THE WRITING LIFE – For the Sandwich Generation

Image by Jan Vašek from Pixabay
Image by Jan Vašek from Pixabay

By Francine Paino

I’m a morning writer, and it’s morning.  Filled with energy, and inspiration, I grab the notes I’d scribbled on the post-it when ideas woke me during the night. Sharpen those pencils and dust off the keyboard. Coffee’s brewing, toast pops up. Ready, set, go.

Not   So   Fast

The phone rings. “Mom. Emergency. The sitter is sick. Can you take the baby for a few hours?”  I, the devoted grandmother, agree to help. When the baby naps, I’ll write.

The phone rings again. The nonagenarian is desperate to get to the supermarket.

Welcome to life in the sandwich generation. 

Here I am a piece of Swiss cheese firmly pressed between two slices of hearty Italian bread. On one side is my nonagenarian mother, a feisty old lady, who doesn’t look or act her age.  She is in great physical shape other than the fact that she can’t hear very well, can’t smell very well, and claims not to be able to walk very well. As for the walking, just give her a shopping cart in the supermarket and try to keep up with her. I’ve lost several pounds chasing her up and down the aisles.

On the other side are my grandchildren, normal little people going through the different stages of emotional, physical and intellectual growth. They provide the expected tests for the adult nervous system: conflict, espionage, and subterfuge. Put any one of them together with the nonagenarian who wishes to be a revered elder and a naughty child at the same time, and it’s like herding cats.  

And so, I pick up the 24-month-old and then the 95-year-old, and off to the supermarket we go!

The young one sits in the basket in front of me, and the old one is behind me zipping around with her cart and getting into as much mischief as possible, picking up candies and treats  she knows the 24 month-old is not allowed to eat.

The child’s radar, of course, locks onto the junk food. She tries to elongate her little arm to reach over me and receive the treat from her great-grandmother.

The powers of observation in both the toddler and the nonagenarian are impeccable; their timing the envy of any dance team. If I turned to a shelf on my left, the nonagenarian reaches over my right shoulder to give the toddler some forbidden sweet. Once that sweet is in the 24-month-old’s chubby little fist, I must employ all my powers of persuasion to get it away. After I succeed, I turn to scold the nonagenarian but she’s disappeared. I find myself talking to thin air. 

This continues up and down each aisle as the elder rises to the challenges of flexible movement and rapid deployment, accumulating as many different snacks as possible and passing them to her beloved great-grandchild before I can stop her.

The woman who cannot walk so well is able to dodge, feint and sidestep with incredible speed. She appears and disappears at key times while I actually try to gather items on the list.

At last, I make it to the check-out line where the naughty old child hands a candy bar to the determined young child. “Here, sweetie, take this,” but my antennae are up and my intercept quick.

I snatch the bar away before the little one captures it in her vice-like grip. Both the old and the young cry out in dismay. Finally, I have no choice but to appropriately discipline both, which nearly creates a riot at the register. It is my good fortune that no do-gooders are there to insist that I be reprimanded for reprimanding those in my charge. 

Bags packed, groceries paid for, I swiftly maneuver the nonagenarian and the toddler to the car and get them safely strapped into their seats, after which I load the shopping.

I drop the nonagenarian at home with her purchases. And now there is one. This is manageable.

As soon as I reach the safety of my home, I promptly put the toddler down for a nap. Ahh. Blessed relief. It’s quiet at last, and time to write. I smile and close my eyes for a moment of peace to gather my thoughts.

 The next time I open them, a little voice is calling, “Nonna.”  

###

The original version of this, Supermarket Nightmare, appeared in the March 2015 edition of Funny Times.

On Podcasts and the Creative Process

By Laura Oles

As writers, we often contend with voices inside our heads. It’s not just me, is it?  As much as I love these characters who demand to be heard, there are moments when I need a break.  I need someone else’s voice inside my head. Someone to inspire me or to teach me something interesting that could also prove useful in a future scene or novel. 

That’s where podcasts come in.  I’ve long been a fan of podcasts, and the quality of what’s currently available is a true treasure trove for those tuning in. There’s something for every interest, and almost any topic can be found by doing a simple search in your podcast app. 

Here are a few of my favorites:

Reply All:  This podcast explores how technology and culture collide, often in interesting or unexpected ways.  Want to learn how someone can steal your Instagram account? And why would they want it? Or maybe a profile about how a software designer turned his skills to building an illegal empire online?  The quality of the reporting and narration are top notch, and this is the one podcast I anxiously wait for each time a new episode drops.  

Murder Book with Michael Connelly:  This passion project created by powerhouse author Michael Connelly is a new release and one that quickly captured my attention.  Connelly explores an unsolved thirty-year-old homicide case that “tests the limits of the American criminal justice system.” 

Hidden Brain:  “Shankar Vedantam uses science and storytelling to reveal the unconscious patterns that drive human behavior, shape our choices and direct our relationships.”  Vedantam is a skilled narrator and the topics are fascinating, ranging from how to move past a life-altering injury to the psychology of surprise endings (an excellent episode for writers).  

This American Life:  Produced by NPR, this podcast never disappoints (me).  Each week involves a certain theme, and the reporting ties several stories to that theme.  The storytelling focuses on compelling people, difficult dynamics and big questions that don’t always have an answer.  Thought-provoking and beautifully produced, this one is worth a listen.

