Saturday, June 16, 2018

History and the illusion of inevitability

I've been thinking about historical fiction and nonfiction. From a plotting perspective, they're unusual in that we usually know how the story ends. We know how World War II came out, what happened to the Hindenburg, and when Vesuvius erupted. The writer's challenge is to create tension in the face of a known ending. Sometimes writers choose historical mysteries for that reason, or historical figures about whom very little is known, so they can create a world from plausible conjecture. Sometimes they create tension around the fate of individual fictional characters--for example, we may know how and when a war ended, but we don't know whether the characters we've been following will survive it.

The inevitability of known outcomes is also tough to keep out of the characters' minds. When we readers and writers know how things come out, it's tempting to think the characters should know it, too. But when I look at the world today, I have no idea how things will go. Many historical events only look inevitable in hindsight, and I think that sense of uncertainty, that sense that anything could happen, is crucial if difficult to capture.

Friday, June 8, 2018

After dreams come true

"I had imagined my dreams coming true, but not what happened after that."--Melissa Febos, "Home," in Good-bye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York

This sentence really jumped out at me, because I've spent the past couple of years in the "after that." I think most writers expect that once we publish books, we will keep on and on. Even if we've said, pre-publication, that we would be thrilled just to publish once, just this one book, we know deep down that every step we climb shows us more steps ahead, new floors we want to reach. We reach one goal only to set another.

And sometimes we find that the new goal isn't attainable. Or isn't what we want anymore. Life is full of curveballs, diversions, setbacks. 

It's also full of new opportunities. 

We need not follow every single road to the end. Even if we once saw that highway stretching out clear and straight before us. There may be a side road beckoning, a twisty road that's hard to see the end of, but the sunlight and the flowers lining it are tempting.

We don't always know what's coming, but that may be part of the fun.


Sunday, May 27, 2018

Word choice and world building

I blogged about word choice and world building over at YA Outside the Lines. Feel free to check it out. A sample: "We don’t just build stage sets; we show how our characters respond to their surroundings." 

Friday, May 18, 2018

Procrastination has its place

"I have got to learn not to believe I have to do everything immediately." 
--May Sarton, Encore: A Journal of the Eightieth Year

I've often quoted Sarton's journals, which are all about the day-to-day life of a writer. She was writing decades ago and in a time before the internet took over our lives, but so many of the issues she discusses are evergreen. She talks about professional disappointments and envy. She talks about what she enjoys in other writers' work, and how much she appreciates the support of friends. She discusses money, and fear, and uncertainty, and anger, and the hunger for solitude. She recounts the difficulty of finding time and energy to work, of the times when inspiration won't strike, of the times when a poem gets stuck coming out, or falls flat, or gets overworked. She reports the satisfaction of words falling into place.

One constant in the journals is the feeling of pressure, of too much to do, of not enough time. Writers' lives have only gotten busier. I derive great satisfaction from my to-do lists, and they help keep me on track. But sometimes I find myself adding more and more items, feeling more and more as if life is an endless round of chores. And then I remind myself, as Sarton says above, that it's okay to let some things wait. Or even drop altogether.

Or, as Nora Ephron says in I Feel Bad About My Neck and Other Thoughts on Being a Woman
"We can't do everything.
I have been given the secret of life."


Friday, May 11, 2018

Exploring

Lately, I've been reading more and hiking more. People-watching. Birdcam-watching. Exercising more. Reading on the porch. Keeping up with my civic responsibilities (aka, calling my legislators, going to public meetings, and remembering to vote in the upcoming primary). 

As for writing ... I'm refilling the well, no longer feeling the need to write constantly just to be writing. This is my third consecutive year of keeping a daily journal (something I did only intermittently in the past), and I participate weekly in the micro-nonfiction exercise known as #cnftweet (Creative Nonfiction's challenge to tell a true story in a single tweet, including the hashtag #cnftweet). So I am writing regularly. But I am trying new things.

I love YA literature, and once I began to publish in that field, I thought I'd come home, that that was where I would stay. And I wouldn't say I've turned my back on it. But I'm being called in new directions at the moment, so I'm exploring. A writer's life is ever unpredictable.

Friday, April 27, 2018

Writing's silver linings

I have a new post up at YA Outside the Lines. All month we've been blogging about rejection, and mine is about "good" rejections.

In other news, today I was thinking how one of the best things about writing is how many times we can start over, and change things, and choose our own endings, and try alternate scenes. We can bring characters back to life, undo any crisis, stop time while we perfect a line in a scene. In these ways, the page is more forgiving than real life. It's not like brain surgery, I always say--if we totally screw up a story, we can put it aside and start over.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

On exercise and assumptions

Some of us who were bookish kids, who didn't play organized team sports at a young age, believed that we just weren't athletic. If we didn't care much about the most popular sports, if we didn't understand the rules of whatever game we were playing in gym class that day, if we were afraid of being awkward or missing the ball, we bought into the idea that physical activity just wasn't for us. I bought into that myth for years, until well into high school.

