Reclamation of dreams

abandoned-farmhouse

Silk’s Post #153 — I’ve always been fascinated by abandoned places, attracted to the empty stage sets of lives now relocated, or finished. I wonder whether those lives were recorded somewhere, whether they’re recalled by someone, or whether they’re irretrievably lost to memory.

But I’ve never stepped into an abandoned place where the dreams that once filled it did not come instantly to life, leftover shreds of hope and intent that were once the substance of lives that mattered. Dreams echo. The imagination leaps ahead, visualizing rooms full of furnishings and people, creating scenarios. The heart aches with the sorrow of abandonment, the weight of time. But simultaneously, it longs to know the story whose traces have been left behind. Who were these people? What happened to them?

If you’ve been following this blog, you’ve probably noticed that, lately, it has been feeling, well, a bit abandoned. Once animated by four or five posts every week, it now sometimes has only one or two. In some recent weeks, it has been a room empty of conversation.

And so, are the 5 Writers moving out? Moving on? Deserting our writing lives and taking up residence in some other other space, to live some other life and pursue some other truth? Honestly, I don’t know the answer, and it will likely be a different answer for each of us.

But here’s what I do know: As I walk through the 5writers5novels5months blogspace, I’m haunted by the richness and vibrancy of our dreams, our hopes and our intents. And I long not only to foresee our story, but to create it.

Of course, the only stories I can create are my own: both my reality and my fiction. Because I have three books, manuscripts that literally sit within the reach of my hand right now, that I have all but abandoned.

One is finished in first draft: my firstborn. It’s the one closest to my heart because it’s the most personal, set on the island I call home. It’s also the one with a plot structure so flawed it will need multiple surgeries to bring it to life, and even then could still turn out to be a Frankenstein of a book.

One was my entry in the original crazy 5writers challenge starting in September 2012: my attempt at a relatively formulaic genre book. Like a horrible mother, I abandoned it halfway through, bored with a plot arc that failed to matter enough to me. It will need an infusion of consequence, something to make me care about finishing it.

One is the book I’ve been working on since 2014, but although it’s a theme-driven story that I do really care about, I have made pathetically little progress. It needs nothing more than an author with the will to write write write. A writer with the burning desire to know the story.

The whole idea of abandonment touches deep emotions. When I chose this topic for my post, I wandered the net looking for abandonment definitions and references, and found them to be universally distressing and depressing. It’s the sad, broken face of failed dreams, the antithesis of the fresh start.

Now, simple logic and emotional intelligence would dictate that the road back to productivity for a blocked writer really needs to begin with a fresh start.

Of course! That’s the ticket! It sounds like much, much more fun than revisiting abandoned manuscripts, cobwebbed with frustrations, guilt and regrets. Wind up the run-down clock once again! Re-infuse my writing life – both novel and blog – with a new sense of purpose and commitment! Get excited about a brand new story, one with endless possibilities and – as yet – no flaws, troubles or broken promises to drag me down!

But that’s not what I’m going to do. You probably already guessed that.

I feel drawn back to that which I’ve abandoned. I have an ache to reclaim those dreams, to re-animate the characters I gave birth to, and to nurture them to maturity. I want to rediscover the soul and the hopes and the naive confidence of the neophyte novelist I was six or seven years ago, when I felt like I was bursting with creative energy.

I want to re-engage the writer I was, back when writing was what mattered most to me, was at the centre of my self-identity. When it was a mission, a seemingly achievable mission. Before I realized how hard it would be to do such a thing really well – as well as I demanded of myself. Before I discovered how challenging it would be to sustain my enthusiasm over the long arcs of time required to finish novels that had some hope of getting published. Before I understood the true costs and disciplines of the writing life.

I’m a different writer now. Better, but less idealistic. I’m like a middle-aged woman returning to a childhood home after the family is all gone, after experiencing the successes, failures, joys and regrets that life inevitably delivers. And I know that reclamation of those earlier dreams will be a process of putting past hopes and present reality side-by-side and accepting the obvious differences. And moving on from there.

