Sunday, August 31, 2008

Weekend Posts

The first concession I'm making to the school year and its writing demands, as well as to my other writing projects, is that no posts will be published on "Still and Still Moving" on weekends for awhile. I don't write formally on Sundays anyway, and during the semester Saturday gets converted into an academic paper-writing/homework day.

Just thought I'd let you know.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Writing Advice from Steve Martin

Ah, words of wisdom from one of the masters:
Writer's block is a fancy term made up by whiners so they can have an excuse to drink alcohol. Sure a writer can get stuck for a while, but when that happens to real authors, they simply go out and get an "as told to." The alternative is to hire yourself as an "as heard from," thus taking all the credit. It is also much easier to write when you have someone to "bounce" with. This is someone to sit in a room with and exchange ideas. It is good if the last name of the person you choose to bounce with is Salinger. I know a certain early-twentieth-century French writer, whose initials were M.P., who could have used a good bounce person. If he had, his title might have been the more correct "Remembering Past Things" instead of the clumsy one he used.
--Steve Martin, Pure Drivel, p. 7-8

I'm particularly thinking here of Ril and the others at TextFIGHT starting the 3 day novel contest tomorrow. Just, well, track down Salinger and you'll be okay.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

So Much Material: A Rejoicing

Okay, after my lamentations of the last couple of days, it's fair that I say that I went to my first couple of classes yesterday, and they were amazing. They're going to be incredibly helpful both in my academic and my creative lives.

My "Rhetoric of Conspiracy" class--with Dr. Charles Stewart, a master in the field of rhetoric who's retiring in the spring, is going to have me thinking of interesting connections between conspiracy theories and mystery-detective narratives (which is the focus of my dissertation). And as a bonus, it's also going to have me thinking of lots of great plots for thrillers.

And then there's my interdisciplinary Archival Theory and Methods class. Beyond learning about archives and archival theory (which will be fun for me with all the library work I've got in my background), we're going to be actually helping local organizations--including the local West Lafayette library--to dig through some of their less organized collections of documents and paraphernalia and helping them with them. In the process, I should be able to:
  • figure out whether an archival analysis could yield what I was hoping for my dissertation;
  • build relationships with people who could advise me of important material that might be available, both for my dissertation and for other creative writing projects I'm working on;
  • help out with something that will potentially help those that use the collections in the future;
  • dig through archives of material that's bound to help me with current creative writing projects and inspire me with others.
Since some of my fiction ideas tend in the historical direction, I can see this course will be a treasure trove that will give me a better idea of how to move forward in those projects, if not actually giving me the information I need itself.

My third and final class--on historical-critical approaches to rhetorical study--is tonight. I expect that will pair well with the others, particularly with the archives class, to help me see one way I might be able to apply archival work in the comm. discipline. That will be helpful as well.

Yeah! It's going to be a good semester, bearing all sorts of interesting fruit, both foreseen and unforeseen.

Before I go, one more exciting bit of news: not that any set of rankings are that important, but it seems that Purdue's Communication dept. has been ranked as tied for #1 in the area of narrative. Since that's so central to what I'm doing here, it's nice to have an affirmation that I'm in the right place.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Poor Timing, Once Again: A Lament

Rilla and one of her friends are doing the annual Labor Day weekend 3-day novel(la)-writing contest this weekend and have some interesting commentary on the process over at TextFIGHT.

Here's my two cents' worth of complaining/lamenting on these weekend-long and month-long creative writing contests (yes, that's you, too, NaNoWriMo):

Can't anyone arrange one for those of us involved in the educational-type systems? Yes, that's right: Why Labor Day weekend, right after my first week of doctoral classes? Or why November, right when all my final papers are coming due and, when I'm teaching, the students are handing things in? Why not something in May or June or July, when I could actually shift a few things around to commit some time to these important creative things?

I'd love to do one of these things sometime--well, at least NaNoWriMo, since I thoroughly believe those who created the 3 day contest were somewhat possessed--and I would love the support of others engaged in the same pursuit on the same timeline.

Alas, (poor Yorick,) my chances of doing NaNoWriMo, at least within the next few years, are slim to none. (Speaking of which, the most I can commit to this blog at the busiest times of the semester is a posting or two per week--I'll try to do at least that, even during the busiest times.)

It makes me sad.

NOTE: Please excuse the two sequential days of lamenting--the downturn toward fall and winter often brings on such moods. On the up side, I'm back from my trip, which had the desired results--I think my editing skill is back and ready, just in time for the semester. Plus, after a truly delightful time away, I might even be sane again, which is always a strong plus for the beginning of paper-production season.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Quest for Balance: A Lament

The days are passing quickly now. Today I will be spending lots of hours on airplanes, returning from a mostly non-working vacation. Tomorrow I plow back into work and classes--it's hard to believe I'm starting my second year of classes for my PhD (it technically started yesterday). I'm excited about the classes I'm taking this semester. But I'm also aware that I'll be sucked into a hectic schedule again. I fear I may not be able to keep the balance I've been finally starting to regain in my writing life, as well as in my life in general.

As part of my mourning process, I'm taking a moment to say goodbye to the things I've enjoyed this summer.

Goodbye to long hours spent baking and cooking for friends, and hanging out with them. Goodbye, long hours spent journaling and brainstorming/working on creative projects. Goodbye, long unscheduled walks. Goodbye to hours that spent immersed in learning a new language. Goodbye to consumption of so much time by DVDs and fiction books.

Oh well, at least over the summer I've been getting energized about some of these things again, so I hope to be able to cycle through a variety of these activities (though in smaller quantities, of course) rather than getting sucked too much into just one of them, when I do have time.

And I have an eye on some creative writing projects that might be easier to slip into and out of this semester--I didn't have those last year. That will help. And this blog should help reminding me to keep things balanced as well.

Here's hoping it will be a healthier semester than the last one.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

The Ethics of Fictional Material

When I went to Alaska to collect research my first novel, I made many efforts to avoid what Uwem Akpan (Nigerian Jesuit priest whose stories have appeared in The New Yorker) refers to as colonizing another's world by fictionalizing it. I walked where my fictional character would walk. I took photographs of the undergrowth in case I needed to describe it. I measured how long it would take my character to drive into town.

