Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Wonderful, Frustrating Google

ARGH! Google fatigue! Information overload!

I wasted about 2 hours today trying to research how the juvenile courts worked in 1970s Mississippi. I need information on how my novel’s protagonist, Cissy, will make her way through the criminal justice system and into a state mental hospital.

I’m starting to believe I’d have better luck with a card catalogue system at a university library.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Google. I use it EVERY SINGLE DAY for something. Looking up phone numbers, checking spelling of corporate names, finding restaurants or hotels, etc.

I’m just frustrated by the inability of the World Wide Web to serve me what I want on a silver platter, straight to my computer. Did I think research for a novel would be that easy? Well, not really. But I was hoping that Google would narrow down my options.

I’m wondering how other authors go about research, especially those who write on complicated subjects including law, medicine, espionage.

Let me know if you’ve faced similar challenges. What subjects have you had to research for your fiction?

Monday, September 28, 2009

Natura Naturans

I first heard the phrase “Natura Naturans” from my nephew who plans to have the words tattooed on his back. It’s a Latin term for “nature naturing,” or more loosely “nature doing what nature does,” and it was top of mind today when I took a two-hour hike on the Lower Hermosa Creek trail near my home. In Durango, we’re experiencing an Indian summer with temperatures near 80 today so it would have been a crime to stay indoors.

Never before have the oaks been so vibrant in their fall color. My vocabulary was stunted for most of the walk and I rarely managed more than “Wow,” “Look!” and “Oh, those!”

Once again, a writer at a loss for words. The irony is that nothing inspires me as much as being in the woods. The colors, the scents, the sounds, the textures all call out for someone to catalog them but being so incredibly awe-inspiring, they defy description. They require participation.

I ran across an out of print book called Nature Writing: The Tradition in English. Writers like Muir, Dillard and Thoreau join many others in writing essays on their natural world.
I like to imagine them soaking in every detail of their experiences, passing those details through the filter of a writer’s mind, capturing at least the essence of natura naturans for others to experience from the page.

Today, I breathed in the mix of sun and dust and pine needles on the trail. I heard the lowing of the cattle herd still roaming the hills and the frantic scurrying and chattering of chipmunks and squirrels beneath fallen leaves and brush. I scratched the bark of an elder pine tree to smell the faintest hints of vanilla and burnt caramel. I allowed the wind and the sun to kiss my face, to embrace me, to wash away the worries of the metal and concrete world.

Has nature been an important part of your writing or creative life? In what way?

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Real Writers Kill Dogs

I want to recommend a book for anyone who is serious about fiction writing. It’s called “What If? Writing Exercises for Fiction Writers” (Bernays/Painter).

One of the authors, Pam Painter, taught the weeklong fiction workshop I attended at Ghost Ranch in August. I’ve been a writer for 30 years and the exercises gave me completely different insight into writing techniques and revitalized all aspects of my writing.

There are too many brilliant exercises to mention but the one that’s on my mind is called Kill the Dog.

The authors write: “If you want to write serious fiction, you have to kill the neighbor’s dog. In fiction there is no avoiding the malevolent. In fact, there are very few states of mind or motivation that lie beyond your reach. You should be able to describe a tree, cooking a gourmet meal or slaughtering an animal, for one reason or another, you want to get rid of. Just as an actor assumes the role of a killer and makes him plausible, dispatch the animal convincingly and without flinching.”

YIKES! The emotional and physical reactions I had to reading that chapter were many: revulsion, horror, fear, anxiety, anger.

I still haven’t attempted this exercise. But I completely understand the need to stretch beyond the limits of what is comfortable.

In my novel, God Doesn’t Like Sweet Cornbread, the protagonist has been sexually assaulted by her father for 10 years. It’s not a pretty subject. In fact, some days I’m emotionally spent after spending time in Cissy’s head.

What do you think of this exercise? Have you written on difficult subjects, even put yourself in the shoes of a killer, villain or sleaze ball?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Word Count: The Evil Enemy

I’m in week 8 of The Artist’s Way. Once again, I’m struck by the messages that were surely written specifically for me.

Here’s a passage:
Instead of allowing ourselves a creative journey, we focus on the length of the trip. Focused on process, our creative life retains a sense of adventure. Focused on product, the same creative life can seem foolish or barren. Creativity lies not in the done, but in doing.

I’ve learned that when you tell someone you’re writing a book, the first question you’re asked is “What’s it about?” The second question is “When will you be finished?”

The “word count” feature in Microsoft Word is an evil enemy because it keeps your eye on the product (a finished work of at least 80,000 words).

