Hiatus in Review

Hi friends,

It has been a fast and frenetic summer and I have been thoroughly consumed by the events of the many dog days passed. My sincere apologies for being absent.

This morning I submitted a story for publication for the first time in a long time, and let me tell you, it felt good.

Taking this step, to submit my story, reminded me that it’s important to come back to the work even if you’ve been away a while. So if you’ve been away, too, come on back. There’s no time like the present and it feels great.

Rats in the Belfry

Mouse bites2A recent foray into the slush piles boxed in my garage revealed that I have numerous rodent-gnawed manuscripts, most of them now ruined, that I’ve been hauling around for years. The fact that I am surprised to rediscover these stories got me thinking, and has lead to a question I have for all of you – what are you packing around that you may have forgotten about?

In thinking about my nibbled manuscripts there is something to be said about the temporary nature of the things we create. The creative process is momentary, bit by bit, like a factory that produces a new gadget every few moments and then passes it down the conveyer belt before producing another, sometimes similar and sometimes completely different, until an entire warehouse of things has been created and, like my manuscripts, stored away and forgotten – except we don’t want to forget, though we will if we don’t manage our inventory well.

The other day I tweeted that it is imperative for writers to keep a notebook handy for jotting down ideas as they come along. This is old advice and something everyone who endeavors to write should know, but it is an idea worth reinforcing. Memory is as important to our process as the act of writing itself. Without memory we have no source of story, no mind for detail, and certainly no ability to track the inventory of our completed work. The virtual rats in the attic of our minds are as apt to shred our mental manuscripts as are the literal ones busy chewing up our paper stories. Safeguards must be taken.

In the moments of creative insight we tend to feel most alive as writers. When inspiration strikes it is so vivid we cannot imagine how easily the idea will be forgotten. If ever there is evidence that this will happen, however, it’s in the stashed and stored boxes in the garage, under the house, and in the attic where so many forgotten stories lay in waiting. So I ask again – what have you forgotten about? I urge you to go see. Pull up the old files, open the boxes, and bring out your stuff. Chances are you’ll find renewed inspiration and perhaps a story or two that can be re-written, sent out to find new life and a potential home in a journal somewhere. Far better than leaving them to dwell in a dark vault, frequented only by rats, to be turned into a rank temple for some Templeton who hasn’t even the courtesy to send the best parts on to the more clever spiders in the barn.

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Lucky Versus Good and the Simple Secret to Success

shadow fixLefty Gomez is credited with saying “I’d rather be lucky than good.” When it comes to success as an artist that sentiment may be even more true than it is in baseball. The secret to success as an artist lies within this idea, a secret that isn’t as mysterious and elusive as it first seems.

Every new project an artist undertakes is approached with the same general drive, inspiration and intent as the one before. When the idea comes to us we go for it with the goal of making the best product we know how. When the work is finished and we are happy enough with it, we send it out into the world and there it is judged, loved, hated, and then eventually becomes replaced by the next thing in a cycle that goes on and on forever. Except that sometimes a thing we do sticks, and the resultant stick makes us stand out, perhaps for the rest of our lives.

Naturally we would like everything we do to have this lasting effect, but it doesn’t and we can’t force it to happen no matter how hard we try. What we must do instead is create the best content we can while also creating as much of it as we can. The secret to success is more often quantity combined with quality. With quantity comes a sort of luck. The odds are that with enough effort something will stand out and get you noticed. Often it takes example after example of a certain style before people “get it,” but once that happens years of toil can come to fruition almost over night.

Not that we rely solely on luck. While it may be better to be lucky than good, the artist must still be good at what they do. A whole library of garbage will always be garbage. But a substantial collection of quality work, and a little luck that some of it gets noticed and celebrated, is the most likely scenario for success for today’s creative person.

So often it seems that a young prodigy comes out of nowhere with a single piece of fiction that suddenly takes off and makes them the new hot thing. To believe that some people wake up one day and pen a single story, as though having an innate store of perfect stories in their minds, one to write following another, is a great illusion in the world. No creative person that I am aware of ever created quality work without practice. For every first fiction there are dozens of stories that never made the cut, usually never made the light of day.

The secret is to work fast and work often. Let the stories inside you come together and slip out of you like tears and gasps and great big laughs. There is nothing gained by trying to create one perfect piece. The goal of perfection is deceptive – to assume that perfection can be achieved and should be the goal is to restrict the pathway to success with the briars of a lie. Simply create, prolifically, and let the results of your work lead the way to whatever success may come. None of us are only as good as one thing we do – we are the sum of all of our parts.

