Flashbacking

apple cratesInspiration comes from the strangest places. I often have flashbacks throughout the day to random memories and times in my life that seem to come completely out of nowhere. I let myself ponder through the things I remember about that moment before I snap back to the present and wonder, “why am I thinking about this?”  Sometimes, it’s just the meanderings of memory that take me to that day in high school when I was put in charge of entering fruit orders into the computer for the FFA fund raiser.  Not that I was one of the “jacket wearing” FFA members, but I did participate in our “field day” demonstrations by churning butter in a series of jars with a sweet, sandy-haired farm boy who was almost too shy to talk to me.  What was his name?  I don’t know.  I only remember that he liked NASCAR and blushed when I teased him about being too handsome to not have a girlfriend.  See?  Why the heck was I thinking about entering fruit orders for the FFA fundraiser?

I’ve been working more regularly on a novel this summer, but I’ve been reluctant to share my progress with friends. I have the odd preference of writing in longhand for my first drafts, which means my “second draft” happens when I enter the writing into the computer.  I’ve started the second draft process, but I can tell the writing is missing something.  I need to add to it to make the situation believable, to make the character seem more like a real person, and to move the plot along without it feeling like it’s dragging.  I have the old pang of self-doubt that strikes when I start struggling with a project, but I’m dedicated to working through it.  But how?

My character is 18.  She’s in the summer between high school and college.  And she is in the middle of dealing with a moment of intense family turmoil.  How do I bring this girl to life?  How do I tell the reader who she is without banging them on the head with a list of likes and dislikes?  And how do I do this without making the long-form fiction feel like it’s crawling at a snail’s pace?

Then came the a-ha moment!  With a flashback, of course.  OF COURSE!  Why haven’t I thought of flashbacking (which may or may not be a “real” word) before now?  She is not far away from being in high school, so I have to tap into my own “yesteryear” memories to remember the angst of being that age again, being in the midst of a major life transition, and how to deal with complicated relationships between siblings and parents and grandparents.  But, she is not me, so I must invent a past for her.  I *can* use my own mental wanderings to populate her past, though.
woman-jumping-out-of-window
I remember when I was a little kid, I really thought I was a badass.  It was a freer, more dangerous time, I guess, in retrospect.  I played in half-constructed homes as new portions of my neighborhood were developed.  One of those houses was a two-story house–a rarity in the land of one-story ranch-style homes.  During an intense game of chase with two boys who were older than me (boys who kept calling me a “baby” and a “girl” like it was a slur and not just a fact of genetics), I jumped from the second-story window of the newly framed house, daring them to follow me.  They did not.  I remember laughing at the looks on their faces.  They were looking down at me from the window, stunned that I had jumped from so high.  I was all of 5 and fearless and had legs made of rubber.  Ah, how sweet was that victory!  I decided to give my character the same sense of “I’ll show you” daring.

 

Exercise:

Take 10-15 minutes to write down one of your childhood memories.  Try to remember as much as you can, especially sensory memories and the way you felt, emotionally.  After you’ve captured the essence of that memory, use the same “feeling” to write a new scene for your character.  You can frame it as a flashback to your character’s childhood, or not.  Maybe you have a character who is a child, so it could happen in “real time.”  Maybe you’re character has a child.  It can be translated in so many ways.  Maybe it will inspire a piece of non-fiction.  Maybe you won’t want to change the scene at all–you know how us writers are–always stealing from real life to tell our stories.  That’s what they mean when they say, “write what you know,” right?

Happy writing!

Taking Your Art Seriously

I write. I am a “writer.” I am, however, not what I would call an “author.” The distinction in my mind is the difference between being published and not being published. Authors are published. Writers write.

I have a good many friends who are authors, though, and if I am being honest with myself…I am jealous of their success. I am truly, truly happy for them, but I confess that I am also covetous of their ability to win the acceptance and approval of whatever powers that be that decide: “YES! You! This work you have produced–it is publication worthy!” Huzzah for them. Sincerely.

AND I know I have no room for grousing about feeling jealous or depressed about my own lack of authorhood BECAUSE it’s my own fault. I haven’t *really* tried to become published in the traditional way since I left grad school. If you read this blog on a regular basis, you know that I put a short story on Amazon (about a year ago) to be sold like a Kindle “single.” For 99 cents. And of all the people I know who know I did this…let’s say something like 100 people (a low estimate)…7 of them dared to spend less than $1 on a story I wrote. And these are people I know. It’s demoralizing.

So yeah. Boo hoo. Pity party for me. In all honesty, I wrote a supremely snarky “nobody loves me” blog about the whole debacle, but wisely decided not to post it. Although, in retrospect, it’s pretty damn funny. I mean, if you like snark.