Here’s The Thing with Alec Baldwin: Alex Baldwin’s personal antics can be up for debate, but you can’t argue with the man’s interviewing skills.  This one surprised me in all the best ways.  He’s interviewed everyone from Billy Joel and Carly Simon to Cameron Crowe and Kyle MacLachlan.  Alec’s questions dig down deep into the topic of the creation of art of all kinds and how those pursuits impact personal relationships.  The episode with Jerry Seinfeld is one of my favorites because he shares how to make time to write–and how he did it during the Seinfeld years. His answers may surprise you. For those curious about the inside-baseball elements of writing, acting, and other creative endeavors, this public radio podcast pulls strong. 

Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me:  Sometimes, after a long writing session,  I need a good laugh. A quiz program with a rotating panel including  comedic talents Mo Rocca, Paula Poundstone, Alonzo Bodden and several others, this show blends current events with fake news stories in an effort to discern what’s true and what’s not.  Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction on this show.  

When compiling this list, I realized that most of my recommendations came from podcasts created by public radio.  Just one more reason to support your local public radio station!

Do you listen to podcasts?  If so, which ones are your favorites?

Morning Pages: Don’t Speak. Don’t Judge. Don’t Fall Asleep.

Browsing through the AMW blog, I came across the title, “Morning Pages: Don’t Speak. Don’t Judge. Don’t Fall Asleep.” And I thought, What a cute title. I wonder who the author is. A couple of clicks later I discovered the author was moi. I wrote it in 2014. Quelle surprise, as those of us who took one summer class in French just for fun say but can’t remember how to spell. (I looked it up.) I also found I kind of liked it,* and since it’s mine, I’m giving myself permission to re-post. 

***

Karleen Koen

The first day of last summer’s Writer’s League of Texas retreat, author-instructor Karleen Koen told students that every morning before class, we must do Morning Pages: Wake up, don’t speak, take pen and paper–not computer–and, while still drowsy, write “three pages of anything.” Don’t judge. Keep the pen moving. In her course notebook, Karleen listed the following:

Stream of consciousness, complain, whine, just move your hand across the page writing whatever crosses your mind until you get to the end of page three.

Karleen stressed that she didn’t invent Morning Pages. The technique, minus the name, came from the book Becoming a Writer by teacher Dorothea Brande, published in 1934 and reissued in 1981. Author John Gardner, in his foreword to the reprinted edition, states it was “astonishing” that the book had ever gone out of print.

Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande

Ms Brande advises aspiring writers to “rise half an hour, or a full hour, before you customarily rise.” She continues,

Write anything that comes into your head: last night’s dream, if you are able to remember it; the activities of the day before; a conversation, real or imaginary; an examination of conscience. Write any sort of early morning reverie, rapidly and uncritically. (Brande, p. 72)

Julia Cameron, in her bestselling The Artist’s Way, published in 1992, named the process Morning Pages and made them the cornerstone of her Artist’s Way program. Cameron considers them a form of meditation.

Why we do Morning Pages? To quiet the internal critic; to tap into the subconscious; to discover what you know; to remember and to capture the present; to build fluency, the ability to “write smoothly and easily when the unconscious is in the ascendant.” (Brande, p. 72) And, as Koen notes, to whine and complain.

When I do Morning Pages, I like to focus on whining and complaining. Words of discontent virtually flow from my pen when I follow Brande’s instruction to rise early. To wit:

The morning after Karleen assigned Morning Pages, my roommate and I woke to my cell phone alarm at seven rather than the previous day’s eight. (I think that was the morning the phone flew from the nightstand and landed on the concrete floor.) I propped myself up on a couple of pillows, gathered the pen and the notebook I’d placed on the nightstand before retiring the night before, and started to write.

While I wrote, my roommate sat on the side of her bed. Instead of picking up her notebook, she spoke. I reminded her we weren’t supposed to talk. She told me she didn’t care what we weren’t supposed to do. After violating the rules once or twice more, she started on her Morning Pages.

Roommate Gale Albright drinking tea and smiling

In my usual all-or-nothing fashion (a tiny bit of OCD), I wrote through hand cramp and shifting pillows. Halfway through, I fell asleep. When I woke about a half-hour later, I resumed scribbling.

My roommate had already finished her Pages. She had dressed. She had sat on the porch and drunk a cup of hot tea. She was smiling.

Sometimes it is better to bend the rules.

At break time, I quoted to Karleen the first sentence of my Morning Pages: I don’t like Karleen any more. (I said it in bold font.) She laughed and asked if I knew how funny I was. I didn’t tell her I was dead serious. I knew that before the end of the day I would like her again, and if I told the truth now, I would have to apologize later, and I just didn’t have the energy.

Since I’m confessing, I might as well admit that, while I was scribbling, I figured out a fool-proof way to make Morning Pages a positive experience: Use a notebook with little tiny pages. They fill up faster.

Looking back, I’m ashamed of the thought, but at the time it seemed a darned good idea. Sometimes it still does.

Anyway. Having griped about that miserable experience, I’ll also admit that Morning Pages work. I’ve done them off and on since 1998, when I heard Julia Cameron speak at the Austin Whole Life Festival. A small group of young men stood outside Palmer Auditorium holding placards and begging attendees to abandon chakras and crystals and choose reason instead, while inside, Cameron shared the most reasonable ideas on stimulating creativity.

So I read The Artist’s Way and, although a 17-cent spiral notebook would have sufficed, I bought a copy of The Artist’s Way Journal. (The Journal had enormous, narrow-ruled pages that took forever to cover, but having the proper tools is important to us obsessive types.)

Then I wrote. And whined. And complained. As I did, the garbage in my head oozed down my arm, through my hand, and onto the page. By the time I got to page three, my mood had lightened. When I turned to other writing, the garbage stayed trapped inside the Journal.

Once the brain has been cleared of debris, words can flow.

