Friday, April 22, 2011

Margin Notes: Every Last One, Ellen Goodman

I certainly can’t teach Ellen Goodman anything about making a story and characters come to life.  I made many notes to myself as I began Every Last One.  I admired her sharp characterizations and brilliant descriptions that conjure up protagonist Mary Beth’s house and allow the gardens she tends to bloom before me.  Her vivid writing makes it hard to resist the pull of her characters and story.  That’s the way it’s done, I found myself saying time and again in Goodman's melancholy portrait of an American family. But, of course, writers who win Pulitzer Prizes and end up on the best-seller lists have these skills.  They know how to animate their characters and draw us into their settings.   But other techniques she employed had me wondering, specifically about flashbacks.

Three Kinds of Flashbacks

One of my tough writing lessons came early when, figuratively, I had my knuckles cracked with a ruler every time I resorted to flashbacks at the expense of moving the story forward.  I came to realize that flashbacks can be an easy short hand when you don’t want to delve into an episode in detail that is not central to your story but does ground a scene in some way.  Let’s say a character appears late for an important meeting and you spend a line or two mentioning a storm that held up traffic, or some such.  Storm drama is not important here, but you have to account for her being late.  So you start in present time.  “She opened the door and stood on the threshold drenched from the storm that delayed her arrival (maybe some more description for dramatic effect,)” then immediately jump forward to present time in the story.  “She closed the door and said, “Am I too late?”  For purposes of my point, we assume the writer chooses not to use another device, such as dialogue to explain the late hour.  So the movement is:  Present time; quick flashback, present time again and moving forward.  Done and done. 

The trap that flashback holds for us, though, is that in referring to an earlier event, we can become engrossed the past.  Our heroine arrives late from the storm that delayed her arrival, and then we give the details of the storm, the flooding river, the rescue attempts, the dog wandering the storm-tossed river bank.  Interesting, but this doesn’t advance the story and the reader is left either wondering what the storm has to do with anything, or, having become so engrossed in the storm, is confused when the present story reappears, wondering which is the real story.  In another back story technique that Percy Lubbock calls regression and retardation, this is done for a specific effect, but I'm not going to discuss that here.    

Goodman uses flashback in a third way.  She starts a new paragraph at some point in time after the ending of the scene in the previous paragraph.  Fair enough.  But then she quickly jumps back to fill in what happened in between, information that, unlike the storm in the previous example, is quite relevant.  Why, I asked myself, did she not start with the fill-in since it was important to the story and she gives most of it anyway, then move forward to the event that opened the chapter?  I don’t know the answer, but the effect for me was two-fold.  First, she gave away the punchline, so to speak, by telling me what happened, and then going back to the drama that led to the episode she started with (it is even cumbersome to describe).  Throughout the book there was this two steps forward and three steps back movement that I found jarring.  I think it is a question of starting at the beginning.  Not starting in the middle and going back to the beginning, which you can do once, maybe twice, and then no more.

In addition, by jumping back and forward in time, she skimmed along the surface of the story, rather than revealing the depth of joy or suffering the characters were experiencing.  This is what I mean by flashback that can be shorthand.  I’m not going to give away Goodman’s story, so I’ll make something up that might approximate her approach. 

Let’s say the character wakes up in the hospital and the nurse puts her new baby in her arms.  (We’ve been waiting for this event and we're expecting to move forward as she experiences motherhood for the first time.)  Then the new mother reflects on the drive to the hospital, which we saw in the previous paragraph.  All we get is,  “She refuses to think about her husband telling her about his affair.”  What affair?  This is the first we're hearing of this.  How can she brush that from her mind?  When the father walks in the door to meet his new infant, the meeting with the mother is frosty.  No wonder, but we need to know more.  We are told the essential information, but not how it resonates on the character (this has happened in the past we are not shown--that's the shorthand).  If, much later the writer mentions in a telling fashion (as Goodman does) the scene in the car with the big revelation, the ride to the hospital, some of the labor, her finally holding the baby knowing what she knows about the father, she's already had the meeting with the father, so this information doesn't have the same impact it would have had if we had experienced with her in real time hearing the news on the way to the hospital and all that followed.  How much better we would know the character, empathize with her, and him, for that matter, depending on their story, if we went through that experience with them instead of being told after the fact.  How much tension the reader would feel when the father walks into the room to greet his new child.

