The Slothful Writer

220px-Bradypus

 

Yesterday my pen was on fire. I dashed off sentences like I knew what I was doing. I went to a workshop and delivered on the exercises. It felt wonderful. Today there’s a sloth in my house and it’s me. I had to drag myself by the hair over here to the desk, which is a nice desk in front of a window, pleasant breeze, sunshine, musical gong announcing something or other. See on a better day, a non-sloth day, that gong would have meaning. Today? Meh, it’s a pleasant sound, not a call to greatness.

I can’t plead illness and call in sick, even though I’m my own supervisor, because, truth, I feel fine. I’ve done laundry, tidied the house, walked the dogs, read another solid chunk of Gary Snyder’s poems–usually inspiring. I finished, having savored it and doled it out like bits of expensive chocolate, Marge Piercy and Ira Wood’s book, So You Want to Write. And yes, of course, I do want to write. I almost always want to write. Except today. Today my writer’s brain is comatose. But I might know why.

No, it’s not a simple as needing a third cup of coffee. I think it’s that wonderful day I had yesterday. I’m not sure I can duplicate it. No, I’m sure I cannot duplicate it. The writing I did yesterday was a rare confluence of experience, attention, atmosphere, the right prompts and right intention. My job now is not to pale in the face of success, but to savor the gift and keep going. I know that sort of day will rarely come again, but in the meantime, my job, my promise to myself, is to write through the sloth and find balance, not flame throwing, not whining and dallying, just putting one word after the other.

So, Friends, I’ll drink my coffee, dig out the drafts that sprang almost fully formed from Zeus’s head and tuck them into their niches. Please do the same. Don’t let the sloths win.

If It Works for Gawande

Recently I caught a TED talk by one of my favorite authors, Atul Gawande. He spoke about the positive effects of having OR teams use a checklist before starting a procedure. He had gone to airline pilots to help him and his team design the list. Flyers have long used pre-flight checklists. The surgical results were dramatic in terms of harm reduction. One of the important factors was for the surgical team to function as a team, rather than as the supporting cast for a star surgeon. The culture of the individual was subsumed by the need for a system. The checklist promoted this concept and focused attention on the process.

Well, I wondered, if a checklist works in the OR, might it also work for writers, who are, as we know, stars in their own minds, used to hitting the page with guns blazing, the sacred ground of creativity well defended. Dare I introduce the concept of planning ahead? Not an outline of the text like Ms. Grundy demanded in high school, no, the content still deserves the freedom to develop as it will. But what about a checklist that helps me to honor process and anticipate the practical aspects of a writing project? Yes, there are practicalities in my work. And I don’t have elves to come in the night and make new stories. It’s all on me. Here’s what I propose.

WRITER’S PROJECT SAFETY LIST

Courtesy of KVDbooks

1) Capture inciting event/idea/image __

2) Enter intention: genre/audience/basic conflict __

3) Prepare materials: note taking/safe storage/text creation __

4) Record tentative/assigned deadline __

5) Label drafts: title/version/location

6) PAUSE POINT FOR INCUBATION __

7) Reviews: author/beta readers/editor

8) Revise: content/copy editing

9) Submit for publication: guidelines/ms preparation (formatting, backup)/record date, venue, response __

10) SELF PUBLICATION REQUIRES A NEW CHECKLIST

Please feel free to copy, use and distribute this thing, but I’d like to get credit for it, please. And thanks Dr. Gawande. The patient is alive and well on her way to recovery. All sewed up.

Woman on the Move

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The Maine Coast

I’ve wrapped up many of the things on my to-do list and on Wednesday I fly east for three weeks. My luggage is packed with the usual things–clothes, books, a couple of writing projects. What will be left behind in Colorado? My Colorado family and friends, my dog, computer, car, reading chair and favorite coffee cup. Important things that spell home, although I still say that going back to Maine is going home. I am, as I’ve always been, a woman on the move.

What goes with me as I travel are my five senses, my ability to move through space, my voice and my attention to language. I travel with the habit of writing every morning to clear away dead leaves and try to see clearly to the watery bottom of my mind. As I write I travel down the page, an early stroll from sleep to awareness. To noticing what I notice, as Ginsberg put it.

I’ll notice people in airports, on buses, on the sidewalks of Portland. I’ll pay close attention to my son, my daughter-in-law, grand dogs, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends. I’ll inhale the sweet smell of horses and I’ll taste the best seafood in the world right next to the water it comes from. My ears will relish the accents of New England and hope we never lose them. If I seem distant from this blog, it will be that I’m recharging that awareness, rebuilding myself from the roots up. I’ll certainly be back here in July. Until then, be safe, be well, know joy.

Envy, Jealousy & Covetousness

Okay, this is, sort of, the blog I posted by mistake earlier in the week. I pushed publish when I meant save. The piece had not yet been sauced and seasoned, not yet ready for consumption. Once it had left my hands, I saw no option but to discard the whole thing. So I’m trying to have history repeat itself. Here’s the thing: I read Maeve Binchy’s biography by Pers Dudgeon and came up for air feeling that I had failed as a writer in comparison to the huge success Binchy had. I too started early but did not devote myself to writing the way Maeve did. Bummer! She wrote, traveled, said what she meant and meant what she said. For too long I tiptoed around life, afraid to offend, afraid to expose my work to scrutiny, and I regret those lost years and opportunities. So what was I doing all that time?

Well, if I try to be objective, instead of coveting Binchy’s life, I’ve done plenty. I was an officer in the USAF, I raised two excellent children, I completed grad school twice, taught writing and literature, learned to ride a horse when I should have kept my feet safely on the ground, worked hard and well as a mental health nurse and now I have a small but mostly satisfying list of publications. Not so bad after all. But I do envy Binchy’s accomplishments. The only solution at this point is to keep writing. One thing that helps is flash memoir. I blogged about it recently, but I’m not sure I was yet clear in my own head about its value. When I write about my life, I see what it’s been worth so far. These memories may never see publication beyond the memoir group I work with, but I need to see them, to tell myself that I haven’t been sitting in a corner, sucking my thumb. I’ve been living the life I’m given.

OOPS!

The internet is a hungry beast and if you hit the publish button before you’re ready, it’s no use. The beast has already swallowed and digested the draft of a post you meant to save. In a vain attempt to battle this Beowulfian monster, I deleted the offending text. So there is no Jealousy, Envy, Covetousness on this site until I rewrite it for Saturday. Please come back then and I promise a more fruitful visit.

Keep the Pen Moving

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.

Architecture Matters

Slide1 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.