Friday, August 5, 2016

A lesson in momentum

a.pitch via Flickr
Man, time flies. Here it is five days into August, and I haven’t processed that July has even ended.

It was a busy, if unproductive, month. Four people came to stay with B and me, total, meaning we had at least one house guest, and usually two, at any given time. My mask of nice-normal-sociable-human-being began to wear and chip away by the end, leaving me twitching and smiling too bright, like a malfunctioning robot. (Okay, it wasn’t that bad, but I am glad to return to an empty house.)

I didn't do a good job of fitting writing into the cracks of all of this. Superhero novel looms on the horizon, and my August 1st short story deadline smacked me in the face. And not for the reason you might think.

See, I learned a lot about my writing-self this month, the most important lesson being: I can sit and force myself to write words all day long, but I’m still not going to have a story at the end of the day, if I’m not inspired.

I know most writing advice tells you to just write. Just get it out. You can fix it later. But this is a simplistic watering down of writing-craft, to be honest. Because, yes, sometimes forcing it can lead to inspiration. But more often than not, forcing it breaks everything. If the core of your story is wrong at the beginning, it will be wrong at the end, and there is no fixing that. There is only deleting that and starting over. And maybe this kind of backward work is still good work—I learned one way not to write the story, yay—but it seems inefficient to me. I’d much rather get the bones of the story right the first time.

I have to know why I’m writing a story for it to turn out well. It’s an instinct. A resonance in my own core. The story has to mean something to me personally, or it will be empty and purposeless.

This story that I forced myself to write meant nothing.

And the reason is simple. I haven't been reading enough. I haven't been writing or thinking about writing enough. The creative cogs ground to a halt, and as a result, when I sat down to write, I got nothing but dust and grit. Creativity is a momentum. You have to add a little bit of fuel to it every day to keep it moving. You don’t have to write masterpieces every day. I’d argue that you don’t even have to create every day, but you do have to put time to the idea of it. You have to read critically, or brainstorm, or sift through columns of advice. You have to search for inspiring images, or take long walks, or go on artist dates with yourself to places you’ve never been with the express purpose of finding inspiration. You have to actively engage with your creativity on some level every day for it to stay lush and ripe.

And then, when that deadline comes calling, you can sit and write your masterpiece. 

Or at least the bare bones of one.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Happy Fourth of July

Four days into the second half of the year and I have nailed my first self-appointed deadlinea finished short story by Friday the 1st. Turns out setting my own deadline was a good move. The panic set in at dawn on Thursday. I still had seven scenes to write, and because I'm hard-headed and tenacious, I got them done. A solid draft, 5700 words total, titled Black Vase. Short Story 1, down.

I wrote 3800 words on Thursday alone, a high daily count for me. Was it gold? Absolutely not. I’ll have a lot of revision work to do, but honestly the roughness of the draft came less from writing on a deadline and more from my own rustiness.

I side-stepped a lot of that rustiness by planning the story beforehand and writing an undrafta quick handwritten scribble that was basically a screenplay. I set the scene, wrote dialogue, and filled in the cracks with action tags. I created a skeleton. Then when I moved to my computer and began the real draft, I added blood and muscle and skin. This strategy helped shut down my inner editor and also came to my rescue late Thursday when my creativity died.

My next deadlinefor Short Story 2is August 1st, an eon away. I'll start brainstorming mid-month. Until then, my full attention goes to superhero novel. Oh, so exciting.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Writing goals, updated

I love challenges. In college I was the student who left work until the last minute because something about writing a 10 page research paper in one night wonderfully concentrated my mental capacities. Under pressure, I wrote well.

In this spirit, I’m updating my writing goals to be more ambitious.

Before the end of the year I want to finish drafting my novel, complete 9 short stories, and sell one of those stories to a literary journal. I’m already working on the first story, which I intend to finish in the next three days.

The deadlines are as follows:

July 1 - story 1 
Aug 1 - story 2

Sep 1 - story 3 
Oct 1 - story 4 
Nov 1 - story 5 
           - novel first draft
Nov 15 - story 6 
Dec 1 - story 7 
           - submission to journal(s) 
Dec 15 - story 8
Jan 1 - story 9

Ambitious enough?

