Monday, December 16, 2013

A Season for Sharing

It's nearly the end of another year. In a few weeks, a new one will almost certainly start, and the old one will blink out of existence except for in that flat way the past remains in pictures and on film and in flashes of memory before it begins the alarmingly short trip to becoming legend.

So many things happened this year, and so many didn't. Great people died. Great people were born. Awful tragedies occurred. Unbelievable wonders followed. And we all rode along in our little boats, or big boats, and did our best to steer while wondering what it all meant and trying to snatch moments to look at the stars.

The year for me began in rough waters. After having spent the previous six months climbing out of a sadness that had grown from a deep loneliness and uncertainty, Jonathan and I took one of the best trips of our lives to ring in the New Year in England.

But soon after returning home, I broke my arm in a bicycle accident. I know: a broken arm isn't a big deal. Even surgery on a broken arm isn't that big a deal. I mean kids survive it all the time. But the last thing I needed was to be stuck at home, unable to do basic things for myself, unable to go out on my own, and feeling lonely, not to mention high from the pain medications.

Don't get me wrong; Jonathan was absolute amazingness wrapped up into one very patient and loving human. But he had a job to go to. So I got depressed. Seriously depressed. There's no point airing every single dirty bit of my laundry, but I will say I went lower than I had gone those six months prior in 2012. At least briefly.

Eventually, though, as almost always happens, I started getting better...

and better…

and better.

By March, I was moving again. I've been working out and getting more and more healthy ever since, which has been a quiet but major change taking place slowly, work out by work out. I've never felt stronger or more energetic than this year, in spite of its setbacks, and perhaps because of them, which is one lesson to be learned, while the other is that, as soon as I was up and out again, the sadness began to fade. So it's good it all happened. To know your weaknesses, where your dark places begin and how to make them end, that's a powerful bit of knowledge for anyone.

All the while, I'd been trying to teach through the pain and weakness and had done a pretty damn good job of it. In fact, if I had to say what I've done the most of this year, it'd be teaching, thinking about teaching, planning to teach, coming home from teaching, grading stuff my students hopefully learned while I was teaching. Teaching, teaching, teaching. And loving it even more when the sun came back out in spring and the whole place started to bloom!

I got back into what I love.

And then had the blessing of a week on the beach with family. If you're an ocean person, I mean one who feels an immediate calm at the sound, the smell, the depth, the spirit of the sea, you'll know why this moment meant so much after the ones preceding it. In all its mystery, the back and forth of the water is immensely comforting.

Soon, spring was turning into summer. That's how things are here in Georgia. It's as if the three seasons besides summer are just small breaks from summer till we get back to summer, during which the mosquitos and humidity try to ruin all the glorious green and the beautiful blazing sunshine. Not to worry about any of that this year, however, because it rained, rained, rained, rained, stopped raining for a second as if to catch its breath, and then rained some more.

But in spite of the rain, the world kept doing its turns while little things happened, while hundreds and hundreds of moments passed. Like the moment when a little boy grew up.

Like the frozen moments in the art gallery when we were sucked into a painting, or at the aquarium when we couldn't help wondering how it might be if the massive, clear wall started to crack and the life behind rushed out at us.

Like the moment when we told each other happy anniversary for the 11th year in a row.

Just life. Happening and happening over and over again from person to person.

At the first hint of fall, in a rare moment of embracing the pure artistic and spontaneous spirit I had in the old days, I cut my hair off and hitched a plane to Scotland, both of which I would do again right this second if I had to choose all over again.

It was an absolutely perfect trip. Quiet moments with friends, a moody blustery hillside, words upon words written from chilly rooms over the Loch Ness valley. It wasn't like a movie. It was better than that. It was real.

By the time I came home, it was most definitely autumn.

You know how autumn is--everything that follows comes in a great rush until just after Christmas when it slows down again into the cold gray days. I've had Christmas music on for weeks. Presents have been bought. Festive outings have taken place. Stockings have been hung by the chimney with care.

Meanwhile, I started and finished the first course for my TESOL certificate, during which I looked through many possible windows into my future. I wrapped up my twelfth term teaching and learned my schedule may soon slow dramatically. And I finished a complete first draft of the latest novel I've been working on.