In Goodman’s book, I found the moving back and forth with tidbits to fill in the story, not only distracting, but it kept Mary Beth at a remove.  We see her reflecting or recounting on some important events in the story, rather than go through them with her.  We don’t feel her pain.  I know we can’t give every moment of a character’s life, and we often have to skip along and leave some events to the reader’s imagination, but we shouldn’t short change the reader on the ones that matter.

What I took away from the book:  Handling time and backstory is difficult, but we run the risk of alientating the reader to some degree when we mishandle it and use it too often.  Flashback can be an easier way to tell a story, but overdone, it is at some cost to the reader.  So I made a note to watch how I handle flashbacks in my own work in an attempt to keep it from distracting and diluting my story. 

Despite my problems with flashback, I also discovered once again in Goodman's book the power of sharply drawn scenes that reveal characters, such as those with the children.  I learned that if you let the reader get to know your characters in their ordinary moments, free of trauma, he or she will care more deeply about them when life is cruel to them.  As a teacher of mine once said, “If you want me to care about a character’s death, make me care about their life.”

 I also found myself grieving with this family because Goodman's portrayal of loss had touched some of my own unacknowledged griefs.  Some personal loss came to the surface for me to examine.  And despite the flaws I found in this book, that is its true gift.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

A lesson in the writer's craft from paper dolls

Isabella DeBorchegrave takes a page from the writer's handbook with her paper recreations of famous clothes and costumes from the Medici's to Fortuny to Coco Chanel.  The exhibit, Pulp Fashion, at San Francisco's Legion of Honor, suspends the viewer's disbelief with astonishing brilliance.  Even as you examine up close, or as close as the guards will allow, the hand-painted, life size paper creations, it is hard to believe you are not looking at cut velvet, lace, bejeweled ribbon and silk. You step into a fantasy of opulence and style, art and wealth, power and seduction as you walk around the legendary gowns and court finery worn by mannequins that seemed to have stepped out of the paintings of Botticelli and the Renaissance masters.  Towards the end of the exhibit, when I was able to catch my breath and think about the work with some distance, it struck me that this experience is exactly the task set by the writer who must create a world on paper, but with words instead of paint.  But what is it that allows the writer to make the universe of her characters or his experience so vivid and real that the reader's mind is not continually saying, this is only a story, this is not real, these are only paper dolls?  Why do we inhabit the characters lives and build such a close relationship with them that we feel their joy and grief as if it were our own?  I'm thinking of Agee's A Death in the Family, which I read five years after my own father died unexpectedly of a heart attack while traveling to the village in Ireland where he was born.  The day I got the news I actually felt something inside of me pull me away from the awful reality so that I could not feel it, went numb for awhile before tears could come.  But years later, as I read about Agee's fictional father, and his family's shock and grief, their struggle to understand the accident that changed everything in their lives forever, I found myself weeping, the shock of that death as searing as the shock of my father's.  It was Agee's courageous use of his imagination that allowed me to suspend my disbelief, my critical mind and revisit that place inside where a hard stone of grief waited to come alive and be experienced as it could not years earlier.  But what did Agee do that allowed some of my grief to finally melt away as I mingled my feelings with those of Agee's characters?  How exactly did he suspend my disbelief?  He had talent and intelligence to be sure.  He worked at his craft.  We all do.  But there is something else, something he shares with DeBorchgrave and other artists that build fantastical worlds for us.  It is the thing that astonished me the most about DeBorchegrave’s work, the unfettered imagination and the courage to follow where it leads, which is into the heart of the work.  

