Headus Injurius, Or, Why Can’t I Write Fiction Too?

I was having one of my “tired days” yesterday, and when I came home from work, I went directly to bed. I did get up later, but never with the kind of focus I needed to be able to write a blog post (well, not one that would have been coherent, anyway), so here is my Wednesday post on Thursday.

I’ve mentioned my interest in nonfiction before, but I’ve also become interested in writing fiction too. It doesn’t come easily, writing fiction, so I am a great admirer of those who can write it “easily.” I put “easily” in quotes because I know that writing well doesn’t come easily to anyone—an author has to work at it. But of course some people have a knack for writing fiction, and some, like me, have some really great ideas that, because they have the attention span and stamina of a gnat, rarely get explored in a long form like fiction. Oh sure, there’s always flash, and I do have some ability to write flash because it’s short, and it has a kind of poetic aesthetic which I can get behind. But I want to write “real” short stories.

I have a number of partially completed stories that I’ve written in the last few weeks. The problem is, I can’t get past the “partially.” This is my fiction writing process:

  1. I have a great idea.
  2. I begin to write the great idea.
  3. I write myself into a hole (or into boredom).
  4. I wish, fervently, for a tornado, or earthquake, or angel or other Act of God to happen to get my characters out of the hole I’ve dug.
  5. I know deus ex machinas are cheesy and horrible, and reject any Act of God that occurs to me as being the last desperate attempt of a failed fiction writer.
  6. I give up on the story.

You see? It’s hopeless. And what I really don’t understand is that conventional wisdom says, “Read voraciously in the genre you want to write and you will be able to write it.” I do this! I read mysteries, literary fiction, romance fiction, YA, monster/ fantasy stories. I read a lot of fiction (as well as nonfiction and poetry, of course—and drama). I don’t understand how come I can’t translate all this great modeling being done by the fiction authors I read into fiction of my own.

Conventional wisdom also says “Go with your strengths.” But maybe whoever came up with that bit of conventional wisdom was some bozo who wants us to stay with what we know so we won’t encroach on their areas of expertise! It’s possible.

Or it’s possible that the idea of going with our strengths (writing what we know?) is to keep us from banging our heads against the wall. Believe me, I’ve felt like doing some head-banging lately—and not of the metal concert variety. I have written these partial stories, and I just know that if I could finish them, they’d be cool. But where do I get that impetus to finish? Or perhaps a better question is, “Is there anything beyond the initial cool idea rattling around in my brain?” (Sometimes, I doubt it.)

Certainly it’s a matter of training—my creative writing background consists entirely of poetry and poetry classes. (I wonder if there’s a Remedial Story Writing 101 class I could take?) But I want to write beyond that—and to write in a sustained way. I just don’t know how to do it, and it’s so frustrating to come up against limitations that I don’t even know why I have them. How hard can it be to write a story? Why does it have to feel excruciating? Why does my brain have to come up with these ideas that I clearly can’t develop beyond a few pages? It seems so unfair. And pointless.

And so I suppose I’m going to continue banging my head against the wall, writing these partial stories until SOME DAY I get the message from outer space or wherever that lets me actually finish one. Or maybe I’m just destined to be a failed fiction writer. But somehow, I can’t accept that.

Well, not yet, anyway.

(Fiction writers:  how do you do it????)

Now Trending in the Poetry World, the Poetry Project Book (Is It #PoetryProjectBook Yet?)

Coming up with an idea for a Wednesday Post has eluded me today.  I don’t feel well (a lurking migraine I think), and so consequently, my brain is a little foggy.  What gems can I impart on writing when I mostly just want to be in bed with the covers pulled over my head?  Maybe I need to forget gems and just be happy with bits of flint and granite.

Anyway, I read an article on the AWP website, Cynthia Marie Hoffman’s “The Poetry Project Book:  a Marriage of Heart and Mind” which discusses a trend she’s noticed in poetry books lately to be “obsessed” with an idea to the point that all of the poems within the book focus on a single guiding image or kind of form.  She argues that poets are writing these books because it offers the beauty of constraint while allowing a kind of “arc” to appear in a book of poetry that doesn’t normally appear in books where poems are about all manner of subjects—where the poems are true “collections” that demonstrate a breadth of a poet’s writing across time.

