But I Get To Write About It

Reason Number Gazillion why its great to be a writer: because no matter what happens, you get to write about it.  When your heart is broken and life sucks, at least you get to write about it.  And the worse the things that happen to you, the better story they will make.  What other enterprise offers such a fabulous inverse proportion of bad to good?

In writing about it, you will distill it down and see what the true story is.  From this, you'll be able to make something of the experience.  The solace of this is immeasurable, and I'm not sure how people who don't write exit without it. 

Even if the experience doesn't make it directly into the pages of my journal, odds are good that it will be transmuted into a character in a novel or a story, or somehow filter into a blog post, or even color what I write to a student.  One way or another, writing is alchemy.

The only thing I remember from Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones is the anecdote she tells about a fellow writer about to get mugged on the streets of New York.  "Don't hurt me, I'm a writer!" the friend yelled.   I imagine the writer friend said that because she needed to write about the experience.

I just remembered another thing from the book (Reason Number Gazillion and One to write: it helps you remember things): how Goldberg, or one of her friends always said that writers live twice.  You get this, of course, but I'll explain it anyway.  Writers live twice because we experience the event and then we get to write about it.  Sometimes it is difficult to say which is the more pleasurable.

So, in these precarious times, give thanks that you are a writer.  And, when the check doesn't come in the mail, the man doesn't email, the weight doesn't budge, the words won't flow, the figures don't add up, just remember: at least you get to write about it.

The Writing Process

The thought occurs that reminders about the basics are a good thing.  I know for certain that I forget things about writing all the time and then when I remember them I feel like I've discovered the fountain of youth or the secret to cloning Brad Pitt.  No, wait, I hear that Johnny Depp is the current hot boy.  Well, you can clone Johnny and I'll clone Brad.

One of the things that is easy to forget about is the writing process. Or, perhaps we should capitalize it, The Writing Process.  It sounds official and mysterious but really it is the easiest thing in the world because basically all you have to do to partake of The Writing Process is write.

Sounds easy, and, um, logical, right?

Too bad we silly, wonderful humans allow ourselves to get bogged down and forget how easy it is to write.  Instead, we get mired in the muck of perfection.   We may begin to think that every sentence or even every word must be perfect before we move on.  We decide that we should know every single thing about our main character and her arc and every single scene we are going to write and every detail of it before we move forward.  We convince ourselves that this is how we are supposed to write, and we also convince ourselves that the "real" writers produce sterling prose the first time out, without ever having to revise.

Not even.

The most prolific writers follow The Writing Process.  It is damn difficult to be prolific when you are obsessing over every word that must come from your brain, through the fingers, onto the page.  It is really hard to get a lot of writing done when you are locked in a war with yourself about perfection.

On the other hand, there's also the trap of putting words on paper as they occur to you and assuming your are done, that your genius needs no revising.  This is most often seen in beginning writers.  There's that rush of creation and it feels so damn good that it is difficult to believe that the slightest thing could be wrong with your creation.

Steer a middle path through these two extremes and you'll find The Writing Process, which allows you to alternate between the two extremes.  Here's a rundown of it:

  • Rough draft.  Some people call this the discovery draft, because you are discovering the story.  You start writing at the beginning and push on through to the end, without stopping to revise or edit or make the changes your critique group told you about.  Even if you make a major change mid-stream, you keep writing.  At many times throughout the process you may feel lost, but once you get to the end, you'll know much, much more about the story than you did when you started.
  • Second draft.  This one is going to be a bit shapelier, but still not gorgeous.  You'll be looking at big issues this time around, such as how the plot functions and if the character arcs work.  You've learned so much from writing a rough draft that you'll be applying all those stellar ideas to this draft.
  • Third draft.  Probably more of the same, unless you're really good or you've made a deal with the devil.  Every draft that you do will allow the novel to unveil itself to you, and you'll get to a deeper and deeper level with it.
  • Fourth draft.  In reality, you'll probably do so many drafts that you'll lose track, but for the sake of the story, let's assume after the third draft you're satisfied with all the big issues and ready to move on.  Now you look at style, such things as using active verbs and varying your sentence structure, making sure you don't overuse the word "that" and so on and so forth.  I once had a mentor tell me to spend an hour per page in this stage, but I've never been able to manage it.
  • Fifth draft.  The fine-toothed comb draft.  Every word, every comma, every semi-colon, is up for consideration. 

After all this, finally, you will have a draft you can be proud of and eager to send out.  And then the real fun begins, as you navigate the dangerous waters of the publishing world.  And that is a topic for another post, or more likely, another person with more expertise than me.

