Monday, July 30, 2012

Small Expectations


About ten days ago, I made grand writing plans.  I’ve had two projects running this summer: the first was my novel, House of Mirrors; the second was editing another novel – specifically cutting it down from a monumental 290 pages to something a bit more manageable.  Both have been going successfully, but ten days ago, I saw clearly that House of Mirrors was about to end, so I decided to put editing on hold. 

I told myself, ‘Once I’m done, starting the day after I’ll devote all my time to editing.  Hopefully I’ll get through the remaining 80 pages by the first weekend in August.’ 
Sometimes my friends feel like a clamoring gaggle of birds...

What’s that line about the plans of mice and men ganging aft agley?  (More importantly, is ‘agley’ even a word?)

I did finish the novel, but editing hasn’t been progressing terribly well since then.  The reason is that I suddenly had a half-dozen invitations from friends and family, all of which I felt obliged to fulfill.

First there was a student of mine who recently graduated.  She'll spend a year in France, starting in September, so she emailed asking if I’d like to go biking, since she was off work and wanted to see me before leaving.  I’ve always liked this particular student, so I agreed.  We spent three hours on the bike trails in our town, an hour at her house afterwards, and then to top it off, I had an appointment at the optometrist that afternoon.  No editing could really be squeezed in. 

Then I emailed one of my best friends, The Fashionista, to ask her if she’d like to go out for her birthday.  She replied by calling me and asking me to come over that very night.  I hadn’t seen her in six weeks, so I sprang t the chance.  However, that meant still more editing went out the window. 

I won’t bore you with further accounts of my social life, but you begin to get the idea.  My plan to edit in every spare moment didn’t exactly materialize.

Now the reason this is hard for me is that I’m very schedule-oriented.  It’s partly natural and partly a habit I developed two years ago when I was 11th grade home-room teacher at my school, with 22 hours in class per week.  In order to survive, I started keeping a rigid work plan for each day.  It worked well, but I’ve kept doing it to a certain extent, and have even become a bit too ruled by it, I’d say. 

As a writer, I want to be like this tree: calm and peaceful!
On the plus side, this ability of mine really helps me stay on top of writing.  I’m sure any of you who are writers or artists know the necessity of creating some sort of schedule, even a general one, in order to make sure that writing gets done in spite of distractions.  Sometimes, that schedule demands that we become a bit less social.  You can’t be the life of a party and an effective artist, I don’t think.  A certain amount of solitude and order and peace is needed. 

People are important too, though.  I believe, in fact, that they are more important than writing (I realize I may be revealing I’m not a true writer by saying this, but so be it!).  Even if they can be pesky and demanding, interactions with other human beings help me become better and more human.  Ultimately, I think that good relationships also enrich my writing and my imagination. They affect me on every level.

That’s why I don’t refuse my friends’ invitations, even when suddenly they conflict with my writing plans.  The difficulty, however, is that all the while the strict scheduler in the back of my head is shrieking in a high-pitched, desperate voice, ‘But you were going to edit!’  I could assure you it’s very annoying, but I probably don’t have to, since most of us have a little voice like that.

The result of this interior conflict is low spirits.  I feel tired and overwhelmed, because I peck at editing but don’t advance very far, I go out with friends and family but feel slightly distracted.  Obligations to two things pull me in different directions, plus I have the nagging sensation that perhaps I’m just being too much of a stickler for my schedule.  On the other hand, I know from experience that I become grumpier the longer I go without writing.  Writing and strong relationships are both so necessary to me that I can’t quite chose between them.

The way to balance during this dilemma came to me during a recent story my father told.  He is a retired naval officer, and he mentioned that during plebe summer (for the uninitiated, that’s the summer before entering the Naval Acadamy, when the midshipmen get initiated – rather forcefully, I gather) he was so miserable that he had to shorten his view of the future to the next meal.  ‘If I can just make it to lunch, I’ll be okay,’ he would tell himself. 

With too much scheduling, my life becomes about this boring!
My dad and I are a lot alike.  We are scheduled people who can look far into the future and plan everything carefully; my ability to plot complex stories only contributes to that.  Often when I feel depressed or worried, it has to do with the fact that I feel my schedule falling apart.  Silly, I know – but true! 


So I’ve decided to try to adopt my father’s navy strategy.  Not that I’m going to use meals as my markers, but overall I want to try to think about the short-term a little more and the long-term a little less.  Instead of planning a whole week of editing, it’s safer to think, ‘Well, when I’m pretty sure to have a two hour stretch, I’ll get through four or five pages.’  Then, rather than worrying about editing while with a friend, I can enjoy the conversation much more.  Granted, I may not plough through 70 pages of editing in 10 days, but I think I’ll keep my sanity better. 

Does anyone else have a good strategy for keeping sane during times with scheduling conflicts?  I think reducing plans to shorter intervals can help a lot, but I’d love to read any other advice you might have. 

Friday, July 27, 2012

Milestones


Writing novels is like wrestling with angels!
Originally I had planned to write about the trials and labors of editing in this post, but something else came up.  Don’t worry – I will talk about editing, just not today!

