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.

Shallow Character Development Is No Lazy Way To Be

20131209_182451I envy writers who, from the beginning, appear to know their characters at a deeply intimate level. Aware of the nuances and motives of these figures, their stories come together with resonating power, under the illusion that this is a story which must be told by order of the laws of physics.

I’m not one of those writers who understands his characters quickly. In recent weeks I’ve gained more insight and true understanding of my protagonist than I had when I started writing my novel two years ago. In fact, it took walking away from the project for almost a year before I could see whom my character is and where she needs to go to be fully realized. That concerns me. I can’t afford to spend two years on every character I create before I understand them well enough to get the story right.

I think this lack of character development by young writers is why there are so many underwritten and half-finished novels in the world. Story is largely, if not entirely, about character, and without really understanding our characters we can’t expect tell a story well. It’s one thing to know about our characters, but it’s an entirely different thing to understand them.

My current novel-in-progress features a protagonist who is strong enough to voluntarily leave the sanctuary of her home in order to lead a pursuing menace away from her loved ones. In the early drafts of the story, however, she is portrayed as timid and polite, stereo-typically feminine, essentially a rag doll being thrown about by circumstances that do little more than drive the plot with no regard for the condition of the person she is supposed to be. She shows none of the strength and character of a person who is willing to leave the security of the familiar and leap into the unknown in a bold and self-sacrificing way. Only recently did I fully grasp this fact, and can finally say that I know what this story is about and how to represent this character in a way that is somewhat refreshing and not stereotypical. But this after two years of just thinking!

There is a deep-conscience thinking required to understand our characters. We have to think beyond the facts of their background and appearance, think our way to the core of their motivation and see what their actions tell us about who they are. We have to think beyond the surface. This is why writing is so hard. The thought that goes behind the story is tedious and demanding. We are required to push ourselves, over and over again, to understand concrete aspects of psychology and motive. We have to be aware of real-world mental health issues, fears, and desires. All of that takes concerted effort. If we don’t make the effort then we are being lazy, and our writing comes across as lazy, and our books become lazy and unemployed.

I’m slow in this regard. It takes a lot of effort to see through the fantasy of my characters in order to determine who they really are and how they should be portrayed. My deep thinking takes a long time to develop. So often my brain turns in circles, caught on the whirl of a wrong notion, waiting to break free into chance and chaos that leads back to something better. A long process indeed.

Maybe the place to start is with an analysis of myself. Once I understand the character within me perhaps I will more readily understand the characters in my stories. It stands to reason. In the end, we really are writing about ourselves.

One Simple Tool Guaranteed to Improve Your Discipline

It is said that anyone can do something for 20 minutes (thank you WMT – you know who you are) and if that’s true then we’re all in good shape when it comes to finding the discipline for daily creative effort.  But discipline takes more than agreeing we could do something for a short time – it takes doing it.

There is a tool we all have right now that virtually guarantees that each and every one of us can apply ourselves for a solid span of time even in the face of our underwhelming enthusiasm.

Before we reflect on this useful tool, however, it helps to recognize why we resist doing the work our creative lives demand of us in the first place.  One reason we lack discipline is because of the fear of wasted time.  By now we all pretty much agree that art is hard work.  From short stories to poems to painting to song-writing we all fear, at least from time to time, that we’re wasting our lives by kidding ourselves about our creative talent.  And while there is a whole other discussion to be had about why that thinking is wrong-headed, the fact of the matter is that it exists and we have to overcome it.

Probably the second biggest reason we resist sitting down and getting to work is laziness.  Most of us already have jobs that suck up a better portion of our lives, and to add even more focused time and energy onto other projects can feel like one endless pile of chores.  Easy enough, then, to overlook the reward of completing a project when the journey of a thousand miles is still only ten miles in.

