Chutes and Ladders, Or The Process

Writing is sometimes like playing chutes and ladders.  As a kid, I played this game like crazy.   I loved the feeling of excitement as my little plastic game piece climbed up the board, getting tantalizingly closer to the goal.  Every time I slid down again, I was even more determined to climb to the top.

Similarly, the writing process often goes like this:

The climb: write draft feverishly for days at a time. Draft gets finished.

Nearing the goal: THIS IS THE BEST DRAFT EVER! I AM CLEARLY BRILLIANT!

An unexpected slide: Begin editing again.  (Enough said).

The climb: Write feverishly.  Again.

By: Pianotech (altered by me)

By: Pianotech (altered by me)

Somehow, in the middle of the process when a draft is coming to an end, it becomes clear that a “finished” draft is missing something crucial at the beginning.  It sounds counterintuitive, but I think that the unexpected slide is an extremely necessary part of the writing process.  Ever heard of the phrase “hindsight 20/20?”

By: Peter Marquardt

By: Peter Marquardt

In life, this hindsight business is really not that helpful.  Sure, you can see later that driving around the nearest town yelling “FABUTAN!” out of your window with a group of hyped up friends was not actually the height of coolness in high school, but you won’t realize it until it is too late (aka adulthood –yet another YOUNG ME stunt I’d like to forget).

The beautiful thing about writing is that hindsight is actually useful.  When you find yourself sliding downwards into another editing trap, remember that all of those insights that you just had are now useable in your next draft to make it better.

Even Dante & Virgil in Dante’s Inferno had to journey downwards through all of the levels of hell before they could start that climb up to heaven, after all.  …Not that I think writing is like being in hell, or anything.  Usually.  Mostly.  Okay, sometimes.

By: Gustave Dore

By: Gustave Dore

Advertisements

Soul Food: Writing Pitfalls and the Zen of Bagel-Making

Fresh whole wheat bagels in the oven

Restless and annoyed, I set to work in my kitchen to make some whole-wheat bagels.  It’s not something that I do often, being that my name is neither Martha Stewart nor do I have a strong urge to use my creative energy on food.  But today I was hungry and irritated by that feeling of unease that comes with being halfway through a novel and not quite understanding where it should go.  Sure, this is normal.  Writers are supposed to be uncomfortable, you say.  But here’s the thing.  How do you deal with feeling lost on a solo writing quest?

In school, we get gold stars, a nod of encouragement, awards of various kinds and perhaps the odd A+.  I don’t know about you, but I was one of those kids who loved getting A’s.  In fact, somewhere, trapped in the recesses of my parents’ cavernous basement are boxes filled with old report cards and plaques from each year that I was in school.  When I finished school, I was broke, jobless and determined to write.  This led me through a series of odd jobs: selling hand cream, fetching doughnuts (yes, that is a job), stamping election postcards and editing the odd doctoral paper (to name a few).  It was tough going, but worse still was that no matter how hard I worked there were no gold stars in sight.  The only gold star, it seemed, was to be plucked out of odd-job land and into some sort of professional gig.  Surely, then I would find the gold star that I so craved…

Flash forward to the present.  I’m sitting in my kitchen, feeling rather pleased, because despite my strictly anti-Martha Stewart inclinations (sorry, Martha), I made some pretty kick-ass bagels.  There still isn’t a gold star, but I’m starting to realize that gold stars don’t matter anymore.  It isn’t really the outside praise that keeps the fire going—it’s something deeper, more intrinsic that fuels me on every morning, despite the writers’ block, impending deadlines or that odd, unsavory rejection poised and waiting to attack in my inbox.

I never did find that elusive gold star, but here are some things that help me keep things in perspective:

  •  Acknowledge when you’ve done something well.  Let the little things that don’t work out go.
  •  Remind yourself that what you are doing is important.
  • Read inspiring quotes.
  • Go for a jog, do some yoga…anything that gets your heart rate up and your muscles feeling happy.
  •  Complete some other task that makes you feel accomplished (i.e. bagels. Will they win me a Pulitzer? Nope, but they taste pretty damn good.)

So here’s what I think: don’t wait for someone else to tell you that what you are doing is important—you already feel that it is or you wouldn’t be doing what you are doing in the first place.  Be your own guide.

