Saturday, January 29, 2011

Free Writing

In the immortal words of the song: “Come on and take a free write…yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah….” (Anyone remember Edgar Winter Group?)

Recently a Sister of the Quill told us she was going to do some “free writing.” I asked her what she meant by that, and realized it was exactly how I’d started my first novel and the resulting series: brainstorming by writing.
Wonderful memories flooded back…
There was a tremendous excitement the first day I turned the corner from dreaming to creating. I had no idea how to write a novel, but knew I had to gather my thoughts. So I bought one of those chubby little spiral notebooks and, on that very first free writing day and every one that followed, I went to an outdoor bookshop café in Menlo Park called Café Borrone.
Perhaps it was the presence of all those books behind me in Keplers Bookstore, but the moment I sat under that magic umbrella with my magic toasted raisin bread chicken salad sandwich and magic notebook, I changed. I was no longer just a mommy, much as I treasured that title. I was a member of the intelligentsia, the literati, blossoming with confidence and creativity and dreams and energy and ideas. In that environment, it seemed incredible stories might come to life.
I sketched out my characters first, listing everything I could about them. I knew I had to have a main character, an unattainable eternal love, family, a sidekick/foil, employees, and bad guys. Not just one, of course, but a few: the ultimate one was known as SBG (super bad guy).
From time to time I remember looking up and rejoicing, incredulous that this could possibly be happening, that I was actually writing ideas for a book. Now I marvel that I ever imagined my first book would be published. Such idealism! Such hubris! Such a blessing that I was young and foolish enough to hope.
Then attention turned to the story. I’d write things in my weird private journalist’s shorthand like: “Char unwittingly sucked into dngrous intrnat’l intrigue w/bsnss. Difficult au, bk stirs up controv, or smthg in bk smeone dsn’t want knwn. He trvls wrld to solve myst & save own life…”
This is perhaps the most joyful part of writing for me. We’ve probably all found that the longer we run with ideas and let them go, the more intriguing paths appear and link to bits of research…and the more painlessly they translate into a full-blown story. Some of those paths are dead ends, like the character who wouldn’t work until I changed her gender: Alexandra Plumtree.
Those of us who “free write” regularly when eating alone in restaurants know the feeling of pride mixed with embarrassment. On the one hand, it’s a privilege to have such a joyous internal life that you can entertain yourself for hours on end. On the other hand, we can tend to appear, um, unbalanced. Many’s the time I’ve realized how crazy I look, scribbling on a napkin or receipt, wild lines connecting one part of the paper to another, or bold lines saying “NO, HAVE HIM COME TO ENGLAND HERE”. Or three big stars, inside a wobbly-lined box, “Oh! Oh! Actually, that was why he came in the first place!!!!” After two cups of coffee, the letters get wilder and squigglier, and the page becomes dark and crowded with writing, until it looks like the rambling nonsense of a truly crazy person…
But crazy in a happy way. --- Storm Petrel

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The magical fellowship of writers

The Sisters of the Quill share the magical fellowship of writers. We’ve been knit together by more than a decade of shared writing and experience and friendship into a tight and beautiful weave. A special atmosphere descends on our group, wherever and whenever we meet, a sacred trust. When we’re together and writing, or even talking about writing, all things seem possible. A writing fellowship feels a little like walking into church: the moment you enter, you see only the purest and best intentions of your fellows. Together you are free, emboldened and strengthened to strive wholeheartedly toward the goal.

This miracle repeats itself to some degree at every writing conference, be it Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers or Pikes Peak. It’s wondrously present in every workshop at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival. One summer my mother, daughters and I had the unbeatable experience of feeling it together. Miraculously, it eliminated our generational differences and reduced us to a common denominator: we were writers.

Once I had a remarkable experience with complete strangers that seems to confirm we writers share a certain understanding. It was an Algonkian Pitch Conference at a place called the Roundhouse in Western Massachusetts. Three stories high, this teepee-shaped log building had “niches” instead of beds; we crawled into them like squirrels into treeholes. Isolated together in remotest countryside, sock- or slipper-footed by house rules with the owner’s new puppies frolicking at our feet, we had entered a magical kingdom. It even snowed.

On a surface level, we completed writing assignments and honed our novel pitches to present them to top agents on the last day. But it was like a sauce at a great French restaurant: magically more than the sum of its parts. I’ll never be sure what added the crackle of energy to the air. No doubt many elements contributed, including the setting and our shared intense motivation. Some of it was brilliant organizer Michael Neff’s expertise in teaching and facilitating, and his own extraordinary passion for helping us get our novels published. The poetry group sharing the facility also added to the feeling of intense creative stimulation. But over the course of two or three days our disparate group of a dozen or so novelists—doctors, secretaries, stay-at-home moms, executives, full-time intellectuals, and a retired military officer—became connected spirit to spirit.

Miraculously, we could only see the best in one another. We genuinely cared as much for one another’s novels as for ourselves. It seemed we all felt the magic and understood this was a moment set apart in time. Though we would compete for the agents’ nod on the last day, there was not the least hint of competitiveness. If most of us had completed our writing exercises and honed our pitch for the day, but one writer was still struggling at midnight, we all stayed up to brainstorm. (I think the poets were up all night, every night.) We felt a strange sort of high, though no substances were involved. It was the pure joy of being constantly inundated in one another’s most focused creativity, the best we had to give. There was no attitude separating literary and commercial writers; we were writers, and that was all.

Writers, I cherish our mysterious and precious fellowship.

- Storm Petrel