Friday, 29 November 2013

How Does Your NaNo Grow?

The final two days of NaNoWriMo and some of us have fallen to the wayside, bloodied and muddied, pens and printers empty of ink, bodies convulsing with anathesaurus shock while febrile comrades shout out they’ve completed their goal early.  Bastards.  Me, with two days left, there’s 3260 words needed to meet my goal, which for the non-NaNo savvy, means about 300 words better that the minimum daily requirement. 

This year, rather than a novel, I decided to write a daily short story.  It’s elegant to reduce a theme to a defining moment, not to mention that a writer of long fiction needs to churn out shorter works too.  However, I tend to get caught up in my novels and neglect shorter forms.  I faced NaNoWriMo with trepidation that I couldn’t do this thirty times over.  My fear wasn’t that I couldn’t do it well, but that I couldn’t do it at all.

The oddest thing happened.  Nearly every night this month, I’ve had a vivid dream which, the next day became my Nano contribution.  If you’ve ever kept a dream journal, you’ve probably amazed yourself with the range and clarity of your imagination.  But not every November morning was a vivid dream day for me, so the Butler tossed out a topic and off I went, no problem.  The dream experience seemed to prime the creative activity in my brain, and stories came.

Silk sock yarn.
Great for me, eh?  I dream my Nano into being like some type of New Age psycho.  Well, it’s not that idiosyncratic.  You can structure this process by giving yourself a pre-sleep suggestion.  Or recognise that this is a normal way of writing.  That whole staring into space part of creating.  Going for a walk.  Playing Patience (Solitaire) until an idea or phrase works itself into being.  (Me, I knit weird socks.) 

The essential factor in all of this is to relax.  To let it happen.  To trust that you have inside that noggin of yours the ability to express.  That means stop thinking about blog hits and trending topics and punctuation.  Simply let your voice spill onto the page without censor. 

So how did I do in my Nano?  A story a day, as required, but at some point my brain connected themes from the separate stories.  Then juxtaposed characters and put them into the same world.  Dramatic arcs sprouted.  Yesterday, I caught myself filling in a pre-novel extended synopsis grid. 

As I was knitting a weird sock this month and waiting for a sentence to straighten itself out in my head, I tried to figure out how many stitches made the total sock.  I’m not great at doing mental math, so never got the answer, but I did see a correlation between the type of brain that patiently click click clicks out hundreds of thousands of stitches for something as common as a sock, and the brain that tap tap taps out hundreds of thousands of words to write a novel.  It’s the long haul type of brain.
Hairy nipple sock.

However, that brain can knit what is fondly called in my house, the hairy nipple ankle sock or stay the course and knit an over-the-knee silk stocking.  The essential process is the same.  It’s the design and the desire that makes the final decision.  

NaNo’s taught me that I can write a short story a day.  I'm not sure which direction my Nano 2013 will grow now, but if we knew in advance where we were headed, it wouldn't be fun at all.

Friday, 22 November 2013

Ball Pit Friends

When we moved into this house, there was a row of flower pots on an outside wall.  One or two were empty, but most had forlorn plants abandoned by the previous owners.  Scrofulous orchids, nibbled by slugs, some type of succulent and an amaryllis.  We brought them inside, pampered them, and in return, they bloomed. 

The empty pots stayed on the wall, waiting to be used.  Eventually speedwell seeded itself in those pots and we let it run wild.  In the autumn of that first year, the speedwell died back and an oxalis sprouted in one of the pots.  I brought it in and after sending four wobbly stems into the air, it died.  Bummer.  So the pot went back outside.

Next spring, more speedwell on the wall.  In the autumn, once again the oxalis came up, this time a bit more hardy and confident.  Now we have a regular thing, this oxalis and me, meeting up every autumn for its short lifespan.  It’s like we’re intermittent friends that we can each count on.   

That’s the story you hold in your left hand while I talk about what’s in my right hand. 