What we’re really struggling with, however, is one of the great themes of creative expression – time and the inferred (and impending) end of it.  When we think about time in terms of the finite, as in the end of our lives, it’s easy to forget that the art we create is permanent, as much as anything is permanent, and the associated feelings of isolation and despair don’t help us when our doubts persist.  But the effort of art is worthwhile, and fortunately for us there is a tool we can use to make everything all better.

I was recently introduced to a very simple device that has revolutionized my productivity, and it’s something readily available to us almost anywhere we go: a timer.

hourglass_tn2 (2)

Now hear this – the timer is our friend!  Once the timer is set things begin looking up.  With time counting down we need only bear with our task for long enough to allow the timer to do its thing, for ten minutes, twenty, or an hour.  If you think this sounds silly just try it.  Try anything, but if your idea isn’t working better than mine then do it.  Chances are your twenty minute experiment will double before you actually stop.  Some of you might tune out the timer or, finding yourselves interrupted by the annoying alarm, may even toss the thing across the room and keep going.  In any case I wager you’ll discover, as did I, that the timer is invaluable for getting started, and that’s all we really need.  Once we get past the initial resistance to starting the seas open before us and the sailing can commence.

Try this: set your timer for twenty minutes and get to work.  As soon as you’re done come back here and tell us about the experience.  Did you go longer?  Were you satisfied that it helped get you into your chair and working?  Was it a complete failure?

Let us know!

Write About the Life You’ve Lived (which means getting out now and then)

I wear a small pendant on a chain around my neck. The chain is simple, metal. A series of little silver balls ending in a plan wedge-style clasp. A dog-tag chain. The pendant is metal, too, but it’s made of pewter. Round, this pendant is not a perfect circle but is, rather, rough-hewn, probably made by hand. The center of this disc displays a static compass with a two-tone star inside a thin circle with the customary N,E,S,W designator off each point. On the back, the side that rests against the skin over my breast bone, a single word is stamped into the smooth gray surface:

Seek

I believe this sums up the creative life. Most of us know by now that creative pursuits are mostly about chasing ideas, tackling the greater notion and pinning it down until the details manifest and are pushed into place by hours of study, thought, deletion and reworking. And once that project is complete we’re off to the next, restless, growing, changing . . . seeking.

So much of our work goes on inside the mind. There are galaxies inside of us that require nothing more than a good dose of consciousness balanced by the seasoning of dreams and imagination, and fed by the cosmos of our subconscious. Because of this it’s all too easy to spend our lives in stasis, content to remain shut-in, surrounded by our creature comforts while the world, what some call the “real world,” goes on around us, through us, but without us.

I acknowledge this fact as a wake up call to myself. I don’t deny that my life has been an adventure of sorts so far. I’ve done some cool things and been to some great places. By some measures my life has been spectacular. Regardless of the fact that there have been great experiences along the way, however, I don’t think now is the time to rest and count the shillings I’ve gathered from a moment’s treasure hunt. If my writing is to grow I need to continue to grow as well.

I suppose this missive is just a version of the old “write what you know” axiom. But if we are to write what we know then we must also ask ourselves what it is that we actually know, and whether what we know is something we want to write about. The question is complex because, as Flannery O’Connor purportedly said, “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” The depths of a mere few years of childhood grant us a lifetime of material for our work. And far be it from me to disagree with our dear Ms. O’Connor, but I highly doubt she would have advocated that we cease living and write only about our childhood (though I suspect in many ways our childhood is the only thing we really think, talk, and write about in the end).

So as I write this entry, sitting as I do on the edge of the continent with the great Pacific before me, thinking about mortality, knowledge, and the creative spark, I think it a shame that I have not done as much as I still plan to do, and I berate myself over the time-wasters I engage in while the brilliant life remains safely unopened, garishly packaged in the vivid colors of other cultures, beauties, and even a little danger.

We creatives are seekers. Let’s be reminded then that in seeking we must move the body as well as the mind in our pursuits. All of our success begins with intention, but that intention must be quickly followed by action. As with the first word which leads eventually to a full manuscript, the first step out the door leads to new enlightenment. Just now and then. Perhaps one new place per year, and if only for a few days.