At some point, though, I noticed that I liked to dance, and while that wasn't a sport, it was certainly a physical activity. And I liked volleyball, and was lucky to go to a college where the athletic director had made it a sort of mission to get as many students as possible involved in intramural sports, especially volleyball, by emphasizing fun. No longer was exercise something I "couldn't do" or "wasn't good at." I also started to realize that I'd played outdoors in the woods as a kid, and I liked to walk everywhere--and when you put those two things together, you get hiking. After college, I joined hiking clubs, and I still make walks and hikes a part of my daily life.

So I suppose there are two conclusions here. First, writing is a sedentary activity, and it's important to balance it out with physical activity. It doesn't matter what--yoga, martial arts, walking, running, tennis, dance, swimming, bicycling--anything that seems fun. And second, sometimes it's good to question our assumptions about ourselves, especially our perceived limitations.


Tuesday, March 27, 2018

After a rest

Winter is slowly loosening its grip. The hardiest flowers are coming up, shaking off the last of the snow. Birds are nesting.

The trees are still bare of leaves. But inside them, we know the sap will soon rise. The earth wakes up after its rest. I've always believed that the sleep of winter is essential to the beauty of spring, just as I often have a burst of creativity after a fallow period.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Nature

Most of yesterday I spent away from gadgets, outdoors in nature. As a friend and I were discussing today (during more time spent in nature), there's something about nature, about greenery and living things, that is profoundly nourishing. 

This has always been an essential part of my life, and I want to make a more conscious effort to remember that, to make time for this even more often. There are fragrant carpets of pine needles and secret woodland pools waiting out there.

Friday, March 9, 2018

Good enough

"The only end of writing is to enable the readers better to enjoy life, or better to endure it."
--Samuel Johnson*

I like this statement from Johnson--it's so concise, punchy even. It's such a nice answer to the question of why people should ever bother with a task as uncertain as writing.

On this topic, I'm also partial to a line from Sylvia Plath. The poet narrator of Plath's The Bell Jar defends her avocation (in her mind, in response to a condescending remark from her med-student boyfriend) as "writing poems people would remember and repeat to themselves when they were unhappy or sick and couldn't sleep." It struck me the first time I read it, and has remained, one of my favorite explanations for what writers give the world.

Opening doors. Providing illumination, or comfort, or knowledge, or recognition. It's a good enough way to spend a life.


*from Johnson's review of Soame Jenyns' "Free Enquiry into the Nature of the Origin of Good and Evil," per Apocrypha, the Samuel Johnson Sound Bite page

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Spring cycles

We have been out greeting the spring this weekend.

Despite the fact that the weekend began with a blustery dose of snow, spring is definitely creeping  up on us. The snowdrops are up; the witch hazel is blooming; the crocuses and early cherry trees are starting. I've even seen daffodils and one brave, early dandelion.

We heard young frogs croaking, and birds are pairing up and working on nests. The sun is warmer, even if the wind is cold. You can smell the earth again, as the slushy snow melts into the mud.

We visited an eagle's nest today, because at this time of year we usually see them tending to eggs or nestlings. But half the nest was wrecked by winter weather, and the birds weren't there. According to the park ranger, the eagles are hanging around and have done some repairs, but they may not produce young this year, an eagle's nest being a major construction project.

On the other hand, there's hope for the red-tail hawks at Cornell this year. After years of successful nests, last year brought tragedy: the sudden death of the male right at the start of mating season. The female found a new mate, with whom she is working on one of her old nests, and maybe we will see more young this year.

The rituals of nature are comforting. Plants and animals face change, adversity and loss; they don't always have happy endings. But they keep blooming, nesting, feeding. They live out their own stories, of which we catch occasional glimpses.



Friday, February 23, 2018

Dangerous Creations

I'm pleased to have an essay in the upcoming issue of the Creative Nonfiction journal. The issue's theme is "Dangerous Creations," exploring "the intersections of technological innovation and the human condition," and my essay delves into the thoughts of many recent authors on this issue. Information about the issue is  here, and there's also a link to my article (titled "What's This Doing to My Brain?").

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Olympic stories

I've always loved the Olympics. When I was little, they seemed to take forever to come around--four years being a much bigger chunk of my life back then, and the winter and summer games not being biennially staggered yet, the way they are now.

Every time the athletes march in for the opening ceremony, full of hope and expectations, I think how there will be the same stories we've seen before: the coronation of an expected gold medalist. The surprise winner, who medals though he or she wasn't supposed to. The scrappy heart-stealing competitor bouncing back from some personal tragedy. The winner who nearly loses but comes through at the last moment, unbelievable grace under unbelievable pressure. And always, there's at least one star who was expected to win, but lost because of one moment's lapse in concentration, one slip, one stumble. There's the one who comes achingly close, losing by a millimeter, or by one one-hundredth of a second. There may be a fall from grace, a disqualification due to some form of doping, or unsportsmanlike boorishness.

There are also the stories we don't see--the athletes worked tremendously hard but will lose in the qualifying rounds, the ones with no medal hopes. I remember one year the broadcasters showed us such a skier, just so we could appreciate the flashy downhill winners all the more. And truly, this skier seemed to be moving in slow motion by comparison. But I have never forgotten him, that skier determinedly taking his downhill run on Olympic snow. 

