Marge scratches her head in the midst of the last remaining place of business where smoking is allowed, “The Everyone and their Mama Meeting Place Bar and Internet Lounge.” The dank odor is already permeating her heavy overcoat, a vital accessory since the owner saves money by not turning on the central air unit. In the summer Marge wears the skimpiest tank top she can find and has to purchase several rounds of water before she’s through with her writing. Gone are the days where she could enjoy the little writing shack she fixed up in her back yard. Once a hot tub outbuilding, it already had water and power when she cleared out the insides and swept away the spiders. A fresh coat of paint, a small desk and ergonomic chair, built-in shelves, a work table, and two dry erase boards later and she’d put together the best writing environment. The man at the computer kiosk next to her lets out a loud burp and jams his fist in the air as his screen emulates a winning slot machine. Her blank screen yawns at her. It’s enough to make her start smoking again.
I had a thought this week about the core of a writer’s inspiration or drive. I used to think there were a few writers that went about their art in an orderly fashion, making little piles and sticky notes of ideas and dreams, thoughts and overheard quirkiness, and they would eventually sit themselves down and make something of these. I couldn’t relate to those folks. I thought I was part of the majority of writers and we were all lunatic geniuses or possessed. A sort of collection of disturbing savants that readers don’t always associate with some of the resulting masterpieces they come to cradle like babies.
Here’s an example: someone sparks an emotion in me and it hooks onto an idea (similar or not) and enforceable yanks my doppelganger (the little shadow-woman that lives inside of me) until it writes it all down … drips it all out, extinguishes the fire. Here’s another example from the opposite side of that spectrum: I get my feelings hurt or I go into a deep depression and the shadow-woman trails me everywhere, looms over me in my sleep, trips me for the hell of it, and generally makes my life a living frightmare until I exorcise whatever daemon in the form of a poem or prose. Either way, I might go for days, weeks even, without a productive writing day, but when it comes there is steam on the windows when my hands leave the keyboard.
Having made contact with a few writers and a poet now, I’m beginning to think there are innumerable kinds of shadow men and women, muses, sticky-note methodology, prompt tooling and daily regimens, possessions, and general mayhem when it comes to the spark that turns a writer’s hand to paper. I don’t understand writers that function differently from me, and that’s okay, I guess.
What’s my point?
If there are possibly as many kinds of … I’ll call them “instigators,” … as there are writers, then maybe it’s like finding a mate? What would my daemons do if I started trying on freewriting non-stop, or turned my radio on every morning and used the first ten words I heard as a prompt? I’m not talking about the occasional dry spell where I try these kinds of things to hunt for my shadow-woman. I simply wonder if Shakespeare would have been Shakespeare if he’d put aside his usual writing method and tried on something else for a year. Maybe some other Bill would have been a household name if he’d tried Shakespeare’s.
But don’t mind me, I also sit around wondering how the author of Annie got away with stealing Dicken’s Oliver Twist story?
Writer – Bless me Father for I have sinned. It’s been 26 days since I last wrote.
Priest – Have you read anything, my child?
Writer – Yes Father. About eight books since then.
Priest – Hmm. That’s not many. That’s about how many I’d expect if you had been writing.
Writer – _____
Priest – Tell me what you’ve read.
Writer – I read two Stephen Kings, one of them a short story collection, the other a car thing—
Priest – Oh dear – not Christine, I hope.
Writer – No Father, much worse. The newer one. From a Buick 8.
Priest – Okay then. We can actually count that one twice since it takes a real effort to keep reading it.
Writer – Thank you Father. I also read another short story collection called Dangerous Women.
Priest – Have you gotten into the erotica reading? What is this book?
Writer – No Father. It’s a collection of almost “noir” stories with the character type in them.
Priest – Very literary then. That sounds good.
Writer – Unfortunately it’s also full of mysogeny.
Priest – I’ve heard this word. How is it defined?
Writer – It’s when there’s dislike or contempt, usually because of an assumed prejudice of women. Lots of objectification—
Priest – I see. So this book involved … a great deal of sex?
Writer – No. But there was a heavy leaning on the assumption women exist for man’s sexual gratification.
