Category: creative process

Summer Solstice

Today I have been working on a section of the new novel that revolves around a baby’s birth, and it has reminded me of the miracle that every new start, every fresh possibility holds.  In honor or this, and of the upcoming longest day of the year, I am posting this section from my book, “You, in Your Green Shirt.”

And, by the way, it turns out that manipulating photographs is an EXCELLENT way to procrastinate; good visuals make for more interesting blogs, after all.

PicsArt_1371162736411

“When I return home after I run, when I am drenched, soaked in sweat, dripping down the sides of my face and stinging my eyes, when I am barely able to peel off the shorts, the socks, the sports bra that are bonded with my skin, when I am fully naked, I tiptoe into Kate’s room and stand in front of the only full-length mirror in the house.  I look at myself. 

I’m not sure why I do this, what I’m looking for. 

I suppose I look for changes.  I try to know myself.  I consider the fact that the next person, that all the next people, who kisses and fondles the breasts that I see in the mirror, this person will not be kissing the breasts that nursed his babies, that squirted him in the shower when the baby cried out from his crib.  He will see the slight puckering of extra skin along the very tops of my inner thighs as just that, extra skin, and not as a remembrance of the births of his own two children.

Yesterday was the summer solstice, the longest day of the year.  The first bird lets out a few tentative notes at around four a.m. now, and the dogs are up by 5:15.  Our routine is the same every single morning, but they are bursting with desire to get out and see it again, to note and rejoice in every single infinitesimally minute change from the day before. 

The world is beautiful at this hour.  Staggeringly beautiful.  Ever day it is brand new.  It is  millions and millions of years old, too, aeons old.  But in its dew-drenched sparkling magnificence, it is full of promise, of all possible promises.  Brand new.  Again.”

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Creation: Agony/Ecstasy. Repeat.

IMG_0003“Before they moved the TV down here I was pretty much all alone by my lonesome a good deal of the time.  People was in and out, but for the most part didn’t really pay me no never mind.  Course I was in better shape back then, younger, chugging along pretty good even if I was getting up in years.  And don’t think that I’m complaining cause I ain’t.  I like my own company just fine; it gives you time to think.

            But then they fixed up the room right next to my own so the whole family could have a place to assemble, and they made it real nice and cozy, too.  And what with the TV down here, well suddenly I had me a whole lot of company, and these folks who had breezed in and out of my room for all that time before was living their lives right in front of my eyes, so to speak.

            I had me a family, for the first time ever.”

Those two paragraphs + 1 sentence = the majority of the writing that I have done on my 3rd novel in the past several days.  The good news is:  I like those paragraphs.  The bad news is: obvious.  It’s two paragraphs.

I have to make some decisions about the structure of this work before I can go much further.  In the meantime, I keep tinkering around with the beginning, the part that I know, the part of the creative picture that is clear, while I continue to grope around in the near-darkness pursuing other parts of the picture — the ones that have blurred, the ones that I am trying to stare at, the ones I am trying to sneak up on while they least expect it.

Agony.  Ecstasy.  Repeat.

The Loneliness of the Long-Format Author, Part 5

When I first blogged about the tortured agony that often (usually? always?) comprises writing, my old friend Rick responded and said, “The problem with writing is the lack of supporting toys. Musicians can always buy or futz around with new equipment, secure in the knowledge that this is almost the same as actual music. Ditto for filmmakers.” This is SO TRUE. We writers do not have toys! And therefore, built in ways to procrastinate on a regular basis! And always in the service of your creative process and your work!

Unfair!

Judging by the musical types that are direct blood relatives of mine, musicians spend vast oceans of time trolling on line and in stores for new instruments, things to add or subtract from those instruments, cases to put them in, devices to make them sound a little different, other devices to make them sound a little more different, and that’ s before we even get into the whole other ocean of stuff you need to record your music! 

Visual artists, likewise, have their own ever-expanding universe of materials and media.  Dancers and choreographers have shoes, and costumes, and cute, weird little knitted things to cover very specific parts of your body so they don’t get chilled.  Even with the advent of digital photography and the disappearance of the darkroom, there is still plenty of paraphernalia that amateur and pro photographers alike can pour over and obsess about.

The way I see it, every other creative endeavor/art form has equipment, props and toys.