This trend appears more frequent in MFA theses, she notes, which are then (not surprisingly) flooding the contest market.  I think this approach to writing poetry changes the expectations of a poetry book. We want a book to be “about” something–not just be a collection of poems.  Of course, there are plenty of books that are more traditional in their collection-ness—these aren’t going anywhere—but I’ve even noticed just in reading some journal guidelines lately that ask for poems on related subjects.

So it’s no wonder, if journals are looking for related poems, that writers are writing entire books focused on a single issue.  I’m trying to think of books I’ve read lately—one was entirely focused on Persephone, one was focused on birds, another was illness and cancer—if you write 50+ poems on the same topic, it does make it easier to understand a book, to see where the author is going with her words.  Just this morning, Benjamin Dodds sent me a packet of poems to read from the verse novel he’s working on (I won’t give the topic away, don’t worry, Benjamin), and when the poems are all related it does lend a kind of urgency to them that might be missing when they’re all focused on different subject matter. The connection makes them more compelling—and I think that’s what Hoffman was arguing.

She also mentions that these poetry project books can fail spectacularly.  Can you just imagine if you read a collection and each poem centered on something tedious… like a motorcycle?  Sure, there’s cohesion, but who gives a fuck?

So I guess in that “marriage of heart and mind” that Hoffman discusses, an author has to balance her obsession with a topic that can reach a wider audience. I have to admit, when Hoffman referenced Nicky Beer’s The Octopus Game, which came out earlier this year from Carnegie Mellon, a book of poems that’s all about octopi, I thought, Oh, yeah, I would totally read that.  Who doesn’t like octopi? I like octopi.  I think they’re kind of cool.  I think a book full of octopus poems could totally work—Hoffman thinks Beer has plenty of relevant and urgent things to say in those poems.  I might actually buy that book from Amazon–in fact I’ve put it in my cart…  Whereas, if someone came out with a poetry project on motorcycles, I’d probably fall asleep before I could turn the first page.

This poetry project topic interests me in general because as I’ve said on a few occasions, I need a “hook” for my writing—something to get excited about.  Something to really go into detail with a kind of obsessive delight.  That focusing element that would at least help me get past that moment of inertia where I’m all, “I don’t know what to write about.  I have nothing to say.  Let me go look at cat pictures on tumblr.”

I feel as if I had a “obsession” like that, it might actually make writing easier.  It gives you something to rally around.  When I got back from Venice last year, I wrote seven poems about it.  I wish I could back to Venice because if ever a place was an inspiration, Venice is it.  I know I could write 50+ poems about Venice—but I need longer than a week to be there.  A month might do it.  Maybe two.  But that’s not happening any time soon.

So all of this is by way of saying that I like the poetry project approach to writing books.  It makes sense to me.  I’ve been thinking that it’s time I put together another chapbook.  But then I look at all my poems (particularly the published ones) and I don’t see any cohesive thread—I don’t see how they create an arc, how they work together.  And that is deadly when it comes to creating a collection—deadly because it’s hard to do, and deadly because potential publishers don’t know what to do with them lately, or so it seems.

Anyway, I know I’m a little all over the place today.  I’m sorry about that.  Go read Hoffman’s article–it’s interesting.  And if any of my five readers have a suggestion of topics for me to get excited about and write 50+ poems, please let me know.  That would be extremely cool of you.

Sea Change

This weekend, I visited Tybee Island (off the coast of Savannah) for the first time, with my sister Kirsten and my poetically-named nephew, Whitman (whom I’ve written about before).  It was a late birthday gift to me, though I didn’t realize it at the time (until Kir told me so, as we were jumping some rather paltry waves at low tide).  I thought she had just gotten a wild hare to go to the beach and wanted me to tag along—because, despite my obnoxiously pale skin that practically burns even in the rain (I generally shun the sun like a vampire), I love the beach.  I love, love, love everything about the beach—sand, salt, water, bodies doing all kinds of things, umbrellas, fish, shell fragments, kelp, the smell of creosote pylons and sunscreen—and she knows that, that wonderful sister of mine.  Which is why this weekend really was the best birthday gift ever.

If I could live in the ocean, I could be quite content.  It would making writing poems a bit difficult of course (the soggy pages!), but the truth is, I think I was meant to be in the water.  Though I’m a Taurus, a fixed earth sign, and I’ve never had my astrological chart “done” (I mean, come on), I’m certain water signs must appear all over the different houses because I just adore the water so.  A lot of people will tell you that they feel “free” or “at peace” in the water—and of course, I feel those things too.  But it’s more than that.