That’s my experience. Others have their own reasons for writing those three pages per day. But those who engage in the practice swear by it.

Adequate sleep

As I said, I’m not consistent. I’ve done Morning Pages for months at a time, then skipped one day and failed to resume the habit.** Nearly every time I’ve given up,  fatigue has been the cause. A long commute before and after an extra-long day makes early rising unpleasant if not impossible. The same thing goes for getting to bed too late. Morning Pages require adequate sleep. But so does good health. So does good writing of any kind.***

Before leaving the retreat, I bought a special notebook for my return to Morning Pages. The signature on the cover looked like Dickens but turned out to be Darwin. No matter. Darwin and I are friends, too, and I wanted the green one. I’ve not yet made peace with going to bed at a decent hour. I’m trying. But when I stay up into the wee hours working on a blog post, my morning edges toward afternoon.

Oh–I’ve just remembered: A situation unrelated to fatigue once interfered with Morning Pages. It involved the repaving of twenty miles of FM20, a wintry-cold house, and a new box of cat litter.

But that’s a story for another post.

###

Charles Darwin’s signature on elegant green notebook

* Re-reading old work and liking old work don’t always occur together.

** Morning Pages is about the only habit I’ve ever managed to break.

*** I’m not sure about sleep being necessary for good writing of all kinds. I suspect Hemingway, Faulkner, and Fitzgerald might have stayed up past bedtime. But I bet Willa Cather kept regular hours. And, as people with any discernment at all recognize, Cather is at the very top of the American novelist pecking order.

***

 

M. K. Waller

M. K. Waller (aka Kathy) blogs at  Telling the Truth, Mainly Write (http://kathywaller1.com) and at the group blog Writing Wranglers and Warriors. She has set aside her novel manuscript for a while to concentrate on writing short stories. She likes writing short stories so much, she may declare the novel officially defunct.

Her stories appear in Mysterical-E; AMW’s first crime fiction anthology, MURDER ON WHEELS;

DAY OF THE DARK (Wildside, July 2017)

and in the brand new DAY OF THE DARK: Stories of the Eclipse, edited by Kaye George and released by Wildside Press on July 21, 2017.

A second AMW anthology is with the publisher and will be out shortly.

Banishing Lazy Words by Terry Shames

This week we have a guest blogger, friend and fellow mystery writer, Terry Shames!

Terry grew up in Texas, and has an abiding affection for the people she grew up with and the landscape and culture of the town that is the model for Jarrett Creek. She graduated from the University of Texas and has an MA from San Francisco State University. Terry now lives in Northern California with her husband, two terriers and a regal cat.

Terry’s first Samuel Craddock novel, A Killing at Cotton Hill, (July 2013) and was named one of the top five debut mystery novels of 2013 by MysteryPeople. The second in the series, The Last Death of Jack Harbin was named one of the top five mysteries of 2014 by the Library Association’s Library Journal. Dead Broke in Jarrett Creek, the third in the Samuel Craddock series, came out in October of 2014, followed by A Deadly Affair at Bobtail Ridge in April 2015 and The Necessary Murder of Nonie Blake in January 2016.

A member of Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime, she serves on the boards of Northern California chapters of both.

Welcome, Terry! shamesTerry_1

Banishing Lazy Words

When I’m editing a book, I know that when I begin to get restless I’ve probably come across a nest of lazy words–words that are shorthand, or placeholders, for what I really want to say. Here are some lazy word indicators:

These, this, those, thing, stuff, some, about, just…and the dreaded “to be” verb (was, were…)

I often find when I come across several of these words on one page it means I was reluctant to dig deeper into the emotional content in the scene. When I buckle down and confront what I’m avoiding writing, digging deep to find the emotional core of the scene, I often end up writing a lot more words than I had before.

Here’s an example of a piece I was editing for someone else. I ran across several places on one page where two characters were talking about, “This thing we have going,” and “This thing we are trying.” The “thing” the writer was talking about was a difficult relationship between people of different ethnic backgrounds. By repeating the words “this thing,” she avoided addressing in depth the painful aspects of the relationship. The words fell flat on the page. Only when she changed it to say what she really meant, “Our risky experiment,” and “The way we are thumbing our nose at tradition,” did it begin to have the depth it deserved. Instead of a romance novel, it because more like Romeo and Juliet.

In first drafts, we often use shorthand for what we know is going to be a difficult description. But as writers we have to work hard to ferret out those lazy little words and phrases and say what we really mean. Not, “Amanda’s bedroom was a mess. There was STUFF lying everywhere,” or “I walked into Bill’s office. There was STUFF lying everywhere,” but instead, “Amanda’s clothes were strewn on the floor leading to the bed,” or “Judging from Bill’s office, he was a guy who dropped whatever he was reading onto any handy surface as soon as he was done with it.” Instead of saying, “there were several things he wanted to tell her,” it’s more interesting to read, “he stored up little criticisms that he could spring on her later.”

Contrast these two paragraphs:

“They dated for a few months, during which he told several lies. Some time later, she tried to remember which lies bothered her the most. There was the time he told her he was an accountant and lost his job when the economy went bad. And another time he said he looked around for a job for a long while before he could find another one. But the worst was when he said he’d buy her some jewelry, and never did.”

The fix:

“They dated for six month. After he disappeared, she found that he had hardly opened his mouth without lying. She bought into it when he told her he was an accountant, and lost his job when the economy went bust. She even believed that he pounded the pavement looking for a job for six months before he found one. But the lie that hurt most was that he promised to buy her a diamond ring, and he never did.”

The first paragraph is full of lazy words like “a few,” “several,” “some, “tried,” most,” “there was,” etc. The second one uses livelier, mores descriptive words.

