Tag Archives: Room to Write

Welcome to the Jungle – a.k.a. Where I Write

My sister, “Nicki Elson,” invited me to join a blog hop with her fellow authors. While surely a combination of her kindness and shared DNA compelled her to assure I qualified for having one whole big giant short story pending publication (at a date which seems to have been pushed back to infinity and beyond), I am too shy to join their ranks.

And just as I am beneath them, I am not above ripping off their theme anyway ;). I encourage you, though, to check out Nicki’s post, “Where Do You Write?” and meet the other authors-in-crime listed in the blog hop to discover some fun new reads or join in if you’ve got the published goods yourself (or are contracted to).

So then, on to where I write. Well, the zookeeper is being uncooperative and not allowing cameras inside the cage, so while I’d like to share images of my tree branch and vintage typewriter that my trainer sneaks in for me at night, my human alter-ego has been so kind as to provide me hers…she will narrate from here on:

So there it is. Squished into the second bedroom of a typically gargantuan, so-much-space-I-don’t-know-what-to-do-with-it London flat. And in two nights, I’ll be able to officially post a sign above that bed that the great author Nicki Elson was squished in here, too—because my sissy’s coming to London!!! AHHH!!! Psyched.

As we continue the tour, note that the water glass to the left is conveniently interchangeable with a glass of red wine, as such swapping happens with great frequency. The desktop image is a photo from Cabo San Lucas from years ago that helps me escape my grey UK days. Beneath the monitor is a clock depicting the world map, which my parents gave as a reminder of what time it is in Chicago…awww. And beneath the monkeys are books that helped inform my first novel manuscript, along with my brainstorming journal and the Room to Write book of writing prompts that I only occasionally dust off these days now that I’ve found other things to yammer about.

Now about those monkeys. To be honest, when I first created the Fallen Monkey profile, I did not, nor did I ever…actually…own…a sock monkey. Truth. Now *shame*. Thus, my sister gifted me the one on the right a year ago, and me mum delivered its fickle and very green (as in color, not environmentally-conscious—that chimp could care less) mistress. The husband then wooed me with the 2011 sock monkey calendar, which as yet has nowhere to hang as a proper primate ought.

Such as in a tree…Compare/contrast the original view out the window that would inspire me to write, as opposed to after the branch-carnage ensued. At least I still have a perdy church to look at.

And now to give a nod to the second writing space used when I’m motivated to travel as far as the next room…

Netbook-n-me will hang occasionally on the frumpy but oh-so comfy sofa. While any writing done here is usually on my daily London blog for work, I must acknowledge that about 10,000 words of my manuscript were drafted with that wee keyboard in a surreal burst of inspiration whilst reclining here. It’s the one portion I consider to require the least revision, too, so I don’t know what Victorian spirit must’ve been lounging there to whisper it to me :).

So this leaves me ever-so curious—Where do YOU write?!

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Looking Back & Flying Forward

Happy 2011! The past year has added another ring to the trunk of my tree, and as I trace a finger around the circumference of bark, I’m elated to be looking back on a year of frolicking, friendship, and focus, an enchanting year of feeling more at home overseas and in my new freelancing capacities, while still basking in the joy of home-home periodically—this last visit being an especially candy-coated one of icicles and white Christmas lights glowing from beneath inches of snow, of attending Nativity plays, marveling over how a bee could have stung my niece inside the house in December, hearing an older nephew’s voice deepen, and initiating a younger one into our Finer Things Club on the basis of his Harry Potter knowledge…of laughing with siblings, savoring parents, celebrating with in-laws, toasting with friends, and sharing chocolate fondue with several former students at the quaint café where I used to grade their essays :).

And, of course, it was a whooping, whirring, sometimes wilting, but always whimsical year of writing, but one that has now gotten me prepped for the humbling undertaking of querying and thrilled to start up new projects. Time to get warmed up, then…time for this monkey to fly.

The Prompt:

Today, page 44 of Room to Write asks us to write about flying—how it makes us feel, where it takes us. As an alternative, we can perform a free-writing by starting with the word “flying” or “wings.”

Response:

Flying these days inevitably makes me think of airports and how such places that used to represent adventure and freedom have now come to mean “goodbye.” There’s still anticipation in it, still excitement in it, yet somehow I also worry that with every new flight I take, the world becomes less unknown and more trodden. Nevertheless, flying is still my gateway to other perspectives, other features, other values, and flying is what will bring me to my 6th continent next weekend and allow my greying UK-ified skin to gulp up some Vitamin D. Flying is soaring, feeling the air rushing against my face as my heart rises into my throat and my stomach sinks to my bladder or clenches at my spine, it’s loop-de-loops and spinning spirals, then having to peel the cape off my face. It’s Peter Pan, it’s Superman, it’s the birds that escape the pavement and the predators and sing me out of slumber. Flying is icy pressure beneath my fingernails as they pierce the air and a tickling tug at my toes as their wake sucks a vacuum into being. It’s hearing the crackle of joints as my wings finally unfurl and spread out in a stretch that luxuriously takes my breath away before expanding my lungs with cool purity. Flying is connecting, an efficient means of traversing the distance between A to B or of ascending from thoughts to ideas, information to knowledge, sense to sensibility, for even when not stepping onto a plane, it is only opening a book or reading an email from Mom or closing my eyes atop a pillow that yet makes me fly. Flying is high-speed, forward-moving levitation, or it’s the freedom of imagination I enjoy while never feeling more grounded.

