Is writing child’s play?

playtime

Silk’s Post #151 — I found myself in a playful mood at the keyboard the other day, and suddenly two unbidden questions formed just above my head, like cartoon balloons.

The first was: Why don’t I feel like this more often? The other was: What’s the difference, really, between work and play?

I quickly concluded the first question would be difficult to answer, probably requiring some couch time with a mental health professional. (As it turns out, I now believe I was overly pessimistic about finding the answer, and overly self-centred in thinking my playfulness deficit and longing for more of it is at all extraordinary – but more on that later.)

On the question of the distinction between work and play, I expected to easily find received wisdom with a few clicks. Perhaps there would not be total consensus, but surely such an elemental question would have been deliberately examined thoroughly enough to have been distilled into two or three theoretical camps. Maximum.

But it was not as easy as that.

I found myself at a fork in the road, where the sign marked “play” pointed one way, and the one marked “work” pointed the other. A bit of cyber hiking revealed a lightly explored wilderness between the two camps. It seems “play” occupies a space exclusively populated by children, except in special multi-generational compounds designed for structured activities like drama, sports, or music. On the other hand, the “work” zone is, more or less, an adult gated community.

So, is that the answer, then? Play is for children and work is for adults? This seems very wrong to me. But, as a writer who has been struggling with the balance between the regimented discipline of work and the creative anarchy of imagination, the question feels important. Existential, maybe. It begs a more satisfying answer.

I mean, come on. Two little four-letter words we use every day. You can’t tell me we don’t objectively know what we mean when we say “work” or “play”.

But if there’s a simple definition about the difference between them (and their relationship to each other), I didn’t find it. Is work-play a continuum with varying degrees of combination, like a mixing tap for hot and cold water? Is there one (or more) key differentiator that separates work and play, some litmus test? Is play just practice, a learning strategy, a training ground for a life of work? Is the experience of work or play entirely subjective, all about attitude, all in the eye of the beholder?

There are some enlightened professionals around who are broadening their horizons regarding play – looking beyond childhood development, where it is well-recognized as critically important to development of physical, social, mental, emotional, moral and creative skills. There does appear to be dawning recognition of play as a vital, lifelong companion to work, perhaps in response to the age-old lament “youth is wasted on the young.”

Wouldn’t adults benefit equally from experiencing this effect of play, described in a pamphlet from Play Wales, a national organization for children’s play? …

Play is a spontaneous and active process in which thinking, feeling and doing can flourish; when we play we are freed to be inventive and creative. In play, everything is possible with reality often disregarded and imagination and free-flow thinking taking precedence.

To me, this sounds like the ideal state of mind for a writer. An interesting series of articles by Dr. Peter Gray in Psychology Today (check out “The Value of Play”) suggests these five attributes of play (paraphrased from Gray):

Play is self-chosen and self-directed; players are always free to quit – Play is an expression of freedom. We do it because we want to, not because we have to (or because someone is making us do it).

Play is activity in which means are more valued than ends – What we value most, when we are not playing, are the results of our actions (i.e., meeting a goal, solving a problem, earning a reward), while in play this is reversed: we engage in play primarily for its own sake, even though there may be intrinsic goals within the play activity itself. The corollary (an important one when play is applied to creative pursuits like writing) is that fear of failure is absent or diminished.

Play is guided by mental rules – While play is a freely chosen activity, it is not without shape and form; self-imposed rules are conceived to guide and stimulate choices, problem solving, actions, imagination and (in social play) shared understanding – all of which imbue play with satisfying (but not threatening) challenges.

Play is non-literal, imaginative, marked off in some way from reality – Play is serious yet not serious, real yet not real; it is a work of imagination – a “let’s pretend” fantasy – like a novel that is based on, reflects and experiments with reality, but is fictional.

Play involves an active, alert, but non-stressed frame of mind – Because play demands our active engagement and creativity – but emphasizes process rather than outcome – it challenges and stimulates us in a low-stress manner; play is only possible when we fully focus on the “here and now” without being constantly distracted by the past and future (i.e. goal-oriented pressure to perform, which is a creativity killer).

Gray does note that children are more capable of engaging in pure, 100 percent play than adults, citing his four-year-old son’s ability to stay completely in-character as Superman for days at a time. He suggests that adults more often experience some mix of play (imaginative fantasy) and work (disciplined reality), depending on their activity and attitude. He estimated his work-to-play ratio in writing his blog post as 20/80 – obviously a man who loves to write.

In fact, 20/80 is my new personal goal for work-to-play ratio when I’m writing!

In my December post, 5 more overlooked emotions, I suggested playfulness as an “emotion” to spice up your characters:

This important emotion is too often dismissed as frivolous. Well, it’s not. Maybe it makes you think of puppies and kittens. I believe that a sense of playfulness is the bright face of curiosity (the dark face of curiosity is usually termed “morbid”).

There’s all kinds of serious brain science behind this passion for understanding, but it starts in childhood in the pure form of play. Although psychological research into adult playfulness is apparently in its infancy (“probably because it wasn’t deemed worthy enough,” bemoans University of Zurich psychologist René Proyer), it has been highly correlated to academic performance, active lifestyles, good coping skills, creativity, and attractiveness to members of the opposite sex.