The No Hurry Schedule – Writing takes its own time to mature

I’ve been away. I found myself back in the workforce after two years of setting my own schedule and working piece-meal on various projects, mostly in the non-profit sector. And by non-profit I mean “no profit” . . . not because non-profits don’t pay, but because writing, so far for me, doesn’t pay.

So I am back in the workforce as I said and I have to admit I’ve got a really great job. Five or so days a week I drive to the edge of the Pacific Ocean and direct the day-to-day operations, big and small, of one of the west coast’s still operational lighthouses. I get a good salary and the work is awesome.

Prior to getting this gig I was putting a lot of hope on my writing. I’d love to be a successful full-time writer just like most of the rest of you. It’s a dream, a goal, and a passion. But with all of the hope I’ve been putting on my writing there has also been a lot of pressure. And this is why, to-date, it’s failing.

Nooooow, that isn’t fair to say. My writing isn’t failing. In fact, I’m making a lot of small in roads on the dream, such as being selected for the Ekphrasis project (see post here). Furthermore, I’m getting more and more editor commentary on my stories. The writing itself isn’t bad, they say, but the storytelling has a ways still to go. Simply stated, my stories just aren’t ready.

When I was working before, and wishing I was writing and not working, I imagined one day I would climb out of the working world on the backs of my fiction and then revel forevermore in the success of a dream fulfilled. When I left the workforce, not on the backs of my stories, I still had a lot of story writing work to do, so I gave myself a small window in which to make the dream happen. I didn’t exactly meet my goal nor did I hold out as a starving artist and eschew my responsibilities for the sake of my art. I think it’s a good thing I didn’t (or I would truly be starving).

Now that I am gainfully employed and the pressure to sink or swim is off, I have come to the realization that it takes a good long time to get a story right. The urge to revise once and ship a story off is probably the biggest mistake unpublished writers make. We want that sweet nectar so bad that we’re willing to lie to ourselves in order to move the process along. And then we’re surprised when things don’t go the way we want. We blame idiot editors for being short-sighted rather than recognizing for ourselves that we have not done our due diligence.

I am now on the “no hurry schedule.” I’ve been on it for about a week-and-a-half. I just made up the name tonight. Anyway, the “no hurry schedule” is just what it sounds like. I am in no hurry to send anything out. I am willing to think, and think, and think about my story until I can find a way to push the whole thing to a different level. As satisfied as I might be with the current project, I know in my heart, and yes, my gut, that things can go beyond everything I’ve imagined to this point. The thing is, we all have a notion of the story we want to tell. It has a feeling and an energy and is dead-on a great story. But getting it to the point of our ideal is akin to mining for gold ore. We know there’s a sweet spot under all that dirt, but we’re not going to reach it without doing a lot of digging.

I said “a lot,” and by that I don’t mean “not a lot.”

Raise your hand if you’ve ever composed a story, just one story, that reads like it felt when you first imagined it. Now put your hand down – I can’t actually see you. If you did raise your hand then good for you. You are probably published, even if it’s in some obscure college lit. mag and we’re all proud of you like Little Lebowski Urban Achievers. For the rest of us, however, I’m pretty sure we’ve never gotten there. Close, maybe, but this ain’t hand grenades.

The point is, writing takes time to mature. It matures in our minds after we’ve written eighteen drafts and left it alone for three weeks. It matures in the re-reading we do when we go back for draft nineteen. As long as we’re asking hard questions then the writing is maturing, and so are we.

It’s the “no hurry schedule.” Better not to hurry, but to be fair to your craft, and in time to reap the rewards of all that work, than to usher your fledglings out of the nest only for them to fall into the drooling maw of house cat hellions. None of us are so good we can’t benefit from easing off a little. We didn’t mature in a week. Our writing isn’t going to grow much faster.

