Archive for category Creativity
Four years ago, I decided to take a break from blogging. Dozens of times since, I have considered picking it up again.
During my extended break, things have happened. Our daughter went to grad school and got a real job. I had my thyroid out. We’ve been to Memphis, Nashville, London, Paris, Berlin, and Helsinki, among other, less exotic, places. I’ve had two stories published online (Sockdolager and Allegory), and another to come out, soon, from the venerable print zine Tales of the Unanticipated. We had a long-lived pet cockatiel die, and adopted a new one. None of these events disrupted my schedule enough to keep me from blogging, and yet I stopped dead, as suddenly as if I’d fallen into a sinkhole.
I joke that laziness stopped me, but that is untrue. I would not describe myself as driven, but I would say I’m a pretty reliable plodder…the sort of person who does laundry on Monday and pays bills on Tuesdays, and writes very nearly every day. I’ve gotten stuff done, just not blogging. I might cite perfectionism, and that would be closer to the mark. I want everything I write to mean something. You know, there’s so much stuff out there. Lots of blathering. Most of it doesn’t mean much of anything, nor does it seem to have much of a purpose. And while “meaning” and “purpose” are different concepts they go together for me. Meaning is always useful, and that which has purpose means something.
I don’t know which things I write will end up meaning something to someone, so perhaps, “meaning” and “purpose” are concepts that need to be considered. My posts don’t get a lot of response, but I am grateful for the responses I do get, and am a bit amazed to still get the occasional comment after a four-year hiatus. Apparently there is occasional meaning here, but I can’t predict when or where or for whom.
I’ve been mulling over how the need for meaning and purpose can throw a stranglehold on a person ever since reading the second book of Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers series, A Closed and Common Orbit. In it, the AI protagonist tells us that animals don’t have a purpose. Human animals, however, are obsessed with the concept of having a purpose, of searching for the meaning of their lives. With that bred into their very souls, they have programmed their AIs to be purpose-focused as well. AI Sidra finds herself needing to re-invent herself to survive. Re-inventing oneself involves lying about one’s past, but she is programmed only to tell the truth. In figuring out how to undo her own programming, she comes to recognize survival, friendship, and love as purpose enough.
I finish another draft of my book. I sit down to read it through. I expect rough spots, and there’s a ton of setup information I need to drop in. I have character discontinuity; I need to match up some of the second tier cast from the beginning, with the end, and vice versa. There are motivations to clarify, logistics, technical stuff, and science, all needing to be figured out.
But here’s something I did not expect. Chapter three, which I had previously liked, which I thought performed a function in the story, appears to have absolutely no reason to exist. It is pretty horrible. It needs to be tossed. The only good news is that I know what needs to go in its place. But I have to start over, completely.
Chapters four and five are a kick in the gut. Here, characters basically walk around in circles spouting nonsense to each other. Worse, it’s prissy, stilted nonsense. I thought I was setting a scene here, and setting actions in motion. I was doing no such thing. This is just awful, and I have to start over.
Chapter six is a relief. There is meaningful action, and there is relationship between the characters. Whew. But those awful patches make me very sad. I knew the draft was rough, but I thought I was in the ballpark. Turns out I was five miles down the freeway from the offramp leading to the parking lot of the ballpark.
I cannot stay in this disheartened state, so I have a talk with myself. When your characters walk around in circles spouting nonsense to each other, it only means you don’t quite know yet what needs to go there. It is placeholder material. It doesn’t make sense yet, but it will. Those characters, in that setting, will matter. Look at it again in coming days, and you will know what goes there. Your characters will talk sense. They will become interesting. You will feel something. You will no longer feel like throwing the chapter on the floor for your cockatiels to chew and poop on.
In the meantime, focus on what’s good in the draft. Focus on how much you’ve learned about the characters, their motivations, and how they all play together to make a story, or even a part of one.
I wish it weren’t so much work, and at the same time, I’m glad it is. Easy things are forgotten. Difficult things have sticking power.
I rarely go back to read my own published work, the short stories, the blog posts, anything. Sometimes, on the occasions I do, I cringe. But more often I am filled with a quiet satisfaction. Hey, I think, that’s not too bad. That doesn’t suck. I like that. And I’m glad I stuck it out.
Photo courtesy Martha A. Hood. All rights reserved.
Many, many years ago, a man in the office where I worked suddenly became concerned about my writing hobby. “You draw your characters from real life, right?”
I shrugged. “Sure. That’s the only place they could possibly come from.”
