Thursday, August 30, 2012

Take a Jaunt into Writing

I’m happy to announce that after a week and a half off writing, enforced by a combination of summer burn-out and a need to prepare for teaching, my desire to write has returned. 

‘How’s that?’ you may ask. 

Well, it all came about because I went for a drive. 

An Idaho river - breathing fog!
Not just any drive – a drive in North Idaho.  Amazingly, when I was in college (in Texas), I would occasionally tell people that I’m from Idaho.  Not uncommonly they would literally, no-jokes-here-I-promise, not know where the state was.  Hopefully anyone who reads this blog, however, has at least a general idea that Idaho is in the Inland Northwest of the United States.  That means lots of rivers, frequent lakes, spurs of mountains originating from the Rockies, enormous pine forests and high prairies.  Very beautiful, though I may not be an impartial judge.   

Anyway, down through the state panhandle, where I live, winds interstate 95.  It sweeps through mountain passes, plateaus, hanging valleys, river valleys, farmland, until it reaches the Palouse at the city of Moscow.  I have a friend who lives there, going to college, so I recently drove the ninety miles lying between us to visit. 

Here's proof of Big-sky Idaho
It was a beautiful late summer morning when I set out.  The sky was cloudless and vast – a cool blue heralding autumn.  People talk about Big-sky Montana, but they don’t realize that Idaho shares the big skies as well.  Come up and take a drive, and I promise you that you’ll see them!

I swept through the passes in the first part of my journey, peering down at small farms tucked amid the green ranks of pines.  I like the mountainous road, but I was already anticipating my favorite part of the drive—through Benewah County’s rolling farmland. 

Imagine two long lines of mountains, and between them a narrow, miles-long valley, curving back and forth, almost like a river itself.  Hills rise and fall, marked here and there by a fence line, or a grove of evergreens standing against the wind, or far away a farmhouse with barns and farm machinery clustered around it.  In and around these islands, the fields flow in endless green and gold expanses.  At this time of year, the combines are out traveling amid the wheat or grass in a haze of dust, gathering the harvest before the middle of September when frost might strike. 

Can you tell that I love my home?  It’s adopted, since I was born in Virginia, but I’ve lived here since I was nine, so I’ve fallen in love.

And I’ve not even told you the best part, because that comes at sunset.  As I returned from visiting my friend, the sun was setting in a haze which transformed it to a giant scarlet disc.  All around it, thin layers of the same haze spread along the horizon, tinted with faint greens and pinks against the white-blue sky.  Distant curves of the landscape took on purple hues in the shadow and a rosy flush where the sinking rays caught them. 

You can’t blame me if my thoughts turned to poetry.  All the way home, even after the sun had set, and only the pale half-moon glanced over my shoulder through the car window, I thought about the scenery and how to enshrine it in words. 

Well, because I was busy, it took me a few days, but I finally wrote the poem.  I’m so happy that my inspiration is flowing again – and all thanks to the beautiful drive. 

So you can probably guess what my advice is.  I’ve written before about the benefits of long trips to destinations you hope to write about, but we can’t always afford such extravagance.  Also, if we’re not careful, traveling to too exotic a locale can actually distract us with the sheer novelty of the experience. 

When you want a little burst of inspiration, take a day trip to somewhere you know and love.  Revel in the scenery.  Try to find new aspects of the landscape to appreciate.  Take the whole experience home and write a little story, or a blog post, or a poem.  If you’re like me, I think you’ll find that the jaunt will help get your creativity flowing, not just because it’s relaxing, but because there are so many beautiful and inspiring things to see on any journey.

Welcome to the Palouse!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012


Last night I watched an amazing documentary.  It was called Jiro Dreams of Sushi and featured the world’s oldest Michelin 3-star chef, who makes the sushi of the gods in Tokyo.  It certainly looked like the sushi of the gods, at least!

One of the concepts which was discussed in the film was the idea of being a ‘shokunin– a craftsman with understanding of his tools, skills to use them, awareness of beauty along with the capacity to create it, speed and also the desire to work for the general benefit of society.  I thought the idea was amazing and inspiring.  Trust the Japanese to have a simple word which envelopes a wealth of significance.

Anyway, it got me thinking.  You see, I’m a cook, too, so even though I hardly qualify to glance up towards the ranks of great and famous chefs, I still feel the urge to strive for the qualities of a shokunin

Tea and Biscotti make a perfect afternoon snack!
This summer my younger brother jokingly requested that I make a dessert each week, which I could then share with him and my parents.  The suggestion seemed quite brilliant to me, since I seldom get to bake during the school year, so I sprang upon the chance.  Amazingly, I have actually fulfilled my resolution to do this.  I just finished my last dessert before classes start again:  I baked almond biscotti for the first time.  (They turned out well, and I’m already excited to try variations on the recipe!  Any suggestions?)