Back in the older days, when I was first writing really amazingly bad poetry for which I got a shocking amount of misguided encouragement — but I digress — I was very particular about my pencils.  I could only sit down to write if I had at least three fairly new pencils.  #2.  Nothing else.  The erasers had to be intact.  The points had to be sharp to a surgically precise degree.  A fair amount of time could be consumed in the sharpening process, but hey, nothing compared to, say, strolling into a guitar star and noodling around on a few different instruments for most of an afternoon.  The pencil thing was as close to toys as I ever got.

Now, it’s just me and my one laptop.

I have been artistically gypped.

The Loneliness of the Long-Format Author, part 4

For me, writing long-format works (novels, in my case) is like chasing a picture that continually goes in and out of focus in your mind.

There are moments of enormous clarity, little miracles, in which the characters and ideas that are burbling around in your head suddenly and unexpectedly come into sharp focus.  You know exactly where your work is going — what must happen, what each character must say in a situation that must be created to compel your work forward.  Ha.  Unfortunately, these miraculous moments of clarity can evaporate just as easily as they appeared.  And they do.  And because these times of clear vision are likely to happen any old time — just as you are falling asleep, or during a long walk, or any old time whatsoever — it is shocking, maddening, confounding how quickly and totally they vanish, very much like dreams that you remember in exquisite detail, even going over the eventsImage in your mind upon awakening, only to find that you have no recollection just a short time later.

Sometimes the clarity has vanished even by the time you get yourself in front of the computer keyboard.  No matter how quickly you manage to drop everything, clear some space in your life, plop down in front of that screen, it can still happen that there you are, confronting that keyboard, rarin’ to go, only to find yourself…blank.

It’s gone.  Utterly gone.  There you are on the beach, after the wave has crashed, trying to make out any remnants of the words you wrote in the sand.

I wonder — is it like this in all creative endeavors?  Composing music?  Creating a sculpture?  I think it must be.   

 

Procrastination, Part 2, OR The Loneliness of the Long-Format Author, Part 3

In 2009, a groundswell of activity on Facebook led to the inimitable Betty White hosting Saturday Night Live.  A radiant and bejeweled 88 year-old Betty came through that door that so many hosts have walked through since SNL’s inception, tackled those stairs in low heels, and faced a roaring audience.  In her opening monologue, she acknowledged her fans, and the power of Facebook, admitting that before all of this, she had absolutely no idea what Facebook was.  “And now that I do know what it is,” she said, I have to say it sounds like a HUGE waste of time.”

Well, I gotta say, that is precisely how I always thought about blogging.

I just didn’t get it. 

To me, it seemed like the worst possible combination of live-out-loud, no-personal-boundaries-whatsoever, in-your-face social media and a rampant look-at-me narcissism that seems more celebrated with each passing day.  But alas, after years of working with different literary agents and facing a thoroughly recalibrated publishing world, I, like so many others, made the decision to self-publish my two novels, and to do so electronically.  I remain entirely confident that this was the best decision (lo these many weeks after their April 2013 publication date!), but that decision brought with it a whole new world of figuring out how to Get The Word Out.  There is a VAST amount of information out there, thank god, and though much of it is contradictory, there is amazing consensus on one point:  creating a blog stands as perhaps the single best vehicle for introducing people to your work.

Sigh. 

Crap, I thought.  Just…crap.

Well, guess what.  Around about the time I posted my second blog entry, the most amazing and wonderful thing happened — I actually got responses.  Immediately!  From people who were touched, or moved, or had some idea they wanted to share, or a great story, or whatever!!  Now for the long-format writer — who sits in front of blank screen day after week after year, living with characters in an attempt to crawl so far inside their fictional souls that they tell you their tales and you tell the world — this is nothing short of a miracle.  A gift.  An immediate connection that takes something abstract and in the future — “The Reader” — to someone real, and in the Now.

And you know what else?  Turns out that “blogging” is an unbelievably fun way to PROCRASTINATE from that Other Thing you are (putatively) writing.  It’s necessary!  It’s fun!  It’s writing practice!!  Oh My God, who thought of this?!?  It’s the best thing ever.

 

 

My Brother Missed His Son’s Wedding

When a family member misses such an important life event, the air in every room is noisy with his absence.

He was not in the car when his wife picked me up a the airport, nor was he waiting back at the house, in the kitchen, with that slight frown of intense concentration that always accompanied his slow, deliberate, quietly jubilant cooking adventures that lasted full days.

His wife threw a party the day before the wedding, her sisters-in-law abuzz with busy helpfulness. Both sides of the family gathered, old friends, new meetings, hearty hugs and rich laughter abounded. The hum of celebration grew large, peals of laughter regularly piercing through. Still, the roar of my brother’s absence remained.