Besides that, it's been sleeping, eating, laughing with Jonathan, taking walks downtown, having dinner with friends, writing letters, baking cakes, sitting on the porch, playing guitar. Stuff. Every day stuff. Nothing happened that wasn't overcome. Happy days were had and sad ones too. I worked hard, napped hard, had ups, had downs. Some days I was mean and selfish. Others I was kind and generous. 

I lived life in this body on this path.

My hope for 2014 is to do exactly the same: come out the other side having helped someone, having grown, have cried and laughed, having traveled, having hurt and healed, having cried out for meaning, and having continued to walk toward balance and peace and freedom of mind and heart.

And here's the same to you, friend. Merry Christmas. Happy New Year. Thanks, as always, for reading.

All my love for another year ahead
~ Robin Egg

Friday, December 6, 2013

On stories that write themselves

It's a comeback tale! In spite of teaching classes, taking classes, Thanksgiving travel, sickness, and many days when no writing was done at all (see plateaus in the graph below), my little novel got to just over 50,000 words in the 30 day time limit!

But finishing isn't what was great about this year's NaNo. You know how writers sometimes say, "The story just wrote itself," and you want to punch them in the face? Well punch me in the face because I've figured it out. As a result, it's the best NaNo novel I've ever written. Wanna know the secret?

I knew my characters.

What do I mean by that?

1. I did not write extensive character sketches about what color shoelaces each character prefers. I did not know all of their likes, dislikes, physical features, or personality quirks. I didn't know their entire histories or what their futures would hold. For a couple, I didn't even bother giving them a decent name. It's a draft. That stuff can come later.

2. What I did know was every single character's motivation (what he or she wanted) and conflicts (what was going to get in the way). Every major player was on a journey, not just the protagonist. Every. One.

So here's the big secret: Stories don't write themselves. Characters write them.

If you take, say, five characters, give each of them universal goals, and throw them all on a farm or a spaceship or a medieval estate, they will behave and progress naturally and create many of their own conflicts. Whether the combination is interesting enough to read is another issue. That's why you follow the main character's storyline, the one that came to you as the seed of the story that got you excited about putting it on the page. Build in realistic obstacles for your protagonist, given the situation and setting, but get them to their goal in the end, and let the other characters have lives too. The main story will follow the ups and downs of your protagonist's journey, but just like in real life, everyone isn't riding your train.

The stronger the characters, the more meaningful the goals, the more tangible the settings, the more believable the relationships: the better the story. Focus on those. Pull from people and places you've known, struggles you've gone through, scenarios you've imagined. These are what make a story unique. But don't waste your time trying to invent brand new goals no one's ever thought of. That's impossible. The goal is always to overcome, whether the protagonist is successful or not, whether the goal honorable or not. It's the circumstances and the players and the style that are new, not the hopes and dreams of your characters. Those are what make a story relatable. You didn't think Harry was the first outcast to become savior of a world, who had to die and be raised from the dead and beat the ultimate bad guy and learn to accept his burden with grace, did you?

Think about every story you've loved. Whether it took place in a time machine or in the turn of the century slums of New York, whether the main character was a fallen hero or a young Jewish girl, the story was about love, life, loss, courage, friendship, change, etc. The universals. Your job as a writer isn't to come up with a new human condition, it's to build unique characters and places and circumstances around the human condition that already exists.

And when something isn't natural to the character or the world you've built, you'll know it. It won't have gone to plan, and that'll be frustrating. But it'll bug you every time you get to that part of the draft. You'll feel like you can't ever create a strong story, like you're a bad writer. Don't. Spend that self-loathing energy on starting again from the point where things went weird. Make what happens next realistic to the world and characters on the page instead of forcing it into the shape you thought it would take. It's less about killing your darlings and more about accepting the fact you can't always tell the future, even of your own creations.

I guess this is why stories sometimes go left when we meant for them to go right, because when that monster you created showed up as a conflict for your main character, you hadn't thought through the fact that one of your secondary characters would be in the perfect position to save the day, and logically would have to do so or else the story would seem contrived, at which point you have to say to yourself, "Did not expect that," and just like in life, realize you had an ally where you thought you'd just had an acquaintance, and move forward from there.

