Writing through adversity

cold-remedies

Silk’s Post #132 — After all that rah rah excitement and recommitment to writing generated by our terrific writing retreat only two weeks ago, here I am finally getting to my Monday post on Wednesday. Do shots of enthusiasm last only a week? What happened?

The Mother of All Colds, that’s what happened. It’s so exhaustingly, frustratingly miserable that I’m tempted to regard it as something higher up the food chain of infections … bronchitis, pneumonia, some kind of exotic flu that has a name so long it’s known by its dreaded acronym.

But no. It’s nothing fancy. Just a cold. Something that doesn’t really impress anyone because we all get them, and then we all get over them. I won’t gross you out with the details, but the consequence of this (so far) 10 days of mind-numbing, energy-draining phlegm production is that I’ve been working at about half speed, at best.

(Newsflash: my husband just walked in and told me that, after careful research down in the village – otherwise known as local gossip – he thinks what I have is the latest plague raging around our island, a new mutation of the old Hong Kong flu from the 1950s, or 1970s, anyway sometime last century. Apparently it lasts a month. Goody.)

But no matter. It all started me thinking … what if I really did have some awful adversity to cope with, something that wasn’t going to go away anytime soon? Or maybe ever? Am I in any way prepared to overcome that, to write through it?

The truth is that I’ve had a reasonably easy time of it since I’ve been here on Earth, as lives go. My improbable chain of luck – one that statisticians will tell you beats the odds at a lottery-winning level – began with being born in the first place. All those competing sperms, and mine won the race! Of course, if you’re reading this, you can also count yourself a winner from the get-go for the same reason.

I was also lucky to be born where and when I was – a wealthy country in the 20th century. There were no bombs falling (although we were, we thought, all prepared in case some did by having air raid drills in elementary school). People weren’t running around shooting each other, at least not in our neighbourhood. There were good drugs around (like antibiotics and polio vaccines), but not many bad ones (like crack cocaine and meth). And even though we ate stuff that everyone now knows is horrible for you (like Twinkies), and all the adults (including virtually everyone on TV) smoked like chimneys, we were pretty healthy. At least compared to the many countries in which children, we were told whenever we pushed our perfectly good spinach or lima beans to the edge of the plate, were starving (and, no you can’t send your leftover spinach to them, just eat it).

I grew up “middle class,” (Hey, remember those good old days when there was a big one?) Yes, I realize not everyone in the United States and Canada had the same lucky experience, and that’s just my point. Even my lifetime circle of family and friends has been, generally speaking, stable and supportive. Sure, a few heartbreaks, but nothing truly devastating. My health (apart from this #@%*&!!! cold) is also pretty much in the middle of the spectrum. Not perfect, but not dramatically debilitating.

In other words, I have little experience coping with real trauma. With life-changing adversity. With fear and terror. With displacement. With truly painful, chronic, disabling or life-threatening illness or injury. With abuse. With addiction. With stifling prejudice or oppression. With hunger or poverty. With war or threat of war where I live. With untimely, gut-wrenching loss of loved ones. With natural disaster or devastation.

No. My drive and determination can be slowed to a crawl by a simple cold. What a wimp.

It made me think about the incredible hurdles writers and other creative people have had to overcome to produce their art. There have been some true heroes, though they’re rarely celebrated for their bravery and persistence in the face of adversity.

It’s almost shocking how many famous authors are said to have suffered from dyslexia or a similar learning disability, for instance: granddaddy of fairy tales, Hans Christian Anderson; novelist and screenwriter, Stephen Cannell; legendary American novelist, F. Scott Fitzgerald; children’s author (Captain Underpants), Dav Pilkey; Pulitzer Prize-winning short story writer, Richard Ford; Nobel Prize-winning poet and playwright W.B. YeatsFried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe author, Fannie Flagg; celebrated American author (World According to GarpJohn Irving; prolific British author, Bernard Taylor; and Madame Bovary author, Gustave Flaubert.