People like playful people … So if you want to make readers love your character a little more, let him be playful. Maybe some of it will rub off on you!

What I discovered when I searched for insights into adult play was that all the good quotes were, without exception, attributed to creative people. Aha! Yet another piece of evidence that life imitates art. For your amusement and contemplation, here are some of the best:

“Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.” (from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer) — Mark Twain

“The true object of all human life is play. Earth is a task garden; heaven is a playground.” — G. K. Chesterton

“The supreme accomplishment is to blur the line between work and play.” — Arnold J. Toynbee

“Men do not quit playing because they grow old; they grow old because they quit playing.” — Oliver Wendell Holmes

“It is a happy talent to know how to play.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson

“We are never more fully alive, more completely ourselves, or more deeply engrossed in anything, than when we are at play.” — Charles E. Schaefer

“If you want creative workers, give them enough time to play.” — John Cleese

“Genius is play, and man’s capacity for achieving genius is infinite, and many may achieve genius only through play.” — William Saroyan

“This is the real secret of life – to be completely engaged with what you are doing in the here and now. And instead of calling it work, realize it is play.” — Alan W. Watts

“Reality leaves a lot to the imagination.” — John Lennon

So, I think I have my answers – or perhaps I should say I’ve found the inspiration I was looking for …

Why don’t I feel playful more often? As with most people whose youth is behind them, life has conspired to turn me into a work-headed adult. Goal-oriented. Realistic. Mostly serious. In the course of “making something of myself” over the decades, I’ve been taught to associate play with relaxation and recreation, not accomplishment and creation. This is a difficult thing to unlearn, as it gets hard-wired in your brain. Yet in the past few years since I’ve been trying to become a writer, I’ve (finally) gained a different perspective.

If I want to write, I need to learn to play again. Focus on the game instead of always the goal. Let fantasy push reality aside sometimes. Make fun of being serious and get serious about making fun. Is this not the most congenial prescription ever? As Br’er Rabbit cried so eloquently, “Please, Br’er Fox, don’t fling me in dat brier-patch.”

What’s the difference, really, between work and play?  The difference between work and play seems to come down to the attitude and perspective you bring to what you do. If you’re fortunate enough to have choices, and especially if you’re creatively inclined, you can turn a good chunk of your life into a playground. How play relates to writing is so obvious, I can’t believe I didn’t really “get it” automatically, but had to pursue the concept and process it in my analytical left brain before the epiphany came.

But even mundane or stressful tasks with seemingly limited opportunities for fun or creativity can be re-cast by a play-full mind. Some lucky people can turn anything into play. Peeling potatoes. Making sales pitches. Caring for a patient. Painting a house. I’m convinced of that now. And it’s an incredibly empowering revelation. Probably should be a religion. Maybe I’ll start one.

 


Note to readers:  Where’s the 5/5/5 box score? It’s a new year and a fresh start, but it’s pretty obvious that I’m just getting some traction on my writing practice again. Getting back up to speed didn’t magically happen when the clock struck midnight on December 31st. My hope is to re-start my weekly progress reports with my next blog post. Stay tuned!

Listless and without a resolution

2016-beach

Silk’s Post #150 — Okay, I admit it. I’m a list addict. And I’ve also been known to make (and later break) many lists of New Year’s resolutions over the years.

This year will be different. I’m boldly going listless and resolution-free into 2016.

Okay, granted. We do need lists, calendars and the like to manage necessary, everyday chores with some semblance of efficiency. Grocery lists. Appointments. Or even slightly more aspirational, semi-optional tasks like cleaning out that closet. But do wishful items like “be nicer” or “get back to your weight when you were 18” or “write 1,000 words per day, everyday” really belong on a list?

Forget it! My theory is that if a task is, by its nature, fantastical or never-ending then it doesn’t belong on a to-do list. Items on lists are there to be crossed out, not to haunt you forever.

It’s not that I don’t have goals. And my memory (or occasional lack thereof) does demand that I rely on the crutch of a list now and then. But what I’m giving up for 2016 is the type of list that’s really a litany of promises to yourself that you feel guilty about breaking in the past, and are now pledging once again to keep. Oh, sure, you’re determined. This time you’ll succeed.

Or not.

It’s an inexplicably popular way to start the New Year – this annual confession of past sins, and the penance of try-trying-again. It swells the gym population in January, and spikes the sale of diet books and un-yummy health foods like kale and quinoa.

For writers it leads to word count goals, writing space reorganization, and plans for daily work regimens.

Unfortunately, for most of us, most of these good intentions have escaped from the barn, jumped the fence and are long gone by February or March, leaving a galloping guilt hangover. And the problem with guilt – especially for people who expect a lot of themselves and don’t react very well to failure – is that “getting right back on the horse” is often not what happens next. Instead, guilt triggers the self-defeating reaction of avoiding the horse altogether.

Horse? What horse?

And what then? Momentum is lost. The excuses and justifications begin. And the whole issue becomes a sore subject. For a writer, this means hoping that no well-meaning person will ask you how your book is coming along.