When you read authors you admire, note that they pin down real time, real place, real emotion. It makes their prose richer and keeps readers engaged. It takes hard editing work, but it’s worth it. It’s the key element that will make your prose come alive.

You can find more information about Terry Shames at www.terryshames.com 

Thank you, Terry! That’s good concrete information that all writers can use. What do you think, reader? Any questions or comments?

 

Why I’m Not a Journalist

The Good Old Days.

Let’s face it: Were things really that good?

Yes, they were. Those ’70s television sit-coms were the best things ever.

I’m binge-watching The Mary Tyler Moore Show, which ran from 1970 to 1977. It was funny then and it’s just funny now.

One episode isn’t quite as funny as the others, though, because it reflects an aspect of my life I find particularly painful.

First season cast: (left top) Harper, Asner, L...

First season cast: (left top) Harper, Asner, Leachman; (left bottom) MacLeod, Moore, Knight. Last season cast: (right top) Knight, MacLeod, Asner; (right bottom) White, Engel, Moore. (Photo credit: Wikipedia). By CBS Television Uploaded by We hope at en.wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

It’s the scene in which news writer Murray Slaughter rushes home to operate on an ailing water heater, leaving associate producer Mary Richards to cover for him. If a bulletin comes in over the wire–

No problem, she says. The news is almost over, she says. If a story comes across the wire, I’ll just take it off the teletype machine, type it up, and get it to the anchor desk. It’s easy, she says.

She rolls a piece of paper into her typewriter, just in case.

Then a story comes in: A fire is threatening a munitions plant on the outskirts of town.

Mary tears off the bulletin, sits down at her desk, thinks… and thinks… types a few words…  erases… brushes away the crumbs… thinks… and thinks….

Producer Lou Grant, who’s been leaning over her shoulder, bouncing up and down on his toes, finally grabs the paper, runs into his office, types–like the wind–then flies out just in time to meet anchorman Ted Baxter leaving the studio. The show’s over. He’s already signed off–“Good night, and good news”–and the competition’s 7:00 o’clock news will get the scoop.


Embed from Getty Images

That’s why I’m not a journalist. I’m not Lou. I’m not Murray. I’m Mary.

That, and because as a journalist, I would have to make cold calls: get people on the phone, request interviews, ask questions. I’m not comfortable talking to people I don’t know.

But mainly, it’s because editors would expect me to write fast. I don’t do fast. I’m slower than Mary Richards is. Sometimes getting words on paper requires moaning and weeping and riving of hair.

Looking back I wonder how I got to this point. Not the distaste for talking to strangers–I’ve never liked doing that–but the difficulty with writing.

In the beginning, I loved to write. By the time I was seven, I was writing long letters to grandmothers and aunts and cousins. Once when I was home from school, enjoying ill health, I used my father’s fountain pen to write letter after letter. Another time, I used a pencil with a point so soft and dull I doubt the recipients could read through the smears.

The summer I was eight, I spent June in Central Texas with an aunt and uncle while my mother was in Dallas with my grandmother, who was ill. My father, who remained at home in Del Rio, brought me a present one weekend: a ream of legal-sized paper.


Embed from Getty Images

On a scale of one to ten, most children would have rated a ream of paper at minus 3. I gave it a twelve and used it to produce my own newspaper. Mostly I reported weddings in the cat and dog community. I described bridesmaids’ dresses worn by Blackie and Bootsie and Kitty and my fox terrier, Pat Boone. It was a devastating little parody of a small-town newspaper. That summer, I was a journalist.

Fairchild Mill Grindstone

Fairchild Mill Grindstone (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

But things changed. Writing stopped being easy. It stopped being fun. It became a millstone ’round my neck. It became nose-to-the-grindstone work. I turned into Mary Richards, thinking, typing, thinking, thinking, typing, erasing, thinking…

How did that happen? I suspect it had something to do with school and English classes, and writing pieces I didn’t want to write, on topics I knew nothing about. And having to outline before I wrote.

There’s nothing that strangles the free flow of words onto the page than having to organize your thought before you’ve had any.

Portrait of E. M. Forster by Dora Carrington I...

Portrait of E. M. Forster by Dora Carrington Italiano: Ritratto di E. M. Forster di Dora Carrington (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A lifetime later, I discovered novelist E. M. Forster’s remark on the relationship between writing and organizing: “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”

In other words, if you can write an outline, you’ve already written the piece in your head. 

But I didn’t know that then. I didn’t know it doesn’t have to be right the first time. I didn’t know I could just start writing and, that way, find out what I knew and what I thought before I tried to put those thoughts in order.

I didn’t know Nancy Peacock would one day write, “If I don’t have the pages I hate I will never have the pages I love.”

I didn’t know all I had to do was lighten up.

Now I’ve lightened a bit, and so has the millstone. When I write for my personal blog, I’m fluent–unless I’m trying to be serious, weighty, and profound.

English: Original caption:"NASA Remembers...

English: Original caption:”NASA Remembers Walter Cronkite. Legendary CBS newsman Walter Cronkite speaks in February 2004 at a ceremony at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington honoring the fallen astronauts of the STS-107 Columbia mission. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I do not do profound. I think profound, but I write shallow. I wish it were otherwise, but, to quote Walter Cronkite, that’s the way it is.

Some things haven’t changed, however. I will never fit in the little journalism box. I don’t write fast. I don’t want to strike up conversations with strangers. And the only facts I want to deal with are ones I make up myself.

So that’s why I’m not a journalist.

That’s why I write fiction.