Friday, April 15, 2011

If today was the last day of your life

Not that it is important to anyone else, but I am filled with remorse today.  I've said this blog is not about my personal life, but I'm realizing as I write these posts that you cannot separate your personal life from your writing life, realized it for the umpteenth time.  I got news that a friend of mine lost a friend (I did not know) on a snorkling vacation.  Freak accident.  So, of course, I thought and felt many things, grief for my friend at the top of the list.  This morning I thought about lost time.  It is on the minds of people my age, fellow septuagenarians who live with one eye on the clock and the other on a to do list it would take several lifetimes to complete.  But I am losing my unfettered writing time.  I must devote myself to other, practical concerns.  And now I am looking wistfully at all those hours and days I frittered away thinking they would never end.  How could I, at my age, believe life goes on forever and I can always do it tomorrow, it being my novel.   I think it was a Buddhist who said live your life as if today was the last day.   Because who knows?  It just might be.  Write now, Helen.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Trusting the process

Irony has come knocking on my door.  I wake up these days feeling as though all my planets are in all the wrong houses, my bad karma is coming back to haunt me (as well as some old, feckless choices), and my Stress-O-Meter is zinging off the charts.  I have to make resolutions to get dressed before 5 pm, remind myself that I don’t live in Japan or Darfur right now and my problems are nothing compared to ______________’s (and no doubt anyone within reading distance of this post).  A friend who knows me well, but not the recent minutia of my life, sent me, quite out of the blue, a poem by Billy Collins called Give Me A Break!  I raised my fists and wailed, yes.  Give me a break!  Such is the depth of my self-pity these days.

Now, I hate blogs that catalog bad days and indulge in handwringing over trivial annoyances, as though Starbucks running out of a favorite bagel or something is worth writing or reading about.  However, I have a reason for giving you a peek into my current malaise, reluctant though I am to make this blog too personal (the details are not important, wouldn’t even make a mediocre soap opera script).  I am known to go around haranguing writer friends to just sit down and get words on the page every day despite how you feel or how cramped your schedule.  Just do it was my motto before Nike peeked over my shoulder and stole it, at least about writing.  Today, though, the gods heard about this blog, I guess, and my posts purporting to have the cure for writer’s block and other literary crises.  They laughed and rubbed their hands together with evil glee.  Oh, they said, she thinks writing is easy when you feel like your plunging down into the molten, sulfuric center of the earth.  Well let’s see how easily she brushes this off and gets down to work.  And so, today, after completing an editing job for a client, the universe saw fit to give me a task as heart-rending and anxiety-laced as any I can think of.  It took most of the day and all my creative and emotional energy, but I finished it. Now it was time to write.  So, out of habit, I opened a new page in Word.  And I sat there in a state of mental paralysis. 

Now I know what it is like to face a blank page waiting for inspiration, the false starts, trips to the refrigerator, obsessive checking for email until an idea kicks in.  But this was different.  I was in the grip of a terrible anxiety that seemed to erase the program my brain uses to write.  There was nothing, it was worse than nothing.  It was fear, carried over I’m sure from the difficult day I’d had dealing with a thorny, painful problem.  I always feel inadequate trying to describe states of pain, physical or emotional.  So I’ll just say, that it was a terrifying, end-of-the-world state of mind.  I did the only thing I knew when I sit down to write, and that is to write. 

And then instead of trying to be clever or uplifting, I started writing the truth of the moment and this post began to flow.

Now if you think the punchline is some bragging about how I beat down writer’s block, I am missing the mark on the correct attitude for this piece.  What I felt was enormous relief and gratitude.  I didn’t, don’t, feel that I won anything, as I can when I am distracted and restless and I just force myself to get over it and get down to work.  That’s me winning over me and my weaknesses.  But today, I felt I was given a gift.  Maybe I had passed a test by the powers that be and they rewarded me with a gush of words, though if that’s the case, couldn’t they have made them of a slightly higher quality?  More likely, it is something along the lines of my neurons kicking in because they recognized my pattern of sitting in front of a computer screen with fingers on the keyboard, and set the synapses in motion that release the words.  I don’t know how to explain the transition from a moment of terror to a moment of release.  My great relief is that it still works.  The thing I have come to trust did not fail me. 

