Saturday, June 30, 2018

Idle moments

People check phones all the time now: At red lights. On commuter-train platforms. In the elevator. While walking down the street.

And all these little stray bits of time are when we used to zone out, stare at what was around us, check our mental to-do lists, mull over what happened at work, or count the days until vacation. Sometimes we daydreamed, and sometimes we eavesdropped on conversations around us.

I wonder if we've lost anything valuable in filling those idle random moments. I've long been a big proponent of the idea that daydreaming, rest, and zoning out are a neecessary part of a creative life, and a healthy life in general. I believe the mind needs time to wander. I've also long been resistant to the notion that we have to be outwardly productive every second.

Maybe I'm wrong, and these idle moments serve no real purpose. But I've been making a conscious effort to go with them when they crop up. To look around me, rather than constantly busying myself. I can't point to a quantifiable output resulting from these moments, but I feel the need to just let them happen.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Trying something new

My second novel grew out of an attempt I made at writing a verse novel. I had never written a verse novel before, but I thought it would be interesting and challenging and fun. The book ended up morphing into prose--and fairly quickly--but I found my way into the opening scenes through poetry.

Last year I went to a live performance that included a piece I had written. I'd never seen my work acted by professionals before, and it was a thrill. The whole thing happened because when I saw the call for submissions, instead of saying, "I've never written a performance piece for dual voices before; I can't do that," I told myself, "I want to try that."

Whenever I teach writing workshops, I talk about the great luxury we have as writers--a luxury not shared by, say, brain surgeons--of being able to start over whenever we want. We can delete, copy, produce multiple versions. We can switch a piece from first to third person, try something as a memoir or a novel (as long as we don't call fiction nonfiction), rewrite a poem as prose or vice versa, change the age of the audience we're aiming for, take a stab at a genre or form we've never worked in before. Most of my early publications were short stories. For the better part of a decade I wrote books almost exclusively. Lately I've been writing more essays.

Experimenting is always an option.

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.