There’s got to be a better way. So here’s my plan for 2016: stop setting myself up for failure.

Despite all the conventional wisdom, I think lists and pledges and resolutions are basically sticks masquerading as carrots. Do lists of ambitious promises and rules really inspire people and make them succeed? I have my doubts.

I think what energizes people – what drives them toward a goal – is passion. Pure and simple. And you don’t manufacture passion by writing it down. It has to be felt, in the moment. Passion is a burning fire, not a commandment carved in stone, or some kind of a contract that must be fulfilled.

Neither can creativity be brought to life through a written-down prescription. Writers block does not dissolve in the acid of anxiety caused by your failure to be productive or live up to a pledge. If anything, fear of failure paralyzes rather than empowers.

Lists and resolutions come from the left brain. Creativity and inspiration come from the right brain. And the juice of passion gushes from the limbic brain. See my point? When it comes to getting your writing mojo on in the coming year, a list of New Year’s resolutions may be focusing on exactly the wrong part of your brain.

So how to stimulate and bring forth the impassioned writer inside you, coax out the muse who’s reluctant to show her face?

Here’s something ridiculously simple that I’m going to try: I’ll wake up every morning and – instead of immediately consulting my mental checklist of “things I have to do today” – I will take a few minutes to think about my story first. What happens next in the plot? What problems need to be worked out? What characters need some attention? Where can I take it today?

That’s it.

I will try to keep hooking myself on my story, keep firing up my creativity. Every morning. And then I’ll try to make the time to act on it. As much time as I can devote to it that day. Let my right brain rule. Feed my passion.

And let my left brain, and all its task-oriented priorities, wait their turn for a change.

I think I’ve finally learned, after several years of calling myself a writer, the reason my good intentions have not led to good writing “discipline”. Ironically, I thought that part would be easy, since I built a lot of discipline muscle in my 35-year career as the owner and creative director of a design and ad agency. But since I shifted gears to try my hand as a novelist, I’ve forgotten the obvious. Management discipline runs on logic and strategy. Creative discipline runs on emotion and exploration. Different brain cells. Different rules. And the twain don’t always meet.

If I want to take writing seriously – and I do – it can’t just be chore on my to-do list, though I have committed to finishing my book. It can’t just be a job, though I do accept the hard work required. It can’t be just about getting published, though it is important to me to share my words.

For me, writing has to be a true passion. It has to reward me in the moment of creation, the same way that doing a painting transports an artist, and making music feeds the soul of a musician. It has to be the thing I just can’t wait to do, the thing that makes me feel joyful, the thing that connects my heart to my mind.

When you have a passion, you can feed it – or you can starve it. If you don’t always keep it close to your heart, it withers.

I’ve come to recognize that the discipline, energy and focus it requires for me to write can only be generated by passion, fuelled by my love of storytelling. Simple truth: if I’m not feeling the love, I’m not getting it done. Making more pledges to be more disciplined isn’t going to work for me. What I need to do is renew and cultivate my passion for writing.

That’s why I’m going to take it day by day. Try to start off each morning, in those first moments of waking, thinking about my book. Letting myself be inspired, getting back into the story before all the other demands of the day flood in and replace my passion with … a list of chores.

I admit this is almost the polar opposite of the bootcamp approach, and maybe it sounds a little airy-fairy. Will this regime call my muse out, awaken my creativity and fire up my discipline?

We shall see. Stay tuned.

Happy New Year to all!

The mind’s eye

imagination

Silk’s Post #148 — Imagination is an amazing thing – you might even say a super power. It lets you, as a reader, envision in your mind places you’ve never seen, and stimulates strong emotions about people you’ve never met – even people who never were. If an author has done a good job, your imagination fills in the sights, the sounds, the smells and the whole atmosphere of a written scene and brings it to life in your mind’s eye.

That’s the alchemy of written (or oral) storytelling. It’s an ethereal collaboration of writer and reader that allows plot, setting and characters to become real and active and compelling, without being literally dramatized on stage or screen.

Achieving this dynamic balance between writer and reader gives rise to a lot of literary “rules” that warn writers not to break the spell by putting their foot into the proverbial bucket.

Avoid the overt presence of “author voice” is one of those – an admonition that sounds slightly absurd the first time the budding writer encounters it. In whose voice should a writer write, if not her own?

But what it really means is: don’t tell the reader what to think, how to feel, where to go. Make him an active collaborator by letting the story play out in his own mind’s eye. Let him conjure his own picture of your characters, imagine and share their emotions, envision the experience of being inside the plot.

Such a delicate balance, this suspension of disbelief. So many ways to unintentionally burst the bubble. Too much backstory or narrative, or too little. Too many details, or not enough. Wooden or clichéd characters. Laboured dialogue. Plot twists that don’t surprise, or that come out of the blue. Cascades of adjectives and adverbs that leave nothing to the imagination. Too much telling and not enough showing.

We all know what it feels like to get “lost” in a book, to compulsively turn the pages, to feel like we’re there. That’s when the magic is working: when the story world in our mind’s eye is almost more alive than the real world – not because we’re inside it, but because it’s inside us.

