Summer writing

writing3I have the hardest time keeping up a regular writing rhythm in the summer. I could do that thing that moms do where they tell you how full their dance card is and how they have to take everybody here and there and the other place, meeting the needs of the world, but before I even get started with that long boring conversation, I’ll recap. I have the hardest time keeping up a regular writing rhythm in the summer. It really all comes down to that.

It’s by choice. I love the shift in schedule that I feel and being self-employed, I can flow along with the change just like in school when finals meant summer had arrived. That really pertained mostly to grammar school since I started working alongside school at 15 and never stopped. But that feeling…when you knew, after all the field trips to ranches (yeah, I grew up in Cottonwood–what of it?) and days on the green were done, you’d have pure open time to do whatever the heck you wanted. I like to pretend I’m still doing that.

Just putting myself at the keyboard to type my three weekly blogs challenges me in the summer. I’ll keep doing it for that reason. But the main summer writing I get done is the “pre-writing” as Ray Bradbury called it once when I spoke with him at the Torrance Civic Center. What he said stuck and was in essence this: just because you’re not sitting alone in a room at a table banging away on a typewriter (he was old school) doesn’t mean you’re not writing. You’re doing that which informs your writing by living in the world, by looking at the grand oak outside your window and imagining it comes to life at night, covered in fairies. (I ad-libbed there–he actually said the roller coaster down on the beach in Santa Monica and how it looked like a dinosaur in the dusk.)DSCN3084

 

By smelling the summer rain across the meadow. By walking through the forest, and listening to the stories from the towering redwoods in the Quail Hollow Reserve.

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From watching your almost 11 year old dog play with the froth of the ocean for the first time on Dog Beach. Through sipping a regional zin in a barn filled with stories with my husband and listening to an old winemaker fill the air with stories while your dog listens at your feet.

I may not excel at summer writing, but I’m good at summer living…

I ask myself three questions every day. I think I got these from Brendon Burchard. I actually put them on my Google Calendar so they pop up on my phone each morning. Here they are:

  • Did I live?
  • Did I love?
  • Did I matter?

I have the hardest time keeping up a regular writing rhythm in the summer.

And that’s okay.

Poets All

homesless2 (3)This week I met Johnny, a homeless twenty-something. His hair was curly and long, covered by a baseball cap. He wore glasses which struck me as odd, like a sign he hadn’t been homeless very long. The soles of his shoes were wearing thin, and he was unable to find a pair that fit right in the assorted shoes I was helping pass out to the homeless people in a local park. He had hiked a long way to get there.

But that didn’t seem to bother Johnny too much. He was actually more focused on offering his help to us. His friend approached us and asked if someone would pray for Johnny’s protection. Alliances form in the homeless community and apparently Johnny wasn’t in one. Johnny was quick to pipe up, “That’s nice, but there is someone who needs prayer much more than me. She’s dying of cancer. I can’t go see her because I’m on parole and can’t leave the area.”

Johnny’s friend went on to describe Johnny as a poet. Johnny looked down for a moment, then looked up at the sky and waved his hand across. He talked about the canvas of the world and how there was so much material for poetry. It made me think of a movie my husband and I just watched on Netflix called “Before Sunrise” about a young man and woman who meet on a train in Europe, and wind up spending one romantic evening together in Vienna. Unfortunately, both know that this will probably be their only night together. During that night, they run into a homeless man who offers to write them a poem for money. The poem brings out each of their true essences–he’s skeptical the guy just wrote it, she takes it for the beautiful creation it is.

Poetry is everywhere, in castles and in caves. It fills the cracks in between. We can choose to focus on it, or we can ignore it completely.

“In this media-drenched, data-rich, channel-surfing, computer-gaming age, we have lost the art of doing nothing, of shutting out the background noise and distractions, of slowing down and simply being alone with our thoughts.

Carl Honoré

I know I have. Johnny reminded me about that. And I’m going to argue that “doing nothing” is doing something really important.

April is poetry month, or so the Academy of American Poets tells me in my monthly newsletter. It’s a time I always think about poetry in all its shapes and forms. Like Johnny, I feel I am a poet in my core. When I see a duck fly across the sky at dusk, and hear it announce its passing, my mind composes Haiku. When I feel love so deeply I can’t put it into words in just one way, I think sonnet. When I think back about our first meeting, poetry and me, I think of the poem my step-dad had me memorize for money and rehearse at cocktail parties. (Though that in itself was more than obnoxious, the poem has never left me, and that’s a gift.) Here it is–just imagine me at age 7 in my party dress:

If

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too:
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;

If you can dream—and not make dreams your master;
If you can think—and not make thoughts your aim,
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same:.
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build’em up with worn-out tools;

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings,
And never breathe a word about your loss:
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: “Hold on!”

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much:
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son!

