When One Is Born a Writer, Redux

Last week I wrote a blog post titled, When One is Born a Writer.., and listed some of the things that accrue from the condition of being wonderfully scarred at birth with the love of the word.  I promised then that I would compile any additions people came up with, and let me tell you, you came up with some great ones!

Here we go. (And, all you wonderful commenters, please forgive my wee editing in order to make things fit the format):

When one is born a writer,

…one can't
read fiction without analyzing sentence structure, word choice, punctuation, and
whether one POV per scene is mandatory.

…one can't help but wonder
whether she's on the early part of the popularity curve in terms of subject
matter, at the top of the curve, or on the downside and sinking fast.

From Robin Gideon, erotic romance writer extraordinaire.

When one is born a writer,

…one ignores the laundry so long that a mouse makes its nest in the full basket…

From Louise Bostock, Italian village dweller and so much more.

when one is born a writer,

—one owns Costco-size Advil for relief of carpal tunnel.

….one constantly is weighing what bits of conversation you hear that can make it into a story without losing friends.

From K. Harrington, Elvis Rum Cake lover and writer

When one is born a writer,

…you think you are just being quiet and interested and everyone else thinks you are 'special'/antisocial

…one is surreptitiously earwigging on buses/public transport

…you have an almost fetishistic pursuit of the perfect notebook/pen

…if you see someone reading in a cafe, you are struck with the uncontrollable urge to know what they are reading so intently …

From Kate Lord Brown, UK blogger, writer, and Nanowrimoer.

When one is born a writer,

…one learns to be happy in a
bookstore without buying, to use libraries, and the like, particularly when one lives in a 150 square foot RV.

..one does not miss sunny days, because that's what laptops and wireless are
for–but then, living beneath a mountain and beside a river, I'm seldom
short of inspiration. *grin*

…when one is spoken to while writing, one makes polite "mmm" noises but won't know what was actually said
until you say "but you SAID I could buy the Lambourghini!"

From Linda R. Moore, motorcylist, author, and "wyrd" woman of the world

When one is born a writer,

his/her muse is always tangled up in his/her thoughts.

From Malcolm R. Campbell, author of The Sun Singer, southern journalist and author.

Amazing list, no?  And be sure to visit the original post to read the comments that didn't quite fit the list.  And if anyone has anymore, keep 'em coming.


The Dream World

"Imagination is sacred and divine–I trust it implicitly."

So said Andre Dubus III at his Wordstock reading last weekend.  Dubus, best known for House of Sand and Fog, read from his latest novel, The Garden of Last Days, which was inspired by the Florida sojourns of the 9-11 hijackers.  After he read from the book, Dubus talked about writing the book.  He quoted Flannery O'Connor, who said, "writing is waiting," to make the point that even when you are staring at the computer monitor, you are writing.  And then he ripped off this line: "You are summoning, almost like a prayer to an angel, the imagination to give you something."

After hearing that line, I was ready to go buy every book the man ever wrote.  He went on the say that if you summon the imagination regularly it will reward you with things to write about.  Someone in the audience asked him how difficult it was to get inside the head of one of the September 11 hijackers, and he told how he resisted and resisted it, that he had no interest in making one of them a viewpoint character.  But then the novel seemed to sputter and fall flat and he was in danger of losing it completely.  He realized that he had to make one of the hijackers a viewpoint character, so he sat and did nothing but read books about the Middle East for five months.

Dubus quoted Mike Nichols, saying that the charge of the storyteller is to share what it is really like to be in the midst of whatever is happening.  In character-driven fiction, you want to establish empathy for the characters, not sympathy.  As a writer, you do this to the point that there is no other.  What you do in writing is to go beyond knowledge of the other to totally be the other.

Interestingly, this is true in fiction, as well as in many other arenas of writing. When you write a press release, there's a certain tone and style that you emulate.  In a much more superficial way, you're becoming the other–the PR pro who knows what will grab attention.  A blog post sounds different than a web page and an article in a newspaper is dissimilar in tone to a piece in the New Yorker.   In each instance the trick for the writer is to figure out the trops and do them.  Be the other.

