Archive for the ‘A Writer's Life’ Category

In the Mood – Not

Back to the NaBloPoMo prompts, at least for the time being:  “How do you find the energy to write when you’re not in the mood?”

Only a professional writer could ask this question.  For the rest of us, the dilettantes, this is a non-starter.  If you’re not in the mood to write, you don’t write.  Simple.

But “not being in the mood to write” is actually a symptom of something else going on.  I think it depends on what you’re trying to write.  When writer’s block crops up in my fiction writing, I have found that it’s usually because I’m trying to force my characters to do something they don’t want to do.  I’ve written about this before, how your characters become real people with real lives, and you are just their chronicler; you get a Brilliant Idea that you think would fit their lives perfectly, but somehow, they don’t think so, and they simply stop “talking.”  At that point, you have to give them space to recover their trust in you, so that you can go on as their chronicler; and that’s how fiction gets written, at least around here.  I could never write a mystery, where you have to know what the end is before you begin.

Non-fiction is a different animal altogether.  When I was in college, I would develop all these Plans for Staying on Top of My Assignments:  Come up with a topic in Week 1; write the preliminary outline in Week 2; assemble the information in Week 3, etc.  Yes, I’m one of those Organized Types.  Franklin Planners were created for people like me.

There was just one problem:  None of it worked.  By the time the paper was due, my original outline bore no resemblance to the finished product.  Over time, I came to realize that I was wasting my time drafting outlines, because I would then go about my research with the outline in mind, rather than integrating what I was learning into the research process.  That was when I came up with my Take-No-Prisoners approach:  Hold off on the research until two weeks before the paper was due.  By that time, there was usually a topic that was screaming for development, and I could do the research to greatest effect, wasting no time at all.  With two days to go, I’d sit down and write the paper.  And it always got an A.

There was one other tool that I used to great effect in writing research papers, and I got it from my husband, one of those much-maligned Government Workers; he got it from one of his supervisors, a Navy Captain. Believe it or not, you start your paper with the phrase, “The purpose of this paper is to…” and state the purpose of your paper.  Then you throw away that opening phrase.  BANG!  You’ve grabbed your reader’s attention, and you have an easy reference point for staying in focus.

The only time it almost didn’t work was when I wanted to prove that it was possible to read body language when you couldn’t actually see the person; in that case, I wrote, as usual, “The purpose of this paper is to prove that you don’t have to see a person to understand his emotional state,” and in that case, in order to throw away that opening phrase, I had to turn the topic into a question:  “Is it possible to understand a person’s emotional state without actually seeing him?”  The professor said it was one of the best opening sentences she had ever read.  (I was referring to internet communication, by the way; all caps and misspellings are a great way to tap into a person’s heightened emotional state.)

So when I lack the energy to write, I listen to my inner muse.  She’s trying to tell me something important.

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“‘Start as close to the end as possible,’ suggested writer Kurt Vonnegut.”

Today’s prompt is brought to you by Plinky, only it was December 15’s prompt, and I hung onto it in my inbox because I thought what a great end-of-year post it would make.  Unfortunately, the end of 2012 saw us up to our necks (figuratively) in snow, so I’m only now getting to it.  Hence, the title of this post.

The rest of the Plinky prompt was to “write something that does that without spoiling the ending.”  See, this is why this kind of prompt doesn’t work for me as a writer:  I never know the ending of my books.  If I were a mystery writer, I would need to know the ending so that I could litter my writing with clues for the reader, and if I were writing non-fiction I would have to keep the point of my text in mind as I wrote.  But I am neither; I write about fictional relationships, and people’s growth within those relationships.  And even when people’s lives appear to have an ending, they don’t (or else, why bother calling yourself a Christian?), so how can a book about relationships really have an ending?  One episode can end, but the people live on and on.

One of the characters in my favorite television show, NCIS, is an author as well as a federal agent, and one of the episodes dealt with a book he was writing:  Someone was getting hold of his copy and committing murders on the basis of his book.  Towards the end, his boss tells him that he needs to find the killer and let him know how the book ends.  “I don’t know how the book ends!” exclaims the writer, and that pretty much describes my style of writing.

What I find is that people live inside my head – a whole family of them, plus peripheral characters.  Periodically, they have a story to tell, and I’m the lucky duck who gets to tell it.  Every once in so often, I’ll think of something that happened to me, or an anecdote I’ve heard, and think, “That’d be a really neat thing to have happen to So-and-so.”  But So-and-so doesn’t think so, and that’s when I get writer’s block.  Then I have to go back to the point where the writing was going smoothly, clear everything else out of my head, and let the character do the talking.  I can edit, once the character “powers down” for the session; but there’s actually very little creativity involved.