Rudyard Kipling
True, I’m not a man this time around. But I’ll always be a poet, just like you.

The Idea Tree

DSCN2871When I was teaching second grade in Manhattan Beach, California, we had Writer’s Workshop. We followed an idea, into words, into a published book fully illustrated.

One question the kids always asked is the same question I’m frequently asked by kids when they learn I am a writer: “Where do you get (and by you they mean I) ideas for stories?”

Easy. The idea tree. You know, back in the orchard behind the money tree.

But, really, this is true. Take this particular tree at the Canoe House Restaurant in Mauna Lani on the Big Island of Hawaii. The characters this tree has seen. The dialogue this tree has lumbered through. The sunsets this tree has witnessed. The whales it has watched play. The slack key it has felt deep down in its roots.

When I travel, I so frequently have a story land on my head. Usually it happens on the plane. I don’t know what it is about being high up in altitude that gets my creative juices flowing, but something does. On this trip, the idea for my next book just landed in as clear as day. Not like I was looking, mind you, as I have a single space four page document with stories I want to write. Nevertheless, it nudges its way up to the front and demands to go next. (Bossy stories.)

Stories are everywhere. Listen to the palm frongs tapping together in the salty ocean breeze. (That one’s for you, QS). Watch the woozles (not their official name, but that’s what they should be called) that were sent over to the Island to control rats but run opposite shifts so now just reproduce–and so do the rats. Walk the land and imagine how it was 300 years ago.

If that doesn’t work, go find the idea tree. It’s waiting for you.

Best Writing Advice Ever

rabbitE.L. Doctorow said once that “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Anne Lamott followed that up with, “You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.”

But if it were this simple, why do we have the constant debate about outlining vs. following the story? Every time I turn around someone is blogging about one or the other as the answer to the holy writing trinity. Here’s the answer.

There’s no one answer.

Writing is so not about absolutes–and that’s the hard part. If there was one formula, one way, every MFA program across the country would be teaching it. Second grade teachers wouldn’t puzzle over, “How the hell are we going to teach these kids to write? I don’t even know if I know how to write?” (We actually had those conversations when I was teaching at one of the top elementary schools in the country and it’s not like we weren’t armed with masters degrees and curriculum.)

We get through school with some teachers (and later editors and agents) telling us we’re amazing and some telling us we suck eggs and we ought to just hang it up. (They usually euphemize.) It’s a very subjective medium. Just join writers (critics, librarians, parents) in a discussion of published books they think are pure genius or crap and you’ll generally get a divided room.

So what’s a new writer to do when writing a first novel? On the first draft of my first novel I followed the advice of Lin Oliver, co-founder of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. The reason I did that was that I’d happened upon her workshop as my first ever and she talked about plot structure that day. She’d come from Hollywood (television) and had learned the 3 Act structure and that’s how she did it. A short time later I met the late Blake Snyder at Book Expo America. He was a third generation screenplay writer and author of Save the Cat. What a great guy. I really liked him. He was funny, nice, and he pitched random people at Starbucks on his ideas.

It was settled. I’d outline. I bought poster board and colored sticky notes. I stuck packets everywhere for my brilliant ideas. Scenes were all over my house in errant places for months. And in the end, I rewrote it all in the first rewrite and it didn’t represent the outline at all. Sigh.

When mentor and friend, and oh–Edgar winning YA novelist–Charlie Price told me how he wrote, I decided to try that. This is the E.L. Doctorow School of Writing. Charlie would say, “Just peer in the window at what’s happening in this scene.” I loved that! And, as an only child who used to plant recorders behind the couch at my parent’s cocktail parties starting at age 6, I had that voyeuristic streak anyway. It was a natural progression. If I just listened to my characters, they’d tell me what was happening.

That’s the approach I’m taking on my current novel. I have the outline in my head, of course, but I’m trusting the story. No poster board or sticky note scenes. It’s definitely more fun even if, as outline afficionados would have you believe, it takes me more time on the flip.

Follow your intuition and know this for sure–in writing, as in life, we are here to explore a diverse buffet of options. It’s how we grow. It’s how we discover. It’s how we create.

Writer Jealousy

greenmonsterIt’s a topic not frequently chatted about openly among writers. I’ve been to an embarrassing number of writer conferences and not once have I seen it on the menu. But I’m willing to bet it’s touched every writer in some way at some time somewhere along the journey. And when nobody else is listening, my writer friends confirm my suspicions.

I think it starts in high school with the English teacher who passed out the A/A papers to all the other poor writing students who only dreamed of seeing perfect scores assigned to their deepest thoughts? These, I realize now, were the first unofficial reviews (classmates rolling their eyes) of a published work–the assignment–from my publisher–English teacher, Mrs. Jones. I recently dug through an old chest of papers from 30 years ago my mom had been saving in her storage shed and found some of those A/As (not all of them mine, mind you). Why did I save random papers for 30 years from classmates I can’t even remember? Because these were held up as the best. I remembered those feelings of inadequacy if mine wasn’t the chosen one. Pangs of jealousy.