This post is hardly my best writing.  But it is on the page and not stuck in some morbid corner of my psyche that will strike me down with guilt tomorrow because I could not write today.  The thing that gives me the courage to write this blog is my faith in the process.  A long time ago I attended a conference given by a spiritual guru, a very funny guy who taught meditation and compassion.  One of the participants said, “I know all the things you know.  Why are you sitting up there and I’m at your feet.”  The man laughed and said, “The only difference between us is that I trust the process.  You’re still fighting with it.”  It made a lot of sense to me.  I’ve learned that if I write every day, or open myself in some awkward way to having words come through me, no matter what, the process will take over and something, however, feeble, emerges through my fog of discontent and worry.   Then, I can take that feeble material and allow my conscious, analytical brain to revise it, reshape, give it form.  That’s writing.  But if I don’t allow it to come through, if I don’t trust what I know, then I’m at the mercy of my feelings, my fears, my doubts.  And who knows when I’d get back to this blog.  That may not be a problem for you, but it would dismantle all that I work so hard to build up on days when it is easy.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

The Time of My Life

I am in a rage against time today.  Time I waste, time that races by too quickly, time I misuse and time that demands too much of me.  Writers have a complicated relationship with time, but then maybe everyone does.  Yesterday was a lost day.  I need an MRI of my hip.  Nothing serious, probably just an attack of old age.  However, for someone with claustrophobia, a session on the rack is preferable to being trapped in an MRI machine for 45 minutes.  I took the prescribed tranquilizer and resigned myself to zoning out for a day because I can’t function on drugs of any kind.  I was woozy when the MRI goddess rolled me into the tube, but not asleep.  I had a little pillow over my eyes to help block out the confined space, but as I felt the sides brushing my arms, I panicked.  If you have claustrophobia, need I say more?  Under most circumstances, I am a strong person and I have confronted hard things in my life.  I have endurance and a certain resilience.  But when I read about earthquake victims, I have to talk myself down.  The Loma Prieta earthquake in 1989 shook me until my teeth rattled, so I make sure I live on bedrock.  But there are no guarantees in life and should I get trapped in an earthquake, I want to go straight to heaven or whatever awaits me.  I do not want to be the miracle survivor found under the rubble after several days.  So when I felt the sides of the MRI machine pressing against me, I had to restrain myself from screaming.  No joke.  The pill wasn’t working and I pushed the panic button Ms. Goddess had put in my hand and shouted GET ME OUT.  I was instantly in tears and embarrassed but so relieved when she pulled me back from the maw.  That should have been the end of it, but to understand the physical reaction to panic and phobias read Allen Shawn’s excellent, Wish I Could Have Been There.  On top of waiting for all the stress hormones to drain away and my blood pressure, pulse and panicky thoughts to return to normal (sometimes a 24 hour process), I was drugged.  And I was mad.  The pill didn’t help me, but it robbed me of a day I could have been doing other things.  I was a little high, foggy and useless until late in the evening when I started to wake up and wrote yesterday’s post.  It was more rambling and disjointed than I would like and I blame it on the meds. 

So this morning I’m angry about time.  I couldn’t help yesterday’s wasted day, but I started to think about what I had lost.  And I will never know what that is.  The creative process is 90% hard work and 10% mystery.  Why does an artistic sequence of words flow onto the page as easily as breath one day, and turn into a punishment the next?  I have a chapter to write that will close the first half of my novel, but I’ve been avoiding it.  Suppose fate had decided that yesterday I would have received one of those rare gifts from the gods, a seamless first draft, but instead of sitting at my computer with every pore open ready to receive the inspiration, it rained down on an empty chair while I was sleeping through a Netflix in the next room.  John Lennon said the creative process required that we just show up.  That is what developing a consistent writing practice is all about.  Being there to coax loose those words and ideas teasing us just below the surface.   So I’m frustrated with the Valium for not getting any writing done during yesterday’s fog of a day.  But what about all the days I forgot to write, or decided I would sleep in and missed a session before a day full of appointments, or just put it off because there is always tomorrow and the half finished story or novel isn’t going anywhere.  My days are numbered, as are yours.  And I don’t know what that number is.  Suppose it comes calling before I’ve finished my novel.  Who will I blame then?

