The Bumble Bee

 shari_post_20141015It isn’t supposed to be able to fly, you know. The bumble bee isn’t built with the correct anatomical construction for flight, but try telling that to a jail-striped insect lusting after pretty flowers between bouts of breathtaking aerodynamic displays. Of course it’s just a worker bee after all, motivated but sexless, doing its robo-job on behalf of the hive, all glory to Her Royal Highness, the Queen.

We can learn a lot from the busy bee, industry and work ethic being at the top of the list. Butcher, baker, or writer, you can’t beat the bee for getting the job done. I’m not fussy about who claims the title writer for themselves. Published writer or wanna be, (I’m in the latter category, sigh,) as long as you write, keyboard nib to virtual page, you’re a writer to me. I’ve written five books, two for children, three for adults, with more story ideas in the chute, awaiting their place in the computer files. Not a claim for commendation, but not a candidate for sloth either.

I read so many articles about getting over writer’s block, way too much time and space wasted wondering why so much is written about how we can make ourselves do what we all claim we love to do – write. Frankly, my dears, the only caveat I see about calling oneself a writer is staking the claim and then standing back to wall, describing bricks as the Big Block. I live in California, earthquake country – I know that a brick wall falls incredibly fast. Ambition matters less than motivation which matters less than inspiration which is always fleeting and subject to bouts of fancy and antsy. What counts is work. I don’t care if you do NaNoWriMo or prefer flash fiction or need a prompt to get your juices out of the blender – you must write. Standing in line for your Bucky Brew and thinking about the next line you plan write to as soon as you fire up the laptop counts for Good Idea, (as when Mom says, “What a Good Idea, Sweetie, now eat your broccoli.”) but writing only happens when it’s a hard wired commitment. Damn the broccoli. Fire up. Write.

Here’s a strategy: Don’t count. I work with children who crab and fuss about the number of words they’re supposed to write. “I can’t think of any more. Is this enough?” they ask. I ask them if what they’ve written completes their article and states all they mean to express in the best possible language. Most want to return to the formula of the number of required words; it’s a benchmark they can measure. Staring at word count and trying to get to a target guarantees frustration as the optimal number remains elusive. What? Only 125 words? But I need yadda yadda amount! You might as well start at the dictionary, list its words, stop at an arbitrary number, and stake your flag on that territory, page 329, done! The effect will be much the same, with the same blah value and impact. Those kids who simply write, getting their thoughts on the page, telling everything they know, do better of course. Grammar and spelling aside, that which issues from their hearts tumbles into something worth reading. So don’t count. Just write.

I began my first adult book with no clear goal in mind other than to tell the story that had been beached in my brain like a ship in the sand. It wasn’t going anywhere until the tide rolled in and took it out to sea – er, until I sat at the computer and wrote the story. I figured at first that I’d be lucky to get to about 50,000 words to tell the story, (I wasn’t doing NaNo; 50,000 just seemed like a good number) but a funny thing happened on the way to that market – I went way past 50,000 and found myself up in the hundreds of thousands. (Shall we draw a number line to see what that looks like? Oooo, big!) Required some serious editing.

I’d written like the bumble bee that flies, completely unaware of the dynamics needed for success. I wrote because I had a story I wanted passionately to tell, peopled with characters who’d been living rent free in my head and needed digs of their own, and a story arc that was about to explode if I didn’t get it down on paper. (OK, it’s a computer, but the old fashioned image of me as writer working at my worn wooden desk, scribbling words from a leaky pen is more visually appealing than me in front of my white/black computer screen, my tush broadening with each paragraph. As my Mom actually says, “You know it, girl.”)

Here’s another strategy: Write what you love. If you don’t love that bad boy, that unlikely plot, that trampy vixen, that innocent Everyman with the droopy eyes, how are you gonna wanna write them into being? How you gonna make your reader wanna read what you wrote if you don’t love your story? Don’t fuss over genre or blockbuster tomes, worrying that you don’t want to write ___________ (here you may fill in the blank of whatever genre is most popular at this moment or any author currently on the best seller list.) Stop jingling the change in your pocket. Wrap your fingers around a pen. Plant a kiss on your story, hug your keyboard, and write what’s in your heart, cads and all. The first novel I wrote? It wasn’t a hot genre in 2012 when I entered it into ABNA, yet it placed within the top 250 books. That placement was heady confirmation for my story but my blue ribbon came when I wrote the final word a few months before.

Success is simple. No matter the designated label or projected numerical outcome, whether writing in November, February, or July, it’s all the same. Don’t count words. Write what you love.

And if you’re still wondering how that tubby bee does in fact fly – because we’re all successful empirical scientists and we know he does – he flaps harder. Just like we should.

