Sunday, April 5, 2020

One big story

What do you do when you are a writer and there only seems to be one story, one story that is the center of everyone's attention, one story that overshadows all others right now?

Maybe you take notes, because you know this time is extraordinary, or because that's just how you deal with the best and worst of life. Writing is the way you make sense of the senseless pain in life. Writing is what reminds you of any small blessings you can find right now. Maybe writing is what brings you determination, or it's the way you process grief, or it's what gives you hope.

Or maybe you don't dive into the one big story at all. You escape into another story altogether, far away from the one you are living on a daily basis. Maybe you find yourself as a reader welcoming stories that transport you, if only temporarily, away from this time and situation. Those other stories give you a perspective on the broad sweep of history, or they just give you the relief of visiting another world for a while. Maybe as a writer you vow to write such stories for the others who need a break from the one big story.

Or maybe you don't write at all for a while. Your time is taken up with other things--illness, caregiving, tending the homefires, volunteering, working the day job at home or out there in a different world. Maybe you have the time, but you can't focus--you can't even write about the one big story, because you're too busy living it.

We all cope the best we can. There's no one right answer--as with so much of writing. There's only what works for you right now.


Sunday, March 8, 2020

Floundering and first drafts

In retrospect, a finished story can feel "meant to be." It's been honed and rewritten to the point that it seems as if it always was that way.

When I reread early drafts, though, I'm surprised at how much floundering I did, how many wrong turns I took. Entire scenes, chapters, or subplots ended up on the cutting-room floor. Rounded, complex characters started out as flat cliches. That important plot twist--wasn't even there yet!

A first draft can feel like a journey through unfamiliar territory with only a sketchy map (that would be the outline, which is subject to change or reinterpretation). Sometimes the words come slowly. Sometimes the previous day's work is an obvious derailment, and gets deleted. Sometimes one writes three pages and finds that the final paragraph of those three pages--that's where the real meat is. The rest was just throat-clearing. 

"Holy cow," the writer may say, in the thick of the first draft. "Was first drafting always this inefficient?"

Yes.

Monday, February 17, 2020

When writers go silent

Ever notice that a favorite author hasn't published in a while? That the wait for the next book in a series is longer than expected? That you have no idea what they're up to, and even checking their social media doesn't give a clue?

It's very common for writers to go through "silent periods" where they're not publishing--or at least not publishing under the same name as previously. Before publication, it's tempting to think of crossing that threshold as entering a club with lifetime membership. And in some ways, it is lifetime membership--the work we've put into the world is out there for good now.

But it can be dismaying to discover that staying published is often harder than getting published in the first place. Markets change; trends come and go; writers' interests change. Sometimes writers switch genres--either because of fiscal realities, new interests, or both. Sometimes they pick a new pen name to go with the switch.

Other times a writer hits a block--burnout or self-doubt, for example. Or life may present situations that leave no time or energy for writing, such as illness, loss, care-giving for others, or the demands of  a day job.

Sometimes a writer just needs time to regroup, a long silent period for rejuvenation. A long silence may be followed by incredible new work, work that took a while to produce.

Some writers turn to other things--different creative pursuits, for example. They find that music or quilting or sculpting or film-making satisfies the need that writing used to satisfy. They may go outside the arts to another field altogether.

Some writers just keep writing, but no longer feel the need to reach a larger audience. They may be writing but not publishing.

Whatever the situation, silences happen more often than I used to realize. In my last post, I said writers aren't machines, capable of ceaseless productivity. Silences, too, are part of life--even part of the writing life.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Resting

I recently read Twelve by Twelve, in which William Powers described his time staying in a 12 x 12-foot cabin, seeking to reconnect with the environment and his neighbors, to live slowly. Among his musings were those gleaned from his international travels about how many other cultures value leisure--and live accordingly. He writes, "This 'leisure ethic,' as I've come to dub it, isn't laziness; it is an intelligent, holistic balance between doing and being."

This is something I've sought and struggled to express for years, as when making New Year's resolution after New Year's resolution to "do less." 

More and more, I believe that much of what we call procrastination or wasting time is simply this badly-needed leisure time. Procrastination can also be simply delaying a task we dread, but that's another matter. I'm speaking here of the goofing off we do, the games we indulge in, the idle chitchat. We need down time--some for fun, some to reconnect with our surroundings and the people we love, some to stare at the world and let our brains rest. 