I eavesdropped, and I paid close attention to those around me without always broadcasting what I was doing, but I made sure my fictional characters were conglomerates of a lot of different elements. Plus, I sought to imagine my way into the motives of the characters/viewpoints I disagreed with well enough so as to represent their opinions and motives somewhat graciously.

Many people told me I was being overly particular, but I wanted to do it right so that both natives and Outsiders would get an interpretation of Alaska that was bigger than just my interpretation of it, while containing my interpretation.

And then I met academic ethnographers, and took a communication class on field research and participant-observation. I now know I have been but a babe when it comes to the ethics of observing and representing human behavior (at least when it comes to academic non-fiction under the purview of the human subjects review board).

My question is this: should any of these extra layers of ethics be properly applied in the world of fiction research, in a modified form? For instance, when it's possible, should I be letting people know about my writing project when I'm observing them? Might there be any reason to review what I do with people's stories with everyone I chat with about a topic related to my book while I'm working on it? Might taking conversational fodder, observations, etc. and using it as raw material for one's novel at any point be properly called theft? If so, what would that point be?

Any thoughts from you writers and readers?

(Oh, and to make sure I give appropriate attribution, thanks to Robin and those in COM 682F for being part of the germination of this post.)

Friday, August 22, 2008

Reporting Not-so-live on Something Not-so-new

One thing I both love and hate about today's media ecology is its willingness to reward quickness. Google, for instance, that powerful source, rewards sites that have been updated the most often. It can be fun and helpful to pour out words frequently--and I do think we underestimate the importance of the writing and reading going on in today's culture. But we as content producers in this environment can feel this huge pressure to produce all the time, and to always have our content be new! and exciting!

We as readers become reliant on this news and faux-news, to the point that news outlets, I've noticed lately, have begun sending me "breaking news" stories letting people know that there is no change. I seem to have deleted the links because I thought they were stupid when I read them, but these things have begun coming from reputable news sources.

This development shows that our thirst for news has grown to the point where it's nearly insatiable. Has our desire for MORE! has cycled around to the point where we're actually willing to wait if someone keeps us updated on the waiting?

That wouldn't be such a bad thing, actually, if that were the case. Maybe we writers who try to balance our writing lives between making new content but also work on polishing other projects can use these banal news pauses to divert people to our more substantive pieces about the things that matter most. Things that touch on the human condition, for instance. And we as readers and take advantage of the pauses to think about these things once again.

The current post, written ahead of time and with several revisions to make sure the writing was clear and relatively concise, is an attempt to find a middle ground between relevant, timely, and frequent posts and the benefits of taking time for reflection. It's also my own little writerly rebellion against the tyranny of now.

Hopefully I'm using my enforced break from news to pay attention to the things that matter most. Perhaps I'm sitting in the sun reflecting on a single good sentence or line of poetry, such as Eliot's line in Four Quartets about our "fear/Of belonging to another, or to others, or to God," and working to counteract that fear. Or perhaps I'm staring up at constantly-shifting clouds and reflecting on how long it's been that things have been constantly changing.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Writing Tools: Organizing my Brainstorms and Research

Here are some tools for the writing life. I find them helpful for both academic and creative projects:
  • Zotero (Mac or PC): Free Mozilla Firefox plugin. When I found this free program, I stopped using both EndNote ($100 USD for students) and SOHO Notes ($39 USD) as note organizational tools. I find this indispensable for my academic work--it will download the citations from the library site or other online services, and build a bibliography in a flash in Word (though you have to be careful about formatting, still, a bit). It, however, will allow you to save and organize book info from Amazon on anything, as well as take snapshots of any page and easily add notes and keywords to any of things I've already mentioned, so I also find it helpful for everything from saving articles relating to my creative projects to saving receipts. And it resides on your computer, so you don't have to be online to get to anything.

  • CopyWrite (Mac only): A relatively low-cost, stripped-down word processing program designed for novelists, though I'm also considering its potential uses for my dissertation. It allows you to keep each chapter as an individual file but search and find and replace across a whole project. It also has a handy "notes drawer" for flipping between notes you want to keep about that individual project and for the project in general, a nifty tracking function for your progress (you put in a goal word count and it tells you how many percent you have as you go). Plus there's a full-screen editing mode to help you focus in and make your words bigger.

  • Good old-fashioned journals (no computer required): I keep a lot of my notes on specific projects in my computer now--in Zotero and CopyWrite's notes drawer, but a set of good old-fashioned journals is also indispensable for collecting my writing brainstorms. A few years ago, I found a system that still works for me--I got a bunch of my favorite kind of spiral-bound sketchbooks (the kind with room for a pen to clip onto them) and I keep different kinds of notes and first drafts in each one, so I'll be able to access them topically or based on genre later on.

    The most important of these notebooks is the one in which I capture my random creative brainstorms and first lines/first pages of potential projects. I don't have to--in fact I'm not allowed--to finish these projects in there, which means I always know where to go back to when I need a new project to inspire me.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Ora et Labora: Lessons from the Benedictines (part 1)

Benedictine monks have as their motto three simple words, "Ora et Labora," (Work and Pray). What I love about this motto is in part that it's so balanced--that the monks feel they are equally called to something so practical as work and something that seems so useless in the eyes of the world as prayer.

But I also love this motto because it joins these two seemingly opposed concepts together. When the monks undertake these tasks as part of their day, prayer becomes a kind of regular discipline that brings it closer to work. And as Kathleen Norris pointed out in her talk on acedia at this spring's Festival of Faith and Writing, a monk is able to combat encroaching unbelief by seeing every act of work--whether big or small--as a form of prayer.

I mention this not only because I seek this kind of balance in my own life between work and prayer (though I do), but also because I see a need for similar kinds of focused balance in my writing life--for one, a balance between having time to work on the projects I already have going and the need to keep the channels to new writings open.

I'll take a cue from the Benedictines by making time for both things: scheduling some times specifically meant to generate new ideas that feed my writing life and other times, even if they're limited at times, specifically meant to work out ideas into final forms. When I'm healthy and stick to this, I'll hopefully be able to see pretty much everything in my life as potentially useful for my writing--i.e., as work--but that pretty much everything can also contribute to the creation of new ideas as well.