With each dessert, as I sit down to sample it, I find myself thinking about the taste, the appearance, and how I could improve my technique to perfect taste and appearance.  I also take note of my family’s reactions, because it’s a delight to see them enjoying what I make, and of course if they have any critique I want to incorporate that in to my next attempt. 

I made a lemon meringue pie, and I’m contemplating how to make a thicker, taller meringue.  I also made tiramisu, and took down a mental note to use less coffee when soaking the ladyfingers for a denser texture.  I baked a cheesecake with a raspberry ribbon down the middle.  I want to be able to serve it more cleanly so that the red line is showcased against the white.  I’m keeping all these – and other – considerations in the back of my mind, so that when I next have time to bake, I can strive for perfection.

The cheesecake is pretty, but could be prettier...
Now the reason, of course, that I’m suddenly delving into shokunin and baking is because of the analogy with writing – or any art for that matter.  A chef should be a craftsman; a writer should be a craftsman; an architect should be a craftsman…you get the picture! 

However, oddly enough, perhaps because of the time it takes, I often feel a bit grumbly about perfecting my writing.  I know my tools, I hone my skills with each story, I know what’s beautiful and hopefully know how to create it, and I have the wish to benefit others with my writing.  Therefore, it seems natural that I should be willing to go back and work through each piece I write a thousand times, if necessary, until I feel that perfection is reached. 

In the documentary, sushi chef Jiro Ono is 85, and still feels that he is learning new things and striving for mastery every day.  I on the other hand, often feel tired before I even begin to edit a piece of writing.  I won't even mention the weariness that creeps in when facing a third or sixth or tenth edit. 

The meringue looked perfect, but wasn't, so I'll try again!
An element of shokunin is being able to take joy in the same action performed over and over, improving each time through the honing of technique.  I can take pleasure in honing a recipe because, with my not very expert tastes and abilities, I can reach something I’m satisfied with in four or six tries.  On the other hand, in my real area of craftsmanship, according to the Japanese principle, I should be content even if satisfaction only comes after a thousand attempts. 

I think for us Westerners, it’s easy to be impatient.  Our fast-paced society demands results, so we rush to give them.  What, however, happened to the Medieval mentality where one generation could prepare a new feature for a cathedral, and then die content in the knowledge that their grandchildren would install it?  Granted, we may not need that much patience, but certainly our historical roots are not so far away from the roots of a Japanese shokunin

Let’s all take a breath, then.  Don’t worry about when you’ll be published or famous.  Instead, focus on your work, even if you’re still polishing it after years and years.  Enjoy the process and realize that you’re creating yourself as an artist at the same time as you create perfect art. 

Perhaps if we can master that approach, suddenly at age 85 we’ll all be famous.  Our work will demand notice simply from the quality of its craftsmanship.  

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Great Outdoors

This summer I saw things like this...

Since I’m on a break from writing now, due to the necessity of preparing seven classes to teach next year, I thought I’d take a look back over my summer in this blog post.  The thing that leaps out at me from all my experiences is how much time I spent out of doors. 

When I was pre-school age, my family lived in Virginia and I spent every possible waking minute in our large, wonderful yard.  Looking at pictures from that time, I’m always astonished by how nearly blond my hair had been bleached by the sun.  I was tanned all over, too.  Considering I have dark hair and pale skin, this was quite the achievement.  It also shows how much I loved being outside. 

Then we moved to Washington (state).  We also had a large, wondeful yard there, and I continued to play in it as much as possible, but the Seattle area is not exactly known for its glorious weather.  I started to stay indoors more.  I also began my metamorphosis into a bookworm. 

My family’s final move was to North Idaho.  The weather here is quite nice – not humid and not terribly extreme in either winter or summer – and once again we had a large, wonderful yard (notice a trend here?).  However, I transferred into a private girls’ school with an intense curriculum, and so my new identity, bookworm extraordinaire, became set in stone.  I still spent a reasonable amount of time playing outside during the summer, but I definitely settled more and more into a sedentary life, curled up in a chair, or bent over a desk.

College in Texas didn’t really change anything, because it’s so hot in TX that escape indoors to air conditioning is the best option.  However, I did make a small breakthrough.  Fort Worth’s Botanical Gardens are magnificent: grand and sprawling, with little groves and corners and hideouts everywhere.  On free weekends, I’d go with Vasnefy or Mrs. L to find one of those little groves, settle in for a few hours with a thermos of coffee or tea, and write.  It was a therapeutic and inspiring routine.  I began to remember how restorative, how delightful it is to spend time outdoors.