I have yet to decide which of my three books to embrace again, but I sense that doesn’t matter as much as how I step back into my own writing life and embrace my dreams again, after disappointing myself by abandoning them.

The important decision, though, has been made. For me, giving up is not an option.

The school of real life

real-life-school

Silk’s Post #152 — Learning to be a writer requires honing many skills, from the obvious – like proficiency with grammar, narrative and plot structure – to the less anticipated, including more than a passing acquaintance with marketing and development of a steely, independent work ethic. Successful writers today are less likely to be dreamy-eyed scribblers or muse-driven obsessives as they are to be disciplined entrepreneurs.

My point is that, given the right temperament and a reasonable modicum of talent, all this can be learned by the wannabe writer. And there’s no shortage of learning opportunities out there, from formal classes leading to degrees, to conferences, workshops, online courses, and a plethora of books and publications.

But storytelling – well, there’s a different skill set entirely. For me, a great storyteller is able to capture the attention and imagination of readers, engage them emotionally in the narrative, and make them care as deeply about the characters and the outcome as if the story truly affected their own personal lives.

As Helga discussed in her heartfelt post, “Dare to open that vein”, that kind of authentic storytelling comes from the writer’s own emotional capacity, borne of experience.

I might dare to say that there’s only one place to learn to be a storyteller: the school of real life.

The heart and soul of it is the ability to feel emotion and share it in a way that compels readers to feel it too. But is it enough to have deeply experienced life’s emotional ups and downs yourself? And if you have led an “ordinary” life that’s relatively free of wild adventure, high drama, emotional pinnacles, sharp reversals, and personal trauma – does that condemn you to a narrow range of shallow emotions as a writer? Or is there more to it than that?

Helga’s post got me thinking about this. I’ve read works by fantastic storytellers who write with emotional authenticity born of eventful, even adventuresome, lives. Helga gave some wonderful examples, like Ernest Hemingway and John Le Carré, and it’s easy add others such as Mark Twain and Sebastian Junger. But I’ve also read deeply engaging, emotionally charged stories by authors who’ve never done anything much more exciting than sit in a coffee shop, tapping out a tale on their laptop.

So what’s the magic ingredient?

Perhaps it’s how the writer engages in her own life, and the lives of others around her. How she interacts with the people and places in her life’s narrative. How she opens up and drinks it in, makes herself emotionally available to her experiences. How she observes people and their behaviour. How she empathizes with them. How she imagines the stories she sees played out in short, unfinished chapters at the coffee shop, on the street, in the airport, at a glimpsed accident or crime scene, even in newsclips on television. How she opens her eyes rather than turning away, and notices details and nuances. How she lets herself experience not only her own narrative, but also, vicariously, what happens to others. How she engages, pays rapt attention, rather than tuning out.

It seems to me this way of experiencing life takes three things: you must be naturally curious, you must be keenly observant, and you must be deeply empathetic. These are all major contributors to intuition, which I think is not so much a magical sense as a way of looking at and thinking about the world around you.

I suspect most people believe they’re doing all these things already, that they know “what’s going on”. But I’m always surprised at how many people I interact with who seem to walk through their lives in state of semi-awareness, at best.

They’re the ones who aren’t really paying attention to what others are saying, because they’re too busy inside their own heads, thinking about what they’re going to say next. They’re the ones who fail to notice when someone close by is in silent distress, or when there’s a disturbance in their peripheral vision, or when a comment made in a group of people chills the air and turns postures rigid. They’re the ones who miss their openings to probe a novel topic, or to watch an interesting scenario play out.

The real world has an unlimited treasure of things to learn, and where there are people, there are stories fuelled by the full range of emotions. I believe that if you study and appreciate people and what animates them, even in the most ordinary of circumstances, you can use those insights to create memorable characters facing extraordinary circumstances – from heroes to villains.