Friday, April 8, 2011

My Sure Fire Cure for Writing Block

Before I give you my secret to curing writing block, I’m going to start out today’s post with a test.  There is no right answer but the truthful one.  On a scale of one to ten, how important is writing to you?  I’m not saying if you didn’t have to work how important would it be, or if you had all the time in the world, how important would it be?  Just right now, check in with your desire to write and give it a number. 

I start out all of my writing classes with this question.  I have never had anyone give me a number below seven and it is usually a nine or a ten.  I think this is a crucial piece of information, because if you have a passion in your life that ranks nine or ten in importance and you are not finding a way to pursue it, you are doing yourself great harm and robbing your life of a sense of fulfillment.  I’m not saying you have to quit your job or neglect your family or other responsibilities to pursue writing, but if it ranks high, you owe it to yourself to find a place for your creative life in your daily life.  When I decided some eighteen years ago to write fifteen minutes a day first thing in the morning, I knew that writing was a ten for me.  And I found that with that short burst of writing each day, I was able to make peace with going to an office and doing work that was not completely reflective of my essential nature.  Just fifteen minutes did that.  I’d print out what I wrote and revise it on the bus downtown.  For a long time that was my writing practice and for a long time it was enough.  Eventually, I wrote for longer periods, but even if I had kept it to fifteen minutes, it would have done something for me that nothing else could have, the sense that I was doing the thing I was born to do.   I didn’t have to show it to anybody.  I didn’t have to publish it.  I just had to do it.

So what is writing block?  Anything that prevents you from writing entirely, or from completing a piece of writing that is important to you.  If you want a sure cure for writing block, read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War.  Or, let me distill that ancient wisdeom for you into two simple rules:  Know your enemy and know yourself.

The purpose of this blog is to explore the disciplined writing life.  But as yet, I haven’t really defined what I mean by that.  It is a given that to finish a piece of writing you must have a plan.  First, you must have a desire to write something.   Second, you must have a schedule for your writing sessions.  And third, you need to acquire some knowledge of the writing craft.  This is really all you need, and, if you stick to your plan, you will end up with a finished piece of writing, and you will have become a disciplined writer.  The subtext, of course, is that at some point resistance rears its ugly head.  It always does when we set out to do something that is difficult, and what could be more difficult than creating something out of nothing, facing the blank page.  Some part of us says no way because to write we have to dig deep, confront our insecurities, doubts and ignorance.  We don’t start out knowing the craft, for example, and learning it, much less mastering it, is in itself is a lifelong challenge.  At one time or another we say, enough.  I can’t do this.  The excuse could be I have a family, a job and don’t have time.  But the funny thing is, if we say time is the issue, we can find ourselves with two weeks vacation and nothing else to do and we still don’t write.  So maybe time isn’t the real issue.  The successful writer has to make a commitment to hunt down these agents of resistance, to find a way to overcome them, defeat them or even appease them so we can get back to writing.  That’s pretty much what Sun Tzu said two thousand years ago.  You need a strategy.  Oh, by the way, when I say successful writer, I’m not talking about critical or financial success, I mean basic, raw success, finishing what you started.  If you can’t type The End to a piece of writing, there can be no other success.

As I said yesterday, the inner conflict we call writing block, that resistance, is unique to each of us.  The sure fire cure, then, is to locate the source of that resistance and resolve it.  There, that’s the sure fire cure.  Works every time.  Simple to be sure, but for some of us, it is easier to clean the garage.  Heck, it’s easier to dismantle the whole house and rebuild it from scratch.  And trust me, some people will do that rather than face the blank page.  I’m a knitter and unraveling a writing conflict is like tackling a hopelessly tangled skein of yarn.  Just when you think you have loosened the whole thing, you come to a stubborn knot that just won’t yield.  Some writing knots go back to childhood insecurities and even traumas.  They may be tangled up with other parts of our lives.  Stresses and strains surrounding jobs, finances, health and relationships can distract us from writing.  Unexpected windfalls, the thrill of falling in love can also make our writing life recede into the woodwork.  Sometimes the thought of getting back into writing after a long absence can seem so daunting that it is easier to just forget about and let the novel or poems moulder unfinished in the attic or on your zip drive.   An insensitive significant other or inappropriate writing mentor can say things that zap our confidence and convince us to give up. 