...and like this...
However, after graduating, I worked for several summers and taught all winter.  I walked every day for twenty minutes at lunch, but that was mostly to decompress, not really to take delight in nature. 

This summer has been the first one in a long time when I’ve been free enough to enjoy the outdoors.  I decided to take up some biking, and despite an occasional set-back (bike theft, anyone?), I managed to keep it up for a solid two months.  Besides that, I planted herbs, which meant that I had to get outside to water them.  I helped my parents tend and harvest their garden.  I went for walks with friends. 

It was lovely!  I’ve felt alive and energetic and healthy all summer.  Usually winter is my favorite season, but I’m actually regretting the slow descent of summer into fall this year.  Besides, I’ve seen so many things!  My eyes are open to a millions new details, thanks to simply being outside. 

For example, ever since I was little I’ve loved animals.  This is mostly due to inheriting probably 50 Ranger Rick magazines from my older brother, and then having the subscription continued by my lovely aunt so that I collected another 100 or so.  I read them all over and over and became equipped with an amazing arsenal of random, mostly useless facts about animals.  Did you know that if you ate as much as a tiger does at one meal, you’d sit down to 200 hamburgers for dinner? (See, I told you – random and useless…but fascinating)  

Anyway, this summer I’ve seen cedar waxwings, toads, goldfinches, quail, pheasants, ladybugs, tiger swallowtails, moths, daddy longlegs, magpies, goats, bumblebees, rabbits, a million hummingbirds of at least four different species, and I’m probably forgetting a half-dozen other creatures.  The nerdy biology-enthusiast in me has been delighted by all these glimpses of the life around town.

...and like this!  The toad kindly posed for the photoshoot!
Why do I tell you this?  Because animals are just one of the many things which I encountered in my adventures this summer.  Animals, plants, beautiful landscapes, fair skies, other people—all these things are available if you get out of the house and look around.  Then once you’ve seen them, you can tuck them away in your memory, or perhaps take a photo to study later in leisure.  These beautiful sights and experiences from the world around us become a foundation on which to build stories.  Even if you don’t directly write about the menagerie I mentioned above, if you need to describe a hummingbird because you’ve invented a bird-watching character, then you only have to dig into your memory for the images to surface and be written down. 

So my concluding advice, then, is to put down your computer (now, if you can!), head outside and just enjoy whatever happens out there.  While it may not inspire your writing instantly, in a few days or weeks or months I wager you’ll be able to use what you see in some literary or artistic endeavor.  

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Relax from Writing by…Writing!

Computers can make me as headachey as a caryatid!

Do you ever have times when all the computer use gets a bit tiresome?  That’s been happening to me lately.  I’ve been looking for other things to do than even – dare I say it – write, simply to take me away from the computer.  Actually that explains why this blog post is late, though a sense of duty did at last prompt me to write it. 

Now, I don’t mind some time on the computer.  I use internet radio for my music; I like to watch an episode of a TV show at night to relax; I chat with friends pretty regularly.  Those things are fine, because they are intermittent and don’t require you to spend hours staring at the screen in concentration.   All my writing and editing does require that, however, and I’ve been fully immersed in a busy routine of both this summer, which has led to a slight burnout. 

Well, luckily for me, said burnout happened just as I was coming to the last few weeks before my school year starts, during which I work through all my teaching preparations.  It was fortuitous.  (Actually, has anyone noticed that we have this amazing ability to get burned out when we know a change is coming?  It feels like a chicken-or-egg scenario to me!) 

So I’ve been working away on preparing lesson plans, which is actually sort of fun, no matter how much I grumble about it before I start.  However, all work and no play doesn’t help anyone recover from a burn-out, so I also needed to find something restful, perhaps creative to do, to rejuvenate my authorial powers. 

Fountain pens are best for letters!
I turned to writing letters. 

When I was in college I dreamed of being one of those writers who are known by their amazing and soulful letters.  I would die (famous, of course), and my biographer would make the rounds to all the people I’d written over the course of my long, glamorous life.  My brilliant letters would be collected, compiled and millions would read them and be edified.  

Such are the ridiculous (perhaps we might even say nauseating?) ambitions of a 19-year-old with delusions of grandeur.  I didn’t even particularly love to write letters.  That is – I do like to write them, but they take me a long time since I’m not good at curbing myself in regard to length, and so I find them a bit tiresome.  I had enough friends in college who appreciated hand-written letters, though, that I overcame reluctance and kept up several fairly steady correspondences.