That's because what came up was…(prepare yourself)…the end of my current novel!  N.B.: none of my novels are published, but I have, as of today, written four book-length works.  As usual, the moment came with an exciting, but also somewhat stunning feeling.  Anytime I finish writing a novel, I always have the impression that I have just emerged from Heraclean endeavor, yet at the same time, life goes on as normal and almost instantly I begin thinking of what to write next.

Not quite instantly, though.  First I celebrated my small triumph with Italian cooking, plus gin-and-tonics.  There was pollo al diavolo; there was peperonata; there was tiramisu.  All dishes were made by yours truly.  I felt thoroughly congratulated by the end of dinner. 

Anyway, a bit about the novel: 

Its title is ‘House of Mirrors.’  It is a complicated concatenation of all kinds of different ideas, as is customary for my novels.  Let me give you a run down.

Plot:  It all began back when I was in my fantasy phase.  Largely inspired by Robin McKinley, each of whose novels I devoured forty times over, I wanted to write fairytales retold.  I had tons of ideas for them, but then slowly my interests turned to real-world fiction.  An idea popped into my head:  what if I retell The Beauty and the Beast in a non-fantastical setting, without any magic?  No sooner had I thought this than I decided it had to be done.  Such was the origin of my plot.

Theme:  The next element was the question of fatherhood.  I love The Beauty and the Beast, but I’ve always thought the beast’s approach to love was a bit self-serving.  My question was how to remove that element from the story.  I solved it by breaking the beauty’s character into two women.  One is the beast’s lost love, and the other is his daughter.  Regret over the former drives him to learn how to be a true father – and of course the chief element of any good parent is disinterest in self for the child’s sake.  So there was my theme.

I saw ABT perform, then calmly incorporated it into the story!
Setting:  For some reason, almost from the beginning, I knew the story would take place in New York City.  There’s something fabulous and extravagant about the place, among all American cities, so it seemed perfect for a half-fairytale.  However, when I started writing the novel in my sophomore year in college, I discovered - surprise, surprise - that I actually had to know something about a place I was writing about.  My solution was to invent method writing.  I put the story on the shelf for several years, until I had some funds.  Then I traveled to NYC to research the novel in person, before starting it over from scratch. 

Title:  I needed a way to introduce the cursed, monstrous element of the beast’s character, while still making the story fit into a realistic setting, so I thought giving him a phobia of mirrors would help.  Plus mirrors and reflection make for such a fascinating exploration of human nature.  Originally I went very obvious with the fairytale theme, and called the story ‘Mirror on the Wall,’ but saner reflection told me to choose something less obvious.  Finally I thought of the fact that some people do have a fear of carnival mirrors, so I settled on ‘House of Mirrors.’  I like it much better

Character Development:  My chief quandary for the years and years I planned the novel was the beast’s profession.  He had to be rich, of course, so I knew he’d inherit money from both parents, but I couldn’t just have him mope around in a penthouse.  The theme of fatherhood finally gave me the answer.  If the beast is supposed to learn how to be a good father, then he has to make a home for his daughter.  A person who makes homes is an architect...problem solved.  Plus about the same time I decided this, I met a friend who became an endless font of all things architectural for me to reference. 

Points of View:  The final, final thing to be worked out before starting was what to do with the beauty – in this case, the beast’s daughter.  Originally I had planned to tell the whole story from the beast’s POV, but I kept feeling that approach was inadequate.  Then I realized I would split the story in half and show the events through both the beauty’s and the beast’s eyes.  When I was in New York, I saw a sign at the Lincoln Center, advertising a show called ‘The Architecture of Dance.’  I knew then and there that the beauty would be a dancer – structure in motion, to counteract the beast’s structure in stasis.  Plus, I studied ballet for five years as a child, so I could draw on my own experience to make hers believable. 

After all that rambling, perhaps you have gathered that I can talk easily and fluently for hours on end about  my stories!  Anyway, I will say no more (though eventually I may post a synopsis of the book).  Of course there were other elements which went into the writing, but the summary above traces the overall development of plot and character and theme.  I hope other aspiring novelists find it interesting.

However, now that the majority of my work is done (besides some editing, but more on that later!), I am going to take the rest of the justified.  I wish you all happy writing!

Like this cat, I shall now sit and do nothing but admire the daisies!

Monday, July 23, 2012

Write to Remedy

Last time I mentioned in passing that a few chaotic days descended on me, leaving me with an intense need to garden.  Today’s post I thought could actually explain the chaos that happened and how writing helped me recover.

I’m sure you all know that writing is not a reliable remedy for all crises.  The creative personality is too tied up with emotions and imagination to weather every storm undaunted, still churning out a solid 1000 words a day (not that I do that at the best of times - I subscribe to this theory, instead).  If your only desire is to curl up in a corner and cry, while your mind plays over and over the same depressing/traumatic/embarrassing/all-of-the-above event, then the chances are high that writing will not progress. 

This is about how I felt after the theft!
However, in some cases, with smaller problems, it is the perfect escape, distraction and relaxation.  We write partly for the enjoyment of it, after all, just as painters paint because it is enjoyable, or sculptors sculpt, or any other artist…arts?  I think we can all agree that enjoyable activities definitely have a therapeutic effect.

This fact was reinforced for me last Thursday. 