We're not machines, and we need not be outwardly productive every waking second. The work we produce is fed by our rest and recreation, but rest and recreation are also valuable in themselves. We need to relax; we need some joy. Most of our lives don't afford us enough chances to do this. So it's okay to embrace it wherever we can find it, okay not to apologize or scramble frantically to compensate for it.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Opening a time capsule

In 2010, my first novel was published. I made a time capsule that year, to be opened on January 1, 2020. Which is today.

Here are a few highlights from past me musing on the future that has become the present (if you can follow that):

"Will everyone just do everything by computer in 2020? Will cash money disappear?" While the digitization of everything has continued, cash is still around. For now.

"I hope that by 2020, I have several more books published." I don't know if three more, for a total of four, constitutes "several," but I can't complain.

"I worry that bookstores and libraries will disappear, and that everyone will expect to get stories online, for free." Not yet. So far, bookstores and libraries are making the most of the fact that they do more for communities than just supply reading material. (I'm thankful that they still supply reading material, too.) But people read more and more on screens, and writers still have that age-old problem of how to make a living writing.

"I hope to keep hiking and traveling." Check.

"I hope that by 2020, I have been to Japan, and maybe Hawaii, or back to Europe, as well as seeing more of the US." Check to all of that, except Japan.

"I also hope to find more balance in my life." Ha! Dream on.

"I hope environmental problems haven't become too devastating, especially global warming." Again, dream on.

"I hope the world is more peaceful ..." Sigh.

I can't imagine what 2030 will bring. Hey, I can't even imagine what the rest of this year will bring. I do know my interests have shifted farther from my personal ambitions and toward the health and welfare of the world more generally. I know I'm comfortable with a lot more uncertainty than I used to be, although I'm still more into planning than spontaneity.

I wish you all well, whatever this year and this decade bring us.



Friday, November 1, 2019

Jigsaw puzzles and writing

One of the many cool features of my local library is that they now always have a jigsaw puzzle going, and they have puzzles you can borrow (and you can donate your own old puzzles if you're looking to declutter). 

Whenever I do a jigsaw, I always think of this passage from Louise Fitzhugh's The Long Secret: "She found a piece of the puzzle that fitted and felt a resounding satisfaction. How silly, she thought, that that should make me feel so good; that a piece of cardboard cut out of another piece of cardboard and then fitted back in should make a person feel so good."

There are plenty of theories about why it feels so good: that human beings like accomplishing things, solving problems, unraveling mysteries, finding patterns. Mostly what I like about jigsaws is the meditative quality of sorting the pieces and trying to fit them together. It's a very peaceful, calming thing to do, and the bigger the puzzle, the more patience it requires.

Jigsaw puzzles have that in common with writing. In fact, I was thinking that writing a book is like putting together a huge puzzle, which has some pieces from other puzzles mixed in. You hunt out the edge pieces first (the outline, if you will) and you have a sense of what the final product is supposed to look like, but in the beginning it's daunting and can be hard to know where to start. Where do all these pink pieces go? Should I work on the water or the sky? Does this blue piece belong to the water or the sky? What are these cream-colored squiggles? Is this piece ever going to fit anywhere? Oops--this section I've been working on doesn't even belong here; it's part of another puzzle!

As more and more of it comes together, it gets easier to know what goes where. The picture gets clearer and clearer. We fit it together piece by piece, the way we build a story word by word. What started out as chaos has become an organized, cohesive whole.

With puzzles, we're just reassembling what was originally whole--while theoretically, stories are new creations. But I swear that for me, stories feel more like puzzles. Writing feels more as if I'm discovering something--something that exists already in some shadowy depths of my mind, which must be fished out piece by piece and assembled in the light.


Sunday, October 13, 2019

Joining the conversation

One of the best things about publishing is what I think of as "joining the conversation." So many times, as a young reader, I would converse with a book's characters, or with my conception of the writer, in my mind. So many times I wanted to ask, "Why did the story go there?" or "What's that based on?" or say, "Here's what I took from that," or, "Here's where I wished that would go."

Writing can bring us in touch with ourselves, and often that's enough. But when we share our poetry at the local open mic, or carry on a correspondence, or publish something that finds a wider audience, the resulting dialogues are special too. As readers and as writers, we talk about themes and trends, about language, about history and politics, creativity and imagination, hopes and dreams, voice and point of view, fears and power, memory and uncertainty. Writing reflects what matters to people, and our discussions inform our writing just as writing informs our discussions. There's always "the book everyone's talking about," but there's also, "the book I'll never forget," "the first book I loved," "the book that changed my mind," "the book about which I've changed my mind," "the book everyone else loves but I just didn't get," "the book I wish everyone would read," and of course, always, "the next book I want to read." May the circle keep widening.