Wednesday, March 29, 2006

So Close Yet So Lazy

I live 12 miles from Manhattan. I can stand at my bedroom window and see the train that glides directly into New York City's Penn Station. Yet how often do I take advantage of this cultural mecca? 2, 3 times a year. Sometimes I go in for a writing class or to go to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Big fan, big fan. Sometimes I head over to SoHo for unique shopping and then eat at La Mela in Little Italy. Family style and a bottle of red.

But there is so much more to do, and I plan to take advantage of it. Here is the first thing on my list: A Dorothy Parker Walking Tour. A walking tour centered on writers from the 1920's? I'm in. I want to learn more about Dorothy Parker. Her wit has me hooked. She came back on my radar on Monday night at my American Presidents history class. When President Calvin Coolidge died, she quipped, "How can they tell?"

I'm more of the five-minutes-later speed of snappy.

I am also envious of her average day (at least this part of it): lunch every weekday at The Algonquin Hotel where she chatted up with other talented, creative, and outspoken people. Sounds like a dream. This walking tour ends with lunch at The Algonquin. I gotta go see what this is about.

And I can. Because it's only 12 miles away.

Do you live close to something amazing that you rarely take advantage of?

Hugs, C

Saturday, March 25, 2006

A Connection Like No Other ... (or The Accidental Penguin)

"The independent witness of book writers I think provides the deepest and profoundest ... form of communication in our society," said Doctorow, 75, who observed that books are written in silence and read in silence, a "soul to soul" bond unique in the modern world." (E.L. Doctorow in a recent interview.)

I have thought about this myself, but have not put it into such a direct and eloquent statement. I think he is right about a "soul to soul" bond being unique in the modern world. What else could possibly take the time and space to provide such a deep and profound experience? On the intimate level that a book can? I know I am profoundly affected by other media--for example, most recently, The March of the Penguins. This movie evoked so many things from me. I immediately wanted to run with parka to Antarctica. Still, in a book, at least for me--OK, so maybe I shouldn't have picked penguins because now this will sound ridiculous but go with me--I read books to know what's going on inside at least one particular penguin's head. I want to know what he's thinking about through all the steps of his journey (because I think we compare our journeys and try to learn from them). And, if I connect (whether or not I agree) with a particular author's look on the world, his style, I'm going to eat it up more for the slant that penguin's thoughts and actions will have. (For example, I'd want Larry McMurtry to tell the story from the penguin's point of view. Because the penguin will wonder why he keeps trudging over the ice as he continues to trudge over the ice and then one of the eccentric penguins will come up to him and tell him something outrageous like, I'm getting Sloucho's girl this year. I've been working on my moves while Sloucho's been on set for the Diet Coke commercial now that the bears are out. Then our penguin will wonder why the eccentric penguins always come to him to share their wackoness, and then, of course, Sloucho's girl will want our hero because he's quiet and mysterious--though he really just has nothing to say--and it all becomes a beautiful mess.)

I feel the difference between books and other media mostly with character. It is not often that I walk out of a movie theater and say, "it was as good as the book," or rarest of all, "it was better than the book." It can happen, of course, if the movie crew is able to stir the same visceral emotions and reactions provided by the book. Usually what is missing--for me--is the intimate detail that a 2-hour movie could never provide. For example, in a tense scene where a man and wife are arguing, the wife is stting at her dressing table, and in the midst of the chaos, she touches the cool handle of a mirror and is immediately soothed, flashed to a moment in the past where she remembers holding it as a girl and her mother fussing with her hair, and then a moment later she is back in the room with her yelling husband, but different, holding her mother's strength and love ... It's all of those little intimate journeys and sensory details that fill in gaps the movie must leave the viewer to assume. And if the movie is made well, the viewer will assume the most critical ones. Still ...