Not knowing the ending is how one of my characters who started as a stereotypical “dirty bird” became the guy who saved the day, while someone I had intended to be a true gentleman turned out to be the worst sort of cad.  Meanwhile, the hero of the story is just trying to keep his head above water throughout the book!  This is how I stay engaged in my own tales; if I don’t know where it’s going, neither will the reader, and if that’s what keeps me writing, then – theoretically – that’s what will keep my reader reading.

One more writing-related anecdote (which I freely admit I may have told before, but it describes the writing life so perfectly):  A writer wrote of accompanying his wife to church one Sunday, and afterwards, the pastor said to him, “You need to get out and meet more people.”  “At that particular point in time,” wrote the author, “I was intimately involved in the lives of no fewer than eight people, all of whom lived inside my head, and meeting more people was the last thing I needed.”

I can relate.

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Living La Vida Loba

Prompt:  “Do you feel most comfortable being a leader, a follower, or a collaborator?”

First, I would like to say that my absence has been due to National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo – “thirty days and nights of literary abandon,” in which one writes a 50,000-word novel during November.  Well, the 50,000 words are written.   The novel is not complete, and it’s virtually all dialogue and no action so will require major revision, but it’s written.

Now, as the English say, “to our muttons,” the prompt.

There’s no way I could be a leader.  I hate being out front and visible.  I was a choir director for almost three years, and while I loved the rehearsals, and I loved when things came together for the choir, I hated having to get people from Point A to Point B.  Those people simple did not want to learn new music, and would dig in their heels, well, like recalcitrant sheep.  And there were several who could not get it through their heads that rehearsals were a good thing; they’d show up and attempt to sing music they’d never sung before, throw everybody off, then say, “We know all this already.”  And there was no way to motivate them to change.

Nor do I especially care to Follow.  Following can get you into big trouble.  Or, as our mothers used to say when I was young, “If everybody jumps off the Brooklyn Bridge, are you going to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge?”  Everybody’s mother said it, and it was the standard (New York) response to the standard kid whine, “But everybody’s doing it!”

I like collaborative effort.  Not that I’ve ever experienced collaborative effort, but it sounds good in theory.  Everybody gets their ideas out on the table, and you sift and sort through them to see what works.  It takes longer, but in the end, you have something that works.  In theory.  Actually, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak are a perfect example of a collaborative effort that really worked.  So are Craig Benson and Robert Levine, who started out in a garage and built Cabletron, one of the computer giants of the 1990s (and a classic lesson in securities fraud:  Read all about it here).

But what I really like is the Lone Wolf approach.  Stick me in a room with a project, describe the parameters, and let me puzzle out what works.  My Lone  Wolf efforts are the ones that are always the most successful; I can work at my own pace, dope out the most efficient way to get the project done, spend the least amount of money doing it, and have fun in the process.

It’s certainly the way novels get written.

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Do you think there is a collective definition of beauty, or is it always in the eye of the beholder?”

With the release of the latest film version of Anna Karenina, I’m reminded of Tolstoy’s opening line:  “All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  I think the opposite is true of Beauty; Beauty is certainly in the eye of the beholder, but there is definitely a collective definition of ugliness.

I’ve been a lover of classical music for a long time now, since my teenage years, in fact, and over and over, one reaction has always puzzled me:  the people who ask me, “Do you really like that stuff?”  It took me a long time to figure out that there apparently really are people who actually don’t like “that stuff,” but who pretend they do in order to look Educated or Smarter Than Thou, or something along those lines.  As I grow older, and have consequently more exposure to a wider variety of classical music, I sometimes find myself wondering if these “anti-snobs” really understand just how much they themselves love classical music.  The theme from the unforgettable Somewhere in Time?  Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini (eighteenth variation, which was also, many, many years ago, used in a coffee commercial).  People loved that wildly romantic movie, and also loved the theme music that brought two lovers together across time – but tell them it’s classical music, and they think you’re nuts.  How can something so beautiful be classical music?!

And I think I know where that attitude comes from.  At the beginning of the 20th century, classical music took a turn into the purely theoretical.  “Composers” began writing music based purely on mathematical formulas, with no regard for aesthetics, since, you know, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” and all that.  The result is stuff so bizarre that not even genuine lovers of classical music can stand it; the cognoscenti profess to love it because it’s so Interesting and Avant Garde and Forward-Looking, but they don’t seem to respond to it (as the rest of us do) on a visceral level.  If they did, they might end up calling it what my husband and I do, “searching for the Lost Chord music.”