I was discussing this with Mary-Suzanne yesterday in terms of ghostwriting.  How does a writer get out of their own skin and into the skin of the person who is supposedly writing the book?  Here are some tips (which are applicable to every kind of writing imaginable):

1.  Get Over Yourself.  Clear the gunk out.  Do it however you like, but I think the best way is to write a bunch of crap down on paper.  Set a timer and write out all the petty judgments and grievances and even all the things that are making you happy.  (You may get some ideas along the way, though that is not the point of this.  As an added benefit, you may also improve your mental health along the way.

2.  Enter the Dream World.  Close your eyes, take some deep breaths, center yourself, do whatever it takes to get yourself calm and zen and relaxed.  Listen to music if you need to. 

3.  Start to Observe.  Pull an image of the person you are melding with into your brain.  What do they look like, smell like, sound like, feel like?   Be aware that in making these observations you are still on the outside looking in.

4.  Become the Other.  Now, go a step farther and sink deeper into the character.  Instead of observing the character, imagine yourself actually going into her head.  What does the world look like from inside her viewpoint?  Where is she sitting?  What is the view outside her window?  What does she do when she first gets up in the morning?

5.  Trust Your Imagination.  Remember, as Dubus says, it is sacred and divine.    All you are really doing in this exercise is imagining life through another person's eyes.   And, honestly, what could be more important than bridging the gaps between us?

Writing and Running

1093834_fast_lane
I've just taken up running.  Well, my version of running, while I get used to it, which is more like run-walking: run a block, walk a block.  Actually I'm up to running two blocks, then walking two blocks.  What started all of this was an offhand comment from a friend.  (Oddly enough, much of my life seems to stem from offhand comments.  I got the beloved pug when one of my son's friends said, "You should get a pug."  Guess that is not an offhand comment so much as a direct command.)

At this point, you may well be asking, what does running have to do with writing? I'm glad you asked, because it turns out to be quite a bit.

Let me tell you first what I like about running.  Besides the obvious thing,that it is going to help me get fitter and trimmer, there's the challenge of it.  I've been walking for years, but running is harder and it requires more concentration, because it is demanding more of me.  This is perhaps why running feels like a spiritual practice at times, too.

As I was run-walking this morning, pushing myself to run farther than I technically wanted to, several thoughts occurred as to what I could learn from running.   What I am learning centers around the actual doing of it, for lack of a better phrase.  Here goes:

Do what you don't think you can do.
  Last week I didn't think I could run anywhere, at all, ever.  But I can.  It takes me pushing myself every second, but I can do it.   And the fact that I'm running makes everything else in the world seem possible (kinda like Obama winning the presidency.)  Do you think you can't write a novel?  Think again.  You can.  Think you can't write that article for your website?  C'mon, of course you can.

Do what scares you.
  It scares me to run down a busy street sometimes.  Its very visible and I imagine everyone looking at me and sneering.  When, of course, most people are so intent on getting their morning coffee or getting to work that they don't even notice me.  What about you?  Are you afraid to write that memoir?  Afraid to delve into the dark places inside that you know need to see the light of day?  Take a stab at it, once you get into it, the work might not seem so scary. 

Do what you don't want to do.
  At the end of a run-walk, I just want to saunter home.  I don't want to push myself and run two more blocks.  But I make myself.  So, too, with writing.  Maybe you don't want to stay up late to finish your word count for Nanowrimo or to revise that chapter.  Nobody does.  Do it anyway.

Do what you want to do.
  Yes, this is opposite advice from above.  When it comes to writing, consider doing whatever you want.  The best writing has a voice and tone to it that is mostly indescribable.  It is different from anyone else's voice.  And that comes from writing what you want, how you want it. 

Do whatever it takes.  Such as lacing up your shoes and heading outside even if it is raining.   Inclement weather is not an excuse. Or setting the alarm for 5, so that you can get up and write before you go to work.  If that's the only time you have, use it.  Do whatever it takes, because….