There may be seasons when I focus more on one of these tasks than the other, but seeing them as connected and overlapping processes will hopefully help me to be able to sprinkle a bit of both throughout, no matter what the season may be.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Off Again...and the Unfortunate Effects of Transcription

In the spirit of the goals I mentioned yesterday, I'm off to take a real vacation, complete with relational time, for the next 10 days before school starts. I'm taking a little bit of fiction editing and my journal with me, but I'm leaving most of my writing life behind. I'm not going to stop myself from doodling out ideas for new or current creative projects, but the place I'm going is unrelated to any current project, which is a good thing.

One thing I'm hoping this vacation will do for me is to re-set my editorial eye. See, I've been transcribing and/or analyzing transcripts for a good chunk of the summer. This job has taught me that if one wants to keep one's editorial and proofreading senses carefully in check, one must not spend much time transcribing and analyzing literal transcripts of audio files.

I discovered this effect when noticing, a week after I'd handed it in, that the paper I turned in for my summer independent study was rife with editorial errors my proofreading eye would have caught much sooner before said transcription work. I didn't have a huge amount of time to do a final proofread of that paper, but before this summer, I never would have left this many errors in it. When I went back to it a few days later, the English MA self within me recoiled in agony.

It makes sense, when I think about it--the act of transcription forces your eye to check for accuracy, not sentence structure and grammar, and the act of non-conversational-analytic transcription analysis further trains your eye to actually skim past the grammatical errors. So it's a good thing I'm taking a 10-day break from transcripts.

Anyway, I scheduled posts while I'm gone so I wouldn't feel too tempted to post--working ahead isn't usually a bad thing, especially when it contributes to the guilt-free-ness of time off. ;) The posts should pop up approximately every other day. I'm sure I'll be checking for comments occasionally, and filling in the blank days with extra posts if I really get inspired.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Mindgames, Part 2: All Work and No Re-creation...

This is the problem: I can get in this mindset, at times, that all things in my life must feed into certain projects and that I'm not allowed to do anything else.

This mindset is prevalent in academe, but other writers can get stuck in it too, and in creative writing it's particularly harmful. If one insists on funneling all of one's energies into existing creative writing projects, and doesn't leave room for both writing and non-writing activities unrelated to those projects, one may be choking off some fabulous project of the future.

So I have several goals meant to stave off this problem and keep myself sane:
  1. Spend time playing in writing. Letting ideas that are unrelated to my major projects come to the forefront is important. I may or may not use them later on, but it's important to allow them to come forward. This time I know I'll be busy with many grad student tasks, but I'm planning to schedule at least a few minutes a couple times per week for stretching writing muscles I'm not otherwise focusing on.

  2. Relational time. Often the writing life involves a lot of time spent alone. This is, I believe, mostly healthy--something worth safeguarding when life gets too busy. But giving up at least some writing time for the sake of relationships and other people's interests helps me from being too selfish about my time and my projects. And, especially since a good chunk of my writing requires a deep understanding of communication and relationships, time with others helps me understand humanity better and deepens my writing in unforeseen ways.

  3. Activities whose application to my writing I can't foresee. Relationships are helpful with this. For instance, I'm learning another language right now--Swahili--because it's my boyfriend's primary language, and I want to be able to talk to him better. Can I foresee how this will help the novels and academic projects I have going? No. But it's stretching my mind, giving me a fresh look at language, and it's bound to surface later on in my creative work in some way that is now mysterious to me...

  4. Sabbaths and non-writing retreats/vacations. As most of those who know me know, not only do I not allow myself to do work on Sundays, I don't let myself feel guilty about not doing work on Sundays. This helps me to have time to readjust anything that's off in my life. I also have learned I need a certain number of quiet monastery weekends and/or active lifestyle vacations in which I'm not expecting myself to do a large amount of writing work. Both Sabbaths and vacations/retreats are there to remind me that producing without ceasing isn't good for anybody, and that, as I'm not Atlas, the world does not entirely depend on my efforts. And yeah, often the things I learn and see during these times pop up later on in my writing.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Why I Like Hanging Around Academics

I like nuance. I like detail. I need to swim around it for awhile before I'm able to narrow it down to the best stuff, in order to simplify. And sometimes I think things are too complicated to simplify, even then.

I was reminded this weekend of these things as I hung around with other grad students, who were quite happy to spend hours discussing things connected to the grad student life. I'm glad there are people whose jobs it is to get their minds around all the details of certain topics, and are able to spend hours picking through them.

However, this natural tendency in me is something to keep an eye on when I'm trying to produce writings for general consumption. Some things deserve to be short and elegantly streamlined.

Peter Morville included some apt quotes at his findability blog (these are from the book Made to Stick):
Becoming an expert in something means that we become more and more fascinated by nuance and complexity. That's when the Curse of Knowledge kicks in, and we start to forget what it's like not to know what we know. (p.46)

Proverbs are the Holy Grail of simplicity. Coming up with a short, compact phrase is easy. Anybody can do it. On the other hand, coming up with a profound compact phrase is incredibly difficult..."finding the core," and expressing it in the form of a compact idea, can be enduringly powerful. (p.62)

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

A Tale of Two (or More) Media

Over at Image's "Good Letters" blog, Harmon raises an interesting point, asking whether it's possible for an artist to be as good in one medium as in another. A good question for someone like me, who's been playing with a lot of genres and media within the written form, to consider.

I find this question easier to get my head around in a more general form: "can a person be equally good in a variety of areas?" This question seems to be in part about ability, talent, and time spent focusing on one's projects in a particular medium. But it's also about the ability to adapt what we say to different circumstances and different audiences as well as about our literacies in the constraints and conventions of different media.

It's certainly true that working for a long time in a particular medium can get you used to a particular set of conventions and a particular kind of audience; in this regard, I'm reminded of an excellent speech I heard last year by Camilla Gibb, author of several critically-acclaimed book-club-style novels, about the challenges she faced while moving from writing for academics (she did graduate work in anthropology) to writing novels.

Some people are better at this than others, but as they taught me in linguistics class in college, we're all adept to some degree at code-switching among different situations in our use of language. I think it's certainly healthy to "cross-train" across a variety of areas to make sure we're well-rounded people, even if we choose to focus on one most of the time. In fact, as with cross-cultural experiences, it will not only help us to understand fascinating new things about people and language, it will also help us to better understand the nature of the medium(s) and genre(s) we settle on.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Mindgames; or, the Fine Art of Self-Management

The difficult part in being in occupations involving writing is that so often we are required to manage ourselves to get our stuff done. Many times, we don't even have anyone breathing down our necks to finish our novels except ourselves, and even when we are externally motivated, we still have difficulty getting past our internal roadblocks to getting the work done. I've been thinking about this a lot lately, particularly as an at-times-procrastinatory graduate student with an interest in the workings of rhetoric/persuasion.

