If you could see my desk, you would think that I’m a shopaholic. Well, you might be right, given the three dozen or so pens in the holder. All the same kind, albeit with different colors of ink. These are what Natalie Goldberg calls “fast pens.” They are Pentel Energels, and they fit my hand well, and glide across most kinds of paper. They do not smear, even for lefties like my daughter. They are refillable and recyclable. So why do I have so many? I can’t quite figure that out, except that when they go on sale, I buy them. I keep three or four beside my reading chair and another couple in my tote bag. Just the thought of being without the right pen makes me slightly uneasy. No, I don’t need therapy for this, and meds wouldn’t help.
As my friend Bonnie says, it’s my way of treating myself. In addition to chocolate, I consider pens a great treat. I have a box of other pens that I’ve accumulated over the years and occasionally I dip into that on the rare chance that my fast pens don’t feel quite right on a new journal. All of which suggests that like any other artisan, I want the right tools for my trade. I want a generous supply of ink, paper and folders. I don’t have time to make do and redo. My pens, files, notepads and stickies are at hand, so I have no excuse not to get to work. Before I retired from my day job, a reporter’s notebook and a retractable ballpoint were essentials. Every day meant a new leaf, dated and full of the details I needed to keep my job running smoothly.
If you don’t yet know what your best writing tools are, give them some thought, experiment. A carpenter needs the right hammer and keeps it close by. A surgeon knows which clamps and scalpels work for her. I know that a pen is as essential as a keyboard for me. I do not apologize for being particular. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I packing a notebook and four pens to see me through a weekend in the mountains where there is no wifi. At nine thousand feet it’s just me and my pen.
You’ll notice on the back cover of Accidental Child that the story takes place, in large part, in a futuristic setting called Durlan Mall. Mall? Really, in the far future? People ask me where I got the idea for this and I remember distinctly where. I was sitting in the food court in the Maine Mall in Portland, sipping coffee and wondering how long that old mall would remain useful. And what if (a writer’s most urgent question) people lived in that huge covered area? Mainers like things to last and are both creative and conservative in architecture. Well, from that point on I was on a slow ride to finishing the novel, and part of the pleasure in that ride was building a world where it made sense to house a whole community in an old mall where the fierce climate kept them inside most of the time.
All novelists to some extent build a fictional world. Even the most realistic story needs limits and logic to the setting. In speculative fiction the logic is rigged up from pieces of the writer’s experience. Durlan Mall came from my musing about the Maine Mall and its potential for enduring beyond the foreseeable future. I looked at that future, and it looked bleak. It still does. Because here’s where art and life collide: we are all world builders and the world we are building at this moment is fragile and we will perhaps need creative shelters to hold us in a precarious world of inhospitable weather patterns, insufficient water and a severe curtailing of the high-tech life we have in 2015. So mine is a cautionary tale. Be careful or we may end up living where we never expected and it might not be as comfortable as what we have right now.
The first poem I remember writing was an ugly little thing, sort of like the bird house a kid makes at day camp, or the drawing a three year old slaps under a magnet on the refrigerator, hoping for greater things to come. The message of that poem was how impossible it would be to resurrect a specimen long stored in a jar of formaldehyde. Well, we all start somewhere, and at least no one was hurt in my experiment.
I remember standing in the kitchen of our house in East Sebago–a small town with no movie theater, no shopping center, no center at all, so what was a girl to do but mess around with words? My mother was at the sink, getting ready to boil the dirty dishes. She had a big aluminum dishpan that she filled with soapy water and left it full of dishes to heat on the wood stove. I suppose that was either a domestic shortcut, a hygiene tactic or disguised procrastination. I never questioned her dishwashing for fear of getting trapped into washing them myself. But I do remember reading her that short, ugly poem. If she paid attention at all her response was as tepid as that dishwater.
Maybe I shocked her, worried her: Oh, shit, this girl’s literary but has no talent. Either she’ll starve or I’ll be feeding her forever. But if she thought that, she didn’t say it out loud. Nor did she rave and display that embarrassing bit of dreck on the refrigerator. Her neutral response was a harbinger of what I still get often: Thanks for sending this. Good luck publishing it elsewhere. And, writing friends, that’s what we get, elsewhere, right? No false praise, no advice to find paid employment. So why, why, why, do we keep scribbling? I can’t answer for you, but I can’t stop. As my friend Cyndeth says, writing is like chocolate; in moderation it soothes, energizes and satisfies. At least writing makes as much sense as boiling the dinner dishes.
Everyone who reads this blog knows that I believe in writers’ groups. We learn from and lean on each other for encouragement, tips, commiseration. I learned something simple and wonderful at Lighthouse Writers Workshop last Friday during a live interview with freelance writer Scott Carney (http://www.scottcarney.com/). Here’s how I’m using his advice:
- Write a minimum of 500 words Monday–Friday.
- Let my fingers fly on the keyboard without fussing about format. (I know, no longhand!)
- Insert red-letter prompts at the end of each day’s work to get me going the next day.