Having the Guts to Give It Your All

I realized the other day that I have a very, very bad habit.  I have been subtly aware of this habit for probably almost as long as I’ve had it, and yet it’s only recently that I’ve decided to face it and do something about it.  My habit is laziness, or perhaps our old friend fear, or maybe it’s just my own misunderstanding of where creativity comes from.  In any case, it’s time to go public and it admit what this habit is doing to my work.

Simply stated, I’m not giving my all.

I was reading some interview material from the late (and sincerely great) John Gardner last night, and in this reading he quoted Terry Southern as saying writing must come “out of the old gut and onto the goddamn page,” and regardless of the kind of page, damned or otherwise, it was the part about the “old gut” that caught my attention.  What Southern is saying, I think, is that writing, everything really, should come from the gut, the place of intuition, where truth lives.  It must do this if our work is to be any good because unlike the head, which is rational and seeks to control the writing, and unlike the heart which is sentimental and strives only for cheap relief of emotion, the gut tells us “this is how it really is.”  The gut holds the truth.  The Truth.

Recently I have been paying some attention to my bad habit.  I tend to move between the head and the heart in two particular areas – nay – I dare say in every area of my life.  The two particular areas where I pay the biggest price, however, are chess and writing.  In these practices my habit manifests in the following attitude.  I believe that I have time to “try” something out, knowing the idea is not fully formed, kidding myself that if it fails I will learn and keep the lesson ready for when I finally decide to give my best.  In this time (which has yet to arrive) I will overwhelm my opponent (in chess) and I will devastate my reader (in writing) with the force of my all.

Instead I continue to dance around, heart-and-head, sentiment and reason.  No truth.

The truth in chess, as with writing, is that there are far more opportunities to make mistakes than there are to make brilliant combinations.  By taking a lazy approach to either activity the potential for mistakes grows exponentially.  In chess, at least, the level of ones opponent may be similar to ones own, and with errors being made on both sides of the board neither is likely to have a quick advantage, thus allowing one side recovery if the error is caught in time.  But writing, with the intent of having a wide and varied audience, is like playing chess in a tournament.  All levels are present and only those who are most skilled, and who pay closest attention, will approach victory.

Back to my habit.  There is something inside of me that is disgustingly lazy.  The dream of committing my all to any one project is far more romantic than the practical experience of doing it.  When I get an idea for something I feel it in the gut.  Adrenaline shoots through my chest and stomach, tickles my hips with a lusty urge to make things brilliant and sensual and alive.  My heart beats faster but, at first, it doesn’t get in the way.  My mind stays hazy in the dream of the initial idea, and Truth courses through my body in streams of code.  I make short, cryptic notes that get at the core of the idea, and sometimes they don’t mean anything concrete, but capture some flavor, like licorice tinged matchsticks, and such a notion becomes a world.  But when it comes time to write I have already committed to withholding the deeper emotion, hesitating to share the obscure and torrid realities of my greatest ideas.  I take short cuts.  Simplify my story.  Make it all safe.

That is not writing from the gut.

I suppose this is what revision is for (though you can’t revise in chess unless you’re playing the computer).  With good revision I think it’s true that the truth can sort of be put into something that isn’t true to begin with.  But I don’t think this is the best practice.  When Natalie G. tells us to move our hand without stopping, to do it thoughtlessly while being specific, she is talking about writing from the gut.  She is giving us the recipe for getting at the truth.

I don’t know about you but I am way overdue in telling the stories that are in my gut.  My head and my heart have had their time, and maybe this was a necessary step in my development as a writer.  I don’t know whether Bob Dillon or E.R. Burroughs or Henry Miller ever had a time when they were stuck in the head and the heart, but I doubt it.  They got right to the gut and they stayed there.

I hope from now on we can all find the courage to go beyond the consciousness of our ideas and let them loose from the source of our intuition.  This means telling the truth about the things we, as human beings, try to hide.  Our real thoughts and feelings about love and sex, our friends and family, our neighbors and God.  It means telling the truth about ourselves.  In the end it may indeed be that the page is damned.  All of the evidence in a story worth sharing is there.  The condemned indict themselves.  But this is why fiction has value, because it illuminates life as life really is.  Even in genre fiction, good genre fiction, the truth is laid out to tell us something about the hidden truths of our existence.