Early in the week, I read a blog by Amy Mackin that perfectly described when a typical rejection letter becomes a crossroads in the perception of oneself as a writer.  It’s a brutal experience for some (most?) of us.  Her blog made it so intimately real, it hurt to read. 

The blog incited all sorts of responses in me, none of which I shared with the author.  Not even when later in the week, someone thanked me for writing Amy’s blog.  The whole synchronicity of that exchange went zoooom over my head.

And then a friend of mine shared a link about SoulPancake’s ball pit friends.  Basically, a box of plastic balls with a sign over it that says, Take a Seat, Make a Friend.  On top of the small plastic balls are several larger ones with tasks written on them to help the friendship along:

Share three things on your bucket list.
Find one thing you have in common.
Describe the first time you fell in love.
Talk about someone who inspires you.
Talk about the experience that changed your life.
Create a secret handshake.

Those people in the ball pit were random, but they made friendship look so natural and easy.  Sort of like my oxalis that comes up every year and that I set on my window sill to watch grow.  How easy would it have been to’ve recycled the compost that first summer and planted something else in that pot?  To never have known there was something lovely in the dirt?  How easy for any of those people in the film to come across the ball pit, read the sign, and keep walking.  Like reading a blog that moved me and not commenting.  I’d missed a chance to create a secret handshake with someone. 

That’s the way of the virtual world.  What SoulPanCake’s video doesn’t show are the pairs who got into the box and didn’t hit it off.  That happens.  It’s all part of the risk.  But we should, from time to time, consider the moment that we’re in as the ball pit, take a seat and make a friend.  

Friday, 15 November 2013

No Comparison

You are incomparable.  No one else is inside your skin with your history, talents and perceptions, yet most of us compare ourselves to others.  Considering the risk of unhappiness caused by making comparisons, can we live a life free of it?  I don’t think so, but perhaps we can learn a little health and safety about it.

From the word go, we’re taught about ourselves, our world and how to acquire skills through the medium of comparison.  Our society values some of us more than others.  Our teachers put a grade on our attempts to learn.  Our social interactions let us know how far below everyone’s expectations we’ve gone.  See how nicely your brother . . . Why can’t you be more like . . . She was able to, so why can’t you . . . As if denigrating what someone is, will magically make them what they are not. 

I attended a penny whistle class where the tutor would stop us playing and criticise the miscreant, usually me.  I lasted about 15 minutes and then with a smile to show no hard feelings, packed my things.  The tutor went venomously nuts while I packed, the message being that the reason things weren’t working was because of me. 

I said to her, I came here to have fun, and this isn’t fun.  She must have thought she was a fun type of gal, because she screamed abuse as I left the building. 

Shame doesn’t make us improve.  It cannot, because its basic construct is to destruct.  To keep comparison safe, let’s dissect what comparison is.  We compare ourselves to inferiors, equals and superiors.  What happens when we do this?

Comparing ourselves to our equals affirms our belonging in our peer group.  Usually this comparison is reassuring, unless we actually want to elevate ourselves out of this group into a higher status group.  The latter can be a wake-up call for motivation, or a lesson in self hatred.

If we compare ourselves to someone we deem inferior, we feel good about ourselves.  We may even be inspired to acts of altruism to help those people.  Or we can denigrate them to solidify our superiority. 

If we compare ourselves to someone we deem superior, we’re inspired if we evaluate their achievements as attainable, discouraged if we evaluate them as unattainable.  We may even give up.

But what is it we’re comparing?  As an example of evaluation, a thirty year old unpublished writer may want to slit her wrists after comparing herself to Cecelia Ahern who, at 21, wrote her first novel, PS I Love You, which got her an obscene advance and stayed a best seller for 19 weeks. 

There are more variables at work here, however, than being published.  Cecelia Ahern’s father was Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of Ireland at the time and her brother-in-law was a Westlife member.  Like Pippa Middleton, anything she wrote would sell.  Although a commercial success, her first book got tepid reviews and was criticised for being immature. 