On my intention board was a Post-It note that read “Finish novel by Dec. 31, 2009.” I’ve replaced it with “Write each day. Show up.”

How can the story unfold naturally if I give myself a word limit and a deadline? I’m not a journalist any more. I’m a conduit for a story that aches to be told, that’s still being formed, that needs time and space to expand and contract.

Granted, a map on this journey would do a lot to ease my anxiety. But what if I decided to see that anxiety as anticipation of what’s to unfold?

In five or 10 years, when I look back at my path, I’m certain it won’t be one that I could’ve predicted.

What's the “product” that stands in the way of your creative process?

Friday, September 18, 2009

Best Revenge is Massive Success

I walk along the river trail in Durango two to three times a week. I say hello to everyone I pass but only one out of several will reply or smile. I came home in a snit the other day because this trend really started to bother me. “What’s wrong with me?” I asked my husband.

The next day, I heard a bit on the radio about a study that revealed a person’s self-esteem is boosted when others smile or say hello to them. Aha! Each time someone failed to respond (smile, nod, speak), I felt rejected!

Rejection…a walker’s AND a writer’s constant companion.

My friend, Liz, from Austin, sent me a cool link about famous authors who were rejected repeatedly and often rudely by publishers and agents. I’ve never felt more hopeful about my novels’ prospects!

Here’s just a sample of the comments. Are you as blown away as I am?

  • Stephen King’s novel, Carrie, was rejected dozens of times. One publisher said: “We are not interested in science fiction which deals with negative utopias. They do not sell."
  • William Golding’s Lord of the Flies was rejected by 20 publishers. One denounced the future classic with these words: “An absurd and uninteresting fantasy which was rubbish and dull.”
  • Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind was rejected 38 times.
  • John Grisham’s first novel, A Time to Kill, was rejected by a dozen publishers and 16 agents before breaking into print and launching his best-selling career.
  • After John le CarrĂ© submitted his first novel, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, one of the publishers sent it along to a colleague, with this message: “You’re welcome to le CarrĂ© – he hasn’t got any future.”

As Frank Sinatra once said, “The best revenge is massive success.”

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Scrabble and the Sh**ty First Draft

So, I skipped my blog on Thursday and played Scrabble instead. My husband’s sister (Camm) and brother (Garth) are in town and she’s a Scrabble fiend.

Here’s the irony. I’m a professional writer and editor and I can only come up with words like aim, key, box, top, get. But because we play gals against guys, she’s the reason we win.

Sometimes I’ll look at my tray of letters and my mind draws a complete blank. I could have a seven-letter word worth an extra 50 points but my brain locks up and I fail to see what’s right there in front of me.

Occasionally, it’s like that when I work on my novel or other fiction. I’m staring, staring, staring at a paragraph. There’s got to be a better work for X, I think. I stare some more. Surely, it will come to me. BRAIN LOCK!

I tend to obsess over a sentence or a paragraph instead of getting that sh***y first draft on paper. In fact, I’ve gotten into the nasty habit of starting up my computer, opening the file and reading FROM THE BEGINNING before I start writing. Now, I start each new chapter in a different file so I’m not so tempted to obsess about what’s already been written.

Self-doubt, perfectionism, ego… all enemies of the sh***ty first draft. Come on! Let’s toughen up! Put those random thoughts down; don’t fret about complete sentences, perfect punctuation, stilted dialogue, purple prose and the occasional POV shift.

Author Natalie Goldberg writes about the editor/censor being stronger than the writer at times. Maybe a bit of compassion for ourselves could unlock the creative force that’s resisting the constraints we so often put on our writing.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Voices in Your Head Besides Your Own

Wally Lamb, author of “She’s Come Undone,” writes from the perspective of Dolores, an obese, isolated young woman who attempts suicide during her first semester in college and spends seven years in a mental institution.

There’s a lot more to the book but my point is that Wally is a man, writing from a woman’s perspective about rape, eating disorders, a ticking biological clock and more. Not once when I was reading the book did I think, “This is a guy trying to sound like a woman.” Dolores’ voice rang true throughout.

This brings me to the assumption that writers write what they know. Many beginning writers do because it’s easier to draw from personal experiences when first trying to craft a story. Many start with memoirs because they’ve been comfortable journaling for a large part of their lives – and let’s face it, our childhoods provide a lot of material.

But writers also step into the lives of people completely unlike themselves and tell rich, complex stories from the viewpoint of another sex, race, sexual orientation, age, or species!