The grande dame of cozy mysteries, Agatha Christie suffered from a related disability called dysgraphia, which is described as “a writing disorder, characterized as a learning disability in the category of written expression” whose sufferers may have difficulties with certain letters, often will write the wrong word when trying to formulate their thoughts on paper, and have problems with both motor and orthographic skills and spelling. Apparently, she couldn’t even balance a chequebook.

There’s also a long list of authors who are thought to have struggled with what we now recognize as ADD/ADHD. One of them was George Bernard Shaw, who wrote more than 60 plays and won both a Nobel Prize and and Oscar for Pygmalion. Science fiction pioneer and godfather of steampunkJules Verne, who had trouble in school and reported having a hard time focusing, was also thought to have undiagnosed ADD or ADHD.

Of course, there’s an even longer list of writers who have famously suffered from depression, from Mark Twain to Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Anne Rice and Stephen King. Harry Potter author, J.K. Rowling, who today is probably the world’s most commercially successful writer, was once a suicidal 20-something single parent and struggling writer. She sought help for her clinical depression and obviously overcame this writing hurdle in spectacular fashion. Not so fortunate was poet Sylvia Plath, whose treatment with antidepressants in 1963 began, it seems, too late to stop her suicidal compulsion.

When it comes to authors who have overcome physical adversity, addictions, personal tragedy, poverty, abuse and a whole spectrum of other obstacles, a whole book could be written. But here are some extreme examples that make me feel ashamed of myself for being distracted from writing by my own insignificant hurdles.

There was Irish author and poet Christy Brown, for example. His famous autobiography My Left Foot documented his struggles as a cerebral palsy victim who was incapable of deliberate movement or speech for years (except, of course, his famous left foot). His family life no doubt toughened him up, as he was one of 13 surviving children out of the 22 born to his Catholic parents.

French journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby, once the editor of Elle, suffered the rare neurological condition known as Locked-In syndrome after coming out of a coma after a heart attack. While his mind was normal, his entire body was paralyzed. In the last two years of his life, he “wrote” an entire book, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, which he composed in his head and dictated one letter at a time to a (very patient) interlocutor, by blinking when the letter he wanted was reached in a repeated recitation of the alphabet. His book was published two days before he died.

And do I even need to mention the deaf, blind, prolific author Helen Keller?

Well, that’s made me feel so much more ambitious and less sorry for myself that I’m going to just blow my nose, swig some cough syrup, and get back to work.

What I learned from the writer’s retreat

Joe’s Post #142

Or how you can make it better.

writing quotes

  • The energy of writing is always there. Even if someone’s off having a walk, eating salmon omelettes at Molly’s or taking a snooze, there’s usually someone writing. It’s hard not to write when someone else is writing.
  • There needs to be a place for everyone to retreat to for naps, quiet time, looking at shoeporn, whatever. It’s hard to write for a whole day. Not impossible, but for me, I needed a place to recharge my brain.
  • Going from 0 pages a day to 30 is hard, if not impossible. Going from writing 0 hours to 8-14… same thing. It’s hard. Practice ahead of time. Like you would for a marathon or a binging 3 seasons of game of thrones.
  • Don’t forget to take breaks. Oh, it’s easy to get lost in the writing, to sit and write, write and sit, but breaks allowed me to clear my mind. Exercise helps. I worked out plot problems while walking in downtown Gibsons. I worked on character while wandering the beach. I reworked dialogue while looking for chocolates to buy my cutie.
  • When you’re in a house with writers, you can talk writerly stuff. Like how do I make an opening scene better, or what’s not working here? No more asking yourself those questions in your own head, you have other heads to help you out.
  • IMG_7017Get some sleep. Have coffee. Eat well. Sure they’re the basics of any life, but sometimes these things are easy to forget when you’re retreating.
  • Have some fun.

I think we 5/5/5 had a great success with our retreat. 4 writers broke out of their slump and began to write, again. I broke out of my ‘getting stories out into the marketplace’ phobia. We had a few laughs, brainstormed a few ideas, and had a chance to spend 3 wonderful days in sunny Gibsons.

