though the original text I’m working with is not nearly so artful as this example, imagine that it’s a beautiful and meaningful thing, like this:

Gold_cup_kalardasht But then, in order for it to be comprehended and used in another place with its own cultural context, it has to be translated. And imagine that translation requires the item be taken apart down to its “base layers,” in this case down to the atoms of gold. At that level they’re still gold, but they have to be manipulated and moved. The words, in their own way are melted by the translator who passes them from one language, through his or her body and consciousness, and transforms their shape into the new language. They become new words.

What I inherited from the translators was something like this:

Golden-Bowl-of-Hasanlu

It was pretty mangled.

My brain now had to approach the words like this:

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I have to admit, this is not the way to engage the part of you that likes to invite words to work their own magic, without force. That part of me had to just sit tight and hope the editing would get done soon.

4. And then a dear friend died – unexpectedly and tragically early. It wasn’t supposed to happen, like that or now.

I had been sad to leave Göttingen, where much of our three years there had felt sheltered and warmed by her and her family. I had assumed we’d meet again, had hoped to have her daughter stay with us this coming year for half of tenth grade, figured we’d meet up and travel a bit. But no.

I had to bear the news to all my family members. There are no right words for that. I wrote a condolence card to her husband and two daughters – to my friends – the best I could do from this distance – and in that effort I found that words don’t work. They don’t do the right thing, they don’t solve the problem or heal the hurt. They’re weak and ineffectual. I mean I said nice things but really, what we all want is for terrible things to not happen, for them to not shake and change our lives in this way.

5. One of our cats got seriously ill with a virus that is often carried by cats without effect. When it “mutates” and causes symptoms, though, it’s incurable and fatal. I had to make the decision to have him put to sleep before he suffered more. I know, cats don’t “rank up there” with people, but if you have any animals in your life, you know they’re people, too. He was special to me. We were friends.

We brought our cats back to the US with us from Göttingen and losing him felt like one more uprooting from what we loved there.

Again, I had to tell family members. I had to tell the cat though few of my words have ever made a lot of sense to him. I made sure that he knew in all the wordless ways how much we all loved him.

6. I kept everything running (admittedly it’s run on frozen pizza, some forgotten appointments, lots of tears and a sad kind of lonely inability to help anyone else’s grief). I’ve still had to drive here and there but couldn’t bear more than half a phrase of any poetry coming out of my mouth. I don’t want to say them. I don’t want to say much.

7. I am ‘conversational.’ I talk to people. I write down phone messages, notes for my master gardener class and comments in the margin of the translated text. The editing is not yet done. My head, though it stopped hurting from the inside, feels like it has been used to bang on bad English.

My heart still hurts and I’m wary about words.

8. I wrote this blog post.

 

****

image credits:

Gold cup kalardasht“. (Achaemenid golden bowl with lion imagery). Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Gold Bowl of Hasanlu from Ancient Origins (it doesn’t appear to be original to Ancient Origins and it’s not labeled with a creative commons license but I’ll remove it from this blog if needed).

blacksmith photo by Daniel Burgui Iguzkiza on flickr, with creative commons license

Part of the occasional series, Fiction Going Nowhere.

 

***

Quiet Folk

smyeryu.com/wendy/

I’ve always felt that the dead are pretty quiet folk. They sound mostly like dry leaves, or like the skitterings of mice.

Having survived the deaths of four family members, two friends, and a stranger, plus living next to the cemetery are bound to make a person inclined to be listening for what past-folk might be saying.

I was out there yesterday, sweeping off the granite markers hidden in the thick, end-of-summer grass.  The long stems hung heavily, pulled down in all directions by waving seed heads.  Mice had gotten to a lot of the seeds.  I won’t trap them in the house, the mice. They have their own business and I’d just as soon send them on their way, out the door to do it, than make them suffer at my hands. Kind of like the dead.

“I’ll let ’em be.” I shook my head at my last living brother, Jacob, who’s 12 years older than me and who was trying to convince me I needed another, younger, cat.