Here’s the recipe for my Super-Simple Zen Bagels:

(adapted from Spark Recipes)

Ingredients:

1 1/8 cup of water (room temp)

2 tsp margarine (or butter)

1 ½ cup whole wheat flour

1 ½ cup white flour

1 ¼ tsp salt

2 tsp sugar

¾ yeast (preferably bread machine or fast acting)

  1. Add the ingredients into your bread machine in the order above.  (Remember: not Martha Stewart, here.  Besides, shouldn’t you be getting back to writing?)
  2. Select the dough setting.  When the dough has been through the whole cycle, separate it into ten portions and form them into circles.
  3. Put them on a greased cookie sheet or something to that effect where they won’t stick like carbuncles and put a cloth over them to rise.  This will take between 40-50 minutes.  (While you are doing this, preheat your oven to 400 degrees and go back to your writing, or whatever task you are avoiding by reading this post.)
  4. Now here comes the fun part.  Once you’re back from kicking ass and getting that long dreaded project finished, it’s time to boil those sons of bitches! And by sons of bitches, I mean bagels.  DO NOT, I repeat, DO NOT boil your notebook, laptop or any other writing utensil!
  5.  Bring 2 quarts of water to boil in a large saucepan.  Add the bagels to the boiling pot one at a time and watch them get all puffy.  Do this for 2 minutes. Once boiled, put the bagels back onto the cookie sheet and bake them for 20 minuutes (or until golden brown).
  6.  Breathe a sigh of relief, because you made bagels! This makes you a kitchen goddess, or something to that effect.  Give yourself an awesome pet name and go back to what you were doing.

Writerly Wisdom Inspired by Fleetwood Mac Songs

Graffiti from Sumner Beach, New Zealand

Nostalgia is in the air this morning, trickling into my ears as I listen to old Fleetwood Mac songs.  There’s nothing better than dancing around your office with the window open, that fresh, dewy rain smell wafting in through the open window.  Yes, Mr. Grumpy from across the street is staring at me again as he shouts into his phone… the postman is likely afraid to go anywhere near the house too and that pigeon which I once named Lester is ogling me in that cross-eyed way that only winged rats can manage….  But hey, sometimes you’ve just got to let loose.

In case you don’t want to jump around in your boxers while being ogled by pigeons and mailmen, here is something that might inspire you to feel awesome today:

  1. Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow—be in the moment when you write, but don’t be afraid to keep moving forward too.
  2. Dreams  are what inspire, so listen to them. And then keep on writing, because the Skies the Limit.
  3. If you find yourself trapped under a Landslide, trust that you can pull yourself out of any literary pickle with a little faith and a lot of hard work.
  4. Draft giving you trouble?  Don’t be afraid to Go Your Own Way (at least for a little while until you gain more perspective).
  5. If Monday Morning is really getting to you, give yourself some peace and take a break.
  6. Feeling a little Over [Your] Head?  Don’t worry about what you can’t control.  You’ll get there, because deep down you know you are GOOD.  So believe it.
  7. Love your story and you will find that there will be more Love In Store for you too.
  8. Every time you decide you’re Never Going Back Again, decide instead that you won’t give up and get back to it.
  9. The World [is always] Turning, so make sure you step out of the writing bubble and find ways to interact with books and other writers.  Perspective is everything.
  10.   If the phrase I’m So Afraid won’t get out of your head, let it be there, because when you are out of your comfort zone that’s where the magic happens.

The Muse Did It

Greek Muse?

If you’re a writer, chances are that you have an inner muse.  Some writers wax poetic about how their muse brings them glittering plots that they pull out of the air like magical, sparkling fairy lights that appear out of nowhere.  Inspiration finds them everywhere, because that diligent little muse of theirs has spent some time (obviously) floating around the universe hand picking the best and most important characters and plots, poems and lyrics just for them—like an Etsy store for your writerly soul.  Of course, mostly the whole idea of the muse got really old around the time that ancient Greece did too.  So why am I talking about invisible writing friends?  Either I need to get out more, or there’s some truth to this madness.

