on writing

Story 101 Ep. V: Your Very Important Person

Your personal doubt-killer is whoever you want it to be.

The critic inside all of us lives a cushy existence. She doesn’t create. She doesn’t contribute. She doesn’t have anything nice to say. We each have one, unless you’re so doped up on something–be it caffeine or alcohol–that she’s having a lie-down in the back. In which case she’ll probably be snotty about what you wrote later, particularly since she didn’t get to have a go at it the first time.

We all have one. Mine looks like a girl from my college years, and yours may look like your varsity soccer coach.

But perhaps the best part of writing creatively is that it reminds us that we have imaginations. And just as our brains are bent on inventing us some spiteful opinionated backseat driver, it can produce us a Most Valuable Player–our favorite, most prized, most gold-star-giving, A-for-awesome reader.

Real or imaginary, this person is your Audience. Write for him. If something doesn’t make sense, clarify so he understands. If you find yourself explaining too much, think from his perspective and see if you’re talking down to him. If you hate this scene, imagine what would grab his attention. If you think the dialogue sounds forced, picture how he would hear it, as if playing in the background on TV.

Charming critics is for the academics. Unless you love them. Then charm them to death.

As for me, I will not kill myself to avoid entertainment style noveling, the popular sort from which Rilke discouraged his young poet friend, i.e., at all costs remain in the mountains and let the organ by which you create–your life–atrophy into disuse; go on making art, the highest of its kind, since life is a support system for art, and art is for the smart kids; blah blah blah. On the contrary, one) it’s no fun being stuck-up and two) my Favorite Person would enjoy reading an entertaining high fantasy novel. So I will write them one.

Who is this for? Whoever you choose.

Get creating, doubt-crushers.

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on writing

on process: “wove, twue wove”

This episode is brought to you from the air-conditioned cave of my bedroom in Chiang Mai. Today’s weather heading is Death, and even my hyper cat won’t move longer than it takes for her to find an easier spot to breathe in.

It’s days like this that I have to reconsider why I write.

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My book is finished. My new idea is a stinker. It’s hot. A ticker tape of quotes runs through my head: Hemingway, “blasting charges through rock”; Joyce, “mistakes…the portals of discovery”; Gilbert, “woo the muse,” and still this nagging feeling persists:

Is it worth it?

 

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I once read a story of a man who went to a Q&A session with a famous writer. When it was his turn at the microphone, he said, “For years I’ve struggled with writing. I’ve fought and clawed, and it’s never gotten easier. People tell me to keep at it, keep trying, but I just never break through. It’s agony, and I want to quit.”

The writer stared at him over the podium. “Then quit.”

download (5)After the dumbfounded man blustered through a justification or two, the writer said, “Look. Why would you keep at something that’s agony? Everyone’s allowed their opinion, but you don’t owe anyone anything. If you hate it, quit.”

There was a small silence as the audience sucked in its breath. It’s always a queasy feeling seeing someone get hit below the belt.

“But.”

The man looked up.

“But if in the time you give yourself to clear your head, you keep coming back to writing…because it is what you must do…then write.”

And perhaps this is my only reason for returning: it must be love. Yet it cannot be that I am the only one who struggles with the process.

The Mighty 10

Since I began to take writing seriously in early college, I have discovered that there are ten stages to my personal writing process:

  1. the idea
  2. the brainstorm
  3. the Define the Relationship (DTR)
  4. the first page
  5. the 100
  6. the 200″download (1).gif
  7. the Pit of Despair 
  8. the afterglow
  9. the baby blues
  10. the empty nester

…and I want to open up discussion about the varying emotional climates associated with each.

Disclaimer

Not all writers are “feelers,” and not all “feelers” are melancholic basket cases. However, all writers adownload (9)t some point experience the psychological equivalent of middle school: the hopelessness, the endlessness, the feeling that you’re the only one looking this weird and everyone’s looking. It is a small one, but a trauma nonetheless, to judge your art. So be you a sensitive soul or no, these stages may still apply.