'Tis all the NaNo wisdom I have for one year, fellow writer, but it's served me well. Here's to another finished draft in need of a good polishing.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

A Growing Understanding

In July, I wrote a post about continuing education options I was considering. Two of those courses are now over and the third will end next week. Here's a bit about the Metaphysics course I took through Oxford's Continuing Education program. I'm proud to say I received credit for my work this term, especially since it was quite hard. I have mixed feelings about the course material and the online format, but I'm glad I took it and would definitely consider taking another. Why? Because I crave perspective. It informs my life, my heart, my point of view, and my writing. Below is the final response essay I wrote for the class. It's a decent sample of my narrative academic style, which I don't have much of on the blog, and it gives an honest account of what I learned.
A Growing Understanding
            Over the course of this term, my understanding of metaphysics has more than undergone a complete change: it has been born. In signing up for the course, I assumed that many areas of the discipline bled into other areas, but I did not know the topics metaphysics covered, to what degree, or that scholarship and major advancements in the field have grown both by layering and by splintering off until incredibly precise arguments and counterarguments have been formed. Just when the reader expects an issue to be settled, another point of view not yet considered will be elaborated on, and therefore another pathway taken.
           Before the term started, I could not have given a definition of metaphysics, listed any of the arguments set forth in any conversations about metaphysical theories, or even mentioned a single name of someone well-known for his (I say ‘his’ because I did not come across the work of females in the field) essays and arguments about metaphysical topics. I will attempt here to summarize a few things I have learned, and I will thread information throughout about the academic and semantic sides of the discipline, which I also had no knowledge of prior to taking this class.
            From the beginning of the course, I established a rough idea of what metaphysics is at a basic level. In my own words, I described it as having to do with being, whereas epistemology has to do with knowing. In other words, if two people discuss what change is, as we did in class, they are discussing what something is, but if one of them questions how the other one can be so sure her definition of change is correct, then they have slipped into an epistemological argument. That is how I kept the two separate and how I will always attempt to simply define metaphysics, which seems appropriate since the arguments we read often defined one idea in contrast to another. In fact many were a direct response to a previous argument, such as the conversation-style arguments of Plato’s dialogs.
            However, things became much more complex from there on out. The language in the readings is dense, often goes in argumentative circles and on tangents in order to catch any objections, and is sometimes slightly antiquated and highly technical. Therefore, a major aspect of learning about metaphysics that I had no expectation of was learning how to read critical work about metaphysics, a skill I am afraid to say I did not come anywhere close to mastering, a deficiency that made the subject inaccessible to me many times.
            That barrier notwithstanding, I did pick up on new ideas and learn the foundations of many metaphysics theories and the arguments used to support them. In response, I was able to begin developing my own questions and begin answering them. For example, in answer to a question asking for a sample of an ontological dispute, I asked: Does a universal, innate knowledge of right and wrong exist? I could not answer the question, of course, but asking the right questions seems to be a major aspect of metaphysical disputes.
            I pondered other things as well, like whether or not the physical properties of something like the pumpkin on my table are actual or are dependent upon the perceiver, in fact, whether existence itself is reliant on perception. I learned what it means to be a hard determinist, which, in my understanding, is not about the fact that one might have freedom in a given moment to choose the red scarf over the blue, but that one does eventually decide, and that the decision is based on a long series of past events along with basic laws that rule the universe. In other discussions, as with the questions about Hume’s causation arguments, I found myself frustrated in feeling something is ultimately true, but not knowing how to prove it with a logical argument or how to counter my critics’ objections. Still, I knew I must find a logical answer and meet my critics, in order to create an answer worth considering. So then, even the experience of struggling to find an answer, and coming up short, was useful.
            Of all the topics discussed, the most affecting and fascinating for me were two. The first was the ‘one over many’ question and the ideas that followed, and the second was the space-time discussion. I never came to a conclusion about the ‘one over many’ question, but I am intrigued with so many of those what questions: what is an individual entity; what makes it what it is; is it a single quality of that entity that gives it a character, or a bundle of qualities; do those qualities belong to that entity, or do they exist somehow outside of the entity? This stuck with me and still has me asking: What am I, what makes me up, and why? Do my characteristics connect me to others with similar characteristics—do my Forms exist if I cease to exist?
            As for the space-time discussion, I have always had a sense that there is more to time than a straight line, and could happily take an entire course on the subject! The concept of the fourth dimension opened my mind considerably, and, more importantly, made absolute sense. Movement through time or space, I learned, may be seen best through the lens of change, which is also the best way to describe how such a young and immature understanding of something I knew little about before has now grown into the first steps of comprehension. In other words, I may still be in the cave, but there is most certainly a loosening in the chains that hold me.