Those Who Tell…and Those Who Don’t

Or maybe the title of this should be Those Who Remember and Those Who Don't.

I'm talking about writing, of course, and those who remember and tell every aspect of their current story while they are working on it.  I had dinner with my screenwriting friend last night and he went back through every scene of every act of his current script which he is turning into a novel.

I'm in awe of this, because I can't remember a scene five chapters ago in my current novel.  I take my work to my critique group and they start to talk about "when Riley said this" or "Emma Jean left the motel and went to the bookstore" and I'm drawing a complete blank.  Same thing happens with my blog posts, too–someone will tell me they enjoyed my post and I'll ask, "What did I write about?"

I realize this makes me sound like a complete dim-wit, but I've heard other writers say the same thing and so I thought it worth exploring.  I've heard writers say they'll be out on book tour, signing books, and a reader will comment on a specific scene to which the writer draws a complete blank.  By this time, said writer is deep into the next book.  The last one has been released onto the world.  She's onto something new.

I console myself with these reports from other writers and also with the thought that its because I write so much and so many different things.  Its not age, which is usually a worthy scapegoat, because this has been happening for a long time.

I suspect it may also have to do with how we process information.  Years ago I had a friend who was developing a machine that tested whether you were primarily a visual, auditory, or a kinesthetic learner.  He hooked this machine up to the computer and you had to identify first photos, then sounds.  I blew the tester out of her seat with my facility for identifying the photos correctly and quickly.  I have this knack for taking in an entire computer screen in a glance, or an entire paragraph.  Doesn't work with sounds, though.  After two of them I was hopelessly confused.   I process information nearly completely visually, which is why if you tell me a phone number you have to say it very slowly and carefully.  And it is why I write everything down.  Don't necessarily have to refer back to it, just need to write it down.

And this, I suspect, is why I don't tell my stories out loud and why I tend to forget them.  I'm not a story teller, I'm a story writer.  If I tried to tell you the plot of my story I'd get as hopelessly confused as I was during the sound test.  But give me pen and paper and I'll write you a fabulous synopsis.  (This is also why email was invented just for me.  I'd be happy if I never had to talk on the phone again.)

So I admire Brian and his facility for spinning tales as I drank my wine and picked at my fried fish sandwich (strange combination, but good).   But don't ask me to try to mimic him.  And don't ask me what the subject of this post was tomorrow.

Ah, LA….

where it is illegal to look different from anyone else.

It is a requirement here that you be thin, tan, have long hair, wear sunglasses and pout, AND be young.  Thus if you are not young it is required that you go get plastic surgery really, really fast.  And then you look like you are trying hard to look like everyone else, even though everyone knows that you went under the knife to do it.

Ah, LA.  I love it so, and I'm not even sure why.

Being here always makes me muse on the nature of identity and true self.  These are important topics for writers because letting that ole true self out in words is pretty much the key to it all.  You will find success only when you find your voice and you find your voice by writing enough that you can let it rip, and open a direct line from your deepest inner being, through the arm, out the fingers, and onto the page.  Or keyboard.  Or digital recorder.

My friend Deidre, who lives in Silver Lake, says that everyone in LA strives to look alike and act alike and be alike and then the one person who is not like everyone else arrives and they are the one who makes it.  So why does everyone else persist in attempting to be like everyone else?

And once you hit 40, forget it.  Actually, it might even be 30.  Soon it will probably be 20.

Lat night I had drinks with a friend who is an entertainment attorney and he says its a hellish culture of youth here  (my words, not his, but they have a ring to them, no?)  As an attorney, he is expected to be wise and mature so he doesn't have to worry about the the age thing, but if you are flailing about on the creative side trying to make it, you gotta be young.

The hell part is, of course, that everyone ages.  Even Hollywood Goldenboys.  Then they have to dye their hair and pretend they are still young.

I realize that none of this is news, yet it continually perplexes me every time I come down here. Why do we all persist in trying to make ourselves just like everyone else, when there's only one of each of us in this whole world?  I'm veering dangerously close to getting teary eyed and talking about snowflakes here so forgive me, or better yet, explain it to me.

I'm reading Harriet Rubin's latest book, The Mona Lisa Stratagem: The Art of Women, Age, and Power, and she talks about how if a famous actor is on stage and a cat is on stage, all eyes will be on the cat. Why?  Because the cat is uniquely, gloriously, himself, no matter what.  Animals just are.  (This might help to explain why the most popular photos on my yahoo home page are always of animals.  So we're not as simple minded as I feared.)  Its the same thing with babies.  Ever notice how nobody can keep their eyes off them? 