“Posey’s good as deaf,” he said, as though that indicated a defect, but he wouldn’t have understood if I’d told him that she and I were in perfect agreement about the mouse situation and that she and I both tended to listen to things Jacob couldn’t have been capable of hearing anyway.

When I say the dead are pretty quiet I’m talking about the ones who die as they’re supposed to.  I mean we’re all supposed to, and it’s not the being dead that can cause problems. It’s how you get there that’s important.  Take my mama for example.  She was the kind of person who lived with a flourish, everything she did seemed to have her signature on it because she put her heart into her life.  So even though she died early and we missed her terribly, she didn’t leave anything incomplete.  She was the kind of person you always feel around you, but not because she’d left people with old hurts or unmended rips, but because she’d been the first one to show you the wisteria bush over at the McClure’s abandoned homestead or she’d brought over fresh doughnuts when your first grandchild was born, or she’d singed an old petticoat for trying to make a miniature hot air balloon for one of our science projects.  And so, every time you smelled wisteria, ate a doughnut, or put on a petticoat you felt like smiling.  That’s why I say she’s quiet. It’s not that she’s disappeared, but being quiet, she’s not hollering for attention, raising a ruckus, or needing figuring out like some dead people.

***

as usual, Fiction Going Nowhere is draft-status – it’s not story-ready and is probably unlikely to be developed further. Sorry about typos or errors or the fact that it currently is Going Nowhere. I hope it’s entertaining, nonetheless.

image – mine, taken in Germany

steps to a goal – How to Think Sideways

* I know most of my Wander-Bird visitors are here because we know each other on the How To Think Sideways Forums. On the off chance that you arrived without coming across Holly Lisle’s many writing classes, may I introduce them to you by way of the story of how I took her How to Think Sideways class and am hard at work creating stories I’m proud of?

It’s a little meandering (I am a Wander-Bird, after all), and when you get to the bottom there’ll be a link to one of the big classes that won’t be offered again for some time. So, while this isn’t exactly an advertisement, it does recommend a product. If you’d like to skip this post, no worries. But if you want to join a group of writers working hard to tell good stories or at least hear how I figured out my hidden skill of taking persistent small steps (every journey, right?) and building something from the ground up (like the Great Wall?), then keep reading!

the obligatory, "I'm at the Great Wall" selfie

 

Speaking of the Great Wall, in 2008 I was living in Beijing, with my nerves a little frayed from the big city, my poor command of Mandarin (the northern accent also threw me after being used to more fluid southern accents), and life in a small apartment with kids. I really wanted a project. A writing project, to be specific. I wanted to move my desire to write out from the realm of journalling where it was slightly furtive and without purpose. I wanted to do NaNoWriMo but didn’t know how to either fit it in or to go about coming up with something worth writing a ‘novel’ about.

One of those “DUH!” moments occurred – I was homeschooling our kids, why not incorporate it into what we were already doing? This was a stroke of brilliance – both kids jumped in, happily (especially since I gave them all of November off from other subjects if they’d commit). Oldest Kid learned to type because of it (and dang, she’s fast now!) while Youngest Kid (who was in first grade) wrote hers by hand and they both ended up completely unafraid of writing and pleased to indulge their Youngest Kid, writing her storyimaginations. They’ve gone on and done NaNo several more times.

So, I had figured out how to fit writing into real life. Now I needed to know how to make what I wrote into a novel.

I searched around for instruction and even in 2008 there were a lot of online resources, so I bopped around for the first week or so trying different options but continuing writing without a solid sense of where I was going. It worked, sort of, in that I got a lot of words down. But there were serious structural flaws – from the plot itself to what was going on in scenes (or not going on, as my characters listened to crickets). It didn’t help that I wrote it out of order as well.

That ‘novel,’ Call the Rain Home, is a poster child for The Many Ways Novels Fail.

I won NaNo that year (as did Oldest and Youngest Kids), and though the story wasn’t finished and it was a mess, I was bitten.