While this blog can’t help anyone resolve childhood conflicts or troubled relationships that may be getting in the way, I can off some suggestions that helped me to identify the issues that have at times paralyzed my writing.  I took a cue from The Art of War: know your enemy.  I figured once me resistance was out in the open, then I’d have a shot at beginning to dismantle it.  So I recommend that you start with step one:  Identify and name your enemy, the particular form your resistance takes.  Your gremlins may surprise you.  Tomorrow I’ll take a stab at naming some of them (for anyone who's paying attention, I said I would start today, but this post is going on too long).  But for now, if you’re having trouble with your writing practice, start thinking about behaviors, thoughts and attitudes that keep you from completing a piece of writing. 

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Shape Shifter Called Writer's Block

Jane Fonda played the young Lillian Hellman in the 1977 film, Julia.  In one shocking scene, working on her first play, she paces up and down in front of her typewriter seemingly in the grip of writer’s block.  Hellman's lover, the experienced, successful Dashiell Hammet, sits under a tree, as I recall, all centered poise and wisdom. We see Lillian’s growing angst as she smokes unfiltered cigarette after unfiltered cigarette, until in a fit of rage at the blank page, she throws her typewriter out the window, narrowly missing Dash I suppose.

Two things are wrong with this scene. First, no writer would throw a typewriter, or, these days, a computer, out the window. Dash might go flying head first, but not the Underwood. Second, any writer close enough to the typewriter to pitch it headlong already has a leg up on writer’s block.

But what is it, exactly, this famously paralyzing spell that imprisons the writer’s imagination? It appears in many guises. A Lillian Hellman type inability to string one word after another into a simple declarative sentence is the most famous. Yet I doubt many writers actually sit and stare at a blank page for hours, certainly not with the distraction of the internet close at hand.  I think there are two ways of looking at an inability to write:

1.  Everyone suffers from writer's block at some time or other.
2.  Nobody does.

You see, I don't think the term writer's block is very helpful, or useful.  Creative work both frees our essential nature, and can turn on us and put us in conflict with ourselves.  That conflict creates a gridlock of the mind, imagination, and will.  The good news is that, like gridlock, moving some of the pieces around, getting some trucks to back up, some taxis to take a side road, walking instead of driving for a day frees everything up.  Writing is nothing if not an exercise in self-discovery, and the path to freeing yourself from an inability to write as much, as often, and as easily as you would like, is to understand the beast you call writer’s block.  I suggest you ditch the term writer’s block and tell it like it is.  I know it by other names:  procrastination, fear and self doubt, overbooking my schedule, rewriting the same piece over and over because I’m afraid of new work, avoiding endings, inability to prioritize, making cleaning my refrigerator more important than my writing session, laziness, mismanagement of time, a talent for distraction, inability to put my needs and desires ahead of family and friends, and the most deadly of all, promising I’ll start tomorrow.

Writer’s block is just a catch-all term for the particular quirks of personality that we struggle with in every area of our lives but seem particularly glaring when it comes to writing.  Take any of my examples above and put a different tag line on them:  Dieting Block, Exercising Block, Punctuality Block, Organization Block, Self-Promotion Block, Cleaning the Garage Block, or whatever goal you have that gets sidelined by your particular gremlins, and you have writer’s block in a different guise.  Writer’s block is just you meeting you.  Or, in the interest of full disclosure, me meeting me.

My most important lesson about writing came not in a writing class or reading John Gardner's advice to novelists, but from looking at my reflection in the window of my writing room that overlooked the Mendocino Coast.  Days earlier I had made a commitment to myself to learn how to write fiction, and it terrified me.  By dumb luck I'd had a cookbook published.  I considered myself a cook but writing recipes wasn't "real writing," I told myself.  But of course, that experience opened up the writer in me and the desire to write something real, which to me meant a novel.  That desire dogged me until one day in Mendocino I had to face it down and say yes to writing.  All of a sudden, when writing became real to me, I had my first experience with writer's block.  I couldn't write a word.  Then came my epiphany in front of the window.  If my goal, desire, passion is to write, part of my process must be to confront in myself the traits that kneecap me and keep me from the thing I most want to do.  After all, if I had opened a restaurant and nobody came, I wouldn’t say, oh well, Business Block and give up.  I’d have to figure out or find someone who would help me figure out a way to draw in customers.  I saw writing in a new way.  For want of a better way of describing it, it became my spiritual discipline.  It was the lens through which I saw every aspect of myself, my strengths, weaknesses, and passions.  I ralized I must confront all of them, not just the blank page.  My revelation occurred thirty years ago and I face myself down every day.  It is a never-ending process, just like life.