Now he was worried. “That means that any of us could end up in your story.”
“Yes, it does,” I said, “but whether you turn out to be a hero or a villain is entirely up to you.” I smiled sweetly.
He needn’t have been so concerned, because he was not much of a character. He was not, shall we say, the most interesting man in the world. In appearance, temperament, and personality, he was something of an Everyman.
But the Everyperson is in fact, a staple character, particularly as a protagonist. The Everyman or Everywoman can be a tough to crack. Building an Everyperson can feel like building a house out of oatmeal.
When plot comes into the creation, we encounter a chicken and egg question. Plot is a series of actions taken by characters. For my character to be plausible, her actions come out of character. To discover character requires observing action. Character and plot are inextricably intertwined. Or they ought to be. But which comes first?
We have to begin somewhere. We have to decide something about our character before she ever takes a step. We have to know something about what happens, and what’s being done, before we know who’s doing it. Ideally, we have an idea about both initially, enough to get ourselves going.
If we take our Everyman, and try to make him do a bunch of stuff before we know who he is, his actions will seem forced. We’ve all had this experience as readers or viewers: the sudden disheartening feeling that this fictional piece we were enjoying a few moments before has taken a Very Bad Turn. We become painfully aware the plot was made up by somebody. Somebody wanted the plot to go a certain way, and the characters are now speaking from a script.
The best characters appear realer than real. They appear inevitable.
We cannot force our Everyperson into action, but it is also difficult to draw a character before he or she has opened her mouth or taken a step. I always dislike those character templates where you go through and answer a bunch of questions, like, what is the character’s favorite color? What is he wearing? Or, heaven help us, what are her quirks? I don’t do well on those; I am too bored, and I don’t give interesting answers. I end up with no character.
In the end, I rely on inspiration. I suddenly realize my character looks like Andrew Jackson, or stands with feet precisely placed, like a professional dancer. At some point, I must have some idea what my character’s childhood was like, what pivotal events occurred, whether or not that information ever makes it into the story itself. Gradually, the character becomes more full-color, and more three-dimensional.
I can’t force it, but I keep asking who this person is. I wait for the turn of the head, the wince, or the laugh that seems to come from a wound. Eventually, character happens, but I am never quite sure how.
There are certain things I need to stay sane and healthy. These include:
- Proper sleep and diet
- Some minimal socializing
There are other things that are unnecessary for my health and sanity, although I do enjoy them, in small doses. Some of them are:
- Baking cookies
- Cooking Christmas dinner
- Holiday Decorating
- Gift Wrapping
- Parties and large social gatherings in general
- Sending Christmas cards
All of these holiday activities take time, and when time runs short, some activities are sacrificed–including items from the list of things I need to stay sane and healthy. Exercise suffers. I eat too many high-fat carbs. I don’t have enough alone time. Maybe I let the holidays mess with my writing schedule, or I read less. Let’s face it…I do all of the above in order to create the Christmas I want.
The first things to go from my sane ‘n’ healthy list are exercise and writing. Exercise…because it takes time, and I am lazy. Writing, because it takes time, and effort, and I’m lazy. Sleep, on the other hand, only requires lying down. Reading and listening to music are passive enjoyments.
Writing and exercise are the first to go, and I suffer from their lack.
I haven’t had much luck with the exercise, but I am determined to make a stand on the writing. It seems to me that there are certain things I can do. And here, I don’t need a bunch of numbers. I need only one rule: that my scheduled daily writing time be honored. This is it, and that is all there is to my Holiday Guide for Writers.
Taking the distractions of the season in reverse order: I am not sure I’ll get cards out this year. Fewer and fewer people send them. If I do send them, they may go out late. This is okay. This is a decision. As for parties, I keep them few and with people I want to spend precious time with. I am done with obligations, mostly. I will go with store gift wrap and bags with tissue paper whenever possible. Decorating? Yeah, that’s my favorite. I’ll spend a little extra time on that. For the rest of it, Christmas dinner will get served, my loved ones will have presents to open, and yes, the cookies will be baked. It will be fine, it will be enough. I will let the rest of the season take care of itself.
Writers: Do what you need to to stick to your writing schedule during this festive season, and stay sane and healthy.
Since the first of the year, I have been complaining about things in and around my house breaking. Both April’s “When Life Annoys the Writer,” and January’s “When the House Is Falling Down,” address the the time energy it takes to deal with our things. This is time that could be better spent on our life dreams. Like writing.
