A Writer’s Prayer

Whether you pray to an old man in the sky, a saintly woman in blue, a statue, or a light pole, it won’t hurt to think about praying like this:

May I be well enough to get to my writing place;
May I be safe from the critics in my head;
May I know the joy of finding the right words;
May I be free to write what I want.

Adapt this as you will. Say it often, be happy.

Makeup for TV

Writing is not, I repeat not, a solitary process. Anyone who reads my blog knows that I hang out with a lot of other writers, many of them I meet over coffee or in critiques or for free writing. I love these personal and up close meetings, especially in our high-tech world were too often we are avatars, mere head shots or invisible hands on  invisible keyboards. Yesterday I added another form of contact–television.

Stacy McKenzie is the host for a program called Off the Page, tag line, “where we get the story behind the story.” I don’t watch much television and have never been on TV, so I was curious and a little apprehensive. Television itself has prepared me for a chaotic crew of technicians and a round of retakes to make it perfect. What happened was much more comfortable.

In preparation, Stacy sent me a list of likely interview questions, so I would not be challenged by the unexpected. I talked with a friend who has had a lot of theater experience and Judy advised me to wear makeup because of the bright lights used in filming. What? Makeup? My cosmetics comprise a dried-up tube of mascara and a tinted Berts Bees lip gloss. Sigh, so I took her advice and called a local salon. Oh, excitement! “TV? Yes, we have an esthetician/makeup artist. We can fit you in at 1:15.” I didn’t have to be at the library where Stacy does the filming until 4:30, so I figured I had time to come home and wash my face if I couldn’t live with the results. But Tiffany at Centre Salon in Westminster listened to me and went with “a natural palette.” It felt odd, but I did not look like a clown. In the mirror I saw a face resembling my own, but just a little unfamiliar.

The film crew consisted of two men, both casual, friendly and undemanding. Stacy and I were miked with unobtrusive wires and all I had to do was smile, talk, and keep my tote bag out of sight. We talked about writing, about writing communities, about my books, and Stacy asked me to read a bit of poetry. Well, I read poems almost as often as I eat. The only retakes were for Stacy. She does so many of these interviews that she works at keeping the routine bits, her intros and outros and questions, fresh. So, now I can add TV experience to my list of things I never imagined doing.

The interview will be visible in September on the The Broomfield Channel-You Tube, the Mamie Doud Eisenhower Library website and Broomfield Cable Channel 8. Stay tuned and I’ll post the link. Now, excuse me. I want to go buy a new tube of mascara. Just in case, you know?

My Three Suns

Last week I confessed my intermittent fear of writing. Today I want to tell you how I combat that fear, should you want to know. Three writers/teachers help keep me sane when  despair sidelines me.

One is Julia Cameron, as I’ve mentioned before, especially her book The Right to Write. My daily habit of morning pages comes from Julia. Sometimes I use her as my audience and it helps.

A second but no less important book is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, which reminds me to chunk the big projects. As in, I’m not writing a novel, oh, no. I’m just writing two or three pages a day that might gel into a novel

 

And then there’s Natalie Goldberg, who appears in my notebook as Nat, I feel that friendly toward her. I’ve just reread Wild Mind like I’m deficient in Vitamin D and need sunshine and nourishment. At times like that, I needed to hear her say, “Shut up and write. Fill a notebook a month. Keep your hand moving.”

wild mind

right to write

 

 

bird by birdMy copies of these books are underlined in different colors because I’ve grabbed  a different color pen with each reading. With these three mentors in the same room with me, failure is not an option because failure has little to do with money or prestige. Failure would be to stop writing.

Frozen Stiff

frozen stiffShe’s frozen by indecision and fear. Fear of boring people, fear of not writing a helpful piece that answers the so-what question, the why-should-anyone read what she has to say. She’s not famous, not a celebrity from the cover of a magazine. OMG!

She makes more coffee, listens to more music, takes a shower–anything to avoid the keyboard. It’s a dark and stormy keyboard. No, that would be the Snoopy’s keyboard. Damned beagle always has something to say. She’s forcing it. That’s not good. Writing, real writing should flow, just pour out of her, right?

It does not. Deep breath, just sit, stare out the window–oh, her window is a basement window with no restful, inspiring vista. It’s full of dead leaves and cobwebs. So is her head, webby. Is this writer’s block? Maybe block is the wrong word. It’s just a brick, a stone, yes, a pebble in her shoe. Aha! Metaphor, good old friend, rides in on its spavined nag and the mare drops a load on the office floor. Forget metaphor.

This writing gig is wrong. She’s all wrong. She gives up. No blog for you! Not today, never again. She’s going to look for real work. No more fooling with words, flirting with language. Every two weeks somewhere in the world another language dies out. It must be hers. English with a death rattle. And it’s her fault for abusing it. She cannot think of a thing to say.

That’s how it goes if Fear drives the bus. The writer gets lost, panic sets in. Trust becomes a thing  dead rich people leave to their kids. Books become doorstops. Enough already, the Sorcerer’s Apprentice has waved his wand and she’s drowning in a rising tide of ink. Take away the pen, put her to bed in a dimly lit room, and feed her broth and green gelatin.