But now that party is over. I am just done wallowing. Because I decided, “If I don’t take my own art seriously, who will?” Self-publishing is one route to take, but just plopping something down on Amazon isn’t going to turn me into an author because I wish it to be so. It’s time to go back to the basics of becoming an author and go about it in a different way.

First, obviously, is writing.

Second, just as obviously, is attempting to become published by TRYING to become published. There is no wishing in publishing, dear self.

Third, is to return to my old methods that allowed me to gain insight and growth as a writer…by reaching out to my friends who are/were writers and get them to share work with me. And if they won’t/can’t, then it’s time to find a new group of writers to bounce ideas off of, and to serve as a voice of reason when I want to put a sasquatch in my short story. Or maybe they will say that sasquatch should stay. You just never know.

And I’m going to take this little gem from my cousin. She is a painter, and recently she quoted a friend of hers who said, “art is an equation; the more you put in, the more you get out.” Such a simple adage, but a good one to remember.

So. Here goes. Taking my art seriously.

Do a Little Dance, Make a Little Love

Spring is here (or right around the corner, I promise)!

And what does that mean?  It means that everything is waking up and feeling frisky!

Why not have your character(s) interact with this transition of the seasons from cold and gray to blustery and bright?  Have your most curmudgeonly character experience an awakening, an enlightening of the spirit that comes with blooming flowers and birds singing in the mornings–maybe even feeling young again?

Or have your youngest character fly a kite, dig up worms, or roll down a hill of fresh green grass.  Or have a character who is “coming of age” experience the utter gleeful hopefulness that comes with realizing the potential hijinks to be had during spring break.  And continue writing those hijinks with afore-mentioned dancing and love-making.

Of course, Spring isn’t only a time of sweet, warm weather.  If your character (or you) can’t bear too much happy, or if it just doesn’t work with your story, go for the tumult of storms, surprise snows, terrifying winds, and the possibility of floods that comes with the seasonal defrost.

The key here is capturing the experience of the season while it is happening right outside your window.  I apologize if Spring hasn’t arrived on your doorstep yet, but even just the longing for Spring can stir up that craving to “wake up” again from the cold.  To feel what it’s like to walk barefoot on freshly thawed earth.  To catch the heady fragrance of flowers in bloom.

So, take the challenge and put those desires into the hearts of your characters and see what they do with the urges of Spring!

Starting Up Again – Time to Write

Hey all!

I got married! Woo hoo! So glad THAT’s over…

SO…now it’s time to start writing again. I don’t know what it is about winter and colder weather and holiday vibes that make my brain go crazy with ideas, but here they are again. It’s like a cocktail party in my head what with all of these characters bouncing around and trying to tell their stories over each other.

So, I’ve devised a plan. A writing exercise based on this cocktail party idea. I really just want a way to tease out the characters, make them less like an amorphous, cacophonous crowd, and more like solid individuals.

First: Name each character with a full name (and if you are so inspired, explain why this person is this person, a la “Her mom and dad had met at the Starlight Diner, and so, logically named their firstborn child after the waitress who served them: Cleo.”)

Second: What is your character drinking at this cocktail party, if anything? Cleo likes Jack & Coke.

Third: What is the character wearing…party attire or “regular” clothes? Just make the clothing true to the character’s style or lack thereof.

Fourth: What would your character be doing at this party? Hiding in a corner, laughing the loudest, earnestly discussing the Superbowl prospects of her favorite team, getting drunk for drunk’s sake…?

And now that you have all of this fodder, try to focus in on these characters in pairs. They can be from different stories, even, but let them have a conversation. What would they talk about? What would the character share about his/her life with a person from a different story? What would they say about their own stories?

I am really excited to do this one! I can hear the glasses clinking and the smokers heading outside, and the one who MUST tell the story of the trip they took to Africa, and the one who is rustling through the coats…

Cheers! And good luck!

Tweaking or Just Tweaking Out?

Tweaking words is the name of the game.  Like a sound engineer with one of those giant soundboards of nobs and levers and sliders and digital output, I am constantly trying to nip my writing into something better, something perfect, something *just* right.

At some point, though, you have to stop tweaking.

My current battle is with this new publication I have on Amazon.  It is the short story “Church of the Palomino.”  I can’t post a link to it here, but you can search by the title and find it.  Please go…search, find…and do what you will (i.e. buy it)!

So, the object of my tweaking has shifted from the story itself to the description of the story.