Reflection:

BeezArtist.com

I didn’t do a full-on free-write without stopping, but I did let my thoughts meander wherever they fancied sentence by sentence. No surprise that, being between a recent and upcoming plane trip, the word first took me to modern air transport, though it still didn’t take long to get to the actual action at hand, physically and metaphorically. Not my most creative effort, but a productive enough burst before bedtime to motivate me to wake to a day of more fruitful word-weaving tomorrow. I think when I found my mind wasn’t fully taking flight by writing tonight, it started yearning for a book—someone else‘s writing :). Fair enough. We become better writers by reading as well, so time for me to check-in (i.e., get in my PJs), get my boarding pass (grab my novel), check my bags (ditch any emotional baggage at the bedroom door), board my aircraft (climb into bed), switch on my reading light (uh, that’s really the same thing in both scenarios), and get ready for take-off!


The Manuscript Manicure – Part IV: On Publishers & Publicizing

“Throw gloom over your shoulder.”  – Wendy Robertson

All right, we’re in the home stretch of my Manuscript Manicure miniseries! On to approach publication in the absence of gloom…

Okay, then. Next topic for convo at the Room to Write workshop dealt with researching publishers and agents. Again, no one-size-fits-all remedy, they merely directed us toward the Writers and Artists Yearbook (I guess Writer’s Market would be the U.S. equivalent). As you peruse these comprehensive listings, read carefully for the genres preferred by each representative to get a feel for who would be most receptive to your story. Newer agents are typically listed last. Regardless how you slice and dice this abundance of information, make sure you isolate a specific name to whom you address your query. My impression was that the facilitating authors didn’t seem keen on using an agent, but they acknowledged the obvious benefit of their industry contacts as well the validation your work is good. They favor big agencies over small, finding the latter to be unreliable or at least more likely to be. They also recommend doing a punt with the publishers (well, those accepting unsolicited submissions, that is), as their slush piles are probably smaller than agents’ these days.

As for those publishers…the workshop highlighted independent publishers. These are the ones most likely to accept unsolicited submissions, and in some cases you can send your entire manuscript straight away. The cons with this avenue are: 1) the odds – small publishers might purchase only a handful of books a year, and 2) promotion – the bulk of this burden may still fall on you; indeed some independent publishers require a proposal of your self-marketing plan concurrent with your submission.

And there’s the alternative route becoming ever more prevalent: self-publishing, or, as Wendy prefers to call it, “Private Editions.” I love that :). Pros to this are: 1) getting to see your book in print and finally share what you’ve been up to all this time with others, and 2) greater control over your editing, cover design, etc. Cons are obviously: 1) cost, 2) rigorous self-editing, and 3) rigorous self-promotion. This last aspect is not something all writers are comfortable with, so one of our fellow attendees, Jackie McKenzie, offered the following media tips from her journalism experience:

[These 10 steps are all directly quoted; I’d use the quote box, but it’s too awkward.]

1. Seek out the media – they won’t find you. Be brave and proactive, not pushy, just quietly methodical.[…]
2. Research which media to contact – […] Start with local papers and radio plus titles relevant to the book. Try titles relevant to new writers and ones that publish book reviews.
3. Think online as well as offline – there are more opportunities for coverage in online publications than traditional printed ones. […]
4. Prepare the pitch – write two opening sentences suitable for a quick introductory phone call. Start with “I have a news release that you may be interested in…” then sell yourself and the book, one sentence for each!
5. Get named contacts – use the two-sentence pitch to phone news desks directly and ask who you should send the press release to. Named emails are more effective than generic ones. […]
6. Prepare a news release – keep to one side of [the page]. Use the same two lines from the pitch and include a bit about the storyline (blurb) plus some background on you. Highlight any topical issues or local landmarks etc. that may be of interest. Include any links to any relevant websites, blogs or social media that may help to sell the story. Include your contact number and details of where the book is being sold. (“It’s not all about the book; build a story around you!”)
7. Send out the release as an attachment – include a jpeg photo of you holding the published book or a visual of the front. […] Keep the message in the body of the email very short. If you have spoken to the journalist beforehand refer back to the conversation.
8. Follow up emails with a quick call – after two days contact each journalist [to ask] if it is of interest and offer to send them a copy of the book. If they are not interested end the call quickly.
9. Send out email invites to the launch – use the same media contacts. Most will decline but it adds credibility. […] If they can’t attend ask if they are interested in a post-launch news release. If so, it may be worth paying a freelance press photographer to come along to the launch. […]
10. Prepare a post-launch release – re-cap on the details from the first release but refresh the story with an opening paragraph about the success of the launch, numbers attended, etc. If anyone of local interest is there […] borrow them for the photograph and ask them for a quote to add to the release. If a reputable press photographer has been used mention them by name on your email message (anything to persuade them to consider the picture).