To me, the ocean lets me lose time and fill in all the cracks and damage that every-day living levels at me.  Hours can pass in the water and you don’t even notice the changing position of the sun, or the fact the tide pulls so far out that you’re only in waist-high water, even though you’re far out past the end of pier near the Tybee Island Marine Science Center.  You just suddenly realize it’s 4 p.m., and you have no idea how that happened.  It’s more than “time flies when you’re having fun.”  The water has its own clock and rhythms, and it lets you forget anything as mundane as minutes and hours.

The ocean helps me feel whole again.  The water seeps in my pores (and less fortunately, sometimes my mouth and nose), and somehow heals me. When there are metallic shiny fish breaching for the joy of it or dozens of pinky-length tiny fish swimming in schools, and seagulls swooping down to catch these foot-long clear snaky fish all around you, and all you can hear is people laughing and splashing, how can anyone not feel rejuvenated?

Everything is light—I am light—and can be pushed around by waves as if I am nothing.  Blah blah power of nature blah blah—sure. But on land I don’t feel grounded like I should—or maybe, to look at it a different way, I am too grounded on land.  There is ease in the water—it’s my element—and I like the sway and swell of the water, the way moments there can’t be quantified.  Too much of life on land is about measuring and metrics and stasis.  Water erases all of that—and it’s a heady feeling, just to be.

Alas, despite my affinity for it, living in the ocean is not possible—and with real estate prices being what they are, living by the beach is also not possible.  So, what to do?

What I would like to do is spend a week down at the coast (or longer if I could afford it) and take my notebook out to the beach and write.  When you only have a few precious hours at the water, you have to spend every one of them playing in the waves with family and visiting with them (which is as it should be).  Writing must give way to experiencing.

If I had a longer stretch of time available to me, I could spend some of it “processing” the experience:  noticing the way the sand dries in ripples when the tide rolls out, watching the swoop of pelicans as they fly only inches above the water’s surface, counting the colors that appear as the waves crash, wondering about the origins of a knot of ropes and seaweed and a plastic spoon.  Figuring out what it all means—and how I as a person and writer fit in such an environment.  That’s the work of a writer, after all, to interpret experience and reveal meaning.

But you need time and a “fullness of attention” to consider all those sensory details that come together to create that writerly moment, I think—otherwise, your writing faces generic tropes and recycled metaphors (and nobody wants that–especially not about the beach).  A day and a half at the water will never be enough to see and taste and hear everything—oh, alright, perhaps it’s enough to squeeze out a poem or two, if I really try.  Honestly, I would like to write a suite of beach poems—the beach at different times of day, in different weather, in different moods—something to help me remember what “beach” and “waves” mean for those times when I’m stuck in my pedestrian, dry life.

(I guess I need to investigate how many week-long writers’ conferences are situated by the sea…I know Stonecoast is one… maybe I can work that in next summer. Hmm.)

On Reading Ivy Alvarez’s Disturbance

Benjamin Dodds (an Australian poet I know here through WordPress and Twitter) and I once discussed how we never read poetry before going to bed.  Usually I adhere to that no-poetry-before-bed rule pretty religiously; as a person who suffers frequent insomnia, the last thing I need to be doing is riling up my mind when I should be winding down for sleep.  But last night I broke that rule and read Ivy Alvarez’s verse novel Disturbance (Seren Books, 2013), which had come in the mail earlier in the day, a book he had recommended to me (along with The Monkey’s Mask by another Australian poet, Dorothy Porter) when I was bemoaning the fact that nobody likes narrative poetry any more.

ivy alvarez book

Is Disturbance ever aptly named.  It is a deeply disturbing book, because it is so familiar:  abusers who keep upping the ante against their victims; a police force unwilling to intervene; victims who constantly adjust and modify their behavior to satisfy the whims of their abusers; neighbors who notice nothing.  This is the story, in spare, chilling, poetic detail of a man who, after abusing his wife for years and creating a household of terror for his wife and children, decides to kill her and the kids once she files for divorce.  And he succeeds (although, spoilers:  he dies too, though the daughter, who is elsewhere on the fateful night, survives).