It gets easier.
The more you write, the easier it becomes.  The more you run, the more your body gets used to it and quits complaining quite so much.  The point is to get yourself outside or to the computer.  Showing up consistently makes it easier. 

And finally, since we are talking about pushing ourselves and doing things we thought we couldn't do, here's a story for you, the one about the pilot suddenly blinded by a stroke.  Who was flying a plane solo.  Who landed the plane safely.  Read it here.

7 Ways To Ruin a Writing Session

I want to make it perfectly clear that I have never, ever, not once, done any of the things on the following list.  No, not me.   I know some people who have, though, and they told me these things.  It was yesterday, during the time I had set aside to work on my novel, when suddenly I got the idea to write this blog post.  So I emailed those people and when they weren't available, I called them all.  Here's what they told me:

1. Don't plan ahead.  Don't have any idea what you are going to write about, or what chapter you want to work on. 

2.  Don't reread your work ahead of time.  Don't look at the chapter you most recently finished to keep it fresh in your memory. 

3.  Open all of your email inboxes so that you can constantly check for new mail while you are writing.  Then be sure to take time to answer every single email that comes in right away–the second it comes in is best.

4.  Keep all of your favorite websites open so that you can constantly switch over to them.  You never know when breaking news will happen now, do you?

5.  Keep your phone next to you, keep it turned on, and whatever you, answer ever call that comes in during your writing session.  Every single one.   That telemarketer is lonely, so lonely, and just waiting to talk to you.

6.  Drink a lot of water, so you have to get up and go to the bathroom a lot.  Then, on the way back from the bathroom, you can veer into the kitchen to fix yourself a snack.

7.  Realize that you have now eaten too much and are a slug.  Decide that taking a walk will help the slug situation and clear your head for writing.

If you have any other things that you would like to add to this list, please feel free.

Happy Halloween

I'm in the process of cleaning and cooking for a Halloween party we're having tonight.  Somehow, my610px-Jack-o'-Lantern_2003-10-31
annual chili dinner for one or two friends has turned into a last-minute shindig.  Alas, this means not a lot of time to write today.  However, I did rise early to work on Emma Jean,inspired by comments from my critique group last night. And I've made huge progress on my ghostwriting projects this week.  So you know what that means?  It is time to party!

Meanwhile, I've been racking my brain for a clever Halloween post.   Or a trick or a treat. I heard that Bruce Springsteen has a free download for Halloween on his website, but that seems a bit off-topic.  A couple of internet marketers have offered me free Ebooks, but they've turned out to be not worth the time it takes to download them.  And since I'm busy cleaning and cooking, I don't have a lot of time to figure anything else.

Ah, but light has dawned as I am writing this.  Seeing as how today is Halloween, it is a Friday, and tomorrow is November 1st, when many of you are starting Nanowrimo, how about we all give ourselves a huge pat on the back and take the day off?  We could start a movement to have Halloween be National Take the Day Off From Writing Day. 

Are you with me on this one?

I suppose you have to be a crazed workaholic like me in order to really get behind it, or at least a person who feels guilty if they don't write every day.    I know there are many of you out there.  So, c'mon, stand up and be counted.  We can make this happen.

The thought occurs to me that by writing this post I am, um, writing.  So I've got to knock it off.  See you all tomorrow, when I expect reports from everyone who has begun Nanowrimo (Kate and CJ, this means you, and I know I'm missing others so stand up and be counted.)

Photo by Toby Ord, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution Share Alike 2.5.  I found it on Wikipedia.

When One is Born a Writer….

…one is simply different.  That's all there is to it.  We writers are unique (some might say odd), and often misunderstood, because we have a passion for words.

Queen Victoria, ever mindful of propriety and history, once told her granddaughter, Princess Victoria Eugenie, the future queen of Spain, "Young woman, when one is born a princess, one cannot behave like others."

So, too, with writers.  When one is born a writer, one cannot behave like others because one, above all else, must write.  This means a few adjustments to a normal life. 