It’s where the imagination of the writer and the imagination of the reader invisibly merge.

Achieving this storytelling “state of grace” with words alone is truly a feat. If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a moving picture is worth a fortune. But a book of words has neither. It calls on a reader to exercise imagination, to become immersed in a story, to be an active participant, in a unique way. (Perhaps that’s why the often heralded demise of books and reading simply hasn’t materialized and, I believe, never will – despite movies, and TV, and now the internet.)

I think the great storytellers are the ones who write with an innate awareness that the job of their words is to evoke more than explain. To lead the reader into the story, and inspire his imagination. To stimulate the reader to bring those words to life, to dramatize them – in pictures, and shades of colour, and motion, and emotion – all in his mind’s eye.

Would it change your approach to writing if you shifted your point of view to see the storytelling process as a creative collaboration between the author and the reader?

Hmmm. Just imagine.


5/5/5 challenge scorecard for the week:

We’re deep into the holiday season now, and that’s challenge enough. Decorating, celebrating, shopping, wrapping, cooking, eating, drinking, visiting with friends and family. My post on imagination was a break from that non-stop holiday-making, a couple of hours spent at least thinking about writing, if not actually writing.

New pages written:  None

Word count:  Still 9,320

Rewrites:  Nope

Blog posts written:  One

Other accomplishments:  Fitting a turkey, a ham and about four bags of holiday groceries into my fridge.

Best new things:  Binge watching The Blacklist. Choosing a year’s worth of great reads for 2016 with my stellar book club. Receiving the gift of Helga’s treasured recipe for Dresden Christmas Stollen.

Holiday thoughts:  How to say “Peace on Earth” without it sounding as automatic and meaningless as “Have a Nice Day”? If we could all keep the spirit and grace of this holiday season in our hearts throughout the year, that would be a great start.

My warmest holiday wishes to all the readers of our blog and my wonderful writing friends.

Life is a mystery story

halloween

Silk’s Post #144 — Today, which happens to be Halloween, also happens to be my birthday. In my heart, I really own Halloween. I’ve always considered my birth date profoundly lucky. And, somehow, significant.

All Hallows’ Eve (or holy evening) is the night before All Saint’s Day. It’s Pagan and Christian. To ancient Celts, Samhain celebrated the end of harvest season, a liminal time for welcoming the souls of the dead who were apt to cross the threshold between their world and ours at the cusp between summer and winter. To early Christians, Allhallowtide was a time to honour and pray for dead saints, martyrs and the faithful through nighttime vigils and daytime feasts.

Sound similar? Of course. Both observances invest meaning in the turn of the seasons from warm to cold, from light to dark. And both ritualize the greatest of all mysteries: the cycle of life and death. Scary, big ideas. As the Northerners would say in Game of Thrones, “Winter Is Coming”.

As a free bonus, my birthday came along with a treasure chest of rituals, traditions, myths, symbols and celebrations, some historical and some modern. Really good, spooky ones, especially for kids. Costumes! Witches! Black cats! Ghosts! Jack-o-lanterns! Bonfires! Trick-or-treating! Mmmmmm. Candy.

But this post is more than just a walk down memory lane and a shameless plea for birthday greetings. It’s a musing on the purpose of storytelling. And Halloween – the Pagan new year – is a perfect time for contemplating the mystery story of life.

So here’s my theory: life is essentially a game of survival for all the creatures on Earth. We’re born, we live, we die. Cats and hedgehogs and oysters and giraffes probably don’t think much about the meaning of life, beyond the next meal and the urge to multiply.

But humans … well, we’re burdened by this generous, three-pound lump of gray matter sloshing around in our skulls (thanks, Eve!), which compels us to ask questions and seek meaning in everything. Why is the sky blue? Where did everything come from? What am I doing here? What’s the point of life? And what comes after it?

And so we try to explain reality to ourselves, largely through our imaginations (and, relatively recently, through science). That’s where storytelling comes in. Not only do we make up stories to explain what we actually see and experience, we fill in the unknowable blanks by creating spiritual world views that explain the remaining mysteries. Because it just doesn’t seem right that life might not mean anything in the context of the universe. It must. Right?

This need to discover and create meaning has spawned most of what we know as human culture, from the arts to the sciences, from religion to politics, from philosophy to birthday parties.

Wait, what? Birthday parties? Yes, special occasions are important expressions of meaningfulness (if that’s even a word).

Look at it this way: trotting around on four feet grazing the savannah every single day is an existence for creatures who don’t contemplate the meaning and mystery of life. They simply live it. Totally in the moment, every moment. Internal needs and external conditions dictate behaviour. Special occasions are not self-created, but are delivered by nature. Think floods, fires, meteors crashing into the planet. That’s survival (or, in unfortunate cases, extinction).

We, on the other hand, live in the past, present and future. We make rituals, and build monuments, and celebrate occasions, and organize knowledge, and create art, and write stories … all, at the heart of it, to elevate (or invent) the meaning of life. That’s something beyond pure survival. It’s a form of creation. (Science fiction, and probably NASA, have even given some creative thought to overcoming the meteor-collision-extinction scenario).