The art of self-management, I've been reflecting, is a bizarre one, involving a rhetorical situation that pits oneself against oneself, as both rhetor and audience. In order to convince oneself to do something one does not want to do, one has to:
  1. Partition the part of oneself that wants to get something done from the part that really does not want to do whatever it is.

  2. From the perspective of the part that wants to persuade the recalcitrant part, study the audience (i.e., the part that really does not want to do whatever it is). This is, perhaps not surprisingly, difficult, as a large part of one's mind will be resisting this process. Free-writing helps--I think this is why morning pages are so helpful.

  3. Consider and try motivational strategies. Figuring out what has worked in the past helps with this. But also be creative in finding solutions. Collect these on paper or in your head for later use. Note: Being hostile to one's audience isn't such a good motivational ploy.

  4. Lather, rinse, repeat. Only do this when needed. The way I look at it, there's no need to do this all the time, as one is not blocked or unmotivated all the time. When you've found a set of formulas that works, no need to muck with them for awhile, until one forgets again. One can get more done when one isn't always fiddling with one's self-motivation processes.
It feels weird, this process. Very strange. But a week's worth of morning pages certainly seems to have helped with this, and gotten me back into the game. The thing is, the morning pages get my creative side so jazzed up and productive that I think I should take a bit of a break from them for awhile, while I go and work on the things they've inspired me to do, and work out the finer points of the insights they've given me into the ways I work best.

Anyone else find their process to be similar to or different from this? Anyone have creative ideas for motivating oneself?

Monday, August 11, 2008

Two Kinds of Springs, part 2: Fiction

I realized, as I thought about these different kinds of springs for my writing, that most of the novel-length fiction ideas I've had going have generated primarily out of thoughts and reflections rather than the need to express an emotional experience. There's nothing wrong with that--I think they're excellent projects and I'm excited to be working on them, and they always help me process emotions as I'm going along. But there are a few consequences of this insight for my recent situation:
  1. Fictional projects starting from thoughts need more simmering time while I work my way into understanding the emotional territory they occupy.

    Sometimes the emotional territory is, as is the case with one of the thought-motivated novels I'm working on, emotional territory that's painful for me to enter, and so it's good that my reflections have led me there, but sometimes the simmering time is all the more necessary so that I can enter that territory gradually, over years if necessary.

    At other times, the emotional territory and the culture these projects occupy is simply one that is foreign to me, and maybe involves a lot of getting inside the heads of people who simply are part of cultures or lifestyles I haven't been exposed to enough to write them immediately. This is good, as it requires me to empathize with those unlike myself, which is a good spiritual discipline. But it requires a lot of both research and simmering so that I don't feel like I've colonized these people whose motivations I don't understand. This leads to the second insight:

  2. Thought/reflection fiction projects don't always mesh well with a lot of academic work. Not only do these kind of fiction projects require a lot of time for research when my academic projects also require a lot of time for research, the fact that they start from reflections can make them feel a bit too similar to everything else I'm doing. I love doing the research for them, and their subject matter would form great academic papers as well, usually, but the fact that they're projects whose emotional territory takes a lot of time to imagine my way into means that if I move past the research stage into the writing stage, they can suck up a lot of the time I should honestly be putting into other things.

  3. As a result, I should be spending time, during the school year, writing fiction during the school year of the other type: that which flows out of emotions and situations I'm dealing with. I have a huge fear of writing fiction that's thinly veiled autobiography, but that's not what this means. Mostly what it means is allowing space for fiction projects to emerge that have been simmering within me without my head knowing about it.

    Case in point: a day or so after I told the whiny voice of my current fiction projects to sit in a corner, I sat down and sketched out the beginning of this story with academic characters, in a department different than the ones I'm in, but with whose emotional territory I'm immersed in on a day in, day out basis. This project is the perfect kind of project to work on during the school year--it won't take long to slide in and out of because well, the characters' emotions are familiar to me. In fact, I'm probably experiencing them on a daily basis, and turning them into art will help me to deal with them.

    Not only that, but it will give me motivation to make it through the parts of my academic life I don't like. When something I'm going through becomes dull, worrisome, painful, or whatever, I can see that as material my characters might also experience. And that will transform the very emotions that usually trap me and sap my essay-writing energy into treasured possessions, bits of hard-won "research" that will enrich the fictional story I'm working on. All of which will make my life significantly more enjoyable.
Well, I'm glad I figured that out. Art really is an odd and wonderful thing, isn't it?

Sunday, August 10, 2008

An Insight: Two Kinds of Springs

(NOTE: I've been advised that my posts are getting too long again--they tend to do that--so please, if it happens again, leave a nice polite reminder comment. For that matter, if you have topics you'd like me to address, also leave comments for that. Thanks so much.)

One of the insights that came shortly after I'd grounded my creative writing censor is that there are two basic ways my writing projects emerge: (1) as Wordsworth's "overflow of emotion," or (2) as the overflow of thoughts and reflections. These kinds, which of course blur into each other at times, cut across generic boundaries such as non-fiction and fiction, academia and "creative" writing.

All the same, some genres do often align with one type more than another. Poetry, for instance, while it can contain thoughts and reflections, is often for me of the outflow of emotion type. And academic essays, while they often flow out of topics I'm passionate, and therefore emotional, about, usually start from my thoughts and reflections.

What really interested me about this insight is the two other genres that seem to come from either one or the other: creative non-fiction and fiction. Creative non-fiction can flow out of an emotional experience I need to express, then quickly merging with thoughts and emotions, or it can start with thoughts and reflections and then merge with my experiences and emotions. This is helpful for me to realize because the best creative non-fiction incorporates both seamlessly--expressing thoughts and ideas, but in a way that also expresses emotions and experiences.

The second genre, fiction, is the humdinger of the insight for me, though. But that's an insight for tomorrow.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

What I Wasn't Expecting, Part 2: Literal and Metaphorical Seasons

I'm a big believer in seasonal rhythms. I'm more energetic in the summer--the fresh air invigorates me and I want to go out and experience things, journaling about all of it so as to be able to later transmute those experiences into text. In the winter darkness I nest and cozy up to the page with a cup of tea and a purring cat in my lap.

