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Posts Tagged ‘Writing’

One writer’s break: poetry

Well, poetry doesn’t appear to be something most writers seem to choose to write unless they must but it does have it’s place in my toolbox.

Perhaps because I’m totally deaf, perhaps because I’m stubborn, or maybe just because of music’s siren song but when I write I usually try to incorporate music into my writing in some form.  For me, writing poetry is a way of writing the music I hear.  It’s a way of capturing the rhythm of an internal music, using words to evoke not only the imagery, but more importantly the flow, the rhythm, and the dynamics of my music.

Yes, I write a lot of poetry.  Is it good?  Is it bad?  I have no idea, because for the most part I haven’t shared it outside my immediate family unless I wrote it specifically for someone else.  I’ve only recently begun posting my poetry online for others to read and comment on.  And as a result of doing that, I’v been challenged to write a sestina, of all things.  I thought it would be easy, but it’s very definitely not easy to write one of those the way I want to do it.  For my first attempt I wound up with a seven stanza poem that’s most definitely not a sestina.  Free-form poetry doesn’t appeal to me as it does not seem to evoke that internal music I “hear” when reading a good poem so I can’t use it as a form for the sestina.  My definition of good means to me a free-form poem is a cacophony.  So, my sestina has to follow not only the rules of writing a sestina, but also conform to the structure that I see as necessary.  This means that writing poetry can be a very good exercise of the mind, will, skill, and discipline.  Never mind knowledge.  I mention this because it illustrates the focus and concentration necessary.

So, why do I say poetry has a place in my toolbox as opposed to being my preferred writing format?

The reason I bring it up here isn’t to discuss writing poetry, but a way of using poetry writing as a tool.  When I am actually working on my stories, if I forget to feed the muse and she wanders off to one of you for a while instead of hanging around, I can lure her back with poetry.

Often when I get stuck or just can’t seem to make any real progress on a story I’m working on or I lose interest in the story I’m writing, I find that if I leave off the story and start writing poetry I come away from that poetry writing rejuvenated.  It may take only one poem, say a haiku or even an epic poem, or it may take several.  The thing is, it seems to give my mind a break from what has become the job of writing and to get the creative juices flowing again.  The poetry I write as a result naturally still has to meet my requirements and so demands my full attention.  As this poetry does not focus on or belong to the writing I was doing, the mental exercises resulting from writing unrelated poetry effectively takes my mind completely off what I was working on, giving me a true break.  For me, this allows my brain to properly re-boot into the mode needed to resume writing that story when I return to it.  Mentally having completely dropped everything related to the work that was giving me so much trouble, I return to it with a renewed perspective.  Often I find that what was blocking me before is no longer a block, my mind readily finds a solution and words are once again flowing into that story.  Ideas that I’d not thought of come into being, storylines appear that I’d not seen before, characters seem to have new aspects to them that had been hidden before, and the story seems fresh again.

All this happens because I use poetry to completely refocus my mind, writing, and creativity onto something totally different from what I was working on.  Poetry is thus not only something I enjoy writing but it’s a way to hone my wordsmithing and to give myself a true break from the job of writing.  Not only that, but while doing it, I’m still doing what writers do — writing.  Not just writing, but writing stuff I can provide to my readers.

So, yes, writing poetry belongs not only in my credits but also in my toolbox.

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But it isn’t enough to write a story. There has to be a reader for that story, and it can’t be just you.

“A story is a collaboration between teller and audience, writer and reader. Fiction is not only illusion, but collusion….Without a reader there’s no story. No matter how well written, if it isn’t read it doesn’t exist as a story. The reader makes it happen just as much as the writer does.”

Writer, story, reader: it’s an abstract dance that requires all to participate. If you write a story and stuff it into a drawer when you are finished, without letting others read it, you have slapped words on a page that may or may not have recognizable form or recognizable meaning. To be valued, to be a story, to be a work of art, your baby has to be SEEN. That means letting it out of the hermetically sealed bubble at least a little bit. Being read by others is like oxygen for humans: your story needs read to live.

However, you have to write something someone will read or you haven’t done your job. This means making your story interactive. To be successful, your reader must identify with the situation, characters, and emotion in some fashion. Your reader must be able to follow the plot with all of its twists, turns, and arcs. Your reader must desire the entertainment you attempt to provide. You have to make them desire it more than dinner, and make them go after that extra cup of coffee at the breakfast table because they want those precious extra minutes in your world. You have to engage them, transfer your vision to them, and let their imagination fly. You have to make them willing to suspend their disbelief and soak in the magic you have created.

