The Writers Circle: The Power of Words

TWC
One of our goals here at Today’s Author is to help all of the writers among us to do what we love to do: write. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by talking to each other and learning from each other.  Our Writers Circle series is designed to do just that – provide a chance for us to discuss writing, editing and publishing questions.

This week’s topic is:

Today let’s talk about the power of writing. Has something you’ve written been so powerful that your entire process of writing has changed? What have you read or written that has changed your life in any way, good or bad?

Let’s discuss this in the comments and see what our community thinks.

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The Writers Circle: Writing and Life

TWC
One of our goals here at Today’s Author is to help all of the writers among us to do what we love to do: write. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by talking to each other and learning from each other.  Our Writers Circle series is designed to do just that – provide a chance for us to discuss writing, editing and publishing questions.

This week’s topic is:

We all go through phases in our lives where things are going well or things are more challenging.  Times when we are happy and times when we’re feeling run down and sad.  How do these phases and moods impact your writing? Are you able to find ways to channel where you are in real life into quality words on the page that remain consistent no matter what you are experiencing?  Are there times when you find you are able to use your mood to  improve your writing?

Let’s discuss this in the comments and see what our community thinks.

The Writers Circle: Truth in Fiction

TWC
One of our goals here at Today’s Author is to help all of the writers among us to do what we love to do: write. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by talking to each other and learning from each other.  Our Writers Circle series is designed to do just that – provide a chance for us to discuss writing, editing and publishing questions.

This week’s topic is:

When writing fiction, do you include real situations and people in your stories? Do you worry about people recognizing themselves in your work? How do you alter true elements from your life and include them in your writing?

Let’s discuss this in the comments and see what our community thinks.

Writing when Busy

mundane to do listLife is busy for most (dare I say ALL) of us. And now, as November 1 and the beginning of NaNoWriMo loom in front of me,  I find myself fretting about whether I should even consider participating in it (even though I know I’m ultimately going to do so).  So, as I’ve done now every late October since 2006, I feel it’s time to think about how to squeeze just a little more time out of my day so that I can write.

There are days, weeks and months where I can’t even stand the thought of trying to find an hour or two to put pen to paper.  Between the day job and it’s attempts to steal my soul, the kids and their busy social, sports and school schedules, the yard work, the housework and the occasional need to eat and/or sleep, there’s hardly any time left to stop and drink the coffee, let alone do anything else.  Every day is a delicate balancing act—a minute-by-minute attempt to do all the things I have to do while also saving some time for the things I want to do.

As a writer, I’ve struggled to find that balance for years now.  Partly it is because of the sheer volume of things I’m required to do; partly it’s because of the large number of things I want to do.  What this has netted out to for me is a severe lack of writing time because I cannot find ways to prioritize writing over other demands.  Yet, I see other authors I admire putting pen to paper and churning out fantastic stories each week, including some terrific works in response to our Write Now prompts. I often wonder how other people have managed to balance their time and put a priority on writing when they have at least as much going on as I do.  I’ve tried forcing myself to write when I’m too tired or too stressed to do it willingly, but all this has done is make the writing unenjoyable – just another chore I am angry for having to do – and ultimately it is just as stressful as anything else I might have on my to-do list.  I don’t know about anyone else, but when I resent the time I spend writing, the bitterness and anger shows through in the words that get onto the page. While I might use this negativity to my advantage when I am writing performance reviews at work, it is not usually something I want coming through in my fiction.

Thinking about this as I often do, I’ve come to the following conclusions:

  1. There is not enough time in the day.
  2. I do not know exactly where all the hours go.

I’ve spent a fair bit of time pondering these two seemingly-simple items and I’ve determined that there is nothing I can do to resolve the there-is-not-enough-time-in-the-day conundrum – thus far, I have found no practical, sustainable and environmentally-friendly way to increase the available pool of hours per day beyond the current arbitrary limit of 24.  So I’ve set my mind to working on the second item.

To approach this issue, I have started keeping a chart of how I spend my time.  As anyone who knows me might expect, I am using Microsoft Excel to keep track of this data because that’s the kind of geek I am. Basically, I’ve been attempting to put together a general list of what I do each day, from the mundane “go to the gym” or “drive The Boy to baseball practice” to the more broad-based “hours spent on the day job”.  My goal, of course, is to find a few hours per week to dedicate to writing without taking away even more time from tasks I hate but must do anyway (sleep, for example).

