The bad news is that no one gets to the age of sixty without suffering dents and dings. The good news is that we late blooming writers can use those life experiences to add depth and believability to our writing. The tough part is allowing ourselves to remember, and basically relive, those experiences. But that’s also the tactic that makes our characters multi-dimensional. As Ernest Hemingway said, “Writing’s easy. You just sit down at a typewriter, and bleed.” I guess it’s time to open a vein.
I’ve just read the blog of literary agent Rachelle Gardner, and I’ve learned something about myself. Painful, but true: I’m lazy. When I started this whole writing thing, I was immersed in the warm fuzziness of gushing inspiration. It was such a kick to sit and just let my mind roll on.
But I’ve now been informed that I not only must craft a stunningly unique novel, but I must become a master of marketing, I must learn all there is to know about the publishing business, and I must have an established platform of at least 5,000 readers poised to purchase my book. Holy Moly!
At this point, an agent seems superfluous. I might just do the unthinkable. I might publish my own novel. I’ll have to give that some thought. I’ll check in later.
I’ve just finished reading an article in the Albuquerque Journal by Syndicated Columnist Ruben Navarrette, Jr. entitled “Dear Grads: It’s Not All About You.” As a retired educator with a career spanning nearly thirty years, much of what he says about the current generation resonates. However, it is what he said regarding failure that prompted me to email him my thanks.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be a writer. Now that I have the time, I’m doing just that. I am numbered with countless would-be Asimovs, Steinbecks, even Lamours, all pounding away on our laptops in hopes that someone somewhere will want to read what we have to say.
But recently I’ve been struggling with a sense of futility. With enough rejection slips to paper a small room, I have toyed with the idea of hanging up my writer’s smock.
That is, until I read Mr. Navarrette’s article.
Like a gong, the columnist’s words struck a responsive chord in my spirit. He said if you get everything you want, you’re not setting your aim high enough. He reminded me that everyone gets knocked down, and that it’s how you respond to disappointment that makes you into who you’re meant to be.
It was as if he was in my kitchen, sitting across the table from me, sipping coffee and chatting. And although I know it sounds remarkably egocentric, it was as if his words were meant for me, cheering me on, telling me to hang in there.
So no, I’ll not quit. I will persevere and press on.
In fact, I have a great idea for a new mystery. It’s about a young woman who’s walking on the beach, when she hears . . .
I’ve often been asked why I write. Why do I spend hours out of my day pounding away on my laptop, taking notes, recording thoughts, or dreaming about writing? Am I striving to generate a blockbuster add-a-new-wing-on-the-house novel? Or are my motives more altruistic than that – do I hope that someone searching for escape from reality will be pulled into an alternate dimension through my words? Or, in an act of supreme hubris, do I believe my stumbling attempts at sharing the reflections of my spirit might give hope to the despairing, or motivate someone to reach for his dreams?
I must honestly concede that I do hope for all of those outcomes. But after a great deal of introspection, I’ve finally solidified the cumulous-ness of my thoughts into the overarching gestalt-answer to the question of why I write.
My strongest writer’s motivation is the same as that of Los Conquistadores who scratched their names into the sandstone of Inscription Rock: I want to leave something behind that says I was here. I want someone to remember me after I’m gone. And so I write.
Homo Sapiens has spawned perhaps billions of deep thinkers. Our current consciousness is only aware of a few, and those only by virtue of their writings. Who knows how many Mozarts lived before the art of music notation was created? Or how many John Donnes verbalized their reflections on the human condition before the alphabet was generated?
We humans are fragile things made of dust. Puffs of smoke who, by Universal Standard Time, are here and then gone in less than a nanosecond. Beyond my beautiful children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren, I want to leave a mark. And so I write.
I remember a quote from Ben Franklin, something to the effect that clothes do not make the man. Or is it that clothes do make the man? Whichever it is, I’ve noticed that what I wear makes a difference, not only in my moods, but in the way I write. That bit of information has opened up a whole new aspect to the art of writing. An aspect I’ve not to date found in any of the writing how-to’s upon which I’ve spent beaucoup bucks.
When my writing time happens to be in the early morning, and I’m still in my cotton knit, duckie-patterned pajamas and fluffy yellow house slippers, I tend to write in a relaxed, casual voice. I’m more inclined to be humorous, and to use words of two or less syllables. But when my writing time takes place in the evening, and I’m still wearing my work clothes, the voice tends to be more stilted, perhaps a bit faux, and the vocabulary tends toward the more cerebral.
The really neat thing about this discovery is that I’ve encountered wonderful facets of my Writer’s Voice that I didn’t know existed. The in-the-moment Voice of a child meets the Therapist’s clinical Voice, meets the Professional Musician’s Creative. Although I’ve not yet worked up the courage to write in the buff (small children live next door), I have decided to play dress-up whenever I’m blocked for grist.
This evening (Freud notwithstanding), I’m going to don my husband’s tuxedo, complete with cummerbund, cufflinks and silk tie. Who knows what my psyche will toss into the sunlight of my conscious mind. Might be worth finding out.
Where do writers find their inspiration? That depends on the writer. What works as a scintillating muse for one, is not even memorable for another.
As for me, I listen to people. I don’t mean I exploit what people tell me in confidence. I don’t, as the late author of Valley of the Dolls Jacqueline Suzanne admitted to doing, write whatever juicy tidbits my big-mouthed friends tell me, omitting only their names. My muse comes to me as I overhear strangers chatting in public venues. And of course, I take copious notes on a steno pad without which I never leave home.
For example, a few weeks ago I went to east Texas to visit my sister. While waiting for our breakfast at a locally famous biscuits and gravy café, I overheard a wizened old cowboy (at least I think he was old – it’s hard, short of carbon dating, to determine someone’s age who’s been working outside in the sun for umpteen years), flirting with the attractive, middle-aged waitress.