A good book launch is a must. And after the launch, keep going! Consider scheduling monthly events.

As of this workshop, three writers in attendance were on the verge of launching their own first novels. All three for their own reasons chose self-publication—I mean, private editions—and two of which published through their local HPM Group, a Durham-based printer that I have to say produced two of the highest quality self-publications I’ve yet to see. Their books look like any to be found on a major retailer’s shelf, and one author had the creative license to use her own painting as the cover image, so I was very impressed with the creative and physical production possibilities given the right printer and the right amount of coin—you get what you pay for, after all. In any case, to give a quick shout-out to these ladies in congratulations:

Anne Ousby – Patterson’s Curse
Erica Yeoman – Devil’s Drove
Eileen R. Elgey – The Smile of Deceit

Wendy Robertson also just launched her memoir, The Romancer: On Being a Writer.

To close with more of her pearls of wisdom as we embark down this rocky road to publication:

“Every book and every short story you write is part of your apprenticeship.”

“There are good kinds of rejection. Don’t pore over the nasty ones; piece together the best bits of the good ones.”

PART I – Macro-editing

PART II Micro-editing

PART III – Submitting a Manuscript


The Manuscript Manicure – Part III: Submitting a Manuscript

Continuing with my miniseries on what I took away from my Room to Write workshop, all this talk of revising a manuscript ultimately culminates in the submission of the gol’ dern thing. Now, we admittedly did not have a tremendous amount of time left to discuss this, and I wasn’t expecting a sure-fire formula to cracking the query code, but I did at least receive some reinforcement of guidance I’ve seen elsewhere and will likewise provide these tidbits to  you.

Naturally, they addressed that critical, make-or-break first chapter. They reminded us that in our initial drafts, our first chapters are usually about us finding our way into the story and not necessarily where the reader should begin. There’s no fault in doing this; it almost seems inevitable if not necessary when drafting, yet it’s an issue that should be revised away through our macro-editing. Very important to be sure before submitting that your story is starting in the right place, as we all know the first chapter or two might be all the agent/publisher ever sees, if they even request that much. (and on this topic, the workshop authors prefer sending the first 40 pages versus a # of chapters, as chapter lengths vary)

As for the query letter, keep it to one page. Be succinct and professional, yet find a way to incorporate your unique writer’s voice. Important elements about the manuscript to include: title, word count, genre, setting, one main character, three-line cameo of the story line, and intended audience (might consider naming a comparable published author, e.g., “Readers who enjoy ___ may enjoy this.”—they claimed it isn’t vain to do so, though I’m still a little shy about it). Open with a brief hook, then follow up in your second paragraph with the three-line cameo. Also include a sentence about yourself after this, including any relevant published work or background.

Now, I see where agents and publishers are very specific about what they want you sending them in the initial query, so I don’t know how often we could get the chance to do this, but Wendy recommended including a separate page with a brief bio and photo. Has anyone tried this (successfully)? I’m omitting it for now…

The synopsis, then, expands on what’s said in the pitching letter to summarize the entire plot and ending. But rather than approach it on a chapter-by-chapter “and then…and then…and then” basis, it should be a vivid expression of the novel that suggests the shape of it and reflects your writing style. In attacking mine (still a work-in-progress), it follows the general chronology of the story line, yet some paragraphs are more so grouped by topic than chapter. But whatever, I’m not the published one, so those of you who are further in this process, please advise on your approach!

Now for the manuscript. Specific submission requirements will vary, but typically:

– NO single-spacing. Double-space unless requested otherwise (no less than 1.5).
– One-sided (if hardcopy)
–  1-inch margins
– Begin each new chapter on a new page and start the chapter a third of the way down the page.
– Begin the first line of each chapter/section on the left margin and indent subsequent first lines 0.5″.
– NO spaces between paragraphs (that’s what indents are for) unless it’s a section break, in which case use a double-return.
– Times New Roman and Arial are acceptable fonts, unless requested otherwise. And use one consistently—NO changing it up with fancy fonts.

When it comes to actually submitting, they advise sending out in 3s. Be systematic.

All right, I’m going to have to squeeze ONE more post into this series…

PART I – Macro-editing

PART II Micro-editing

PART IV – On Publishers & Publicizing


The Manuscript Manicure – Part II: Micro-Editing

All-righty, finally back with my next installment on editing a manuscript (refer to Part I if you missed it). Once again, this is all thanks to the ladies at Room to Write for sharing insights that might be new to you or least validating of what you already know. Nothing compares to that face-to-face conversation, but I love the interaction that occurs between writers online via blogs. As they said at the workshop, there is so much to be learned beyond our own work, after all—it’s as important to listen to and learn from the projects and experiences of others.