When One is Born a Writer, one often must:

  • Stay up past midnight late to write
  • Rise with the dawn to write
  • (When Nanowrimoing, one must sometimes do both of the above)
  • Miss sunny days to work on novel revisions
  • Skip meals to write (somehow, this one never happens to me)
  • Consider books a line item in the budget
  • Live with either pen and paper in hand,  or head buried in a book. 
  • Appear antisocial because of the above
  • Appear dim-witted because you listen and observe instead of talking
  • Have stooped shoulders from working on the computer so much
  • Have poor vission from above
  • Be incapable of walking past a bookstore without going in
  • Be also incapable of walking past a stationary store without going in

Anyone want to add to the list of congenital traits of writers? Post a comment,and I'll compile them all for a future post.

Top 5 Ways to Prepare for Nanowrimo

I'm not going to do Nanowrimo this year, because I need to focus on the final rewrite (yeah, right, how many times have I said that) of my current novel.  But I'm a huge fan of it and had a blast doing it several years ago, when I "won" by the way.

(In case you live on Mars, Nanowrimo is short for National Novel Writing Month, a project which encourages people all across the globe to write a "novel" of 50,000 words over the month of November.)

But since preparing for Nanowrimo is much like preparing to write any big project, I thought I'd post some tips.  Here we go:

1.  Set a page or word goal.  I figured to win Nanowrimo I would be safe if I wrote 2,000 words a day.  This allowed for acts of god and trips to LA, when I couldn't write every day.  If you aren't doing Nanowrimo,  you might want to set a page goal.  Three pages a day is good.  Doesn't sound like much but if you write three pages a day at the end of a month you have 90 pages, which is 1/3 of a novel. (God, this is such good advice, why don't I follow it?  Because it is much harder to set a specific page or word goal when you are rewriting–some changes are simple, some lead to many other changes forward and back.  Okay, I feel better.)

2.  Get it done first thing.  I like to get up first thing in the morning and write.  If I get going on the novel first, everything else falls into place.  If I decide to work on some other project, like those pesky ones that pay bills, I'll never get back to the novel.  When I did Nanowrimo, my deal with myself was that I couldn't go to bed until I had my word count done.   If I didn't finish in the morning, I had to keep going back to it until I did.  On the other hand, I know that there are people like my friend Tony who prefers to write from 8 PM to 1 AM. Huh.  A different opinion than mine, imagine that.

3.  Prepare, prepare, prepare.  C'mon, you've still got three days.  That's plenty of time.  Nanowrimo rules say you can do as much preparation as you want–as long as you don't write word one until November 1st.  Make lists of plot points, decide on character motivations, figure out what your characters want and what will stand in their way.  Choose locations and make notes about them.  Think about where your characters live and what they wear. What do they do on an ordinary day?  By preparing to write your novel in this way, you are also prepping your subconscious for what is to come–and trust me, those 2,000 words a day will come much easier.

4.  Tell family and friends to go jump in a lake.  No, perhaps it is a bit too cold for that, so tell them to take a hike.  Or rent every season of Friends, or the entire set of the Lord of the Rings and lock themselves in the TV room.  Or perhaps this is the time to tell your wife to finally read Anna Karenina.  The point is to (kindly) get rid of them.  Let them know you'll need time, space and energy to complete this goal that is important to you.

5.  Treat yourself well.  Now, and for the entire month of November.  Go easy on the alcohol (I hate that part) and eat healthy, natural whole foods. Exercise regularly.  My favorite exercise is pushing myself away from the computer desk.  Kidding.  I love to walk, and walking is excellent for pondering plot points.  Do all the things that you know will create energy for yourself.  You need to be alert and full of energy to write those 2000 words a day during November. 

Here's the bonus tip:  HAVE FUN.  Nanowrimo is a blast, and I love that it gets people writing and also connecting in Nanowrimo meetings.  So enjoy it.  And keep me posted on your progress.  Good luck!

The Power of Observation & More: 5 Reasons to Keep a Journal

Pumpkins 1
Yesterday my daughter had a pumpkin-carving party, complete with home-brewed Nut Brown Ale from her boyfriend and all kinds of delicious pot luck treats.  We carved the jack-o-lanterns in the backyard with leaves falling all around us in the autumn breeze and ladybugs landing on everyone.