Of course, we also do a lot of other things that are destructive, rather than creative, but that’s another discussion entirely. It’s creativity’s evil twin, which can only be brought to heel through enlightenment.

The heaven and hell story is one way to understand it all, but there are many themes and variations. And so the mystery story of life continues. I believe the need for storytelling grows, rather than diminishes, as the speed of progress increases.

I love the symbolism of Halloween, with its rich cultural depth and vivid life-versus-death lore, as an enduring example of how we tell ourselves our own story. How we explore the mystery of life’s meaning by creating a narrative for the things we perceive and experience and imagine, but don’t always understand.

As long as humans seek meaning, storytelling will remain one of our most powerful tools. The way we’re built, we can’t resist mysteries, and we can’t put them down until they’re solved.

So don’t worry about what the future holds for writers. The truth is out there, and we’ll need someone to tell it.


5/5/5 challenge scorecard for the week:

Sorry to report, I’ve been a very guilty truant for the past couple of weeks. Not only did I miss my blog post last week, I made little progress on my novel while on the road – best intentions notwithstanding. I’m hoping to piggyback on the jet stream created by all the (even crazier) writing colleagues out there who will embark on NaNoWriMo in just a few hours’ time. I’m thankful I have 90+ days left to complete my first draft, and not the 30-day deadline the NaNo’s are working to. Special thanks to 5writer friend Paula, who delivered a beautifully written and well-timed butt-kick in her post Write on!

New pages written:  Let’s not go there

Word count:  Still 9,320

Rewrites:  None

Blog posts written:  1

Research done:  Yes!

Best new thing:  A wicked good Halloween birthday, with thanks to my wonderful tribe of well-wishing friends.

Apple progress:  Piemaking tomorrow!

7 deadly serious writers

hand-7-sevenHelga’s Post # 115:  If you have been following our blog you know that seven crazy writers are now fully committed to writing a novel by the deadline of February 5 of next year. Some of us start from scratch (myself included – I need the challenge) and some continue or re-write a work in progress.

Why are we doing this? Especially since the writer’s complaint bag is stuffed full with blights of our trade. Rarely do you hear one of us telling how incredibly lucky writers are, how fantastic the pay, how short our work week, how our friends believe in our success even if we are yet to be published after untold years of trying.

What makes us persist, year after miserable year, in this (on surface) least rewarding profession? Do we really have to be masochists to become writers? Why are we stubbornly clinging to the lofty goal of writing that novel that’s been playing havoc with our peace of mind for so long? The stories that take over much of our daily routine and then keep us awake at night.

That’s what this post is all about.

We have our novel all worked out of course, in vivid detail, with countless brilliant scenes and larger-than-life characters. We have a protagonist no reader is likely ever to forget, no, even fall in love with head over heels, and an antagonist that is beyond evil and so chilling he gives us nightmares.

Except for one slight problem… this wonderful, unforgettable epic novel exists only in our head. It resides there squarely, but try as we might, once we are ready to tease it from the recesses of our brain and put it in words, on screen, the story has turned nebulous. It even may elude us entirely. Perhaps we lose our self-confidence in the plot; the story suddenly has no legs (a writer’s biggest nemesis). Any of these could defy our attempts to make it real, to share it with the world.

Well, not all writers are equally challenged. We use different tools and tricks to make our stories real. Some of us are outliners, some are pantsers (what’s more, there’s even a hybrid: plantster) Whatever works. But there is another trick most of us use, even subconsciously.

We write autobiographies. I am willing to go out on a limb on this. We don’t simply invent characters. We create them in on our own image and the image of people who have touched our lives. Inventing characters based on real people allows the writer to go deeper than they’ve gone before emotionally. In fiction, writers aim to move our hearts. Not only the readers’ hearts, but our own hearts too. And I believe that herein lies much of the motivation for writing fiction:

Because it gives us a measure of power and control over our lives. It lets us create and recreate a life of our choosing. Fictional, yes, but we learn from it. The creative process may guide us in our real lives as well. In our stories we can reward the people we love, and take brutal revenge on those who have hurt us. With a click on the keyboard we can annihilate enemies. We are able to bestow everlasting happiness on those characters we love in real life (including, or especially, ourselves). We can bring people back from the dead and send others to hell. We enable our characters to master one of the toughest challenges of all: Learning how to forgive. Ultimately they will teach us.

Is there a greater power?7-strikethrough

Worth hanging around

kiteHelga’s Post # 113:   This is my first post in over three months. It will be short and has little to do with writing. Just living.

I think I may be ready. Or almost so. Ready to find my way back to the groove, into the fold of the 5 writers group. I haven’t done any writing other than my personal journal, and I have not even done much reading in those last months – a first since grade school. Events beyond my control have dominated my time and my ability to write. They have created havoc with my equilibrium since my last post in May and to some extent, many months before. In the face of a tragic event, the muse goes into hiding. She will stay there despite efforts to coax her back.

The good news is that Mother Nature, sneaky as she is, has a way of taking care of us. Once we reach a threshold of grief, when we think we just can’t face another day, along she comes and endows us with an unexpected strength to not only survive but move forward. Ever so slowly, in tiny increments, sometimes going backwards before we can move forward to the next phase. But the path is firmly set and we move on.