The preceding day, my bike was stolen.  Nothing has ever been stolen from me before, so when I came out of the library and it was nowhere to be found, I went through an absolute flood of emotions.  Shock, dismay, terror, horror, anger, embarrassment, shame, regret, humiliation, some more anger, some more shock, some more humiliation—I felt all of the above.  (The shame and regret were due to the fact that I didn’t lock up my bike, so it was sort of my fault…but then again, who in their right mind steals a 12 year old bike?  It boggles the mind!)

Well, the result of a dozen different emotions warring within me for a couple of hours was that I ended up feeling utterly exhausted.  Plus my chief sensation, which lingered for several days, was one of violation.  When your world is invaded and some small part – even so insignificant as an old bike – is taken away by force, you suddenly feel small and helpless, at the mercy of events beyond your control.  This new and lasting experience certainly did not help my energy levels return to normal. 

At the same time, though, I knew that my life wasn’t particularly upset.  It was my carelessness which led to the event; I had the money to buy another bike; I hadn’t lost my biking accoutrements; the police were reasonably sympathetic.  Really, my situation was fine.  I was just tired and dispirited by it all.

So what did I turn to as a way to cheer myself up?  Writing, of course!

I felt much better after writing!
Last Thursday I woke up and schlepped around the house in a vague, sad manner, wondering what I should do (I never said I wasn’t inclined to melodrama!).  Finally it became clear to me that my best option was to work on the next chapter of my current novel.  I had only three chapters left before the end.  It was a reasonable thing  to attempt to knock out at least one of them.  I lacked confidence that I would meet with any success, since I felt so blue – but hey, every little bit of writing counts, right? 

Two or three hours later, I set my computer off my lap and realized I’d written my entire chapter.  It had so completely absorbed me that I forgot my woes and only concentrated on the final confrontation between two of my characters.  As I realized this, suddenly a bit of brightness returned to my outlook.  I was not totally subject to random events with little apparent meaning (e.g.: the theft of my bike).  I am an author, and as such I can claim a certain refreshing and impervious autonomy. 

As I said, I make no promises that writing or any other indulgence in art can bring us relief in every crisis that comes our way.  My own experience tells me that’s not true at all, since during the more extreme difficulties in my life, I’ve been reduced to practical inarticulacy beyond the occasional haiku. 

However, when something bad does happen, which is neither so awful as to be crushing, nor so trivial as to be forgettable, then writing can really help.  It restores perspective, reminding us that other elements in our life still remain unaffected and positive.  It distracts us from thinking too much about our trouble, which is often just what we need to recover from it.  It creates something new which we can
New bike detail, yay!
take delight in, instead of worrying over the old problem.  In short, if circumstances are right, it’s the perfect solution to medium-sized woes.

That’s why when I feel rather dull, or a bit down, or needlessly burdened, I often take refuge in writing.  Not only does it improve my mood and advance my work, it also saves me from inflicting my blues on other people.  It is my great equalizer.  I highly recommend it.

Of course, the other thing that helped restore my mood was buying a new bike on Friday.  I’ve already tested it out, and I can assure you it is quite perfect for me.  Also, I bought a lock to use at the library.  Now I can face down all bike thieves with impunity!

Thursday, July 19, 2012

A Need for Peace


Doesn't my oregano pot just look so zen and peaceful?
I’ve had a somewhat chaotic couple of days – so much so that I almost forgot that today was Thursday, otherwise known as blog-day 2.  I didn’t quite forget, though, so here I am at 10 pm, writing my post. 

The chaos has been making me feel a bit like a dishrag, so I thought a good topic would be something really relaxing, even more than reading or watching movies. That’s why I’m going to talk about gardening. 

Now, I haven't always regarded gardening as a source of relaxation.  In fact, when I was a teenager I loathed it.  This was because in my mind it was entirely reduced to the work of…weeding (insert groan here).  It was a popular chore for my parents to assign me, because I was very good at it.  When I finished with a garden, there wasn’t a single weed left anywhere.  I practically went over the soil with a magnifying glass.

My interest in gardening used to be about this big!
Perhaps you can gather why I hated it.  My extreme precision style of weeding was the fruit of that neurotic side which we all have, but which manifests differently for each person.  It manifested for me in garden weeding and car washing, so I detested both jobs despite the praise heaped on me for doing such a good job.  I knew that if I went out to weed an eight-by-six-foot garden, I’d not be done for a good two to three hours simply because of the punishment of my own personality.  I did anything to avoid it, even bargaining with my mom to let me do her ironing so that she could weed.  I don’t even like ironing, but it was better than the alternative.

Then I went to college, moved away from my home for four years, read lots of brainy books and really got into writing and cooking, which still remain my two most beloved occupations.  In the process of falling in love with cuisine, I became interested in what I was eating and the cost of what I was eating (I was an impoverished college student with a gourmet appetite, after all).  Interest in what I was eating made me think about organic food and fresh vegetables and sustainable/seasonal menus.  Interest in the cost of my food prompted me to look for money-saving techniques. 

The result of these new interests was a slowly, timidly awakening enthusiasm for gardening.  I realized that the pastime was not actually about fanatical weeding, but about planting what you want to see come up, and then lovingly waiting and tending until it does come up and you can rejoice, either because of the beauty you see or because of the beauty you taste (or in many cases, both).  The things you grow are more flavorful and healthier than what grocery stores provide.  Besides this, you save money: for the cost of a few packets of seeds and maybe a pot or two, you can have fresh produce for at least three months during the year, and if you do a bit of preserving, for sometimes all twelve! 