Monday, November 25, 2013

A Bookish Christmas List: 2013

Since last year's Christmas list was full of things only Santa could afford, here's a list of genuinely good and affordable gifts for the writerly and/or readerly person in your life.

Category 1: Books

Enough with the wordy, depressing, and cliche world of pop fiction! Picture books say a whole lot in a little bit of space, and you get pages and pages of artwork to boot.

1. Buy a book that is supposedly for adults but has been put into a format supposedly for kids (apparently because of the added illustrations), like something from the Poetry for Young People series from Sterling.

2. Or buy something you've never heard of. For example, here's my rough copy of Fortunately by Remy Charlip and is a great example of a book worthy of being loved and read but no longer displayed on McBookstore shelves. Go to used bookstores, find a bunch you've never heard of, sit on the floor and read them, then pick your favorite and wrap it up for someone for Christmas.

3. Look for one of the really good classics. Here's a favorite. Don't get a cartoony edition, get the one with original artwork by William Nicholson. It makes a difference! This book is heartbreaking in the same way as Toy Story was, but with a 1920s vibe.

4. All parents are freaks in one way or another, even though some are good at hiding it. So for all those who didn't live in a Hallmark special, I present to you, Monster Mama, whose weaknesses can also be her strengths.

5. This or any book by Oliver Jeffers. They're sweet, quiet, disarmingly and deceivingly simple, and beautifully illustrated. They're a hug in a book.

6. Death can be beautiful and honorable and inspiring. Our culture needs to get a grip on it. Rabbityness.

7. Or, lastly, try out some historical creative nonfiction with a personal, meaningful message, preferably about something outside your cultural and/or social sphere.

Category 2: Focused Craft Experiences

This is more expensive than a book, and you'll need to know quite a bit about the receiver's preferences and available time off work. If you can't find something near where your friend lives, there are tons of options a plane ride away.

1. Writing Retreats & Courses - In the last year, I've gone on a couple writing retreats. One was self-led:

The other was tutor-led:

Both were fantastic experiences. There's nothing like getting away and focusing completely on your writing, and most writers would love the opportunity. Alternatively, you could rent a weekend at a cabin for your friend, buy her a gift card for the nearest grocery store, a bottle or two of wine, and a pack of invitations to send to her writing buddies so they can create a retreat of their own.

2. Conferences, Memberships & Events - Conferences are overpriced, cliquish, and often put on airs like no other, but they're a great place to make connections…

...and get your writing read by pros in the field. That can be priceless. There are conferences for everything from religious romance literature to young adult fantasy to creative nonfiction. Often, such conferences are run by groups that require membership, so your gift could be a year membership just to let them try it out. Also watch for news of author visits and book signings nearby, which are usually free. Just last year, I met the author who most affected my childhood. Getting that signed book was one of the highlights of my bookish life.

3. School Visits - If the person you're buying for is really serious about writing or getting into the book industry, buy him a weekend trip to visit a college or university with a program he's interested in, see the local sights, go to a reading or exhibit or both--generally get immersed and see what he really thinks. A school visit is what finally helped me decide to follow my interest in children's literature. It could do the same for him.

4. Literary Sites - Look around--there may be places close to you with literary history or significance. We've got the Wren's Nest and the Margaret Mitchell House here, and there are special events constantly coming through town, like this illustrator exhibit currently featured at the High Museum of Art. Taking your friend to something like this would be an excellent gift.

5. Theater Tickets - If your friend reads or writes, then your friend loves stories. Find the local playhouse. See what's playing. Get your friend season tickets and a gift card for a great restaurant nearby. Jonathan is taking me to see A Christmas Carol at The New American Shakespeare Tavern next month, and I can't freaking wait.

Category 3: Tools

If the person you're buying for is a writer, then there are lots of affordable tools that can help make the process even more enjoyable. There's a bit for readers here too.

