Tag Archives: writing

In which I ramble about things that can vanish in a fire

I’ve been rereading Little Women with the kids. I still enjoy it, though not as thoroughly as I did when I was young. I find myself wanting to tell Jo not to learn to tuck all her anger away. Especially when Amy burns Jo’s only copy of a manuscript she’s been working on for years, just to be spiteful. I’m not sure how forgivable an offense that is.

As we were taking part of the Great Chimney Fire Escape of 2012, I realized, much too late, that while I’d managed to grab the kids and the cats and the dog, I’d left my netbook on the couch. The couch right under the area which would soon be filled with water if the firemen discovered the fire had made it out of the chimney and into the attic crawlspace. How much of the work on the netbook was backed up elsewhere? Not enough, and some of that not enough was on the dinosaur of a computer sitting on the other side of the chimney.

I don’t remember saying anything out loud about it, but I must have. My son took a breath and said, in his calmest voice (calm was a scarce commodity at the moment), “Not to be rude or anything, but the pets are more important than the writing.”

An interesting question. The answer, of course, is that the pets cannot be backed up anywhere, while the writing can and should be, in lots of places, at least some of which should not be fire or water accessible. If you haven’t recently backed up your files, take a minute to go and do so.

It’s always possible to write more words. It would have been possible for me to take older versions of stories I’d been working on and continue on from there. Given the exact same choice, I’d have stopped to catch the cats and call the dog rather than grab the computer every time.

But…writing is not just words. Writing is the hours you put into a story, not just the hours of words, but the hours of thought. It’s the finally figuring out a sentence that’s been puzzling you for days. The personal part, not the publishing part, not the working with readers or editors part, but the piece that begins with an idea that will not leave you alone, that piece is bound up in those words that can be lost to water, to fire, to carelessness, and may never come again in the same way.

There’s more as well. That netbook was a Christmas present from my parents and my siblings one year. The same year my children gave me a pair of fingerless wool gloves and a little USB stick thingy (yes, that is EXACTLY what it’s called). Tools for a writer. A writer with cold hands and a ancient noisy computer. A writer who was only just beginning to admit she was a writer. I’m not really one for things, aside from books, but those three objects serve as reminders of the faith my family has in me.

Yes–kids, spouse, pets–they all come before anything else when a fire calls. But the humble little netbook would have been a hard loss to bear.

The state of things

I’m eating bunny crackers for breakfast. Yes, some might question that choice, but today they are the breakfast of champions.

This getting back into ordinary life after a few weeks off is kind of for the birds. Which is an odd expression. For the birds implies something like tasty seeds, or trees that cats and snakes can’t get up, and that doesn’t really seem to fit, does it?

So, let’s try again. It’s tough to jump back into the daily grind. Grind is at least suggestive of the overall sense of settling back in among gears and cogs and insistent forces. But really, that’s not fair either. Life is so much more than a grind.

Over the weekend I saw two bluebirds in the snow. There may be more cheerful sights in the world, but I’m not sure what they are. The Eastern Bluebird is blue and rust and white, and in the winter they look like little balls of joy in the snow.

I’ve been wishing I had two lives lately. One to spend with my children, who are in periods of exponential growth, and one to spend in a lonely writer’s garret somewhere. Preferably not a cold one, though I suppose I would survive. Wool hats and wool socks go a long way in the winter.

Oh, a third life too, please. One for reading all the books I haven’t had time to, the ones I’ve fallen asleep in bed with, and stolen five minutes with every other day, and still can’t make the time to finish. It really doesn’t seem fair to have writing and reading have to battle it out for my time. Either way I end up with a head full of unanswered questions, and an itch to do something more.

The voice you hear

I’ve been thinking about birth lately. There is a point at which a labor outgrows everything you know, everything you read and hear and plan for. It is a frightening space for the woman involved. It is a space of surrender. It is also the place at which everything about you as a person shines through.

It is a place where having someone there who can look you in the eye and say I believe in you and I know you can do this can be the difference between continuing on in fear, or continuing on in faith.

I’ve accepted that support, gratefully, from other people during my own births. I’ve provided that support to other women. It is what we need in birth, and it is what we need in life.

Writers need it too. As I sit here, waiting at the darkest point of the year, when the pines see more of the sun than I do, I’m thinking about what that means, that voice that says I believe in you. I’m thinking about all the times when it feels like the writing is going nowhere, or the story feels too hard to tell, or the novel wants to be written but you know that you may be writing it for yourself alone.