She does so with an assortment of tricks. Suddenly, after months when the world was awash in monotone gray, colours are starting to look more vibrant. The hue of trees and plants take on a deeper green, the ocean a deeper blue; children’s laughter suddenly sounds joyful rather than grating, and people seem to smile more. Or perhaps they are returning our smile. Food starts to taste like food again and we might even remember how to produce a good meal for friends. We might take up walking again, long walks, giving us the opportunity to take stock of our new life, to do some healing. Friendships deepen and new friendships develop. The world starts to look like a worthwhile place to hang around a bit longer.

But we have to do our part to help her out. Not all days are filled with optimism and renewed energy. Dark clouds do descend without warning when least expected. They will continue to appear, with myriads of large and small reminders from before our life changed. As time goes on, they are bound to recede and lose their strength, though there is no magic cure. It takes work, lots of hard and painful work, to clamber out of that deep cave. Sometimes we will slide back. There will always be that big hole in the heart that can’t be filled. But the strength and the will to succeed are there – the ‘joie de vivre’ and the capacity and desire to bring joy to others. In the end, we are still the same people we were before a tragic event nearly derailed us. We have the same likes, dislikes, passions, values and quirky personalities. And there is a bonus ahead if we stay the course: We become survivors. We will be stronger and have more resilience for whatever lies ahead.

So, chin up, folks. Eventually, the world will be whole again. We have no choice but to let it so. To quote from Haruki Murakami: ‘Everything passes. Nobody gets anything for keeps. And that’s how we’ve got to live.’

With that in mind, I am dipping my toes in the writing pond again. Wish me luck.

To write or not to write everyday

Joe’s Post #139

Is there a right answer?

it hardcover_prop_embedStephen King believes in writing 1000 words a day, 6 days a week. Hard to argue with the guy who wrote about killer clowns and domes and sold a zillion books  There’s also a 750 word/day club. I even suspect there’s a 12 step writing-every-day program.

On the other side, people like Paula or Cal Newport argues that such a regime is for full-time writers, only, that we doom ourselves to failure by setting such an artificial deadline.

So let me present another POV.

I doesn’t matter.

Write every day if that motivates you. Personally, I find that such a goal is good enough to keep me going in the short term, but not good enough for a long term project like a novel. For that, I need to be in love with the idea or the characters or a really comfy chair.

If writing once a week for a good 5 hour stretch works, that’s ok, too. Or writing a novel in month. Whatever.

I think it all comes down to motivation. What makes you want to sit alone in a room, stare at a blank screen and try to knit a story from the cobwebs in your brain? What makes you commit hours and hours and hours to something only your cat or critique group may read? What makes you put aside family, the latest Bachelor episode or a golf game so you can put words on a page?

torFor me, it was a deadline that motivated me to write. A deadline from an open call by one of my favorite publishers. TOR. They were looking for novellas. 30,000-40,000 word length.

I had a short story that I loved and thought, hey, why not turn it into a novella? I loved the setting – NY in a slightly altered universe, one where magic is creeping into the world little by little. I loved my character – a creature of the old world, a Fey, who means to misbehave like Malcom Reynolds in Firefly, and uses his magical talents to solve crime. I loved the plot, but I knew I’d have to create a new one for the novella.

It didn’t matter that it wasn’t quite what they’re looking for. It didn’t matter that I’d never written a novella. I didn’t even matter that we were out of motivational wine and chocolates.

I just decided to write.

In 10 days, I’ve got 80 pages done. Oh, I know, it could be better, but that’s 80 pages on a brand new story. I was writing again. About 15,000 words worth.

Due to commitments, I couldn’t write every day, but if writing every day gets you back to writing, then I’m all for it. I didn’t write one day for 5 hours, but if writing once a week for 5 hours gets you back to writing, then I’m all for it.

In the end, whether you’re inspired by a deadline, a daily goal, by a trip you took, an adventure you had or something you just need to get off your chest, writers write.

So, as Silk said, this day we write, but I have to ask…

What process to you use for writing? 

*****

Best show last week – Game of Thrones. Without a doubt, though I hear good things about Outlander.

Book that I’m reading at the moment –  Reading Sean Sommerville’s latest book. The Unforgiven. Man that guy can write.

Pages written on new book  80 pages on the new novella.

Social media update – If you like this blog, please follow us or share us on facebook

Best thing last week  Back to writing, again. 80 pages is not bad.

Worst thing  Finally over my cold, but it’s left me with diminished hearing. Dammit. I may need to get a hearing aid. I greatly feel this is the beginning of the slow slide that will eventually see me in adult diapers and a hover-walker.

For anyone interested in the TOR open call, see this link.

 

Writers’ Original Sin

Helga’s Post # 107:

Many years ago, the most valuable advice to writers ever was coined: ‘Brevity is the soul of wit’. Kudos to Mr. Shakespeare. Much later, Mark Twain echoed his sentiment with a clever pun of his own, ‘If I had more time I would write a shorter letter.’