One of my novels is about Cissy, a 16-year-old girl in South Mississippi in the late 1960s who shoots her father five times in the back for sexually abusing her for 10 years. I’ve never been to Biloxi. My father didn’t sexually assault me. I’ve never been institutionalized in a state mental hospital.

I hear Cissy’s voice in my head, clearer than most of the voices in my head (kidding). Seriously though, my goal is that Cissy will speak to my readers, that her story will stand on its own and that my contribution is providing a vehicle for her voice.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Eat Bon-Bons for a Living

I’m a big believer of sending out intentions to the universe and being very specific about what you want. I wanted more time to write, I asked for more time to write, and before I knew it, there was a flurry of gifts from the universe that allowed me to do just that.

“The universe is giving me what I asked for!” I wanted to shout to everyone I knew.

I wasn’t prepared for the lukewarm and sometimes negative responses to my news of going part-time so I could concentrate at least 20-24 hours a week on the novels and other writing. And these responses were from friends!

“In this economy? What are you thinking?!”
“I wish I had that luxury!”
“I wish I didn’t have to work.”

To that last comment, I wrote my friend and said, “I’m not going to be eating bon-bons on my days off. I’m treating this as a real job. I’m going to get up and sit at my desk and write.”

I recently saw a talk by author Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love) on TED. If you haven’t seen it, WATCH IT NOW! She speaks to the fear-based reactions that writers often get from friends and family:
Aren’t you afraid you won’t make any money?
Aren’t you afraid you won’t be successful?
Aren’t you afraid the humiliation of rejection will kill you?

Gilbert asks “Is it logical to be afraid of doing the work you were put on this earth to do?”

She’s often asked what she will do if her next book isn’t as successful as Eat, Pray, Love. Gilbert admitted it will likely not be as successful as her “freakish first success.” But she was going to keep getting up each and every day to write because that’s her job.

And that’s what you’ll find me doing on Mondays and Fridays – writing, doing my job, showing up. Although bon-bons do sound pretty good right about now...

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Forcing Inspiration

Since I haven't stated it in earlier blogs, I do marketing and communications work as a remote employee for Goodwill Industries International, which is located in Maryland. I didn’t mention it because work was going to stay separate from my writing life. Yeah, right.

Friday was my first full day off under the new part-time work schedule and I blew it. Thought I’d be up and writing by 7:30 a.m. My mistake was checking my work email ON MY DAY OFF. There were two urgent messages. If I responded I’d be setting a precedent that work could encroach on my writing days. If I didn’t, we’d miss a deadline to submit comments on a joint communications project with a federal government agency.

I caved and did about an hour’s worth of work. Then I got angry. At myself mostly. I convinced myself I was too riled up to work on one of my novels, so I decided to clean the cat box, then vacuum, then clean the kitchen countertops, then pay the bills.

My husband, Andy, said it will take some time to develop a structure for my writing schedule and not to force it.

This afternoon, as Andy watched college football, I curled up in bed with my cat and my laptop. When I finally took a bathroom break, I realized I had been writing for more than two hours.

I guess inspiration can’t be forced into an 8-5 schedule and I didn’t blow it on Friday after all.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Smother the Inner Critic and Listen to the Smart Ones

I’m my own worst critic. I know that. I’ve always known that. But I’ve devoted a good deal of time nurturing a voice that stifles the critic or at least drowns it out. They really go at it some days:

  • Critic: You’re not that great a writer.
  • Champion: You’re a GREAT writer.
  • Critic: You’ll never make a living at it.
  • Champion: You can achieve anything you want.
  • Critic: Get a sensible job.
  • Champion: Do what you love.

You can see why I feel a bit schizophrenic at times. My goal is to completely smother the critic voice one day but I’m realistic. That voice will always be there. However, I choose to surround myself with people who support me and my dreams without judgment, but who can offer positive criticism on my writing.

During the writer’s retreat I attended in August, I signed up for 30 minutes with a literary agent. She read 10 pages of my novel-in-progress and gave me her first impressions…which weren’t very positive. I didn’t cry, or panic and throw out the novel. I gave myself some time to process the comments and then I emailed my friends for support.

My dear friend Katrina in Mississippi (who regularly reads and critiques my work) wrote back: “F*** her! She’s wrong! Your writing makes me weep! It will find a home somewhere!” Then she calmed down and wrote: "Sometimes critics who have 99% of it wrong have the 1% right that can be pivotal." She’s so smart.

The writing life entails rejection. The trick is to be open to the criticism and not shut down. Let’s ferret out the nuggets of truth that will help us become better at our craft. More importantly, let’s not allow our own fears and judgments to sabotage our efforts.