But there was also an issue on the other side. If mine was the chosen one, that, too, was slightly awkward. It wasn’t as if the teacher passed out “The Perfect Paper” and everybody threw love and gratitude the author’s way for the great care she’d taken with her similes. No. More like, “Whatever. She probably copied it.” Still, that was certainly better than the alternative.

As an adult, I notice these concepts still alive in the lives and thoughts of writers. Who gets published. Who doesn’t. Who gets an agent. Who doesn’t. Who self-publishes. Who gets picked up by a publisher. Who leaves a publisher to self-publish. Who writes in a very commercial way (vs. literary) and makes lots of money–and makes lots of writers say, “But the writing is crap.” Good reviews. Crushing bad reviews. It never stops.

The theme has snaked its way in to night time drama. Have you seen “Girls” on HBO? Aspring writer Hannah is recently out of college as an English major. (Been there.) She does a brief internship at a publisher, but when real life calls, she needs to get a job that actually pays. In Season 1, Episode 9, she is not amused when the crappy writer in one of her classes (you know the one–there’s always one) publishes a book which is wildly successful. At the big book bash party which she forces herself to attend said writer comes up to Hannah with this really awkward, “How’s your writing going? I know it must be hard when it doesn’t come naturally to you. It just pours out of me.”

Hannah, according to her English professor, is a great writer, but horribly insecure about her writing. This insecurity seems to flow through writers like the ink through their printers. Internal critics abound. Hannah sulks, realizing she’s not disappointed with crappy writer girl, but rather with herself for her own unrealized dreams.

I’ve felt this–like everyone around me is winning and I’m not winning. One time, I went to a conference and agreed to be the carpool driver and pick people up, go early and help, and take people home. (Good karma, right?)  Both my riders won top honors at the conference. I won squat. That was defeating. I wanted to throw my manuscript in the trash. Wait–something more dramatic. Burn it at night in a fire in an abandoned field while sobbing.

Once I got myself together, here’s how I decided to look at that: it’s getting closer. It’s in my car, and it’s almost to the driver’s seat. “It” is recognition. Validation. Somebody likes what I wrote. Because in the end, that’s why we do it, right? We want people to like what we write.

But becoming a master writer takes time (10,000 hours, right Burl?) It takes dedication and consistency. It takes focus. And damned if you can’t buy these things at Rite Aid. You need to dig in deep, be willing to be vulnerable, honest, and observant. Oh, and, work really, really hard BEFORE (and by before I mean in case) you get paid. All this, and yet everyone I know wants to write a book.

Today, I work at appreciating exactly where I am when I’m there. I respect and admire the A/A novels I read and am grateful to learn how language can be used in a way that tells a story so well because that is my goal, too. I feel genuinely happy inside when my writer friends do well–sell a book, get a great review, get recognized in some way along the process–no matter what part of the process I’m in at the moment. I am grateful for my mentors and am grateful when I can mentor others. What I think this means is I’ve become more secure in my own abilities. I know what needs to be done to become a better writer, and I love the process–reading, writing, growing, rewriting, rewriting, crying, rewriting.

If you’re pre-published, enjoy the waiting room. It comes with its own set of perks. Appreciate when your friends have success. What you appreciate, appreciates, and before you know it, it’ll make its way to the driver’s seat.

Finding Extra in the Ordinary

carMy friend, Kevin, took this shot on a recent business trip to New York. I asked him to find me some “writing shots” and this was one of those he came back with–along with a picture of the world’s largest eraser. (Oh, NYC, you have everything, don’t you?)

When I looked at the pictures, this was my least favorite at first. Our thread went something like this.

K: What was your favorite?

Me: The sparkly light ones. The one from the car makes me sad.

K: Funny. That’s my favorite. More like melancholy.

Me: Hmmm.

K: Like what’s this girl thinking? What’s she waiting for–her n’er do well brother who’s late again to pick her up? Did she lose her keys?

And then it occurred to me I hadn’t had my writing head screwed on at the moment I looked at that shot. As writers, we need to be close observers of the ordinary–to see the quirky spins on things, the emotions spitting from a captured image that passers-by don’t take time to notice. We need to look closely, to see the story behind the moment. After all, much of writing happens in the pre-writing.

I know this most of the time. My family and I have played this game in restaurants over the years where we complete the story lines of fellow diners. (Beware if we see you in a Red Lobster. It could be you.) We talk about the relationship of the people, where they come from, their jobs, their hopes and dreams, their scandal du jour. Imagination game #134.

We need more of that. Imagination. Seeing the extraordinary.

So, then, why do you think this girl is sitting here?