It used to say this (a blurb I fashioned around midnight one night in a feverish attempt to meet my self-imposed publication deadline):

A widower finds solace at The Palomino. Or thinks he does. The object of his worship is an exotic dancer. Circumstances draw them together one fateful night, but things don’t turn out as expected.”

When I read it the next day, my reaction was, “WHY did I start my description with “A widower?”  A WIDOWER?  Really, what was I thinking?  That’s not going to sell a story!

So, then I started using this hashtag in a handful of tweets about the story: #everybodylovesastripper.

Much better, I think.  More light-hearted anyway.  And everybody DOES (or should…strippers are people, too).  So, I updated the brief description to this:

“Everybody loves a stripper, right? Well, formerly puritanical Max does. As a widower he finds solace at The Palomino. Or thinks he does. The object of his worship is Lexi–self-described as “a stripper with a heart of stone.” Circumstances draw them together one fateful night, but things don’t turn out as expected.”

I also managed to introduce the characters by name and include some meatier descriptions of them aside from “widower” and “stripper.”  The problem with describing a short story that has a twist at the end is that you don’t want the brief description to give it all away.  I am so tempted to have this whole diatribe about the relationship between these two characters and what they effectively do for one another, quite by accident, just by having a conversation and living through a couple of strange experiences together.  And it really has nothing to do with who they are or sex or any of the stereotypical things you might think when you put “a widower” and “a stripper” together.  He is not a dirty old  man.  He is lonesome and sad and desperate.  She is a girl (not a woman) who has been driven to this way of making money, because it is her best bet, given her circumstances, for survival.  They are just two people.

But I want people to get that for themselves when they read the story.  Someday I will put down my “English professor” agenda and just let my writing live on its own.

Back to tweaking…out.  I am a watcher and a hoverer.  I can admit this.  The number of times per day that I check my “Amazon Best Sellers Rank” is almost equal to my rank, which is, as of this moment: #152,433.  Woo hoo?  It has gone from 196k to 98k and back again in a matter of hours.  It kind of freaks me out.  And considering how little this story has sold, I know that this number is mainly dependent upon the success (or lack thereof) of others.  So, I’m easing off of the watching, because you know what they say about a watched pot…

As hard as it is, I have to just let it be, and hope that it does well.  And stop tweaking out.  And start working on the next thing!

The Vocation

I started this blog because my stepson challenged me to.  Because I want to be a writer when I want to grow up.  Because I feel as if writing is my true life’s vocation.  And by vocation, I mean:  I can’t not do it.  I am miserable when I don’t do it.  When I write, something inside of me unlocks and I am able to be myself.  My “real” self.

I have, largely, felt as if my hands are tied by the reality of life.  I have, though, dreamed the craziest of dreams telling me I must…that I have no choice, if I want to live a fulfilling life.  I dreamed last night that my hands were dripping what felt like blood, but when I looked down…it was words, dripping from my fingers on to the floor, where they lay there in a puddle, like alphabet soup.

When morning rolls around, and I have to get dressed to go sit at a desk, and do other people’s work, I have to damn up those words and stories and keep them at bay until I have time.  When the end of the work day comes, I am frazzled, and stressed out, and tired.  And then there is dinner to make, kids’ sporting events, dogs to walk, exercise to do, dishes to wash, floors to sweep…and then I really ought to go to sleep.  And then, my mind whirs out these ideas and notions and stories–things I would really like to explore on paper, research and write about, and I make a mental note and finally fall asleep.  And then it starts over again.

I want to know…how do I make this dream life my real life?  I remember Toni Morrison saying that she had to make time to write…that she had to carve it out for herself or it would never happen.  In an interview from the Paris Review (1993), she said, “Writing before dawn began as a necessity—I had small children when I first began to write and I needed to use the time before they said, Mama—and that was always around five in the morning.”  {If you have read my blog, you know this does not work for me…I am not a morning person.}  But then, she says this:

Writers all devise ways to approach that place where they expect to make the contact, where they become the conduit, or where they engage in this mysterious process. For me, light is the signal in the transition. It’s not being in the light, it’s being there before it arrives. It enables me, in some sense.   I tell my students one of the most important things they need to know is when they are their best, creatively. They need to ask themselves, What does the ideal room look like? Is there music? Is there silence? Is there chaos outside or is there serenity outside? What do I need in order to release my imagination?

I know that I have to carve out the time for my writing life.  I know that I am going to have to prioritize and carve the time from the day for this act of creativity, because no one else is going to, because no one else needs to.  It’s not their vocation…it’s mine.

Have you designed your perfect place, found your perfect time?  I’m taking this as my task today.  To schedule it and make it known.  To steal it, if I can.  To listen to the calling.  To write.