1. Noveling Software - There's tons of software for writers, most of which I know nothing about, but I do know that using Scrivener changed my writing process. You can set up your novel into chapters, scenes, parts, whatever you like, and add notes all over the place. There's a spot for keeping all your research organized and for filing character and location sketches too. Plus, if you want to self-publish, it knows how to correctly format your finished novel. Do some research, find what's best for the writer in your life, and get them some organization software.

2. Practical, Sturdy Handwriting Tools - Journals have been popular forever. I have so many, and I never use them. The only thing I use for handwriting is a plain old Moleskine and a pack of multicolored pens. The Moleskine has an elastic band to keep it shut, comes in all sizes, and usually has a little pocket inside. No quote on the front. No lines on the pages (at least not in mine). Just paper in a sturdy book with a strap to hold it all together.

3. Craft Books - There are approximately one gazillion of these on the market. Some tell how to write stories, others describe how to write in a certain genre, others explain how to get into the business, and still others teach grammar and style. My favorites are the ones that aren't so much about how as why. They're written to encourage the writer, not tell how to write or what to write next. Sometimes, all an artist needs to keep going is for someone to say, yes, you suck today, but most days, you're fantastic, so Keep Going. Here are my favorites:

4. Book Light & Soft Cozy Blanket - No matter who's receiving your gift, they will love a soft cozy blanket and a book light. This book light is extra cool because it comes with a pen for writing secret notes. Along with this snazzy blanket, every reader will be all set.

5. Local Guide - Out of money? That's okay! One of the best gifts I can think of receiving, especially since I'm in a big town and haven't been here long, would be a homemade guide to the best local spots to read, write, get a cup of tea, people watch, get inspired, daydream, eat chocolate, or all of the above. Find great places for a creative soul to go, type up a clever guide in a nice, clean font (for the love of god not comic sans), print it, fold it like a card, draw some holly on the front, and you're done.

Category 4: In honor

If the recipient of your gift would prefer something more charitable this year, consider the following. (There are tons more options, but these are the ones I've had experience with and trust.)

1. First Book - This organization has provided 100 million books to kids in need. Read that again: 100 million. For $10, you can get 4 books sent to kids in need too, and do it in celebration or in memory of your reading/writing friend.

2. Barnes & Noble Holiday Book Drive - There's a good chance the Barnes & Noble in your area is involved in the yearly holiday book drive. You buy the books and your store donates them to a local literacy organization, school, or other group in need of literature. That's what I got Dad last year, and it was so much fun picking the books out myself (see picture below). Even better, take the recipient of your gift with you and make it an outing. Give them the receipt for their memories, a hug for being a charitable friend, and a kiss if you have a crush on them and have been meaning to tell them for years but have been a big chicken.

That's all I can think of, friends, so I hope it helps! Merry Christmas! Happy gift giving! I wish you all peaceful, pleasant, perfect moments with the ones you love, if you can manage to stop fighting for five freaking minutes :)


"One can never have enough socks," said Dumbledore. "Another Christmas has come and gone and I didn't get a single pair. People will insist on giving me books." - J. K. Rowling in Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone 

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The power of universals

When someone talks about universals in literature, they mean those things that connect anybody anywhere to anybody else anywhere/time else. Universals are things like birth, death, gain, loss, progress, family, conflict, challenges, rising above, falling down, love, hate, courage, hope, hopelessness--they're human things. They aren't tied to or owned by a particular culture, race, gender, or generation. They just are.

Sure, universals may be expressed in different ways in the east and west, in the past and present, from language to language. But every beloved story has them--those commonalities that connect us. Granted, sometimes the reader has never considered the universal in such a way. Sometimes we need to understand the culture to interpret the universal someone is expressing, to know why they hold courage higher than most or why they refuse to allow hate into their minds or why they look at loss as beautiful when we may look at it as a tragedy. But the universal is there. The connection can still be made.

That's why universals are just short of holy. They transcend. We all know that people of the world don't always get along. We argue, blow each other up, and do all manner of ugly things to each other for something as small as money, power, or tradition. But you can't blow up the concept of love. You can't take it away from people. As intelligent as humans are, as amazing and creative and stupid--there are things we can't touch, sacred things like fear, loneliness, friendship, and hunger. Some are part of being spiritual creatures, some part of being physical creatures. Whatever the case, they are.