My muse and I are a little more like frenemies.  She (he?) does eventually show up to work, but sometimes she would rather do something else.  I can imagine her out there, coasting around and daydreaming about whatever invisible people daydream about.  I can’t blame her, exactly.  Sometimes the going is tough.  Sometimes, it’s hard to sit down at the desk and feel blank.  This is usually when the muse has decided to not show up or instead sits on my shoulders and pulls my hair into odd little curlicues –it is so not helpful.

In her TED talk, Elizabeth Gilbert talks about the “elusive creative genius” of ancient Rome and Greece as being a divine spirit or “Daemon” that was a magical entity that lived with the artist and helped them to create things.  Muses have been around for a long time.  Of course, back in the day, it was completely normal to say something like “yes, I realize that book I wrote was kind of lame, but it was my muse’s fault.  She had an off day.”  What is particularly interesting about this lecture on muses is the idea that at some point, we stopped thinking of our writing in relation to muses and instead took on all of the blame, praise and stress ourselves.  Writing became a solo task.

What I think is kind of sad about this lack of belief in the muse is that the pressure is high—if something doesn’t turn out the way it was supposed to, there’s no one to chastise but myself and that isn’t very conducive to the writing process.  Elizabeth Gilbert’s point about believing in muses for our sanity is a good one: blaming the muse does kind of alleviate the stress of having to come up with something that is pure genius all the time.  It’s like blaming the dog when you’ve eaten one too many enchiladas.  We all do it, so why deny it? Blame it on the Muse.

http://www.ted.com/talks/elizabeth_gilbert_on_genius.html

Aimless Wandering and the Pen as Divining Rod

It was sunny and crisp outside so I couldn’t help going for a walk, which led nowhere in particular since I didn’t really have any place to be. Observing the newly melted water glistening in the sun and the flecks of snow as they glinted in the cold wind was interesting, but there is also a certain amount of discomfort in not having a plan. I kept thinking: people are going to wonder what I’m doing! Why am I wandering aimlessly?

Later, when I was home and working on a short story I encountered a similar feeling. Instead of writing it on the computer I chose to write it by hand in a notebook. I didn’t stop to think hard about my choices or plot points–I just wrote the story as it came to me. In the end, I liked the rough draft a lot better than I thought I would and it made me think that part of the creative process needs to be this uncomfortable act of divining the thoughts from…wherever they come from. Even though it feels weird to not know where the story is going, I think in the end the picture becomes clear.

What do you think? Do you begin with the end in mind or leave it up to chance?

Living the Dream: The Phases of Building IKEA Furniture

Since I’m taking a short break from the writing to help a friend move into his new house, I’ve decided to write something a little different. Here is how I see the process of building IKEA furniture:

Denial:

It begins when you see the furniture set up in the store. “It can’t be THAT hard to put together,” you say to yourself as you sit on the already constructed model in the dream-like show room. “What could possibly go wrong?” Even as you begin to unpack the many pieces and that familiar sense of foreboding bubbles to the surface, you push it back down. The cartoon directions are cute! The furniture has a funny name! It can’t be that bad…

Anger:

It’s been hours. Your living room now looks like a battleground riddled with the corpses of torn cardboard, oddly named screws and some directions that make no sense. A vague feeling of hatred for that little stick dude rises to the surface as you peer bemusedly at the directions one more time.

“Why don’t they make non- Allen key screws?!? What’s up with those directions?”

Welcome to anger-ville, population you.

Bargaining:

“Oh, —–.” and other variations. Insert any and all of your favorite expletives here, because in this phase they are plentiful. Usually occurring after you have built your furniture backwards, lost that all important screws and/or have fully assembled said furniture without a crucial piece, you beg the furniture to “just work dammit!”

Depression:

Dammit, it didn’t work. Maybe you insulted its mama one too many times, because now it looks like something made by Picasso’s brain-damaged brother.
“This is never going to look like furniture,” you moan, sinking to the floor. In the depths of furniture building depression, THE DREAM seems pretty far away.

Acceptance:

Congratulations! At some point, you have to pick yourself up off of the floor and do your best (or worst).

Your furniture may or may not look like what it did in the store, but you can sit on it/store your stuff in it and now it is time to accept the fact that it is what it is. Good job, friend, go and have a beer.