My justification for this blog comes from the revelation I had way back in my Mendocino days, and what I've learned since them.  I pass my few insights on with the hope that they might save you a little time wrestling with whatever it is that gets in your way.  You'd come to all this on your own if you stay with it, but maybe something in this blog will keep you from giving up.  If you are not able to complete a piece of writing that you started, or can’t get yourself to your writing space to begin exploring something to work on, or always find yourself saying, I’d love to write but I just don’t have the time, bingo!  It's time for a plan and some writerly navel gazing.  I need to point out that confronting your obstacles to writing won’t make you a better writer or a published writer.  It will, however, make you a more consistent writer with finished product to show to a friend, a writing teacher, even a prospective editor.  Not confronting your writing gremlins, though, will keep you mired in the swamp of excuses and regrets. Tomorrow I’ll talk about how to start.  I’ll give you a hint as to where I’ll begin.  Don’t EVER promise yourself you’ll start tomorrow.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

More encouragement for a writing practice

I found this today for more inspiration.

The fifteen minutes that changed my writing life

Many years ago, I went to sleep as depressed as I had ever been in my life. A publisher had cancelled a big contract for a book I had worked on for a long time that had gotten widespread attention. How was I going to face my family and friends, and the large circle who knew and were counting on this book? How was I going to live with this failure, to say nothing of figure out a way to return the large advance? Don't take it personally, my non-writer friends said. It's just business. They didn't understand. This was my life. And it was over as I knew it, because I would never submit myself to this kind of disappointment again. I would never write another word again. Never! Why would I? Clearly I wasn't a writer or the editor wouldn't have cancelled the book. The confessional is not my style, however, if I were writing about a character instead of myself, I could do justice to the agony of that time, the gut-churning humiliation and sense of defeat I had been living with for months as I faced the world with a business-as usual face, while privately I indulged my blackest, most self-loathing thoughts. With my bedroom in darkness, I vowed never to put myself in the path of such public embarrassment again. I didn't know what would replace my passion for writing, but that life was over for me.

Perhaps it is true that we must hit rock bottom before any ray of enlightenment reaches us, or perhaps I had reached my own tolerance for misery and self-pity. At any rate, I woke up and said, no. They (I have names but a confidentiality agreement prevents me from leaking them here) could take the book away from me, but they would not take my writing away from me. Filled with a new determination that was more bravado and fear of any further dives into depression than true confidence, I resolved that I would continue to write. But, I promised myself, I will never show a word to anyone. My writing will be for me alone. I knew I wasn't punishing the world for rejecting me by withholding my golden prose. I was simply saving my shattered ego from any further damage. I had to return to the corporate world to support myself, so I made a plan. I would write fifteen minutes a day before work, and I would carry a page of my writing in my purse at all times so that when I rummaged in it for bus fare or lunch money, I would see my words, my real work, and remind myself that, despite what the world thought, I was a writer. And I did that every day for thirteen years. Well, I missed about seven days a year, including the four years when I had five surgeries. I would write before I went to the hospital (nothing dramatic, bad knees, a shoulder), and then give myself the day off after surgery to wallow in pain pills. Then I was back at it the following day. Two of those surgeries were to correct arthritis in my hands and I even wrote left-handed when my dominant right was in a cast. That was not heroics, but fear of losing the discipline I had fought so hard to find. If I let go of it, I didn’t think I would ever have the whatever to get it back.