P.S. Irene, a writer I met at the retreat, said she places her rejection letters in a file titled “Not Yet.” What a great outlook to have.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Shine a Light on the Shadow Artist

About 15 years ago, my brother gave me a book called The Artist's Way by Julia Cameron. I browsed through it and thought, "Eh, not for me. Too woo-woo." I gave that copy away only to buy another one 10 years later. Flipped through the table of contents again, and thought, "Nah, too busy for those damn morning pages." Gave away that copy, too.

Then, about six weeks ago, my friend Mindy emailed and asked if I'd like to read The Artist's Way and meet weekly to discuss our challenges or insights. I was moved that she trusted me with this kind of process and I jumped at the chance for self-exploration. After all, I had taken other steps to get in touch with the creativity I thought I had lost (or misplaced). It seemed a natural fit.

I bought the book for a THIRD time. When I opened it up, I screamed, "She wrote this just for me!" I kept underlining and circling parts that resonated. After marking up the book considerably, I admitted that it ALL resonated.

Today, though, I want to share the powerful concept of the shadow artist because it can be applied to almost anyone. Shadow artists often choose shadow careers, those close to the art but not the art itself. Someone might open a gallery instead of painting, or become an agent instead of an actor. In my case, I chose to be a journalist and nonprofit writer/editor instead of a fiction writer. It's easier to sit on the periphery than to follow a dream. We stifle an inner voice that tries to remind us of those activities that make us most happy, most fulfilled.

Am I encouraging you to quit your job as a pharmacist, lawyer, teacher or retail clerk? Absolutely not. Why not start with shining a light on your shadow artist and making small but meaningful steps toward reclaiming your creativity. Sign up for a photography class or art lessons. Make your own greeting cards. Perfect the chocolate souffle. Stencil a border in your bathroom.

Committing to being a fiction writer was the most powerful gift I ever gave myself. I've learned those inner voices have a lot to say.

A Thrilling, Frightening New Path

Some time ago, I ran across a quote by Lao-tzu that hit me like a ton of bricks. "At the center of your being you have the answer; you know who you are and you know what you want." I immediately e-mailed it to several friends. My wise friend Wendy wrote back and asked, "What's the answer?" Without hesitation, I responded, "I must write."

This statement needs clarification. I've been a writer my entire life, starting as a journalist and then serving as a writer/editor for national and international nonprofits for 20 years. In October 2008, something shifted. I have enjoyed most of my career, but it has left me exhausted and burned out. I rarely had time for personal (non work-related) writing — and most attempts were prompted by profound life experiences such as a family member’s death or some insight gained in therapy.

In October 2008, that changed. One morning, I woke up and began creative writing again, words spilling out almost beyond my control. I couldn’t type fast enough. It was almost as if I were taking dictation from a belligerent muse.

Having never attempted a novel-length work, I started two pieces of fiction at the same time. I also began writing personal essays and pitching magazine articles to editors again. What the heck was going on?

Next, I started putting "intentions" out to the universe (in the form of Post-It notes on my bulletin board): Attend a writer's retreat. Finish the novel by Dec. 31, 2009. Start or join a local writers' group. Get accepted to Hedgebrook 2010. Write for fun. Writing is a calling, not a hobby.

A year later, I've made some serious steps toward living a writer's life.
  • I negotiated a part-time job with my employer so I can write more.
  • I attended a writers' retreat for women sponsored by A Room of Her Own Foundation. (Check this out -- it will change your life!)
  • I applied for a one-month writer's residency in 2010 at Hedgebrook (selections take place in December).
  • I formed a local writers' group where four amazing women meet twice monthly to critique each other's novels in progress.
  • I write for fun!
  • I was so inspired by short story writer Pamela Painter that I am writing some flash fiction and LOVE IT.
  • I just had my first piece of fiction accepted by a literary journal (Wilderness House Literary Review).
  • I am completing The Artist's Way (by Julia Cameron) with a good friend (we keep each other honest about morning pages and artist's dates).
This new path is thrilling and frightening. I spent 22 years at full-time jobs with deadlines from co-workers, clients or bosses. My work was externally driven. I was a hard worker! I produced results! I punched a time clock!

Now, I am faced with a blank slate the days I'm not working at my "day job." I am accountable only to myself. I must find a way to structure my days with writing, revising, researching, blogging, reading good writing, sending out my work. I must find a way to ignore the calls of dirty laundry, unmade beds or unwashed dishes.

Thanks, La0-tzu, for helping me clarify my path. I'll stumble along the way, and make a few wrong turns (or detours), but it's bound to be more fun that way. Hope you'll join me for part of the journey.