Unknown

This fiction writing thing! It could be awesome!

I still had no clue how to write a real story (remember, I’d been mostly just writing observations and brain-dumps in journals, with some poetry now and again) and I felt the pain of novice-hood by the end of November. I loved the story I’d come up with and it made me sad that it was a broken and unfinished thing.

That’s why even as November was wrapping up, I was still shopping for a method to make a story work.

And that’s when I came across mention of Holly Lisle on the NaNo forums. To my delight (and that of my bank account) she had tons of free information on novel writing. With her help I was able to fill in critical but missing parts of my story, tie pieces together, patch It up a bit so that it could walk over the finish line feeling like a story.

When I returned to the US in 2009 I was ready to go in deeper, though.

file0001906291170After years of worrying my “lack of calling” to death I made a commitment to writing that, to be honest, I’m not sure I understood at the time. Or, if I understood it, I was probably too fearful to dig deeply into it. It wasn’t just a financial commitment, though of course paying for a course like How to Think Sideways WAS a financial commitment. More importantly, It was a commitment to learning and to labor –  motivated by knowing that my deepest self was in search of something.

Part of me wanted something desperately

– a creative life
– certainty that I hadn’t just let something keep its Dream Status without ever paying attention to what was at its heart
– to learn how to do something well
– to write

I wanted to stop praising myself in my head for having done nothing beyond fostering the idea that I “could do something if…”

That wasn’t praiseworthy, it was delusional.

Does it seem crazy that a novel writing course could help even at the deep levels of self-perception?

It’s not.

I am, absolutely, NOT Holly’s best, brightest, quick-outta-the-gate and off-the-presses, student. At least not if you look at my publication (non) record. But if you could see the total revolution that’s occurred in my head, you’d be astounded. I went from being a goal-less dreamer to someone with an enthusiasm for projects and the plans and skills for accomplishing them. I went from never admitting to anyone I was writing to being willing (and nearly ready) to put my work into the world where it can be read (and judged, let’s be honest) by anyone who comes across it. I’m braver, more focused, less prone to fearing my life will amount to nothing.

At the beginning, like a lot of people, I had a history of being my own worst enemy and from its first lesson, How to Think Sideways starts students on a path that gets the enemy out of the way.

Always of two minds: that I *could* write something good (maybe, someday, if given a chance) – and that I would never write something good and who was I fooling. I benefitted from the How to Think Sideways curriculum that helped me look self-sabotage right in the face and decide to stop indulging.

It also gave me tools to change those habits.

Here’s how Holly describes it:

In Section One: Sideways Thinking on Ideas, you’ll learn to clear out the four thinking obstacles that have stood in the way of your success in the past, you’ll learn how to discover your own “genre” that you can take with you wherever you go in the publishing world, you’ll learn how to work with your Muse, you’ll create ideas on a time limit—but without pressure—and not just figure out which ideas are worth writing, but learn how to improve your keepers, and you’ll discover how to find—or create—the market or markets in which you’ll start your career.

For me, Holly’s methods for making friends with your creativity are keystone practices that carry into the entirety of the course and beyond. From the beginning there are systematic methods as well as tips, tricks and exercises related to fiction writing and “creative life in general.”  A lot of it is transferable to short fiction and that’s what I’ve been focusing on lately. But it doesn’t stop there – and it’s not a recipe book – it’s customizable and can be tweaked to fit your own style (or genre).

Full disclosure – I’ve not written a novel with it. Yet. When I do, though, it will have been possible only because I took this course that covers everything from learning to hone in on consistently good ideas that matter to you, how to pace a story by planning scenes, how to keep your creative side happy without sacrificing the logic of your story, and working with agents and publishers as well as producing and publishing your work independently.

Here’s how it stands for me at this point. I’m still a novice and still learning to write a good story – but I’m so much closer than I was before. Now, instead of hiding my passion for writing, I start with the assumption that I can improve and I actively go about learning how to do that. Then I practice, then I test myself. In the coming months I’ll be putting my fiction to the test in a collection of short stories.

