Sorry to Have to Do This –Again!

Dear Readers

I have had to shut down three previous blogs because I have a follower that I do not want reading my pages. Stalker is a harsh word, but it does in fact feel like stalking when I open my email and see that this person is following me (and my life) again. The person apparently doesn’t know that I’m notified anytime someone opts to “Follow” my writing.

It happened again this morning. The person is blocked in my email, but there’s no way to block someone with WordPress.

Message to the person in question: Stop.

Message to WordPress: Please fix this problem soon. I know I’m not the only one who needs to be able to block unwanted followers.

Since I write from experience, some of it is of a personal nature, or about my private writing life. I want to be able to share it with people who are not simply snooping or have in other ways caused distress in my life.

To that end, I’m closing the blog. There’s a lot of great writing advice out there in books and in workshops and on other blogs. I know you’ll find it. I’ll spend my time on the novel in progress and life will go on.

In the meantime, thank you (everyone else) for following the blog. For those of you who have blogs yourselves, I’ve read much of your work and always found that enjoyable. You are a creative and talented group, no matter what level you are at with your writing.

I wish you well, my writing friends.

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How to Be A Why? Baby

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While I work on the second round of revisions for my novel, I’m also reviewing a favorite book, dancer/choreographer Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit.

Tharp’s book lays out such terrific ways of considering her own creativity – and yours and mine – that I go back to it again and again.

I was reading tonight a couple of exercises from the book that involve asking questions of yourself about the project at hand.

Novelists most often ask questions about Who? (characters), Where? (setting, location), What? (story) and When? (placing the story in time). We also ask How? (plot, moving characters through the story). But the big question is one we sometimes overlook.

Why?

I learned a great lesson in Why? years ago as an acting student under a disciplined director and devotee of Stanislavsky. I was playing a scene in a pub – the pub owner’s daughter – and for my stage business decided to do some sweeping. The scene went well in class, but during the critique the director/professor asked me a blunt question. “What the hell were you sweeping?” He explained to me that my sweeping was random and simply stage business.

“If you’re going to sweep the floor, sweep the floor. Know what you’re doing and why!”

Obviously the lesson has stayed with me.

How often have you read a novel that has characters moving from one place to another, doing things, having conversations – activities that are perfectly legitimate but leave you wondering Why?

As we write, we need to check carefully that we’re writing things that keep the story going and not just putting something in for stage business. Writers should ask Why? all the time. And we should know the answers, too. We don’t have to include every facet of the answers in our narratives, but we have to know what they are.

If you’re going to sweep the floor, sweep the floor! Know what your characters are doing and Why. (Someone at a reading will be sure to ask you!)

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Weather, Landscape, Wackiness and Beanies with Propellers

Are you a seasonal writer? Do you have more writing mojo when the weather begins to turn cool and maybe rainy, when the days grow shorter and darkness creeps in earlier every evening?

Some writers find it easier to write without all the warm weather distractions, but don’t push this idea too far. You’ll be encroaching on the entire body of southern writers who’ve managed to pound out prize-winning page after page over the years despite summer, autumn and spring heat along with humidity that doesn’t quit.

Writers from other tropical climes do the same and still others point to the frigid temperatures of winter that get them going, if only to stay warm.

There are a lot of reasons/excuses for not writing. So I ask you? If it’s not the weather that affects your motivation to put the words on paper, what is it that keeps you from doing the work you say you love? Or gets you tapping the keys happily for hours at a time?

We know that most of us need to work for a living and work not only claims our time but our energy. Even so, people who work for a living have many hours available for other things. You could be like William Faulkner and write a novel on the paper lunch bags he brought to work. How many lunch bags would it take to complete your latest project?

Some people depend on landscape for inspiration and motivation. I’m one of those writers. I want a window beside me as I write. I’m not so particular about what’s outside that window as long as it’s a chunk of nature and not the side of a 10-story apartment building.

You’ve heard the stories about lucky sweaters or slippers or baseball hats. Maybe a special object or picture or quotation on the wall is your writing charm.

Writing is a personal thing and no two writers do it the same way. That’s true with all the arts because – well, good art, whether it’s words or music or paint on a canvas, is a singular thing. If you do it just like someone else, it’s not art. Originality is the thing, and however you find that originality for your own work is all yours. So I recommend knowing well what works for you and staying with it through thick and thin.

Don’t look at your neighbor to see what works for her. Find your own magic.

If the chill of autumn is your trigger, lock yourself in your writing space right now and get to it. Don’t answer the phone or the door and don’t worry about the consequences.

If you do your best in a certain landscape, go there and stay until you finish something – anything.

If you have a favorite shirt you wear when your writing is at its best, put it on and don’t take it off until your project is complete. Wear it under your clothes to work and over your clothes on the weekend.

My point today is that writing takes more than knowing the words and sentences. It takes more than serious dedication. Writing, like all art, takes a certain amount of quirkiness and flat-out goofiness to get anywhere.

In his wonderful book, The Writer on His Own, David Greenhood says this about that:

“If we suppress our wackiness, we’ll seal off the source of some of our most truing impulses. Our potential will dwindle. We’ll no longer feel the sweet daze and speed of the push of it.”