It all comes down to a matter of trust. You have to trust your gift is sufficient to tell a story, and it won’t fail you at an inopportune moment. You have to trust the story enough to even begin writing it, and then allow it to evolve beyond your initial ideas and plans to develop into that masterpiece everyone wants on their shelves. You have to trust your readers to see your vision, to interact with your story and commune with it. You have to trust your gift and the story to show the reader the looking glass, and trust the reader to want to be led to the other side.

It is hard, this trust. It is hard to overcome the fear of failure, of rejection, of harsh critiques. But the rewards of that trust—in your gift, your story, and the reader—the rewards of overcoming that fear of failure, rejection, and harsh critiques, can set you free, can make you soar.

“A Matter of Trust” in The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination. Ursula K. Le Guin. Shambhala Publications, Boston, 2004. ISBN: 978-1-59030-006-0 (or 1-59030-006-8)

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Action, high emotion, and those scenes which are being PITAs (pains in the ass) cause me some writer’s block usually because I want them to be perfect. It is also called stage-fright and over-rehearsing, the bane of every performer. I CAN force my right brain on stage at gunpoint, under the lights, and edit the results later. This is shooting six rolls of film to find one or two gem-quality shots.

But most times, I let the right brain slip its leash by closing my eyes and writing the scene as I see it in my head, like I’m watching a movie. This isn’t a new idea, but it DOES work. Blanket the eyes of the panicked horse, and the horse will trust you to lead it from the burning barn. In other words, what you can’t see (the blank page) can no longer scare you.

With my eyes closed, my imagination and fingers have wings. I word-paint what I see in my mind’s eye: broad strokes, tiny details, and splashes of color; all emotion, and what caused the emotion; action, movement, any words that leap clear and stick in my head. I get the essentials, the bones of the scene.

I open my eyes. It might look like ten miles of mud fence, but it’s a million times easier to edit the ugliest prose I have ever written, than to agonize over a blank page full of nothing but air. And I don’t have to keep this melodramatic drivel. I hit replay and slow it down. I find more details, cut the stuff that doesn’t work, flesh out the bones, layer in what makes the scene live on paper. Right brain. Left brain. Right. Left. It’s slow, but it gets me beyond the block.

I think the worst thing an author can suffer is overweening pride and blindness to new opportunities to learn, which lead to hubris and stagnation. Throughout the essay, Ursula reminds us to keep an open mind, especially in reading others’ works, and learning about our craft. Learn, practice, and hone your craft until it gleams in starlight. There is always more to learn, but don’t let that stop you from writing. You have to practice and show off what you have learned.

“I must trust my gift, and therefore trust the story I write, know that its use, its meaning or beauty, may go far beyond anything I could have planned.”

Trust your gift, trust your story; give both freedom. Freedom to use the skills you have to tell the story, and freedom for the story to express itself through your gift, with or without prior planning. This trust, this freedom, can lead to unexpected surprises, both delightful and troubling, which weren’t in the original synopsis or outline. The delightful ones are seen as immediate improvements. The troubling ones might require more extensive readjustments because you’ve painted yourself into a corner; get paint on your shoes, or build a window. Changes, delightful or troubling, can make your story deeper, more meaningful, the tension and emotion more vibrant, turn it into a prose work of art, simply because you allowed your story room to move.

Again, it boils down to trust. Trust in you, trust in the story.

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But what is this about trusting the story? You’re the one writing it, for pity’s sake, how much more trust is there to give?

“…to trust the story….means being willing not to have full control over the story as you write it. First you have to learn how to write English, and learn how to tell stories in general—techniques, practice, and all that: so that you are in control. And then you have to learn how to relinquish it.”

Relinquish control? Surely she jests. Yet there is light at the end of the tunnel; it isn’t a train.

“Deliberate, conscious control, in the sense of knowing and keeping to the plan, the subject, the gait, and the direction of the work, is invaluable in the planning stage—before writing—and in the revision stage—after the first draft. During the actual composition it seems to be best if conscious intellectual control is relaxed. An insistent consciousness of the intention of the writing may interfere with the process of writing. The writer may get in the way of the story.”

We have to strike a balance between the knowing part of our brains (the left) and the actual act of creation (the right), a balance between the technician and the artist.

“Lack of control over a story, usually arising from ignorance of the craft or from self-indulgence, may lead to slackness of pace, incoherence, sloppy writing, spoiled work. Over-control, usually arising from self-consciousness or a competitive attitude, may lead to tightness, artificiality, self-conscious language, dead work.”