Since that commitment to myself, I have written a novel, an on-line food column for a year, several magazine articles to promote the failed book that ultimately found a new publisher and rave reviews, which is another lesson entirely. I have become a writing teacher and coach, editor and now a blogger. And I show my writing to anyone who will read it. The only thing I have to teach people, is what I have learned by writing every day. And the first thing, is write. Every day. Start with fifteen minutes and keep a page of your writing in your purse, briefcase, wallet, wherever you will see it at least once a day and say to yourself, there. See? I’m a writer.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Start Small

Does this sound familiar? You wake up inspired to write and when you begin working, you cannot get the words on the page fast enough. The same thing happens the next day and the next. You can see putting "The End" on your story, your chapter, your book. Then one day, the writing slows down, or the inspiration isn't there, or you have a full schedule and decide you'll take a day off. Taking a day off is fine, but the next day you find you have written yourself into a wall and you can't figure out where to take your story next. So you quit early. The next day you get busy and as you turn out the light at night you realize you've haven't made it to your writing desk. Tomorrow, you promise yourself. But tomorrow never comes. The longer you put off getting back to your manuscript, the harder it is to start up again. Days, weeks, even months go by and you haven't written a word. Eventually you stumble over your manuscript, or someone talks about writing and you say, yes. I'm going to finish that story or article. You may even pull out a copy and read it, make a few notes. But when you pull it up on your computer screen, you don't know where to start. You feel overwhelmed and the dark thoughts start rushing back. They vary a bit from writer to writer but generally run along the lines of, what ever made me think I could be a writer, you turn off the computer and bury your self-loathing and regret in a pint of ice cream.

But you're not finished with that piece. The next time inspiration hits, and it will--that is the nature of inspiration, it comes and goes--you summon up determination and vow to get disciplined. That's what you need, discipline. This weekend you will lock out the world and spend six hours at the computer. Saturday AND Sunday. Should you manage to clear the deck and actually sit down to write, six hours looms as a life sentence and before long you are cleaning closets or cutting the grass, the pint of ice cream waiting in the freezer.

I don't mean this as a cynical assessment of anyone's writing habits. I describe this tableau in all sympathy, from memory, calling upon my own career as a stop and start writer. For the first half of my writing life, about twenty years, unless I had a deadline hanging over my head, which I never missed, I had no writing habit. I wrote when "the muse spoke to me." I see-sawed between frantic writing and total denial that I even knew how to turn on my computer. Going back to it, or contemplating returning to writing was an exercise in misery. Then one day I had an epiphany. It was as hard to let a writing habit go and start it up again, fighting through self-doubt and regret for lost time, as it was to simply allot a sliver of time every day to putting words down, no matter what. Somehow, because I defy every definition of conventional notions of discipline, I became a daily writer. It changed my life, especially my writing life. What I did was so simple, it is embarrassing to think how long it took me to discover the secret. Start small. More tomorrow.

Monday, April 4, 2011

Why Write Every Day

The first step on the yellow brick road to publication is a daily writing practice.

What's the difference between your work and the books on your bookshelves? If you thought I was going to say those authors are better writers, you would be very wrong. The major distinguishing characteristic that separates the novice from the published writer, is that authors lucky enough to make it into print finish their books. It seems self-evident, and goes without saying. But if I had a penny for every writer of talent and imagination with something of value to say who just can’t get to “The End,” I would beat Bill Gates to the bank. Finishing your work doesn’t guarantee publication by any means, even if you have talent and value. But if you don’t finish your book, story, collection of poems, recipes or memoir, well need I say it? You have no chance of ever getting published. A hard lesson I learned years ago is that, while I may get a lot of attention once a book of mine hits the bookstores, until that day no one cares what I’m writing and no one will knock on my door and hold my hand and help me through the briar patch to completion. It is up to me to do that hard, solitary work, ultimately rewarding work.

A member of Virginia Woolf’s Bloomsbury group, and years ago I could recall his name, was considered the most gifted of that brilliant assemblage of artists and writers. However, he could not get his thoughts down on paper, while lesser minds got into print regularly. Publishers can only print the material at hand, and if yours is still stuck in your computer waiting for the next chapter or a final revision, or the right ending, how will they ever know your worth?

The goal of this blog is to provide support, inspiration and keys to establishing a daily writing practice. Tomorrow I will begin to describe some steps to help you jump start your daily writing practice. Hint: start small.