What is interesting about this book, and I what I respond to, is the number of voices present here, many of them “after the fact.” It’s almost like noise—so many voices weighing in that Alvarez means us as readers to lose sight, temporarily, of the people at the heart of this tragedy. Once the wife, the son, and the husband are dead, they are just bodies, and all these other voices are giving testimony about their compartmentalized knowledge of the tragedy.  It’s a barrage at the reader from the very first poem, “Inquest,” and it’s devastatingly effective.

Jane, Tony, and Tom become figuratively “buried” under all of the other people brought together because of the crime.  And because this is a “tragedy,” a “crime,” we see how quickly dehumanized the murdered people become—they are just a “job” for others to deal with—the police, the coroner, the journalists, etc.  The poem “The estate agents” demonstrates, for example, this dehumanization, when they discuss the price for the sale of the house.  They explain that the house will be sold for $985,000, a $15,000 discount, because it’s “five thousand per dead body/ but we don’t look at it/ that way” (p. 14).  When of course that’s exactly what they’re doing.

Abusive relationships flourish in silence—we don’t even really hear anything from the wife Jane’s perspective until a 9 line poem, “Happy Sunday:  Jane” on page 47 (whereas we get a three-page poem from the Mistress on p. 29, “The Mistress Speaks”).  There is so much silence leading up to murders—then this interesting and horrible proliferation of people commenting on the unseemly details occurs.  Emergency operators, estate agents, journalists, neighbors, grandparents, police, coroners all relate their stories in individual poems—witnesses after the fact.  (Where were many of these people when Tony was terrorizing his family?)  We have to wade through all of their reports until Jane and Tom and Tony are “animated” again, through poems in their voices.

And speaking of Tony, he is a chilling character.  His eponymous poem, in twelve sections, lets us see how meticulous and really just disgusting he is.  In the fourth section, he describes Jane’s expression as “Her look of kick me/ bruise me/ hit me” (p. 64)—an expression, of course, that he’s made her wear.  Later in the eighth section, he says, “I’m only electric when she’s close to death.”  In other words, he feels “electric” (we can read this as “energized” or “aroused”) when he has cornered her like an animal and brought her to the brink of her life being extinguished.  Who gets aroused like that?  Tony’s just the proverbial sick bastard (or in psychological parlance, a narcissistic sociopath).  And he would be easy to write off, in some ways, except that the sixth section seems to want to complicate him.  I wonder if the poet wants us to evaluate his murderous rampage through the possibility that he’s insane—that it is his insanity that “…is the dark/ I know/ chasing me/ down the road” (66).

I don’t know if I believe this though.  I think as a society, we have a tendency to assume that people who do horrible things and exhibit extreme antisocial behavior are necessarily crazy.  But I think that’s too facile a reading of Tony.  It could be, rather, that’s he’s trying to justify his behavior–that this “darkness” is merely an excuse he uses to allow himself to be evil.  And sociopaths are masters of lying (“Sometimes I tell the truth/ but really crave the lie” he says on p. 63). But Alvarez shows us the real truth in the ninth section , and I want to quote half the poem so we can see how twisted Tony is (p. 69).  As she writes,

When I hunt, I am more myself
than ever.
No longer an unsuitable man.
I am my own best version then.
No longer an ordinary sort.
Ordinary sweat of an ordinary man.

Better to be a brute
than be far less.
I realise myself

when I hunt.

In other words, when he abuses his family, he is his “best” self.  He is “realized” which means, among other things, that he is his most “real,” that he “grasps” or “understands” himself with absolute clarity.  I don’t think he’s insane at all—Alvarez makes it very obvious that in Tony’s mind, he’s in his right mind.  Tony is the hunter; Jane is the prey.  That is the way of things.  “Better to be a brute/ than far less.”  In that line, we see Tony “realized” most fully. Because anything less than brutality (such as just being an ok guy and ok husband) he perceives as weakness, as untenable, as “ordinary.”  The lines are condemnatory and a watershed for the poem.  Insane?  Not a chance.

Of course, we can argue that insane people often don’t recognize their insanity, but I suggest that despite his blood-soaked dreams (p. 68), he is too clear-headed in his serial, ritualized abuse, too pragmatic in his approach to pre-meditation (“Notes to self, p. 72), and much too dedicated to hurting others as a way of life.  You don’t have to be “crazy” to flout the social contract and cultural script—you just have to choose to ignore it because you don’t see any direct benefit in it for you.  His narcissism and his sociopathy do not recognize that others don’t exist to please him; he believes in his heart that Jane, Tom, and Hannah are his property, and he can do with them as he will.