I am a plotter. I spend months or years on set-up work before I start chapter one. I must have a written plan in order to write smoothly and more consistently. I have to remember the only perfect plan is the one not yet implemented; the plan is nothing more than a good suggestion. In the first draft I should primarily create, not dissemble, so I must remember to shut my left brain (planning, editing, logistics) in the dressing room because the right brain needs the whole stage.

I pursue perfection; my left brain escapes the dressing room frequently. I meddle and muddle and masticate; I over-analyze, tweak, add, remove, adjust—all red-sign flags that my left brain needs to be shut in solitary confinement for disturbing the peace. Planning, editing, self-critiquing, self-doubt, procrastination, and fear are ALL left brain activity, and all can be the root of dreaded writer’s block. So, yes, the left brain derails telling the story.

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Ursula K. Le Guin says in her essay, “A Matter of Trust,”

“In order to write a story, you have to trust yourself, you have to trust the story, and you have to trust the reader….Before you start writing, neither the story nor the reader even exists, and the only thing you have to trust is yourself….the only way you can come to trust in yourself as a writer is to write….To read, to write, to practice your trade, to learn your job, until you know something about it, and know you know something about it.”

To write, you must read. Everything you read has value: articles, classics, research material, how-to books, the modern greats in all genres, even the worst piece of fiction a publisher ever had the disgrace to put on the shelf. Great, good, mediocre, and horrid, all that reading shows you what is good writing, what errors to avoid, and clues to how you can improve your writing through literary devices, facts, ideas, and simple common sense in grammar and spelling. Be open to those lessons. Some will sink in by osmosis. Some you’ll have to revisit constantly. The trick is to practice a lot. You’ll learn to apply these lessons, eventually, without overdoing or flubbing.

Ursula comments further that at some point, early on, you may think you are ready for agent and publisher. Don’t be hasty even if you think your first novel will be the best thing since flush toilets. Take a minute. Stand back and reevaluate with a critical eye, talk to a friend, a writing professor, a critique group, other writers. You think it’s good enough, you might even be correct, then again no one wants to believe their story desperately needs a hatchet and an early grave, do they?

However, knowing you don’t know anything can be just as bad as NOT knowing you don’t know anything.

“I know some very good writers who never finish anything, or finish it and then destroy it with over-revising to meet real or imagined criticisms, because they don’t trust themselves as writers, which means they can’t trust their writing. Confidence in yourself as a writer…you earn…by doing, you build it up slowly, by working at it.”

I trust my writing between blinding moments of self-doubt. I am my own worst critic. Then I read a published author’s work, and notice that though they were published, their writing is on par with an eighth grade education, and their editor must have been smoking crack even on the most basic of grammar points. Books like those give me hope, not only because I think that since they were published there is hope for me, but because I KNOW I can do a better job than that published author. I don’t think this is excessive pride; I think it is self-confidence in what I know I know, and in my knowing how much I don’t know still, which is just as important.

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Yesterday was spent doing family things. Specifically going to see my niece in her Senior Spectacular, which is a performance of high school seniors, mostly from the choirs. And let me say here, Skippy, you were fantastic. I really wish we could have seen more of your concerts an dI wish you the best where you’re going. You’ve allowed an uncle to be very proud of you. And I think I said this once, but let me say it again, you really get performance. And that’s a rare gift.

So, today I’m going to discuss performing. I have some experience here. Since I was in grade school I’ve performed in plays, written plays (for both church and for high school, and have been selected for performances), played in bands (concert, marching, stage, and a garage band or two) and performed guitar as a busker and on stage for my own high school’s talent shows. I’ve given readings, reports, was a certified organizational change management leader (at E&Y, don’t ask). I’m trying to be a successful writer. I’ve been in front of microphones, tv cameras, given personal interviews to reports, lead mobs, and written this blog for how many years.

All of those are performances, btw. Some of them you might not think of as performing, like blogging, but really it is. At a convention a few years ago, I signed up for a breakfast with John Scalzi where he held court with about eight of us on several topics, one of which was blogging. As John said (and to paraphrase here), “I’m always surprised at the people who think they know me (and Krissy and Athena) because they read my blog. The blog is only what I choose to show the world, so nobody sees the times Athena is being a normal 10 year old, or Krissy and I have a problem. So people get a distorted view of my life.” We then had a more indepth discussion of what successful blogging is. And just to be clear here, it always means telling the truth about yourself. It also means you don’t have to share what you don’t want to share. And so, blogging is a performance art. Just like public speaking.

So here is something you probably don’t know about me. I’m introverted. Not as deeply as some friends I know, but it’s still there. Another author (who will remain nameless here, but I’ve mentioned him before) I had the fortune to see at a conference “putting on his game face.” Afterward I talked with him and mentioned I noticed him doing that. He’s also an introvert. We shared a moment of connection as I told him I recognized the action because I do that myself.