1. The Idea

I get ideas by accident and never when I’m upset. The mere act of thriving in life provides inspiration–biking, going to get groceries, surviving a cockroach invasion–and being surrounded by other art helps too. With these seeds of thought come that first spark: maybe… I store them in a travel-size notebook and laugh at them when I’m feeling cynical. But usually, it’s fun.

download (12).gif*sometimes, your brain thinks it’s hilarious to inspire you in the middle of a later stage (usually the 100). That’s what the notebook is for. Jot it down and ignore it ’til later. In time, like any child, it’ll learn to sleep through the night.

2. The Brainstorm

This is the notebook, tea, and relevant music stage. The purpose is to generate ideas. Being trapped places for long periods of time, a death knell for active folks, can actually be crucial: long car rides, waiting rooms, insomnia.

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Block entire outlines, make characters dialogue in “empty rooms” (not thinking about settings), and plan the metaphysical functions of the universe. I find generating quickly in bulk helps me keep things uniform.

This phase hdownload (10)as no boundaries. No commitments. It can be enjoyable as long as it is pursued with purpose. Otherwise, it starts to feel like you’re locked in the Dali clock painting, time endlessly melting away from you and no structure to prop anything up. Bolt through and later on, return when you’re stuck.

3. The Define the Relationship (DTR)

Okay, commitment-phobes, this is the sit-down-with-coffee-and-assess-“where-this-is-heading” stage, when you decide: I’m going to write this. To be honest, most of my ideas never make it here. Thanks, download (6)crushing creative self-doubt.

I imagine, though, if I was half as disciplined as I am imaginative, I could have several more drafts to “blast out with charges” than I do currently. Revision is its own monster. But at least there would be something growing to cultivate instead of a thousand dead seeds. So my advice? Commit and keep committing.

4. The First Page

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“This is the part where you run away.”

Some people hate middles, some people hate endings. I hate beginnings. My own. Anyone else’s. I’m most likely to turn off a movie within the first twenty minutes. Unless you’re just blessed with knockout opening lines, everything on the first page sounds like it was written by a blithering idiot.

My recommendation is to turn off the critical voices (there are many) and keep writing. If you’re anything like me, you’ll end up rewriting the beginning later on anyway.

5. The 100

The first 100 pages fall into the “beginning” category for me. If this is where you start to “get into the run,” good for you. As for me, I don’t fall into sureness until the second wind.

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6. the “200”

I hit my stride around page 200 (or about halfway).

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Now this is what I’m talking about. The frenzied typing, the smooth-flowing action, the realistic characterization, the light at the end of the tunnel, and the enjoyment of every second until you get there. That is, until…

7. the Pit of Despair

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During the final scene of my last project, a jungly fairy tale I ended up titling Faeble, my Inner Editor sprang up from the darkness and started strangling my Creative Spirit, all the while screaming death threats and halting the overall flow of productivity: It must be perfect! I hear the shrill tones even now. How dare you end your manifesto with this piddling exchange?! Kingsolver would quit the profession if she knew she had to share it with imbeciles like you!download (15).gif

Of all moments in your process, this final stage may be the most miserable. It will all feel for nothing because everything is The Worst. Again, fear not.

8. The Afterglow

You know that pink-orangey look of the sky after an all-nighter of rain? Or the high-arm V that runners make on the other side of the marathon? Or even just that first sip of coffee?download (16).gif

That’s you finishing your work. Though I claim to be a writer, there aren’t proper words for the sensation, and you won’t know it yourself until you buckle down and get there.

