How do I manage to waste so much of my time? I make lists of things to do, writing things, but seldom complete the checking off, often moving a task to the next list. Aargh! I was efficient in my professional paid work for over four decades. Now I fritter away an hour or more with crossword puzzles or tidying the clothes closet. Meanwhile the characters in my novel-in-progress grumble among themselves: “She’s ignoring us again. Maybe we should rebel, take over the plot, or escape with the next writer she meets in the coffee shop.” Sitting here with the blog before me, I know I should start the day working on the scenes I’ve scribbled all week and now must decide where to insert them in the storyline. You see, don’t you, that I know what to do, but I’m not doing it, am I?
The deep reason is fear. It’s all good to scribble on scrap paper and congratulate myself on another 800 words, but committing those words to print, ah, I lack courage. Who do I think I am writing poems and novels? So those lost moments contribute to my excuse of research.
Sometimes I go to the Union Station in Denver and watch people for hours, sketch their appearance on the scrap paper I keep in my work bag. Yesterday I went to the library and spent an hour or so studying a travel atlas for routes that my protagonist might drive, small towns that would suit the plot. And darn it, I thought I was doing something worthwhile, but those details are window dressing, not substance.
Maybe I was ignoring my left brain boss who says, Butt in Chair, Hands on Keyboard. Giving full control to my “big-picture” right brain where observation is approved. Then again, both brain hemispheres earn their keep. Slowly, slowly, the narrative takes shape. And then I worry all over again that the reader will toss the book aside and do crossword puzzles to pass the time.
Writing workshops are useful. I like being in a room full of scribblers, hearing about the variety of projects underway, discussing questions that come up and inform us all how we might structure a piece of writing. But…the approach to writing is, at times, like a cookbook: add more detail to spice it up, tenderize the love scene, chop the plot to a fine mince.
Makes me want to run out of the room, go sit under a tree and write like a chattering squirrel. Of course, February in Colorado is not conducive to writing en plein air.
Recently, I heard that in long narrative we should aim for 25% telling and 75% showing. Ouch! I would not know how to determine those percentages. Once I’ve written a scene, I want to know if it holds my attention, doesn’t bore the reader, reveals some truth–big or small–about the characters, moves the plot along. I’m driven by characters and they just don’t behave according to prescription. That’s the joy of fiction and memoir. Surprise!
I’m sure that the recommendation about these percentages comes from a sincere attempt to help a writer who’s lost in the word forest. But I also wonder if this advice originates with a publisher who has parsed the genres and most often accepts the expected. They can tell the bookstore or the library exactly where to shelve the book in question, because it’s very much like other books in its genre.
If I ruled the publishing world, (not likely) I’d tell writers to write their story as best they can, let their imaginations run loose, and then have honest beta readers comment on the effect of the manuscript. No mathematics allowed.
No one I know proceeds through a writing project without the occasional stutter step. Sometimes I fall, not from grace, but a face plant. Dry docked, shut down, blocked. Ouch! And that’s just the day that some skeptic asks how the book is selling, or when I’m doing a public reading. All I can do is shrug and own my stalled “career.” It’s momentarily embarrassing, a suggestion that, as my inner critic sometimes reminds me, I’m not really a writer. A real writer has an agent, an editor, a PR person, and a house on a hill. So what am I doing living in a basement apartment (which I actually like) and counting my dimes and dollars?
This angst is part of creative writing, as opposed to the popular image of authorship. My “ship” is a dinghy dragged up on the shore until I push it back into the water and take up the oars again. And row, maybe with no destination but an intent to go where the tide takes me. Just see what’s there and enjoy the sun and the breeze. It’s not a lost day if all I do is journal, muse on paper. (Hmm, that sounds like a line for a poem, or a new sandwich.)
If you too get stuck, just go with it. You might need a break, but I doubt you’re broken.
Contemplating my to-do list: get ready to sign books on Saturday, send out poems, shop for a birthday gift for my most amazing daughter (one of two best things I’ve ever done, her brother being the other), lunch today and tomorrow with good friends, a committee meeting tonight tacked onto the one from yesterday, and celebrate the freedom I have to do these things. On days when my list is long and I try to hide behind the solitaire screen, I could, instead, get up and get going. Time will not stop, so why do I?
Writing a new poem, building a lesson plan, revising what resists revision, these are privileges not given to everyone. And, yes, I must honor my commitment to my chosen calling, but sometimes I am so afraid of not living up to the traditions of authorship that I stall and have to force my fingers to the keyboard or pen to paper.