I’ve only been working on this for a few days but what I’ve found already via my pretty charts and graphs is interesting:

  1. I spend less than 5.5 hours per day sleeping
  2. I spend at least an hour per day (on average) driving the kids to and from events.
  3. I spend 9 to 12 hours per day on the day job.
  4. On average, 1 to 2 hours per day is spent on household chores such as laundry, dishes, pet care, etc.
  5. I spend 1 to 2 hours per day watching television
  6. I spend, on average, less than 1 hour per week dedicated to writing.
  7. There are, on average, 2 hours per day that I can’t reasonably account for.

Looking at the above items, it is clear why I’m not getting enough writing done – less than one hour per week is not enough time! It would be easy to say “well, just cut the television time and write instead.”  But the problem is that I am a daylight-hours kind of person. Once the sun goes down, I am essentially a useless excuse for a human being and it takes an exorbitant amount of effort to do anything that takes thought.  I only watch television at night because it takes little-to-no mental activity to do so.  The bit that bothers me, though, is the 2 hours I can’t account for – just like when you’re tracking money, anything you can’t account for is bad.

Clearly, this analysis is nothing more than a tiny, first step toward conquering this problem by starting to understand what is going on in my day.  My plan of attack is to find those two missing hours and beat them into submission.  My second step will be to re-arrange the tasks and order them such that mindless activities, such as dishes and laundry, can be put into the evening hours. Ultimately, I hope to end up with a block of time each day which falls during hours when the sun is still up. That block, I hope, can be devoted to writing.

I am very interested in how other writers find ways to balance their need for sleep, food and family with their need or desire to write. Do you schedule time to write?  Do you budget your time like I’m describing?  Do you have other tricks or tips?

The Writers Circle: How Has Your Writing Changed?

TWC
One of our goals here at Today’s Author is to help all of the writers among us to do what we love to do: write. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by talking to each other and learning from each other.  Our Writers Circle series is designed to do just that – provide a chance for us to discuss writing, editing and publishing questions.

This week’s topic is:

As with most things in life, change is inevitable.  Thinking specifically about your writing, how has it changed over the years since you started writing?  This can be thematic, stylistic, technological or any other way in which writing has grown or changed over the years that you have been a writer.

 

Discuss this topic here in the comments or head on over to the forums to start or engage in a more thorough discussion.

Why do we write?

youshouldwriteabookThe picture above is a real picture of a real fortune I received in a fortune cookie a few days ago.  As with most fortune cookie messages, I just kind of tossed it aside with the other papers on my little table by the couch and didn’t think about it.  Except, I’ve been thinking about it for days now.

“You…should write a book.”

I’ve been told that I should write a book for years. Many times over the years, in fact.  And while I’ve written stories, novels, plays, poems, songs and any number of other things, I’ve not yet produced “a book”. For a while it looked like I was spiraling in on doing just that.  I had several stories published, I was writing regularly (completing stories almost weekly)…I was in the zone as it were.

But then it stopped.

Interestingly, as I’ve thought about my charming way with words” over the past few days, I’ve realized that nearly just as often as I’ve been told I should write a book, I’ve been asked that inevitable question asked of aspiring authors:

Why do you write?

In the past, I always had an answer for this question.  It was simple, really:

I write because I can’t NOT write.

To a large extent, this answer was one of those infallible Truths of my being.  I simply had to write or else I was not me. It was unhealthy to not write.  It was the only way I could clear my head before going to sleep at night and the only way I could get myself going in the mornings.  It was simply what I did when I was not doing anything else and it was what I chose to do whenever I had options.

But now, as I sit here and look at my woeful creative output in recent months, I realize that my answer for “why I write” is no longer so easy.  In fact, it is now very easy for me to NOT write.  The hectic life of being self-employed —  with two busy and active teenagers who still allow me to be part of their lives — means that the decision matrix of what priorities bubble to the top is more complex than it has ever been and unfortunately for my creative side, the time involved with sitting down to put pen to paper causes writing to slide down the priorities scale.  I still do write.  It’s a paragraph here or there, it’s notes on a random napkin or junk mail envelope, it’s stories I recite to myself while I’m mowing the lawn.  The passion for writing isn’t gone, it’s simply sitting there burning quietly like a pilot light in a furnace, waiting for the call to burn brightly.