In early 2013 I wrote a short story every two weeks while drafting two novels while going to school, so I know these goals are realistic if I work hard. I also know that in 2013 I wrote every day, and transferring a story from thought to paper was second nature. It is not second nature anymore. It is clumsy and difficult, like pulling cement blocks out of swamp mud. So my real goal for the next six months is to knock off the rust and make storytelling second nature again. And to grind it into my bones that this is my career. It is work and I take it seriously, and I’m willing to put in the time and effort to prove it.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Tangled morning thoughts

I’m reading love poetry while listening to the news blare about wildfires scorching homes in the west and floodwaters filling more with mud in the east. It sounds like something from a low-budget apocalyptic film. I feel a tickle of thought, a connecting thread to illuminate the greater meaning of all of this, but before I can understand it, the thought flickers out of grasp, eel-like.

I turn back to my computer screen and read:

It’s so nice
to wake up in the morning
all alone
and not have to tell somebody
you love them
when you don’t love them

— Richard Brautigan

The simplest words cut deepest. Maybe because they are stripped of everything but truth.

My own words bubble up from a well I have long feared dry. They lodge in the back of my throat, sharp-edged and stinging. Once upon a time they flowed out in ceaseless lines. Now I’m out of practice of extracting them unbroken.

I have much to say. My mouth will not be wide enough to release the flow when the dam finally bursts. I’ll have to remove my jaw.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Burn it down

As a writer I'm humbled to realize I still have so much to learn. I'm still more or less a beginner. I imagine I will never stop feeling this way because writing-craft is an endlessly vast ocean. There are always new skills to learn, new approaches to try. And I’m heartened by that as much as humbled because it means I can always improve. Working through challenges is what makes writing—and life for that matter—so fulfilling. There’s no better feeling than accomplishing something that felt impossible.

Right now my challenge is revision. For a long time it was simply finishing, getting the first draft out of me whole and intact. When I finally managed to do that, I jumped from story to story, leaving revision as an afterthought, something to focus on in the undefined future. But since I'm intent on making writing my career—and I wouldn’t let my grandmother read my first drafts much less a publisherit would seem that future has arrived at last.

As always I’m practicing with short stories, to get a feel for it, because working with 3,000 words is much easier than working with 105,000. And even still I’m discovering that revision can be Pandora’s box.

Usually my short story process looks like this: I know the story I’m trying to tell, I scribble a draft, I tighten it in a few places, and it’s done. I know it’s done by instinct, and because I held the entire scope of the story in my head before I began. It’s easy to do that when it’s only a few thousand words long.

But now I’m trying to go deeper and use revision as a way to expand and enrich a story. And my process looks more like this: I know the story, I scribble a draft, I stand back to reconsider the story, and suddenly every door and window flies open, and all the possibilities in the world swoop in and swarm me, and all I can do is cover my head and wince as the story becomes this infinite, unwieldy thing with edges I can no longer see.

Already this year I have broken two stories this way.

I think possibly the problem is both first drafts are wrong. I failed that first step in the process; I didn't really know or understand the story I wanted to tell. And now I’m stuck moving scenes and rewriting scenes and adding words to no end, because I'm working with the wrong raw material. And it’s only confusing me more, taking me farther and farther away from the true story.

And you know what that means?

Time to strike a match and burn it all down. I’ll start from scratch with a better understanding of where I'm going.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Home again

Ani-Bee via Flickr
I’m finally back home. For the last couple months I’ve been a tumbleweed, roaming from here to Virginia to the foothills of North Carolina where my parents live to coastal Georgia and back. I enjoyed this wandering so much that I probably could get addicted to it if I had the resources to keep going. I fantasize about driving over the horizon and not coming back. Becoming a thing that once was. A myth. A figment untethered and free.

When I was last here I felt the opposite: pent-up and restless. I resisted returning because I thought the restlessness would be waiting for me, a residue I had left behind in the house. But I needn’t have worried. This house smells pleasantly of old wood floors, and as soon as I walked in the door, that smell triggered a sensory memory of happiness. A feeling from last fall, when I first came here. When the house and neighborhood were new to me, and everything was still discovery and possibility, simplicity and rightness of being where I needed to be.

I breathed deep, remembering.