Reading about domestic violence, is, of course, excruciating (it brings up a lot of painful memories in my own past—though my experience was never to the extent that Jane’s is), but it’s more powerful when it’s written about with such economy of language.  To read about this marriage, these murders, these experts’ testimony in just the barest few words absolutely levels me as a reader.

Many of these poems don’t take up much space on the page at all—they are thin or short, or they show big breaks in the lines—many of them are written in fragments.  Which is, of course, a brilliant rhetorical and visual strategy that Alvarez employs, because it indicates the insignificance of family (if they only take up a few words) as well as highlights the constant disruptions that exist in such a dysfunctional relationship (when words are spread over the page with large gaps between them, we read the poems differently).

How do I say this?  It seems as if the white space in the book is a metaphor for a million dollar mansion that only houses four people.  Each page is a room.  The lack of verbiage on the pages reminds me of the way Tony wants his life to be—clean, orderly, tightly run without fanfare—like he doesn’t want his family to take up much space in his life—he wants nothing to detract from himself being the most important person—so the words on the pages don’t take up much space.  I could probably describe what I’m trying to say more articulately—but let me put it another way.  Alvarez’s choice to use so few words in her poetry partly demonstrates her poetic aesthetic, but it also refuses to allow the story to be obscured.  Poems with longer lines and more text on the page would serve only to conceal the horror.  In their nakedness, we see the truth.

A last note about Disturbance—I wish, somehow, Alvarez would have written more about Hannah, the daughter who escaped the violent end that the rest of her family suffered.  There are two poems about her, “Hannah’s statement” and “The surviving Daughter,” and while they give us some information about how it happened she wasn’t there (she is away at school: “So I left/ as soon as I could/ the black cloud/ of home” p. 84), I kind of wish we knew more about her.  Of course, perhaps there is a sequel to Disturbance somewhere in Ivy Alvarez’s future… perhaps Hannah’s story will be explored yet.

(In case all my rambling did not make things clear, this was an amazing book.  Please go buy it.  Support Ivy Alvarez and narrative poetry and verse novels…  It’s so worth it.  It’s painful but powerful.  Thank you, Ivy, for writing it, and thank you Benjamin for suggesting it!)

Eff You, Facebook

Facebook has taken my page, my photographs, my game accomplishments, and all my virtual friends hostage.  How did they do this?  They decided they didn’t like my name.  They decided that I needed to prove my identity, and have required me to send documents proving who I am—so that my friends can find me—they don’t want anyone to be “confused” about who I am.  Because everyone knows, my Facebook identity is what matters.  Everyone knows that to the outside world, my Facebook identity proves my existence.  As if.

I posted a few hot tweets earlier today, complaining about how I’ve been hijacked by Facebook.  We’ve looked it up—if they choose to reinstate me (after vetting my documents proving who I am)—it can take up to 12 days.  They think, I’m sure, that I will be so distraught without access to my account that I will do anything they say to get back to it.

True, I’m annoyed about my pictures.  Like really annoyed.  Because I have wedding pictures, and pictures of family, and cats and other things I like stored on their servers.  Like everyone else does—Facebook is, after all, a storage facility for such things.  And they know it.  They tell you, of course, that as soon as you upload anything onto their site, it becomes theirs.  Well, that is a risk we take when we decide to participate in the stupidity that is Facebook.  So I’m annoyed because they have all my pictures and I can’t get access to them.

And I’m annoyed because I will lose some progress in some of my games.  Every day I don’t log in, I lose a week of progress in some games.  Which sucks.

But truthfully, after 12 days of not logging into Facebook, will I even care?  Probably not.  Once I took a 6 week break from Facebook, and somehow my world didn’t collapse.  I think that will be the case this time too.  The longer I can’t log into Facebook, the easier it will become.  I won’t even think about it.

I hate, of course, that I won’t be able to keep up with all the things that my friends post—details about their lives, pictures of their pets, interesting things they’ve read that they want to share.