It also teaches us to peel back our skin and not be overly protective of our work. I had to laugh when author Wendy Robertson spoke on all the emotional loading that goes into the critique when we offer it to others for feedback; she said something to the effect that when we give our work to someone else:

“You’re giving your critiquer the power to upset you.”

Ain’t it the truth. Perhaps this is why when I sent the full edit of my first assigned manuscript to its author this afternoon, I cushioned my email with empathy and compliments of everything that was done well, hoping she’ll receive my suggestions for improvement in stride and be willing to work with me constructively.

Anyway, when it comes editing for ourselves, remember that we must become self-conscious of who we are as a writer and what it is we want to achieve. To do that best, we need to identify our style and describe it in a few words. If you read 50 pages of your own novel, what comes across on the page? Is your style spare, lyrical, conversational, whimsical, direct, abstract (to offer a few), or combination of more than one?

We are now shifting from macro-editingto micro-editing and need to explore our style in relation to our content:

– I mentioned the “shape” of the novel last time, which relates to your story arc. This might continually ascend like a surging wave or start thin (yet interesting) and thicken in density to an explosive climax—Wendy likened this to the body of a whale, with the tail being the interesting opening and the blow-hole the climax. Or maybe your chapters are individual stories unto themselves that link together in some way to provide continuity and relevance, like a chain with a large loop toward the end where this progression culminates into the climax (Blackbird House is an example of this shape).

Shapes can vary, but there should always be conflict (tension), climax (crisis), surprise and revelation. And from a micro-editing standpoint, this needs to apply to each of your individual chapters as well.

– Speaking of chapters, as mentioned last time, ensure there’s continuity between them, yes, but also within them on a paragraph-to-paragraph, sentence-to-sentence level.

– With continuity maintaining our story’s consistency and logical progression, we must also make sure the words and sentences flow. This concerns the musicality of the language itself, and the best way to determine this is to read it aloud so you hear it.

– Your musicality and style will be greatly impacted by your sentence construction, so evaluate your writing on a sentence-by-sentence level. Is the syntax effective? Does it flow? Does it make sense? It’s important to ensure you’re applying correct grammatical conventions through punctuation and arrangement of clauses. Use commas, semicolons, and colons for sentence variety and make sure they’re used correctly.

Of course, creative writing allows for creative departure from conventions as well, but make sure that if you do deviate from the rules, there’s a specific purpose for it that strengthens what you’re trying to say. If it’s not producing the intended effect, revisit it and, all else fails, run with the convention rather than muddle your ideas in unclear writing.

– The language you use is the building block for everything, so you need to evaluate your writing on a word-by-word level as well. Make every word count, the strongest choice it could be (English in particular is too word-rich to not take advantage of it!). And obviously don’t allow excessive repetition, incorrect/inappropriate use, or incorrect spelling distract and otherwise undermine your writing.

– The “look” of the page is important as well, so ensure ample inclusion of “white space” now and then to allow your reader’s eyes to “breathe.” This is usually achieved through dialogue that isn’t overly bogged down in paragraphs of description. Section breaks provide white space as well to help accentuate shifts in time/setting.

And if you’re cutting down for word count or tightening, rather than prune on a word/phrase level, they seemed to opt for removing whole chunks, if not lifting an entire chapter to see if the story even misses it. I would suffer some major separation anxiety in that case, but I know some of you have said in your blogs that you’ve done it and lived to tell the tale. And it might not be a matter of ridding of it entirely. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying:

“Don’t throw your babies out with the bathwater.”

Well, they warned us of this as well, and it’s actually why they cautioned not to overly prune on a word/phrase level—making our sentences sparser could deprive the story of some of its joy! And even lifting an entire chapter may just be a structural change by which you drop it into a different place in your manuscript. (Now that I have done, and it works so much better!) At any rate, they said:

“If you kill your darlings, don’t put them in the bin—save them for something else!”

Another novel, a short story, a poem, who knows?!

All right, folks, if I haven’t successfully made your eyeballs roll out with all this reading by now, keep them sucked into those sockets—I’ll be back with a little bit on what they had to say about manuscript formatting, publishers, and self-promotion.

PART I Macro-editing

PART III – Submitting a Manuscript

PART IV – On Publishers & Publicizing


The Manuscript Manicure – Part I: Macro-Editing

Hiya! I’m back to redeem that I.O.U. I gave you last week. See, my word’s good as gold ;)…

As I mentioned, I attended a writing workshop with Room to Write over the weekend that was geared toward prepping a novel manuscript for submission. The full-day conference was divided into two primary parts—Editing and Publication—the first of which I’ll address in part now and break the rest down into separate posts. But, first, I’ll start with some general notes I jotted along the way to get us in the proper mindset:

One thing they stressed is that, above all:

“Editing is a creative process.”