Priest – ______
Writer – Anyway, I also read another Asimov “Foundation” novel, and three indie published books.
Priest – Let’s get back to the, how did you pronounce it? “MY – SOJ – IN- EE?” Explain it so I understand.
Writer – It’s a big topic, Father. What would you like to know?
Priest – Well, the last part about sex; it’s my duty to remind you it sounds scripturally sound, dear.
Writer – Wait – you mean about man’s gratification?
Priest – Yes. Paul writes—
Writer – I know what Paul writes, Father. But it goes both ways about suffering a spouse.
Priest – Have you had marital problems, my child?
Writer – No. I’m just saying, there’s a more enlightened understanding about “suffering a husband.”
Priest – I see.
Writer – Besides, mysogeny is more than just viewing women as sex objects. It involves seeing them as—
Priest – Careful dear – remember the Lord created woman as a “help mate” for Adam.
Writer – Help is not a footstool.
Priest – Footstools can help reach books on higher shelves. Yes. And don’t forget the Marys – at Jesus feet.
Writer – I know the stations of the cross Father.
Priest – Would you look at the time. Tell me about these “indie” novels you read.
Writer – One was a horrible fantasy story set in Irish folklore that obviously mirrored Harry Potter.
Priest – Sounds delightful, you must share your copy with me.
Writer – The other two were great – a spy thriller and a great speculative fiction called Chimpanzee.
Priest – Uh, the premise of Chimpanzee?
Writer – A futuristic society where you have to get your brain wiped of your education if you can’t pay your student loans.
Priest – I see.
Writer – This guy’s wife has a job but he doesn’t so he has to serve on the conservation corps and get his multiple degrees wiped while his wife supports them and they buy a new house.
Priest – Oh dear. I’m not sure that’s appropriate.
Writer – Appropriate for what?
Priest – It’s just that, well it appears you are struggling with your writing because of these confusing ideas you’ve encountered. I can only imagine the toll this is taking on your marriage, child. You should consider this before choosing your next book.
Writer – ___
Priest – Child?
Writer – You know, I’ve also been reading a lot of Moses lately. I’m thinking about changing my pen name to Terzah.
Priest – Who?
Writer – Excuse me Father, I feel a story coming on.
Priest – But your penance, dear. I haven’t blessed you yet.
Writer – I’m a grown woman, Father. Not a “dear.” I need to go. I think if I wait around to be blessed by you I could die a very old and disappointed lady. Gotta’ go write.
The onion’s protest registered in the air throughout the house. Its flesh sizzled as it hit the pan and, soon after, it began basking in the sheen of butter. The metamorphosis began. Two eggs balked at the corner of the counter before they cracked and were beaten in rapid swirls. The Organic dill made its appearance from the cabinet above as a new aroma rose from the pan. The onions were caramelizing. The egg and spice joined them as the coffee maker hissed its message, “Mission complete.
The tomatoes would probably swamp up the whole thing and the writer doubted they would add much flavor, but she cut one up and threw it in anyway. They’d go bad in a day or two. She stirred and sifted the hotbed of shapes and textures and lifted out sections to the waiting plate. After a sprinkle of parmesan on the concoction, she slid the rest from the pan to cover the cheese. Her coffee and creamer poured, she carried the muddy mug to the table and downed her morning vitamins. Rinsing the fork she’d used to beat the eggs, she tasted breakfast and deemed it serviceable.
What to write about, she wondered, as she opened a web browser and began her morning rituals. The screen stared back at her, still groggy from the operating system update the day before. She adjusted the brightness and checked her glasses for streaks. All systems go. Must have sleep in her eyes. The fork finally rested on the empty plate, and she moved it out of her reach, purchasing better access to the keyboard. Her neck pulled at her head and coaxed her to tilt back and stretch before leaning forward once again. Her fingers reported to their assigned positions but remained poised and still. What to write, what to write …
Nearly two years of blogging and she’d learned a very important lesson – find your niche and stick to it. Her’s was “writing.” Essays, memoir entries, poetry – the style made no difference as long as it had to do with the artistry, romance, challenges, and techniques regarding the craft of writing. The blog readers had spoken. So this morning she pondered what sparkling, mystical pool of the art she would dive into. Candle flames danced. The floor heater whispered a smooth unending exhale. An unfinished book taunted her from across the room, and still she focused on the blank screen, its face devoid of expression – as clueless as she about what would adorn its space.