In my postings–behind the words–was an implied assumption, namely that, after this brief flurry of incidents, things would stop breaking for a while. Guess what. They haven’t.
The dishwasher we installed a couple months ago has worked beautifully, up until a couple weeks ago, when it sprung a leak and ruined the engineered wood kitchen floor. And, our quarter-century-old air conditioner has given up the ghost.
More chaos. More people coming out to have a look, and offer remedies. And it’s all down to me: My husband is a good man, but he leaves the care of the house to me. He will assist in major decisions, but I am expected to take the lead. Given how hard he works, this seems a fair enough exchange.
Of course all this disrupts the schedule, but I am more concerned with what it does to my mind. If I am using my limited mental power to find creative solutions to real-life problems, what’s left for my fictional world? Indeed, a bunch of stuff breaking tends to break my concentration.
So, I’ll be deep in a scene, and all of a sudden, I’ll think, “Once they’ve replaced the dishwasher, I should wait about three months before replacing the floor, to make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
I’ll go back to work, only to think, a few minutes later, “I would love to rip out the family room carpet and replace it with the same engineered wood we have in the kitchen. But if we do that, what do we do with the speaker wire?”
The story of my characters is replaced with the story of my house.
Gradually, persistently, I wean myself from compulsive thinking about the house and its care. I turn myself back to my fiction. Eventually, I come to weave the life experience into my work in more appropriate ways.
It helps to remember that real life is what generates fiction. Real life teaches me how things (and people) work. Every bit of it, mundane or dramatic, is potential fodder.
Years ago, in a writing class, one fellow student recalled falling off a hiking trail and tumbling down the side of the mountain. For all he knew, he could end up dead or paralyzed. Instead of worrying about that, though, he paid attention to every moment of the descent, knowing the information he was gaining on the way down (“This is what it feels like to fall off a mountain!”) was priceless and irreplaceable.
To paraphrase Stephen King, from his wonderful book, On Writing, art is meant to support life, and not the other way around.
So, it’s back to work. All the broken things that haven’t been resolved are waiting on other people now. Other deteriorating items I see before me haven’t actually broken. They can wait a few hours, while I write.
In a previous post which I will not look up and tag, I believe I cited some advice from writer Laurel Winter, who (and I’m going to go for a paraphrase here) said she made a point to work on her project every day, no matter what else was going on, no matter if all she could do was two sentences. Two sentences, she said, was her minimum. Two sentences was enough to keep that project in her mind, to keep the flow going. And, when she had more time, she could thereby avoid the “…awkward getting-reacquainted time…” required to pick up a project after a long break.
Good advice. Keep the flow going, and–in a mixture of metaphors–you’ll keep the pot simmering on that back burner. Metaphor #3: I think of a shark who never rests but is always swimming. A quick Google check indicates that thing about sharks perpetually on the move isn’t entirely true, but it’s a great image. Keep moving, keep the flow going, and keep the pot gently burbling.
Keeping it moving (or gently burbling) is necessary to keeping one’s attention, and I’m speaking of writer, not the reader. Nothing will ever appear before the reader unless it first makes it past the writer. If the writer becomes disengaged from her own work, the work will wander and fizzle.
I set aside two hours a day to work on my novel. If I am prevented from doing two hours, I do an hour and a half. Can’t do an hour and a half? Do an hour…and so forth. No day exists when I cannot do two sentences.
Let’s make that two paragraphs. No day exists when I cannot do two paragraphs. I can do something else as well: I can give myself my next assignment. Before I set down the work, I can look at the next two paragraphs and think about what might be next. I don’t actually have to compose them, I need only toss them in the burbling pot. When I return after a day, they will be at least partially cooked.
The alternative to keeping it moving is to get stuck. Getting stuck puts one at risk for writer’s block. When I am stuck (in the middle of my second paragraph?) I need to find a way to get moving again.
There’s no magic answer, but there are tricks. There are things I can do that are not unlike shaking out my arm when it’s numb from being slept on wrong. There’s nothing perfect or precise.
If I have a problem moving forward, what is the problem? Why am I stuck? Let’s say I need to get my character to the moon, but I want him to have a different reason for going there than the plot turn that actually happens. The reason I currently have for his going there seems stupid, leading me to feel like a Bad Plotter. In another situation, I suddenly realize I am not a biologist and my alien biology is therefore really stupid. I do not believe in my own science. My alien needs to be in more scenes, but I keep avoiding talking about it. I keep writing scenes where the characters seem to be in denial about the alien in the center of the room. Or…I’m tired and impatient. I want to get to action and dialog, but need to set up the scene first. I don’t want to set up the scene. It’s boring. It’s hard. I don’t seem to be able to imagine anything, and can’t seem to describe anything. The sun was shining. Her eyes were blue. I am a Lazy Writer and there is No Hope For Me.