This doesn’t mean we’re being false. But it’s a recognition that we’re about to perform. And now I’ll get to what that means.

To dispel some myths. The people you see performing are rarely the best at what they do. Performance is hard work, no matter what the movie/recording industry wants to portray about “talent.” As John Lennon Ringo Starr shouted on Abbey Road The White Album, “I’ve got blisters on my fingers!” Most people who perform are doing things they love to do. And when you love doing something you do it if somebody’s watching and you do it when nobody is watching. And you do it until you get blisters. And then you keep doing it. Nobody just walks up on stage and performs like they’re a star. Everybody who has karaoked has sung in the car to the same song. See how good they do up on a stage? The woman from England who took everybody by surprise? Yeah, she belonged to a choir and I’ll bet she practices singing as she walks around her house (or flat). And she does it because she loves it. Also, for those people who are out there performing in clubs and bars, they know they’ve all met people better than they are. People who don’t perform anymore. Perseverance is the name of the game.

And when those people are performing, they aren’t doing it for themselves. At least the good ones aren’t. Performing is about giving. Giving to the audience, the other members of the troop, to the art, to someone who may not even be there. As Stephen King says in On Writing, most authors are telling someone their stories when they write. For him, it’s his wife. He’s trying to impress her and make her laugh (and yes, his stuff is funny). That’s his goal. He tells the story about an author he knows who is writing to someone whose been dead for many years. Performance is all about the people you’re performing for. If all you’re doing is going up on stage and reciting a song, well, that’s a form of mental masturbation. Artist who are all about themselves rarely make it far, and their self-indulgence comes through their performance and leaves most people wondering just what the heck is going on and the performance goes flatter than three-day old beer. But those who go up there and give it all away, those are the artists you remember. I should state here that performers are (mostly) consummate liars. If you ask them, many times you’ll get the “All about me” answer. Watch them on stage, though, and you can practically see the energy flowing into the audience. And if it’s done right, the energy flows back.

And we do it because we love our audience and we love what we’re doing. When Jackson Browne sings, “So just make sure you got it all set to go before you come for my piano,” that’s what he’s talking about. You’ve all come out to see us. In some cases you’ve paid good money to do so, given of your time and energy. To give ourselves to you is the least we can do.

It takes a lot out of you if you do it right. That’s the whole satiric point of Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing.” If you’ve ever seen musicians after a show, they look rung-out. Because they are. Not only were they playing the songs, they gave of themselves to their band and projected that out to the audience.

So that’s the secret of performance. It’s not about the talent, the skill, and the ability. It’s about love. It’s about giving it all away and hoping it comes back. It’s about not worrying about saving something up for another night, because it doesn’t work that way. Pour yourself out into what you’re doing, give it all to one person or to twenty-thousand screaming people. It’ll come back. It’ll make the hair on your neck tingle to touch that live wire. And do it because you love something, someone, someplace.

And yes, I do this because I love you. Stop looking at me like that, you know what I mean. 🙂

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On Keyboards

You all know I’m trying to get the writing thing going, right? Lately I’ve been wedging in a few words here, a few words there, on a bunch of different machines and places. So I have a some recent experience using several different keyboards.

Now, when I was a student assistant in the Admissions Office of the U of A, I found my first real love. I had a lust after the computer terminal keyboards, the old ones. They had great functionality and feel. Then in the office we had an IBM Selectric. OMG, now that was a keyboard. I had done my first typing on a manual typewriter. If you’ve never had to use one, count yourself lucky. The Selectric was like honey. Smooth, easy, and those keys with breakaway springs. Oh my.

So ever since then I’ve had a love of full function keyboards. They just felt right. So when I saw Apple’s new keyboard design, I was immediately put off. It reminded me very much of the old TRSII Color Computer Keyboard (the chicklet keyboards). Not very functional, no play, no feel, no depth of stroke. Nothing.

And then it just hit me the other day when I went to use an older style Apple Keyboard, that was based on the full stroke keyboards of old. Holy crap. I’ve been ruined. And now I’m really thinking about parting with $50 to get one of the new keyboards for home. Especially since I’ve realized that I type faster and with fewer errors on those keyboards. Whodathunkit. I actually like those little buttons. And it doesn’t feel like I’m whacking the keyboard to get the words out.

So yeah, one is on my wish list. And I may get one I can use for my laptop (which feels constrained even though it’s supposed to be a full stroke keyboard). It feels like freedom.

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