Friday, December 28, 2007

Writer Impossible: Distractions

7:30 p.m. The writer sits at his desk after a long day at a company where he works 40 hours a week, in hopes that someday he will be able to quit just to write. So he's limited to time stolen after dinner. Tonight, he's determined to finish the short story for a lit mag.

But there's a rattling coming from the kitchen --a noisy fridge. So he goes to give it a kick, opens it and starts to rearrange bottles before stumbling onto a cold beer. He drinks the beer, and goes back to the computer to start in on the final draft of the story, when the cat begins to mew. The cat wants to be fed, and paces around the writer's legs. The writer picks up the cat, but not before getting swiped across the face. A direct hit, one claw across the cheek. He dumps the cat in the kitchen, goes into the bathroom and washes the cut, then comes back out to find the cat demanding to be fed. He opens a can of cat food, feeds the petulant beast, and staggers back to his computer. But now, he notices it's time to watch TV. Jack Bauer is going to save the valley from nuclear annihilation (again). So he watches his show and by the time it's done, his brain is onto other things. He cleans the kitchen, puts clothes into the dryer, and gets ready for bed. He feels hollow, wondering why he never gets anything done.

My friend Frank Schaeffer told me that he wakes up in the wee hours of the morning --4:30 a.m. when the house is quiet and he can just write. He likes the darkness outside and his lamp on his study as he plots out the next chapter (Frank has averaged a book a year). It's a ritual he started when his kids were young, and now that they're grown and away, he continues because it's become a routine.

Routine. That hated word. Yet without it we are left at the mercy of a world of distractions --from cats, to thinking we should be doing something else. Admittedly, art isn't practical, it doesn't pay the bills (for most of us) and there are always more pressing things that can be done. So it's easy to think other things are more important.

But what the writer didn't understand that what the story needs in order to be finished is something only he can do. No one else, because the story is a product of his experiences and imagination.

When I write and hit "the zone," I'm enjoying the practice of putting words onto a page that help me feel lighter and more alive. It's a chance to look deeper, to learn to discern what moves me, or doesn't. Often I find my initial perceptions were wrong, and I come to a different and gentler conclusion. I make choices over words and phrases, I'll play with contrasting images. What I experience is the joy of giving myself over to the process so that one day the end results --in this case words, will move others.

So go ahead. Leave the kitchen a bit dirty. Kick the kids off the computer. Unplug the phone. Don't fret over the laundry. Remember that Jack Bauer can be seen on reruns or DVD and that he will never ever learn a foreign language because he just uses a gun. Get up early and enjoy the morning hours. Even if it's for an hour a day, you've got to write. Distractions be damned. Life is full of them.

After all, only you can write your story. And there's nothing more important that seeing writing as a chance to deepen yourself so that you can grow and give.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Writer Impossible: Addicted To Workshops

Workshop Writer 1: The writer has been taking ten-week workshops for years. He has enjoyed the weekly inspiration, finds it necessary to continue writing, loves the camaraderie of other writers, and yet, the writer has not finished his novel, in fact, still stumbles with the style, and has yet to figure out how the novel ends. When he takes a few weeks off, he quits writing, but claims that the 3 week boar hunting trip he took in Texas served as great material to be inserted somewhere in his book.

Workshop Writer 2: This writer has a 1000 page novel and has been working on it steadily for about 7 years. It is written in multiple perspectives, has a storyline that goes beyond War and Peace. He attends conferences regularly, jetting off to Squaw Valley, Maui and driving anywhere within a six hour radius. Sometimes he hears the same speakers. Often he signs up for the additional workshops and takes the same teacher. His pitch is quick and efficient because he has been pitching the same three chapters for seven years. He can say "Your protagonist does not have that... je ne sais quois," hand your paper back, while blowing smoke from a Gitane.

Workshop Writer 3: This writer takes workshops paid via credit card, a home equity loan, or by a spouse or much younger girlfriend who has it on a promise that when they finish the book, the writer will sell it, get a 7-figure advance, and they'll be swimming in money. Despite his arrears, he too finds it difficult to finish his book. He struggles with money and has mentioned that maybe a rich relative will die and leave him a bundle so that he can live the life of Henry Miller in Big Sur, with a new wife or new much younger girlfriend.

Workshop Writer 4: Works all day, takes an occasional workshop at night. Works on his novel sporadically, as time or inspiration permits. Has to miss some meeting because, well, life is busy. When he doesn't go to the workshop, he doesn't write. And even when in the workshop, he'll often dash off the week's pages in one sitting in an afternoon, or worse --egads! at work. When he passes them out to his peers for critique, he apologizes profusely for the quality, saying he didn't have time, dashed them out at work --as if no one else is as busy or even busier.

Yet any one of these could make it someday. Life's a crap shoot that way, innit it?

When I decided to take the jump into fiction (and long after I'd gotten my baccalaureate in fine arts), I decided to enroll in classes at the university extension writers' program. I found the experience invaluable. So I took them for years, passing through workshops on short story, literature, poetry and novel writing. It was my education, more to the point, it was where my skills were honed. But as would be expected, eventually the same things were being repeated. This wasn't a bad thing, rather it was an indication that I'd learned everything from them. It was time to write on my own. This wasn't as hard as others might think. It's how most writers write. By themselves, with the feedback of just a few other writers. In fact, I found it liberating to finally move away from the university stuff, and work on many projects, really stretching myself. I've managed to keep track of friends by helping form a group, The Writerly Pause.

Lesson learned: If you're taking workshops, do a reality check. Workshops are expensive ($500 for a ten week course, not including parking, gasoline, food, supplies and your time), so the pay off has to be not only to be in gaining the strength to do it everyday, but also improving and becoming a deeper writer. Make sure that it's not the taking of workshops that makes you identify yourself as a writer, but the reward of steadily working on your own --doing it everyday, learning, improving and finishing a piece.

Monday, December 10, 2007

"You stole my idea!"

A few weeks ago, a group of writers sat at a table mulling over ideas. Writer X was starting a new book and was trying to explain its premise. Everyone listened raptly, and when the writer asked what they thought, it was like Queen Isabella's armada crossing the Atlantic, a flotilla of ideas set forth. It was one of those moments where the room was filled with inspiration. Creativity was flowing and they had fun.

A few days later, Writer X sends out a synopsis. And she gets back a terse reply from Writer Z.
"I meant this as an idea for my novel. You can't use it," writes Writer Z.
Writer X demurred. "Of course I won't. I'm really sorry. I thought the water fountain and trailer park was out there for anyone to use."
"Use it, and you're stealing my novel!" writes Writer Z.

Read the rest here:
"You stole my idea!"