Back when I wasn't required to write so many papers in the winter, it worked out perfectly--during the summer I went out and did the experiential part of my creative writing process, and in the winter I buckled down and wrote and polished those pages. It was great--all part of the seasonal cycle. It wasn't instant gratification, the transfer between the collection of material and the transmutation of it into prose and poetry, but I could guarantee that during the fall, winter, and early spring, I'd be producing something creative from something I'd learned previously.

Of course, sometimes this seasonal cycle was longer, and more metaphorical. For the novel I'm finally almost feeling happy with and am trying to find a publishing home for, for instance, the material collection part of the process lasted several years and a total of five trips to Alaska before I finally had the time and energy to pound out the first draft of the manuscript in 20 months. During this early time, the project was simmering, with occasional spurts of research activity or brainstorming inspiration to be jotted down, but I wrote no chapters. My material was scattered all over--journal entries and photos from my trips, random notes in a specific notebook about potential plot points and things my main character might do, etc.

During this time, due to the aforementioned attitude in the writing community about getting the writing done, I was very judicious about who I mentioned my novel to. I was busy doing other things writer-wise, to prime the pump for regular writing when I was ready to switch to fiction. I was journaling extensively, writing book reviews and the occasional article, holding editorial positions, and working more than full-time at a publishing house. Life was full, and my writing life was full. Not in a bad way, and certainly not in a "Shadow Artist" way. In fact, looking back on it, all of that activity was necessary preparation for the time when I finally was ready and able to write the novel. I did have to clear the time in my schedule for that period, but I don't think I would have been ready for it much earlier. The seasons had not yet shifted, either internally or externally.

The reason I talk about all this in detail is that I feel like, for many reasons, I'm being asked to take another simmering time when it comes to my new novel projects. I have several definite projects I want to write, and I'm collecting material of all sorts for them from time to time, both intentionally and intuitively, but I've been realizing that during at least the first part of my PhD, it's summer for me year-round in the novel-writing area. The main reason for this is the need to give my attention to my PhD coursework, which actually dovetails with some of my novel ideas and will make them stronger. Another part of this is a new focus on short creative non-fiction, which rounds me out a bit, yet dovetails so nicely with writing academic essays. And part of it simply is other things going on in my life--a long distance relationship involving much traveling, for one.

I'm not worried that I won't come back to the novel projects I have lined up in my mind like dominoes. I have enough past experience to know winter always comes in my writing life, as the approach of the fall tells me it will in a less metaphorical way as well.

And I look forward to that time of intense productivity working on my novels, when all the simmering and material I've gathered together will coalesce, producing the glorious fruit of a sequential plot populated with a whole cast of characters, all written down on paper and/or a screen. But for now, it will still be summer for me in the fiction-writing domain. It feels a little odd, to feel the metaphorical cycle diverging from the natural cycle.

In this time when it feels like the cycles are out of sync because some are longer than others, I take comfort from the concept of sabbath years and years of Jubilee that the Hebrews were supposed to practice back in early Palestine. They were supposed to take every seventh day--the Sabbath--to rest from their labors and regenerate. But this wasn't the only cycle. Every seventh year was supposed to be a Sabbath for the land--it was supposed to lie fallow that year, allowing the nutrients to collect within it so that it could pour out new growth the following year. And every seventh of these cycles, the Israelites were supposed to take an extra year of sabbatical called the year of Jubilee. (See Leviticus 25 for more.)

The point is, that there were supposed to be larger concentric cycles burgeoning out from the daily and weekly cycles. This was the way it was supposed to work. The land needed times for material collecting, as it were, and those times were part of the cycle.

The Israelites never actually followed this plan, though, and I've begun to wonder that my call to leaving my fiction projects fallow for awhile while I focus on other things might give me an idea of why that might have been so. One can be so impatient for those years of productivity, to overwork the soil, that one can leech all the good things out of it and not give it time to regain them. One can become addicted to seeing fruit of a certain kind--fruit one enjoys--and not cycle the crops well enough.

There may be a time in my life when my life actually comes closer to the biblical cycle in the fictional realm--six years of writing novels to one year of material gathering and fallowness. Perhaps in a few years my material will be plentiful enough for that, and my time, energy, and other obligations will allow me to make fiction-writing itself--rather than fiction material gathering--a less-intermittent thing. But in the meantime, as I'm beginning to learn, the process is somewhat the opposite in the realm of fiction, even as winter approaches both literally and metaphorically for writing of other kinds.

The fallow season frustrates the heck out of me sometimes--I'd like to go out and buy a bumper sticker on my car, regardless of how much it lowers the car's value, that says "I'd rather be writing fiction"--but really, this season represents freedom and opportunity. Summer, after all, is one of my favorite times--a time for energy and travel and hiking and spending time with friends. I should be making the most of my metaphorical summer, and enjoying it while it's here, trusting that while the later process will involve pruning down to the best bits of material, as usual all the the material will have been helpful to gather.

Oh, one other thing I've learned--because of the way my yearly writing cycle works, it's not all that reasonable for me to expect myself to make a ton of actual progress on my creative writing during the summer, any more than farmers expect the crops to grow a lot during the summer. Research, sure, but not actual writing as much. Frustrating, perhaps, but there it is. I'm wondering how healthy it would be to mess with that much. Perhaps it would change if I moved to a place with a different seasonal cycle? Then again, maybe I just need times where not much polished writing happens at all, much like the sabbath years...

Friday, August 8, 2008

What I Wasn't Expecting, Part 1: The Censor

I was expecting lots of things from my morning pages, but not this. I was hoping they'd help me to be more productive in all areas, not just creative writing, but I was also hoping to have them instantly clear the way for my creative writing to flow out of me. The last thing I expected from them was the message that it's okay to not feel guilty about not doing creative writing, particularly fiction.

As a background for those of you not familiar with The Artist's Way, the book talks about morning pages, those first 3 pages of free-writing after you roll out of bed in the morning, as highlighting the critics inside your head. What I didn't expect was that one of the voices I had to combat is one of the voices implicit in the book itself: the message that one must allow oneself tons of time for creative writing, or one would be a deficient artist.