Second, the silence. As writers, we are writing what we see through the filter of our own knowledge, fear, beliefs, and experience, not to mention through the stretching of ourselves into the unknown. We write from within us, a world we cannot see, hear, taste, or touch ... it may as well be outerspace ... but we can FEEL it, and it's from that feeling that we create. As readers, it is our interpretation of those words that blooms inside of us. The writer's words that are filtered through our knowledge, fear, beliefs, and experience, not to mention through the stretching of ourselves into the unknown. We are directly interpreting the author's words through ourselves and creating a whole new experience. It moves THROUGH us, through every part of us. It feels as though I am meeting in a new world inside of myself with the author, the characters. It becomes so ... real. There is nothing in between us ... we become one and the same.

All art does this on different levels. It is supposed to make us feel, react, take us somewhere. But I agree that nothing to me seems as exploratory as a book.

There is so much more to say, as well as for other art forms that are so deeply evocative and immediate (I'm sure the painter sees a thousand worlds in a brush stroke, the photographer the lifetime of struggle in a skin crease, the musician's heart breaking all over again at midnight as he strums out his blues ... the viewer/listener responding in kind), but these are my thoughts of the moment.

What does Doctorow's quote evoke for you?

Hugs, C

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Let's Make a Deal

I've started a new scene. Right now it's about 4 pages of dialogue and only dialogue. I'm building the bones. What is said in this scene is pivotal. Of course, everything in a story should matter, but in the mind of my plot ... I need to get this just right. Not so much the wording, but what my two characters say to one another to spur the next scene, which I can see already. It has to be strong, tough, believable, and encompass matters old and new.

So, of course, I've been judging everything as I write it. Even as the gentler part of me gets nervous saying, no, you can't judge now. Just write. Judge later. Now is creative time, not edit time. You can't get it down if you're breathing too heavily on it. Then it will be lifeless and forced.

So last night I was able to back off with a deal with myself. OK, just keep writing whatever is coming. Don't judge. We'll print it out and read it at lunch tomorrow with a fresh eye. It might not be as bad as you think. Just GO. No thought.

So I did just that, and read it at lunch today. It wasn't bad. Not at all. It's moving along and giving me plenty to work with when I go back to add the flesh. I still have to finish it, but I'm so glad I didn't let my inner critic completely stall the work. But I had to make a deal to do that. It probably wouldn't have turned off if I didn't acknowledge that it would get its turn. But right then it was the creator's turn, and it needed space to run. No breathing down its neck.

Do you find you sometimes have to make deals with your inner critic?

Hugs, C

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Picking Up Pieces

Disclaimer: I think I've been rambling lately since tax season really kicked in. I'm sorry for this. Please bear with me. :-)

I used to sit and write whatever came out in the moment. Then it shut off until the next time I sat. I didn't really think much about the story in between sittings. It just turned on and off when I needed it. Sometimes thoughts would come to me in between, but not like they do now.

Now they come at me wherever I am, on the move, throughout the day. I'm using a voice recorder, pencil and crocodile-covered journal, and Alphasmart to catch the ideas and snippets of dialogue or narrative or back story. It feels like finding pieces all around, collecting them, and then going home to sew them together into a patchwork quilt. Only I try to piece them together so that the seams are not so obvious.

I think the deluge might have to do with that commitment that I made. The one where I demanded that I must make this happen. This story must get written. There is no exception. There is no in between. So I opened up my mind with expectation. I invited it all to come.

Though tax season might slow it down, I am always tuned in, thinking about it as much as I can. Things around me might trigger ideas or a notion might simply float into my awareness during a slow moment. Yeah, it's really those moments where you stop and take a deep breath between tasks--say, when the copy room is suddenly quiet and empty--and inside you can feel as a deep as a canyon, and suddenly you turn your mind back to your story and there it is ... something grand or something small, but something speaking nonetheless in that canyon-sized silence and presence. You connected and picked up another piece that will carry you to the next piece.

So, in the moments at work or in the car or wherever, these pieces will appear, and I gather, and I come home and try to tell a story.

How and where do you pick up your pieces of story?

Hugs, C

Monday, March 20, 2006

Surreal Sopranos

Spoiler if you haven't seen Sunday's The Sopranos episode.