Keep working.

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Blog Updates You Might Like to Know About

Dear Fellow Creatives,

With the help of some talented people I have made a few changes to the site.  To begin with, you may notice that there is a new graphic and color scheme.  There is also a sub-header below my name explaining a little more what this blog is about.

On the “About” page you will find an old photo, circa 1980, proving that I was indeed trying to figure out this writing thing at a young age.

Finally, there are a few new tabs, most importantly one featuring some of my poetry and one featuring my fiction.

I hope you find some of this information engaging.  Thank you very much for your interest in my blog.

T

See my guest blogger post!

Just a quick note to let you all know that I have had an article published just this morning as a guest blogger at Writer’s Relief. You can see it here: http://www.writersrelief.com/blog/2013/05/psyched-to-write-overcoming-the-transition-barrier/

It’s a lot like my blog posts here except that it’s short 😉

Be well, friends

Diversify Your Writing!

This is a call for writers everywhere.  Break away from your genre and write it all.

I imagine the idea of branching into an unfamiliar genre is intimidating, daunting, or perhaps completely uninspiring.  After all it takes so much time and effort to write what you know the best – why would you spend a single moment on anything else?  I’ll tell you why.

Poetry:

What are the fundamental characteristics of verse?  It has clear pacing, a musical quality, sometimes it rhymes or alliterates, and a lot of people are terrified of it in college.  Even this much knowledge hints at valuable lessons for the prose writer.  By first studying , and then attempting to write poetry, the prose writer is opened to concepts that the novice is at best subconsciously aware of, namely pacing and the specifics of vocabulary.  In prose it’s much easier, and therefor far too common, to use tired language.  This is due in part to the novice writer’s idea that prose is easy, and that its direct style does not require as much attention as some of the other writing forms.  Poetry, meanwhile, lives and dies by its rhythms and the specificity of the language.  By practicing this highly ornate form the prose writer is awakened to possibilities in story writing that are often dismissed as white noise in the back of our minds.  But pace, rhythm, even the more ornamental qualities of poetry work very well, and indeed are required, in prose.  Poetry raises our awareness of these elements and can ultimately lead to better prose writing.

Drama:

Drama and fiction (short stories and novels) have a lot in common.  They both portray fictional or semi-fictional characters in a conflict-driven situation.  For the dramatist the keys are setting, stage direction and dialogue.  Dialogue is what carries the story in drama, and that story is brought to life as the actors move throughout the stage setting, thereby communicating vital information to the audience.  In thinking about these details in play writing, the prose writer is brought more acutely to an awareness of their importance.  Though different in their treatments, the tools of drama are just as prevalent in prose.  By working through the process of writing (and perhaps performing) a play, the prose writer learns to pay more attention in their fiction writing to the details that make the story come alive.  The imperative that a play accomplish its task successfully in front of a live audience should be no more urgent for the playwright than it is for the fiction writer whose audience is silent, though no less deserving of a responsible performance.  The playwright suffers the risk of being booed or seeing her audience abandon the theater if her work is sub-par.  For the fiction writer there is only rejection and silence, and often no understanding of why.  Writing a stage-play, therefore, is one way of becoming more attuned to what is necessary in all writing – proper detail.

Non-fiction:

Non-fiction, whether journalistic or creative, requires of its scribes that they do thorough and proper research.  Even a simple opinion piece is best served if the author knows all of his facts before carrying on with his diatribe.  A single misquote of a fact or citation diminishes the writer’s credibility .  For the fiction writer the message is clear.  Even the most obscure piece often needs a little research into something – the foundations of mythology, or the ancient traditions of religion, the laws of physics, the laws of man.  In order for the story to be believable it must have not only the pacing and lyricism of poetry and the definitive descriptions and dialogue of drama, but it must be as factually accurate as required in order that the writer maintain credibility in telling his story.

And the non-fiction writer benefits as well from practicing the creative angles of fiction.  Fiction pays attention to deeper meanings, makes connections to seemingly disparate concepts, and makes prose more lively so long as the writer is diligent in avoiding cliches and amateur trickery.  All but the most practical non-fiction can be just as entertaining as fiction if the writer understands how to tell a story.