What others see is the product of my determination. They don’t see the hesitation, the doubt or anxiety. Those I edit from my public persona, but many of you who read this will recognize the feeling. And the need to tell that weary self-critic to “Hush, just hush. I’ve got work to do, work that I love and honor.” May you too on this no-particular morning, get something done and reward yourself with a “Well done,” even if what you do is imperfect.
Getting out of my own way is a constant challenge. When I succeed, the world is larger, more exciting and more rewarding. Last week I wrote about my plan for devoting more time to my first love, poetry and rejoin the community of like minds. That intention, though, won’t matter unless I connect with the world beyond my desk. I am not happy as artist in a cold, lonely garret. Better to put on my walking shoes, or the art that is in me collapses like a spent balloon, no shape, no lift.
So I announced my plea for connection with other poets and the world heard me. No, I did not stand on the front porch and shout it to the geese on the wing or the pizza delivery driver speeding past. Yet, it’s happening. Coincidence, chance, or synchronicity: “the coincidental occurrence of events and especially psychic events (such as similar thoughts in widely separated persons or a mental image of an unexpected event before it happens) that seem related but are not explained by conventional mechanisms of causality —used especially in the psychology of C. G. Jung” Miriam Webster Dictionary.
Yesterday email brought news of a poetry festival in February in Crestone, CO. That’s not the moon or Mars. I will go. It’s rude to refuse an invitation from the muses. Also yesterday, I went to Lighthouse Writers Workshop Friday 500 event. This time we visited the Denver Public Library and Dan Manzanares introduced us to the poetry of Belle Turnbull (1875-1950). Welcome Belle to my word hoard. Also, yes! Jackie St Joan, News Poetry Editor for Colorado Independent notified me that my latest submission has been accepted.
For whatever reason or no reason at all, I’m receiving what I asked for, as if my mind is a radio tuned to the right station, my pen an app that delivers, not pizza, but poems. “Only connect! … Live in fragments no longer.”–E. M. Forster
When I was twelve years old, I found my late grandmother’s diary, one of those with only a few lines for each day. What I saw was not important. What was missing could have been very important. Gram died when I was seven, and to this day, decades later, I wish I had known her better. Even my memories of holidays are sketchy. That diary was a lost opportunity for me. And a few years later the old family house burned, and her history became hearsay.
At this time of the year many of us fret over the busy buying season, lose sight of the personal routines that otherwise soothe us. For me, of course, writing is all the more a relief and a solace. And this year I plan to bracket each day with writing. I won’t give up morning pages because they are now a vital form of clearing my head. And I will add a reflection of each day in this busy, potentially distracting month.
This morning I pulled from my stash a small red notebook with a little white snowflake and wrote on the first page my intention to capture what I can for this month. I’ll write about the traditions, the expectations and the disappointments. I may tuck in pictures, holiday cards, even ads that reflect the commercialism of the season. The view may widen to public issues, or narrow to my emotional reactions to whatever happens. I may write about decorations or potlucks, worship or worry. Whatever comes is fodder. And at the end of the month I’ll slide that small notebook into an envelope, label it, December Diary 2017, and set it aside.
Admit it, if you are like me, you collect words you’ll never need. I go further in this vice: I collect quotes, whole sentences, even paragraphs. These snippets are not necessarily related to what I’m working on; in fact, I may never use them. Like a crow with shiny objects, I carry them in my beak from a library book to my nest which is a journal and hide them from jealous eyes. It’s not just the words that shine so much as it is how they cling together, like the roots of a tree, hidden but intricate, nourishing resources.
Language is more than a list of words, isn’t it? It’s a harvest of phrases and sentences, images and sounds, some of them heard silently in my brain as I read. It’s a gathering, which like any other healthy community, welcomes immigrants. In fact, it needs strangers in its midst or it stiffens like rheumatic knees. A vast array of word groups from many sources brings news of other villages and cultures, news we need to grow on.
David George Haskell, in his wonderful book Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature’s Great Connectors, repeatedly demonstrates the interconnectedness of life over time and place, whether in the canopy of the rain forest in Ecuador or the balsam firs of the frozen north. He listens and brings back what he hears. We who write must do the same or risk ignorance, a false understanding of the web of life which is so much bigger than we can imagine. But we might just grasp it through a web of words.