But this still leaves me with thoughts of whether or not I need for a new answer to the question of “why do I write?”.  I mean, wouldn’t it just be easier to hang up the notebooks and pens and just be a dad or a worker bee or a homeowner with a ton of yard work to do, and not have the added burden of “being a writer“? Sure, maybe it would be easier.  One less thing on the never-ending, never-empty, always-expanding to-do list each day.  But as I’ve thought about it these past few days since a wise slip of paper informed me that I have a charming way with words and should write a book, I realize once again that I have a story to tell — many stories to tell, in fact– and the only way these stories will be told is if *I* write them.  So even though today I may be putting most of my writing on scraps of paper or on the backs of envelopes, even though most of those slips of paper are being stuffed into a “for the future” folder and left on the corner of a desk in the basement, I’m still writing.  And the reason is still the same as it was when I wrote my first stories at 6 years old:  I write because I really can’t NOT write.

How about you? What is your answer to this question and how is that answer being manifested differently (or the same) now as compared to whenever you started writing?  Discuss in the comments here or over on the forums.

Boots on the Literary Ground

I recently finished reading In Cold Blood by Truman Capote. This book is purportedly the first creative nonfiction book ever written—in writing it, Capote created a genre that has seen continued success and interest (Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild and Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks are two such creative nonfiction books that have seen huge success in recent years).

In Cold Blood is a chilling book about a quadruple murder of a well-liked and prosperous family in rural Holcomb, Kansas in 1959. The book is novelistic in its presentation: Capote interweaves dialogue, description, and a fragmented storytelling structure to create suspense and tension. The novel is written in such great detail that you can’t help but feel Capote was right there in the room with his characters, and in some cases he was.

This brings me to the theme for this month’s posts: setting. Capote spent six years, on and off, in tiny Holcomb, and the slightly larger neighboring town of Garden City (where the two murderers were eventually tried). He stayed in motels, interviewed the town’s people and killers alike, waited around for developments in the case, and breathed in the atmosphere of that town, literally. His boots were on the ground.

For those of you familiar with creative nonfiction, you know that it is a more artistic form of journalism (no slight meant to the journalists out there). It takes elements of journalism and reporting (interviews, historical information, site visits, patience) and overlays an engaging narrative across all of it. Understanding a story’s setting, its place, is crucial to the development of a news story, and equally so to the development of a creative nonfiction piece.

In the opening paragraphs of In Cold Blood, Capote deftly sketches the town of Holcomb and the surrounding landscape. His description is precise, careful, and masterful—the reader is transported there. As the book continues, so does the depth and detail of its description. Capote introduces the reader to “characters,” describes their features, their mannerisms, their speech patterns; he shows us the few hours before the family of four was murdered: the weather that day, the moods of the family members, the lay of the family farm; he shows us into the lives of the two murderers, their motivations, and their character flaws. At times, Capote’s book is almost too intimate: we are so close to the characters, we are so familiar with the landscape.

None of this intimacy could have been created, I believe, had Capote not decided that he had to go to Holcomb. His art was elevated because of this choice.

As a poet, this boots-on-the-ground mentality is not one I’m particularly familiar with. Setting or landscape in my poetry often refers to internal landscapes or imagined ones. I suppose you could say my boots are on my ground (my mind, my emotions), if I can extend the metaphor that far, but not in the same sense as Capote, Krakauer, Skloot, or any other creative nonfiction writer might experience.

While it’s true that I’ve written some poems based in and on specific places, my representation of those places has, for the most part, been cursory and more impressionistic than realistic. A single fact about a town, or the way that light falls in an alley, or a scent, or my general mood in that landscape is enough for me to go on to create a poem, which in the end will only loosely be related to that specific place. It’s like a movie that’s “based on actual events,” which really only means that one or two things might be true.

I love creative nonfiction, and I have great admiration for writers of it, in part because it requires the writer to insert him- or herself into an unfamiliar setting and to make it so much his or her own that the reader is convinced the representation is true and coming from someone in the know.