An angry truck roared past outside. huffing as it came to a stop at the sign, and mumbling something about gravel and ice before rounding the corner and grumbling off into the distance. The coffee pot ticked and popped on its hotplate, reminding her it was there if she needed help. She went for a refill as the empty breakfast plate caught her eye. It joined it’s family in the dishwasher. The icy floor tiles were not interested in her morning routine except to demand that she remove the stray onion skin that had interrupted its stubborn compulsion at order.
A second cup of energy sparked her neurons into more intense action. “Action,” she said aloud, and the house responded with awkward silence. She could write about creating action in a story, or inciting forward momentum in pumping out a daily word count. “Fat chance at that,” the house seemed to insert, and she had to agree – faced with the still blank page. Yesterday’s post pulled her to her blog page, and reminded her that decades of writing teachers would surely provide material for her to expound. “But that feels like cheating,” she replied, “unless I put some kind of spin on it.”
The chair squealed as she twisted in it, staring at the patio-door window to think. The blinds it wore were those cheap, plastic hanging strips that twisted to open, and shuffled along the track it hung on to open wider or close. Some of the strips were warped and hung crooked, exposing a striped portrait of the neighborhood. She let the spaces paint lines of light on her brain as she dissected the art of writing for a specimen that could hold her spellbound long enough to make her fingers twitch on the keys.
Alliteration, hyperbole, metaphors – she stretched her memory for other literary devices. Imagery, simile, irony – she loved them all and they had always been faithful, except for “hyperbole,” she recalled, that one time in college. Such friends could make or break a piece, she started to write about it, simultaneously questioning each as to their whereabouts earlier that morning. She broke their resistance, they started talking; she was making great progress. Some were even pointing their fingers, and just when several had named the culprit (“Personification,” whom she’d forgotten to put into the lineup – the space heater began an annoying incessant beeping.The fuse breaker’s lack of cooperation had incited a strike. She moved from her seat and headed over to begin negotiations. The phone rang. Work was calling. She would have to finish the article another day. It was times like these that she was grateful for the MacBook’s battery. The laptop would protect the morning’s work, safeguarding it until her return. She had a lead now, she thought. It was only a matter of time before she could round up “Personification,” and expose its habit of transforming objects, animals, and even concepts like “death,” into humans.
I am a writer after-the-fact. My favorite class in middle school was a literature class where our teacher (oh, how I wish I could remember that heroine’s name) encouraged some of the best poetry I’ve ever written, and taught us how to write persuasively through the most horrible song ever made up. Seriously – it “REECed.” Specifically – it was a labored rhythmic chant to the acronym she created – “ASPIREEREEREEC,” and if you write persuasive anythings, I’m sure you can fill in the words. My favorite high school class was Mrs. Amy Leeson’s Literature class where we combined neuvo-geek with drama-chic with half the academic bowl team that she ran also active members of the school’s drama club (Ms. Leeson directing). I still have the T-shirts – one with a puffy brain on it and the other with a shield that warned our opponents we were either coming home, “With our shields or on them!” I can still sing all the lyrics to “Guys and Dolls,” and I still remember my first awareness of a transgender person in the form of 20th century artist, Wendy Walter. Enlightenment. That’s what the written word meant in my formative years.
But only dreamers, those who are impractical from their youth with no good parenting or influence to set them right about financial security, responsibility, and avoidance of embarrassment, only those people would ever pursue a writing career out of high school. Duh. So I joined the Army Reserve, went to college for nearly eleven years before settling on a major and finishing it, and had two successful careers into my nearly middle age. As a woman who observed typical corporate gender roles without question in my twenties, and later became a member of executive leadership in a tax-funded organization, I saw why feminism is still so relevant today. I experienced proof, in my own journey, that the “American Dream” where your hard work and perseverance leads to success. can be true. True, that is, if you are okay with the concept that success means upper-middle class but probably not Mercedes or Rolls Royce type of success.