You can have one person who believes the world is the center of the universe, that everything in existence revolves around humans, that our story is the story; then you can have another person who believes we're just a part of a natural cycle, that there are likely many cycles like ours somewhere else in space, that our sun is just another star and our planet no more significant than any other; then you can have a person somewhere in the middle, not sure what to think about existence, not sure if she should bother thinking about it at all. They can fight all day about what to do before death and what happens after death. But all three will face that moment. Death is the constant. All three have a heartbeat, and all three hearts will stop beating. Where religion, politics, and culture break ties, the universals reconnect them.

I've heard it said that people are the same everywhere you go. No they're not. They're very different. They're all completely different. There's not two the exact same in the history of the world. But they all live and breathe and assume and decide and are capable of breaking and mending.

I reckon if the world is to ever be at peace, the universals will have something to do with it.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

The two morals of the stories I've loved

Moral #1: It's gonna be alright in the end.

The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
There's a Boy in the Girls' Bathroom, Louis Sachar
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
James and the Giant Peach, Roald Dahl
Christy, Catherine Marshall
Holes, Louis Sachar
The Dark is Rising, Susan Cooper
A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L'Engle
Harry Potter, J. K. Rowling
The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C. S. Lewis
The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett
Anne of Green Gables, Lucy Maud Montgomery
Show Way, Jacqueline Woodson
The Heart and the Bottle, Oliver Jeffers
Firegirl, Tony Abbott
Hinds' Feet on High Places, Hannah Hurnard
The Eagle of the Ninth, Rosemary Sutcliff
A Separate Peace, John Knowles (in a twisted sort of way)
The Awakening, Kate Chopin (in a twisted sort of way)
The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame (in a sad, settling sort of way)
Hamlet, William Shakespeare (in a tragic sort of way)

Moral #2: Sometimes, it's not gonna be alright in the end.

The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway
The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald
Peter Pan, J. M. Barrie

Bonus Moral #1.5 (i.e. somewhere between 1 & 2):

Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
The Bible, ?

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The NaNo Slog

It's that time of year again. November: The month of writing my little heart out. In past years, I've jumped naked into the writing pool and splashed around wildly while my inner editor was tied up and gagged in a closet. This year, I don't have the time or desire to write so haphazardly. This year, I'm following a plan, doing my best not to waste words, and trying to build a solid skeleton. In other words, I'm taking my time.

Unfortunately, time is short in the NaNoWriMo game, so I'm falling behind. Getting a story down quickly has its benefits, sure, but this one needs special attention. I do hope to catch up. Still I'd rather get the skeleton than win the game. So I'm slogging along, writing a scene, then stopping to put important messages to myself in brackets, like [Come back and fill in character details here], or [Fix this later, it's total crap], or [You've lost the voice, restart of scene below]. I spend time flipping back to my notes about the story arc and what conflicts I want to build in and where and how to resolve them. I stop and stare out the window and think about what I already know and make notes about what I still need to figure out: [Research chicken coops; go see one in real life], [Find out what it looks like when an evergreen forest is on fire], [If this character disappeared, would it matter?] And, in the midst of all that thinking and planning and stopping, I get a little writing done.

So wish me luck. Updates to come. Here's a short excerpt from yesterday's writing just to prove words are actually appearing on the page:

They followed Ruth and her candle around the side of the house to the cellar door, a heavy wooden square with a sheet of metal nailed to the top. Jessie had been down a few times to get beans and pickled eggs and jars of okra for dinner. The room was lined with the preserves Ruth had slowly packed away and gathered by trading with neighbors for firewood and quilts. Bob opened the door and climbed in ahead of Ruth before reaching out a hand to help the old woman down the stairs. About that time, a loud crack of thunder blasted through the hills and lightning lit up the entire valley. Jessie felt like she could see every needle on every tree. Then it was dark again. As soon as she climbed down the steps and Bob closed the door, a slow and heavy tap, tap, tap sounded on the tin then quickly sped up to the roar of pounding on a thousand metal drums. Jessie was about to learn the meaning of the words 'mountain squall'.


Sunday, October 13, 2013

Conference scrawlings

Yesterday, I attended another SCBWI conference. Usually, those make me cranky and frustrated, but this time, even though I got another rejection, and even though the event had the same frustrating characteristics, I walked away with some useful ideas plus one epiphany that could change everything about the story I've been working on for six years. Here are a few of the notes I took when I was inspired by something and applied it to my situation. These aren't quotes or paraphrases, except for number one, which is somewhat close to something Matt de la Peña said, so credit to him for the idea.