Writers of fiction have deadlines. But they don’t have Lou Grant leaning over them, fidgeting while they think and delete and rewrite and delete and rewrite…

Writers of fiction–especially we pantsers, who write by the seat of our pants–can see what they say before they know what they think.

Sorry, Mary Richards, but that’s the way it is.

*

The Mary Tyler Moore Show, “Room 223”: Mary takes a journalism class
(Resolution isn’t great, but the show is.)

Other high points:

The Mary Tyler Moore Show, “Chuckles Bites the Dust: Chuckles the Clown goes to a parade dressed as a peanut, and an elephant… But it’s okay to laugh.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show, “The Lars Affair”: Sue Ann Nivens closes an oven door in a way formerly unknown to man.

I don’t understand the legalities of putting these programs on Youtube, but as long as they’re there, I’ll assume it’s okay to link to them. Enjoy.

*

P. S. I don’t like being interviewed either. I always tell reporters to be sure they make me sound intelligent. One young lady told me she didn’t have to fix anything because I talk in complete sentences. I told her that was strictly accidental.

*

–Posted by Kathy Waller

 

The Keep Writing Sign

“One of the pleasant things those of us who write or paint do is to have the daily miracle. It does come.” Gertrude Stein

Portrait of Gertrude Stein, with American flag...

Portrait of Gertrude Stein, with American flag as backdrop (1935 January 4) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’m having a hard time getting this post started. First I wrote a sentence about buying Natalie Goldberg’s The True Secret of Writing but stopped half-way through. Then I began a sentence about the book’s title, finished it, and realized it had nothing to do with my topic. I’m still trying to get it right.

For most of us, the first sentence isn’t easy. Neither is the second. Often, the third is troublesome. Sometimes the process just goes on and on.

Okay, scratch that. There’s nothing new in it. I was trying to avoid using the first opening sentence I thought of, because it might be a little off-putting, and I didn’t want you to stop reading. But it’s only fair to warn you:

The section in italics is boring. 

It’s not necessary to read the whole thing, but at least skim a few paragraphs, because if you don’t, you’ll miss the point I intend to make.

Below is a draft I wrote for another group blog, Writing Wranglers and Warriors:

I’d planned to write about Shakespeare today, but a picture of a dress fellow Writing Wrangler Nancy Jardine shared stopped me in my tracks.

Copyright restrictions don’t allow me to display a photo here, and I could never describe it adequately, so I’ll post the link to Blonde and Wise and to a picture of the Bright Red and Yellow Trench Dress so you can see for yourself.

Now. Isn’t that absolutely track-stopping?

I confess I had to look up trench dress. I’d never heard the term. Imagine my surprise when I realized I’ve had trench dresses of my own. Although I love nice clothes, the technicalities have never interested me.

The feature of this particular dress that caught my eye was the plaid. It reminds me of my childhood. There was never a plaid my mother didn’t love and wouldn’t wrap me up in.

And that brought to mind the annual back-to-school treks to Comal Cottons in New Braunfels, Texas, where we bought patterns, fabric, and all the necessary notions to make back-to-school clothes. Friends from up the street and their mother came, too.

We made the trip in July, and started early, to get a jump on the summer heat. The outlet store, about thirty miles from where we lived, was filled with bolt after bolt of cloth. Mother walked slowly, running her hand across every bolt–it seemed to me she touched every bolt–and saying, “Isn’t that pretty,” or, “That color would look good on you,” or, “That would make a cute…” I followed along. My job was to chime about the colors and patterns I liked, but I trusted my mother to do the right thing, and I was bored stiff. I agreed with everything.

Next step, patterns: Opening long metal file drawers, pulling out packets of patterns… Simplicity and Butterick patterns were the best; but McCall’s instructions were confusing. Then, mentally matching styles with material we’d seen, taking patterns to fabrics to make sure, checking yardage and price, reconsidering… I was sure we re-examined every bolt.

By this time my feet were killing me. (I was born with feet designed for sitting). Comal Cottons had no chairs. Three bored tweens, one with aching feet, needed chairs. With chairs, girls can read books. Without chairs, girls stand around, one of them shuffling from foot to foot.

Then, decisions: making choices, stacking bolts on big tables, watching clerks cut material straight across, perfectly straight. and folded them. Despite its name, Comal Cottons also sold wool.

And then, the notions: buttons, thread, bias tape, zippers, lots more considering.

Clackson-tartan

Clackson-tartan (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

And finally we headed for the car, bearing loads of raw material that over the next six weeks would be made into our fall wardrobes. Which in my case would include a plethora plaids. My mother loved plaids.

By the time I reached high school, plaids had retreated from entire outfits to wool skirts worn with solid color sweaters, and trips to Comal Cottons had ended.

Now, like much else of my childhood, the store is a memory. Today it’s found on postcards.

Thank you, Nancy. With just one picture of a plaid dress, you brought back part of my childhood.

On and on and on. To quote my former high school students, BO-ring.

But as I wrote that last line, the daily miracle arrived: A treasured memory of a different piece of fabric surfaced. And then, another miracle:  I realized the story about the shopping trip was just a warm-up, an introduction, brain rubble that had to be expelled before higher quality thought could emerge.

Acting on the epiphany, I found my bit of fabric, snapped a photograph, and added three short paragraphs to what was already there. Finally, I deleted the boring prelude.

The final version–part of it, anyway–looked like this:

Fellow Writer and Wrangler Nancy Jardine recently shared a picture of a beautiful plaid dress that reminded me of  some fabric I’ve saved for more than fifty years. After residing all that time in my mother’s cedar chest, it’s wrinkled but intact.