 

Light My Fire

lightmyfireIt would be nice to know that creative people, whether working in the fields of art, film, dance, or even medical or technical research, wake each morning with a new inspiration bursting from their heads, propelling them to their métier. I’d like to believe that. A good night’s sleep, a hearty breakfast, and off to paint, direct, twirl, or find the wonder cure to ills and ailments.

No one past the age of six believes that absurdity. Even little kids know how tough it is to come up with a marketable, er, gradable project. All the skills-building lessons struggled with in first grade, and by the time that six-year-old is promoted to second grade, he knows that it’s going to be another long year of practicing the same exercises over and over, trying to get it right. Whatever was mastered in first grade is just not good enough for second, and the kids know it when the first homework assignment in early September is posted the board. Practice addition facts. Practice for the spelling test. Read for 15 minutes. Bring lunch money. In other words, the lesson we all learned: it doesn’t come easy – pay your dues.

When I tell people I write, a few standard comments follow. “What have you written?” Nothing you would have read because I’m not yet published. “I always wanted to write a book.” So did I and then I did – three of them so far. “Where do you get your ideas?” From the supermarket, just like you. Maybe my thoughts are a bit smart-aleck, but my verbal remarks are polite because I love to talk about my books as much as I love to write them. On lucky days my fan club becomes a friend with common interests, and questions become a conversation.

I write because I always thought I would. It seemed a part of my personal constellation by the time I was six, a splatter of stars cast into my brain, earning me endless support from my teachers. “Sharon, stop daydreaming.” I wasn’t daydreaming – I was writing in my head. I could read better than most of the other kids, and my school stories were rich with adjectives and heroic characters. The little girls were prettier than me and bore names I envied – Tammy, Edwina. The little boys behaved more politely than the ones on our playground, even if they didn’t have as much fun. Their antics were resolved in a few paragraphs without adult intervention. (Who needed grownups? I always loved that unsupervised scenario.) Boring and pedantic as those early stories were, the books I read transported me to wild places and dangerous adventures. Eventually it registered that risk, temptation, suspense, and dicey events made for much more exciting escapades and were more likely to compel a reader to finish a story – or for my teacher to give me a better grade. Add a main character who didn’t act like an everyday super hero and a bad guy who did – even better.

That was good strategy for elementary through high school, but college courses proved I didn’t quite have what it took to be a real writer. The spark flickered more than burned, and I realized some writers had great story to tell but no gift for putting it to pen. Others made words flow like the Mississippi all the way to the delta but nothing happened along the way. Only a few had the chops to write a damn good story in a damn impressive style. I just wasn’t one of them – yet.

The little spark that keeps me up at night (and sleepy during the day) where do I find that wick? Lots of events trigger my creative impulses but the ones that incite my writing are problems that irritate me for months. They are “what if” questions that bug the hell out of me until I finally begin to think about how I might resolve their suggested conundrums. Other activities (revealing the perfect word, rewriting till my hands swell) will advance my efforts at continuing the writing process, but the initial work springs from something that niggles me to death.

Years ago I worked with an absolutely gorgeous, talented, and thoughtful woman. She’d just married a hunk, and seemed off to have a great life. She left the job, we lost contact, the last I’d heard she’d divorced the hunk because of his infidelity (What was he looking for?!) and she and the baby were struggling to survive. I wondered, why is it that a woman with so much talent and the kind of looks that pickled men, ends up with a cartload of sorrow? And if she can’t make it with all of her advantages, what the heck are the chances of an ordinary schlub like me?

I’d also chewed cud for many years on the idea of writing about a family during subsequent Passover seders. Every four or eight or 16 years, (four is a significant number at Passover) I would check in on them, see how the kids grew up, follow the old folks as they coped with dimming dreams, note how the new world affected everyone’s pursuits and beliefs. I also studied the Holocaust, a subject that harrowed me.

Eventually I faced a devastating employment situation that forced a major change in my life. Deeply distraught over circumstances I could not have foreseen nor changed had I known, I realized the only way out of my personal morass was to create something. My usual go-to creative process was to paint, but I’d been an artist and art teacher more than 25 years by then. It wasn’t going to bring me the relief or new direction I needed. So I turned to my childhood dream of writing Something Important. I combined the girl with everything and nothing, Passover, and the Holocaust into a book. Over two weeks I wrote 60 pages, most of which have remained intact. The result is a book called The Inlaid Table, and it worked its way to the 2012 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Contest, General Fiction Quarterfinalists. I was thrilled, and I had a new enterprise to give my life purpose.

The book is not published though I haven’t given up. I’ve written two other books since then, also not yet published, and at least two more scribbled ideas are on computer queue. I slow sometimes, but the spark remains. I pay my dues. I keep writing. What lights your writing muse?

Be well, friends.