1. This (writing) has to matter to me no matter if anyone else knows I'm doing it.

2. It's time to face the issue of plotting and the stack of writing books hidden in the desk.

3. Read. Figure out a way to want to do it. It'll probably mean turning off the computer.

4. Stop being lazy about research. And do it on ground as much as possible.

5. My strengths are not enough [to carry a story]. If I want the good parts of my writing to merge into a well-written story, I'll have to give time to my weaknesses.

6. There's no such thing as a one-book wonder. One book is a wonder in itself.

7. I have at least two stories in me I've been too scared to tell. They may be the best stories I've got.

8. Everything (you know this, but still)--everything [in a story] needs to be relevant.

9. Research helps you open your writing mind and expands your written worlds.

10. This, my epiphany, won't mean anything to most of you. One of the speakers rhetorically asked how we'd describe our stories in one line in a format sort of like, "This is a story about [insert your main character's name] who wants [insert your main character's need]." That's when I quickly, without even thinking, wrote this: "This is a story about Marie who wants to find her mother." Then I wrote: "Oh god," because for the past 6 years, I've been writing this story with the assumption that Marie was looking for her father. It turns out, it's her mother she really needs to connect with. How could I have worked on a story for that long without realizing what my main character's core motivation is? I don't freaking know. It's just one of those things writers get blocked about. Writer's block isn't someone sitting in front of a blank white page not knowing what to say or not having ideas. It's when writers are blind to something completely obvious because, as in their own lives, they're often too close to have a clear perspective.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The spider and the worm

It's half past twelve in the afternoon on a Wednesday, and I just saw something move in the window and went over to watch what I thought was a wasp (one of the family that lives in the corner of the window between the pane and the screen) falling down into the spider's web (the spider who lives in the lower part of the same space with a messy web that is neither pretty or symmetrical but is, apparently, effective) again. The wasps never get stuck because they're too big and flap away, but the spider approaches them anyway, which must help encourage the wasps to flap harder and faster. But today it wasn't a wasp. It was an inchworm.

I love inchworms. I always have. There are few bugs I'll let crawl on me. Inchworms are one of them. I got closer to see what would happen, fully expecting the worm to get away. Instead he fell further into the web and was soon approached by the spider, just like the wasps have been. Unfortunately inchworms don't have wings and aren't very big. She immediately began wrapping him. It's over, I rightly assumed. Yet I hoped. Which was a silly thing to do, because why hope for the inchworm and not the spider? Still.

The wrapping continued for a long time, and the inchworm struggled throughout the entire process. I tapped on the window once or twice. Futility. It seemed to go forever. In the meantime, I rationalized. Part of me angrily said, why is the world, the cycle, based on cruelty, on death, on the end of one thing for the continuation of another? The other part of me said, stop personifying; these are things, programmed to work in a certain way for survival; it means nothing. But it's the struggle that got me. It's when the spider got close to the twitching stick of a creature and paralyzed it, and the twitching slowed, but then became fierce again, only to bring on more jabs of paralyzation, to be followed by more slow twitching and the spider pulling the worm close, almost like boxers do when they hug mid fight.

The spider scurried up, rearranged things, pulled the dying worm this way and that way, scurried back down, hugged, stabbed, wrapped. The worm fought on, if slowly. Then she went behind his neck and stabbed him there, and he jerked violently. I could see his mouth moving open and closed. I don't know why I started crying, I just did. I thought, let be little worm, just let it happen. But he could no more do that than I could voluntarily stop breathing.

If life is a spider, I hope I fight. I will. It's natural.

There they hang now in the widow beside me. The worm is in a soft white sheet. The spider is beside him. A twitch here and there. Probably little aftershocks. I can't help thinking the poison was a grace, an anesthetic and that she's staying by his side as a comfort. She's not, but I can't help thinking it. And I can't help looking around the web for other stories. Oh. In the far corner, there's a wasp. He didn't make it. That's the first I've seen. Somehow I don't care. I can't. I'm using all my care for the worm. Maybe later.