The fall I turned eleven, my father’s father, whom we called Dad, gave Mother some money to buy me a birthday present. She purchased the wool shown in the photo and made me a pleated skirt. When I was sixteen, she remade it into an A-line skirt and a weskit.

DSCN1342

Note: That isn’t the end. There’s one more paragraph. Read it, please, at https://writingwranglersandwarriors.wordpress.com/2015/11/09/a-scrap-of-plaid/ It’s important, too.

But back to the topic at hand.

To prevent further strike-throughs, I’ll get to the point promised in the Warning:

A boring (bad, terrible, appalling, disgusting, abhorrent, loathsome, etc.) first (second, third, etc.) draft is not a Stop Writing sign. It’s a Keep Writing sign, signaling that brain rubble is loosening up, that something better is in the offing–that the daily miracle will come. Because the only way to get rid of brain rubble is to write it out.

I wish I had more time to work on this. If I did, the daily miracle would arrive.

And this post might be on an entirely different topic. It would also contain less brain rubble.

Shattering a Vase

…it was like taking a vase and setting it down so hard it shatters…

~  Tracy Chevalier

When I taught secondary English, grading essays was my least favorite task. I was happy to read them, but assigning letter grades? I hated that.

I hated judging. I hated trying to determine the difference between a B and an A, or, worse, between a B-plus and an A-minus.

But the worst–the part that made me want to moan like the Ghost of Hamlet’s father, “Oh, horrible, oh, horrible, most horrible!”–was listening to students who thought their work merited higher grades: “But I worked so harrrrrrrd.

Some had watched classmates complete an entire assignment during a lull in history class and then score A’s. It wasn’t fair.

“Harrrrrrrrrrd” was my signal to say that no, it didn’t seem fair, but that good writing comes from more than just time sheets and sweat. It’s the words on the page that matter.

Now, to my dismay, I sometimes find myself slipping into student mode. For example, when I submit a chapter to my critique group, or an agent, or a publisher, or a reviewer, or even a family member, and they find fault, or don’t even mention my genius, I have to restrain myself from wailing, But I worked so harrrrrrrd…

Each time it happens, I pull out the old talk about time sheets and sweat. I add that whingeing is the hallmark of the amateur.

And I meditate upon Tracy Chevalier.

Chevalier wrote the critically acclaimed historical novel Girl with a Pearl Earring. Her next (third) novel began as a draft written in third person, with small sections in first-person voices of children. The finished manuscript was a disappointment.

When I reread the first draft, she says,  I cried at the end. It was boring, dead weight, terrible. Then I looked it over and thought, there’s nothing wrong with the story except the way it’s told.

She found the solution in another contemporary novel:

I had the idea when, just as I was finishing the first draft in third person, I read Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, which uses five different voices beautifully. It’s a wonderful book, using multiple voices very successfully, and I thought, “Oh, that’s an interesting technique, I wonder if I should take the kids’ voices I’ve already written and have the three of them tell it.” It just felt right.

The revision was published as Falling Angels, an exquisite novel about a young wife and mother struggling to survive in the rigid, but rapidly changing, social structure of Edwardian England. The book is written in first person, from twelve perspectives, in twelve distinctive voices.

I came across Chevalier’s account when I was just beginning to write fiction and became obsessed with the work. Writing an entire manuscript, setting it aside, starting all over—it had to be pure drudgery. I couldn’t imagine putting myself through that. 

Recently, though, I reread the article and a different passage caught my attention—Chevalier’s description of the rewrite:

I took the draft, and it was like taking a vase and setting it down so hard it shatters, then putting the pieces back together in a different way. I rewrote the whole thing in first person with all these different voices.

That passage doesn’t describe drudgery. Shattering a vase, putting the pieces back together to make something new—that’s a picture of creation, of the excitement and the pleasure and the beauty that accompany it.

I love Tracy Chevalier’s novels and admire her talent. But, on a more personal level, I’m grateful to her for sharing publicly how Falling Angels made its way into print, for reminding me that hard work and drudgery aren’t synonymous, for implying it’s okay to cry over a bad draft and that perceived failure can turn into success, and for showing that the act of writing itself affords as much pleasure as the spirit is willing to embrace.

And—for tacitly suggesting that no one really needs to hear me whinge about how harrrrrrrrd I work.

It’s the words on the page that matter.

*****

Note: I do love Chevalier’s novels. In fact, I love Falling Angels so much that during library duty one Saturday morning, I was so intent on finishing the book—just racing toward the climax—that I unlocked the front doors but left the lights in the reading room off, and spent the next ninety minutes parked behind the circulation desk, reading and hoping no one would walk in and want something. I’m not proud of what I did, but patrons didn’t seem to notice anything different, and I finished the book.

Note: The angel pictured above stands in the Oakwood Cemetery in Hendersonville, North Carolina. Carved from Italian marble, she is the angel often referred to in Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward, Angel. Wolfe’s childhood home is in Asheville, about twenty miles north of Hendersonville.

*****

Information about Tracy Chevalier comes from Fiction Writers Review.

*****

Posted by Kathy Waller

Kathy

Kathy

Two of Kathy’s stories appear in
Austin Mystery Writers’ crime fiction anthology,
Murder on Wheels.
She blogs at Kathy Waller ~ Telling the Truth, Mainly,
and on the group blog, Writing Wranglers and Warriors.

It’s Not About You

once upon a timeWhile attending Malice Domestic in Bethesda, MD last month, I overheard a small group of authors gathered in the hotel bar discussing the issue of whether family members or friends thought a character was actually a portrayal of them. It seemed each had a story to share. One author’s sister felt a character was based on her. The author, however, stated the two–the sister and the character in question–had very little in common. The sister had picked up on one particular behavior and, from that point, assumed the entire character was based on her. It caused a bit of a family kerfuffle.