I have the feeling this was an episode viewers either loved or hated. I'm in the love category. I thought it was brilliant. I'll admit, I was nervous when it started out in dream. I hated that other dream sequence they did once, with Tony riding in the old car and the catepillar and he and Carmella watching themselves on TV.

But I got sucked into this one. The whole drama unfolding around him in the physical world--the mob captains jockeying for position, the kids really deepening their life roles--and then the whole drama unfolding in his inner world while he is in a coma. I loved that we watch him as a salesman with a non-mob life. He has lost his wallet while on the road (switched with someone else by accident) and, in turn, his identity is out there, in someone else's. He is in virtual limbo. He can't fly or rent a car or even a hotel room. So he has to pretend to be Kevin Finnerty, the man's wallet he has instead. A very non-Italian name. One of the very first images is him lying in a hotel room, a big view of some city, and, in the distance, a search light. This plays throughout. I think we know what light that is in the distance. Searching, almost waiting. At another time is a different light, one of a helicopter, almost like a police helicopter, more direct and in his face, which in a flash, we see is the ER doctor with her pen light.

The monks waiting for him. One slapping him, thinking he's the other guy who ripped him off, and Tony talking to his wife later on the phone about it, unsure what to do. The Christian commercial at the bar (I forget what it said but it was very applicable).

So much goes on that I can't possibly hit it all here. Suffice it to say, the episode went down like a full-bodied wine for me. Nothing, not a thing went to waste in the show. Not one facial expression or word. The simultaenous unfolding to me was creative and expert. It left much to interpretation, which I think was daring and smart. I loved how Tony has no ID, can't seem to get anywhere, except between hotels. Even the almost bad-girl in his coma turns out to be good. The voice of his wife on the phone I don't even think was Carmella. Maybe it was Arty's wife. He thinks she's a good girl (and she didn't want him ultimately). His kids are younger on the phone, perhaps before they started rebelling?

The hole in his chest in the hospital can be interpreted in different ways too. The Alzheimer's.

I love layers. The fact that I'm still dissecting this episode speaks volumes for me. I can't say enough about their choice of structure. It opened a whole new world and deepened The Sopranos story.

What did you think? Am I off my rocker?

Hugs, C

Out of Touch

So I did not follow my own advice about keeping in touch with my characters. I have not worked in my story since Friday at lunchtime. Boooo! As in my previous post, I ended up getting my house and husband's business books in order. I did not seem able to function on any other level until the chaos around me had some order. I had to shake off the malaise and exhaustion of the week and take back that feeling of energy and power! Some of that included rest too.

Now order has been restored on the homefront. I'm back in tax business today, but when I go home tonight, I will be able to focus on the writing. Food shopping is done and meals are prepped and ready to go. So my day might be chaos, but when I go home, my night should not be. I'm ready to get back in it and move forward!

I can say that, while I was running on Saturday, I did come up with an idea for the story ... thanks to Prince and one his songs. You never know where you're going to get inspiration!

Anne Lamott said somewhere that she used to not be able to write if there were dishes in the sink. Now she can write if there is a corpse in it. I always remember this and follow it for a long as I can. But then a certain point comes where I have to take care of domestic business. It's distraction level becomes too great.

When do you know you have to set down the pen and pick up the scrub brush?

Hugs, C

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Mean Streets and Clean Sheets

I ran my first 5-miler of the season! 56 minutes. Not so bad for my first long trek since December. During the darkest, coldest months, I lower my run to my maintenance level, which is 2.5 miles. This makes it not so difficult to build back up to 5. After a while, I'll boost it up to 6, but that won't be until it's really nice out and I can finish my run in the light at night. Soon, I will also mix up my long runs with short sprints, which is usually running a mile flat out and then walking home. The sprints really help to build my endurance and improve my time. That's what puts me in the best shape. Ultimately, I'd like to build yoga back into my routine as well. I love how loose and stretched my body feels. I feel healthy in every way after a yoga session.