In just two weeks' time, there are so many stories, so much tension and heartbreak and triumph. We've seen the stories before, but they remain compelling, because we can never be sure which players will get the happy ending, which the near miss, which the tragic fall, until the flame is extinguished.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Online mindfully

My latest post at YA Outside the Lines addressed being online in a mindful way. A sample:

"It’s easy to get swept up in technology, but we can make conscious choices about where and how we want to be present."

Feel free to hop on over there and check it out.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Waiting and letting go

"Because of the enormous wind and rain we have had, a lot of the daffodils have blown down, though not as many as I had feared. But the truth is that their peak is past. We shall have them for another week and then they will be gone. It seems quite unbearable but that is what spring is--the letting go. The waiting and waiting and waiting, and then the letting go."
--May Sarton, Encore: A Journal of the Eightieth Year

This passage leaped out at me because it is also how I experience spring: the waiting and waiting for those first spears of crocus leaf, the white blossoms of snowdrop, the electric blue of glory-of-the-snow. The first subtle stars of witch hazel in an otherwise bleak landscape. At the beginning, it's easy to keep an inventory of everything as it blooms, because the flowers are so few and so long anticipated. And then the waves start--daffodils, hyacinths, forsythia, lesser celandine, the earliest cherries, redbuds, weeping cherries, dogwoods, bluebells and wood poppies, violets, azaleas, lilacs, the late cherries--all of them brilliant for such a short time, often peaking within a week. I welcome each wave and let it go, reluctantly. And then the trees leaf out and the longer-lived, less showy flowers such as dandelions and clover bloom, and we settle into summer. 

In the coming weeks, in my part of the country, the spring watch will start. There is always some adventurous early flower that comes out during a winter thaw and gets frozen in the bud (usually forsythia and cherries, but once I saw daffodils blooming on New Year's Eve). Otherwise we will wait and wait and wait for the waves of spring, and then we will let each one go in turn.

My writer friends may also recognize a pattern in that: waiting and waiting and waiting--for ideas, for feedback, for publication, for responses. Letting go--of expectations, of ideas that didn't work, of manuscripts that didn't find readers, of successful stories that nonetheless cannot be dwelt in forever. Turning to the next wave, for its unique beauty, for however long it may last.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Unease

I don't have a digital assistant.

Actually, I find robotic voices a little creepy. It's especially startling to answer your phone and find someone who sounds like a person asking how you are and laughing about their kids, and you realize it's just a scripted bot, not a person, on the other end.

The simulation of the human voice is what creeps me out, I think. Similarly, I can't stand the kind of animation that you now see in video games and lots of movies, with people who look close to real but just have that tiny bit of "offness" that completely repels me.

Anyway, this is my own quirk, and to each their own. But I think about this every time I hear a commercial in which an actress is impersonating a digital assistant. Why have the advertisers decided that the digital assistant is the perfect pitchwoman? Are we that dependent on our own flawed creations? 

Maybe this is a silly question to ask about advertising--which after all, has used cartoon bears, dancing raisins, and a man sailing a tiny boat in your toilet tank as "trusted authorities" for the sake of selling us stuff. In light of that, why not use the digital assistant?

There's just something wild to me about an actress impersonating a digital assistant, given that the digital assistant impersonates human assistants. More and more, we are living in a world of such circularity, of illusion. There could be a story here. Right now what I have is just a sense of unease, but unease leads to plenty of stories. Unease is the scratch of a match against the striking pad.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Reading

I've been reading (transcribed) oral histories, memoirs, personal essays, and letters. On deck I have a biography and a novel. I'm loving all these different formats and voices and time periods (which range from the 1800s to the present). Sitting down with a book or a magazine is still my favorite way to spend an afternoon hour, as well as being my favorite way to begin and end the day.

It's a good counterpoint to all the news I'm reading and watching--and sometimes it enhances my understanding. Because over and over again, the issues we battle out in the news are issues that people have dealt with in previous eras. So many times, I find lines or quotes from 200 years ago that could be written today, could apply to present situations.

I'm not sure whether it's comforting or exasperating that we argue the same points over and over. Maybe both.
 

Friday, January 5, 2018

Sources of conflict

"For generation upon generation we humans have continued to try to heal our pain by inflicting more pain on others. And so it continues ..."
--Anne Speiser, in The Mindfulness Bell, Winter/Spring 2007

I zeroed in on this quote because it captures the way I approach characters, particularly "villains." I put "villains" in quotes because I think most people are not villains in their own minds, even if they're viewed that way by others. And all of us have the capability to do villainous things, at least sometimes. Most of us think we are more good than bad, that we are trying our best in a difficult world.

I try not to have my characters' bad acts reduced to a simple this-trauma-caused-that-transgression formula; it's too simplistic. I leave it to the reader to decide whether a rationale is an excuse, whether an act is forgivable. I don't usually have good characters vs. evil characters, but rather the positive and negative within each person churning and roiling, testing each character. To me, these are the most interesting conflicts, the most interesting sources of growth. 

To go back to the quote, of course we shouldn't pass along our pain. But we often do. So my stories ask, what then? What next, and can we ever break this cycle?