But… there is a plus side—all that time I spend on Facebook can be better spent writing poetry, revising my work, contributing to this blog.  Facebook is a stupid time suck, let’s be honest.  I said I needed to disconnect from the world—what could be better than being forced to by the cosmos in this way?

It won’t be easy to live without Facebook—after eight years, it has become a daily part of my life—but is it worthwhile?  If they don’t accept my documents, they will suspend my account indefinitely, and there won’t be anything I can do about it.  So I will have to train myself to use my time in more useful ways.

For a writer, that means writing.

Hey, Baby, What’s Your Writing Process?

Yes, yes, I know I said I would write every Wednesday—and here it is Thursday, the very first week, and I have failed.  In my defense, yesterday was a long day made longer because it was a freshmyn orientation day, and I was so exhausted that I came home and went almost straight to bed, good intentions be damned.  Alright, I’ll try harder next week to maintain the schedule.

Moving on.

The last few days, I’ve had a character floating in my head—or I should say, the mother of a minor character (Rodessa) I already wrote about in another piece.  I had intended to write about Rodessa’s early life, because in the other work, she was mostly a wizened old crone, but somehow, her mother’s story suddenly seemed compelling to me.  Perhaps I will get around to writing about Rodessa, but right now, Azucena wants to speak—through, ironically, it is Rodessa telling her mother’s story.

I’m not really sure what is happening yet.  I feel like I’m writing a lot of exposition. I tell my students that sometimes you have to “write for discovery.”  In other words—you’re writing, perhaps not with a very clear plan, but just to see what might happen.  Right now, I’m writing to find out about Azucena as a character—and since I’m doing character building, it makes sense that there is a lot of exposition—which I will probably trim later on—because exposition tells us who characters are and what the situation is in which they find themselves.  That is the purpose of discovery.  Using Rodessa as the narrator helps focus the discovery though, because, being her daughter, Rodessa should have a good sense of what her mother is like.  In other words, I’m trusting the narrator to reveal to me what needs to be revealed.  The plot can be worked out later.

What is surprising to me about the story is its form.  It seems to be emerging as something halfway between a memoir and an oral history or testimony one might find in a historical society journal.  I don’t know if the form is part of the discovery phase, or if, like a lot of the writing I do lately, it’s experimenting with form—or, more likely, it’s defying form altogether.  (Like poems I write are actually memoirs or stories that haven’t found their right form yet.)  I do know that if I complete this project, it will be yet another piece I don’t know what to do with in terms of submission—publishers don’t generally like writing that flounces conventional forms (or genres).  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  I need to write the thing first!

What I really want to talk about today is process.  Read any book on creative writing, and it will probably tell you a version of the following.  But this is my approach—these are my writing process phases, if you will (and I use them when I teach):