Yes, it involves the nitty-gritty technical stuff, but we’re not merely playing the role of English teacher grading for grammar with red pen in hand—revising our work requires every bit of imagination and innovative thought as writing our initial draft does. For as they said, when the first draft is finished:

“You’re only just beginning.”

Ah yes, it does feel that way doesn’t it…my question is, when the hell does it end???

Anyway, in order to become our own editor, we have to become a “self-conscious” one. No, not as in insecurity-ridden—I think I’ve already mastered that one just fine :). What they mean is to be conscious of the kind of writer we are and the audience we’re writing for. The better aware we are of this, the better  we’ll be able to edit our work with this focus in mind.

Macro-editing is concerned with the overall  novel as a cohesive work. It’s our opportunity to step back from our first draft and contemplate whether it has achieved what we wanted it to and is structured effectively. They encouraged us to print a hardcopy of the manuscript to initiate this stage, as reading your words on the page is truly a different experience from reading them on screen. (I wouldn’t have expected this, but wow. There’s so much more that I catch with that ms in hand.) You will also want to list your themes, summarize your entire book in three sentences, and keep these with you as you journey back through your text to ensure you aren’t straying from any critical elements.

Key aspects your self-conscious-editing self should look for (not only in the novel as a whole, but in every chapter and scene as well) are:

– A compelling beginning, a hook that makes the reader want to continue. The first chapter in particular should be compelling in an action sense, but also in a literary way—it needs to be beautifully written. Subsequent chapters likewise need their own hooks and should be varied in how they start (i.e., beginning with dialogue, beginning in the middle of action, etc.)

– Action, drama, or “trouble,” as they called it.

– Appropriate pacing.

Three-dimensional characters that are brought to life and desire something;

— Characters are “thinly veiled versions of the writer” (sound familiar?), but we must immediately establish distinction between them and from ourselves if they are to appear as separate people; if they’re all clones of us, then they’re clones of each other.
— If you can “see” the character in your mind (consider gathering clippings from magazines and such for reference), then they will come across on the page.
– Provide physical descriptions of your three main characters, enough to help visualize their traits, but not full-bodied detail. Leave something to your readers’ imagination.
— Characters should be consistent from start to finish (i.e., if you reveal or yourself learn something new about them later in the novel, are these traits present at the beginning as well? If not, try to introduce them at least subtly).
— We should see growth in the main character.

– Clear sense of when and where each scene partakes.

– Long sections of description/exposition that could be cut.

Changing up the writing between exposition, narrative, and dialogue.

– A sense of atmosphere and appeal to the senses that lends texture.

– Something in each chapter that surprises the reader.

Continuity between scenes and chapters; ensure nothing is missing.

– Evaluate the “shape” of your novel/chapter in terms of story arc. Shapes can vary, but there should in general be a rising sense of action/conflict until the climax, then a dip toward resolution (so check for any sagging in the middle).

– Evaluate the ending and ensure a sense of resolution. They advised us to look at six novels we personally enjoy and look at their endings as a guide for managing this successfully. They also admitted that, in the interest of keeping your ending brief (the resolution should just be a “flick” after the climax) as well as ensuring your reader understands what has happened, the resolution may indeed warrant more telling than showing.

Throughout your macro-editing assessment, then, you will want to sit back and assess whether this is the story you wanted to write in the first place. I suppose it doesn’t hurt if ends up morphing into something even cooler than you thought it could be, but if it seems to fall short in some way, pinpoint where it diverges and contemplate how to get it back on track. Another very important point to consider outside of yourself is if it is the story your reader will want to read—how will they experience it?

I’d better cut this off here until my next installment. Many thanks to author Avril Joy for guiding us through this session of the workshop! More to come…

PART II Micro-editing

PART III – Submitting a Manuscript

PART IV – On Publishers & Publicizing


I.O.U. – Going, Going, Gone Until Next Week

Writing a blog post here to tell you what I’m going to write in blog posts next week. Why do something so asinine? Because I’m shorter on time than I’d like to be today, and after my previous lapse in blogging, I really wanted to get a post in this week to represent, yo.

What I was going to write about this week (and will now have to next week) was the beginning of my editing process on someone else’s manuscript now that I’ve received my first assignment as freelance developmental editor. I respectfully will refrain from discussing this author’s specific plot and leave it purely to the general suggestions I’ve noted that are likewise duly filed away in me noggin for my own manuscript (and may be useful for yours).

Which brings me to another topic I was going to write about…my manuscript status. Not super interesting at this stage, other than I’ve had it printed and bound as-is to whisk away to the English countryside for another workshop with the Room to Write organization I met in March. This is the first time I’ve seen those words in print, and I’ll be damned if I didn’t catch a typo and sentences begging to be cut on first cracking it open. It’ll never end will it…Ah well, the focus of the workshop is manuscript revision and submission, so it’s just as well that mine is still a work-in-progress.