Some people might consider Cecelia Ahern a success.  Some people might think she was done a disservice by being published so young.  It depends on what is being compared.  The person best suited to evaluate her life is Cecelia herself.  The same is true for each of us. 

Scientific evaluation is done under controlled conditions to reduce the number of variables.  Your life isn’t.  When you think another writer is better than you are, remember this isn’t the first draft.  This is the well combed version of that writer.

Next, you don’t know what advantages the writer had over you as a child in education, in financial and social status, in emotional support.  Life isn’t a level playing field and some writers get a head start.  After that tenuous beginning, sometimes it’s one thing in your current situation that slows you down – keeping a roof over your head, a daytime job, the isolation of working from home, a less than supportive family.

Even if all things are equal, some people are better at writing than other people, but that doesn’t mean you give up.  I come from a musical family.  For all the horrors siblings impose upon one another, none of mine told me not to sing or play during our musical evenings simply because I wasn’t as good as they are.  That particular family ethos is what put me inside that penny whistle class in the first place.  And it’s what gave me the sense to say, This isn’t fun, and leave.

The most difficult voice to walk away from, though, is the one inside your head.  So when that voice stops the writing for a comparison torture, don’t ignore it.  (What?)  No, you have to convince it to stop or it will sabotage your writing.  Take those few moments to calm yourself, connect with what drives you to write (certainly not the pay).  Then ask yourself if you believe in that drive more than you believe in that comparison.  Not intellectually, but on a gut level.  Does that drive to write overpower your doubt?  Could you walk away from your writing today and not look back?

If the answer is, no, then you’re in the clear.  Latch onto that drive like a life preserver and write with a focus on what you’re writing even if you can only write bullshit.  Let that writing be a dialogue with the voice and soon, it will be persuaded that you should write.  Rinse and repeat as needed.

If the answer is yes, that you could walk away from that pile of words on your desk and get a job at McDonald’s, become a scuba diver or take up the penny whistle, then your writing life has become starved.  You need to connect with other writers, preferably in person.  Lots of communities have mentoring programs or creative writing classes or writers groups.  There are scores of poetry slams and readings in pubs, small playwright groups who put on short plays.  

It’s important to experience other writers as people who are not that much different than yourself.  It takes that internal comparison voice down a notch or two, but only if those other writers are focused on creating, not on comparing.  Be selective with wherever you take your starved self.

If you can’t find writers in the flesh, connect in a Facebook group, a Twitter community, read a how-to book, a great work of fiction or see a dynamite play or movie, listen to really good lyrics. 

Then feed your creativity with non-writing creativity.  A trip to the art museum, a craft fair, dance to a busker, sing in the shower, go carolling, sew, carve, knit.  Get some physical exercise.  Walk the Big Nose Dog.  Join a Zumba class.  Do Tai Chi.  Chop wood.  Nurture your mind.  Nurture your body.  And during all of this, tell that voice in your head that no matter how badly you write, no matter how unsupported or out of luck you are, quitting is not an option.

Your contribution is the only thing you have to offer AND you’re the only one who can offer it.  So offer away.  To do anything else is not to live.  You have a responsibility not to just live, but to let your voice sing as no other voice can sing.  Now go write.

Friday, 8 November 2013

The Golden Rule

Some folk tout a Golden Rule which says that to be successful as a writer, you have to be aggressive in your self-marketing.  Slam an agent/editor/director against the wall and force feed them an elevator pitch.  Jam your Twitter feed with a loss of dignity.  Show thine ass and they will print it.  And if you don’t have the skin for it, go home.

I’m sorry, but I’m from Appalachia and that’s not how it’s done there. 