The green in these dishes is my own garden-fresh Basil!
Anyway, I didn't move back to Idaho from college and instantly become an avid gardener.  I’ve taken several years to settle comfortably into my life as an adult, but finally this summer it seemed like the time to make my first foray.  So I planted herbs.  Since I cook largely Mediterranean food, with occasional visits to Mexico or Asia, I chose the herbs that show up most frequently.  Basil: Italian, Greek and Thai cooking.  Oregano: Italian, Greek and Mexican cooking.  Italian parsley: French and Italian cooking. 

Now does this have anything to do with writing?  Not directly, though I wouldn’t mind eventually writing a story about a gardener.  I did write a poem about basil, but poetry emerges from a different part of my imagination than fiction does; it’s not something I have to balance since it’s more spontaneous and intermittent. 

However, where I do find that gardening provides a healing influence is in my overall creativity.  In order to be a writer (or a painter, architect, photographer, sculptor or anything else), I have to foster the habit of creativity.  Occasionally I get to a point, because of work or whatever, where I’m not doing anything creative.  I just grade and teach and sleep and eat and grade some more.  During such periods, I have a really hard time starting the writing process, because my mind is not flowing on the right path. 

Now my interest in gardening has grown a lot bigger!
With my tiny herb garden in pots this summer, though, I’ve discovered that the careful process of going around each day with my watering can, watching for the tiny sprouts to emerge, then rejoicing as they grow and develop, keeping an eye out for damage and finally harvesting and enjoying the fruits, awakens my mind.  It’s such a peaceful routine and yet one which requires attention and commitment.  It’s an excellent analogy for the artistic process, and so it readily prepares my mind for writing – and lots of it! 

I think the key to gardening (or other small, creative, routine-oriented pastimes) is that it provides a daily retreat for the soul.  Going out to tend to my plants, I withdraw from all other cares for a little while, and devote myself to something that relies on me but also surprises and delights me with a life of its own.  It’s no wonder that often, after making the watering round at midday, I come inside refreshed and relaxed – ready for my stories.  After all, they depend on me too, but most definitely have a vitality all their own.   

Monday, July 16, 2012

Method Writing


I’m a writer with a busy life.  I don’t think I’m alone in that, either.  I read other writers’ blogs, and discover that they have a plethora of occupations and hobbies besides writing, as well.  Robin McKinley, for example, whose blog I religiously follow, is married, knits, rings bells, cooks, gardens, looks after more than one house, takes care of two dogs, blogs, reads, sings, plays the piano – and I’ve probably left plenty of things out.  And all this besides writing her beautiful, lyrical fantasy novels. 

My life is not quite so full, but even so, I do have a fair list of interests.  The result of this is my inevitable writer’s guilt, which I’ve mentioned before.  ‘Why,’ I ask myself, ‘can’t you just focus on writing, and not bother about how to achieve perfect tiramisu (among other things)?’ 

However, apparently I can’t stop bothering and just focus, no matter how much I harangue myself, so I’ve had to invent an approach to writing which allows me to do interesting things and simultaneously avoid the niggling accusation in the back of my mind.  My solution is method writing.

Yay for acting! Though maybe not behind these masks...
I’ve always admired those actors who don their costumes when filming starts and then live in them until it ends, learn the language of the country where the movie is set, infiltrate the mafia so as to study its workings from within…Just kidding about the last one – I’m not sure anyone would be so foolish as to do that!  Anyway, in short I find these actors’ dedication to verisimilitude refreshing and inspiring.  I can’t help but think such a thorough commitment must really perfect their characterization of a role. 

I also think they set a good example to writers.  Acting and writing are not entirely different.  In order to create characters on paper, the author's thought and imagination must shift between different personalities.  She must identify herself with a huge cast inside her head, assuming their mannerisms and ideas.  Similarly, an actor studies those imagined persons and identifies with them as well, though obviously for a different purpose. 

Since such a parallel exists, a writer should be able to do something analogous
Proof of my experiment
to method acting.  If I want to write a story about a blind sculptor (which I did), then I should be prepared to live without sight for a while, so that I can understand at least a little of how the blind feel.  In fact, several years ago, I did blindfold myself for three days during a college vacation, while my friends kept a wary eye on me.  The experiment was quite a success, since I learned that many of the things we do with eyes can be done perfectly well (even if rather differently) with touch alone.  More importantly, I discovered that with blindness comes a change in the perception of time, and a curious, exhausting intensity, since I was forced to concentrate so fiercely on my other four senses for information. 

Now that is rather an extreme example, but hopefully you see my point.  Basically I think that if you want to write about something, you should try to experience it first.  Granted we could all just decide to write about our daily lives, rather than plunging into experiments for the sake of writing, but that seems rather small-minded.  Besides, no inspiration has yet come to me for stories about my day-to-day occupation – teaching adolescent girls – so instead I’ve chosen to broaden my horizons.

I have the outline of a story planned, in which three teenage boys set out from New York, hoping to reunite one of them with his girlfriend in Idaho.  They decide to drive, not realizing the inadequacy of their funds until they run out of gas and the car breaks down.  For the rest of their epic journey, they scrape together money from this odd job or that, travel by train, meet random people in cities where the train stops, and generally grow into themselves thanks to their arduous labors.  (I realize that this is a highly improbable plot, but it’s meant to be a foray into magical realism, so I’m okay with that.) 