Then there’s art, or, if you will, Art.  Most of the modern stuff looks like what my kids were doing in nursery school, a few dabs of primary colors on a sheet of paper…oh.  Maybe it’s canvas that makes it Art.  Or – wait – you stick a crucifix in a glass of urine, call it something offensive to every Christian on the planet, and that’s what makes it art?!  Meanwhile, I know people who can’t stand the sight of the ubiquitous Thomas Kinkade paintings, so beloved by so many people; but neither do they have any admiration for primary daubs on a canvas, or an exhibit whose only purpose is to shock and outrage.

In all these instances, Beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder; after all, it was the musicologist George Grove (compiler of Grove’s Dictionary of Classical Music) who dismissed Rachmaninoff as “monotonous in texture…consist[ing] mainly of artificial and gushing tunes,” whose popularity was “not likely to last” (source:  Wikipedia entry on Rachmaninoff).  Meanwhile, Rachmaninoff’s popularity only continues to grow, as a new generation comes to appreciate his lyricism and aesthetic unity (no fewer than three of his works have become popular songs!).

But is there a similar collective unity in the definition of Beauty?  I think that you can best judge Beauty by the universality of its appeal.  People may like or dislike Rachmaninoff or Thomas Kinkade, Arnold Schoenberg or Robert Mapplethorpe.  But I don’t know anyone who, faced with an exquisite sunrise or sunset, doesn’t catch his breath and stand and stare in awe.  The rest of it is mankind’s attempt to produce, or reproduce, the truly Beautiful,  those sunrises and sunsets, or majestic mountains, or luscious waterfalls.

The Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky wrote, in his novel The Idiot, “the world will be saved by beauty.”  It’s quoted a lot.  But to understand the full depth of Dostoyevsky’s statement, it helps to understand his background as a Russian Orthodox Christian, and his understanding of the essence of Beauty as being nothing less than God Himself.  In that context, Dostoyevsky reaffirms that the world will be saved by God, the Source of all beauty.  And what responds in each of us to Beauty is as unique as God Himself – and as collective as a congregation’s worship of God.

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This one’s from Plinky:  “Name a villain in a movie or book you’ve rooted for.  Why?”  And the only answer I can think of is:  Define “villain.”

Well, sure, The Bad Guy.  Or the Guy in the Black Hat.  (Although, I can think of several guys in black hats who are indisputably good guys.  They’re all Orthodox monks.)  The Gal Who Stole His Heart.  Bonnie & Clyde.  The hero’s nemesis, the one who’s going to make major trouble for the hero, the one you really, really hope puts his foot in it and can’t get out.

Or not.  Some villains are so likable that even though you know that common decency, or basic justice, demands that they get their due – you kinda wish they’d go straight, or at least, cut the hero some slack, because there’s just something so darned likable about them.  Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were both outlaws, but who could resist such a happy-go-lucky pair?  They gave you such a sense of fun, such a sense of…I don’t know, as if they were really just a pair of mischievous boys whom the teacher had it in for.  In reality, of course, they were no such thing.

But back to my question:  “Define ‘villain.'”  The novel Anna Karenina is much on my mind these days, partly because it’s one of my favorite books and partly because a new film version of it is set to be released sometime this month and I can’t wait to see if the actors and actresses do justice to the roles.  Who’s the villain here?  It can’t be the title heroine, Anna; she’s so pretty, she’s so genuinely nice, with a loving heart that genuinely wants things to turn out right for those she loves, and yet – she leaves her husband and son for the sake of some grand society fling that ends up destroying her.

Is it her husband?  The guy’s a nebbish, a petty bureaucrat with the personality of a dense fog, somebody who’s just begging to be left by a pretty and vivacious wife.  And yet – he’s the one who has been wronged in this book, he’s the one who holds his household together when his wife leaves him, and when she comes close to dying in childbirth – he turns around and forgives her for her infidelity, even promising to take in and rear her love child as his own.  Villains aren’t supposed to be such noble characters.

Maybe Vronsky, the source of it all?  In his complete preoccupation with himself and his own affairs, he has an ego as big as Russia itself.  If he’d just minded his own business and gone courting young society maidens, as he was expected to do, he could have made himself a very happy and satisfactory marriage.  Instead, he lets his head get turned by a pretty young matron, and his whole life is turned upside down by her.  That’s not real villainy, either – that’s weakness of character, which is a whole ‘nother issue, as we used to say when I was young.