So that's my story today. Ran 5 miles and did 5 loads of laundry. Had to get some feel-good chores done in the other areas of my life (clean sheets on the bed are good) so I can focus on writing. After bookkeeping class this morning, I found I needed to just plain get some things done before I could sit and work on the story. For the rest of tonight, relaxation and maybe some wine. Somewhere in there, I'll peck out a few words too.

Enjoy your weekend!

Hugs, C

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Staying in It

I started a new job last fall. It is a good job. But now it is tax season, and there is more information passing through my brain than I could have ever imagined. By evening, it's mental shut down. I come home feeling like a wrung-out washcloth. April 17th is my new mantra. It's about what I can manage after 5:00 pm.

But enough whining. Here is what I am trying to do to keep my story moving forward during severe brain drain:

- Leave myself at least 15 or 20 minutes in the morning before I leave to at least work a little in my current scene. At least this way I am touching it, reminding myself of it, feeling it. Keeping it in me. Stephen King in his fabulous book, On Writing, says (interpreted here) that he must work in his story, even just a little, every day or his characters grow distant from him and it's hard to lure them back. I've found that to be true.

- I scribble in my journal during my 1/2 hour lunch. I write those off-stage things that help bolster what I am working on. For example, yesterday I wrote a scene already written in my protagonist's POV from the point of view of my antagonist. The book does not go into my antag's POV, but it really helped to know what was going through his mind at that moment. It will lead to something that night. It stregthens what will be on page.

- I do what I can at night. I try not to make myself feel worse by task-mastering too hard. Sometimes a bath will revive me. Sometimes I just need to lay down for a little while. Running would help but I just haven't had it in me during the week. That will change soon as the weather warms up, but I'm trying not to feel guilty about that either. So, I just dabble a little to "stay in it", but if that's all that happens, it has to be OK.

What do you do to keep your story alive when everything else is draining your energy?

Hugs, C

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Birth of a Star

I received my latest Writers Ask over the weekend. It's an exceptional quarterly put out by Glimmer Train Press that covers specific writing topics by interviewing well-known writers. I think they do a full interview with the writer, but each issue lists only those answers to the topics which are being covered. 4 topics per issue. So it feels like an interview, only different writers are answering the same question, not just one writer. It's an enjoyable, easy read that gives many different takes on the same subject.

One of this month's topics was Conception. Where writers come up with their ideas. It got me to thinking from where my ideas come. For me, it's usually an image that suddenly shows up in my mind that provokes something to life. It stirs something within me. It usually tells me about the opening of a story. I don't think I've ever come up with an ending first. Sometimes too though it can be an opening line. I wrote in this blog about how I'd come up with a title, Gunman's Goodbye, and wrote a story from there. Another time an image created by a song lead to another idea. Sometimes, when I sit to write a short, I have no idea what the first word might be. I just trust it and leap. That's the 10-minute timed writing training rearing its head.

When I was younger, I did not pay much to attention to "where" my ideas came from, I only made sure that I stayed alert to when they did show up. Kept up that idea net at all times. Now that I'm knee-deep into my own book, I have been paying very close attention ... and I still don't think I can tell you from where they come. I can only say that showing up every day with pencil and paper (or voice recorder or pc) has kept them coming.

Speaking of showing up, the magic side of idea conception made me imagine the birth of a star. It goes something like this: The first step in the birth of a star is to wait. Dust, gas, and other materials sit around in nebulae, and wait for eons until a passing star, shockwave, or other gravitational disturbance passes through or by the nebula.

I'd like to think that we are the passing star or shockwave and ideas are star dust waiting to be born by us and our experience.

From where do your ideas come? Do you lure them in a special way? Or are the arrival of ideas still a mystery to you too? How do you catch them?

Hugs, C

Addendum: Regarding Gunman's Goodbye, I just remembered that I actually had an image of a gunman protecting the very last thing he had in his possession. Then, immediately afterward, I came up with the title. So it seems I tend to "see" my ideas first as an image. I guess I am more visual than I thought. Interesting.