In the coming months, I’d like to think about how to incorporate this element of up close and personal setting exploration in my poetry. I’d like to engage in site visits, and see how that intimacy colors and shapes my writing.

Who’s up for a field trip?

 

A little birdie taught me the value of keeping a journal

DOS-based PC journal of the 1980s

DOS-based PC journal of the 1980s

Last week a little birdie taught me the value of keeping a journal.

I was driving to work down Whitehorse Avenue at seven forty-five in the morning when I came across an injured sparrow in the road.  He was flapping and fluttering his heart out, yet all he accomplished was to tumble and propel himself in circles.  It reminded me of a child wearing swim floats on his arms, splashing wildly while drifting helplessly into the deep end of the pool when his feet no longer touched the bottom.

From twenty meters away, I instinctively positioned myself in the lane so that I would straddle my car over top of the little guy.  As I closed in within ten meters I thought whether it be best to put the little fellow out of his misery, but within five meters decided it wasn’t my place to intervene.  As I passed him I looked in my rear-view mirror and continued to watch him spin in circles.

At thirty-seven years old I suppose I’m middle aged, and I continue to recognize I must be getting soft in my old age.  A few years ago it was recognizing the awww factor of playful kittens, and now, the heart-sinking feeling of watching a painful death to a wildlife species that can fit in my hand.

For the next twenty minutes of my drive to work I contemplated life and death.  Specifically, I tried to understand (unsuccessfully, I might add…) how some men can rationalize that they have the right to end the life of another man through methods like propelling bombs or firing guns.  How can this savageness come from a species who yet can also be touched by a small injured bird?

All this deep thought naturally led me to conclude the value of keeping a journal.

As students we all at one time experienced the assignment of keeping a journal, shrugging the feeling of having nothing important to write nor recognizing the therapeutic value.  As adults, and specifically as adult writers, a journal captures the most important story we can ever hope to write in our own lifetime.

Moods and Writing

I’ve heard interviews with songwriters who have complained that they are unable to write good songs when they are in a good mood.  There’s something about being in a dark mood which inspires the creation of their best songs.  I’ve heard similar things about comedians and other entertainers as well — that they do their best work when they are feeling less content with their world or their lives.

When I was younger, I found this to be true about my own writing: the worse my mood was, the funnier my comedic pieces were; the sadder I was, the stronger and more heartfelt the poetry was.  In my angsty teenage years, the only dry spells in my writing occurred when I was reasonably happy.  Now that I’m old(er), I find the opposite to be true.  In fact, I’ve found lately that when I’m in a bad mood, I can’t write anything coherent at all.  I’m stunned if I even get a word or two down on the page in that state of mind. I’m not sure why this has changed.  Perhaps it is as simple as “adult problems” being tougher than “teenage problems”, but I think it is more than that.  I think the issue is more that when I was younger and in a bad mood I was more willing to use the act of writing as a form of therapy.  The words flowing from my grumbling, churning mind, down through my arm and hand and onto the page was a safe way to get the emotions out and sometimes release that negative energy.  I was more willing or more able to sit down and just start writing something spontaneously back then, too, which may have also been a reason why it worked.

But today I don’t do this.  I can’t remember the last time I opened a Microsoft Word document or a paper notebook and successfully just started writing on a whim. Usually I end up staring at that blank page and getting into a worse mood than I was in when I started.  When I was younger I could sit there for an hour staring at the blank page and the words would eventually start to flow, but now I sit there and within a few minutes I give up, throw the notebook to the side of the room or slam the laptop shut.  Am I simply less patient now than I was? Are my bad moods worse now than they were?  Am I simply falling prey to the combination of the bad moods and the looming to-do list?

I don’t have an actual answer to these questions and I don’t think there actually *is* a definitive answer to them.  Most likely, the answer lies in some complicated combination of all of the above, in addition to distinct differences in weather patterns and the temperature of the coffee in my mug.  But I do think it’s an interesting thing to look at and to introspectively analyze, so I’m going to throw it out to each of you:  How does your mood impact your writing? Do you find the content, style or quality of your writing to be different based on the mood you were in at the time? Do you struggle to write if your mood is particularly good or bad?  Let’s discuss this in the comments.