  • Unintentional writing:  This is an assignment I often give to my students.  I tell them, “Write for 15 minutes without stopping and see if anything emerges.”  Journaling, blogging, freewriting, brainstorming, all of that falls under this category.  I personally should do more unintentional writing.  I have found that when I practice it more frequently, interesting images and bits of ideas appear like mushrooms—and there’s so much you can do with mushrooms!  Once, an “unintentional writing” wound up being a prose poem (with revision, of course).  But if I hadn’t let my mind just wander where it will, that poem would never have appeared.
  • Invention exercises:  This is generative material, for when I know I want to flex my brain muscles—I’ll come up with some parameter that I have to meet in 10 unique ways.  Ideas come with a little more rapidity than they can do when I’m not writing with a purpose.  So, I might say, “Write 10 reasons someone might find a stray dog  in their  kitchen” or “List 10 things you might do in a bathtub besides bathe.”  Give yourself a weird little list, and be amazed with how quickly you can come up with the ideas.  I usually have my students choose one or more items from the list and then have them do some “guided” unintentional writing… that is, they freewrite with a topic.
  • Writing for Discovery:  Here, the writing is much more intentional in its direction (as I was mentioning previously)—there may be characters, image patterns, story ideas, metaphors, etc., etc., that are swarming around in my head and I have a direction in mind with a way to use them—it’s just not fully formed yet.  (To be fair, I think most writing falls into this category—I mean, who really plots in minute detail what is going to happen in a piece of writing?  Talk about zapping the creativity to slag when you overthink things, right?)
  • Writing with Purpose:  You’ve figured everything out more or less, and are cracking the whip on yourself and writing it all down, come hell or high water.  I think at some point I may choose to revisit the definition of this phase, to make it more elegant.  I will say that sometimes in tandem with Writing with a Purpose is its near and dear relation, Slogging Through the Muck (also known as Powering Through).  Writing with a Purpose is all about getting that shit done—even if it makes you so annoyed you’d rather clean your house than write, even if you’re so bored with every single word you’re writing, you’re only writing to meet a word count or a line count or a page number–some arbitrary stopping point that you’re not sure you’ll reach, but you’re going to die trying.  You’re doing it, and that’s what matters. Because after all, after you get it of your brain and onto your computer or paper, then you can work on the best part of all, which is Revision.
  • Revision, as anyone will tell you, is where the magic happens. There are a number of steps I could illuminate—and maybe I’ll save that for a future post.  But right now I’m just going to list the quick and dirty version. Revision is certainly often the most difficult part of the writing process, but it’s the most rewarding because here’s where you can do all the fancy work—where you look at all your verbs, and notice how you rely too frequently on “to be” (I notice I do this and I hate that about myself), and you get the chance to replace it with a more precise action verb instead.  Here is where you merciless attack all flabby nouns and replace them with more robust ones.  Here is where you can strengthen your image patterns, where you can work on the music and lyricism of your poetry, whether it’s increasing all the o-vowel sounds or repeating certain words to add resonance.  Revision is all about finding a piece’s most perfect form, most perfect voice.  All the “heavy lifting” is done—it’s just a matter of approaching perfection.  (Not attaining it of course, because perfection is a myth, but you get my drift.)
  • Editing:  This is the cosmetic job after the fact–last minute once-overs for spelling and grammar and any other little formatting things that somehow got overlooked before.  I’m not even sure it is its own category.  But it is an important part of the writing process, so I don’t want to leave it out, even if the topic bores me because I generally have perfect grammar. 😉

Anyway, I’m sure I haven’t written anything you haven’t thought about your own process.  But on that rare case I have, you’re welcome.  Use it for good or ill, but write something awesome tonight.  Or save the awesome for tomorrow, and just write anything at all tonight.

Some Thoughts on the Pecularities of Inspiration

Inspiration is a tricky, capricious thing.  Or is it?  There are those who’d argue that inspiration isn’t capricious at all–that it hovers “out there,” waiting to be actively courted, waiting for any of us as writers (or artists or musicians, etc.), to grab hold and begin to use it.  We just have to see that little sparkle that alerts us it’s there.

Sometimes, it eludes our notice.  Sometimes the sparkle hits us in the face like a baseball–though I can’t say I’ve taken too many baseballs to the face in my life, and certainly not lately.  (I’ve taken my share of tennis balls to the face–but that’s beside the point.  This is not a post about sports injuries.)

I’ve always said I’m not an ideas person.  I don’t see possibilities and connections the way I wish I did (the way geniuses seem to).  Inspiration might stare me in the face sometimes, and I’m off looking at a bird that’s soaring by, or a tree whose branches waver on the wind in some melody I can’t quite catch.  (Hello! Inspiration yells, why do you think I put that bird and tree in front of you? You dummy!) My point is, I’m not paying attention.

So inspiration, I think, is really about paying attention to your surroundings, getting caught in a rhythm, and adapting yourself to what that rhythm means.  How do we do that?  As poets and artists, we’re supposed to be hypersensitive to our surroundings anyway.  Aren’t we supposed to feel more deeply than the rest of society?  Aren’t we supposed to notice the certain play of light through the leaves on  the cherry tree outside our door and be moved to lyricism?  Well, maybe.

Maybe for some people, that actually works.  For myself, I think being in tune with that rhythm means to cut out a lot of extraneous noise from my life so I can actually hear that rhythm, see that sparkle.  Of course, everyone always says this.  And it’s hard.

For me, disconnecting with the world means disconnecting from the news, and Facebook, and stupid binge-a-thons on Netflix, and my Sudoku habit.  It means reading more–whether it’s new journals that have arrived in my mailbox, or reading the other authors’ works (fiction and nonfiction too, not just the poetry) in the journals that my own work appears in.  It means allowing myself the pleasure of reading a Phryne Fisher mystery (thank you, Kerry Greenwood, for giving us Phryne) so I can indulge in language used well, and fall in love with a place and characters who are real.