Which brings me to what I was going to write about next week anyway: the workshop. I promise to share what insights I take away from it (and I can cram an extra scone in my pocket for ya if you’d like).

Ah, and in catching up on some of your blogs, I see that I’m going to fulfill the reqs of receiving the “Honest Scrap” award from Milo James Fowler over at the always-enjoyable In Media Res blog. Thank you, Milo! So now next week in addition to the usual fur balls, I’ll be coughing up 10 random things about myself.

Until then, I owe ya…Happy Weekend, everyone!


From Sentiments to Sentences – Part II


Hiya!  I’m back from where I left off yesterday. Hopefully I didn’t leave anyone in a great deal of suspense, as this post will only reek of anticlimax :).

What I was about to continue yammering on about last night, at any rate, was that sentimentality is not the only way my past informs my writing.  To start, yes, I’ve had a lovely life—I’d be an ungrateful twit not to acknowledge that and count my blessings every day (I know, la-dee-frickin’-da, right?)—yet to be honest it concerned me this would hurt my writing, make it too naive, idealized, and anything otherwise be too two-dimensional and cliché.  And that’s a very valid concern…

I couldn’t help but peek ahead in my very-neglected Room to Write book, where on page 90 Bonni Goldberg says:

“Where we come from influences both what we write and how we write. […] This is why six people can describe the same tree differently. Each person sees it through a unique set of experiences.”

And then she warns that:

“Cliché seeps into writing when writers forget or neglect to bring who they are into the piece.”

This reinforces what eventually got me over the above concern.  Everyone’s life brings something to the writing desk, and maybe some of things I don’t understand first-hand consequently don’t have a place in my writing. Maybe this, then, helps me narrow down my focus, find my creative niche where what I do know can be optimized.  OR maybe what I don’t know presents that extra intellectual-emotional challenge that could be enriching to explore further through research and imagination, as when a method actor immerses into a new role.  In that way, I don’t have to be so pigeon-holed after all.

Then there is the simple fact that, despite general trend, my life of course hasn’t been entirely rosy! I know pain, heartache, depression, and have sharpened my teeth around anger and resentment pretty well in my day…I may idealize the past out of sentimentality, but I’ve also brought in the darker emotions from the tougher experiences I’ve had—case in point being the “writing-as-therapy” I mentioned yesterday. As a result, my protagonist shared in my own downturn, and in a way we worked through it together.  Then, when I succeeded in pulling out of mine, I could outstretch my hand to lift her out of hers.

I’m not going to do the writing prompt today, but the exercise on that above-mentioned page from Room to Write asks us to write about our origins, beginning with, “I come from.” In doing so, we’re to also consider the sensory details coinciding with our memories that, by virtue of experiencing them, have impacted who we are.

Now, to put my teacher-cap back on briefly, I can’t help but recall from this a poem I had to teach my sophomores during a unit on discovering our cultural identities and identifying how they shape our individual frames of reference:

Where I’m From, by George Ella Lyon

I am from clothespins,
from Clorox and carbon-tetrachloride.
I am from the dirt under the back porch.
(Black, glistening,
it tasted like beets.)
I am from the forsythia bush
the Dutch elm
whose long-gone limbs I remember
as if they were my own.

I’m from fudge and eyeglasses,
from Imogene and Alafair.
I’m from the know-it-alls
and the pass-it-ons,
from Perk up! and Pipe down!
I’m from He restoreth my soul
with a cottonball lamb
and ten verses I can say myself.

I’m from Artemus and Billie’s Branch,
fried corn and strong coffee.
From the finger my grandfather lost
to the auger,
the eye my father shut to keep his sight.

Under my bed was a dress box
spilling old pictures,
a sift of lost faces
to drift beneath my dreams.
I am from those moments–
snapped before I budded —
leaf-fall from the family tree.

In “An Interview with George Ella Lyon,” the poet says:

“If I weren’t from Appalachia (or from my family and my genetic expression and my experience — I don’t know how to separate these), my writing — and I —  might be bolder.  I might live in New York or L.A. and push it more. As it is, I’ve chosen to stay close to home and to be somewhat restricted in what I’ve written and/or published.  I anguish a lot about hurting or betraying family members…On the other hand, if I weren’t from Appalachia, my work might not have the same support of noncompetitive colleagues, of a community of memory, and of strong voices from my childhood that still speak in my head.  Certainly it wouldn’t have its roots in the rocky creeks and high horizons, the enfolding spirit of trees that I call home.”

Though kids inevitably groaned over reading and writing poetry, I always loved this activity because they’d surprise themselves—by recalling and isolating the simplest of images, smells, sounds, tastes, and textures, they’d craft their own “Where I’m From” poems that offered profound insight into who they were, and I think in the end they were proud, learning that if they seized the power to really know themselves, they could harness the power to write.