First and foremost, you are a writer.  Writing is about voice.  If your voice is ME!  ME!  ME! there are a limited number of people who want to hear it.  It’s more likely that the only thing achieved by that is a sense of control in a situation where you have no control.  In other words, since you cannot make someone publish what you write, diving into a self-marketing frenzy means you’re doing something ANYTHING which gives the illusion of control. 

But the way the game is played . . .

Yoo-hoo!  The gatekeepers to your future as a successful writer, the agents and publishers and theatre companies and editors, are they some type of omniscient being with no time for your social skills?  Will your potential readers only read your work after they’ve been bombarded with thirty tweets a day that say BUY ME!  BUY ME!  BUY ME! 

But the experts say . . .  

Okay.  Anonymous experts.  God love them.  A different breed of human than the rest of us.

Let’s look at a little social science.  If we’re in a public building and see a sign that says, Do Not Enter, most of us don’t challenge that request.  But what if the sign said, Doris Doesn’t Want You To Come In Here.  Who is Doris and who made her the god of entry?

Ellen Langer (On Becoming An Artist) and Adam Grant ask participants to take a ten question exam.  Group A was told that the exam tested reasoning ability.  Group B was told that a group of eight social scientists from a particular university selected these ten questions from a larger number of questions that might measure reasoning skill.  (Which is how all scientific measurement is done, by the way.  Someone decides what and how to measure.)

After taking the exam, all participants were told whether the exam said they had good or bad reasoning skills.  All participants who were told they had good reasoning skills, accepted the results.  Participants from Group A who were told they did poorly, accepted the results as well, but participants from Group B who were told they did poorly, felt that the results were probable, not absolute.  As Langer said about the results, Group B had fallibility put back into the equation. 

If you think about what experts have thought of as empirical data over the centuries, then you know that fallibility is always part of any human creation.  Don’t rely on experts when their wisdom makes you squirm.  Remember that any advice on how to market or write or feed the cat, always has Doris behind it.  And between you and me, I think Doris is taking on airs and graces that she simply doesn’t have.

Friday, 1 November 2013

It’s Nanowrimo time!

My son, El Punko tried for a few years to convert me to Nano.  To be honest, I thought the idea was madness because of the time frame – 50,000 words in 30 days.  My writing has to percolate to mature, which in itself is a drag, but not all of us are born with genius.  The trouble here was that I confused writing with editing.

A few years ago, Nano came during the semester of my MA when we were doing the novel.  The tutor presented structure like a cake recipe – follow this outline and you have great literature.  Since I don’t cook, I should’ve had better sense, but I thought, okay, take her recipe and do Nano.

There was a wonderful madness about that first year.  A word count goal, a map to get me there, friends who were running the same marathon.  Intrinsic to the madness, however, is discipline.  Like a marathon runner, you cannot stop to pet a dog or watch the buzzards fly over the copse.  You have to run. 

So for a writer, that means you cannot stop and rewrite a phrase to make it brilliant.  You cannot stop to research the correct colour of a room on the other side of the world or look up mythology or even the spelling of a foreign language phrase.  You mainline your creativity into words.  If you have two or three separate ways that a scene can go, you don’t stop to analyse; you write both of them.

Perhaps it’s more like skiing than running.  Although actually, I’ve never skied.  Maybe sled (sledge) riding then, when you push yourself off the edge of a snowy slope and hope for the best during that liberating mad dash, the cold wind gnawing on your cheeks, the sled bumping up and down, maybe getting bogged in new snow or wheeeeeeeee scary speed over a patch of ice.  The freedom (and speed) comes from putting aside all the rules of grammar and good taste to say what you’ve always wanted to say in the way you want to say it even when you know that those sort of words and crap phrases and trite scenarios and shallow characters aren’t going to make it to print.  Hell’s bells, you’re writing and it is this honesty in the first draft that will lead you to something fantastic.

The clean up comes later, maybe with a cup of hot cocoa or an Irish whiskey.  But for now, open your wings, cast off your inhibitions, park your butt and write.