I know this is not new.  For heaven’s sakes, Wordsworth was saying the world was too much with us back in 1802.  But the world is hella more complicated in 2015, which makes it all the more essential to get away from it if we want to be true to our art.  (Or at least, if we want to recharge our flagging art.)

I’ve been thinking for a quite a while that I’ve needed to go to a writer’s residency somewhere.  I had actually even applied to one for the summer–and mistakenly believed I’d get in–and of course, everyone knows, throwing all your eggs into one basket is the surest way to making scrambled eggs.  But even if that didn’t work out, there are other residencies, other writers conferences that can help me to reconnect with writing.

I think a residency is one way to actively court inspiration.  Meeting with new writers, inhabiting a new space for a while, getting out of the routine of our daily existence–this is all about finding that new rhythm.  Certainly not everyone can afford the luxury of a writer’s residency (I mean, I can’t really either, but whatever)–but those rhythms are all around us.  We can hear them when we disconnect. We can hear them when we start reading one of our books from our never-ending “books to read” pile.  We can hear them when we sit on top of Stone Mountain, or if we’re taking a walk on a wooded path.  We can hear those rhythms everywhere if we give ourselves a chance.

Inspiration wants us to find it.  It does expect us to work a little, of course, to get outside ourselves a little, so we can see it, and benefit from what it has to show us.  Inspiration wants to include us.  It wants us to get into its rhythm.  We don’t have to be “ideas” people to get access–we just have to be a little more open-eared and flexible.

And maybe that seems harder than it really is because we’re too tied to our devices and routines.  But I for one am going to try to slip into that rhythm, because it’s calling me.

Brand, Shmand… and a Promise

Robert Lee Brewer has been doing an eight-part series on blogging and promotions with the effect of building your own personal brand.  It’s a pretty good series and it offers points worth considering, particularly in blogging “professionally” which is not something I do.  (Though it’s something I should do, probably.)

But somehow the notion of “corporatizing” my writing makes my stomach turn–oh, just a little bit.  Of course, I would like to have more than one reader for this blog.  (I am presuming, these days, that I am my only reader, which is clearly not ideal.)

After all, it seems kind of pointless to keep a blog (and pay for an Internet domain name) when only one person reads it.  It’s not as if I’m writing a personal-personal (all my deepest darkest secrets) kind of blog, the kind where I don’t actually want anyone to know I’m writing.  My goal, realistically, is to develop a true following—not just for this blog but for my poetry and nonfiction–my “real” writing.

The goal for my little-vain-voice-in-my-head is for people to say, “Hmm, what does that eminently awesome writer JC think about X?”  instead of “Who cares?  Who is she anyway?”  Clearly I need to make some adjustments in my thinking if I want to have a readership.

To be fair, much of what Brewer says is designed to sell Writer’s Market/ Writer’s Digest products.  I’m not trying to sell anything–but myself, in a manner of speaking.  “So, what is the JC Reilly brand?” she asks, scratching her head in confusion and dismay.

I have been described as “secretly hilarious” as well as a “diffident wise-ass.”  I don’t think I can make a brand out of either of those descriptions.  (Like if it were a logo, what would that even look like on a shirt?  The only thing coming to me is a little chubby butt wearing some eyeglasses and that’s just not a logo you can be proud of.)

Somehow the idea of a person having a brand is just so gross and capitalistic.  But then so much of publishing is marketing, so therein lies the conundrum.  I want to have a  brand so that others recognize me… and yet every fiber of my being rebels at that business-like approach to creating my public persona.  I have to give it some real thought.  I need to get past the “bleah” factor and embrace the notion of brand.

But in the meantime, I’m going to do what Robert Lee Brewer suggests, on a little scale, and decide on an Editorial Calendar.  This is my promise:  I will post at least every Wednesday for the next several weeks and see how it goes.  I’ll have to figure out a point for those blog posts (which is always a challenge for me), but if I blog at least regularly once a week, perhaps I’ll develop that readership I crave.  And, the best part is, I’ll develop the habit of writing a frequent blog so that people may indeed come to expect JC’s words of wisdom (or otherwise, let’s be honest), and actually look forward to reading what I have to say.

(And bonus—once I start getting readers, they might suggest things in their comments that will help me know what to write about.)

(The wheels are always turning.)