Making Habits

I’m mucking out old files. This includes old stories, really bad poems, and sheafs of paper from writing workshops. A little over six years ago I spent my evenings and weekends enmeshed in writing in some form – writing stories, writing reviews of other novice’s stories.

In a short version of things I’ve written before: six years ago I deliberately chose to set creative writing aside to go back to school, but then I also had a baby, making summers just as fraught and exhausting as fall-winter-spring, despite the lack of required reading and academic writing. All and any time to write was sucked up under the heading “Life”. He’s bigger now, not so all-consuming, yet – as you’ve seen – I still struggle to write. In the school semester I’m just too busy. Now, in summer, I still am not writing in the way that I used to. I seem to be out of the habit.

(Not that I’m losing spark or ignoring writing. I have stories and poems developing – eventually I will finish them. I wrote a post about my submissions process. It’s finished; you will never read it. Be grateful.)

Cleaning out my old files leads me, of course, to reviewing all the things I did in the years before my writing time became focused and efficient1. I thought I’d share the ways I’ve approached writing over the years, things that once helped me define and develop my habits. These are by no means all the ways to establish writing habits, simply the ones I’ve done, successfully and not.

Project-based. Some writers work best when they take the project they are interested in and break it down in stages to work on. For a novel, this might be spending week 1 outlining, week 2 writing character interviews/spec sheets, week X-X drafting, etc. Essentially, each writing session begins and ends with a very specific task that relates to the project. I’ve done this, but for me it’s really only effective on academic writing. (And even there I skip outlining.) In creative work I’ve learned I’m a drafter. I can do all the character development pages in the world, but when I sit down to write the story is where I learn who the characters are and what they want.

Spontaneous. The when inspiration hits then write method. It’s fun, exciting, and – to be honest – completely unhelpful with instilling a writing habit. Inspiration sputters out as quick as it ignites. Rather like an inexpertly lit campfire, isn’t it? I’ve tried this method, of course; but find I want to be the expert, the one who keeps the flames going. I don’t tell inspiration to take flaming lessons, but do tell it to have patience.

Timed write. That’s truthfully how this post began.2 The last post I wrote was by the bits-n-pieces method, which started spontaneous then became forced. Again, you will never read that one and you are happier for it.
Timed write goes a couple ways. It can be a short, intense writing session in which you set a timer for 5 minutes and just write. Anything. Everything. Quickly. It’s a wonderful way to cut out the internal editor and loosen up the creative unconscious. Yet I tend to use it more along the in-class essay way. I take myself away from home, pick a topic, set a chunk of time—½ hour or an hour—and write about that topic. Even if the writing’s not terribly focused at first, I have long enough to free-write until I find the heart of the topic. At the end of the chunk of time, I type it into my computer (if I was writing on notebook paper) and edit down to the important points. When it comes to short stories, this method has been doing jack for me

“Morning pages.” I don’t remember which writer advanced this, though one of our editors may remember. Essentially, it’s a first-thing in the writing period technique in which the writer sets down everything and anything that comes to mind for 3 pages. Like timed write, it’s a way to clear out the mental clutter in order to allow the creative subconscious room to stretch. The sweet thing about it is you can do this while a kid is running around the house and jumping on you. It might be a bit less effective that way though.

Writing classes. I work well – really well – with a deadline. I found myself most productive when I took a writing class that required three stories in three months. Of course, I had time to write three of my own and review many other stories from classmates. But also as a class, the time needed to do the work was now psychologically just as important and the time needed to do the dishes / laundry, etc.

What would you add? What have you tried, successfully or not?


 

1meaning that when I sat down to write, I wrote; I made progress on the project I intended to make progress on; I completed drafts. In no way does “focused and efficient” mean one sitting completed a draft, or that a draft was a finished piece.
2It’s been slightly less than one hour since I sat down. Technically, I could keep on writing, but all the didn’t-do’s are creeping back into my brain. Timed writes, I find, push them out for the period of time I declared I get to write. That said, it has a serious flaw in habit-building. It’s impossible to do when you don’t know if you will have ½ hour before the family wakes up. Not to mention, in my house, if I wake up at 5:30 in order to write, my son – if not both son and husband — is up and active 2 minutes after I get my thoughts in order.