The one caveat for the diversified writer is this – each discipline requires its own investment.  The differences of each are substantial and require separate study of form and function before they can be harvested.  The good news is that each form can be studied fairly quickly if writing basics are well understood.  On the other hand it takes a long time to master writing in any one form.  I believe, however, that consistent, earnest writing in a variety of forms develops an overall mastery of the craft, and that writers willing to delve into other types of writing not only enhance their growth but attain aptitude in new forms at a faster pace, and to the great success of all of their efforts.

So the challenge is laid out: move beyond writing fiction to poetry, drama, non-fiction.  Master the language and the art of writing so that no door is closed to you.  There is everything to gain and nothing (but a little time invested) to lose.  In writing across genres the genuine student of writing becomes doubly, even triply informed, reinforced in those basic elements that make up the writing practice while expanding into the unique characteristics of various writing types.

Fiction Is the Devil (One more reason you feel like a failure but are not)

I once had an acquaintance who was a very good poet.  Supposedly whenever he needed a little money he would write up a few poems, publish them, and get paid.  Just like that.  Good morning, how ya doing, and thanks for the cash.

I read his stuff and I have to tell you, it was pretty good.  I was not surprised at all that he had this ability to write impacting, emotionally strong poems that publishers were happy to buy.  One day I enthusiastically said to him, “Hey, your work is really good.  You should write fiction, too.”  His reply?  “No way!  Fiction is way too hard . . .”

Now, let’s get one thing clear.  No form of writing is easy.  Every type of writing requires one to engage the mind, exercise the faculties, stretch the vocabulary to make an end product that readers can appreciate.  Poetry lives and dies by image, specificity, and rhythm.  Creative non-fiction relies on the detail of poetry and the pace of narrative to enhance the factual details as they (allegedly) happened.  We are dealing with language after all, and language is slippery, evasive, challenging.  No, it’s not at all that other writing is easy, it’s that fiction is just so especially difficult.

What I posit here is an arguable position.  Narrative is, in many ways, narrative.  One thing happens and then another.  Cause and effect.  Characters behave accordingly by making choices and acting those choices out.  Challenges rise up, tension builds, all the basics of an engaging story are there and each form has its own demands.

Yet, writing fiction is like learning a foreign language.  You’ve got a whole history of the language at your disposal – words you’ve never heard of with meanings for things you perhaps didn’t even know were defined.  You’ve got slang, idiom, sentence structure, an accent.  Each component means something.  In short fiction each component means everything.  Compare this to an essay in which you may well be telling a story, but it’s your story, as you experienced (or researched) it, and even if you have the skill to add the details that make it come alive and become an enriched and engaging piece of writing, the details, some of them, were given to you without your having to invent them.  The same cannot be said of the poet, because the poet is capturing something entirely different.  But the poetic mind is alive with the music of emotion.  In poetry there is a moment, with jade vines and lemon mists wafting through sunlight.  There are passing glances with promises of romance, the sponge of a bitten lip, the echoes of a yowling dog interrupting the serenity of a still night.  Fifteen lines of poetry is a sprint into the senses and then it is done.

And then there’s fiction.  The great, smirking Cheshire Cat of composition.  The wisecracking, oddball of everything that written language can be, encompassed in a form that is as narrowly missed as it is narrowly gained.  The details have to be the right details.  The sentiments must be correct.  The dialogue must sound true.  The story must arrive at its natural conclusion or all is lost.

I once read somewhere (and I paraphrase) that “no story is so good that it can’t be ruined in the telling.”  This is the daunting reality fiction writers face.

But whether we accept that fiction is the most difficult form to write in or that it is merely as difficult as any writing is, it is worth remembering that our struggles with writing stories in no way makes us a failure.  It is true, I suppose, that there are failed writers.  I suppose as well that this definition of failure is subjective, as I imagine that there are published writers who feel their final output was a failure, and there are unpublished writers who simply quit the endeavor without reaching their million words or, because of some other distraction, walked away from the page and never returned.  For me this latter failure is the only failure.  Even as I stare at the blank page in search of a story, or the middle of a draft lost at sea, or finally at the complete first draft in desperate need of revising, and I feel all of the bitterness that this work engenders, I know I will not quit.

Nothing is more rewarding than completing a difficult task.  When I’ve had a good writing session I know at the end of it that I have earned my keep.  I have satisfied my job as a writer and as a soul that needs replenishing.  When I do my work I am happy.  I love all types of writing – even grant writing.  But fiction, ah, fiction.  This is where I am most challenged, and with that challenge comes the promise of the highest reward.

To defeat the bogeyman of fiction one must only wrestle with it until it is exhausted.

And we have infinite stamina.