Tag Archives: creative process

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:

20160813_134250

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

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.

World Building: Ambassador to the Soil Magicians

Sometimes I think I want to do the impossible here on Wander-Bird: try to tie in all my disparate interests and reveal the common thread that I follow intuitively.

For example, I write stories and I’m a plant geek and apprentice permaculture designer. It seems it would be hard to write a post that would tie those things together, right? Unless I wanted to set a murder mystery in a botanical garden (hmm, maybe that’s a good idea!). I think I figured out from the following video, though, that both interests are fundamentally world building. I’ll be darned, I never saw that coming!

I’ve learned in writing (with the help of the How to Think Sideways course), that the answers to story problems are usually in plain sight and just require training the unconscious mind to actually SEE what’s been observed. As I work on becoming a better writer, I’m still learning to stick to the trail of the story. When I lose it, I find I have to “feel” around the work and let what I’ve observed about it settle in my awareness, letting it percolate at the edges and then -*pop*- up comes an idea for a solution.

The same kind of method is a fundamental part of permaculture design – long observation forms the basis of eventual understanding of the patterns nature uses to generate life in all sorts of situations. It ought to be self-apparent that learning from and emulating nature will always be a good strategy, but since we’re a kind of slow-to-learn-species, I’m glad there are “ambassadors” reaching out with the things they’ve learned (whether about writing or designing communities). I have a lot of respect for those who are willing to stand at the edges of disciplines or established ways of doing and understanding things and try something new. For example, Paul Stamets is a mycologist who, through deep respect for fungal life forms, has explored ways to partner with them to repair damaged land by promoting healthy soil biology.

That’s already pretty fabulous!

But he takes it to another level in his recent research. I don’t think he’s projecting a fantasy world, but it does rely on imagination. Without an observation-fueled imagination, he wouldn’t have figured out a possible way to keep bees healthy in this era of catastrophic collapse.

Check out the video, it’s pretty cool stuff – and he actually does refer to the fungi as soil magicians! :)

*all my links to Holly Lisle's classes and workshops are affiliate links meaning that I make a commission on purchases made through my links at no additional cost to you.
candylandstart

beginning (again) all the time

December 2015 Update: Here’s a post that is relevant, again. It’ll keep being relevant every time I step over a threshold and start over (again) on something. May beginnings go easily for you, as well.

***

I have this thing with beginnings, you see. Maybe you have it too.


It’s a kind of fear. It manifests as hesitation and avoidance. Sound familiar?


Does beginning sometimes seem like a threat even though it could equally be a possibility? Knowing that, does it still paralyze you?


This is familiar to most people who are willing to go outside their comfort zone. The old part of the brain that’s not very complex reacts, “Oh no! Danger! You’re about to embark on something that delays (uncertain) gratification and might kill you! Wouldn’t you rather have a snack?” As that part of the brain prefers comfort over “danger” we learn to heed the warning, thinking we’re smart self-preservationists, not realizing that “danger” is a code word. It’s not a code word for Tyrannosaurus Rex or Booby Traps on the Path to the Waterhole. “Danger” is code for:


  • You’re going to reveal something about yourself to others and you will be judged.

  • You’re going to be challenged in how you view yourself, how you understand your skills and abilities.

  • You’re going to have a lot asked of you and you’ll have to step up to it.

  • You’re going to have to put in a lot of hours without certainty of reward.

From a perspective of the social and behavioral adaptations that could ensure biological survival, those generalized kinds of “dangers” can be scary. And they encompass everything from how we behave alone or in groups to what we decide to focus our attention on. Maybe there was a time when the necessity of toeing the tribal line and staying in your place were critical for the species’ survival. There’s not necessarily a huge place for artistic vision and challenging social norms when what really matters is if your group finds a big enough mammoth to tide you over for the winter.


This reaction isn’t only a matter of biological adaptation, but it is deeply embedded in the psyche. Given the universality of religious experience and the inherent human need for self-actualization, I’m sure early humans struggled with this too. Imagine an individual in a tribal society receiving a summons to serve the spirit world or carry medicine. Who wouldn’t backpedal and resist?


For me this has to do with writing. Actually, to pinpoint it at exactly this moment, it has to do with writing these first blog posts. And this morning, it bit me when I sat down to work on my long-running fiction project. To be honest, it bites me all the time.


It’s the most powerful nothing I’ve ever encountered.


And it’s amazing that any of us can muster the power to overcome it. But we do, and we must.