Then I got out of college; I started working; several years went by.  My reluctance to write letters came to the foreground, because I really was short of time.  For a while I had two jobs.  Then I suddenly became homeroom teacher for a year.  Once that was done, I decided to devote more effort toward getting published, which stage has been going on for a while.  In the midst of the business I wrote a few letters to my brother while he was at college, but that was about it. 

Suddenly this weekend I was tired of watching myself lose the habit I’d developed in college with considerable labor.  I thought:  ‘Since I’m not willing to sit down at my computer to write, perhaps it’s time to sit down at my desk to write, instead.’  Well, I was right.  There’s definitely a satisfying element of creativity to writing a letter.  Each person to whom you write is different, so they deserve a different twist of your writing style and a different flavor of your thoughts. 

If you need to take a break from writing – and really, unless you are a god, I think you do at some point or other – then I can definitely suggest letters as a way to keep your mind working.  Plus you have the added bonus of choosing a piece of heavy paper, smoothing it out on your desk, taking up your best pen and practicing your penmanship as you inscribe your epistle.  Doesn’t that sound wonderfully therapeutic, especially if you don’t rush yourself to finish, but write and then perhaps pause and then write some more?  I can assure you it is. 

Gravel-gardens and letter-writing: experiments in achieving zen!
This weekend I ended up writing several letters, which made me feel good for taking time to communicate with my friends, and also staved off any guilt for ignoring my writing projects.  And in fact, I enjoyed the process so much that I’m now trying to think of other people who might need a letter from me.  I might as well take advantage of this quiet time before the hectic school year starts to indulge in the zen of letter-writing. 

As a final note, I’m actually planning to handwrite my next novel in a journal, once I start it at the New Year.  Perhaps anticipation of that endeavor helped subconsciously motivate me to tire of computer writing and turn from it to paper and pen.  I’m a great believer in happy coincidences like that, so I’ll just run with the idea!  

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Mix It Up

My blog has probably made it clear that I am a schedule-oriented person.  I like to work out a routine and then stick to it for the next ten years of my life.  (Okay, maybe not quite that long, but still, for a long time.)

The only problem with that tendency, as other schedulers out there probably know, is that boredom creeps in.  You go along, doing almost the exact same thing every week and then voila! suddenly you never want to do it again in your life. 

Under these is a perfect place to work!
There are about three weeks until I start teaching again, and I’ve come to that bored stage with my summer routine.  This past Monday I finished my big editing project.  Then I made a simple plan of editing one chapter of my small project per day until I finished the four remaining chapters.  You’d think that I could get through such a thing easily enough, especially since it only takes an hour or so to polish up a 3 page chapter, but boredom has snuck in and sabotaged my efforts. 

However, all is not lost.  I was beginning to envision putting off the editing for another two weeks until the rush of school preparations is over, but then a friend of mine called me up.  He's also a teacher (though at a University), and also afflicted with end of the summer blues.  We both realized that if we wanted to surmount ennui and get anything done, we needed a change of venue. 

So we headed forth to a restaurant with wi-fi service, ordered drinks and appetizers, and settled in for a couple of hours. 

Well, it turns out that when someone busy is sitting across the table from you, working away, you think to yourself, ‘Oh, I should really get something done, too!’  And you plunge into your project, in spite of any nagging boredom, and suddenly it starts moving ahead.  If you’d stayed home, doing what you usually do, perhaps you’d have procrastinated endlessly, but the solidarity of another person working with you – even if on a totally different project – inspires real industry. 

Mrs. L. once took me to write in a garden with magnolias!
The pleasure of having like-minded friends is that they understand your work quandaries. Vasnefy, Mrs. L. – both these friends also pursue various artistic endeavors, and both have taught in the past or are teaching now.  I can rely on them all to bolster me in my writing, even when I’m bored or depressed, and to suggest ways to change my schedule so that I can surprise myself into a writing frame of mind. 

We all go through creative dry spells – it’s part of the game of being a writer or an artist – but sometimes it’s possible to sidestep the dryness, or trick the writer’s block, by doing something out of the ordinary.  I remember reading an essay by Eudora Welty once, and she said that a writer has to be able to write anytime, anywhere.  I try to emulate her advice, but I do think she must have been a super-hero if she stuck to it perfectly herself.  Sometimes the usual places no longer stimulate the mind.

At times like this, I highly recommend the method I employed yesterday.  I’ve used it in the past with Mrs. L., too.  Seek out a fun new place: a park, a restaurant, a cafĂ©, even just someone else’s living-room instead of your own.  You may not suddenly write genius prose or be inspired with the secrets of the universe, but I think it’s likely you’ll have a little jumpstart to help overcome your block. 