The crusty old cowboy said, “You ever been married?” The waitress said, “I was once, but I didn’t remember it.” The cowboy looked thoughtful, and then in a droll voice said, “Seems like that’s the kind of thing a person’d want to keep track of.”
Manna from Heaven.
Each writer has her own preference for getting her story out of her head and into some kind of useable form. Some dictate into a recording device, a few continue to use an ancient manual typewriter, and some pound out their first draft onto a computer – a laptop, or any one of several other modern marvels. But some insist, as is my favorite, the only way they can truly free up their inner Creative is by writing their first draft out by hand with pen and paper.
I’m not against availing myself of the marvelous speed and readability of word processing. In fact, my laptop and I have an understanding: I keep her downloads updated, don’t overtax her battery, periodically air-clean her keyboard, use only the recommended cleaner for her screen, and promise not to allow my dog to chew on her power cord. She, in turn, acts as my assembly line, allowing me to blissfully edit and re-write my first draft to my heart’s content.
But after trying all the other venues, I now never use my laptop for my first draft. There is something about forming each letter with a stylus of my choosing, something about building words, and then sentences and paragraphs that is, in itself, creative. I love seeing each letter take shape, flowing from the tip of my blue, rolling ball ink pen (always blue, never black or other color), and onto the white beckoning expanse of unlined paper. That process brings with it a sense of actually building something from nothing – of plucking something as yet unformed out of the ether. Handwriting is certainly slower than typing, but that is its beauty. The act of shaping each letter gives the midwife/writer time to savor each word as it is birthed.
The act of word processing, on the other hand, requires an entirely different set of motor skills. Different segments of our brains are accessed by pounding out letters whole than are involved by creating them one stroke at a time. When I write by hand, my whole being is involved – my body, mind, and spirit. And that difference is, in my opinion, always reflected in the finished product. It’s the difference between purchasing a frozen cherry pie and making one from scratch: frozen tastes okay, but scratch has a flavor that cannot be mimicked.
Psychologists tell us there are two types of people when it comes to achieving things: some folks are goal oriented, others are process oriented. The goal oriented couldn’t care less about how they get where they need to go, they just want to get there. They make the process folks a little crazy. The process oriented focus on the how and why, figuring the goal will naturally follow their well-laid-plans. These people drive the goal oriented folks absolutely bonkers. Both styles have merit. Both have drawbacks. But both are necessary to make things work well. I’ve come to believe it’s no different with writing.
Me – I have a goal oriented personality. It could be genetic, given my Pop’s driven nature, but I want to get to the end line – I want to achieve the goal. I hate, with a capital aich, the whole process: let’s talk about how we’re going to do it, let’s make a list, then let’s talk some more, then maybe sometime next year we’ll get around to doing something. I just want to, to quote Larry the Cable Guy, git ‘er done.
Of course, my goal-focused personality drives the way I write. I can write a five hundred word hook, and then go straight for the jugular. None of this “how do you feel about that?” or “let’s get everyone’s feedback and then make a plan,” stuff.
However, lately I’ve been suspecting there’s more to the whole process approach than I’d originally thought. Some of my characters are beginning to show their teeth, insisting I take a deeper look at the why’s and how’s.
Ever the lifetime learner, I’ve decided to massage the tiny, raisin-like part of my brain that makes plans. We’ll see where that takes us. Who knows, maybe I’ll even craft an outline of my next novel. Maybe.
How will my writing affect my readers? And how much should I care? Those concerns ginned up such fear of the potentially disastrous side effects of my stories, I nearly gave up writing. The basic question is: What do I want my readers to take away from my writing?
Scenes of violence come easily to me. But like prunes, how much is too much? Is graphic realism necessary to the story? In order to appease my internal Censor, I have had to identify what level of realism I owe my readers, and find ways to harmonize that realism with the freedom of expression I owe my writer self.
Some writer friends have told me not to fight the darkness, to embrace it, give myself over to it, and then write about it. One well-meaning friend even suggested I watch a couple of Slasher films and allow myself to identify with the hollow-souled perpetrator. While that approach might produce something more marketable than my own, it’s not for me. It’s simply not where I want to spend any of my life-time.
So, I will indeed continue to write about the dark side of human nature. But I will do it in keeping with my Code. If my internal Censor tones down the graphics a bit, and my writing ends up smacking of Agatha Christie, so be it. In the words of my deceased father, I don’t have to tell everything I know.
Finding one’s voice as a writer is not as easy as it sounds. But, since most of the books I’ve purchased on writing include a chapter on this topic, I’ve embarked on the process of discovering my authorial voice.
I’ve done most of the things suggested: dressed up like one of my characters, flooded my senses with potpourri and Manheim Steamroller, interviewed myself, and meditated on the meaning of life while staring at my navel. But still, my training as an educator of some twenty-five years inhibits the free-flowing prose I dream of achieving. My explain-everything-so-the-kids-can-understand-and-pass-the-test inner teacher doesn’t seem to want to let go of the controls.
However, this past week I stumbled onto something that just might prove worthy of note. I’ve taken up pretending to be a five year-old. I play solo hide-and-seek in my back yard, I sing nursery rhymes at the top of my lungs on my back porch, and I complain when my husband breathes on my food. The upside of this is that it has engendered a new level of fun into my writing experience. The downside is that it has made some of my more nosey neighbors look at me oddly.
When I do discover my Voice, I’m sure I’ll revel in it. But until then, I’ll keep on exploring possibilities. Tonight, I think I’ll try to channel Bugs Bunny. Now there’s a voice I might enjoy getting into.