I think one of the reasons Resistance (as Steven Pressfield names it) is such a potent enemy is because it can conveniently lose its memory.


We can’t; at least not without the help of head injury, dementia, or drugs. So what happens is that we incorrectly think, “Oh, that story that I’m working on, the one I started already? I’m not inspired today, why is that?” And then the likely next step is to analyze the day, “Well, I feel under the weather, that negative review threw my life’s purpose into a tailspin, I ran out of money and argued with my lover.” And so we have a false sense of continuum, assuming there must be a new problem with an assumed infinity of reasons and variables which prevent us from “continuing” without seeing that we merely have difficulty starting.


Meanwhile, the Resistance is saying, “What yesterday? Ha ha, I got you! Stopped you from starting TODAY.” It does not keep track of all the times you started before; it only cares whether or not it can stop you NOW.


We tend to only recognize the start-paralysis in front of the first blank pages and blank canvas then justify the rest of our excuse making as somehow fueled by a “legitimate reason,” but all of that just exists in the mind. Every moment is a new blank and it’s possible, without consistent effort, to be waylaid at every moment, just as it’s possible to know this and use that knowledge to make a break from paralysis.


The fuel? Just starting.


One of my most important realizations has been the absolute necessity of recognizing that I have to begin (again) every single day (and often more than once a day), that the fear of beginning prevents me from walking through the door of my mind, prevents me from remembering the joy of just walking onward through my work once begun.


A beginning is not one monolithic starting point, not one famous moment after which everything comes easy.Every single moment is a beginning though Resistance tries to hide that while using it against us. Knowing this means that we can be slightly more prepared for the difficulty.


Paraphrasing (in italics) some wise thoughts about beginning, I’d like to suggest:


Begin at the beginning and go on (beginning) until you come to the end: (only) then stop. (Lewis Carroll)


Who has begun has half done. Have the courage to be wise. (times infinity)>  (Horace)


Everything has a beginning and that beginning is linked to something (that began) before it. (Mary Shelley)


It is easier to resist at the beginning than at the end (and remember everything is made completely of beginnings, so get to work). (Leonardo Da Vinci)

This is not a Story

The following piece of writing qualifies as fiction because I made it up, but it doesn’t meet all the criteria for a story. After I wrote it, I was inordinately proud of it (I don’t know, maybe fancy wording makes me proud) but I wisely let it sit. Admittedly, I tend to let all my writing sit, but that’s beside the point.

I’ve now taken this narrative back “out” and am looking at it critically with the aim of uncovering what it needs to become a successful story. Notice the important nouns in that previous sentence and you’ll find the first clue to what’s holding the piece’s success back: narrative, story.

Floundering about, as I have, with the notion of story* as it relates to fiction writing and the human need for evaluating life experiences under that rubric, I’ve tended to conflate narrative and story, to the detriment of the “stories” I write. This piece, “The 2:37 from Hannover,” is pure narrative – there’s a character (protagonist, if you will) and an event – and not much else.

After taking my sweet, foot-dragging, time to adopt a working definition of story, I’m going to go with one offered by Holly Lisle. Since I own several books in her “How to Write…” series (such as “How to Write Page Turning Scenes” ) and am a How to Think Sideways** student, I can’t tell you where, exactly, to find this definition (It’s around here somewhere, I swear), but my cobbled-together-from-memory version looks like this: a story must have: 1)a character 2) in a setting with 3) a desire and 4) a problem (or several) standing in the way of his obtaining it. Additionally, the 5) character’s actions must have 6) logical consequences (though not necessarily the expected ones) and lead either to overcoming the problem, thus obtaining the desired end, or, to not overcoming it and having the desire thwarted – all in a 7) meaningful way.

I know, that’s not a very elegant definition, but blame that on my cobbling skills. It’ll do for now, and as you’ll soon find out, the draft below is missing a number of those qualities. It remains to be seen if it can be fixed; whether or not it makes it to story status will be revealed in posts to come.