9. The Baby Blues

The other day, one of my best friends, a young wife and mother of two, was describing in grand detail the ordeal known as labor (also, how she stood up on the delivery table mid-contraction and told the nurses she was having a time out). She said perhaps the best feeling in the world is the bonding time with the infant after the adrenaline rush.download (7)

Perhaps we should all have babies and not books because I would say there’s probably no such thing for us writers. Almost immediately, the low hits: the show’s over, the thing to get up for and eat for. Oh, don’t worry, there’s revision. And sequels. But you don’t have the emotional energy for those just yet. Only the ponderous revisitation to life watching television and, if you’re wise about it, doing your actual job.

10. The Empty Nester

Never fear. If it’s meant to be, your brain will have you in fits over a new story soon enough. And the process begins all over again. That’s, I suppose, true love.

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Friends, I’d love to hear about your own creative process — in any medium! Comment below or email me at adnorman2@gmail.com. Happy writing 🙂

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on writing

how to write (when you don’t want to)

If anyone has a case of the post-NaNoWriMo blues, it’s this girl.

The beauty of the collective writing madness that is November and National Novel Writing Month is just that: it’s community. Writing in general is a lonely art. (But aren’t all arts?) And when there are a million and one other people doing the exact same thing–sitting in front of a screen or piece of paper with a caffeinated beverage and a general longing to be anyplace else–you suddenly get enthusiastic about your goal. It’s not just me. It’s all of us. And we can do this thing together.

Then it’s over and you’re still only halfway through. In some cases, by this point your story has built up enough momentum that you’re naturally lured back to finishing it. In others, not so much. With my novel, I’ve tackled a walloping beast of a thing: several perspectives and tightly woven narratives and too much to be anywhere near halfway by 50K. And now it’s December and perhaps there are a few gluttons for punishment still out there trudging along when the 50K has been long over…

…but where are they, and why aren’t we all crying in a Starbucks together?

All I can say is: Do not give up, my friends.

If you’re in need of a friendly push, here are five ideas:

1. Make a new goal.

Want to be finished before your Christmas vacation? Make an Excel chart and map your way to success. And by success, I mean, specific goals. The company I work for abides by the SMART acronym when it comes to setting team or personal goals. All such aspirations must be specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely.

E.g., by December 26, 2016, I will write 35,000 more words on my current NaNo novel and finish the story (even if that means adding “flesh to the skeleton” later).

Be a professional about it, and stand by your personal deadlines. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT lie. To your accountability buddies. To your SMART goals. To yourself. Why? Then even you will stop believing when you say you mean it (cue theme song to your favorite Netflix television show).

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Don’t be a jaded self-sabotaging artist.

Nifty knacks for your writer’s toolkit: for thirty-minute focused word sprints, Write or Die and for ambient zen writing mood music, Noisli

2. Exercise.

I was a Psych major in my undergraduate years at Liberty University–and also a Biblical Studies minor, which made for a fascinating combination of truths tossed at me at any given time. One truth, however, that I stand by in both worlds is that the body was not made for Sabbath but the Sabbath for the body. Which translated means: you’re not a machine. You cannot, between work, leisure, and hobbies, sit for hours at a time hooked up to electronic devices and expect to not feel depressed and/or anxious and/or angry, whatever means you take out your pent-up energies on the world. Go do something. Change the scenery. As pleasant and relaxing a sight as this can be…

img_0007 …you were made to move and experience new and different and even weird sensations.

One of my favorite no-screen activities (unless I’m taking photos) is to find street art. Now that I’m in a biggish city in Southeast Asia, there is no shortage of #commonartists to look for:

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a downtown Chiang Mai find… Dude harnessing the geo-bird looks similar to these gremlins:

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…and more finds from all over my city…

This one is in front of the Deaf school.

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…a surprise sea of lush plantage in a cement jungle. You’re allowed to wear cute shoes when you go for a thirty minute walk.

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That last one translates to “no parking.”

Let this be our motto. NO PARKING. Keep it real and keep it moving, my sedentary sentence-slayers.