However, when I settled on this idea I’d never traveled by train in my life – nor had I extensively visited the states which lie between New York and my home.  What was my obvious solution?  Take a trip to NYC and then return via train (I skipped the working to pay my way part, though).  I set off with Vasnefy for company and we had an amazing time, plus I gathered loads of personal research about train travel, the chain of cities and town connecting the two coasts of the USA, the landscape of North America, and the many interesting personalities who can be encountered when cooped up for hours in a narrow, moving compartment.  The experience was invaluable, and when I start my novel, I’ll be able to pour into it memories which will make it more real and tangible, rather than a glib fantasy.

On the trip, I learned you can see views like this from train windows!
So what is my conclusion?  Simple: the most effective way I’ve found to balance writing with the rest of my life and many interests is to integrate them.  Instead of sectioning off writing into a small corner which nothing else can invade, I let it flow out to permeate my whole life.  If I have a story set in an exotic location, I save up money so that eventually I can take a trip there.  If I have a character who is a chef, I take up cooking extravagantly (much to my family and friends’ delight).  If I have a character who is writing a memoir, I buy a journal and write his story in memoir format.

By committing yourself to ‘method writing,’ I find that you can enjoy an almost unlimited number of hobbies and vacations and jobs and events and people, etc., etc.  The secret is to remember that any plot can be a doorway toward exploring a new avenue of experience, both as a writer and as a person. 

Friday, July 13, 2012

Thoughts for a Crazy Day

Since returning from my trip last weekend, the week has been rather chaotic.  Today (or possibly yesterday, by the time I post this!) was definitely the craziest.  Besides this blog post, I got exactly zero writing done – and I’m not even managing to start the post until quarter past ten at night. 

First I had to call upon my dad to help me fix my sunglasses (a screw fell out, and all the optometrists in the world can’t seem to produce a replacement - neither could we, actually, but superglue covers a multitude of breaks, it turns out), but because we had to go in search of the right materials, the task ended up being no less than a two hour adventure.  It was good to spend time with my father, but I did have other things to do….

My dessert did turn out pretty at least!
For example, there was my laundry, which I managed somehow to squeeze in between trips hither and yon. I had a school meeting scheduled with one of the home-room teachers about my classes next year.  I had to make dessert for company I’m having.  There was the need to clean up around the house at least a bit in order not to amaze said company.  My father is also helping me replace some lights in my bathroom, so I had to consult with him periodically. 

I managed to finish all this, but not before 9 PM, and then to top it all off the internet was down in my area, thanks to heat-induced thunderstorms, so there wasn't much chance of relaxing with something off Netflix.  I suppose it was good for me, though, because if there was that chance…I admit I might have postponed writing this!

Anyway, in the midst of scurrying all over town today, I thought regretfully of my plans to edit at some point, or perhaps even finish the latest chapter in my novel, which has been languishing half-done, due to my topsy-turvy week.  I got plenty of things done, but writing had to be set aside because of the chaos. 

Can any book reveal the secret of NYC?
To console myself, I reflected during my several car trips about the book I read most recently.  It had the somewhat presumptuous title of ‘The Secret of New York Revealed,’ but nevertheless was truly excellent .  My reason for reading it was that a) Vasnefy gave it to me for my birthday, and b) the author, Dr. Thomas Howard, was a visiting professor at my college and taught me an in depth course on Milton’s Paradise Lost.  (It was somewhat wasted on me, because I cannot love Milton, no matter how I try, but Dr. Howard made a pretty valiant effort to win me over, thanks to his enthusiasm and charm, so I remember him fondly.  Also he used words like bilious, Rosicrucian and antediluvian in his speech, quite without self-consciousness: what’s not to love?)

The book contains a series of autobiographical reflections about life as a young married man in New York City, during the 60’s.  After rambling around the city and recalling various events, the narrative concludes in a discussion about what method can preserve a person from dissipation, especially in a great city with its glamor and diversions and free spirit.  The solution he offered was basically what you might call ‘routine,’ but of course he phrased it much more beautifully than that.

Routine is a word that sounds dull, after all.  It only reminds us of the daily schedule - the daily grind, for some.  Since that's the case, he redeemed it with the name of ‘ritual.’  Basically he wanted to suggest that we can invest our lives with a certain ceremony and significance if we regard reoccurring, normal events not as a dull burden, but as a rich pattern unfolding around us.  Investing in such a pattern gives us an anchor, a sort of center to hold our lives in place.

Isn’t that a beautiful idea? 

Everyone has a schedule, after all, some more rigorous than others.  Artists, especially, who often have another job besides their art, have to pay attention to time and allot themselves periods during each day for their projects.  I know from my own experience that following such a routine can be tiresome.  Sometimes I’d much rather just goof off – and sometimes I do, which is excusable, and even good, but it can’t be done every day, or I’d never complete any writing at all. 