- Print copies when a natural break occurs. (I use gray paper so there’s no doubt it’s a draft.)
This process has improved my work on the sequel to Accidental Child. I don’t need to wait for the impossible six-month stay at Yaddo to get a first draft. At 500 wds/day, I’ll have at least 300 pages done with fewer false starts and way more fun. The regularity of it keeps me plugged into the story. Come time to shift scenes or POV, I skim through my scene cards to reset the story. (Thank you Ann Lamott for believing in index cards and “shitty first drafts.”)
When I worked as a psyche nurse, the idea of chunking a task or problem into small action steps often kept patients–and me–from feeling overwhelmed by life. Just so with writing. Or laundry, or raising puppies. Remember, 500 words/day will yield about two pages double spaced in 12pt font w/regular margins. It takes, I’m told, 21 days to establish a new habit. I’m a third of the way there. Thank you, Lighthouse and Steve Carney. Life is good.
When I was little, books were there. They are still there, here, everywhere. My earliest reading memory is of Dick, Jane, Spot, Puff and Sally. Bored out of my mind, I never knew which page I was supposed to read standing by my desk. I’d already read the whole book and got no joy from reading snippets to my equally bored classmates. It’s a wonder any of us grew to like reading with such a beginning. Somehow, though, even in rural settings where libraries and movie theaters were mysterious rumors, I read all of Nancy Drew, all of the Black Stallion books, tried and discarded the Bobbsey Twins, and disdained the series of historical novels my mother gave me in the sixth grade. I never saw the inside of the tiny library in East Sebago, Maine, where we lived while I was in high school. The school library was also the principal’s office, so you can imagine how inadequate that was.
Now books come and go, many staying with me. Some wander to a friend’s house and come back, and I’m delighted, having forgotten that I ever owned such a book. This week I’m in deep with futuristic books, as another writer and I will host a salon for Boulder Writers’ Workshop next weekend. We want to focus on world building, a special delight and challenge for novelists. So, I’ve been greedily buying and reading or rereading books by some of my favorite authors: Margaret Atwood, Ursula LeGuin, Marge Piercy. Yes, I buy ebooks. I also buy print books on line and in stores. I haunt used book shelves in thrift stores. Recently, I mentioned on Face Book visiting a bookstore I had not been to, Coyote Ridge Books in Broomfield, CO. What a delight to see a clean, well-lighted place with a knowledgeable guide who put his hand on just what I wanted. Blessed be real booksellers. Then I went to one of the big bookstores and found with minimal direction another book I needed. I was sorry to have bought it, because, like Dick & Jane and the Bobbseys, it will not stay long in my heart. But the point is that I knew how to get it, and I know that even this dud it will find its way to someone who loves it. Long may it live–in someone else’s bookcase.
Having struggled with the urge to write memoir, I was pleased this week to find a book that helped: Jane Hertenstein’s Freeze Frame: How to Write Flash Memoir (2013). This discovery came right after hearing a talk at Lighthouse Writers Workshop on flash writing, fiction or memoir, by Laura Miller. We did a flash bit during her talk, and for a habitual free-writer, it felt fine. I came up with something I liked and will keep. It started with Miller’s prompt, “a significant object.” I wrote about my beige car, reliable, but in no way as exciting as other cars I’ve owned. Of course, reality says that dependability and economy matter more than style and that new car smell.
From Hertenstein’s book I discovered not so much a prompt as a template that works for me: flash memoir as postcard. I first thought that such a brief space would lead to summary, telling without the senses, all in-the-head stuff. And then I did the dope-slap thing. No! It’s the picture on the front that is the flash. If I picture an event from my life and write it as an experience shared through the senses, I have a flash memoir (think 100 to 1000 words). And what, you ask, is the good of that minuscule text?
These discrete bits of writing will pile up and fill a notebook. I may or may not sort them and transition them into a longer narrative, but for now I’m delighted to work short, to allow these memories to work like mosaic, the distinct pieces building a fuller picture even though their edges show.
Recently I finished participating in a memoir group. For each of five weeks we wrote on an assigned topic such as family, work, etc. The final assignment was to write about values, spirituality, or religion. I won’t bore you with my internal meanderings on this topic, but–you knew this was coming–that assignment led me to think about my beliefs as a writer. So, here’s what I think. Feel free to disagree.
I believe in morning pages 365 days a year as finger exercises, messy first drafts and free writing. I believe in the benefits of a dedicated process that encourages regular writing and in fresh, energetic language, honest sentences and sensory images. I believe in reading, although I don’t believe everything I read. I believe in ink on paper and in the wonder of my Mac Mini, in conversation among writers, face to face, in revision and honest, gentle critique, in ebooks and printed pages and independent publishing.
I believe that poets are writers, no matter what the title of that famous magazine says. I believe that writing makes me happy, neatness counts, gratitude should show, praying might work when I’m stuck but that persistence works better. I believe that I’m sensitive to criticism, that writers need a sense of humor and that my poems often need more energy. I believe I’ve said enough on this subject–for now. Oh, one more, I believe in sobriety. Your turn.