I am a writer after-the-fact, because after a winding path to a place where I recognize the importance of balance, the ability to pay bills and have a roof over my head and still be home spending quality time with loved ones, still reaching out to friends from time to time and enjoying a latte, or hilarious conversation with wit flying at breakneck speeds – after coming to that conclusion, I am taking advantage of a tiny crack in reality that has opened up. I am walking away from an 18 year career that I love, a great paycheck too, and returning to the land of “hand to mouth,” in order to write. I find it fascinating that it took me 22 years to lift myself up by my bootstraps from poverty to the “upper-middle class” I mentioned, yet in just 42 days I will be immediately demoted to a level just slightly above that $17,000 annual salary I made in 1997. I’m sure I’ll enjoy writing about that one day.
For now, suffice to say that my wife will be paying our bills and bringing home the bacon (in the form of the healthiest food we can afford for meals). Instead of the “shotgun-style” three room house (in “Crackville”) I rented back then, we’ll be comfortable and happy in our lovely home with a gorgeous view of the Olympic mountains. Granted – we’ll be paying on two mortgages: this one and the one we rent (thankfully) to a dutiful family in the South. Granted – we’ll be biting our nails, hoping the skylights in the roof don’t spring a leak in one of the rainiest areas of the U.S., or the septic tank holds up, or the already warping wooden deck in the back doesn’t fall apart. But we’ll have each other, and friends, and I’ll be writing anywhere from 3000 – 6000 words a day, and isn’t that what dreams are all about?
Amazing too, that it only took 22 years to ponder how it might have been if I’d ignored the corporate plantation owners’ offers to rack up credit card debt, the government subsidized bank offers to accumulate massive student loans and spend the next years of my life in servitude to those debts. To consider the possibility of being happy with what can come from me instead of how hard I need to work to get things to come to me. Perhaps the real lesson to be explored is how much I would even be able to write effectively if not for the trip down Al-Anon pain, debt-stress, heartaches, and coming out among the hundreds of other ingredients into the who I have become. But again, that’s for another day.
If I had it all to do over, I’d take more classes on writing. And literature. I remember thinking how I could cut down on my amount of required reading in college by limiting the Lit classes I took. Messed up thinking. At 41 years old, I find myself doing nerdy things like picking up a college literature text for a bargain at a Salvation Army Store and drooling over its variety of content once home. I pour over the tiny text (and cringing, I admit to keeping a magnifying glass handy whilst reading it) and recall why I fell in love with Twain, Woolf, Poe, and others.
I am a writer after-the-fact, but I do wonder what I might have been if I’d been one of the irresponsible dreamers and become a writer before it all. Would my children be those books I blush at, and shake my head about the travesty that anyone could make a killing off such base and carnal fruits – so simple and formulaic they don’t require a spellchecker or a care for unique plot design? Was that a low blow? The difference is: I don’t care at 41 years of triumph. Have I read them? Would I be able to speak with such clarity as to their contents if I hadn’t? But I wouldn’t pay my hard earned money for them. I know, I know. I digress.
Would I be a writer of clarity and intelligence, or a rambling idiot who thinks twerking is something worth writing about? Would I seek to write something with literary value, or be forced to the debt plantations anyway, striving toward a publishing contract that would pay my growing bills? I will never know.
I used to detest the upper classes. I used to writhe in hatred for the entitled oblivious, the self-interested pundits, and shake my fist at the unfairness of it all. I looked at writers like Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and all the others and thought, “Of course she/he can write something deep and meaningful – they can sit around in their ‘writing bungalow’ comforted by their inherited money and just spill words of virtue whenever the mood strikes them, no fiscal or leadership care in the world.” I connected with the Kafka’s and those others who wrote from poverty or while struggling with the realities of 99 percent of humanity. Yet, here I am. In just 42 days I will be able to say – I am a writer, after-the-fact, who can write with limited care, surrounded by friends and family who don’t need me to supervise anything or make any crucial decisions. I am a writer with stories and time.