I got up this morning and wrote down all the details in my journal.

I write in my journal nearly every day, usually first thing in the morning.  It is actually a bit of a compulsion with me.  Over the years I've filled up dozens, if not hundreds, of journals in all kinds of spirals and composition books and diaries.  They fill crates in various closets, all neatly labeled with the appropriate dates.  I'm not entirely sure why I save them, because lord knows even I can't read my own handwriting.  But something compels me to do so.  And I know that when our house caught on fire and the upstairs burned many years ago, the thing I was most grateful to find unscathed was my journals.  Pumpkins 2

(Brief aside: you know how you always hear people say what they'd save if their house was on fire?  Let me just tell you, when you are fleeing a burning house with children and pets you do not for one minute stop to worry about saving all the family photos or the Grandma's antiques.  All you think about is getting the living creatures out.)

Sometimes I think journal writing is a distraction.  It's a choice I constantly make: write in the journal or work on the novel?  Make notes about what I did last night or get some work done on a ghost-writing project?  When I'm fully engaged in a book project, I tell myself I shouldn't waste time on my journal.  And then I find myself reaching for it and before I know it, I'm writing away.

However, I'm also aware of how valuable journal writing is.  Honestly?  I'm constantly in awe of people who make it through life without one.  I process everything on the page, saving my friends and family hours of drama and myself years of therapy.  But beyond the emotional benefits, there are clear advantages to keeping a journal for writing, too.  To wit:

1.  It gets the crap out.  If all your worries about your day are clogging up your brain, how are you going to write?  Get it out on the page and get rid of it.

2.  It encourages the practice of observation.  There's no better way to start remembering details than writing them down.  The more you write what you've seen and experienced, the better you get at it. And the better you get at writing it in your journal, the better you get at writing on your novel or whatever creative project is dear to your heart.

3.  It is a place to make notes on projects.  Sometimes–often–I start a journal entry by writing about what I did the day before and soon I'm writing a scene for my novel or figuring out how to write an article.  I actually wrote this whole blog post as a journal entry this morning.

4.  Regular attention to a journal can be life altering.  Sounds grandiose, doesn't it?  But it is true.  When you commit to writing in your journal every day, suddenly you start to see patterns in the desires and goals you note.  Hmmm, day after day you write about the creative non-fiction book you want to start.  Is this a clue to what you should be doing?  Or perhaps every day you write about how miserable you are in your job or marriage.  Is it time to make a change?

5.  You can track your writing goals.   Writing down your word count on a long project can be a powerful motivator.  Writing about that project can help you get clear on it, too.  John Steinbeck wrote journals about the writing of his novels. 

Bonus point:  It is a spiritual practice.  People always talk about their spiritual practices, such as prayer, or ritual, or meditation and I always pouted because I wanted a spiritual practice, too.    But I don't seem to have a lot of patience for those kinds of spiritual practices.  One day, however, it hit me–hot damn, I already have a spiritual practice.  It is writing in my journal, which I do as regularly as anyone who meditates or practices yoga.

One last thing.  Michael Masterson has an article on writing journals in his weekly newsletter today.  He looks at it from a manly, business point of view, but I'm a huge fan of Masterson and I like what he has to say about writing a journal.  Read it here.

Avoiding the Curse of the Superficial

The superficial, the general, skimming across the top, whatever you want to call it, hear me now, it is not a desirable thing, either in people (sorry, Paris Hilton) or the written word.

I've read several different pieces lately that shared this dreaded affliction.  The words stayed on the surface, never delving deep.  Think about it: remaining on the surface is like flat-lining, no peaks, no valleys, no highs, no lows.  It is like talking to someone who drones on in a dull monotone.  You are lulled to sleep.  This is not a good thing, either when talking to someone or reading something.  You want to keep your readers awake, thrilled with the liveliness of your prose, desperate to keep turning pages.

But how, pray tell, does one do this?

One way is through the use of detail.  For instance, perhaps you might have a sentence such as the following:

They sat on the front porch and ate breakfast.