And it all comes from the gut.  The place where Truth lives.

Let’s Talk a Blue Streak (What the &*^% do I know about REVISION?)

This where the rubber meets the road

Once there was a writer who had something to say

If there is one thing I know about writing, it’s the fact that nothing I put down the first time is usually good enough to share.  If there is a second thing I know about writing, it’s that beyond the basics of character, plot, and setting, there is a thing called revision – and it is the most important part of writing, next to writing, that there is.

But what do I know about revision?

I have been teaching college students how to write since 1999.  That’s (1,2,3,4 . . .) a lot of years looking at materials and using tools to help student writers learn the craft of writing.  From essays and research papers to poems and short stories, I can talk a blue streak about inspiration, ideas, character, and plot.  I can point to dozens of writers and writing books to help with the process – the whole deal – all of it, until, that is, it comes to revision.

What do I know about revision?

One of the better treatments of revision I have ever read was in Jerome Stern’s excellent book Making Shapely Fiction where he distills the process down to a few simple steps:

“You must look at it closely, ponder it, and ask yourself certain questions: What am I trying to do? What is the heart of the matter?  Why are all these characters here?  Why are all these scenes here?  Why did I start the story where I did?  Why did I devote all that space to that scene? . . .” (213).

And so on.  But what does this really tell us about revising?

I think the answer lies in the effort of trying to find the answer.  In other words, when it comes time to revise we must change our thought process from the way it was when we wrote the first draft and begin reading between the lines of what is now written.  After a first draft is finished there are many possibilities for the story.  Our job in revision is to choose one possibility for the story and then make it sing.

Great – but how?

Let’s go back to reading between the lines.  It turns out that Stern really says all that needs to be said about the way revision happens: think about the story, ask yourself questions about everythingmove beyond the obvious – the obvious plot, the obvious action, the obvious character behaviors, and find the next level of the story – the real purpose of it.  In a word (Stern’s word) ponder.  Then make changes according to your conclusions.  I think this is why revision is such a challenge.  In my experience I find it so easy to sit down and blarf all over the page until I suddenly have a few hundred pages (600, in one case) of a story that more or less resembles a novel.  Lots of freedom there, lots of side alleys and casual thoughts and silliness.  But, aha!  This is nearly the exact opposite of revision!  First writing and revision are yin and yang, light and dark, sweet and bitter.  When it comes time to revise there is no more free-wheeling going on.  We must get real.

There is a lot of energy required for revision.  Beginning with the beginning we must look at what is being said as if we did not say it, to hear it as though someone else said it and is asking us to invest in the story.  Does the opening catch and keep us?  Do we care, from the start, about these characters?  About what happens next, and next?  Is the language alive or is it simple, boring, tired?

And we do this once, twice, three times . . . four, five, six.  We do it enough that we cannot do it anymore, and then we finally send it off and later, after wading through rejections and self-deprecating agony, the desire to give up, we go through it again.  Eventually we come to one of two conclusions – either the story is worth saving and we continue to work it, or the story is unsuccessful and we need to abandon it or rewrite it.

The bottom line is that revision takes a lot of work, work I honestly did not do on my first novel.  Artists cannot be lazy when it comes to art if the art is to succeed.  Revision requires the hard work of questioning, of hearing and thinking about the story, of fitting in all of the right pieces and taking out the wrong ones.  Revision is removing layers of a mask, of carving into the virtual clay of the words, of revealing, yes that’s it, revealing the story we mean to tell, or that should be told, and sloughing off the dead skin of what does not belong.

This process could go on forever, and we must realize that there does come a point when enough is enough.  Three revisions is not too many, however, and afterward time and experience and the existing product will inform us of our arrival.  Until then we must not look up too soon, must not expect our work to mature until we have exhausted its full potential.