Friday, February 25, 2011

The unskied slope of the mind: laying first tracks

At a Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers conference years ago, a psychologist told us that the best time to write is first thing in the morning. Our thought processes are clear and unsullied then, like a ski slope newly powdered with snow. We get to lay the first fresh tracks. He explained that with each task we undertake before writing—calling Mom, arranging dental appointments, reading the paper, paying bills—we sully the fertile ground of our creative minds. The slope still has powder, but it’s been skied over by so many others that it’s harder to see how or where to make our mark.

I’ve tried first-down-the-slope writing and found that it really does work. Amazing! But why is it so hard to do? After many years of fiction writing I have finally learned to keep mornings clear of phone calls…at least those I instigate. But e-mail is still a sneaky first-tracks thief, closely followed by non-fiction writing. I only seem to manage it on retreats, where there is no dog to let out and even the family knows I’m turning off my phone.

Here’s the other conundrum: at what price creativity? What about those little things that make life apart from writing possible and even joyful, like husband, family and unconditionally loving dog? I’ll choose them over a purer, more beautiful creativity every day.

Well, there’ll be fresh snow tomorrow and I still love I’ll hope to hit the slope at some point between untouched and completely skied in. -- Storm Petrel

Thursday, February 17, 2011


I’ve got to get through it, that first attempt at getting my story down, living as my characters live, moving toward an inevitable yet unpredictable end. Those sh__ty first drafts, as Anne Lamott calls them in her brilliant book, Bird by Bird. All the workshops, all the books, all the talented and successful writers I know tell me to cage up the editor and whip through the sentences, to puke out the chapters, clean up the mess later. My brain, however, thinks more like an editor. I spit out a sentence, stop, fix that sentence, spit out more, notice that I didn’t backload a paragraph with the most powerful sentence, then the grammar checker is indicating I need to look at a word back where I wrote that clever reversal. Then there’s that pesky run-on sentence…

I’m not talking about scrolling back a few pages to edit and refresh my memory, then moving forward into my next chapter. I’m talking about scrolling back each paragraph and, on a particularly critical day, scrolling back each sentence. Yes, I’m an obsessive editor. I’ve always written that way. In fourth grade I did it. Back then I wrote mostly poetry, a very tight and disciplined form. That didn’t help. Next I graduated to a twelve-year-old version of erotica--wish I’d kept some of those scenes to compare to my adult notes. But I digress. Doesn’t it go figure, I’ve reinforced the early analyzing habit by becoming a professional editor.

Some tell me not to worry over it. I’m still prolific, having written almost a dozen screenplays, three novels, a literary cookbook, newspaper and magazine articles, and short stories (some of them erotica--hopefully different than my grade-school imaginings). I wrote all that while raising two boys. Sure, pat myself on the back, but get on with the writing, and slap that hand that continues to go back, go back, go back. As if I just can’t do my book justice without making every entence perfect as I go. What's up with that?!

To make matters worse, I write my sh—ty first drafts long hand, scrawling my additions and corrections all over the yellow pad –yellow to boost creativity. Unfortunately, yellow also nourishes my editing fixation. To make matters doubly frustrating, I have the worst handwriting known to the literate world. So my crazy first drafts are often indecipherable. Even to me. I have only my sisters to turn to when I’m puzzled to the point of pop-eyed madness, for they know me so well that they often step in to save my sh__ty first draft by interpreting my Gs that look like Ss and my Rs that look like Is and my ups and downs and arrows and my bubbles with sentences that are absolutely necessary to the line above or below or up the side and let’s not forget the middle phrase in the run-on sentence near the bottom of the page. This is no exaggeration. It’s a joke between us.

But when I’m working away solo at a restaurant over lunch, it’s not a joke. Sometimes I wish I could ask my waitress just what it was I wrote half a page up. Ten minutes ago. But then they’d think I wouldn’t be able to read the menu and so would bring me the picture menu. If they had one. OK, now my train of thought has drifted from editing to first drafts to penmanship. I think I need to go back and consider giving this blog entry a work out. Yes, the above photo is of a typical sh__ty rough draft page of mine, taken by my sister Storm Petrel. Is there a 12-step program for this obnoxious inclination?

It’s no use for me to seek advice on what I can do to improve my penmanship; teachers have been trying to help me there since my early erotica days. But I do ask, dear blog visitor, if you have any hints about how I can turn off my editor.