Therefore, it’s my choice to lay out a certain ritual for myself, to follow every day that I can (which is most, besides chaotic ones like today!).  It’s other writers’ choice too – a recent blog post from Saskia Akyil mentioned that she has trained herself to write in very short spurts, whenever she has a moment.  Some might find that annoying, but if you have the need to write, but also must balance that with other obligations, then you can invent the personal ritual of writing for any ten minutes which may suddenly present themselves.  Those ten minutes become something beautiful, a bright spot in your life, where you validate yourself as an artist, but also have the satisfaction of knowing that no duties are being neglected in the meantime. 

Living with a schedule is like growing flowers on a wall!
My ritual of writing every day this summer was interrupted today.  However, since I’ve made the choice to follow the pattern faithfully, I know I’ll return to it without fail tomorrow.  Having a routine or a schedule might seem crippling to the artist, but in fact it liberates me, because it gives me a structure to live around.  I’m like a vine, curving this way and that, sometimes branching out in unexpected directions, but I’ve always got the trellis of my routine – my ritual – to support me.  After being a writer for ten years, I can’t really do without it!

Monday, July 9, 2012

Those Pesky People


This party table is not my natural scene!
I'm not what you might call a typically social person.  If you’re looking for one of those people who goes into any group and immediately feels comfortable, makes everyone else feel comfortable and leaves with ten new friends…well, you’ll have to look somewhere else.

Actually, I have three basic reactions to other people.  First, I love to observe them from an anonymous distance.  This is super helpful for writing, so I highly recommend it. You notice all kinds of interesting quirks, overhear snippets of surreal and fascinating conversation, observe a million physical details.  This is all to the good, since you can steal any of these things to flesh out a character on paper. 

Second reaction:  once I’ve discovered that someone is interesting, usually due to a couple of fortuitous conversations, then I want to talk to them for hours, days, years.  To such people I am very open and unreserved – a typical extrovert, whom you can hardly convince to shut up.  (Apologies to my circle of friends who have to put up with me!)

Third reaction:  this is the complicated one.  When it comes to large groups of people whom I perhaps know a little or not at all, but am expected to mingle with anyway, I become paralyzed.  My skill for small talk basically doesn’t exist, you see.  I stand or sit in the group smiling and feeling stupidly awkward, answering questions which people may ask, but otherwise almost completely tongue-tied, while my mind scrambles for something to talk about.

I’ve been advised that the best way to carry on small talk is to ask others about themselves.  You know, the typical, ‘How’s your family?  How’s work?  What do you do for fun?’  The problem for me is that my mind doesn’t operate very naturally on that level.  I either want to observe people’s mannerisms in silence, or I want to have a passionate discussion about a deep topic, like what impact the fast pace of life in our world has on the creative spirit.  The in-between, day-to-day stuff doesn’t really interest me.  Hence my acting like a wallflower at most social occasions.  Hence also my tendency to avoid them.

See, I told you it was a lovely valley!
However, sometimes you just can’t excuse yourself.  For example, one of my closest friends from high school just got married this weekend.  Obviously I had to attend, so I traveled to her home in a beautiful, rural Montana valley for the wedding.  The reception followed of course, and for my friend’s sake, I was obliged to go.  I did not cover myself in conversational glory at the party. 

This is largely my fault, I know.  I don’t blame anyone else.  I also feel that it’s to my detriment as a writer that I have this mental block against small talk.  After all, it’s perfectly possible that by asking someone what they do in their spare time, and then by revealing what I do in my spare time (write, of course), we could in fact eventually end up discussing what impact the pace of life does have on creativity, or something else equally interesting.  Once the conversation was over, I could tuck it away in my memory and draw upon it for dialogue in my stories. 

Part of the problem is that I write under a pen-name as a way to protect my private life, so I have to be a bit careful of revealing too much, or I’ll end up completely unprotected and the whole pseudonym idea will turn out quite pointless.  However, it’s still perfectly possible to talk generally about my interests.  My most successful conversation this weekend was in fact when I mentioned to a distant acquaintance that I pursue personal writing projects.  She does too, it turns out, and we’ve both submitted to contests (without success).  We were able to talk briefly about our opinions on whether contests are worth it or not.  Based on that experience, it’s obvious that if I would just come out of my shell a bit, I could easily enjoy these social events and even allow them to broaden the scope of my writing, or advance my career through good connections. 

So yes, I am admitting a failure to find balance.  It had to come sometime.  I’m sure that I can’t be the only person who feels amazingly awkward at gatherings, though, so I figured I would share my quandary. 

For the writer, it’s easy to get very absorbed in personal worlds that mostly exist inside the head, and then to rely for feedback on a fairly small, intimate group of friends.  Now, I think this is good – we need those friends and we have to explore our worlds.  However, it’s a bit sad to become socially inept at the same time.  It’s easy to think of the artist and writer as a social recluse, but when you look into most writers’ lives, it turns out that even if they were shy and did avoid society at large (Emily Dickinson, anyone?), they actually had a large circle of friends and acquaintances with whom they at least corresponded.

Other people, as demanding as they may be, as awkward as they may make us feel, are actually very essential to good writing, I think.  A writer can’t afford to become a total introvert, or else the quality of his writing will decline.  Poetry depends not just on our thoughts and feelings, but also on an outward view of the world.  Novels depend on the successful interaction of a variety of characters to advance the plot.  Other people draw us out into the world; they also give us examples of the variety we need for stories.  Therefore, according to my reasoning, I have to conclude that I need other people if I’m going to write really well.