And if you get the characters right, characters that resonate, characters that jump off the page, then all the rest is, in a sense, circumstantial. A stage set. It’s the people who act, who drive the narrative forward, and who take your readers with them on their journey.

There are unlimited insights to learn in the school of real life, there for the taking. All you need to do is pay attention with open mind and open heart.

 

 

Writing as a moving target

snail

Silk’s Post #129 — There’s a time and place for writing. But getting the time, the place and the motivation all in synch so the words practically jump onto the page by themselves … well, that’s the trick, isn’t it? We all feel daunted at times.

 The Place

The colourful image of the solitary writer holed up in his creative domain has evolved from the bearded scribe dipping his quill by candlelight, to the whiskey-drinking novelist hunched over his Remington typewriter in a smoky garrett, to the cyberspace dweller keyboarding prose at a nighttime inner city kitchen table.

Their lairs all share one thing in common: each is a private comfort-zone, a retreat apart from the distractions and vagaries of the world. A stillpoint.

There’s plenty of advice to would-be writers on how to set up their own distraction-free writer’s space with the objective of becoming focused, organized and happily productive. Chuck Wendig recently wrote a great blog post from his own purpose-built writing spot, which he calls The Mystery Shed, extolling the virtues of creative writing habitats. I would put money on the probability that most professional, full-time writers do the majority of their writing in their own comfort-zone workspaces. 

The Time

The next challenge is clearing space in your calendar to get your butt in the chair and get to work. This, too, is all within the writer’s control. Let’s face it: it’s all about choices. Even the busiest person can find time to write if she truly wants to, even if it’s not every day, or not in long blocks, or has to be scheduled very late at night or very early in the morning.

The 5writers have probably written more about finding time to write than any other single topic (or, more accurately, about not finding time). So, obviously, it’s not always easy to integrate a productive writing schedule into a busy life.

It really comes down to priorities.

If you read my recent post, This day we write, and the 5writers debate it sparked, you may have found my inner pep talk as a lapsed writer to be a little bit hard-assed …

As much as I cherish that writing flame within, being a devout, practicing writer really requires only one thing. And it requires it absolutely, as an article of faith.

You must write.

Even if it’s shit. Even if you don’t feel like it. Even if your life is full of good, or bad, distractions. Even if you question your calling and are struggling to believe in yourself. Even if you’re overcommitted and all your time is spoken for. Even if you’re bored or uninspired. Even if your routine is disrupted. Even if you’re so consumed with guilt about your lack of productivity that you’ve gone into avoidance mode. Even if you’re too stressed, or too sad, or too worried, or too tired to care. Even if you’re consumed by some other seductive passion that demands your attention. Even if you fear your words have left you.

You must write anyway.

Or forget being a writer. Do something else. Find another route to spiritual, emotional, intellectual fulfillment.

My premise is simply that “writer” is a self-defining title: if you don’t write, you’re not a writer. But I didn’t mean to suggest that a writer must write constantly, or every day, or with complete disregard to the other circumstances in her life. I’m a realist, not a sadist!

The Choice

Everyone has demands on their time: job, family, household, health, financial or other life necessities that simply have to be attended to. We get to make lifestyle choices like whether to have kids, how many cars or houses or other stuff we own, and what (if not writing) we do to make ends meet. These choices (along with whatever kind of luck we’re having at the moment) dictate how much time our non-discretionary responsibilities will gobble up in our lives.

But whatever discretionary time we have left over – whether that’s a little or a lot, whether it occurs daily or irregularly – we get to choose how to spend it. It’s in our control.

The Moving Target

There are two notable kinds of disruptions are not in our control: motion and emotion. These can be managed but, in many cases, not avoided.

By “motion” I mean not only travel, but anything that moves you away from your comfy writer’s workspace.