Readers of many creative writing books (including The Artist's Way, ironically--check out the section called "Shadow Artists") will recognize this guilt I mention. All these books and courses and conferences carry with them an implicit--and often explicit--message that all those people out there who say that they have a novel in them but never finish it are idiots. On the contrary, a good disciplined writer, they say, must be committed to writing. That person is doing creative writing--preferably fiction--every day. That person is the one who gets to be a J. K. Rowling or John Grisham. To get there, you've got to get the thing done, they say.

It's all very true, if the goal is to become a fiction author like J. K. Rowling or John Grisham. One must actually write to get the book done, and one must then actually send that tome out into the world (often many, many times--with Rowling the first book took 27 submits, John Grisham 38, so legend has it) and follow through to give the thing a chance to be published. This is a truth, and this voice of guilt has been helpful to me at times to keep me moving.

The problem is that the voice of this writing self-help culture, ironically present in the books that are there to help you get through the issues to get to the writing, can at times be the very voice that stalls you from getting it--or anything else--done. This seems to be case for me lately. What I've been learning from my morning pages is that this guilt has created this voice in my head, which is fine most of the time. Recently, however, it's been very whiny and immature, drowning out all others with its demands that I put all my time into writing novels, now and forever. It has as its core a legitimate core, sure, this echo of my desire to write fiction, but it also needs to grow up and take its turn a bit more often, like a good voice in a mature person's head. In fact, if this was SuperNanny, I would say it would need a time out.

Yes, I've written a novel. Yes, I have it out at an agent right now, but no, I haven't revised the last 60 pages for the 6th time, which I've been saying I'll do for the last year now. Yes, I have several more novels I want to write. But what I've been noticing is that this voice in my head not only keeps me from working on those novels, it makes me feel guilty about everything else that's also a legitimate part of my writing life as well as part of my broader life. It keeps me in a bad place in my head, gives me a bad attitude about non-fiction-writing tasks, and stalls my productivity altogether at times.

It doesn't recognize all the other things I have been doing in the last year, writing-wise. And there's been a lot. To list just a couple of examples, I've written approximately 225 pages of graduate-level term papers this year. As a creative outlet, I've also written around half-a-dozen articles for catapult magazine. These things were important to do--in the first case, they're my primary occupation right now, as a graduate student. In the second case, they've garnered me a couple of print publications and given me the oomph to keep writing creatively during a time when working on long fiction just isn't feasible.

The list could go on, but the point is, it must be put in its place, this whiny fiction-demanding voice. The scary part is that it's one of my favorite voices--I really want to get my new novels written, and soon. But in order to make sure this voice is given the opportunity to grow up, and to make sure I'm not getting in the way of my other responsibilities, I may need to ground it until my priorities get more balanced. Unfortunately, grounding the voice may mean putting my novel projects on somewhat of a simmer at least until next summer. I want for sure to get those last 60 pages of revision and some more queries for the pretty-much-done novel done, O whiny voice. And I'll do occasional research into the world of the new novels, and maybe write a few new pages occasionally, but for the most part, the other novel-writing projects may have to lie fallow for awhile while I write another couple hundred pages of academic essays, more creative non-fiction, and, of course, blog entries.

For more on this idea of fallow projects, check back tomorrow--it deserves its own post.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

"Writing the Islands"

So my friend and fellow writer Brian Phipps is starting a blog in order to "write the islands" of a book he's been wanting to write for awhile, in hopes that a public place to post his ideas might keep him accountable for actually working on the rest of it.

This got me thinking about three things:

  1. My old blog, which was started for a very similar reason. I was thinking about doing a communication PhD at some point, and knew I was roughly interested in the ideas of technology's interaction with communication, and creativity, so while I was working on my MA in English, the blog was a place to capture my reflections on the subject so I could figure out what I was really interested in about the subject.

    It helped a lot--I can't imagine having to write my admissions essays for PhD programs without that resource to paw through and figure out what I was most interested in. Of course, now that I've been taking courses and getting a chance to think about it all the time, and am writing full papers on the subject, I find I have no desire to continue. For me, then, it was a starting point--a place to capture ideas where others could see them and comment on them before I dug into the main task. Now it served its purpose, and so I was happy to move on to this blog, which I expect will help me and others in different ways.

  2. The public-private tension with blogs.There's something about the liminality of cyberspace that makes it easy to disclose things, and yet stuff posted on blogs is a publication that anyone can see and respond to. This makes a blog a good place to capture ideas you want to write for an audience and polish a bit, but aren't quite as fully formed as you would make them for an article or a book you were writing.

    The liminality (or unfinished nature, as it were) of the blogosphere helps with this stage of the writing (helps one to get around the coherence and relevance censor in one's head), and its public nature helps both with finding people to give feedback and with keeping one accountable for writing the "islands you can see." It also helps to be able to "think things through out loud with others" when those interested in the topic don't happen to be geographically convenient.

  3. It would not work for me for fiction. This kind of process, about "writing the islands" you can already see in hopes that the water of the rest of the work will surround them, only works for me in academic prose and other creative non-fiction. It works quite well there, in fact, but my fiction-writing only works if it's linear.

    My fiction research is about collecting islands of material, but the novel-writing process for me has to be done in order in the first draft--I can think ahead to the next parts and take notes, but, partly because I'm a "light of the headlights" style fiction writer who doesn't know the end until I see it slightly ahead of the characters, I can't write a new chapter until I'm done with a draft of the last one. I can write a few independent scenes to learn my characters, but they never end up in the draft. I find it fascinating, these differences between the two kinds of processes.

One final thing: writers wonder how to find time to blog when they have so many other things they want to write. It's, I think, at least partly about finding a way to fit it into your current process, and finding the right topic that feeds into your writing--the right topic that both energizes you to write and serves multiple purposes--and then letting yourself see the blogging as a legitimate priority within the writing domain. It's also important to remember, though, I think, that it's there for a specific purpose and therefore that it's okay to move on once it's done that.

I also think it's okay to let it lie fallow for a time or to be willing to shift its purpose if another project if another project comes to the forefront. There's a time when every good topic-based blog, like most TV series, may come to an end, despite its seemingly never-ending nature, because the writer must shift their attention to other projects.