The cake was great, even if my small talk wasn't!
That’s one of the reasons why I’m happy I attended the wedding this weekend, even if I felt awkward and out-of-place and didn’t talk to more than a dozen people in five hours.  My skills for small talk need work, but at least I emerged frm my comfort zone, met and observed new people.  Who knows when challenging myself that way will lead to some story element that’s essential to a future novel?  I think anyone with a reaction similar to mine would be well served by occasional doses of social interaction – don’t you agree?

Besides all those considerations, though, the most important thing was that I had the privilege of witnessing my friend’s wedding, which is definitely worth a smidgeon of discomfort.  I wish her and her new husband a wonderful life together! 

Thursday, July 5, 2012

From the Muse


I'll dutifully raise my hand!
All of you writers out there who have ever found yourselves frittering away time on the internet or watching TV, or texting, or what have you, raise your hands!  (Figuratively, of course – no need to start gesturing at your computer screen).

I have absolutely no doubt that I am not the only one who sometimes finds it just so much easier to waste time than to pull out my notebooks and writing files and start chugging away on one of my novels.  I’m also sure that I’m not the only one who feels obscurely guilty about this.  This is not the first time I’ve discussed how easy it is as an artist to be hard on oneself for not working on a project during every spare second. 

I think this attitude is reinforced for me because of my background.  My parents are very conservative, so we didn’t watch any broadcast television at all, and only the most occasional movie, during my childhood.  By the time I reached my teenage years, I’d only seen the expected Disney cartoons, a smattering of musicals, That Darn Cat and the Star Wars trilogy. (I exaggerate slightly – but only slightly). 

Then the Lord of the Rings trilogy came out, and because I was a Tolkien-geek of considerable standing – though I never went so far as to teach myself Elvish or anything extravagant like that – I convinced my parents we had to see the movies. From then on, they’ve slowly become more open to the possibilities of modern entertainment. 

If my parents hadn't limited TV, I couldn't make this!
Now, I am actually extremely grateful to my parents for their decision to limit my exposure to television, etc., quite strictly.  The need to entertain myself in other ways forced me to take refuge in books, to cultivate a lively imagination, to develop my sewing skills, to get outside in the summer, and so on.  Especially the first two elements have been extremely formative for me as a writer. 

The downside, however (I say this for any parent out there who reads this and just happens to be debating how much television to allow a child), is that when I moved out of the house to go to college, I practically craved movies and TV.  I’m a very curious person and I wanted finally to be in the know about all the movies my friends had discussed in high school.  My roommate and soon to be best friend, Vasnefy, had a satisfactorily large video collection, plus there was the library and Netflix.  I’d estimate that we’d watch three movies every weekend and probably two or three more during any given week.  That’s a lot.  Sometimes I look back and think about how much other stuff I could have been doing and feel a twinge of regret.  I did write a whole novel during my college years, but if I hadn’t been so busy sucking down pop culture with a straw, I might have written two!

Regrets aside, my addiction to television and internet, etc., has been greatly ameliorated with maturity. However, everyone will probably join me in admitting that it is for sure easier simply to relax with a movie or show, or by browsing online, or with video games, than to gear oneself up for hours of writing, especially after a long day at work.  Sometimes the nerves are just so frazzled by the demands of a job that trying to force anything else out of them is practically painful.  

I am here to say that I think this is actually okay.  Granted, balance is needed (that’s what my blog is about, right?).  I was definitely imbalanced in college, but I think it’s possible to reach a spot where the apparent dissipation of TV watching, etc., is actually helpful for writing – or any art. 

That’s where my blog title comes in.  My highly inaccurate etymology of the word ‘amuse’ is ‘to come from the muse.’  The accurate etymology has something to do with standing with one’s nose in the air – don’t ask me why….Anyway, amusement is something that relaxes our tired minds, opens them, and leads them to the state of leisure where we can be creative at last.  Sometimes we need the inspiration of someone else’s talent in order to jumpstart our own. 

Meet my TV-loving, NSFW muse!
That’s one of the reasons why I’ve become interested in independent and foreign films.  Much more obviously than with blockbusters, the directors and writers make efforts to be subtle, artistic, layered.  Their efforts make me want to make efforts, too. At the same time that I get to be lazy and recuperate from a busy day while watching their work, my mind is being set in motion in a good way.  It’s the best of all possible worlds, really.  My muse (my inspiration, that is) comes to life and starts whispering in my imagination about possibilities for my own plots or characters.  It’s like a gift. 

On a slightly less elevated, but highly effective level, there’s also a method that an acquaintance of mine shared with me.  He turns on an episode from a TV show, then starts laboring to create fantastic renders of his architectural designs, switching over occasionally to watch a few minutes of the show.  That way, he gives himself tiny breaks in the middle of his projects.  I’ve started using the same method in the evenings while writing, and it works great.  Of course I don’t get as much written, but by the end of a three hour period, I’ve advanced maybe a page or a page and a half, but also relaxed by watching a couple of episodes of something (usually my current addiction – Buffy the Vampire Slayer was the most recent…). 