All is still now. Even the wasps aren't moving. The thing is done. It's natural. It's no big deal. So why am I still crying?

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Writing on a quiet day

I don't feel so good today. Got a bit of a headache and tummy ache, a bit of the angst that comes along with the blessing and curse of the natural monthly cycle.

There's something nice about it though. It forces me to stop and gives me a fantastic excuse to sit around feeling and looking dreadful and doing whatever I please. In these moments, I either sleep, watch a movie, or write. Today, I shall write.

I've got my cuppa and my cookies and my comfy place to sit. Off I go into my newest story, into the little mountain valley where a lonely girl will learn what to hold on to and what to let go...

(Oh, my. I just, for the first time in my life, dipped a ginger snap into a cup of hot tea. If ever you think you've discovered all of life's joys and begin to think there's nothing more to look forward to, it's certain you're wrong.)

Monday, September 30, 2013

New Autumn's Resolution

The best of all seasons has arrived! That's meant cooler mornings and evenings, more spiderwebs than normal, a pumpkin centerpiece on the table, a handmade Halloween costume on order, lots and lots of food, a fall festival downtown, and, most welcome of all, that feeling--like everything is gonna be okay, like you want everyone to know how much you love them, like festivity is upon you, like there's something to look forward to--the fall feeling. As soon as I arrived home from my writing adventure, I could tell autumn had eased in while I'd been away. A lovely welcome.

What fall hasn't meant so far, unfortunately, is lots of writing.

I'd thought coming off such a great writing experience, I'd spend my days creating new stories and cleaning up old ones. It turns out, work and class and life get in the way. And not having a plan leads to time disappearing in huge chunks. So today, with only a week lost to poor time management, I'm making a New Autumn's Resolution before the fire goes out: Write for at least a couple hours every morning, first thing, up early before I get online or feed the animals or empty the dishwasher or get otherwise lost in the stuff of the day. Who knows, I might even use pen and paper.

While I've not been writing this week (besides the blog), I have been bringing in the new season. This year, it's been in honor of Arvon and the friends I made there by trying out some of the recipes we writers cooked during the course. I can't tell you the recipes (that's top secret Arvon stuff), but I can show you a picture or two.

My favorite was the nut roast. Apparently it's a go-to recipe for vegetarians when there's a hearty meat dish being enjoyed by everyone else. It's the first thing I've ever cooked with Marmite, and it was a massive success. It's hearty, like a thick Thanksgiving stuffing with a crunchy texture and a salty (but not too salty) flavor. Perfect with grill-smoked veggies and a cheese board and a good drink.

Last night, we tried one of the most popular recipes, the sausage, leek, and apple pie. It didn't turn out as pretty as Arvon's, but it was just as rich and satisfying, with a secret spice that makes it perfect for fall. I pretended I was in Hogsmeade while I cooked, thanks to a bottle of Flying Cauldron Butter(scotch) Beer (if you're wondering--it tastes a lot like regular cream soda but it's extra buttery and sweet, like drinking candy). Oh!--and a picture of the best dessert of the week: Greek yogurt with honey and figs and nuts.

With all the eating, it's a wonder we were able to walk downtown and back so many times this weekend to enjoy the fall festival. It's lovely to see the place alive with music and people and booths and a carnival. We walk to town several times a week (usually at night with Harvey) and have grown to feel the walk and the shops and the town green are sort of an extension of our house. Seeing it all done up for fall and full of people having fun was very nice indeed, especially on a year like this one when the weather went along with the spirit of things instead of having the usual lingering Georgia summer heat.

After all that fun, it seems a shame today's the start of another work week, but it's the contrast of work and play, just like the contrast of summer and autumn, that makes us appreciate each for their virtues and feel glad to see them go for their vices (though, for the life of me, I can't think of a single vice for autumn).

The big question in my mind on this particular Monday is whether or not the spirit of Arvon, the spirit of fall, the spirit of change will inform my writing, whether I'll stick to my New Autumn's Resolution, whether I can take all I learned at Arvon and make my writing better and stronger and fresher. I must, because it's true what they said so many times on the course: Sure, writing begins with a talent, but the magic isn't in the talent, it's the willingness to do hard work, the hours and hours spent practicing, getting better, drafting, editing, and editing again. The magic is the grease under your nails.