Of course, if one can find a way to make a broadly-enough themed blog to capture one's ideas on many of one's projects, that would work too. One of the reasons I switched to a broader theme for this current blog is to make the blog more sustainable, as it were. In my other blog, I found that having a narrower topic helped me focus, but also was inhibiting at times when I wanted to use the blog for bordering topics.

Any thoughts from you bloggers out there on the ebbs and flows and purposes of blogging?

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Getting Back into It

Considering how energized I was the morning after my 2-day monastery visit, it's perhaps not surprising that I lost all motivation a few hours later. Such is what often happens. The thing is that my monastery weekend, and in fact all my efforts to get into the writing groove during the last few weekends, were only a beginning. It takes an ongoing effort to really get back into the game.

And so I finally broke down and opened up the big guns again, by picking up my copy of The Artist's Way and reading through the first two chapters again.

Okay, so I know many many people sing its praises, but here's what I don't like about this book and why I dropped out of it 10 years ago when I started it then:

  1. It makes you sign a contract at the beginning of the book. Okay, I'm a "dip my toes in the water" and try things out before I dive in sort of girl. I also don't like to overcommit. Which leads me to point 2:
  2. It requires you to give 7-10 hours for 12 weeks.That's a lot of time. As much time as taking another course during the semester. I'm already busy this fall, and I'll be going away on vacation the end of next week. So I know that if I signed that contract, it would get broken in about 10 days. Not--simply not--going to happen

All the same, though, the book does have fabulous ideas, and right now, for these 10 days, I have a window in which I can be productive, both creatively and otherwise, if I can clear the cobwebs and clutter out of my head so I can get to work. And this book is a lovely thing, if I adjust it to my life rather than vice versa.

And so I decided that I could manage reading through some of it, and doing one of its primary practices--morning pages--for the next week or so, just to continue the good work I've been doing towards renewal.

And so far it's really working. I've been reclaiming my journaling practices lately, and they've helped, but this is a slightly different kind of journaling--the kind that isn't looking for just the right words, but instead acts as a dump of all your attitudes towards life and writing and creativity and work out on the page so you can hover them to the surface and then beat the bad ones up. It gives an opportunity for a sort of morning pep talk to oneself, and a place to become energized by being reminded that there is work to be done and that I really can get some of it done today.

So yeah, I won't be doing the whole book--well, maybe if I start it earlier, then next summer would be a good time--but I do suggest plowing out those 3 pages of nonsense first thing in the day for plowing through one's procrastination, ennui, and other unpleasant junk in one's head on a regular basis. I'll be trying it for the next 10 days, along with a few of the other exercises in this book and in Vinita's book, so I'll let you know how it goes in keeping me moving in everything I want to do...

Anyone else tried this before, or willing to try it with me for a few days? Let me know.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

A Different Way of Thinking Things Out

I was hanging out over at Image's "Good Letters" blog, and I was struck by the similarity of this post to some of the narrative theory I've been reading so much of lately--that is, talking about the link between fiction and its impact on lived reality. I was also glad to hear the affirmation of fiction, though I'd like to add a few thoughts and extensions to the thoughts expressed in the blog and the comments it got in response.

First, it is true narrative prose, particularly fiction, can do things academic prose can't (and that's why I write both and particularly revel in the fiction-writing task), but I'd like to also call out something both of them have in common: they both present a nuanced view of reality. One of the reasons that I both went back to school and started writing novels, after spending several years working on squishing large ideas into small words on web navigation bars, was to address questions in ways that allowed me to see the nuances of them again.

I enjoyed writing my MA in English thesis tremendously for this reason, and I hope it didn't try to explain away the creative works I was looking at, but instead helped people to have a deeper context of and experience of them. I know I was able to get a profoundly deeper experience of them while I was writing those hundred pages. I would in fact say that it's just as difficult to reduce my thesis to a journal article--both my supervisor and I tried before he suggested I send it as-is to a monograph series to see whether they'd like to take a look at it--than it would be to reduce Four Quartets' and Walden's deeply expressive ways of describing life to my thesis.

That is to say, I think that some things are simply irreducible to a few pages, and I'm thankful to live in a world where that is so.

But, to move on to my second point, I also think fiction--and poetry and creative non-fiction too, for that matter--have profoundly important roles in showing us the concrete expressions of what may happen, as well as appealing to us on levels other than the intellect. I think both these roles are profoundly important, and may act rhetorically to help us to see new possibilities.

Then again, this post is not supposed to be my dissertation, so I'll not ramble on too far in that direction, just pause and bring this back to its relevance to me as a writer and academic. The point is this: as an academic, I tend to live in my head too much--by the end of a semester's worth of classes I can feel that my feet are floating somewhere above the earth in a cloud of abstraction. Writing fiction, specifically, brings my feet back to earth (all the better that it's an imaginary earth, I say), giving me a way to think through the connection between theory and lived reality before applying anything to actual lived reality.

My fiction is of course not all, as Santiago Ramos says in the post, the equivalent of an "essay or philosophical discourse"--I'm also just playing and enjoying being artistically expressive and getting to know my characters. Still, when I write fiction, often I take a series of questions I have about the world and clothe them with an imagined reality to see what would happen. When I'm doing this, I love the fact that it helps me to test my thoughts by seeing their emotional and spiritual impacts on imaginary characters before applying them to the real world.

Yup, considering this ethical dimension of fiction, one wishes chemists and bioengineers were required to test out their theories in fictional form, trying them out sincerely on imaginary characters to see what the impacts might be, before trying them out in the real world.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Back and Raring to Go...And Pregnant with Novel Characters

So after a lovely weekend soaking in stillness and blistering my heels during walks in old hiking boots in the abbey woods, I've returned home, much to the glee of my two cats, who act every time I'm gone as though they are on the brink of death without me.

After many prayers (8 short church services in one weekend) and reading all of Leif Enger's new book (I loved it), my spiritual and creative sides are both refreshed and raring to go again. I feel, for some reason, like a boxer who's just had water dumped over her head before returning to the ring.

Oh geesh, there are the sports metaphors again--this happened to me the last time I wrote this particular character in the new novel I'm working on. I find it so mysterious, the relationship between an author and her characters, and how they affect her.

It's really hard to explain to others (especially those who don't write fiction themselves) why you might seem obsessed with, say, moose, or why you might suddenly start speaking in sports metaphors for days or months on end, when these things are really your character's preferences that are somehow taking shape in your imagination, sometimes almost without your notice, and ultimately claiming a voice in the outer world. It can be quite inconvenient at times.