Words to live by, my friends. Words to live by. And yes, if it helps you produce prose that makes the angels sing, the beanie with the propeller on it is just fine.

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Reader, I Finished It!

Seventy-five thousand words.

That’s what I have in the stack of papers on my dining table today. I finished the first full draft of my current novel at 11:30 a.m. Thursday. Such events are worth noting.

I’ve left the neatly stacked pages there on the table so I could walk by and enjoy the view before I dig into the revisions.

Revisions? Of course. Remember the Skylark Writing Studio mantra: 1. Get the words down. 2. Fix them. Continue reading

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Writing, Riding the Rails, and Patience

Yikes! I see that September has nearly flown by (the days grow short when you reach September) but I offer three things as excuses for abandoning this websketch for the entire month – an out-of-town family wedding, the beginning of a new writers workshop, and a big push to get the first full draft of my novel-in-progress completed.
But enough about excuses. Time to get back to work here.

    Riding on the City of New Orleans.

The first piece of news came to me this morning as I browsed one of the many on-line papers I read regularly. And the news was good. Amtrak – yup, that’s right – has awarded 24 writers’ residencies which give the winners free tickets, food and accommodations to write aboard trains that cross America.

I come from a railroading family and have made several cross-country trips as well as shorter runs including traveling alone when I was about nine-years-old on trains engineered by pals of my engineer grandfather. I don’t think nine-year-olds can travel alone these days.

I wish, oh how I wish, I’d known about this Amtrak program last March when they were taking applications. Not that I’d have won – they had more than 16,000 entrants – but because it would have warmed my heart. Trains are wonderful places to write with word-inspiring scenery of all kinds right out the window, interesting companions (and potential characters) and the gentle rock and roll one gets when riding the rails.

I don’t know yet if this program will be offered again, but for now here’s the website with more information about it. And I say, thank you, Amtrak, for thinking of us. http://blog.amtrak.com/2014/03/amtrak-residency-for-writers/

    Onward – the workshop.

Teaching a writing workshop is always a joyful experience for me. In fact, after one workshop, a woman who had attended told me she could see the joy when I talked about it. This time, I’m in an entirely new place – a stranger here myself – and I had no idea what to expect. But the local library was interested, so I offered a four-week memoir workshop.

The first week no one, not a single person, showed up. This was something new for me. I decided we should just cancel, but then I received an email from an interested person who apologized for missing the first session. As one who spent time in the theatre, I believe if there’s even one person in the audience, the show must go on. (I’ve actually performed in a play that was done for a single person in the audience. But that’s a different story.)

So the show went on. One person is not a workshop, but two people can be. And two people came this week. Maybe next week there will be three. Either way, the joy is back.

    And further onward – patience is required.

I mentioned finishing the novel-in-progress and as I do that, I have a caveat to offer. Don’t rush the end.

In the creative writing world there are two kinds of writers – those who begin with a lot of structure and know exactly what’s going to happen, where, when and to whom before they get the first words down on paper, and those who are “organic” writers. I’m in that camp.

Organic writers usually begin with a character and a general idea of what might happen to this character but nothing specific. The story unfolds as we write and each unfolding brings new possibilities. We are the writers who surprise ourselves with characters who seem to come out of nowhere and events that we could not have foreseen.

We are the writers who use the word “but” to full and good advantage. Try it. Start a straight declarative sentence (Bill was on his way to the bank…, Georgia got in the car to pick up the kids…, I stopped at the market as usual on my way home…) and then add the word “but” and see where it takes you.

“But” is the writer’s U-turn. And interesting things can happen with it. Be open to whatever that is.

So, as an organic writer I never know quite how I’m going to end a novel until I get very close to the – uhm – end. Which I did a couple of weeks ago. And I’m forcing myself every day now to mind the caveat: Don’t rush the end.

I know how to make this work and the job at hand is to do it gracefully because the end of a novel or story has to fit with the rest of the piece and – more than that – it has to be earned.

You can’t just write, “So she married the prince. The end.” Nope, not unless you’ve carefully laid out ahead of time the steps toward marrying the prince and why it almost didn’t happen, etc. Even organic writers do this, but they don’t do it ahead of time.

My shoulders are tired this week from pulling against the metaphorical writer’s restraints as I keep myself from plunging ahead too quickly with what used to be called the Redbook Wrap-up, everything tied up in a nice little bow, often by some fortunate and barely believable stroke of coincidence (it turns out that the funny old doorman is her long-lost grandfather). Please.

In literary fiction, you can expect – and live with – some loose ends…not too loose, but not neatly tied either. Leave some space for the reader to wonder. Now back to work.

P.S. The wedding was wonderful. The beautiful bride was my granddaughter, the first of her generation in our family to marry. Everyone I love was there and happy tears were shed. The best kind.

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Go Ahead…Color Outside the Lines and Create a Masterpiece

On this, the last day of August, I find myself eagerly awaiting September 1. This year the date coincides with Labor Day and although I am not a toiler at physical labor except what it takes to keep my apartment relatively respectable, I’ll celebrate in honor of writers.