Somebody ought to tell all the 20-something wannabe actresses that story.

And yet, despite my horror at the preponderance of clones everywhere and the cult of youth here, there is something about this place that keeps luring me back. 
Maybe I like coming here so much because I can flee back north to
Portland, where everybody seems desperately determined to not look like
anyone else, ever. 

Or maybe its just the palm trees.

Interview with Me

John Craig did a 5-question interview with me and he posted it today.  I loved the questions he asked and I love his photography, so go check it out. 

You can find his blog here.

After you've read the interview, stick around on his blog and read his posts.  He's got some great stuff and he's also working on a book, I'm happy to report.  And don't forget to check out his photography on his website.

Thanks, John, for interviewing me!

Why Writing is like Drawing

I'm working on becoming a better observer.

Generally, I go about my business, I travel, I write in my journal about my experiences, and those jottings are too often self-absorbed treatises on what I'm feeling.  I like this, I don't like that, I feel so fabulous this morning or life sucks, blah, blah, blah, endless variations on an emotional theme.

But lately I've been writing a bit differently in my journal.  Instead of the endless scribblings that are all about me, I'm into an objective reporting vein–attempting to capture the essence of what its like to hang out in the Pasadena neighborhood where my friend lives, or documenting the unique aura of Ventura Boulevard, where I have appointments.

Its not that I haven't done this in the past, because I have.  But what has happened before is that all of my experiences have gone directly into the alchemical pot of fiction, to come out the other side the same base thing yet somehow different.   My new practice feels much more like a non-fiction, documentary approach.

And it requires careful observation, noting specific details.  It reminds me of my brief career in drawing.  Everyone in my family–all three of my older sisters got the art gene.  (And the thin gene.  Is this fair?  I ask you, where's the fairness here?) One of my sisters even makes her living at it. 

Okay, okay, so I got the writing gene–I'm not complaining.  But I did once go off on a wild hair and decide I would start drawing.  There's something so appealing about taking your journal with you everywhere you go and recording everything you see.   And what I learned from drawing is that you truly, truly learn to look at the world and see it when you are drawing it.

And of course, that is what we do with words, whether they are arranged into fiction or non-fiction.  I'm a wordsmith, not a visual artist, that's all there is to it.  What I'm learning from my new documentary approach is how insight grows out of careful observation and objective reporting.  By observing and seeing you really begin to get the gist of the situation.

The good news is that this kind of documentary writing can then be alchemized into whatever form you like–fiction, creative non-fiction, memoir, poetry.  So I'm finding its an excellent writing practice.  And may I just point out that this is why writing never gets boring?  There's always something new to discover.

Just Do It

I read recently that its the 20th anniversary of the Nike slogan, Just Do It.  I live in the Nike company town and went to school at the Nike company college, so of course this anniversary has extra special meaning for me.

Well, not really, but it always has been one of the most brilliant slogans ever written.

I thought of it the other morning when I was working on a project that seems to have dragged on for months.  Its an e-book that I’m writing and every time I feel like I’m making good progress on it, I realize I still have way more to do.

I was bemoaning my fate to myself, loudly and very dramatically, when the thought occurred to me.  Just do it. Quit whining and hand-wringing and just do it.   Use the energy that gets wasted on whining and worrying about it on writing.  (I used to tell my son this all the time–that if he’d use the time and energy he was wasting on complaining about having to clean his room on actually cleaning his room it would be done in a jiffy.  Well, maybe more like a week, but you get the drift.)

So I did.  And I got a huge chunk done rather quickly.  Tried it again this morning, and guess what?  It worked again. 

The e-book is almost finished (details to follow soon) and I’m excited about it.

So put aside your dislike of large corporate behemoths and join me in wishing Just Do It a very happy anniversary. 

One of Those Days

It’s been one of those days.  I thought I’d take time to work on some of my self-initiated projects instead of all the work I do for other people (those pesky items that pay the bills).  And yet.  There was a series of emails that needed to be sent out for the Loft, and those led to a flurry of emails in response.  And then my friend in LA had called and so I needed to call her back and there was that earthquake so it took way longer than usual to get through because all the circuits were busy.  (Can I just say how happy I am that there was an earthquake this week, since I’ll be in LA next week?  This takes the pressure off all those underground faults and fissures, so there won’t be another one for a long, long time.  Right? Right? Right?)

And after that, oh so many things happened that kept my nose to the grindstone.  I emailed a couple of book publicists for my book review and author site, and went through the contracts for the AWP panel.  More emails.  A lot more emails.  Completed a long-overdue survey about the makeover the wonderful Typepad people did for me.  And so on and so forth.