Cocktails are most inspiring when finished!
Working in a new environment, I did after all edit a chapter of House of Mirrors.  Today was busy, so I’ve not managed to finish another, but after that break-through, I feel more inspired to work even at home or the library – my two usual writing spots.  That’s why I’m optimistic that tomorrow when I open my editing files, I’ll find my reluctance has evaporated and I can accomplish what I set out to do.

Sometimes we need a refresher, don’t you think?  Schedules are all well and good, but they require an injection of spontaneity if they're not going to become crushing and tiring.   So call a friend who also writes or has projects to accomplish.  Head to a new place and work in companionable silence.  You'll be surprised how much can get done.

Oh, and I can tell you that if you go somewhere that serves cocktails – suddenly the whole endeavor becomes so much more fun!

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Distractable Part

I pluck fruit from under leaves of distraction
When I was in high school, I had an extremely conservative teacher who encouraged a formal approach to studying.  “Sit upright in a desk,” she would say, “and make sure you work in absolute silence.” 

So what did I do?  Each afternoon I went home, said hello to my parents, went downstairs to my room, dropped off my backpack and then headed straight for the stereo system.  At the time I was obsessed with opera (I’m a geek, I freely admit), so I turned on Carmen or La Traviata, cranked up the volume, and then worked steadily for hours getting through all my homework.  Besides developing an ability to sing along with large parts of Carmen, I also graduated at the top of my class, so I never felt bad about ignoring my teacher’s advice.  

This work method has stayed with me ever since.  Nowadays when I sit down to write, I first check my email, take a peek at Facebook and deviantArt, just to get those things out of the way.  Then I sort through my music options, pick something which appeals to my mood for the day, turn up the volume, and work happily for as long as possible. 

While I respect my teacher, I politely disagree with her on her idea of a good work environment.  See, the problem with silence is that it leaves room for boredom.  Our brain is a natural multi-tasker, I think, and so even while we’re focusing it on some project or other, the unused part of it starts looking for an occupation.  If I’m not careful, for example, I’ll work for fifteen minutes on a story and then think, ‘I wonder if someone posted an interesting status on Facebook,’ or, ‘Maybe there’s a new painting or poem on deviantArt.’  And off I go to check, even though it’s only been a short time since I last checked, and the likelihood of anything new is faint. 

My distractable part likes some music in its corner!
If I turn on a Mat Kearney album (he’s my latest music craze), though, then that bored little section of my brain goes off in the corner and hums along to the songs, quite happy and content.  That leaves the industrious part free to get on with business.  Sometimes I get so absorbed, in fact, that I’ll look at the clock once and then the next time I do an hour will have gone by without interruption or even the faintest temptation to browse the internet. 

Now, I’m not trying to convince anyone that you all have to go buy Mat Kearney albums and listen to them as the one sole way for getting lots of writing done.  I’m not even saying you should listen to any music while you write.  I only mean that usually writers and artists need an extra something thrown into their work environment to amuse the distractable part of the mind and hence focus their labors. 

Artists are known, after all, for their odd requirements for inspiration.  I always remember reading in college that the poet Schiller needed the smell of rotten apples if he wanted to get work done (the only thing I can say about that is…yuck).  That is a rather extreme distraction, but people do rely on a particular room, or a particular time of day, or a particular little activity to spur them on to creativity and productivity. 

It’s easy to make excuses when your hobby and passion also happens to be hard work, as in the case of writing.  I know on days specifically set aside for writing I’ve been guilty of wasting time with little chores (my room gets so clean when I’m procrastinating!), or interminable internet browsing, or a sudden movie that just must be watched.  I’m sure other writers know what I mean. 

However, if I sit down right away and start my chosen music, it becomes my signal that I’m serious.  I’m really going to write, not fritter time away on random distractions. 

Granted if you aren’t working under any kind of time constraint, then such a signal may not be necessary.  You can just write for as long as you wish, whenever you wish.  On the other hand, if you have to balance writing with work and the need to eat and sleep then when a chance to write comes up, it seems such a pity to waste it. 

I like to imagine my metaphorical race happening here!
That’s why I recommend training yourself to obey the stimulus of whatever little trick you need to keep yourself focused.  If you must drink tea or coffee or wine while writing, let pouring a glass be the signal which sets you to work.  If you need to sit outside in order to feel inspired and not get absorbed in household chores, then open your notebook or laptop as soon as you get outdoors and start right away.  If you’re like me and love background music, then have your work ready to go when you push the play button.  I’ve always thought that we writers are a bit like racers: we need a gunshot to tell us when to get started.   