He did not see the expression on his son’s face when he saw his bride for the first time, coming down the aisle of the sweet chapel on her father’s arm. He missed it all.

As my daughter and I sat in the first row, waiting for the ceremony that would make my brother’s son a married man, my daughter whispered to me. She asked me if I missed him.

Oh yes, yes I do.

My brother Roy died on December 6, 2001. He died in Ecuador, on the side of a mountain very near its summit, immediately and without warning. And I think it would not be false to say that his absence, and my missing him, has been with me since. The loss of him, of a living brother, the little boy who was already there when I was born, the skinny, freckled, snake-catching, marble-collecting, bow-shooting, cowboy-playing, fly-tying person whose living presence told me that my own life and experience were true. He helped me know who I was. Every day he did this. Just by being alive.

I read this poem, by Rilke at his funeral:

Interior Portrait

You don’t survive in me
because of memories;
nor are you mine because
of a lovely longing’s strength.

What does make you present
is the ardent detour
that a slow tenderness
traces in my blood.

I do not need
to see you appear;
being born sufficed for me
to lose you a little less.

PROCRASTINATION, or, The Loneliness of the Long-Format Author, Part 2

I am almost always on time, and very often early.  I tend to be one of Those People who, when faced with a deadline, will map out a calendar — working backwards from the deadline — and determine exactly what needs to be done, when and how.  I was one of Those People who, when in school, would read through the entire syllabus on the first day of class and have a pretty decent sense of how to map out the fifteen-week course, day to day, and week to week.

So, although not in any way an “anal” person (as anyone who has set foot in either my house or my car can verify), it is not generally in my  nature to procrastinate.  Except when it comes to writing.  Because — following from from the “writing-as-torture” paradigm I set forth in yesterday’s blog, it generally strikes me as always a great idea to procrastinate on writing, and I believe I have come up with some interesting and creative ways in which to procrastinate while  [mostly] fooling yourself into believing that you are actually working very hard on your writing.

First among these clever strategies is — research.  What a wonderful thing the internet is; I mean, we’re all on it right now, right?

Trust me: there are always an infinitude of subjects you can find that absolutely must be researched before you can possibly go one step further with putting words onto page.  For instance, right now I am working on my 3rd novel, which is narrated by a 100-year-old character. The character was born in 1913, exactly one hundred years old right now.  Well, needless to say, I needed massive amounts of factoids and tidbits of information about all of the interesting things that happened in 1913 — who was born, who died, etc., etc.  I mean, you can’t be a slacker here — this is research!  You simply must take the time to do this carefully and thoroughly, which is bound to take many hours, possibly many days.  And of course you must make sure that you do your [extensive] research in one of the places where you know you do your best work and are able to achieve your best concentration.  For me, this is generally in one of my favorite local coffee houses.  And — very important to remember here — if you find yourself at aforementioned coffee house eavesdropping on all of the myriad conversations around you, remind yourself that this is NOT procrastination!  This is likely to be critical research which could spark an idea that is seminal to your writing.  Perhaps years from now, but hey, research does not come with absolute guarantees.

Here is how a whole bunch of data collection got condensed down to one paragraph.  Albeit a long paragraph.  Obviously, more research is needed…

“The year that I came into this world was nineteen hundred and thirteen.  That’s right: one thousand nine hundred and thirteen.  It was a year not so unlike any other, I suppose, people getting fired up and killing each other all around the globe.   There was some things that came down the pike just then that do still tickle me to this very day.  For instance, somebody got the notion to put the first-ever prize in a Cracker Jack box.  It was the first time somebody ever jumped right on out of a traveling airplane using this thing called a parachute.  A Frenchman, of course, cause who in the world could possibly have the arrogant bastard confidence and the blind crazy stupidity to jump out of an airplane but a Frenchman.  Also, the very first crossword puzzle ever seen got printed up in some New York paper.  And guess what.  That statue of The Little Mermaid that’s way over there in Denmark got finished and put out there on its rock; and if you don’t think it’s a nutty world then I guess you ain’t heard about that statue’s head getting cut off back there in the 1960’s, and then put back on and cut off again, and then the right arm, too.  They finally had to move it out farther into the water, so you can’t hardly see it no more just so it wouldn’t get any more beat up than it already did.

            Lots of folks got born of course same year as I did, including the likes of Richard Milhaus Nixon, Rosa Parks, the greatest coach who ever lived Woody Hayes, and Jimmy Hoffa.”