In all it’s narrative (and mostly descriptive) glory, I give you the inaugural work in an occasional “Fiction Going Nowhere” series:

Go By Streetcar Part III

The 2:37 from Hannover

Traveling southbound from Hannover, Hazel would be in Frankfurt well before six. A bit too early, but not something a cup of black coffee wouldn’t help her wait out. She’d tried other trains but none were right – either by their timing or the route they took or by the clatter and volume of other passengers picked up along the way.
      No, it had to be the express that only stopped in Kassel at about half-past three to pick up a few airport-bound passengers heading into early jet lag. Even at the height of summer, the required darkness lasted until the approach into Frankfurt.
     She would doze. It was inevitable and, honestly, necessary. The few times she’d fueled her flagging alertness with early coffee and had sat upright among the sprawled out passengers whose claim over two or three seats made the train feel far more occupied than it was, she’d only added a tight buzzing headache to the hum and rock of the speeding train. She’d seen nothing.
     She figured she’d missed it, if it had ever come at all, on her second coffee-inspired trip to the bathroom. It had seemed too soon out of Kassel, far too early and yet she’d missed the moment she’d come to anticipate… no, that she’d actually come to need on her weekly trip south.
     The touch of the ineffable and the sense of privately-offered mystery didn’t fade just for occurring among barely asleep businessmen and conked out college students, wasn’t diminished by the electric lights, blue upholstery or the periodic rattle of a window shade.
     What mattered most was the entirety, the stepping off the cold platform and away from the diesel and trash smell, the attendant’s whistle signaling the start, and the snick of the doors cutting off the station announcement. What mattered was that no matter how many times she did this, she still marveled at the feeling, was still amazed at the smooth arrival of the sleek white cars, the train’s sometimes squealing stop, its welcome-by-open-doors and the distinction that now she was entering a vehicle to the unknown.

Anything could happen.

And something usually did.

Somewhere past the halfway mark, just when she feared it was too late or that they’d gone too far, just when her stomach gave a kind of flop at the thought that she’d somehow missed it again, had gotten too engrossed in her book or dozed a little too deeply, she’d glance up at a flash of color, a change in pitch. Her fear that maybe she’d wanted too much and the certainty that this would be an un-meaningful, tally-marked, trip between occurrences would drop away as the train left the last tunnel and a motion in the window and a shift in the light would catch her attention.
     Always in the window across from her, no matter which side she sat on, she’d see the other train speeding next to hers, reflected into her car: red to the white of the ICE, on a parallel track that couldn’t exist in the narrow stretch near the hillside or between her train and the riverbed thick with plane trees below. The red train mattered all the more because it couldn’t be there, because no matter which side of her car she crossed to or which window she peered from, she could not pinpoint the source of its reflection and its faintly lit passengers. It just shot on alongside.
     Cupping her hands around her face and looking out into the night revealed nothing but blurred vegetation lit momentarily by her car’s interior lights. Only if she stepped back was she granted the view of the red local train somehow keeping pace with the express. She could see its interior, lit from within and flickering with speed — as though seen between branches or in movie frames. If she stepped further from the window so that it was hard to make out details, she could see the forms of the other train’s passengers, eyes closed as though in introspection: a man with his mouth open, not snoring but singing, a woman, like her, with her elbows on the small table and her head resting on her folded hands as though in prayer, and somewhere across the aisle of the non-existent train, a child, bolt-upright next to a quiet parent, looking back at Hazel in astonished delight and complete understanding with shh-it’s-a-secret fingers laid across her lips like a kiss.

-end-

—–
image Creative Commons License Ian Sane via Compfight

* in this post I alluded to eventually putting a story up here – this isn’t it! I thought I’d start with something more flawed first, because … why not?

** I am also an affiliate of Holly’s – that means that if you decide to purchase anything from her site through the links I provide I get a commission at no extra charge to you.

 

The Trap of my Imagination, Where I am Safely Perfect

278_Spirialling_Steps_of_the_Amedee_LighthouseThis morning, as the end of a year approaches, I woke into an insight as framed in the last few days of reflection and consideration. The insight pointed out that part of me thinks it’s safer to leave GOTS and all my other bits-and-bobs of writing unfinished. I’m pretty aware of this pattern of stopping again and again though I’ve not yet  overcome it.

Fishing around for my motivation to finish GOTS I saw that there is a contradictory inner force pulling the strings, ruling through my own abstention from taking power, my own abdication.

GOTS has this strange quality of never, never ending, while simultaneously taking 60,000 words (so far) to go absolutely nowhere. It’s a non-story, in fact. But if I keep it unfinished, in a permanent state of “draft,” I never have to deal with that. A perpetually hopeful, childish, “I don’t want to grow up and finish something attitude”  keeps everything I work on in a state of incompletion.

dollcar

Short stories are always just drafts, poems are drafts, CTRH (my first “novel-thing”) is a broken mess of a draft that is, not surprisingly, without an ending. GOTS is so flawed that I can’t see my way to complete it because its “completed” state will prove that my writing is a waste of time.