This post may not seem the most original – the subject of the quirks of writers and artists is well covered, after all – but I just wanted to mention that even those quirks can help us balance our creativity in the midst of everything else.  My practice is to make mine not just a helpful environment, but actually a spur, a sort of jumpstart for the writing mindset.  

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Writing Takes Planning

Well, work starts up for me again in a bit less than a month.  The plus of teaching is the three months off in the summer, but it is also the downside, since by the time the third month rolls around, I’d be happy to stay on vacation forever.

Anyway, regrets aside, I’ve been making writing plans.  See, when I’m working for real, I have to schedule my writing somewhat strictly to make sure it gets done in the midst of a million stacks of grading.  I’m sure others of you who work a day job to pay for the writing habit know what I mean!

The kitten feels my dilemma: eager, but held back!
However, I’m at a bit of an impasse right now.  My fellow artists in any genre surely know the delight which comes with working on a fresh creative effort.  In an ideal world, we would finish one perfectly realized project and spring gaily on to begin the next.  As I’ve observed before, the world remains decidedly not ideal, and so we end up yearning to go on to something new, while still being saddled with all the correcting and editing and perfecting of the old stories. 

What I’d love to do is ignore those insistent editing projects and start my new novel, but I can’t.  My sense of duty towards my old novels holds me back.  Both The Art of Dying and House of Mirrors still need considerable love and tenderness before they’ll really be done (or at least done for now).  The other factor is that in the next novel I want to tackle themes like the history of the Coeur d’Alene tribe of Native Americans, alcoholism, divorce, father-son relationships, bereavement and police work. With such an impressive roster…I probably need to do some research before I start.  Don’t worry, though:  even if I am a method writer, I promise I won’t fall into alcoholism myself – I can only hold about two drinks, after all! 

So this is what I’m thinking.  The Art of Dying lacks about 35 pages until I’m done paring it down to a cleaner story, and then I also need to do a preliminary edit of the last four chapters of House of Mirrors.  If I could finish those two things by the end of summer, I would count myself lucky and successful.

Then those same two works both need to be reread from beginning to end, the former mainly for typos, and the latter for plot inconsistencies, stylistic problems, extraneous material, etc., etc.  If you’re a writer, you know the drill for editing, I’m sure! 

Writing must be taken as seriously as climbing 900 steps!
Considering these factors, I’ve decided that I will hold off on plunging into a new novel for at least five months.  I’d like to start it with the new year, in fact.  Theoretically, as long as teaching is not too crazy, that will give me plenty of time to edit the two other novels and to do at least some of the research I need to make the new story credible.  At the same time, that hiatus will not be so long that I fall out of the creative mentality and feel reluctant to start writing again.  Also, to make sure that doesn’t happen, I’ll indulge in some poetry and short stories, I’m sure. 

Now, you may wonder why I’m disclosing my writing plans.  Partly, it’s to get them sorted out for myself by writing them down.  The more important part, though, is because recently I wrote about how to deal with writing plans which ‘gang agley’ (thank you, Robert Burns).  It is true that you have to be flexible if you want to be a writer who has a life, so that all the different elements don’t become scrambled and exasperating.  At the same time though, I do think planning is needed – but a specific kind of planning.

I’m not really addressing writers of short fiction or poetry here.  While I do both myself and thoroughly enjoy them, I don’t have to worry excessively about planning them, because they are naturally adapted to be fitted into a spare moment here or there.  With long writing projects like my novels, though, some view of the future development of the work has to be made.

Strategy guides the novel like a good machine
We’re all so busy.  We have work and family and relationships and budgets and wardrobes and food and sleep and hobbies and probably a thousand other things which occupy us.  And yet some of us still want to keep writing novels on top of that.  Since that’s the case,  in order to make sure that our creative impulses survive in the middle of all the other business, we have to be able to strategize. 

Make a long term plan (make it extra generous too, because from experience I can tell you that if you give yourself 9 months to speed-write a novel, it will probably stretch out to 15).  Don’t beat yourself up if the long term plan doesn’t quite work out, but also let it guide you to keep writing and working and producing the art which you love.  That’s the method which works for me - and hopefully for others - when it comes to fitting the production of novels into everyday life.  

Monday, August 6, 2012

Another Kind of Editing

Everyone who has ever been a writer, or done any kind of creative work, is well aware of the true bane of such pursuits…editing and revisions!  Actually, I think we can all admit that editing is not that bad; it’s just that it’s a never ending proposition, so we easily tire of it.   