So now I return to that simplicity, that happiness. Return to early morning words and cups of coffee and walks through the humid wilderness that is this neighborhood. And best of all, B is home, done for now with work that takes him on his own far-flung travels. We spend evenings sitting on the back porch, slapping at mosquitoes and watching bats flit across the darkening sky. My skin hums with his nearness. Presence has mass, its own gravity, after so much absence. It becomes a thing to be felt, solid, breathing, alive in its own right. Impossible to take for granted.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Life Itself

Happiness for me is three things: black coffee, mood-altering music, and a page filling up with words.

This combination creates movement. Writing is a full sensory experience for me. Smell and taste of coffee. Scribbled dark ink on white notebook paper. A complex beat. And the feel of creating, which manifests first as my body responding to the music and my hand moving the pen, and then, when the caffeine starts unlock deeper regions of my mind, as ideas unfurling and blossoming into strange new worlds.

Everything else falls away. I forget my life, I forget myself, and I fly between thoughts, fluid and effortless. Nothing exists except what I'm creating.

Until, you know, I run out of coffee. Then whole worlds collapse.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Raison d'ĂȘtre

I used to believe that life was a choice. Something to be accepted or sent back, like a restaurant meal that might not satisfy. And often I failed to see the point of accepting.

But lately it has hit me hard that life is not something that happens to you so much as something that is given.

The universe is not random. You only have to look at nature to see that. Flowers produce petals at a set mathematical sequence, which is also found in growth patterns of other life-forms. Life has a symmetry and a rhythm that speaks to intention. Exactly what is guiding that intention is up for debate, but you can’t deny that it is there.

Life, nature, the universe exists in a constant flux of energy. Give and take. Energy expended—energy given—to create life, in the idea that life will give back in some way.

Think about it. This energy could have been used to create an oak tree, which would filter pollutants out of the air and give back oxygen. It could have been used to create a whole world capable of sustaining life. But no, through whatever circumstance, that energy was used to create you.

What an amazing and heavy concept that is.

What a gift.

What a burden.

Because it means that you can’t simply send it back. You’re here for a specific purpose. You’re part of that give and take, the fabric of everything, and whether you can see the point or not, you have a role to play.

You have to give back.

And is it so hard to figure out how? Everyone has a skill-set specific to them. Everyone has interests that pull them in a certain direction. Follow your heart, goes the old adage. And I think that’s the soundest advice—your “heart” being the deepest, truest part of you, an inner voice unmarred by ego or expectation. I think it’s easy to hear this voice as a child, but doubts and outside pressures drown it out as you get older. It takes patience and courage to hear it again.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

5 elements of story

Christa Uymatiao via Flickr

Today I’m revising a short story, and it has me thinking about what a story is, to me. When I step back and consider the bare bones, I find that all of my best stories are a meshing of five central elements.

1. Two characters with concrete desires, who have a complicated love relationship. That love can be romantic, familial, friendly, or something else entirely, so long as it is complex. All of my stories begin and end with emotionI am fascinated with human nature, remember, this is what drives meand this relationship becomes the beating heart of the story.

2. An internal struggle. Preferably a choice, so that the question will I, won’t I? pulls the character and the reader forward, to an inevitable end.

3. A theme/ binding thread that creates the FEEL of the story. This is what the story is actually about, on a grander scale, and every detail large and small should play into it.

4. A world rich with possibilities. Most of my research and brainstorming happens here. The world should echo character and theme, spotlight them, grow out of them, and it should be vast enough that falling off the edge is impossible.

5. Conflict. Story is conflict. And if elements 1-4 are strong enough, I don’t even have to think about it. It comes of its own accord, ripe and brutal. It comes from denying the characters what they so desperately want. It comes from the complication in their relationship. It comes from will I, won’t I? and the fallout when she finally decides. It comes from details of a well-imagined worldreligious customs and freak storms and monsters that come alive when the lights go out. There is no shortage of conflict.

These five elements meld together to make magic. They create a story that is exciting and full and true, without effort. Notice that nowhere did I mention plot. If the characters and world are real enough, if the choice and theme and conflict are potent enough, then I don’t have to plan and plot. I just unleash the elements and watch what happens.

And it is fun. Brainstorming and researching and writing. Seeing my characters come alive and do things I don’t expect. Feeling my fictional world start to pulse and breathe. It is fun, and just a touch disturbing. That’s when I know a story will be good.