3. Pull a few all-dayers.

In total contradiction to my last statement, I will vouch for what I call “all-dayers.” Need a motivation boost like no other? Dedicate a WHOLE DAY–with snack breaks, of course–to your novel. Binge-write and see what wild things happen. I find that, when I do this (like when I was on my visa run in the Land of Malls!), I get way more invested in my characters because I’ve spent more “real time” in their world.

* All-nighters also work, but if you have a full-time job, it’s a smart and recalibrating move in the long-term to use that one day off a week for writing (and not ______ [whatever else you like to do]).  It’s you telling yourself, “My novel is important enough for my actual time.” Give it a try!

4. Set up a reward system.

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During October of this year, two of my friends and I decided to get ourselves out of an exercise slump and create a competition. We each put 300 baht (the equivalent of $8 = two movies / a pedicure / a fancy farang meal) in a jar and agreed to the following terms: you have to exercise every day for the next 30 days for at least 30 minutes. If you fall behind, you have to work out an additional hour to catch up those lost 30 minutes. Whoever reached the 30 day mark with all days caught up either got their money back (if all 3 girls won), could split the money with the other winner (if 2 girls won), or won ALL the money (if they were the only survivor). Then we all told each other what we would do with the money if we made it to the end (I, personally, wanted a pair of green earrings). What do you think happened? We all won! And not only that, we all got back on a regular workout routine. Perhaps it was not as frequent as every day, but our bodies felt it when we were not moving. The habit stuck.

Say ‘no’ now for a bigger ‘yes’ later.

You can promise yourself rewards for each benchmark you meet. Not everyone has money to spare, so you don’t have to do anything extravagant. But even if it’s something as small as ice cream, practice a little self-control and deny yourself until you reach that word goal. It’s amazing how motivated we can get for small things–and how much more we can appreciate those small things when they’re finally deserved! I mean, when I finally got myself those $3 green earrings, I felt like an absolute champ.

5. Tell people!

That’s what social media is all about, am I right? 😉 It’s one thing when you’re like: “Hi I’m doing this.” And another when your friends are like “Hi you’re doing this right? Where’s your stuff/can I READ IT.” every five minutes (e.g., all my awesome BFFFLs, who check up on my creative ventures). I can’t wait for the day that I can hand a complete printed draft of this mess to a friendly and willing victim.

Make your news known.

And on that note, I will be sticking by 80K words by December 26, thanks. Yell at me otherwise 😉

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fiction

NaNovel 2013 {savior-poser}

A brief update on the novel … All is going well, friends, e.g. I am/we NaNo-ers are alive. But it’s possible I might not look at the (very) rough draft of this story for ten more years. Short stories and mini-poems will be about all my attention span can handle in the months following November 30th.

A brief synopsis of the novel … Virginia (“Ginny”) Mulligan is a failed photographer, newly-graduated and directionless. Upon the splintering of a relationship, Ginny signs up to teach English in the Appalachian mountains. The people of Coventry,Virginia are welcoming, and she connects with her students. Yet an old fear darkens the community toward her and the teachers–a fear of losing their children, their people, to the outside world. Another teacher named Solomon drags Ginny into the war against this philosophy, inviting–for the both of them–backlash of a potentially fatal kind.

And a rough excerpt …

Their faces drifted out of a great melty blur.

Leeza the Fierce One. Glittering grey eyes and beanie, yellow, as ever. Red-as-fire-engine hair and a heavy camouflage jacket that looked like it had belonged to her father.

Decklin the Loner. Hiding himself in the back corner, he sketched during the past two writing sessions.

Jess Lawrence of the Lawrence clan. Raymond Lawrence Jr., her uncle, had swung by to say hi already, near the start of class on the third day. She tucked her pencil in her left long sock, presumably so it would not get lost. Or taken.