Gratefully, Inkpot

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

What our bookshelves say about us

We recently celebrated our family’s annual New Year’s Day Festival Clean-out, an energetic annual clutter purge accomplished to the driving beat of power tunes. Though usually we tackle our closets, this was the Year of the Bookshelf. Our daughter got in the act too, wisely perceiving that a day of sorting, organizing and cleaning the upstairs bookshelves would calm her college application angst.

Around this time a Sister of the Quill forwarded an article that made me think about our books. The article covered someone who used books solely as d├ęcor, and this clever sister suggested a Plumtree baddie patterned on him; anyone who so misused books would have to be villainous. A great idea!

I began to wonder about our motivation for wall after wall of books in our home, on every level and nearly every room? Were we like the villainous collector who displayed them for appearance only?

I took a good hard look at our books as we disassembled and reassembled our shelves. The first task was to replace the mantel books I’d removed to make way for the advent calendar. There was no hiding from the fact: these twelve books were chosen for the gold on their bindings. Uh-oh...

I tried to evaluate them as a stranger might. Their bindings were works of art, like paintings one might put on the wall. But they passed another test: their insides were art as well: Kim, by Rudyard Kipling; The Silver Chalice, by Costain; The Cornerstone, by Zoe Oldenbourg; The Works of Stevenson; The Works of Gautier (okay, I admit to not even knowing who this is, but my mother gave me the beautiful gold-stamped leather volume); A Gentle Madness, by Basbanes (every bibliophile’s favorite); London, by Peter Ackroyd; and The Illuminator, a historical bibliomystery that helped inspire my current book.

Opposite this mantel is the real family bookshelf, a true wall of books. There is an entire shelf devoted to the novels of Diane Mott Davidson, my patron saint of fiction writing. Just looking at this shelf is an inspiration; she holds the quadruple titles of kindest mentor, most dedicated professional, most voracious reader and most generous giver of books (in addition to other titles). Once I asked her how she could possibly read so much. She said breezily, “That’s what writers do!” Many years later, I get it: Writers. Must. Read. Everything. It is what we do.

Moving along that same line of shelves, there’s a Bill Bryson section that kicked off an invaluable non-fiction reading spree for our oldest daughter. My much-thumbed college thesis books on Willa Cather sit side by side with books on women of the West, and women writing the West. Included in two of these, Leanin’ Into the Wind, are essays by Sister of the Quill Shannon Baker.

Immediately above and below these are shelves on London, English royal history, Colorado hiking/wildflowers/birds, a cheap complete Dickens recalling a day trip to Hay-on-Wye, a childhood set of World Book Encyclopedias, the Left Behind series, all of Jan Karon, American and British political history and speeches, typography, writing, contemporary literary book-club category fiction, and more precious works by my Sisters of the Quill, Soliloquy by Janet Fogg and Ashes of the Red Heifer by Shannon Baker. I can’t wait for the day, not far away, when I slide Karen Lin’s multiple brilliant works onto the shelf beside them.

I see now that the wall o’books fills multiple roles. It’s meaningful memorabilia, it’s storage for useful books we want to revisit, and yes, it is beautiful.

The sets make especially attractive bursts of color. The red 1950s World Book Encyclopedias evoke the distinctive scent of their pages, and the memory of school assignments done with them in my childhood home. My sister’s name is written in the front of one she must have taken to school once, in the careful hand of a twelve-year-old. I smile ruefully at the hole drilled partway through the cover of the Volume H, the top of a stack I used to brace something while drilling a hole for one of the girls—another school assignment.

There are other reminders of our origins: my father’s Boy Scout Handbook from the year 1935; a treasured English literature anthology from the college my mother never thought she’d attend as a farmer’s daughter, and in it the poem Annabel Lee by Edgar Allan Poe, unconsciously memorized in childhood, which still sends shivers up my spine. Up high sits the thick Iain Pears novel given me by a college friend, An Instance of the Fingerpost, which helped inspire the book that has enriched the last eight years of my life. There’s the paperback teen Bible my sister gave me that helped cement my faith at age fifteen, and the book of O. Henry short stories from my other sister that inspired a love of reading. The shelves dedicated to the ocean and sailing make me think of my heroic husband, who piloted us through sailing trips in foreign oceans. Nestled alongside these is the copy of Moby Dick I paraphrased for two little girls before a memorable trip to Nantucket.