Mr. Hemingway, too, offers good advice: ‘It wasn’t by accident that the Gettysburg address was so short. The laws of prose writing are as immutable as those of flight, of mathematics, of physics’.

Looking back at my previous 106 posts, these words resonate. I realize just how relevant this advice is, how much Messrs. Shakespeare, Twain and Hemingway have a point. Like countless others, I am an offender of the writers’ Original Sin: Long-windedness. With this in mind, I intend to be brief today and I hope in future. Not by skimping on content, but by avoiding flowery language (aka verbal diarrhea) to get to the point sooner and without pointless repetition. I hope this will demonstrate my respect for my followers.

Some good news: I have found my writer’s corner. A physical corner that is. A lovely shady spot outside the house, looking at the perennial blue sky of the desert, shielded from the sun so that I can see my screen. It inspires me. And it’s already paid dividends: I am making progress on my new novel.

Chapter Three almost done. This last chapter thanks to an image I came across today at the local Arts Festival. A confusing, even disturbing image, titled ‘Creation’, painted on an oversized canvas. Briefly, it showed two huge, pale naked figures, one male and the other female, leaning towards the center of the painting, their lips meeting in a kiss. The female figure showed a demonic creature emerging from her vagina (supposedly Satan), while the male seemed undisturbed, unable to resist temptation. The background showed a rendering of paradise on one side, damnation on the other.

3106075915_53bb8efc29_z1A great image of a somewhat bizarre story. Especially as the blame falls squarely on the woman’s shoulders (or loins). The forbidden fruit Eve offered that Adam was unable to resist. Ever since, Adam’s descendants have fallen into the same trap. Here again, I resort to Mark Twain when he observed ‘The more things are forbidden, the more popular they become’.

Clever man. He likely knew.

Eureka! What a great story. It will surely find its way into my novel, played out in the twenty-first century.

Without further ado, I am signing off early, to make sure my Adam and Eve are getting their dues.

Hope to see you in a week. Until then, happy writing to all.

 

Imagination lessons

imagination

Silk’s Post #112 — We don’t take imagination seriously enough. Maybe it’s because we’re born with imagination and don’t have to go to college to acquire it. In fact, imagination is most obvious and charming in childhood, like dimples and a button nose. Then, as we mature, we’re supposed to trade imagination for reality.

No, thanks.

There is nothing childish about imagination. The idea that children live in their imaginations because they haven’t yet learned to distinguish fantasy from reality may be true in one sense, but the implication that imagination is not a vital, life-long skill is profoundly false. Especially for a writer.

Don’t just take it from me. Some of the greatest minds in history have had their say:

“Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine and at last you create what you will.” — George Bernard Shaw

“Imagination rules the world.” — Napoleon Bonaparte

“Imagination is everything. It is the preview for life’s coming attractions.” — Albert Einstein

“You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.” — Mark Twain

“Imagination creates reality.” — Richard Wagner

“You can’t do it unless you can imagine it.” — George Lucas

“Fiction reveals truths that reality obscures.” — Jessamyn West

“Imagination is the eye of the soul.” — Joseph Joubert

“Imagination will often carry us to worlds that never were, but without it we go nowhere.” — Carl Sagan

“An idea is salvation by imagination.” — Frank Lloyd Wright

“I imagine, therefore I belong and am free.” — Lawrence Durrell

Imagination is an intellectual need, a driving force, an essential enabler of the learning process, a pathway to inspiration. One way to think of it: imagination is needed to make sense of perceptions.

Yet many of the “real world” lessons we learn as we grow up to become “productive members of society” encourage us to colour inside the lines. Follow rules. Be practical. Yes, there’s lip service paid to imagination and creativity, to “thinking out of the box.” But ask yourself: in most fields, how often is the exercise of imagination really welcomed and rewarded? Not enough, except at the elite level of industries that are, by nature, driven by creativity and innovation – notably the arts and sciences.

Progressive cultures have begun to recognize the value of imagination – sometimes characterized as “right brain”, or non-linear, thinking. A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink offers an encouraging perspective on this trend. Yet the literature on “imagination” still tends to examine it through a psychological lens, with a focus on pathology. In this model, too much imagination equals a break from reality. Otherwise known as craziness. Okay, settle down all you mental health professionals. I imagine I’ve oversimplified this. But my point is that a vivid – even wild – imagination can be a powerfully positive thing, so let’s not give it a bad name.

“I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” — Albert Einstein

In fact, for most of us – especially writers and other artists – imagination needs to be cultivated and polished, lest it dull with the relentless abrasion of reality’s day-to-day grit. This is not a “nice-to-have” option, or a parlour game. Imagination is a vital aptitude that creative people need to take seriously.

Realistically, you can’t be a writer if you don’t have a healthy, limber, well-functioning imagination. It’s more essential than any other skill when it comes to storytelling. It’s what allows you to empathize and get into the skin of your characters. It’s what compels you to ask the “what if?” questions that grow into a plot. It’s what allows you to “symphonize” (a great conceptual term from Daniel Pink, which means the ability to put together many pieces in a pattern and see the relationships between them). It’s what inspires themes and metaphors that bring depth to your story.

So, yeah. You need to exercise your imagination, just like a muscle.