A quick online query about the topic will reveal many writers discussing how someone–a loved one, a friend, a colleague– believes a character is based on her and is unhappy about it, even when the author assures her it just isn’t so.

That’s not to say that certain authors haven’t based characters on real people–it happens all the time and often the author will reveal that information outright. After all, Anne Lamott once wrote, “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” That said, this topic becomes further complicated when the book is a work of fiction and no intent to base a character on a real person was made.  So, what happens when someone in your circle believes a character–one with one or more negative traits– is based on her?

If the character is a benevolent superhero with skills that put all around her to shame, letting your aunt/sister/friend claim that character as a portrayal is no issue. Let her enjoy the idea. However, what if the character is difficult, angry or passive-aggressive? How does an author help those around her understand that it is indeed a work of fiction?

While I can’t speak about the experiences of other authors, as they are as vast and layered as the works in our genre, I can share my general thought process when writing fiction. If this post helps neutralize a heated conversation, I’m happy to help.

I tend to be drawn to the dynamics between people, to specific conversations, to behavior and to moments in time. I might take one particular spark–a discussion, an encounter–and run with it. The result may be a compilation of my own experiences with several people over a long period of time, and I find that my characters take those behaviors and use them for their own purposes. No one in any of my work represents any one person. However, one person may have traits from several people or have experiences from several people all wrapped up in that one person. That’s a pretty wide net. After all, each one of us can be angry, difficult, funny, sarcastic or rude at any given time. Each one of us may have experienced the shattering loss of a parent, the sharp tongue of a hostile work colleague, the exhaustion of a demanding career. It doesn’t mean a character with those traits or experiences is based on a real person.

Each writer brings to her work a culmination of experiences, heartbreaks, conversations and issues and those tiny threads are bound to weave themselves in the story somehow.

But not in the way others might believe.

My primary purpose is to encourage the reader to care about the characters and what happens to them. That is my goal. Creating characters based on real people isn’t part of my process.   I may appreciate how one friend handles difficult conversations while another friend’s compassion with animals makes me smile, but that doesn’t mean those same people show up in my work. The particular behavior or personality trait might but that is only because it belongs to the character. That’s where it ends.

Writers study the world around them, taking note of interactions and exchanges, tucking them away in the hopes they might be useful in a story one day.  What happens next is complete fiction, and isn’t that one of the best things about being a mystery writer?

–Laura Oles

The Writing Process: The Wisdom of Darrell Royal and Lessons from a Jack Russell Terrier

Most people don’t believe it, but I was almost thirty years old, and had been teaching English for seven years, when I discovered I possessed a writing process. I learned about it in a special summer program for teachers of English at the University of Texas – Austin–the Hill Country Writing Project.

Author Anna Castle addressing SINC ~ Heart of Texas Chapter, March 2015

Author Anna Castle addressing SINC ~ Heart of Texas Chapter, March 2015

A certain writer of fiction for middle grade who spoke at the Texas Library Association’s Bluebonnet luncheon several years ago was even older than I when she found out about hers. I won’t mention her name, although I’ve just discovered she lives in Austin and am wondering whether she might accept an invitation to speak at one of my Sisters in Crime chapter’s meetings–But I digress.

This author said children she met at school visits started asking, “What is your writing process?”  When they explained to her what that was, she thought a while and then described it in roughly the following way:

 

Hit the alarm button, roll out of bed, throw on robe, drag out of bedroom, bang on son’s door in passing, go downstairs, make coffee, pile dirty towels in hall, bang on son’s door and yell “Get up,” dress, put towels in and start washer, go to office, turn on computer, inhale coffee fumes until eyes open, pull up file, stare at monitor, drink coffee, stare some more, check on son . . . 

This author’s process isn’t exactly what the UT scholars meant but it’s worked for her through nearly sixty books (the last time I counted).

About a month ago I reviewed my own writing process–I’d been trying and failing to complete (which means I couldn’t even begin) a 100-word story for Friday Fictioneers, and I believed analyzing my process might offer insight into the source of the problem. I did my best to remember how I had written the first three short-short stories, which had practically composed themselves.

The next three paragraphs provide a rough description of what went through my mind as I wrote those stories, which were based on picture prompts. I’ve included links so you can see the pictures and also, if you wish, read the final versions of the stories.

The second story: “Lovestruck.” Prompt–picture of old boat. Know nothing about boats. Grandfather’s old wooden boat on river. Friend’s husband surprised her with boat; she wasn’t pleased. Husband and wife. He wants boat. She sees flaws, thinks he’s crazy. He sees possibilities. Probably unrealistic. She’s patient. He doesn’t listen? What’s the end? Oh–he loves the boat–a love affair, name boat. No, lust. Ending? ???Too long. Quote Coleridge–develops wife’s character, she reads. Oh–have him intro boat-girlfriend to wife–first line–hook reader. Ending? Cut more. Oh–she wants something, boat is leverage–imply–end? suggest they look at–what?–sewing machine. She wants him happy–but–what’s good for gander. Both smiling. Cut.

The third story: “‘Shrooms.” Prompt–picture of mushrooms. What the heck I do with that? Poisonous. Lord Peter Wimsey–victim killed w/ deadly Amanita. Wife cooks mushroom gravy–End, poisons husband. How trite. Keep them talking about mushrooms. Tease–he won’t eat mushrooms, never does. Afraid of mistake–toadstools. She picked them. Husband–horrified! Create character, aunt–knows mushrooms–helped pick. Okay. Tastes, yum. Aunt pops in–new glasses–poor vision picking mushrooms–imply. End ambiguous. Accident? What did husband eat? Whimsy, understatement–Might want to spit out. Not trite.