Sometimes it just feels too big to do. Sometimes you want to walk away from it, but everything inside you insists you continue. You skitter around it like a horse crossing water, eyes rolling, convinced it is too deep.

If you’re lucky, there will be a voice coming from across the water. I believe in you, it will say. You can do this.

Listen to it.

Introducing my audience

This is Big Eyes.

She hangs on the wall next to my head when I sit at the computer. I can see her out of the corner of my eye most of the time, because I’ve been getting ready to move my desk and I have boxes and piles of papers taking up the space where my chair should be, so I have to sit at an angle.

She was painted by my daughter several years ago. She’s joined on the wall by Guitar Dude.

Guitar Dude was put together by my son. The two of them are my audience as I write.

Why do I need an audience? Because writers do. Because I can’t help but write toward an audience of some sort, even when I pretend I don’t. And once people start reading what you write, well, that audience becomes all sorts of things. Good things, bad things, labels, challenges…it’s a long list.

Sometimes that’s a great thing. Sometimes it’s a confusing one. I think part of learning to be a writer is learning to control the volume as you listen to the audience collected in your head, to figure out who you invite to sit in the front row, and who there really isn’t any room for at all.

I need some tangible reminders of that lesson. So I have Big Eyes and Guitar Dude. They’re my audience when it’s hard to write. Just a few more chords, Guitar Dude says, and I smile and nod. Big Eyes says nothing, just watches.

Me? I write.

Starting from scratch

This morning we have the kind of snow that happens when the sky feels too lazy to really snow: occasional giant flakes that can’t decide whether they’re going up or down. I know the feeling.

When I came back from vacation in September, I mentioned having an idea for a new project. I started it this weekend. It’s a novelish collection of stories, or a short storyish novel, with two threads of narration to tie it together. The sort of thing I can work on in shorter stretches, if necessary.

It’s an experiment in another way for me as well. I’ve been thinking a lot about a comment in a John McPhee essay in the New Yorker that I read a few weeks ago. I don’t have the issue, or even the date of the issue, so I can’t give the quote. Basically, it said that new writers need to spend a lot of time trying things out before they know what they should be writing.

In terms of writing years, I count as a young writer. I don’t know what I should be writing yet. I’m kind of like a mechanic with a great big pile of shiny tools in my toolbox, and not enough practical experience to know which ones should be on top, and which ones I should put in storage.

It feels like time to start from scratch. It’ll be all messy pages and dead ends and trying to find the place where the words come true. Hopefully, I’ll learn something from it.

Something to read

As a human, I deeply appreciate this: What Humans Do.

How I write (part two)

Picking up where I left off, I’m clean, exercised, and I have an unedited draft of a novel. By novel, I mean a document somewhere between 100,000 to 124,000 words (yes, one was that long), made of mostly connected story. Next comes the the process called either revision or unbearable suffering, depending on how I’m feeling about my writing.

That piece right there, the bit about how I’m feeling, that is the crux of things for me. The truth is that I enjoying revising, or drafting, or most any other part of writing, as long as I’ve got my head in the right place. There other truths too, though, things like the fact that it’s easier to keep the Infernal Editor at bay when I’m in the flow of drafting, and that when I start to think critically the head games begin.

Who is the Infernal Editor? She’s the one that tells you that you’ve failed in some catastrophic way, the bit of your mind that tries to shred your writing to bits. I suspect that most writers have vulnerable points, places that despair can seep in all too easily. For me, it’s while revising.

What do I do? I hang on to my support people with both hands. When it starts to feel like it’s just me and a giant pile of words that looks suspiciously like…debris, I go looking for help. Have you ever watched a horse race? More specifically, have you ever watched the horses going out to the starting gate? They’re ponied along by a rider on another horse, a calm horse that doesn’t freak out at the antics of their highstrung companion. Support people can be that for a writer, the steady presence that gets them to the starting gate to do their thing.

Okay, I prepare my support, and I sit down and read. I read the whole story, often in hard copy, though I have no printer currently, so Wren is stuck in pixels. I cross out lots of things, and I write little questions, and I make lots of faces at really bad prose. I get a sense of the overall shape, and how things move along. Sometimes I discover things I like more than I thought I would. Other times I feel like it’s all a irredeemable mess, and I cry on people’s shoulders.