In the third situation, being stuck on description, I simply close my eyes. I relax. I let the movie in my brain roll. I open my eyes and quickly write down anything I see, hear, feel, or smell. I do not judge the quality or appropriateness of what I write. I think as little as possible, except to prompt myself to remember to include all the senses, not just what I see. (Just out of scene, a spigot opens, a shark swims, and a pot simmers.)
In the case of the I-don’t-know-my-science-from-squat problem, I have resources. I can do research, and I can ask a biologist. I know some, as it happens. Find out what I need to know. Or sometimes, the very lack of knowledge can give me a whole new idea. My alien in the middle of the room? Hey, that sounds like a great SF absurdist play! Maybe I can work that into my story. (Just out of scene, a fish comes out of the spigot, the shark eats it, and an octopus jumps into the stew.)
Plot problems are usually easier than they look. There are always choices, different paths one can take, especially if–as in my example–I know where I’m going, i.e., the moon. If my character has no good reason for going to the moon, well, maybe he’s kidnapped. Why not? (The water scalds, the shark is arrested, and the pot boils over. The paths keep diverging.) Once it’s down on paper, I can trust the boiling-over pot to know what should go in it, and what should not.
If a writer is going to produce results, i.e. finished, readable work, he or she must set aside time and energy for the task. The writer develops strategies to manage time and energy. A writer:
- Writes every day
- Sets aside a specific time, and treats that time slot as he/she would any other obligation
- Avoids distractions during writing time
- Adjusts mind to approach work in a calm, confident, optimistic manner.
The key thing is to give one’s work priority over anything that will keep for an extra hour or two. This includes all housework, and all bills that aren’t already past due. This includes requests for volunteer work. This includes suddenly needing to go to Costco for more paper towels. If one’s regular time to write is compromised, one needs to reschedule, to find another slot in the day to make it up. Socializing, exercise, and relaxation are essential to health, but need to be scheduled around writing. It’s not always easy, no one is perfect, but a writer can maximize available time with the single act of giving it priority.
But sometimes, life intervenes in one’s schemes. Illness, paying work, serious life crises of oneself, family, or close friends, and natural disasters all lay waste to our writing time. And sometimes, life just gets annoying. Sometimes:
- Telemarketers, having long since decided to ignore the NO CALL list, ring our land line up to 15 times a day. I screen all calls, but the ringing ricochets around my brain. It is astounding how often the phone will ring the moment I have sat down, picked up my pencil or laptop, and adjusted my mind, and formed half an idea.
- A friend or family member will call with a perfectly reasonable, legitimate request (not idle chit-chat) and I will have to go do something for them, feeling guilty for feeling annoyed, because I know they would interrupt their stuff to take care of me on occasion.
- My husband will call, wondering if he left a) his briefcase in the family room, b) wallet on the dresser, or c) guitar in the hallway. Yes, yes, and yes.
- Stuff breaks. Cars break. Electrical stuff breaks. Plumbing leaks. Cable systems break. Everything is broken. No one wants to help me fix this stuff on my schedule. Things even pretend to break, as a plot to do in my head. This week, my dishwasher pretended to break. Turned out there was a loose spoon that had fallen out of the basket. Once put back, everything worked again. A happy result, but not until about half an hour had been wasted.
- People come to the door with packages, religious material, and requests for money. If it’s a package, I have to see what it is. If it’s one of the other two, I have to hide until they go away. This takes time.
- It’s tax time, or house re-fi time, or family-member-buys-a-new-car time. Car dealer calls to welcome us to the name of car family.
All of these are normal things in life, and most of the time I’m not bothered by them, but during the last couple weeks, they have piled up on me. An unusual number of things have broken, or pretended to break, since the first of the year. The phone calls have been out of control. For the most part, these annoyances can be traced to the problem of abundance. Having a bunch of stuff, like cable TV and a house. Living with people who also have stuff. Having friends. I could get rid of the land-line phone (thinking about it), get rid of time-consuming luxuries like a house (but love my garden), cable TV (no, no, no!!!), leave my family, reject my friends, and be poor, isolated, and lonely.
Sound like a plan?
Photo: Ben Husmann