Posts Tagged ‘fiction writing’

Un-Doing Days

In Classes, Craft, General, Musings on July 12, 2011 at 4:54 am

It wasn’t long ago that I purposely set my alarm clock for5:30 a.m.every morning, slipped out of bed before the sun rose, and sank my toes into the slightly scratchy carpet of our then-apartment with a cup of coffee and readiness to write. The darkness, the slither of silence, the burnt chicory smell of good java—these things were my company as I took special time for myself before my “real work” several hours into daylight later.

Those were my “doing days” as I’m thinking of them now. I wrote so early because once my colleagues and clients awoke there’d be emails to exchange and the mounting pressure of “must-get-it-all-done” riding hard on my spine. In my doing days I was so proud of how much I did—writing freelance articles, a book, a novel, editing manuscripts, recording book reviews–in such quantities that I’d sometimes look at my “to-do” board with a feeling of terror, wonder at how I would get it all done, and if working for myself was folly or fortune. The higher and tighter my shoulders by the end of the day, the greater the sign that I’d somehow measured up, that I was capable of carrying a load so heavy without fail.

Once I became pregnant I was amused and annoyed by the most ethereal sense of distraction that came over me—my mind flitted wherever it pleased and could barely be reined in, a flying creature with barely any mass. I was tired, so so tired all the time, and could not roll out of bed so early, and if I did, I’d sit staring at the blank page wondering what I thought I had to say. At the time it was infuriating, but now I look back and see my body beginning to help me make a shift that would change the shape of my days forever. For a spacy mind was the least of the changes having my son would bring.

 Three years into my son’s life, the map of my working life looks like a seismograph. From doing almost nothing for the first three months of his life, to rallying back around to writing a novel in his nap hours, to putting him in nearly-full time daycare only to feel the familiar pains of a body that is doing too much…I have begun to circle around to this new place and time. These are un-doing days.

Today, I sat at the top of a man-made rainforest, where blue butterflies the size of my palm circulated with what looked like a brash certainty in their freedom. If I stood still long enough, they skimmed the top of my head, grazed a cheek, teased my eyelashes. The heat of the building, the chatter of tourists–none of it bothered me. I was completely enchanted by their flight. I realized, I could sit here for hours and do nothing but watch them fly. And in that seemed the crux of the lesson I am beginning to learn, and which I hope my readers will take to heart too: there is value in stillness, in rest, in observation.

I am undoing old habits of working too hard and too long. I am taking more time off, and spending more moments relishing my son’s short-lived youth. There are fewer achievements, shiny and hot with effort, to hold up on a platter over my head, and yet, there are deeper seams to tap now, both creatively and in my work, roads that I have refused to take out of fear of letting go, stopping.

And how does this play out here? Everything is going to change now. You’ll see a new website very soon, with this blog integrated in it.  I’m going to be teaching more–stay tuned for some new twists on my classes that will allow for more interaction–and doing less of other things. In a nutshell, my new goal and direction is to write, and to thus bring to all of you the lessons and experimentation and thoughts on craft that I, myself, am continually integrating into my own work.

 Come, un-do with me.

Exorcise Your Themes

In Business of Writing, Craft on July 30, 2009 at 4:39 pm

The_Buried_Sun_by_Mr_StampYou can’t let go.  You have not taken control. Just admit it. There is at least one, but likely several themes you simply have not exorcised from your writing that trip you up. If not a theme, I’ll bet it’s a character, an image or a setting that you can’t shake. Though I’m a fiction writer, I am sure this applies to non-fiction writers and poets too.  

“Every artist is undoubtedly pursuing his truth. If he is a great artist, each work brings him nearer to it, or at least, swings still closer toward this center, this buried sun where everything must one day burn.”

 While I’m in agreement with Albert Camus’ point above, I’m pretty sure that mediocre and just plain good artists are also swinging closer to this center of truth in themselves in their thematic repetitions. In editing clients who’ve been patient enough to work with me repeatedly, I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it in the work of favorite authors–bestsellers (Jodi Picoult) and underground favorites (G.K. Chesterton ) alike. And, of course, it turns up in my own work.

WhenI worked with the intrepid Alice Mattison my final semester at Bennington, I was shocked by my own denial regarding my recurring themes.

My writing was theme-heavy, emphasizing stories of frustrated parents and their angry children who seemed to be waiting for cues on how to behave differently, which I continually failed to provide.

In a letter Alice wrote to me:

 “There’s nothing wrong with writing about one subject, and after I read two or three [of your stories] I thought, “Well, she can give the book the title “Bad Mothers”…Most of these mothers are unrelieved: they aren’t complex, they are just awful. I don’t mind that sort of horrible character in general—I don’t think every single character needs to be complex—but so many bad characters…with no good traits…of the same category makes the work add up to a scream of rage about mothers…”

Believe it or not, my first reaction to this was not to fall apart in tears. I laughed. Hard and long. She was so right! And she was kind enough not to point out all the Absent Fathers who quietly slipped out of scenes, giving the Bad Mothers center stage.

 She went on to write,

 “What you need is for your reader to be able to take each story on its own terms instead of being so struck by the pervasiveness of the bad mothers that they become a theme instead of just being part of the subject matter.”

In order for the writer to get to the place where she can construct stories that stand on their own terms, a lot of close scrutiny at our work is necessary, to discover what repeats. There’s is powerful energy in that which keeps trying to get through, but that energy can either trip us or transform our work. 

These mothers and fathers of mine have been unfairly under-used. It turns out that they have feelings too, and quirks and longings and unfulfilled desires worthy of exploration. Now they’re just road signs pointing, “Go deeper here. Don’t give up there.”

What themes keep coming back to you? How do they help your work? How do they trip you up?  If you’re an artist of another kind besides writer, I pose the same question to you!

Give yourself an assignment to attempt to change some of your themes!