Sunday, March 12, 2006


Yesterday I remembered that I tend to write scenes as bones first, then go back and color them in and then color them in some more, and then even more. I remembered that I do need scenes as fleshed out as I can get them before I can move too far ahead. I had moved ahead until the alarm went off that I needed more information, so now I'm back adding more flesh. The first scene is growing fuller and more dynamic ... my protagonist and antagonist are becoming more alive to me. Their problems with each other and the ones they have with themselves are becoming more clear.

I learned two very cool things about my antagonist today. I could not have made them up without being in the thick of writing. The two revelations came out through my hero, who is in the same room as his old, no-longer friend, the antagonist. I was learning about the antagonist through my hero's eyes ... not mine. Which is great because it's their relationship that propels most of this story. But I was only able to do that by writing and writing again and writing even more on-stage and off-stage about my protagonist and trying to understand where he's been.

Even though I've done a lot of pre-work on this story, it is still the actual writing that leads to the juiciest discoveries. All I can do in advance is create the structure into which it can flow and surprise.

Have you been surprised lately by something that popped up in your writing?

Hugs, C

Friday, March 10, 2006

Taking Shape

I now have two scenes on stage in my story. Some things are still missing, but the narartive is starting to take shape. There is actually some sense going on here, and my protagonist is really starting to talk to me. I think the breakthrough I had really unplugged some things. Last night, I kept having these little breathless moments when things started to connect between the scenes and build to the next. There is a serious platform being built here, and I am excited.

What I am trying to say is, I can actually see something coming together here, where before it all seemed a jumbled mess I didn't know if I could ever pull together. I can't wait to go home tonight and work on it some more. That's a good sign.

Do you have a usual place in your stories where you start to see things come together? Or is it different every time?

Hugs, C

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

The Hands that Lift

I just want to take a moment to thank my bestest friends, Beth Ciotta and Jennifer Elbaum, for their unflagging support. They read my blog about panic yesterday and reminded me that they are here for me. I hope that they know that they are the ones that lifted my courage enough to even try this story, as well as keeping it lifted to continue with it. They tell me that I am not high maintenance, but sometimes I feel like I am. I guess it ties back into that being human thing again. Just can't seem to get away from that. (g)

The physical writing is something we do alone, yet it is our connection to other humans that allows us to connect to the spirit of things about which we write. It is also the ability to share these connections and discoveries that can make it so exciting. We may have the support of our loved ones, but it is the support of other writers and artists who truly get with what we are struggling. They live through it too and can truly celebrate the joys of when we have hit on something, no matter how small. The ones who, when they say, you can do it, they know just what they are saying and you can believe it.

By the way, I had a little extra time today and did have a breakthrough! I figured out why my antagonist was holding things up. His relationship, though lifelong with the protagonist, was still too distant from him. I had to bring the two closer and tighter. Ironically, they had to be best friends. They had to have the deep, twining bond.

The other issue seemed to be that I needed an additional ticking clock. An even larger and more potentially damaging one above what was happening to my characters. One that would really be bad to others if the characters failed in their mission. I have it in one world and thought I had it in the other but things had either changed or it had gotten lost somewhere along the way. This is called Public Stakes in Donald Maass' Writing the Breakout Novel. (My book is signed by Mr. Maass and he wrote, Raise the Stakes!). So, now my characters have a lot more to worry about, but it all ties together, and should--hopefully!--keep the plot and motivation driving throughout.

Whew. I have written two pages of a new scene. It is a breath of fresh air. I am psyched and can report that, as always, working through the panic paid off!

Thanks, guys, for being there! Did I saw whew?

Aside from the actual writing, who or what keeps your courage lifted?

Hugs, C

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Around the Bend

Every couple of weeks, I start panicking. What is this story about? Who is even going to care to read it? Why does it matter? What is the point of it? I tell myself I'm going in circles. I chide myself that I'm still asking the same questions.

It is terrifying, humbling, and trying.