Five years ago that would have seemed impossible.

I’m one of Holly’s serial students – so some of what I’ve learned has been from her other courses and workshops, but the key that unlocked the door to freedom from the Fake Dream Perfection Someday trap was How to Think Sideways.

It’s been empowering and educational to work through the lessons, often in conjunction with other writers.

If you’re interested, I recommend you look into it and make a decision in the next two weeks. Holly’s moving her courses to a new website and the migration will make it impossible to support new sign-ups until the move is done. So, if you get in this month, you get to join with a  group of fellow writers (there are benefits to that, especially in the forums) who all start this month too.

There won’t be new openings until after the site move (at which point every existing student will be rolled into the new site, still maintaining access to all the course materials, etc.).

I started HTTS as part of a group and it was great to have classmates working on the same problems and sharing solutions and support. In the last few years Holly kept the course perma-open, something that probably has benefits, but by reverting to once or twice a year open enrollment periods, she’s giving you the best of both options: you can engage with others as you wish – or not, maybe just going through it at your own pace without active involvement with other students.

And that’s key – at your own pace – I think the thing that makes Holly’s teaching method applicable to so many people is that the emphasis is on always keeping close to your creative mind, to finding ways to keep to your own purpose (after honing in on what it is) and breaking everything down into manageable steps.

So, while I’m not currently novel-focused, I’ve still learned a lot from the course.  If this sounds like something you could benefit from, here’s where to find the course: How to Think Sideways 

Be forewarned, it’s not an inexpensive class – but to me it’s been worth every penny I spent on it. Do take your time, if it interests you, to read through the description to get an idea of just how comprehensive the class is.

It’s available to new students starting February 27th until  March 5th, 2015 and then after that enrollment will be closed for at least nine months, maybe even a year.

If you do end up joining in, let me know. I’d love to cheer you on!

***

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m an affiliate of Holly’s, meaning that I make a commission if you decide to purchase through one of the links I provide. This doesn’t change the price you pay at all.  If you’re interested in her many free resources, try here: http://hollylisle.com/my-articles/writing-how-tos/

I hope any of these products help you in your creative journey.

***

image credits

– yes, it’s one of those obligatory “I’m at the Great Wall” selfies

– that’s Youngest Kid, writing her story

– compass photo by irkengirdib on morguefile

not one is not held

A green heart for you !! have a sweet and nice weekend.

The Lives of the Heart

Are ligneous, muscular, chemical.
Wear birch-colored feathers,
green tunnels of horse-tail reed.
Wear calcified spirals, Fibonaccian spheres.
Are edible, are glassy; are clay; blue schist.
Can be burned as tallow, as coal,
can be skinned for garnets, for shoes.
Cast shadows or light;
shuffle; snort; cry out in passion.
Are salt, are bitter,
tear sweet grass with their teeth.
Step silently into blue needle-fall at dawn.
Thrash in the net until hit.
Rise up as cities as serpentined magma, as maples,
hiss lava-red into the sea.
Leave the strange kiss of their bodies
in Burgess Shale. Can be found, can be lost,
can be carried, broken, sung.
Lie dormant until they are opened by ice,
by drought. Go blind in the service of lace.
Are starving, are sated, indifferent, curious, mad.
Are stamped out in plastic, in tin.
Are stubborn, are careful, are slipshod,
are strung on the blue backs of flies
on the black backs of cows.
Wander the vacant whale-roads, the white thickets
heavy with slaughter.
Wander the fragrant carpets of alpine flowers.
Not one is not held in the arms of the rest, to blossom.
Not one is not given to ecstasy’s lions.
Not one does not grieve.
Each of them opens and closes, closes and opens
the heavy gate – violent, serene, consenting, suffering it all.

–Jane Hirshfield

intensity of the light

image credits:

Matthew Fang via Compfight

sunset by Vala Run

Jane Hirshfield‘s poem, The Lives of the Heart, is from the book of the same name, published in 1997 by HarperPerennial. I’m re-reading it.