However, since I’ve been editing all summer, I’ve been thinking a lot about the process.  In some ways I think that we prove ourselves real artists when we make the commitment to critique and perfect our work, five times over if need be.  It’s easy to act on the original creative impulse, after all.  Going back and channeling that creativity into its best form is much more of a labor of love, since it’s time-consuming and monotonous, and we have to look at our own efforts with a severe eye. 

Young artists are a bit like ducklings: cute and clueless!
I’d imagine that young artists in any genre feel reluctant to do serious editing.  I know I felt that way until even this summer.  On the other hand, I was always aware that I needed to edit my prose, even if I wasn’t as active or motivated about doing it as I should have been.  Poetry was another matter altogether.

I consider myself a novelist who dabbles in poetry.  Inspiration for a poem comes to me fairly regularly, and I spend a day or two getting it recorded and tweaking it until I’m happy with the way it reads.  Then I save the file on my computer, share it with friends, post it to deviantArt, and that’s about the last I think of it.  As a dedicated writer, I knew that I should be going back later and editing the poems to smooth out rough spots and correct word choice and such, but I never did.  Poetry for me seemed more like a sort of inspired burst which refreshes my mind and gets my creative powers working, rather than something to pursue for its own sake. 

That doesn’t mean I haven’t considered attempting to publish my poetry, though.  Most people who read it tell me they like it (some more than my prose, which is a touch discouraging, I admit), so I figured that I probably could polish it up and eventually make a small collection.  Probably that would even be a good exercise for me – to treat my poetry with the same commitment I treat my prose, in other words. 

The chief problem about this ambition, though, was that for years whenever I did review my poetry I always thought, ‘Well, really, this is pretty good.  Do I even need to fix it?’  I lacked a critical eye.  Also, I made the excuse that the original inspiration for the poem had been totally expended in writing it.  I couldn’t possibly go back and find that inspiration again in order to dismantle and rebuild the poem with it!  Oh, the excuses we make for ourselves…

This summer has brought a breakthrough, though, I’m happy to report.  Perhaps because I’ve also gained enough experience as a writer to realize that when I edit my stories I need to be able to cut out extraneous and non-essential material, it suddenly seemed much more imperative that I be able to do the same thing for poetry.  I think the skills for revision actually cross between genres. 

In a fit of industry a week or two ago, after several hours of editing The Art of Dying, I suddenly thought, ‘I should open up my favorite poem and see what I can do to improve it.’  I was expecting maybe 20 minutes of work, but instead I ended up spending some 2 hours reworking almost every line.  The end result says the same thing as the original form, but I think it says it better – more naturally, more fluidly.  Since then I haven’t yet had time to look through other poems of mine, but I’m feeling optimistic that I’ve reached a point where I can preserve their meaning while perfecting their form. 
My poem was about the beauty of a springtime landscape like this!
Now, you may ask why I’m telling you all this.  Everyone knows that editing is important, of course, so maybe it seems that I’m preaching to the choir.  However, I do have a point to make. 

An idea which is important to me, and which has perhaps snuck into many of my blog posts, is integration.  I find that if I make all the different aspects of my life work together, instead of segregating them, I get more done and enjoy better results, and I'm not alone in this, I know.  This even applies to editing.  If I keep a watchful eye on all my creative endeavors, instead of just one, then I develop the habit of revising and perfecting work, and it becomes much less of a chore – more of an automatic reaction. 

I even edit my cooking, though these muffins were perfect!
I like to sew and to cook and to write prose and poetry.  All of those undertakings require editing: in cooking, maybe some spice wasn’t adjusted quite right, so next time the dish is made I have to use a more careful hand with it.  In sewing, I don’t get a set of seams lined up quite right, so I have to rip them out and try again.  In writing, of course, we have a general sense of what didn’t work in the narrative, and we revise it with more or less grumbling. 

If we aim for perfect work in all these realms, though, don’t you think we'll learn to recognize perfection when we reach it?  That way, our task will become much simpler overall.  We’ll develop a sense for things, so that we can easily identify when a project is good enough and when it’s not.  That sense will become honed with plentiful practice. 

That at least is my experience: my practice in editing has led me to be able to revise and improve all my writing, even finally my poetry.  It’s a good feeling, and one which I hope all my fellow writers and artists share with me.  

Friday, August 3, 2012

Less is More

Despite Thursday being my usual day to post to the blog, I went on a little trip yesterday.  By the evening when I returned home, I was ready to write a post, but lacked energy to upload my photos for it.  I admit…I was lazy and procrastinated until Friday. 

However, I haven’t been completely lazy this week.  I’ve been working on editing my second novel (from here on, I’ll call it by name:  The Art of Dying).