So, if you get the chance, go on a retreat. It doesn’t have to be in Maui or on a cruise in the Mediterranean. It just has to be a group of writers getting together to write.

 

 

 

The time has come to write

Joe’s Post #141

retreatA writing retreat, you say? How can we 5/5/5 make this a success?

Silk outlined her research. Paula has her hosting planned out. We have pets to keep us company. We even have an agenda of sorts. Our agenda even has some writing planned.

But the real question is can we capture the magic of writing, again.

Or is that impossible?

I think it is. I won’t lie. However, do you need writing magic to write or can you replace it with something else? Like replacing coffee with green tea? Or the Coke with New Coke?

My solution… replace the magic with routine. I managed to get a novella of 37,000 words written in a month by simply putting my somewhat large butt in my somewhat comfy chair and pounding out the words. I know in the grand scheme of things, that’s not super impressive, but that’s more writing than I’ve done in a long time.

So on this retreat, I’m going to go with what worked. Get up about 7. Get coffee. Start writing. Stop for lunch. Maybe stop before that to pee. Go for walk. Write. Look at the pretty world for a bit. Write. Stop for supper. Eat something vaguely healthy. Read. Go to bed at a decent time. (If I write past about 7, then I get all writer-ie in my head and I can’t shut off my brain enough to sleep.)

In the meantime, 9 things to avoid while on a writer’s retreat. (Cuz I couldn’t think of 10 due to a lack of conviction on following through with #3.)

Avoid….. negative calvin and hobbs

  1. Negative people. We all have enough negative voices in our heads, we don’t need them personified in our writing space.
  2. Watching TV. The opiate of the masses. Aka my favorite thing to do. When time is precious and writing time scarce, there’s simply no time for the Simpsons.
  3. Drinking (a lot). Why? Once upon a time, I could drink and still be a functioning adult (though candid pictures of me may show otherwise). It’s not like I get all Hemingway-ish and suddenly find my muse after one drink. No. I find a pillow and start to snore – and I’ve found I cannot write in my sleep.
  4. Gaming. No Clash of Clans. No Candy Crush. No FIFA 2015. Sacking someone’s town hall in CoC will not get me published and I may even be sacking the town hall or an agent or editor. Luckily, though, I go by the name of SeanSommerville69, so I’m tanking someone else’s career.
  5. Eating too much food. Very similar to too much alcohol, minus the dancing on the table and singing My Sharona until the bouncers throw me out. Too much food makes we want to do #2.
  6. Shopping. No heading out for new shoes, new iPhones or new appliances. No buying dog toys, waterguns or new, non-stick pans. No looking at cars, dresses or houses. Just say no to shopping until you get back.
  7. Spaghetti sauce and white shirts. Trust me on this. Either don’t bring a white shirt, or don’t eat spaghetti with sauce. If you do, you’ll run out of clean shirts and that leads to either having to go shopping, spending time cleaning the damn shirts or having to eat your oatmeal topless.
  8. Facebook. It’s the work of the devil, anyway. If you can’t give it up, then limit it.
  9. Fear. Fear feds doubt. Makes it fat. Doubt then sits on your shoulder and poops all over you. Just let the fear go, have some fun. Write.

Will we be able to find a way back to writing? I don’t know for sure, but I can tell you at 8pm, we’re sitting with our laptops open, some of us are muttering to ourselves, but all of us are pounding away on our keyboards.

Stories are being created. Characters developed. Worlds built.

What better way to start?

This day we write

this-day-we-write

Silk’s Post #127 — Last week, for the first time in our collective effort to blog our way to writerdom, four of the 5writers missed our posts. Ouch.

It’s time for me to step up to the booth and say my confession. Bless me, readers, for I have sinned. It’s been four weeks since my last blog post. I throw myself at your mercy. I’d welcome the chance to clear my conscience by saying 20 Hail Shakespeares. If it were only so easy!

But redemption doesn’t work that way for writers. 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.