Such a simple exercise here, yet so dense as we draw out the good along with all the bad to build the organs and flesh around the skeletons of our characters and infuse them with blood and soul.

And YOU, my dears? How does your sense of self inform your writing?


So, uh…Did You Bring Any Protection?

*blush*  Get your minds out of the gutter.  What kind of monkey do you think I am?!

“The best lightning rod for your protection is your own spine.” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

I have long neglected my little writing prompts that originally kicked off this blog, mainly because they’re aim was to get me over writer’s block, and it worked!  I’ve been cranking until I’m crossed eyes these recent days on revising my manuscript, and for the time being am keen to step away for a bit to clear my head.  So…

The Prompt:

Today page 43 of Room to Write asks us to list the protections we use in our everyday lives or, indeed, our writing.  We are to then have our main character embody this protection in a scene or simply write a new piece without using writing-protections (e.g., a different place than the usual, without a word/page limit, etc.).

Henry VIII's armour

Response:

My everyday protections include:

– smiling

– expression through writing versus speaking

– diving behind a book or in front of a computer/tv

– my giant headphones and iPod

– sarcasm

– my forked tongue, when need be

– stubbornness, which includes a common refusal to say, “sorry”

– quiet pensiveness, reclusiveness

Hm, given that codpiece on Henry's armour, perhaps he could've used this protection as well...

– over-analysis

– verbatim recall of prior conversations (one of my more superb defenses)

– cold silence or, conversely, inane babble

– hats, cardigans, and sunglasses

– take-away caffeine (somehow just holding the steaming paper cup is a fortification, regardless what’s inside)

– sleep

– my quilt

– a hybrid superiority/inferiority complex that’s a bit difficult to describe…

I’ll stop there and address the second part of this exercise by first peeling off one key writing-protection of mine:  the ability to revise.  So I’m just going to write this off the cuff and not obsess over how it comes out, leaving it raw in its first draft form.

So, that said, I have certainly infused a lot of the above protections into my protagonist, who I’ll continue to address by the pseudonym “Margaret” (whoops, there I go, still protecting…and for whatever reason protecting the fictional :)).  I could probably find one-to-one matches for almost everything on the list, but here’s just a few examples:

“Margaret beamed one of her fake smiles in maneuvering in ninety-degree angles toward her.”

“Writing was so much easier than calling; writing gave control, the ability to pause, reread, and revise.  Margaret didn’t trust herself with speaking any longer; the restraint in talking to her parents was difficult enough, and they alone embodied the innocence necessary to not pick up on vocal cues.  Her not-so innocent friends and brother, on the other hand, were risks she couldn’t take.”

“Shaking off the mundane tasks of Everyday-Land and shoving in a thumbnail to spear a dog-eared page, Margaret tiptoed into her alternate universe at the delicious creaking sound of a hardcover binding blooming into action.”

“She’d banked an increasing number of slumbering hours ever since that first day […] and she wiled away the afternoons on indulgences like prolonged soaks in the tub and otherwise luxurious daytime lounging.  The solitary nature of her days quieted her mind to her earlier paranoia, distortions in perception that she’d ascribed to stress-induced fatigue.  [It] all dissipated before her like the steam that rose off the bubbles in her lap.”

The sun shied away behind the clouds, making Margaret’s sunglasses redundant, so she reluctantly removed them.”

“She’d lately taken to […] a route of anonymity that concealed her among side streets rather than parade her before rows of shops and sidewalk cafés.  She didn’t want to be observed, though sometimes played a mental game that she was hiding from the paparazzi lusting to lavish her with attention—somehow desiring to be a Nobody while still feeling like a Somebody.”

And that kitten definitely has claws when she needs ’em to shield her inner vulnerability.

Reflection:

As much as this character isn’t supposed to be me, it’s interesting to look back on her through this lens and realize how cognizant I am of my defense-mechanisms, as reflected in this mirror.  I reveled before in the fact that writing can be a protective filter of our thoughts by virtue of its revision stage, yet it is also something that leaves us exposed, unveiling raw emotion, intellect, and imagination.  I’m sure I’m not the only one who felt (and continues to feel) timid about posting a blog, putting those ideas out there for anyone to read and judge.  Getting something “in writing,” after all, carries that sense of no-turning-back, as though signed in our blood or chiseled in stone.  There’s both a structured permanence and organic fluidity to it that just fascinates me, but I’ll leave that to another blog topic on another day.  For now, I suppose these blogs do allow us to go back and edit, but I’ll keep my promise and not exercise that protection ;).  In fact, I’m not even going to let myself read this over before I press “Publish.”  Ha, take that!

What are your protective layers?



The Fear Factor


The Prompt:

I love how Bonni Goldberg relates writing to medicine when it comes to protecting us against our fears:

“You take small doses of your fears in combination with written words and they create a kind of antibody: a cathartic human experience that authenticates your strength and fragility.”