It is an okay sentence, though a bit boring.  How can we make it more interesting?  Unwrap it.  Think of how much fun it is to unwrap a present.  The same is true for unwrapping a sentence.  It is a process of taking it apart and adding more detail, of going deeper in order to show the reader the picture you have in your mind.  You do this by looking at every aspect of the sentence and digging for more details.

So, looking at the above sentence, let's begin with they.  Who?  How many of them is implied in they?  What do they look like?  What is their relationship?  So perhaps you answer these questions and come up with:

The two sisters with blonde hair sat on the front porch and ate breakfast.

What about the verb sat?  What did the two blonde sisters sit on?  A porch swing with pillows?  Two deck chairs?  A wood bench?  Did they perch on the steps of the front porch?  These choices affect your narrative in multiple ways.  A porch swing covered with pillows implies a higher level of prosperity than a complete lack of chairs or two old dusty lawn chairs.  If the two sisters are sitting on a hard wooden bench they may not be as apt to linger over the conversation as if they are gently swaying on the porch swing.   So now, after pondering such issues,  we might have a sentence that read:

The two sisters with blonde hair swayed gently on the wood swing on the front porch and ate breakfast.

Now, onto the porch.  Does it wrap around the house?  Is it a wood deck?  Or perhaps more like a broad landing at the top of several steps?  Or is it a low veranda?  Here we go:

The two sisters with blonde hair swayed gently on the wood swing on the porch which wrapped around the house and ate breakfast.

And now, you guessed it, time to figure out breakfast.  Pancakes and syrup?  Maybe that's a touch too hard to eat on the swing.  How about Egg McMuffins from McDonald's?  But does that fit with the wood swing and the plump pillows?  No let's go with peaches and yogurt.

The two sisters with blonde hair swayed gently on the wood swing on the porch which wrapped around the house, eating peaches and yogurt.

So there you have it, an unwrapped sentence.

Ah, but perhaps it is just the wee-est bit too much.  Too many details blur the ultimate effect.  So now what you must do is decide which detail you wish to emphasize.  Find the telling detail for this particular scene.  Do you want to emphasize how much the sisters, with their blonde hair, look alike?  Is it a scene set in the south, where the day is going to be a scorcher, and thus you want to emphasize the languor or the day, focusing on the delicate swaying of the swing?  Or do you want to linger on the sensuality of the peaches?

Only you, the author, can decide.

And Now For Something Completely Different: Igor, the Blind Pug

Igor Doing High Five
Due to popular demand, I'm posting photos of Igor, the blind pug.  The photo to the right is a bit blurry because he is in the process of doing a high five, which he does because he thinks he is going to get food (note to new pug owners: pugs will do anything for food).   Igor learned how to do this all by himself–I'm not kidding–years ago.   Assorted family and friends were sitting around the dinner table with the pug on the floor next to me (he knows who the sucker who will feed him is) and I looked down at him and said, "Give me five, Igor," and he did.  I'm not kidding, that really happened.  It is his one and only trick, and it is a good one.

Igor started going blind a couple of years ago, due to cataracts.  Pugs do tend toward eye problems because their eyes are so bulgy.  You can get cataract surgery for dogs, but he is not the best candidate for it, as he has had breathing problems in the past.  One New Year's Eve day he had to spend an entire day in the oxygen room at Dove Lewis, the emergency hospital here in town. 

Our vet calls him the King of Pugs because he is, well, huge.  He used to weigh nearly 50 pounds but now he's down to his fighting weight of 45.  Its not fat, its muscle!  (The average weight for a male pug is about half that.)  But his father was very big, much as he is.   Here are a couple other photos of him:

Christmas 2007--New Polaroid 001
Christmas 2007--New Polaroid 032Christmas 2007--New Polaroid 028He gets around amazingly well in his blindness, he uses his head to bump into things and tell where he is.  Also uses his paw to reach out and feel the edge of a step he knows is there, such as when he is attempting to get off the back deck.

All I can say is, if you have ever thought about getting a pug–do it.  They are the best dogs in the world, comical, sweet, endearing, great companions.  The best dog a writer could possibly ask for.