Writing is not for the faint of heart. Or rather, we can have moments of feeling faint, but we must, MUST work our way through it. Sometimes when we are at our most resistant is when we are about to make a breakthrough. Or maybe we're just in a mood, and then it's simply a matter of practicing our perseverance. Living what it is to be a writer. To write through the times of utter panic and despair. These are the times that make us strong, give us the courage as writers because we know we can work through the rough times as well as the flow times.

Isak Dinesen, who wrote Out of Africa, said to "Write without hope and without despair." I always remember this, if not in practice then in theory. It is excellent advice. It is writing simply with no expectation ... good or bad. It is staying out of the way of the writing. It is not always easy and not always done. But once we right the rocking boat, I think this is where we do end up. Simply writing again, ourselves out of the way after a brief storm.

But there are times when we are in our way because we are human--biological and complex beings. I think perhaps the best medicine is to forgive ourselves for having these faint moments, accepting them for what they are, and then moving through them by writing with no expectation or judgment. We must stick to the writing and tell ourselves, just keep going, eventually we'll come around the bend again and see the lush, green valley.

This is what I'm telling myself right now.

If you panic sometimes like me, what do you do or tell yourself?

Hugs, C

Friday, March 03, 2006

Off Stage

Man, my antagonist is elusive. He continues to show me stark opposite sides of himself. I am having quite the time getting a grip on him. It's been difficult to move forward in my scenes because so much has happened between my antagonist and protagonist in the past, and these feelings they have for one another are so very important at the opening of my story.

So now I am handwriting scenes from their pasts in my journal. I have taken the story off stage, so to speak, and am mining deep for the core of their troubles and why. It turns out they have much more history than I thought when I started. I understand the troubles on an intuitive level, but I'm finding I need to know more specifics. It is actually a very interesting exercise, though frustrating to the production taskmaster side of myself who wants to add word count to the meter on my blog. I am adding word count, just not to the structured manuscript. But that will have to wait as I dig deeper for character truths and memory. These two have a whole lot of shared memories, and neither one of them sees them the same.

Once I understand the true nature of their past relationship--not every detail mind you, just the heart of it and exactly why there is such antagonism--I will let the present and future of it unfold in the manuscript. As writers, we have to move forward into our stories without certain information because it will come with the writing. The writing allows the discovery. In this case, I am still writing to discover, only I'm doing it in my journal, almost like a worksheet, instead of in the manuscript. This gives me wider freedom to explore what I need to without feeling as though it's not following the forward motion of the story. It's off stage. Which makes sense, since (a) this is back story and scenes the reader may never see and (b) I am obviously not ready for my antagonist to take center stage. We are still in rehearsals.

What do you do when you run across elusive characters?

Hugs, C

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Run to Slow Down

Tonight I went running, and I remembered how some runs come easy and I glide along effortlessly and can think about the wind and the birds and the trees. Then there are the other runs, where every step feels like I'm wearing cement boots. This is when I cannot think of the end but only of each step. I have to set small goals, like the next driveway or the next block. I absolutely cannot think about the end or I will become overwhelmed by the thought of the whole run. I can only take one step at a time, and I have to keep my goals short ... until I reach that one, then make a new one, and another, until I finish the journey.

Sometimes on the last leg of the run I am sailing along, having caught my wind, and enjoying every minute of it. Sometimes the sailing never comes, but I finished, I stuck with it and kept my body and mind trained. I still did it, no matter how graceless, and that's all that matters.

I've learned a lot about writing from running. The same philosophies apply when it comes to endurance and focusing the mind. Plus, after I run, I can usually plant myself in the chair because my legs are tired and I've spent my physical energy. This also leaves my mind more awake, and the edges from the day are smoothed. So often the energy of my writing reflects the energy of my body.

I will remember this tonight as I open my work in progress. One step at a time. Just to the next driveway ... keep going ....

What little tricks work for you when every word feels like trudging through quicksand?

P.S. Be sure to visit Beth Ciotta's blog about just jumping in when you feel resistant.

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