Paulene hated mice and tucked her feet underneath her when she wrote, just in case one would scurry underneath. (Not unlikely, given the condition of the school.) She, however, was not a girly girl; I saw how she tore into her sloppy Joe at lunch on the first day. Judging by her stained white tee, the holey skirt, the sweater, which she wore every day, I did not think she ate outside of school.

B.J. hated class. At least, seeing him sleep through every request I made of the class, it felt like it to me—I had yet to distance my worth as a teacher and as a person from my class’s attention spans. I wondered now. Did he ever get to sleep at home? Where did he lay his head at night? On a ratty couch? A floor?

Tilly Rae reminded me of my sister, Kinsey, with bright almost-white hair spilling bushily out from under her grey sweatshirt hood. She looked out at the world like it truly was out to eat her, or at least, to take a bite. I wondered about her home life if her peers inspired such tremors.

Sam, HeatherAnn, and Winnie huddled in a corner and giggled. I could not yet tell them apart, partly because I had had terribly experiences with popular girls in middle and high school, and my natural bias had kicked in, preventing much differentiation. But these girls would never have even broached the second-wave popular crowd at my old school, given their camouflage backpacks, middle-schoolish pink ribbons, and heavier middles than was acceptable in Vogue-entrenched city schools.

Hunter’s lumbering body took up twice the space of any other student, and when he stood by me, I—an above-average 5’ 8’’—felt like a child, not that I felt like the authority anyhow. The way Leeza looked at him, I guessed she felt the same: the only person in the world she might be afraid to mouth off to.

Ian had asked me to call him “Lobster” on the first day. He looked related to Leeza, but I could not tell if there was any relation there. He goofed and giggled during class, freckle face beaming at his own private antics. It was harmless, and the popular girls made google eyes at him, but he got on Hunter’s nerves. Given the latter’s size, I kept my eyes open.

John-Mark was the mystery kid. He said nothing, did nothing, only obeyed and looked back at me, studying me.

I felt like a unicorn.

Who was I? Dark from summer, kicking around in Keds, unable to write in chalk, and constantly shaking out the tickling ends of a growing-out rocker hair cut… though I was most clearly not a rocker, hipster, city-slicker, or anything distinct. I was as nameless as the Cat that trailed me home.

I could not just throwback a reference to some cultural phenomenon like college parties. They did not know what those looked like. Or thrifting in Goodwills to look homeless. We—my old friends and I—talked about being poor college students while we had stood in the middle of our riches.

The people looked back at me.

Who did I think I was?

“You are doing a noble thing,” Mom, Amelia, …even my host mom, Mrs. Chamblee, had said.

Who did I think I was?

The people are poor. During training, we had been warned about the food running low in the cafeteria: always bring your food. Always. Or go to the vending machine. Or start a Victory garden by the dumpster.

The people are poor. During training, we had been warned about students jumping in the lake without knowing how to swim; Appalachia kids, you know. “No swimming holes?” “Not any deeper than five feet. And the lake’s town property. Mountain kids avoid it.” Watch for the hind kick. The look in the eye like the struck deer. Look directly underneath your chair; more kids drown there than any other place in the water.

The people are poor. During training, we were told not to talk about our relative wealth. Our flat-screen televisions. Our 3-minute wait time Emergency Rooms. Our trash can full of could’ve-been-eaten food.

Dress down. Talk straight. Above all, don’t demand respect. Especially from the mountain kids.

When Sunday afternoon rolled around and when I saw the kind gentleman who had sold me the composition notebooks; when I saw Mrs. Chamblee, town gentry, mingling carefully with the mountain families; when I saw that I was the only new teacher, the only one from the outside; and when I saw Solomon with the people…

…I knew what I was.

A savior-poser.

I ate a bite of sweet potato casserole and tried to pay attention to a woman with white hair so thin, I could see her scalp, who was telling me the history of the recipe.

“We would be nothing without you teachers coming every year, Miss Mulligan,” the woman said at the end of her long narrative. She smiled. In the front were missing eyeteeth.

I almost believed her.

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