“Imagination grows by exercise, and contrary to common belief, is more powerful in the mature than in the young.” — W. Somerset Maugham

“Imagination does not become great until human beings, given the courage and the strength, use it to create.” — Maria Montessori

“Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and, therefore, the foundation of all invention and innovation. In its arguably most transformative and revelatory capacity, it is the power that enables us to empathize with humans whose experiences we have never shared.” — J. K. Rowling

“Love what you do and do what you love. Don’t listen to anyone else who tells you not to do it. You do what you want, what you love. Imagination should be the centre of your life.” — Ray Bradbury

“Imagination is like a muscle. I found out that the more I wrote, the bigger it got.” — Philip José Farmer

And to rest my case on the topic, I love this simple observation, which is also a wonderful call to action for writers who want to get in touch with their imaginations …

“Children see magic because they look for it.” — Christopher Moore

A story-teller like no other

101 days. That’s how long our house has been on the market by now. It feels more like 1001 nights!

Ferdinand_Keller_-_Scheherazade_und_Sultan_Schariar_(1880)

Ferdinand Keller – Scheherazade and Sultan Schariar (1880)

As I was thinking of a topic for today’s post, trying to come up with something moderately meaningful and entertaining, I thought about Queen Scheherazade of 1001 Nights (a.k.a. The Arabian Nights). Here I am struggling to come up with one post per week, while this clever woman told a new story to her husband, the Persian King Shahryar each and every night for almost three years. Though she certainly had a more pressing motive than most other writers, she must be the ultimate storyteller of all times. Hands down.

There are many different accounts of how she did it, how she managed to keep her husband pining for yet another story. Writers, pay attention. What she achieved is any writer’s dream! How do we keep readers turning the pages of our novel, just like Scheherazade concocted stories that kept her alive another day and yet another, and so forth.

The story, dating to the early 9th century, goes that every day the King would marry a new virgin, and after doing so would despatch the previous day’s wife to be killed. This was done in anger, having found out that his first wife was unfaithful to him. He reasoned that all women are the same. By the time he was introduced to Scheherazade, his high-ranking political advisor’s daughter, he had killed 1,000 such women. Eventually the vizier, whose duty was to provide them, could not find any more virgins.

Against her father’s wishes, Scheherazade volunteered to spend one night with the king. Once in the king’s chambers, Scheherazade asked if she might tell him a story during the long night. The king lay awake and listened with awe as Scheherazade told her first story. The night passed by, and Scheherazade stopped in the middle of the story. The king asked her to finish, but Scheherazade said there was no time, as dawn was breaking. So, the King spared her life for one day to finish the story the next night. So the next night, Scheherazade finished the story and then began a second, even more exciting tale which she again stopped halfway through at dawn. So the king again spared her life for one day to finish the second story.

And so the King kept Scheherazade alive day by day, as he eagerly anticipated the finishing of the previous night’s story. At the end of 1,001 nights, and 1,000 stories, Scheherazade told the king that she had no more tales to tell him. During these 1,001 nights, the king had fallen in love with Scheherazade, and so he spared her life, and made her his queen.

I love this, because it’s a story within a story. A tall tale, you might call it. But think about some of the wonderful stories that Scheherazade thought up, night after night. Sinbad the Sailor, Aladdin, Ali Baba, Old Man of the Sea, The Fisherman and the Jinni, The Thief of Bagdad, and The Three Apples.

This last story, The Three Apples has in fact been described as a “whodunit” murder mystery with multiple plot twists. However, although the story has detection fiction elements it lacks a detective, in that the person charged with investigating the murder, does nothing to solve the crime, but in both cases sits at home awaiting his fate. Both times he is saved from execution by a chance revelation.

Or take The Thief of Bagdad. It tells the story of a thief who falls in love with the daughter

The Thief of Bagdad - N.H. Wilton 1924

The Thief of Bagdad – N.H. Wilton 1924

of the Caliph of Bagdad. Hugely popular, the story was made into an American swashbuckler film in 1924 and considered one of the most expensive films of the 1920s. Not a bad record for a woman who made up the story on a whim ten centuries earlier.

What’s so interesting about these stories for us writers is their structure. The Three Apples is a first level story told by Scheherazade, and contains one second level story, the Tale of Núr al-Dín Alí and his Son. It occurs early in the Arabian Nights narrative, being started during night 19, after the Tale of Portress. The Tale of Núr al-Dín Alí and his Son starts during night 20, and the cycle ends during night 25, when Scheherazade starts the Tale of the Hunchback.

It’s the layers of the stories that make them so effective, i.e. saving Scheherazade from literally losing her head. She tells just enough of the story to keep the King’s interest, promising to continue the next day. She then adds layers to the plot, introducing new characters, adding more complexities as she goes. (Footnote: What does that say about the need for detailed outlining? Looks like our clever storyteller was a true pantser).

I love those stories and I am starting to read them again, after many, many years. They are magical in the purest sense, and they show me some interesting things about pacing, plotlines, and a lot more. Whether fact or fiction, 1001 Nights has much to teach writers about the art of storytelling.

Enjoy what’s left of the Labour Day weekend.