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.

    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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“I’d Particularly Like to Thank…”

At some point in our writing careers, most of us want to find readers for our work, readers who can give us useful feedback and whose names we’ll generously include in the acknowledgements when our book is published.

Don’t believe me? Just look at the acknowledgements for any book on your shelf and you’ll see what I mean. Here’s a small sample from my own library:

“Among the trusted readers who’ve helped me hone this book, I want to give particular thanks to…”

“…helped restructure and refine the early draft into a much superior book.”

“It is with the grace of Providence that I was led into the company of the following people, whose generosity, enthusiasm, and good shepherding sustained me in writing this book…”

The folks who appear in your acknowledgements play no small part in the writing.

I’ll be honest – what we all want is to come to the final line of a story or poem or book and be able to sit back knowing we’ve created – all by ourselves – a masterpiece. Writing is, after all, a solitary pursuit. We don’t need an orchestra to make beautiful music. Or do we?

And so we come to choosing our readers. How do we do this to get the kind of feedback that will help us, readers we trust, readers with enthusiasm and generosity as well as keen eyes and hearts brave enough to be honest with us? Readers whose names will be included in our books?

Beyond that, how do we set aside our own egos in order to hear what a brave and intelligent reader might tell us?

I have one particular reader who has been with me through nearly my entire writing career. He is not a writer. He’s an internationally known jazz musician who loves to read. His comments to me are always astute and helpful, intelligent and thoughtful. I can’t imagine going forward with a big project without his eyes on it.

I generally also ask at least two other people to read the material and the choice depends somewhat on the material. When I finished the first “polished” draft of a novel that had a lot to do with the Vietnam war, I asked someone who’d been there and was a writer, to give me feedback. Since the novel was what is now called “women’s fiction,” I also asked a couple of women who read a lot of good books to take a look.

And I never ask anyone to give me feedback unless I provide them with a few guidelines: What questions do I have about the work? About specific scenes and characters? What do I want to know about the clarity of the writing? What’s missing? Was anything confusing?

Readers are a bit at a loss when facing a book-length manuscript without such guidance, and you’re likely to just get back general comments like, “I enjoyed it.” You’ll be glad to know this, but it won’t help you much as a writer. Or they might start editing – correcting your punctuation and spelling. This is not the kind of feedback you need until you’re ready for an editor.

More than anything else, I ask my readers to simply let me know what works and what doesn’t work.

This is perhaps the most useful strategy in making readers feel comfortable and also in steering readers away from judgmental terms like “good” or “bad.” It’s important because less courageous readers are not going to tell you something is “bad” even though it may be a chapter or a passage that needs to be fixed.

Your friends and your mother will tell you it’s “good,” but more often than not this is because they love you and not because it says anything about the writing.

“Does it work?” is much more likely to elicit feedback you can really use.

My last piece of advice about readers is this: When you get all that feedback, read through it and then put it aside. The urge to accept all suggestions or the urge to reject them as having been made by people who were not nearly as intelligent as you’d believed are both likely to take you down a bumpy road.

Give yourself time to think about the suggestions and then, oh a couple of weeks or a month or two months later (this happened to me), pull them out again, decide which of them make sense to you and get started on your revisions.

In your idle moments, you can start writing those acknowledgements. Be sure you get the names right.

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Into Each Life Some Damned Annoyance Must Fall – Be Grateful!

In his poem, “Sunday Night,” Raymond Carver advises writers to “Make use of the things around you…put it all in, make use.”

Carver himself told about working on a short story when he looked up and saw a man walking down the street. The next thing he knew, he said, “the damned guy was in the story.”

Actors are told the same thing. If something unexpected happens on stage, “Use it!”

I mention this because life has a way of upsetting whatever plans we might have and those plans include working on our writing.

We carefully lay out a schedule for our writing – every day, every other day, mornings from 8:00 a.m. to noon, evenings from 7:00 p.m. to midnight, all day Sunday – a schedule that works for us and seems just right.

Then life knocks on the door. Much as we try to protect our time and our privacy, something happens, somebody interrupts, an emergency that can’t wait pins us to the wall. Even writers who live alone and feel well-insulated are not immune to these happenings.

You know exactly what your characters are going to do next and why and how and then – bingo! The knock on the door.

I’m here to suggest that you think about Carver’s advice. And the advice to actors. Use it. Use it all. Live your life like a writer and make use of the world around you.

What was it that caused the interruption, that blasted through your schedule? Who was it who ignored your “Writer at Work, Please Don’t Disturb” sign and wrecked your afternoon or evening? What was said? Who did what and why?

Yes, it’s annoying, who would disagree? But you just might have been handed the key to a difficult scene or a narrative problem you’ve been trying to solve.

I speak from experience. Recent experience. I was hearing too much about a particular person and being compared to the person (yes, you guessed right if you guessed this was some kind of romantic involvement and the person I was hearing about was an ex). I hated it.

Then I thought about giving a character in the novel exactly the qualities I was hearing about – and exaggerating them (writers get to do this). From that moment, I didn’t want to hear less about her – I wanted to hear more. I wanted to hear everything. For now, I’m even using her name in the novel. I’ll change that later to protect the guilty, but two things have happened.

1. I like what’s happening with the story now that this slightly altered nuisance is in it.
2. It’s terrifically cathartic.

So, don’t let the world impinge on your writing and drive you to distraction. Use it. Make use.

Put the damn guy in the story.


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