Writers are the toilers in the literary vineyard who find joy and satisfaction in our work along with the usual frustrations that make us sometimes believe that the Sisyphus story reads like our own biography. We push the boulder of writing up the hill only to have it roll back down at the end of the day.

In pursuit of publication – which is, let’s be honest here, the goal of nearly every person reading this – we writers are open to any and all advice. And there’s plenty of it out there.

You know the advice I mean. Articles in magazines and websites for writers including the annoying “lists”: “Ten Things Every Writer…” “Five Mistakes No Writer Should…” “Ten Ways to Make Your Characters…” et cetera, et cetera and so forth (as the King of Siam once said).

Along with these are the “success” stories like “How I Found My Agent” which tell you in great detail about the incredibly lucky thing that happened on the way to the publisher and landed the storyteller a nice three-book deal, oh and did I mention, my uncle is the chief editor for the publishing house? Surely you have an uncle in the business and can have the same great luck with your book.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy for every writer who finds an agent or gets published. And I have nothing against uncles in the business nor using whatever connections you may have to further your writing career. I have nothing against lists although I think they’re better used to remember what you need at the market or who gets what for Christmas.

What I am against is that these and a lot of other articles in writer’s magazines are misleading and prey on the hopes of those who want to get published, especially those who do all the hard work of writing and take it seriously. These articles remind me way too much of articles in women’s magazines that promise perfect bodies or skin or sex if you just do these five or six things.

They both lead to a lot of disappointment. And they shove the wonderfully creative process of writing into narrow little rule-bound boxes.

For me the best writing advice came from Peter Elbow, teacher and author, in his 1980 book, Writing with Power. He professes writing as a two-step process in which the writer first works creatively to produce one, two, more drafts and then works critically to revise the drafts into polished and finished work.

I adopted this idea and distilled it into my own Two Rules for Writing which I apply at Skylark Writing Studio. My students are always relieved to know there are only two rules. Here they are:

1. Get the words down.
2. Fix them.

Along with the two rules, I always provide students with the other great bit of writing advice provided by Ernest Hemingway in an interview by George Plimpton for The Paris Review:

“Interviewer: How much rewriting do you do?
Hemingway: It depends, I rewrote the ending to A Farewell to Arms, the last page of it, thirty-nine times before I was satisfied.
Interviewer: Was there some technical problem there? What was it that had stumped you?
Hemingway: Getting the words right.”

Use writer’s magazines for what they are – a tool. Use them to learn about grants and writing/publishing opportunities. Use them to keep up with the publishing world. Take what you can from the articles, but don’t be stymied by the lists of ten or five or eight things every writer must do – suppose you only do nine or four or seven? – or the stories of other people’s successes.

They did it their way. You’ll have to do it yours.

And in the end, getting the words down and fixing them is the only way to finally get the words right.

Happy Labor Day and a toast to all you toilers in the literary vineyard!

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Woof! The Dog Days of Summer Are Here

The dog days of August are upon me and I’m inspired – to do absolutely nothing!

I have the novel-in-progress waiting for my return, and a couple of art projects – also waiting. I started a poem and gave it up. It’s been almost a month since I’ve posted anything here and my website still isn’t finished.

Do I feel guilty? Not at all.

A friend from Los Angeles, an actress/writer/director called over the weekend and lamented her lack of motivation to do anything, complicated by personal things adding to the inertia. She was in that “I don’t think I’ll ever create anything again” place that’s a very dark place for anyone in the business of creating – writers, musicians, artists and all the rest.

(I wonder – if a chef can’t think of anything to cook for dinner does he think he’ll never cook again?)

My advice to my friend was to give herself a sabbatical. And it’s my advice to you, too, if the summer doldrums have hit – or when the autumn, winter, spring doldrums catch up with you.

This is not an excuse to procrastinate forever with your creative work. It’s just a way of acknowledging that while there are dynamos who never stop for a minute, we’re not them.

And here’s the thing: unless you spend your sabbatical locked in a closet (please don’t do that), it will give you experiences and people and ideas you can incorporate into your work when you get back to it. You might be surprised.

I mentioned something recently to another creative friend, something I do in my everyday life that I’ve never thought twice about, but she saw it as a great possibility for an odd character in my novel (okay, I’m odd). She laughed and said, “You have to put that in the book.” So maybe I will. It didn’t seem that odd to me, but hey, if it made someone laugh…

The other thing about the sabbatical is that it will end – they always do – and you’ll get back to your work. The muse is never far away. In fact, if you’re on the beach or by a pool in the August heat as you read this, your muse is no doubt on the next lounge chair or beach towel sipping a margarita and getting a nice tan.

We do have to be diligent about our work but we don’t have to put on hair shirts or whack ourselves with a two by four if we don’t keep up our work schedules all the time.

However, if you’ve received a generous advance (do these still exist?) and have a deadline, no sabbatical for you. You’d better put down that margarita and get cracking. For the rest of us, please pass the salt and the suntan lotion.

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