It's a terrible cliche, but no wonder they say writing a book's like birthing a child--I would extend that and say that it's first like carrying a dozen or more children at once, their personalities forming inside you in some mysterious way. And like a pregnant woman, in this condition I am found doing all sorts of odd things because of my condition, some of which actually involves eating food I never would have eaten otherwise. For instance, the novel I'm trying to sell right now--the one that's for all intents and purposes done--involved much effort put into tracking down and eating moose meat. (It's illegal to sell, so you have to know someone who knows a hunter--it can be challenging. But it's quite good--not that different from beef, though most like elk, another meat I tried while waiting to track down the moose.)

And then the weirdest part is when one novel's characters are trying to emerge into the world while another's are beginning to form--all present in one's imagination together, though in separate rooms. Not to mention all the non-fiction that's birthed out of me on a regular basis.

Sheesh, this is an odd life I've stumbled into. Good thing I love it.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Quotes (and Comments): The Powers and Perils of Noticing

"Literature makes us better noticers of life; we get to practice on life itself; which in turn makes us better readers of detail in lterature; which in turn makes us better readers of life. And so on and on....

"By thisness, I mean any detail that draws abstraction toward itself and seems to kill that abstraction with a puff of palpability, any detail that centers our attention with its concretion."
--James Wood's brand-new book How Fiction Works, p. 65, 67
(a review in Slate)
"Creative work teaches you to pay attention, and this is something that few people do well or often. We spend hours and days at a time just trying to get ahead of an impossible schedule or solve one of many problems. We don't have time to sit and watch what light does to the color of the living-room wall at a certain time in the afternoon... Well, if you are...writing a story that contains an afternoon scene, you will pay better attention to what physical qualities make the afternoon different from morning or evening."
--Vinita Hampton Wright, The Soul Tells a Story, p. 33

Okay, so it's the search for this kind of concretion, this perfect detail, that sends me out into the world and into books and online looking for way more details than I could possibly include in my fiction. This effort also serves me well in my academic work, actually. Looking for just the right detail is important in both domains.

These sorts of efforts, however, have their consequences:
"An artist has to become super-sensitive to life in order to notice what others miss and to develop what others may ignore or consider unimportant. The longer you work at your creative gifts, the more sensitive you become. The longer you work at your creative gifts, the more sensitive you become.

"Of course this means that you're more sensitive to everything....You notice sadness or anger in the eyes of passing strangers. Increased sensitivity will nourish your art, but it will wear on you at times....

"Be grateful that you cry easily... This means that your senses are fine-tuned, and that's good for your art."
--Vinita Hampton Wright, The Soul Tells a Story, p. 201-202

Okay, so this seems to be where my creative and academic selves diverge a bit. As an academic, I notice the detail needed for my essays quite a bit, but can mostly focus on the details in my head or on the page in front of me. It's sensitivity I've cultivated to the sorts of details needed for my creative work that make my brain shut down from overexposure if I spend more than a few days in a city like New York, where there's way too much for me to notice all at once. (Then again, there's also a sensitivity to the theory that knits ideas and things together that's definitely developed by my academic side.)

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Quotes: On "Those Creative Types," and on Risk Taking

"Not to disappoint you, but my troubles are nothing--not for an author, at least. Common blots aside, I have none of the usual Big Artillery: I am not penniless, brilliant, or an orphan; have never been to war, suffered starvation or lashed myself to a mast. My health is adequate, my wife steadfast, my son decent and promising. I am not surrounded by people who don't understand me! on Page One I don't even live in interesting surroundings, such as in a hospital for the insane, or on a tramp steamer, or in at the outset it's flat old Minnesota and I am sitting on the porch of my comfortable farmhouse, composing the flaccid middle of my seventh novel in five years. Seven novels, you exclaim--quite right, but then I didn't finish any of them. I'm grateful for that, and you should be too."

--Leif Enger, So Brave, Young, and Handsome, p. 1
(listen to Leif at the Tattered Cover bookstore)
"When we see the terms artist and creative, we tend to think of the most flamboyant representatives of these two categories....But some of the most creative people do not look artistic at all. They work long hours and are quite practical and unromantic. Have you talked lately with someone who organizes relief efforts after an earthquake has ripped apart an entire region? You don't get any more creative than that, and yet such people appear to be more pragmatic than creative. Forget about such stereotypes...Maybe you have an artistic temperament and maybe you don't. That really doesn't matter. What is important is that you discover your creative gifts and develop them."

--Vinita Hampton Wright, The Soul Tells a Story, p. 22-23
"Much of the creative flatness that surrounds us exists precisely because people have been willing to nurture one part of life but not another....So prepare yourself for full-life engagement. You can embrace this work and never be bored again. Or you can resist [full immersion in it] and suffer one of two fates: you yourself will become numb and boring, or you will exist in that nerve-jangling tension of never quite saying yes or no."

--Vinita Hampton Wright, The Soul Tells a Story, p. 21-22

Disclaimer: I have not read far enough into So Brave, Young, and Handsome yet to ensure that Vinita's diagnosis for Enger's character is correct--but it seems from the back cover like he's going to have to be more adventurous in the rest of the book, so it's a guess. If you want to know if this is the correct diagnosis, read the book yourself, or ask me once I'm done. :)

Friday, August 1, 2008

Off to a Still Point of the Turning World

Considering the ups and downs of this week, boy am I glad I thought ahead enough to schedule some space at the monastery for this coming weekend.

I believe, with Virginia Hampton Wright, that spirituality and creativity are incredibly closely linked, and so I look forward to some spiritual and creative retreat at the Episcopalian Benedictine abbey I've been visiting for the last ten years, some time to "kneel where prayer has been valid" and soak in the stillness and maybe write a bit, but mostly stare a lot before coming back to the "still moving" part again.

If you're curious about my habit of visiting monasteries and would like to read more, you can check out what I wrote about it this spring at catapult magazine.

I'll be away from the Internet from Friday afternoon to Sunday night, so any comments you post over the weekend will be moderated when I get back, but I look forward to hearing more about where you'd love to go to retreat, if you had your choice.

While I'm gone, The blog will still have daily content: I've scheduled some quotations and comments from The Soul Tells a Story and some other writing-related books (ah, the beauty of the ability to schedule posts)...