Featured Image by Jeff Kubina from Columbia, Maryland (Typewriter) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
If you are a writer, an author, a novelist, or interested at all in the literary world, you know that November marked the popular National Novel Writing Month, or as it is more affectionately (or vehemently) known – NaNoWriMo. This was my third year participating in the event where writers from all over the world commit to a monthly word count goal of fifty thousand words. This was the first time I won; I wrote over 50K words and am still going. But more importantly, I learn a few things from the experience.
1. Keeping a daily writing habit is essential.
Doesn’t matter if the material is not my best, or even crappy. Putting my body and mind in the habit of writing something, anything, everyday knocks the idea of writer’s block off its rocker a little. It means I don’t worry about quality so much as quantity for this exercise. If you wrap that whole philosophy up into a little stocking stuffer – it means you tend to be looser, more limber, and can step into the ring looking like a buff, energetic writing monster. It means quality will come easier.
2. Setting a daily minimum keeps me honest.
Otherwise, I can subscribe to the idea of daily writing and then cheat out a sentence or two and call it a day. Maybe you don’t have this problem. I do. So even if I set a low 500 word count minimum, I can do the math on how much content that gets me in a year and be happy that I’m on board. With the day job, I think 500 – 1K is reasonable depending on your genre. I intend on upping that to 3K – 4K when I go full bathrobe writer in 45 days.
3. First draft writing is important for building confidence.
Before my first 50K on one project, I always wrote as if doing a term paper the night before its due. I wrote, edited, rewrote, wrote some more, polished that, etc. By the time I got to the ending, I had lovely content leading up to it and the “grand finale” of finishing and being done at the same time was wonderful. But facing such a large project, I had trouble. My first two NaNo years were hell because I couldn’t let go and just type. I made it to about 3K the first time, and only 8K the second. I knew that I needed to prove to myself that I could tackle a project as large as a novel before resigning and becoming (for all intents and purposes) unemployed.
So this time (and as many of my blog posts display for all to see) I just threw caution to the wind and made myself ignore aspects I wanted to go back and change after a few paragraphs. It required discipline to stay committed to that plan. It also required that I let go of the control I relish in the creative process for the time being and just vomit the ideas and ramblings that came to me onto the page. The experience was a watershed moment in my writing practice and I encourage anyone who hasn’t tried it to give it a go.
I intend to finish the content of the book this way (probably another 50 – 100K) and then revise for the next two months. Then I will follow the seasoned advice of many successful and published writers and toss the whole thing in a drawer for a few months. In June or July (right around the time of Camp NaNoWriMo) I will pull it out and begin learning how to edit and develop a third and fourth draft. Who knows? Maybe it will be ready for an agent shortly after that.
4. Truth – “Find a niche for your blog and stick to it.”
In posting my blog since I moved to Idaho for work in 2013, I’ve watched how interested readers/followers are in what I post. My original idea was to have a daily snippet of writing, just a morsel, that readers could enjoy in less than a couple of minutes with their coffee. I discovered that I don’t do that well. (Someone who does that really well is – http://myothervoices.wordpress.com/ although the content is not daily.) I tried serials, but learned writing them “on-the-spot” daily is embarrassing since I didn’t edit them much prior to posting and later wanted to change the storyline or bury my head from all the typos.
I hadn’t learned that lesson until NaNoWriMo2014. I posted unedited tidbits from my daily word count climb for all to laugh at and/or find amusing. But since I slid around in the plot arc so frequently, and since there was no character development provided for a backdrop, it was hard to follow any story or stay hooked. This was the valuable criticism from my lovely beta-reader and wife. I agree.
Overarching all of this was the countdown theme. My wife and I have set a goal for my return home once bills are paid and finances in tune for losing my income. I thought sharing the experience of the countdown would interest some because, who doesn’t dream of quitting their job and writing full-time?! I learned that to leverage that, I needed much more focus and time than I could provide to the blog.
My point? The most popular articles on my blog since starting it are the ones dealing with the writing practice, habit, journey, and frustrations. I love to write about those things almost as much as I like creating fiction. So I believe I have found my niche. Expect blog modifications to follow.