Harsh, I know. The truth often is. And we sensitive creative people may wither in its presence. Or do the opposite: rebel, catch fire, grab the beast with two fists, bay at the moon.

Start writing again, just to prove nothing can stop us.

I sat down to write this post without having any clear idea of what I wanted, needed, to say. I just knew I had to explain to myself why I haven’t blogged in a month, or touched my manuscript in far longer than that.

My first stream of thought, unsurprisingly, was the litany of reasons why I’ve put off writing. As I enumerated and examined them in my head, disruptions that had been posing as perfectly good reasons were unmasked, one by one, and revealed to be mere excuses. Just a lot of blah blah blah.

And what I concluded was that none of that matters. The road to hell – to no one’s shock, I’m sure – really is paved with good intentions. No wonder it has so many potholes.

A few years ago at the Surrey International Writers Conference, we were treated to one of the most inspiring keynotes I’ve ever heard by bestselling author Robert Dugoni. It was his own becoming-a-writer story, and he told it like a song – or maybe a hymn – the narrative given power and energy with a repeated chorus: This Day We Write. SIWC has adopted the refrain, with Mr. Dugoni’s blessing, as its own mantra.

As T.S. Eliot famously said, “good writers borrow, great writers steal”, so I have no compunction about appropriating This Day We Write as my blog title. Repeating it, with appropriate devotion, is a penance that can save lapsed writers.

We need these rituals in our passion play.

Being a writer is, in a way, the simplest of jobs. You just write. You learn and develop craft with every word, every sentence, every book. There’s really no other secret to it.

The 5writers’ road to salvation will begin here. We’re planning a writing retreat, hopefully in June. The agenda is as simple as this vow: This Day We Write.

 

 

 

Let the Games Begin

Helga’s Post #39

Image courtesy Mystery Fanfare

Image courtesy Mystery Fanfare

Bags are packed, loins are girded, critiques are printed. We are ready.

Well, not everybody quite at the same level, but we’ll better be by Sunday morning when critiques start in earnest. The morning after we meet for a bonding dinner somewhere in the picturesque village of Whistler. Before the games begin in the heart of the former Olympics site.

Coincidence?

Maybe. Or maybe a subliminal choice of venue. A signal of our aplomb and commitment as writers preparing to get published.

To make the process random and fair we drew names from a hat. Paula will be the first in the hot seat starting Sunday après pancakes or whatever. I will be the last. Not sure if that’s in Paula’s favour or not. Or in mine. What we haven’t done yet is determine who is first in the line-up of GIVING their critique. (Think about it. This could be a sticky wicket.)

We allow one day of critique for each of five manuscripts. Not only one-way communication, but dialogue. Opportunity for the writer to ask specific questions that may not have been covered in the critiques.

Genres and writing styles of the five novels are as varied as their authors’ personalities: A colourful palette of suspense, mystery, fantasy, Y-A and some in-betweens that straddle more than one genre. I tried to visualize all the different characters from our novels in one room. A hilarious exercise!

Because of the sheer diversity of our novels, the entire event is incredibly dynamic. In the last month we each had to read and critique four manuscripts. And critique them in an objective manner, regardless of whether these novels are in the genre of our own preferences. Or in a writing style that’s not a favourite. Believe me, it takes an Olympian effort of self-discipline and constraint (Is it surprising that we have chosen Whistler?) and the main ingredient (as Joe said in his latest post), an open mind. Challenging as it sounds, it turned out I have learned more during this process than during writers’ conferences and workshops galore. It never ceases to amaze me how I can spot problems in other people’s writing, but continue to make the same mistakes in my own manuscript.

But it has also been an intense and challenging lifestyle during this last month. Not the healthiest one I admit, because it meant spending most of my non-sleeping hours sitting and staring at the computer screen. Not something I aspire to repeat anytime soon.

That process is behind us now. We are planning for lots of fresh air and outdoor activities in between the hard work. And yes, having fun ranks high on the agenda.

(To be continued from our idyllic retreat in the village of Whistler)