Posted in Poetry, Writing

Writerly Ramblings on a Rainy Afternoon

"Up a Tree" won Second Place in the Austin Poetry Society’s Moving Along Award, 2014
“Up a Tree” won 2nd Place in the Austin Poetry Society’s 2014 Moving Along Award

 

After two years of writing, I still expect stories to pop out of my head and form, nearly-finished, on the page. Despite more than a decade of telling students to slow down and take their time, I still rush. Although lately I’ve urged myself to focus, to finish things before I start new ones, I still make daily to-do lists that say things like…

  1. Finish chapter 14
  2. Revise short story
  3. Write a blog post
  4. Read for one hour

…and I actually expect that such quick accomplishments and multitasking of the mind are possible.

A few mornings ago, I woke up with a story in my head. I developed it, tweaked it, walked around with it, honed it, until it was practically bursting from me. I was so excited to sit down and write it out. (That simple. Just write it out.) It was my first ever effort in the world of magical realism, yet I expected that this story (so beautiful and seemingly fully-formed in my mind) would just whoosh out onto the page, needing only a little revising before it was ready. (Just draft-ready, of course, but, you know, a pretty polished draft, good enough for me to take to a critique group the next day.) But then I sat down to write it, and that first simple scene took WAAAAAAAY longer to create than I thought it would. And the characters that were so crisp in my head came out kind of fuzzy. And the plot… (I so often struggle with plot, but this story had one! It did!)… the plot seemed less, well, “plotty” when I got it down on paper.

The experience reminded me of Ann Patchett’s essay about writing in her book This is the Story of a Happy Marriage. In “The Getaway Car,” Patchett writes:

This book I have not written one word of is a thing of indescribable beauty, unpredictable in its patterns, piercing in its color, so wild and loyal in its nature that my love for this book, and my faith in it as I track its lazy flight, is the single perfect joy in my life. It is the greatest novel in the history of literature, and I have thought it up, and all I have to do is put it down on paper and then everyone can see this beauty that I see.

And so I do… I reach up and pluck the butterfly from the air. I take it from the region of my head and I press it down against my desk, and there, with my own hand, I kill it… Everything that was beautiful about this living thing—all the color, the light and movement—is gone. What I’m left with is the dry husk of my friend, the broken body chipped, dismantled, and poorly reassembled. Dead. That’s my book.

My protagonist, in a tree.
My protagonist, in a tree.

The thing is, writing is WORK. Real, actual, difficult work. We read books on craft and we pepper our favorite novels with sticky notes and we stay up nights thinking of all the brilliant ideas floating around in our heads. But eventually we must come to the page, and we must take all that inspiration, all that knowledge, all those brilliant ideas, and we must type them. And delete them. And retype them. And type them some more in a different order. And look back at our sticky notes to see if maybe we missed something important. And open those craft books to the highlighted passages to see if maybe the answer is there. And re-read our favorite novels, asking ourselves, How did she DO that? In sum, we must WORK.

So why do we do it? Because it’s so much fun. Writing is like working a puzzle and playing a game and opening an old treasure box all at the same time. When you put in the time and do the work, you find hidden gems, see pieces lock together, and get bursts of joy and energy when you finally figure out how to defeat a frustrating transition and “level up” so to speak. The moment when the thing you thought you had killed suddenly gasps back to life and takes a breath and then another and then another… that moment makes everything else worth it.

And now, back to work. 🙂

 

Posted in Lists, Writing

Coming Soon: 10 Writing Tips in 5 Days

My Writing Quotes Table
My Writing Quotes Table

This week on my blog I’ll be sharing with you almost everything I know about writing. I’m holding out on a couple of things because I like to pretend to be mysterious and it’s fun having a secret. But I’m not actually very good at keeping secrets and I’m much too clumsy to be mysterious (because mystery, in my mind, involves long flowing cloaks and shadows and silence, not untied shoelaces and elbows whacking doorframes and shrieks of pain) so I’m sure I’ll cough up the last few useful tidbits soon. For now, though, I’m offering you ten writing tips over the course of five days which, in my opinion, is a pretty good deal.

You may be asking yourself, What makes her an expert? It’s okay, go ahead and ask it out loud. It’s a good question. The answer is nothing. Nothing makes me an expert. I’m not an expert; I’m just a writer. But I’ve been doing this writing thing for two years now, and in that time I’ve had a little success and I’ve learned a whole heck of a lot. And one of the things I’ve learned is that I have to learn things over and over again.

It’s not that I’m a poor student. In fact, I’ve always been a very good student. But real learning takes time and retention takes repetition. If I’d truly absorbed everything I’ve learned over the past two years about the writing life, I’d probably be fiendishly typing 20,000 words a day and cranking out a bestseller a month by now* but I’m not, so the learning continues.

Another thing I’ve learned (you’re getting a couple of pre-tips here) is that a writer who’s stuck can be very skilled at forgetting the very things that would get her unstuck. It’s amazing how stubborn my brain can be. It will deliberately choose to ignore the simple, effective tools it has stored away in its grotesque** little folds when it’s determined to be stuck. I often have to be reminded to do things that I’ve been doing for years, things that I taught others to do for years, like…free writes. And timed writing. And quick character sketches. Every time someone recommends one of these things to me, I say, Oh yeah. Duh! Then I push my brain out of the way and get back to work.

My point is that none of the tips you’re going to see this week are earth-shattering ideas or light-bulb-over-the-head epiphanies. They’re just things that I’ve learned that I want to share. You’ve probably heard them before, but it doesn’t hurt to be reminded once in a while. Just distract your brain with a logic puzzle or one of those images of a snake eating itself so that you can read at your leisure.

Oh, and since I’m really not an expert***, I’ll throw in a few links to some people who actually know what they’re talking about as a bonus.

 

* I’m kidding. That is not actually what success looks like and it doesn’t sound healthy at all.

** Your brain may not be grotesque, but I’m pretty sure mine is.

*** Really, truly, not an expert.

Snake

 

Coming Up This Week: 10 Writing Tips in 5 Days

Day 1 – Start Small, But Dream Big

Day 2 – Join the Club

Day 3 – Get Yourselves Organized!

Day 4 – The Reluctant Reviser

Day 5 – No More Excuses