We live in a mobile world. Unless you’re a hermit, you’re going to find yourself physically on the move for short or long periods, for all sorts of reasons. Attending your kid’s hockey practice. Vacationing in Tonga. Attending an out-of-town conference. Going to the laundromat. Visiting family. And you can’t just stop writing every time you’re temporarily uprooted from your favourite desk.

Some writers can focus in the middle of chaos, are able to wrap themselves in their own portable comfort-zones and concentrate on their work, oblivious to distractions. Mothers who learn to write on a park bench to the sound of playground shrieks. Urban bards who like to scribble at a crowded coffee house or nightclub. Travellers, like Paula, who love to take advantage of remnant time spent waiting in airport lounges. (Check out her excellent advice about Writing on the road.) Nomads by choice, like Alison and Don, who are adept at making themselves “at home” in new landscapes and cultures. (Their guest post on Finding time to write is a great read for inspiration.)

For the rest of us, writing while away from our home base – often with little control over our schedule, or the outside demands and distractions we encounter on the road – is a challenge.

I’m doing it right now, at my best friend’s kitchen table 3,000 miles from home, while the rest of the household sleeps (including the snoring yellow lab at my feet, my pal Brady). It’s exactly midnight here in Boston, and the first real chance in a week I’ve had to sit by myself and concentrate on the 5writers blog.

Thus, my Monday post has become a Friday post … a moving target, finally hit.

Writing on a Rollercoaster

The original meaning of “emotion” back in the early 17th century was “a (social) moving, stirring, agitation” from the Old French emouvoir (stir up), which derived from the Latin emovere (move out, remove, agitate).

There’s no doubt that an emotional disruption to “normal” life can transport a writer far outside his comfort zone – even while his body remains planted in his usual chair. When change or stress overwhelms normal routines, the mind often can’t “settle”; creativity, inspiration and motivation can become elusive.

When “life happens” it may cast a shadow, or shine a blinding light. Either way, it can play havoc with a writer’s equilibrium. What might at first seem like forward progress can turn out, on second reading, to have been spinning in circles.

But that’s what second drafts are for. And sometimes, when the ground is shifting beneath your feet, the act of writing is the lifeline that anchors you, the balm that heals.

This Day We Write Anyway

Though writing can be a journey full of starts and stops – sometimes slowing to a frustrating crawl, other times speeding ahead at a dizzying pace – one thing that’s sure is this: the journey will end in limbo if we stop writing and sit still too long.

Writing wants a rhythm, even if it’s an irregular one, and it’s hard to get going again from a standing start.

Maybe “this day” is not the day we write. Maybe it’s tomorrow, or next week. Even a snail gets where it needs to go eventually (or there wouldn’t be any snails left).

But every single day that we get words on paper “anyway” – no matter the hurdles – is a great day to be a writer.

 

 

The process begins!

Joe’s Post #78

A quick update post.

charactersOutlining has begun.

It all starts with an idea. Then, as is my tendency these days, I begin with character. It’s someone I’ve used before so all of that background work, all of that character creation has already been done. So I worked up a cast of characters. Odd balls. Villains. Victims. Medical examiners. Cops. Reporters. Prostitutes. Sexy love interest. Even a writer.

It was probably more than I’ll ever use, but hey, it was fun. With each of them, I added a quick note as to their role in the story. What they brought to the table. How they would make my character’s life harder (or easier).

It was a lot of fun. I kind of know what the plot will be, and I know a few of the high points, but that’s it. That’s all I have right now.

I won’t say it’s a thrill like Karalee said.  I didn’t create 4 personalities like Paula. I didn’t have any great insights into emotion like Silk. I didn’t take a lovely trip down memory lane like Helga.  Seems like they got a lot more done over the last week than I did, but it’s a start. I hope to have a proper outline, if there is such a thing, by the time we 5/5/5 get together, again, in late January.

*****

Blogs written this week beside this one: 1 (Schooled in Homework)

Books on Blogs read: Technically 3, but none are finished yet.

Another blog to read: Jungle Red Writers

Queries this Week: 0 – Desert Rains  0 – Araxi Chronicles. Oh, boy, this has to change!