You’ve probably noticed, if you’ve read through my blog, that I emphasize frequently the pointlessness of feeling guilty about not writing.  It is a theme, I know, because it’s something I struggle with.  I want to write, but if I force myself too much, I get jaded.  Reading, watching TV, browsing online – these things all have a place, even if it’s just to smooth the way toward better writing. 

But with that sage advice I must leave you.  Quite apropos to my topic, I have a movie to watch:  Decoy Bride.  It looks to be an utterly delightful romantic comedy, with Scottish accents to boot!  I will be sure to tell you how it is when I’m done. 

Monday, July 2, 2012

Writer on the Go


When I was in college, my fantastically athletic older brother would call me occasionally and somehow in the midst of our conversation he always ended up telling me that I should exercise more.  I ignored him.

This is my brother's idea of fun: volunteer galley slavery....I do not share his views!
That doesn’t mean he was wrong, though.  About the time I hit age thirteen, I also hit a very sedentary stage of my life.  I went to a pretty intense private school, and I was very committed to my studies, so what I did was study, read, write and generally turn myself into a geek.  I exercised very little, and my brother’s thought was that I probably didn’t get enough oxygen flow to my brain.  He obviously wasn’t paying any attention to my almost impeccable GPA when he decided this.

However, though my grades stayed steady, I got rather plump for my height, lacked muscle tone and endurance, and felt dissatisfied with my appearance.  The culmination came when I had to study for comprehensive exams at the end of my sophomore year in college.  I had no time to cook or sleep, so I consumed more fast food and coke than was really good for me.  I went home at the end of the year feeling the need for a change.  I was ready to listen to my brother at last. 

Ever since slimming down that summer, I’ve been more interested in exercise.  Also, ironically, just after that I began my first novel.  Perhaps my brother was right about the oxygen flow…

So what do I do?  I walk a lot, because I enjoy it, and I like swimming and biking as well.  However, like most things, exercise takes time, and time is a writer’s most precious commodity.  The other factor which can dissuade me from getting out when I should is that I dislike purposeless activity.  For example, I can never ever take up jogging, because I can’t understand the point of just running for running’s sake.  When I exercise I want to accomplish something or go somewhere.  The mere process isn’t what satisfies me.

That’s why I decided to make exercise work for me as a writer.  Doing so resolves both my need for a goal, and my lack of time.  I’m sure I’m not the only one who has just that need and just that lack, so I thought I would share my methods. 

Imagine writing in a cafe and seeing THIS!
First of all, a tangent.  I just want to say that I totally envy all you writers out there who live in big cities.  I have visited New York, Paris and Athens, and all three cities are a perfect artistic environment.  You can walk to a café or a park or a library or a museum, as near or far from your home as you want, park yourself there and write to your heart’s content.  Along the way you catch sight of cultural monuments which inspire your creativity.  You glimpse people and scenes and situations – new things every time you go out.  Stories practically flow into you.  Even though I wouldn’t want to live in a big city forever, I must say that I think it would be incredibly fruitful for me as a writer to reside in one for at least a little while.  There would be a perfect combination of cultural background, fruitful activity, and writing material. 

Anyway, since I do not live in a big city, but in a rather dreadful sleeper community between two small, mostly unremarkable cities, I have to find other means.  My chief one is walking.  Every day during the school year, I take a half hour walk at lunchtime to refresh my mind after a morning of clamoring students.  It’s during these outings that I often work out major plot points, because my mind is free to wrestle with characters and timelines.  Also, it’s less frustrating to think while moving than while staring at a computer screen on a desk.  Walk to prevent writer’s block!  That’s my motto.  (Not really!)

Idaho grass field
If I didn't go on walks, I wouldn't discover views like this!
Besides this, any outing can open the eyes, even if I don't live in a fascinating city.  For example, if I want to write authentically about the way grasses in farm fields wave like the sea under wind, then really I need to walk in a field while the wind is blowing.  If we are supposed to make art out of our own lives and experiences, then we have to get out of the house and fill ourselves with as much as we can.  I’ve written multiple poems about things I’ve seen while just strolling down the street in front of the school where I teach, which I’ve walked probably a thousand times.  There’s something about the out-of-doors which awakens creative vision.

Now, in the summer, when I’m not teaching, I like to up the physical activity a notch.  Last summer I house-sat for six weeks for a family who seriously lives on the side of a mountain, so I took advantage of that to go for a mini-hike almost every day.  This summer I’m living at home (besides a few days of house-sitting), so I had to think of another plan.

One of my many, many interests besides writing, cooking, fashion, etc., etc., is sustainable living.  Besides that, I also don’t get paid during the summer, so it feels good to use my car as little as possible and save gas money.  Those two factors, combined with my desire to exercise with a goal and to write in a quiet place with internet service, produced an equation.  The solution for that equation was…biking to the library!  Self-powered, pollution-less transportation, no wasted gas money, three miles to cover one way, and at the end, a perfect writing environment.  I’m loving it, I must admit.

Obviously other people who want to write (or otherwise pursue artistic endeavors) and exercise may not have a library close enough, but there is probably a café or some such pleasant spot within walking or biking range.  On the way there, powered by your own legs, you can have time to think, and then when you arrive, you can write down whatever came to you.  It’s an almost perfect scenario. 

That’s why I hope you all can spend at least a bit of the summer like me: zooming past houses and shops, ideas and inspiration merrily streaming behind you as you go!