Enough! Suffice it to say that I want to keep these precious memories close, so a casual glance might graze them at any time, and pass them on as heirlooms. They’re more than books, they’re our lives; a record of where we’ve been, and emotional and spiritual support for the journey. - Storm Petrel

Friday, February 4, 2011

Raising a book

I was a stay at home mom when my daughters were young. Not only was it a privilege and luxury, I considered it my career at that time and undertook the task with the same determination and care I would have given the job of CEO of Ford. But raising children is a vocation closer to entrepreneur of a start-up than a suited-executive of an established accounting firm. Every day was full of uncertainty and fraught with a Murphy’s Law of disasters from spilled juice on a white carpet to a fever and trip to the emergency room, to a shopping excursion gone too long ending in a tantrum in the grocery store. All to the tune of underlying angst that if I was too firm or too soft I’d ruin the child.

And yet, while I was in the middle of this precious duty, most days felt like treading water. Progress was slow, with frequent setbacks. There were so many nights I crawled into bed, exhausted, and tried to tally my accomplishments. In a “real” job, there are quotas, sales, profits, and product. In the mommy business, there were toys put away that would soon be scattered again. Meals prepared and eaten and forgotten and prepared and eaten and forgotten again. Every day seemed pretty much like the one before it and I could look forward to tomorrow being pretty much the same.

And yet, most days had a sprinkling of indescribable joy. Random moments of pure delight made up for the endless toddler questions and repeated nursery rhymes. A two-year old’s hug and whispered, “I love you, mommy,” can erase years of dirty diapers and discipline. Truly, there is no memory sweeter than stories read at bedtime.

Today, two young women are making their mark on the world. They are bright and funny and courageous. I won’t take credit for the amazing women they are but I have the unique privilege of sharing their earliest existence in this world, helping them grow day by day. I am overwhelmed with the wonderful people they’ve become.

And so is the writing life. Every day I can look forward to doing pretty much what I did yesterday and what I’ll do tomorrow. I will suffer and worry that whatever I’m writing will be just the wrong thing. Bit by bit, my book will grow, whether I see real progress or not. And there are those moments of pure joy, when the perfect idea springs into my head, or I write something so funny I laugh out loud.

One day, amazingly, I’ll have another completed book. Maybe it will go into the world and achieve great success. And if it does, wow, I’ll be happy. The only control I have over that hopeful outcome is to do the best job I can do today, to keep putting the words down and letting the book develop. When I get bogged down in the tedium of the work, I’ll think of two giggling girls playing dress-up in a room strewn with toys I’d just put away and remind myself that the trail to success can seem long and hard sometimes but there is always the chance of delight around the next bend. In the end, it’s all worth it.


What about you? Where do you get inspiration when writing feels like slogging through mud?

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

I'm in Oz

Sometimes, as a writer, I feel like Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz. A misunderstood dreamer, I try to be myself only to encounter the irritating and instigating Miss Gulch who is an unrelenting mirror of my weaknesses, yet an itch of inspiration that pushes me to know and understand myself better. I’ve got my own true Toto, my husband, supporting me with unconditional love through my time-consuming and expensive adventure.

Like Dorothy, I encounter exotic munchkins, themselves leery of taking the yellow brick road, wicked witch-nasty rough drafts that are unacknowledged heroes of their own stories, spear-wielding castle guards (the gatekeeper agents) and self-protective trees (editors bent on minimizing risk). I trudge through opium fields of intermittent successes: writing awards and small venue publishing – just enough to keep me high, at least anesthetized. Then there’s the traveling psychic/wizard, an ambiguous and well intentioned internal con artist that has me barking up wrong trees that turn out to be distractions.

Most important are three true friends that help along the way.

Nib turns out to be the least cowardly of lions, rearranging her personal life to find elusive happiness, braving new adventures, earning an advanced degree to move forward in her career, confidently writing until success explodes. She virtually shivers with an unrelenting and sincere energy. She says it as she sees it, never cowering. She’s my role model of success born of courage.

Folio is the brainy scarecrow, collaborator extraordinaire, always the modest voice of reason. She’s tall and lean and strong, inside and out. She offers sage advice, both personal and professional, not to mention rides to the doctor. She’s saved the day more than once with her generous suggestions. She’ll tie herself up with you in a project and drag you to higher ground.

Storm Petrel is a gentle tin-man, all heart, an exterior of metal with an interior of velvet sweetness. Patient and kind in a million ways. If I call, she’s there for me and my family with soothing sustenance and treats and help whenever it’s needed. Supportive and loving and modest despite her own wild writing successes.

It is nice to know that heart, courage and reason have my back. What more can a writer on this sometimes disheartening adventure ask for? My sisters have always been there for the discouraging days and for the celebrations of triumph. Without them I may have taken the easy way and gone home to Kansas prematurely, unchanged.

There’s not enough gratitude in the world for the journey shared and the heel-clicking aid of my sisters. Thank you! Love always, Inkpot