Short Stories Sent off: 0 (See above)

star wars shakespearCoolest book ever: Star Wars – Shakespeare (bought for me by the prettiest girl in the world.)

Motion accomplished?

motion

Silk’s Post #43 — One of the nuggets that came from our Whistler discussions was simply this: Put your characters in motion.

So obvious. So simple. Can you call something so self-evident an epiphany? Stories progress through action. So put your characters in motion, make them act, and the story will move forward. Right?

Well, yes. Absolutely.But I think there’s more to it than that.

The easiest way (easiest for the writer, that is) to convey your story to a reader is probably the one that should be used most sparingly: simply tell what a character is thinking. Let the character narrate the action taking place, adding his or her observations, judgements, feelings, worries, etc. So handy! And it works in first or third person. Woohoo!

Now … to put that character in motion (while we’re conveniently inside his head), all we need to do is send him for a walk, say, or put him behind the wheel of a car, or make him do something more exciting like run down a dark alley.

Voila! Motion accomplished. But wait … not so fast.

We all use this narrative style occasionally if not frequently. Often our character will be only minimally in motion, sitting drinking coffee, for instance. But does just adding velocity, or even a motivation for locomotion, guarantee the pace, the tension, the sense of a story in motion that keeps readers turning the pages?

Have you ever read a boring chase scene? Or a boring fight scene? One where you ended up skimming, or jumping ahead to learn the outcome, without having to suffer through the narrative details? I have.

So, I submit that physical motion, while an essential element in storytelling, isn’t a panacea. Those boring action scenes sometimes sound like plot outlines, where the writer is telling himself the story, using a character to narrate. But then the author never got around to actually writing the scene in an engaging, tense, suspenseful way that draws the reader into the story. Maybe the notion of motion has more dimensions to it.

One dimension of motion is undoubtedly action. There’s a good reason that “action” is the word a director yells when the camera starts rolling. Something is about to happen. Actors are about to act. And react. And interact. There’s physical motion, but there’s also emotion.

I’m going back through my scenes now to try to see the storytelling action through an imaginary camera lens. What would the scene be like if I eliminate as much as I can of what the camera can’t see and the microphone can’t hear? How would that change the way I write the story. Perhaps if the camera lens can see something, I can show it through the imagery of words, instead of telling the reader what’s happening through “in the character’s head” exposition.

Another dimension of motion, one that’s harder to convey, is change within the character. Change in the character’s knowledge, or viewpoint, or motivation, or feelings. Change in the character’s stakes, or jeopardy, or relationships, or his gained or lost opportunities. These are what make a story intimate, and help make readers care what’s going to happen next. It’s easy to convey these interior changes, once again, by going into the character’s head. But it’s not so easy to show them cinematically, through actions. Yet these are often the truly memorable moments of any story when an inner turning point is “put in motion” and acted out.

Remember Dorothy getting her first look at Oz? Rick walking into the Moroccan night with Captain Renault, away from the plane that would take his true love away from him? Frodo hesitating at the Crack of Doom, struggling with his inner demons to cast the ring into the pit? Colonel Kurtz lying in his dark, humid, jungle lair trying to convey “the horror, the horror” to Willard? Scarlett O’Hara shaking her fist the heavens, vowing never to be hungry again? None of these were “action scenes” as such. Yet they were powerful, emotional cinematic moments.

How do we use mere words to show these volcanic inner milestones – moments that are all about pivotal story movement and change, but not really about physical action? I’m going back and looking at places in my story where moments of inner change need to be animated, just as though they were physical actions.

Coming back to the “nugget” we mined at Whistler – Put your characters in motion – my take on it is that any old “motion” won’t do. Don’t just send your protagonist out for a walk while he’s telling the reader what he’s thinking or seeing or doing. Instead, have him act out what’s in his head, and his heart. That’s motion … and emotion.

Not so simple after all.

What’s your view?