All wonderful things, but not writing.  Not at all writing.  All writing-related, but not writing.  Sheesh.  The good news is that I got enough done–oh, except there is the wee matter of the next ghostwriting project I need to start–that tomorrow can mostly be devoted to writing.

So, before dinner, feeling proud of myself, I sat down with a glass of wine and my knitting to relax a bit.  Never mind that my son, who is way too old for this kind of behavior, was banging relentlessly on the wall of the family room asking when dinner would be ready.  I ignored him as best I could (he finally went and started dinner himself but don’t be too impressed because it was take-out meatballs) and concentrated on my knitting, pondering what lovely words I would be writing tomorrow.

And as I formed stitch after stitch (I’m making a skirt, yes, a skirt–check out this great book called Handknit Skirts from Tricoter) I had a thought.  A brilliant thought, actually, about a problem in one of my fiction pieces that had plagued me.  I am going to submit a story to my friend Linda’s Christmas anthology, and I’m going to be editing a chapter of my first novel down to make it into a short story.  I really have no clue how to do this, and less of a clue as to how to start.

Ah, but such is the benefit of finally getting one’s mind quiet enough for brilliance to flood in.  It helps, immensely, when one’s hands are occupied, I find.  Any kind of repetitive behavior seems to set the mind free for great ideas.  Gardening is good, as is lawn mowing, or vaccuuming, or sewing.  Walking is excellent.  I’m sure golf probably is, but I wouldn’t know as the one time I played golf it took me so long at each tee that kicked me off the course.  Anyway, you get the idea.

So now I’m primed to get going tomorrow.  As long as I start with fiction first and do no go to the email I’ll be fine.

How Can I Resist A Ghostwriting Scandal?

Well, maybe its not much of a scandal.  But recently Madonna’s brother, Christopher Ciccone, came out with a new book about his sister.  It was supposedly a scandalous tell-all, but apparently it was fairly easy on ole Madge.

Now comes “news” of the true reason for this–Madonna herself ghostwrote the book.  The story is that she wanted the scandalous book out in order to promote her new tour and whatever else it is she has going on.

I don’t know, I try mostly to ignore the woman.  Not a big fan.  But I’m always interested in anything to do with ghostwriting.  So many books that people assume are written by famous stars are ghostwritten.  How Madonna would have time to write the book is beyond me, but the New York Post says it is so. 

And we all know how reliable they are.  Here’s the link:  Madge “Ghosted” Bro’s Tell All.

Hollywood of Comic Books

My son went through a long comic book phase when he was a pre-teen, which involved me driving him to comic book stores and conventions and then standing around waiting for him.  Having nothing better to do, I picked up comic books and began to read and in this way grew to love the form.  One of my early attempts at novel writing actually was set in the world of comics–a sure sign something holds a lot of interest to me, cause I won’t write about it unless I really love it.  (Except for ghostwriting.  I’ll write about anything if you pay me enough.)

For the record, as far as I’m concerned the best comic ever is Concrete, written by Paul Chadwick, and published by Dark Horse comics which just so happens to be located in Portland, along with all the other hot comic companies.  Concrete is the story of speechwriter Ron Lithgow whose brain was transplanted into a huge body of concrete by aliens.  But the series is far more than what it sounds like, as Concrete muses on all kinds of things such as the nature of people’s passions and so forth.  And, as I recall, there’s this sort of tragic The Sun Also Rises thing going on, with Concrete in love with a woman that he can of course never have.  For an interview with Chadwick, click here.  And to see what looks like a pretty complete list of the Concrete oeuvre, click here.  Check it out, its worth it, I promise.

I’ve been thinking about comics because of the success this summer of Hellboy II, a Dark Horse project, and, of course, The Dark Knight, which I’ve not yet seen.  Recently my local newspaper ran an article about how Portland truly is the Hollywood of the Comics world and you can read that article here.

So when I was looking at the ads that run alongside my gmail inbox (it fascinates and scares me how they are so keyed to whatever is being talking about in an email) and saw an ad for a comic book called The Elves of Iax, I had to click on it, just to check it out.  Turns out the comic is produced by Jeremy Kayes, who apparently lives in Seattle, which we’ll have to forgive him for as he might not be able to help it. Anyway, Jeremy is giving away Chapter 1 of his comic until August 11, 2008.  (You can give him a donation at the end of the process.) 

I deeply admire people who do things like this, because it implies that he cares not so much about making money, but getting his work out in the world.  He cares not so much about what the world can do for him as what he can do for the world.  Excellent karma.  So go check it out.  The elves look intriguing and I can’t wait for my copy.  And do check out Concrete, too.