Tag Archives: writing

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:

1364614919_c0812bcd5a_z

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.

 

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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

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!

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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.

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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

Fiction Going Nowhere, Part 2

9235935538_0494fff331_b

Sometimes, when weeks aren’t like this last one where I was so busy with multiple, sometimes pressing tasks, that fiction was farthest from my mind, I practice just letting what wants to be written get written. Sometimes those things shadow me all day (I can hear the whine: “When’re ya gonna sit down somewhere and write me, already?!”) but sometimes they just show up the moment I pick up a pen. And yes, I like to write by hand now and again – it taps a spring just off from the main one – because it brings up what is unplanned and swimming just under the surface. Sometimes what is revealed surprises me. Actually, often it does.

I like that.

Surprise and novelty and the unexpected make my muse-mind happy and a happy muse-mind is a good thing.

Now, generally and with only a few exceptions, these pieces of writing aren’t complete in any way. Even though I might write through to the end of what they demand in that moment, they’re not finished and never will be. I look at them as practice runs – like finger exercises for pianists, made of notes, but not the kinds of things that make for fully satisfying wholes. They sound neat, but aren’t complete.

Some months ago…Oh. Heavens. it was almost a year ago (yikes!)… I posted what was supposed to be first in an occasional series  of fiction “things.” This is Not a Story, the first piece in Fiction Going Nowhere, the category under which I’m filing them, turned out to be one of those few exceptions to the “going nowhere” bit because I actually DID finish the story and I’m prepping it for inclusion in an upcoming collection of short stories. In general, though, most of my fragmentary things, the small pieces that are practice, really aren’t going anywhere. But I still kind of like what they promise and the possibilities they embody.

I thought, rather than coddle them in my mind (or my hard drive, as the case may be) and cultivate some sort of strange attachment to them, I should just set them free here, off into the ether. As far as I can tell, the random snippets really have no plans or goals of their own other than that they’d actually kind of like to see the light of day reflected off their brief little surfaces. Who knows, maybe they will spark something that calls for further development. If they don’t that’s fine, they’ll just serve as signposts pointing toward places my writing mind has stopped briefly.

So, without further verbosity, here’s a second installment of Fiction Going Nowhere:

Stuart didn’t think she would’ve agreed with the label scatterbrained but on any given day it would not have been surprising to see Lucy walking to the market with one pant leg tucked into a boot and the other loose on the outside. There were other signs, too. Like the way she’d forget the task she was in the middle of and start in on something new. No, not forget, exactly — just be done at that moment and move on to the next. Like a honeybee moving from flower to flower, sometimes stopping to burrow in deeply and sometimes just pausing long enough to paw at the bloom with the barest amount of interest, moving on if no indication of morning nectar remained. What was more difficult about accepting that analogy, though, was the obvious and apparent absence of any results of her attention’s foraging.

What was the honey of her gathering, he wondered, the sweet gold of her interest’s wanderings. Weren’t her distractions, her distractedness, flights of fancy that bore no sustenance? That thought, and others like it, crossed Stuart’s mind several times a day and in spite of Lucy’s blasé attitude about unevenly buttoned blouses, unopened official-looking envelopes, and the stack of to-be-read- and half-started-books teetering at the bedside with said envelopes used as bookmarks, she thought it too….

-end-

… and if you think Lucy might bear any resemblance to me, well…uh, hmm… I’d have to deny it vociferously. But only after I get back from, ummm… something else. 😀

image credit: Geoff Llerena (from flickr)

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 Character Development

A running list of methods to discover or develop characters in stories, compiled from my experience and that of my fellow-writers all over the place:

  • Ask questions of your character, directly – and get a direct answer! (Want to know who’s great at this? Visit Kirsten’s blog – she talks to her characters and her Muse and shares the conversations. I love it! Here’s a recent conversation: Infinity Edge)
  • Mind map (cluster) with the character and his problem or situation at the center
  • Free-write – see what bubbles up
  • Daydream, but focused
  • Collect “scrapbook” stuff (physical or online) – pictures of people who look like your character, collections of things he likes, scenes that evoke the character’s “feel”
  • Move character to a new location, time, genre and see what happens
  • Believe he is real. Treat him as such. Attend to him. What’s there?
  • Start small, non-intrusively – would you ask a stranger to reveal secrets at first meeting?
  • Start writing the story – let the story draw your character out – no pressure to KEEP the writing.
  • Take the character out of his comfort zone (Shy? make him sing in front of others. Used to center stage? put him in a long line policed by pacing, barely contained armed guards)

 

I know! How about finding a magic lantern and asking a genii to help? Who knows what details will float in if you try that method!

arabiannights

Heaven knows I need this list. Characterization is my weakness (or at least ONE of my weaknesses). I have snippets of stories (categorized as “Fiction Going Nowhere) with characters called nothing more than “he” or “she.” Seriously they’re almost non-people, just carriers of Story. Sheesh!

I think that kind of thing won’t fly far in the long term, so… here I am, working at making better characters.

If you’re a writer, too, and interested in a much more detailed and informative take on characterization, I recommend Holly Lisle’s How to Create a Character Clinic. It’s to the point, filled with helpful exercises and… and it’s been far too long since I read it! I think that’s now on the top of my list! [scurries off to read it]

*** How about you? Do you have any tried and true tricks? Any character-revealing practices you rely on? Share them in the comments and I’ll add them to the list!***

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Official Stuff

 

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.

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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)

"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

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.