First story: “Nothing But Gray.” Prompt: Man looking out window at courtyard? stone walls on all sides, no visible exit–b&w except for pot plants, red flowers. Boxed in, trapped, stone, gray. Start–boy, not man, place him staring out, gray stone, his POV. Easy–put him at window. Consider table, 4 plates, one boy. Guests for dinner? A brother. Mom comes in. Gray. Death. Mom in denial. 4 plates. (Note: Really, I’m not sure how I wrote this. Serendipity. Started writing and tripped over a miracle.)

That isn’t exactly what the scholars meant either–they talked about pre-writing, writing, revising, editing, polishing, nitpicking,** things that can be taught in a formal classroom setting.

English: A whole and split Cadbury Creme Egg.

English: A whole and split Cadbury Creme Egg. (Photo credit: Wikipedia). By Evan-Amos (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

I’m talking about the process unique to the individual, the brain state during which neurons explode at the mere thought of outlining before you do anything else or outlining at all, the state during which you either eat five pounds of Cadbury eggs or handcuff yourself to the birdbath so you can’t reach the box. Or, the state in which you’re relaxed, productive, focused, enjoying the act of creation despite the confusion and uncertainty creation entails.

To be continued…

Join me for Part 2 to discover
the Five Truths of the Writing Process,
how to make your writing practice more effective, and
What Darrell Royal and a Jack Russell Terrier Have to Do With Anything

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  • Nitpicking isn’t an official part of the writing process, but some people throw it in anyway.
  • To become a Friday Fictioneer, read instructions here: https://rochellewisofffields.wordpress.com/friday-fictioneers-2/. Then check Rochelle’s main page for the photo prompt, here: https://rochellewisofffields.wordpress.com/ You’ll probably have to scroll down to locate the correct picture. The projected date of publication will be the title. The official publication date is the Friday after the Wednesday prompt announcement. However, as I understand it, that’s a Friday-ish deadline. If Friday is impossible, just put it online before the next prompt comes out. Any Fictioneers out there, please correct me if I’m wrong.

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Kathy

Kathy

Kathy Waller blogs at To Write Is to Write Is to Write, and once or twice a month at Writing Wranglers and Warriors. Two of her stories will appear in AMW’s MURDER ON WHEELS, available soon from Wildside Press. Years ago, Kathy’s tongue got lodged in her cheek and she’s never managed to get it unstuck, so you can’t believe everything she says. Except about the writing process.

My Valentine to Writing

Five members of Austin Mystery Writers post here regularly, and I sometimes wonder whether you readers know which of us is which. So I’m going to clear up any questions  concerning my identity.

I’m Kathy. I write about angst. Any time you arrive here to find weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth over the writing life, it’s my teeth you hear gnashing.

Kathy

Kathy

I’m writing this at home, but home isn’t the only place I gnash. I do it at my office, AKA bookstore coffee shop, in full view of the public. I try to emote quietly, but muttering carries. People around me, many of them equipped with laptops and writing assignments of their own, receive full benefit of my outbursts: “Stupid, stupid, stupid!” “Noooo.” “What’s the word? What’s the word?” “^!*%&@% network.”

(I don’t really say ^!*%&@% , but that’s what I mean.)

I suspect other writers gnash, too.

Consider American poet William Cullen Bryant, author of “Thanatopsis.” I can’t imagine his interrupting himself with undignified emotional outbursts, but no one who holds his forehead like that is easy in his mind.

Today, though, there will be no gnashing. Today I depart from the usual tales of woe to say, I love writing.

I love the exhilaration I experience when words flow onto the page.

I love finding just the right word to express my meaning.

I love revising, moving sentences and paragraphs around, cutting excess–words, paragraphs, whole pages.

I love writing an entire blog post and then scrapping it and writing something different. (As I did for this post.)

I love filling holes to add clarity.

I love watching a story develop: beginning, middle, and end.

I love–oh, how I love–line editing, slashing words and phrases, discovering the one word whose omission makes the piece smoother, tighter.

I love the joy I feel on reading the finished product–and finding one more word to cut.

I love the satisfaction and the surprise of completing a task I didn’t think I could do.

I love making something out of nothing.

I love making art.

I love creating.

I love saying, “I write.”

I love loving writing.

*****

Lagniappe, Freebie, Pilon

William Cullen Bryant wrote “Thanatopsis” when he was seventeen years old. The title comes from the Greek thanatos (“death”) and opsis (“sight”), and has been translated “Meditation upon Death.” He initially hid the poem from his father because it expressed ideas not found in traditional Christine doctrine. In the concluding lines, which my mother memorized in high school and sixty years later could recite from memory, the poet instructs how to “join the innumerable caravan” of those who have gone before.

*

So live, that when thy summons comes to join
The innumerable caravan, which moves
To that mysterious realm, where each shall take
His chamber in the silent halls of death,
Thou go not, like the quarry-slave at night,
Scourged to his dungeon, but, sustained and soothed
By an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave
Like one who wraps the drapery of his couch
About him, and lies down to pleasant dreams.

Imagine Bryant reading those lines. He must have loved writing.

See the entire poem here.

*****

029

To Write Is to Write Is to Write

Kathy Waller blogs at To Write Is to Write Is to Write,which she plans to rename, and, every thirty days or so, with friends at Writing Wranglers and Warriors. She blogged at Whiskertips until cats took it over.