The novel was a mess, rather like this oregano
This novel of mine has had many adventures.  First of all, it was my oldest story idea, so it changed in my mind from a fantasy, to a historical novel of the Middle Ages, to a Western, and finally to what I actually wrote – a contemporary novel set in Fort Worth, Texas.  Also, as an experiment to see how dependent I was on word-processing, I wrote it all by hand in notebooks (it turns out I’m not very dependent at all, but word-processing is still extremely nice to have).   Then I typed it up, editing it as I went.  Then I decided to submit it to a contest, so I edited it again.  Then I didn’t win the contest, so I decided to re-edit it, because I had a sneaking suspicion some of it was largely unintelligible from too much complexity.  Finally, I started sending out query letters, but when two were ignored and four refused, I decided it needed to be cut down from its mammoth length of 198,000 words. 

So, that is where The Art of Dying is now, poor thing – in the middle of being chopped up.  I love the novel to pieces, which is why I refuse to let it rest.  I want it to be as perfect as I can possibly make it.  Sometimes I think it’s brilliant; sometimes I hate it.  The one thing I know for sure, though, is that in its long form it was a monument of authorial self-indulgence.  Since I have practically maternal fondness for the main character, I put in absolutely every scrap of information I could about him, and the story quickly assumed epic proportions.  However, much of what I said was redundant or extraneous, so it really had to be cut.

Now let me indulge in an analogy.

I’ve mentioned that this summer I’ve been enjoying a little gardening.  Well, one of the things I planted, in a charming terra cotta pot, was oregano.  I opened up the seed package and looked inside, expecting (since it’s a perennial) to find some good size seeds, capable of producing something that will live indefinitely.  I was wrong.  There was a fine, black powder on the white paper, completely impossible to separate effectively for individual sowing.  So I just sort of tapped the seeds over the pot, watered it sparingly as suggested, and hoped some of the black powder had actually made it into the soil.

Well, some did.  In fact, I think all of it did, and mostly in a three inch circle slightly to one side of the middle.  This amazing forest of teensy oregano sprouts burst into existence about a week after my inept planting attempts.  They were so tightly packed they felt fuzzy to the touch, like a tiny, velvet carpet.  It was quite charming actually.  I felt proud of them. 

Now it's stronger and better, after pruning!
The problem was that obviously none of them had enough room to develop.  There was a sort of Darwinian struggle going on, with a few sprouts poking their leaves a bit higher than the others in an attempt to dominate and survive, but help was needed.  I sat down beside the pot after they’d gotten about an inch high, and thinned them quite mercilessly.  Out of probably 60 oregano sprouts, only 20 uncertain ones were left standing. 

They quickly recovered from their uncertainty, though.  With enough room to stretch their roots, they grew in leaps and bounds.  It’s only been two weeks, and all of them have quadrupled in size.  They’re recognizable oregano plants now, and any day they'll be ready to give me leaves for some tasty dish or other.

So why did I tell you this tale of garden success?  Because it turns out that thinning the oregano pot is about like cutting a novel down to a reasonable size.  Your story comes pouring out onto the page, dense and wordy.  You feel incredibly proud of writing such a long book and pat yourself on the back.  But then…rereading it, you realize that maybe the story is struggling to survive amidst all the extraneous fluff. 

Slowly and carefully you start to thin out words, sentences, paragraphs, feeling nervous the whole time that maybe something is getting lost in the process.  Then as it continues, you begin to see a cleaner narrative emerging, and a bit of excitement touches you.  Even though no one in their right mind starts out eager to sit down and mutilate their work, after a while, it becomes almost fun to sift through each chapter, looking for the essential so that the tangents and distractions can go by the wayside. 

My hope is that at the end of the entire process in a week or two, I’ll find that – much like my oregano – the themes and ideas and images which I tried to work into the storyline will have grown clearer and stronger and more productive, so that in fact the novel will be more itself, thanks to being thinned and pruned. I'm sure every other writer has had that hope and that eventual experience.  It's a pleasant feeling to anticipate. 

Like these blueberries, my writing life is steadily developing
My first attempts at novels were all extremely long, but for years I’ve been unable to muster up the gumption to cut them down to size.  That’s why I feel like I crossed a barrier as a writer in finally being able to take The Art of Dying and distill it down to its essence.  It’s good to look back over the time I’ve been writing and say, ‘I’ve matured, because now I can look with a properly critical eye at what I’ve written and really improve it.’ 

Such breakthroughs are often the best moments of being a writer or an artist, I’ve found.  It's good to feel that we are becoming our true selves, don't you think?