Then there are the tales where the person who looks as if he’s a perfect villain turns out to have real nobility of character, when put to the test, and the person who does everything right, has just the right balance of charm and responsibility and is thoroughly likable, turns out to be a mass murderer or something.  How can you not like the latter, at least up to the point where his villainy is revealed?  How can you not come to respect the former?  Granted, I don’t read too many books where that turns out to be the case – but I’ve written three of them.  And great fun they were.    😉

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Topic Prompt: Do you think Shakespeare existed? Or are there just to many plays and sonnets credited to him to be the work of one person? The new film Anonymous questions his prolificity and his existence. If you think these claims against history are a waste of time, why do you think they are periodically raised by so many people?

You’re kidding, right?! I’m not gonna touch this one. For one thing, I have good friends whom I like on the other side of the pond, and I plan to keep them as friends. But for another — I mean, really, what’s this push to claim that the author of so much exquisite poetry never existed?! That some of the most enduring tales and poems ever penned, literature in the best sense that is still read, studied and loved 400 years later, was written — what? Anonymously? Don’t be ridiculous. Who’d shut up about knowing the author of “The quality of mercy is not strain’d”?!

As to why arguments “against history…are periodically raised by so many people,” look, there have always been iconoclasts. Some people lead such puny lives that they can’t stand the thought of true greatness, so they have to waste their time, and everyone else’s patience, making pointless and unproveable statements about the earth being flat, or questioning whether “unproveable” is spelled with or without an “e”. Or the works of Shakespeare were written by a committee.

People — get a life. I, in the meantime, have a life, in the form of a genuine snowstorm to deal with. Yes, in October. Not knowing when the power is going out, I also have a cake in the oven for breakfast tomorrow; we already know that church is out of the question, since the roads will not be treated in time to get us there. So, if we can’t get to church, we shall read our prayers at home, with or without electricity. And eat cake. And then read Shakespeare — by candlelight, if necessary — and feel sorry for all those pathetic nitwits who have to read something written by whomever they think Shakespeare was written by. As should be obvious from the quality of this post — it wasn’t me.

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“Have you ever considered writing a book? If so what would it be about? Make a list of the ideas you want to cover, or the themes it might have. If you’ve never considered writing a book, what other major work have you thought about (a movie? a symphony?). Write a paragraph or two about what you imagine it would be like.”

As readers of this blog already know, not only have I considered writing a book, but I’ve actually written three of them.  All unpublished.  I did think I had a publisher at one point, but she wanted too many changes in ways that I considered would have weakened the plot and the impact, so they remain unpublished, and likely will do so until I’m in my grave.  And just as well, since they invite the reader to consider the KGB in a different light, as simply another law-enforcement agency.  This is not to suggest that it is just another law-enforcement agency, but rather that it might employ the occasional individual who just wants to serve his country and his society, as opposed to exercising power over same.  My hero is actually rather an ordinary person, who just wants to do his job in peace.  His wife is, as all good wives should be, anything but ordinary.  And thereby hang the tales, all three of them.

I left in the rest of the prompt, about other artistic endeavors, because I would dearly love to write music, and it ain’t never gonna happen.  Ideas come into my head in words, not in pictures or in sounds.  I can give you back a sound that is a pretty close approximation of the original, but in terms of an original sound…  No.  Not ever.  Sigh.  Similarly, I would love to produce real art, as opposed to the paint-by-numbers variety that I actually do, which is all that counted cross stitch is:  You copy someone’s masterpiece color for color, shade for shade, except where you lose track of what color you actually should be using, which happens with distressing regularity.  But while the artist himself would doubtless have conniptions over a soft shade of pink that was actually supposed to be a soft shade of peach, I find that it rarely makes all that much of a difference once the piece is stitched.  However — original art it ain’t.

I also left in the entire prompt to get you thinking about your own creativity.  Creativity is shockingly neglected in modern life, and especially in modern American life.  We don’t consider something creative unless it shocks and offends, and that’s sad, because we should be able to create oases of beauty in our own lives, wherever our own creativity takes us — whether it’s a symphony, a magnum opus of music or writing, or a stunningly good loaf of homemade bread.

There’s another reason why creativity is so important.  When we reach deep into ourselves to tap that vein of personality that is crying out for expression — if we reach deep enough, we find that we grasp the hand of our Creator.  And, like children imitating the actions of a beloved parent, we imitate our Creator, by creating something unique to who we are.  God is endlessly creative, and sin — those places where we miss the mark of being as godlike as we can — sin is so crashingly boring.  Try keeping track sometime of all those horrible little things that you know you shouldn’t be doing.  It won’t take long to see that it’s always the same damn thing.  In other words, the exact opposite of creativity.

So create, already.

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