Page 42 of Room to Write, then, asks us to write a list of our fears and describe one in more specific detail.

Response:

Some things I fear:

– geese

– clowns

– confined spaces

– death (mine, but mostly loved ones)

– being in any way “too late” for anything by the time I move back home

– losing my sight or hearing

– the debilitating effects of aging

– having children

– lack of purpose

– never finishing my book

– rejection

– regret

Okay, I think that’ll do.  Now, to pick just one…it’s tempting to go the route of writing-related fears, but I think I devote enough of this blog to that!  How about the “too late” factor, as I feel it’s one needing more explaining:

The fact that my aging parents continue to age in my absence while living abroad positively terrifies me.  I know many will find that irrational and say that I have to live my own life, but I will never, never forgive myself if something happens to either of them while I am an ocean away.  Just writing this right now is bringing me to tears.  It is something I really, truly cannot stand to fathom.  And I don’t want to miss out on my nieces’ and nephews’ milestones, nor do I want the littlest ones to not know their Auntie.  I am not the person who realizes what they have only when it is “too late”; I’m the person who has always known perhaps too clearly, which is why I would have never left in the first place if it were only up to me.  I don’t think of it as something holding me back; being with my family is actually part and parcel of my life’s ambitions, so anyone who thinks I should feel otherwise can suck it 🙂

My own aging has started to frighten me as well.  I don’t consider myself to be old, but my husband and I have agreed to wait until we return home to our support network before starting a family, at which time I will most definitely be at the infamous cut-off age that younger mommies love to throw out there as the danger zone of higher risks and mandatory tests.  Gee, thanks for making me feel geriatric.  Sorry my last decade has been pleasurable and focused on my needs and catering to my own identity before I give it over so fully to a little person of my making.  I genuinely hope I didn’t just offend any mothers reading this—I think parenting is the most noble occupation for one to assume, but it’s not my fault that I didn’t get married until after my friends were already popping out kids and that other life changes have thrown me for a loop such that there’s a lot I need to get sorted before I feel I could do a remotely good job of it myself.  So I’ll put off applying for that particular position a bit longer; yes, I know, at my own risk.  *eyes rolling*

Returning to find that my old job (for which I was only 1 year away from getting tenure) is not remotely available to me anymore is scary.  I moved the very week that the economy tanked, and what I’d considered a recession-proof job has still managed many layoffs since then, and some departments have frozen their hiring.  Barring that, even if I can vie for a position, perhaps I’ll be judged negatively for my time away from teaching; the powers that be may frown upon my rationale, not find value in how I’ve chosen to apply myself since then.  Even worse, what if I fear teaching itself?  After such a long hiatus, I’m no longer riding the momentum of consecutive years ramping up in the profession.  The flexibility (and sleeping in!) of my present days will be lost, and never doubt the intimidation of staring down 125+ teenagers a day and, even worse, their parents who will too quickly point the finger at you for the consequences of their own lack of parenting at home.  Then again, if I end up not having kids of my own, teaching is a great way to play surrogate.

I think what is overall frightening me is the realization that my life at home did not simply freeze once I took off on that plane, preserved in its tableau of near-perfection while I have my fun and then return to reinsert myself seamlessly back into it.  I will not be entirely the same person either, after all; current experiences are carving me from a square to an octagon-shaped peg.  So I fear the transition that will be repatriation, after expatriation was already so difficult.  I fear feeling out of place in my own home and possibly acknowledging a discontent that wouldn’t have otherwise been there.

But, you know, so be it.  Rejoining my family, starting a family, returning to teaching…I cannot think of three things more worth facing that fear.

Reflection:

First of all, allow me to apologize.  Addressing personal fear just automatically lends itself to a whiny rambling of self-pity, so thank you for bearing with me through it if you’ve made it this far 🙂  I don’t think this activity has brought out any special writing, per se…the fears are plain, so embellishment didn’t come naturally—the way I wrote it is not creative or revelatory.  It didn’t make me realize anything new about myself.

Maybe selecting a different fear or writing in another frame of mind would have made all the difference, but the one thing I can take away from this exercise is the fact that Goldberg was right!  When I started writing about this, as I said, it made me cry—it thrust me into my fear and made me tremble in the face of it.  And yet the more I wrote, the easier it was to pull out of this vulnerable state; putting it in writing made it very plain to see that, while my fears may be justified, they really aren’t as big of a deal as I sometimes let them be.  The more I wrote, the more my heart quieted and the more my mind said, “Poor you with the wonderful family and profession and wonderful period of creative flexibility and travel that you have in-between.  To have had it as long as you did is a gift, and you still might get your cake back to eat it too—or even be okay if you don’t.  So in the meantime, buck up.  Deal.”

In short, facing my fears was embracing my blessings.

And you, brave readers of mine?  What are you so afraid of? And how might your fears impact your writing?


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