Oops, a blog just erupted like a pimple on her chin.

Beta Readers

Networking–aka, hanging out with other writers–is one of my favorite things. My writerly friends are smart, funny, open-minded folk spread all over central Colorado. Yesterday I went to Boulder in the morning to talk about climate-change fiction, at noon to Arvada for lunch with five poetically oriented friends, and later that day to Denver to meet three other writers in our beta reading group.

As beta readers, we don’t write together or read to each other. Typically one of the four has shared a significant chunk of work well ahead of the meeting time. Our genres vary:  crime fiction, memoir, speculative fiction and history-as-memoir. (Yes, I think I just made up that genre.) The basics of good writing apply in all cases, but what one of us sees as a headlong read another sees as needing more action. Someone else questions the writer’s motivation, and we struggle to say what sets us on the long road to writing a book.

The payoffs are the wine, the iced tea, the talk and the grand feeling that someone else is paying attention to our work. And we learn from each other. One is a formidable researcher, another can plot, a third is funny and courageous about personal history. One of us has a cache of writing tricks up her sleeve. (Including advice not to use a cliché like “tricks up her sleeve.”) Our process is akin to true beta readers, who are, I suppose, less attached to the writer than to the manuscript. Inevitably though, we have formed attachments that make it dicey to say anything negative about the text in question, but gentle honesty (e.g. not attacking personality or life style), sticking to principles and a dab hand at language allow us to help each other. Always, always, the writer remains in charge of the work. None of us can write another’s story, nor should we try.

Walking While Writing

Lighthouse Writers’ Workshop has scored again. They have created a project called Write Denver. (Details at Write Denver.) Yesterday at Friday 500 Dan Manzanares and Yanara Friedland rolled out the concept for us, including the process: walk to connect, set your own pace, pay attention to departure and arrival, include memory/reflection, attend to details. We walked on Race Street and wrote in a spattering of rain for just ten minutes, returned to the house and read, without preamble or commentary, what we had written, what Yanara calls the collective story. I loved it.

Walking while writing includes concepts like place making (if we write it we help create it), awareness of movement through space and across boundaries. Place-based writing works well with some constraints: attending to departure and arrival, reflection/memory, and capturing detail. To witness and record our place in the world, to let rain fall on the page, the earth receive our footsteps.

This idea matters in the grand scheme of poetry making. Memorable poems do not exist in a geography of the mind but of the world, specific places like McDuffy’s farm in Minnesota (James Wright), foggy old London (T.S. Eliot), museums and forests, bedrooms and hospital rooms. And isn’t that our assignment as writers?  To bear witness to truth as it appears before us, wherever we are. I live life in motion, place to place. I write to fine tune my internal GPS. I think universal, I write local. The world is not my oyster. I am the oyster and the world I build is my shell. Tough old oysters enlarge their shells. May it be so.

Here’s my poem Crossings. It was originally published in The Cafe Review:

CROSSINGS

Again this year and this year and this,

small birds scatter up

from northern fields and cross

the equator. If I follow them

I will not stop myself

from making one slow wing beat

to mark there from here, a new sphere

entered, the world’s waist unbelted.

No, I’ll stay put and mind the wind

that grinds the corners of the house,

and try not to be afraid when

I can’t see the lines I cross, but know

that each degree of latitude has

its danger. Time the pilgrims

make their visit south. And now

all flight is in two places, the body

always slipping whole over the line

as the flock wheels with one mind,

one creature with a thousand heads

who knows without knowing where

to go and need no mention of its passing.

Runaway Words, Lost in Time

Last week I blogged about the writer’s checklist and posted a short form of what might keep an otherwise disorganized writing project on track. That was such a good idea. Too bad I didn’t take my own advice. As some of my friends know, I’m working on a sequel to Accidental Child, and I’ve been energized and relieved to know that a minimum of 500 words a day is a reasonable goal for me. The trouble is that I tend to write scenes as they occur to me, and some file names were tentatively numbered chapters, some were label with the names of the characters in the scene. Some were melded together as Part I and Part II. Soon I had a mess on my hands. There was text stored on a USB stick, on Dropbox and in print. Add to this my decision to use three main characters and to develop scenes that could be interleaved. Chronology had become a Paleolithic concept.

Truth: not knowing in what order the three should eventually march and losing track of the timeline of one if I wandered off to write about another, my words were all runaways, the manuscript playing digital hide and seek, a naughty day-care crowd of characters not mature enough for me to look away. One of them would scamper away while I chased another. They refused to line up at naptime. I have no one to blame but myself.

Consequence: I lost several days of writing new material in order to make order of this mess. I’ve erased the very concept of chapters in favor of descriptive slug lines in the header on every page. I filed the paper versions chronologically in a binder, sectioned for each of the three main POVs, and backed up the new files on both Dropbox and the USB stick. Whew! I still have to review the manuscript as it now stands and see where I need to add material to make a story worth reading. That will still happen in daily chunks but with more attention to where each chunk gets filed. Spontaneity has been reined in. Onward!