I “refuse” to put action in the story (observing “it just keeps slipping away”), I never make something happen, and my characters don’t act decisively and with commitment (yes, my characters appear to be reflections of my own worst traits, don’t worry, I won’t force you to read it), because doing so would send them on their way toward being just as crappy in their final form. Short stories don’t get shown to anyone, they sit in rough or final drafts or are idealistically compiled into  fake “anthologies” which go nowhere though their mother has high ideals. Everything inhabits a fluid and open spot on my to-do list. Eternally in progress, unjudgeable, safely tucked away.

If that’s the case — and it is the case — now that I’ve identified the problem, what needs to be done to fix it? Two ideas popped up in the course of assessing this situation.

1. I need to submit short pieces to real markets and not just self-pub them (to my audience of 4 blog-readers). Self-pub is in the works for some things, but self-sabotage requires external assistance. If I rely on myself for everything, the process breaks down at some point – something stalls when that outdated mindset wants to keep everything “safely” In Progress.

2. I need to finish a crappy draft of GOTS. It needs to crawl to the finish line. I’ve come to judge it, to think poorly of it, to disdain it because it’s such a pale, broken simulation of what it was supposed to be and keeping it un-done allows my mind to hold onto what “it could have been” and what it  “could be,” the ideal I’m capable of creating in a perfect world where I’m a perfect me.

This means that, for my own peace of mind, to overcome this pattern of cowardice (always backing away, always turning tail with a cheery smile on my face as I look to New Ideas that don’t put up a fight), I have to start calling some things DONE. Play is all well and good and I love that part of creative work – that it engages playfulness – but at this late date, I also need to grow up a little and claim my work as *Something* and not just let it dissolve so I can avoid disappointment through avoiding completion. Not having done this and  always focusing on process, I’ve also avoided the kind of joy that is only available by wrapping something up and feeling the syncretic reality of process joined with final product.

brokenprototypes

It’s time to stop fooling myself with my fantasy world in which I pretend all is well in the workshop, that all the kinks are being worked out eternally, eternally in service of how good my ideal is and, “shhh, don’t look at the broken, misshapen, flat and unworkable prototypes on the factory floor. They’re not mine, I don’t know how they got there.”

If I want to inhabit my creativity, if I want to actually do real work and not live in my head (where it is very, very safe and very, very stifling) then I’m going to have to finish something and let it exist as itself in the world.

That’s what 2014 is going to be about.

***
image credits: Amédée Lighthouse stairs, photo by Eustaquio Santimano, originally on flickr, here, but it wouldn’t load for me. It was also here. Creative Commons license.

the armless driver (WHO is driving this ship?) is also on flickr from donpezzano/Don Urban. Creative Commons license.

the little broken dolls are from the blog Ullabenulla. The blogger, Ulla Norup Millbrath uses such things for her own artwork (lesson: use it all, even the broken pieces!!). Not cc licensed, but hopefully use with attribution is ok.

I, where I turned, felt the enchantment

“The experience of centering was one I particularly sought because I thought of myself as dispersed, interested in too many things. I envied people who were “single-minded,” who had one powerful talent and who knew when they got up in the morning what it was they had to do. Whereas I, where I turned, felt the enchantment: to the window for the sweetness of the air; to the door for the passing figures; to the teapot, the typewriter, the knitting needles, the pets, the pottery, the newspaper, the telephone. Wherever I looked, I could have lived.

 It took me half my life to come to believe I was OK even if I did love experience in a loose and undiscriminating way and did not know for sure the difference between good and bad. My struggles to accept my nature were the struggles of centering. I found myself at odds with the propaganda of our times. One is supposed to be either an artist or a homemaker, by one popular superstition. Either a teacher or a poet, by a theory which says that poetry must not sermonize. Either a craftsman or an intellectual, by a snobbism — which claims either the hand or head as the seat of true power. One is supposed to concentrate and not to spread oneself thin, as the jargon goes. And this is a jargon spoken by a cultural leadership from which it takes time to win one’s freedom, if one is not lucky enough to have been born free. Finally, I hit upon an image: a seed-sower. Not to worry about which seeds sprout. But to give them as my gift in good faith.

      – M.C. Richards in Centering: In Pottery, Poetry and the Person

 

***
related, in case you haven’t seen it, to this post.