Then, I go through chapter by chapter. I cut and reword and buff things up. I take out really boring bits of action that are more or less stage directions inserted to remind me what’s happening, and I replace them with somewhat less boring bits. Sometimes it goes quickly. Sometimes I spend a day or so stuck on one line. I try to think of it as working on a puzzle, and that helps. When I finish a chapter, I read it aloud to myself. If it seems to work, I pass it on to my first reader.

And so it goes. At some point I reach the end, and I read it again, and I have other people read it, and then I read it one more time, also aloud. With each pass, I change less and less. Sometimes that’s not the case. Sometimes I make huge changes, but as I’ve gotten more adept at figuring out what I’m doing, those huge changes tend to come earlier in the process.

The most important piece to these final passes is to not overdo things. I find it far too easy to edit the voice out of a piece if I spend too much time on it. That’s been one of the best lessons writing short stories has taught me, and I’m working on carrying it over to the novels. At some point I’ll write more about short stories, but this is long enough for now.

How I write (part one)

As a follow-up to my pizza-induced insistence that everyone must find their own way to write, I thought I’d share my process. This is how writing a novel goes for me (I’ll talk about short stories in a different post).

I start with a character. Sometimes more than one, but at least one who’s been on my mind for a while. I generally have an end. Hopefully, a few ideas about things that happen on the way to the end.

I take what I have, I open a fresh document on the computer, and I begin to write. The first five to ten pages, those are just warmup material. I’ve yet to start any story, of any length, exactly where it needs to start.

Once I get past the warmup, then I begin to have a sense of where things are going. It’s a bit like slowly being drawn into a river’s current. I’m swirling in the eddies, my destination is impossibly far away, but I can feel the pull of the water starting to give me direction.

I write. I write and write, and when things go well, I think about what I’ll be working on the next day as I fall asleep at night, and I wake up excited to start. It helps if I write consistently. Too much time off and I drift back to the shore, and it’s hard to get moving again.

I write too much. Technically it’s too much. In truth, it all feels necessary at the time. I write scenes about hanging out by the river, about sitting inside on rainy days and reading books in bed. I write long sections about sitting by the ocean as the waves pound. These scenes do nothing for the plot, but they’re my way of connecting with the characters.

Those characters… sometimes they start out clear, but usually they start out like the stones you find on a dirt trail–rough, dull, nondescript. By the end, if I’ve done my job right, if all those extra scenes have helped, then they feel like river rocks to me, those stones washed so smooth that your hand just aches to hold them.

It’s not the most expedient way to write, and if I were trying to write something with a specific (and close) deadline, I’d be more likely to outline and keep everything neat and tidy. For where I am now as a writer, it works just fine. Eventually I reach the end, and I celebrate with something big, like taking a shower, or going for a walk.

Then…well, I’ll save that for the next post.

Brief thoughts on pizza and writing

Friday nights we have pizza for dinner. In our house, pizza night means making a yeast dough from scratch, and either using sauce I made with fresh tomatoes over the summer, or starting with a can of crushed tomatoes. Either way, it’s a process. It works well for us. I’ve done it for enough years that it takes little thought on my part, and everyone enjoys the end product.

But it’s not the right approach for lots of people looking for pizza on a Friday night. That’s totally fine with me. I don’t judge people who don’t make their pizzas from scratch. I don’t think my homemade pizza is inherently superior to any other pizza out there. In the end, I do it because I take pleasure in the experience, and my family does as well.

My philosophy about writing is more or less the same. Learn what works for you and do it. It doesn’t make it the right way for everyone. It also doesn’t make it wrong if other writers don’t work the same way. Our minds are weird creations. They are full of trapdoors, and secret passages, and staircases leading nowhere. The trick is not to learn to rebuild your mind to look like someone else’s, but to learn to navigate yours in all its chaotic glory.


A quote, from Jhumpa Lahiri:

“And yet writing stories is one of the most assertive things a person can do. Fiction is an act of willfulness, a deliberate effort to reconceive, to rearrange, to reconstitute nothing short of reality itself. Even among the most reluctant and doubtful of writers, this willfulness must emerge. Being a writer means taking the leap from listening to saying, “Listen to me.””

It’s a curiosity to me how I stopped writing for so many years, and started again writing something very different from I once had. I think both stopping and starting stemmed completely from willfulness, from my need to find it.

The quote comes from her wonderful personal essay in the New Yorker about becoming a writer, “Trading Stories.” You can read the whole thing here. I thoroughly recommend it. (And yes, it is from last June’s issue, but when you read your New Yorkers as hand-me-downs, your reading schedule is a little slower than most.)