Archive for the ‘Humble efforts’ category

writing is rewriting

August 17, 2015

“I spent the morning putting in a comma and the afternoon removing it.”

Gustave Flaubert

“I turn sentences around. That’s my life. I write a sentence and then I turn it around. Then I look at it and I turn it around again. Then I have lunch. Then I come back in and write another sentence. Then I have tea and turn the new sentence around. Then I read the two sentences over and turn them both around. Then I lie on the sofa and think. Then I get up and throw them out and start from the beginning.”

E.I. Lonoff in Roth’s The Ghost Writer

So, writing is rewriting. That was a hard lesson for me to learn when I was just a pup starting on this adventure. The stories I wrote then demanded so much of me, so thoroughly exhausted my life experience and the shallows of my musings, that when I finished one, there was nothing more I could do with it. It was finished. Complete. Perfect just the way it was. And behind me.

And undoubtedly dreadful. I’ve not whipped up the courage to go back and read any of those from the early days. I know now that they were my apprentice work, my crawling before stumbling before walking before running. And I know even more, know with well-deserved humility, that no first draft is complete or perfect just the way it is. Certainly not one of mine anyway.

This has not been a good writing year for me. I know many people are dismissive of the idea of “writer’s block.” And perhaps that is not what is afflicting me. Ideas for new stories, ideas for developing partially written stories, even ideas for stories that are finished and published, flood into my chaotic brain just as much as they ever did. But sitting before the laptop in the wee small hours of the morning and making myself enter that creative place where the writing flows (or trickles or sometimes dams up) has just not been happening. Yes, I did manage to put together two short stories in the last few months, but they were completions of work I had started long before, and I’m not sure they’re actually complete. Two stories in eight months ain’t much in the realm of productivity.

But if you can’t write, you can always rewrite, and that’s what I’ve been doing more of lately.

One of my “completed” Fathers and Sons stories (one? more like a half dozen!) had always felt forced and more than a little schmaltzy. Despite those misgivings, I had submitted it to several magazines and duly received rejections. Fine. That’s the nature of this biz. Knowing that it wasn’t right, I’d revisit it and tinker with this or that, and maybe I’d improve it in increments, but I wasn’t getting it where it needed to be. It was flawed in some deep way that I couldn’t identify.

But then the epiphany came. One of the fathers in the stories succumbs to dementia in his old age. Much of the sons’ legacy is lost (or trapped) inside his mind. And what is gleaned from there is suspect. What I realized, as I reflected on the many stories in their many states of completion, is that memory is a recurring theme throughout them. I hadn’t set out to make this a touchstone. (I hadn’t even set out to write a cycle of stories; I just wrote one, liked it, set it aside, then found I had more to say about the characters.) Memory recalled, memory mistrusted, and, in the case of this story, memory manufactured and whether true or not, cherished.

The story is titled “Comfortable in his skin” and it deals with a pivotal day in the life of one of the sons. Yet as he remembers the day, he can’t be sure it happened they way his imagines. But he decides he’s going to accept the memory as true.

The problem with the story was that I’d had the wrong narrator. I had the father telling the story, lovingly, about his son and this important day in his young life. And while that would make it true in the universe of the cycle, it was just too saccharine and “final” for my liking. To have the son “remember” the day decades later, to have him fill in the missing parts as he wanted them to be, allowed the schmaltziness to become sweetness. It’s still a sentimental story, but it is the story as well told as my skills can do.

Discovering the theme of the story is what allowed me to salvage it. That same thing happened in a big way in my story “When we were young and life was full in us,” which I still think is the story I’ve written with the best control; every word in it was considered and weighed. Every sentence was turned around. I think I did get that one exactly right. (And there is a motif in “Comfortable” that recurs in the later-in-the-cycle “When we were young” that I’m pleased with.)

Is “Comfortable in his skin” finished? Probably not. I’ve sent it to a writing friend for his opinion. (Note: he told me I was always welcome to send him stuff.) I’m not good at taking advice, but he is good at seeing through the fog, so I’ll give his words consideration.

I’m not sure I’m past whatever has bottled up my creativity this year, but it is gratifying to get another story in better shape. I’ll take that much until something better comes along.

signaling a lane change

May 29, 2015

Maybe. Perhaps. Possibly. Dunno yet.

Long-time readers (both of you) will recall that along with the Fathers and Sons stories that have monopolized my creative self for a couple of years, I also have a finished novel titled The Sleep of Reason that I really should be shopping around. I had some good nibbles for it in the past, but my enthusiasm to submit had waned, lethargy and entropy ensued, and now I’m mired. Poor me, right?

You may also recall that I had embarked on writing a series of murderless cozy mystery novels with a husband and wife team of reluctant sleuths, all set in or featuring the bed and breakfast inns where they would stay on their travels. (They were my original purpose for starting this humble blog.) I’ve written four novels in that series, one of which I think is actually good, two of which I think can be salvaged, and one of which may remain forever on the self of apprentice work. In recent weeks, ideas for a couple of the unwritten entries in this mystery series have been presenting themselves in my tortured little brain. I pretty much have the basic plots worked out for these, and I’ve compiled lots of notes for them over the years. I think I have critical mass achieved for one of them. (It involves running!)

And so I wonder if maybe it is time for me to step away from the Fathers and Sons stories (so fraught and literary they are) and put some time/effort/creativity into the less demanding cozy mystery stories. I wonder if my current seeming stalemate with the F&S stories combined with the fresh ideas for the cozy mystery stories might be a sign that I should change lanes for a while.

Can I travel freely and easily between styles and genres as I propose? I think so. I’m not prohibiting myself from doing one or the other (or even some third thing if it presented itself — but not poetry; I can’t do poetry). I like to think I could work to exhaustion on one and then pick up fresh with another since they are quite different. I think that’s what I’m going to try to do.

My mother told me long ago that you should always use the turn signal in your car, even if you don’t see anyone around you, because you may be signalling for the car you don’t see. And that’s kind of what this post is like. Maybe there is someone actually reading this and will appreciate my signal.

thick skinned report

May 12, 2015

I got two rejection letters over the weekend (coincidentally on my drive home from the miserable half marathon).

One was for “Twice Blest” and it came all the way from Jerusalem. A journal there was looking for pieces about “men” and since that story is part of my Fathers and Sons cycle, I gave it a try. They chose not to use it, and they sent a form email, but it was a fair attempt. (Plus, I’d since modified the story in what I think was a necessary way, so now I have something better to submit elsewhere.)

The second was for “Been Lonely So Long,” which is accumulating encouraging rejection letters. This email was personalized and detailed. I was told that I am a good writer and that my thematic use of the first person plural narration was clever, but they found a few faults as well. One was the intervention the characters stage for one of their own. The editors didn’t find that they characters knew that other person well enuf to stage an intervention. But that was pretty much exactly my point. Maybe I was too subtle about this and need to draw it out a little more clearly. They also didn’t like the last sentences, which seems to be my weakness. I’m not sure what (if anything) I want to do about that. It speaks to the theme (the nature of compassion), but again, maybe I’m too indirect about that. I’ll ponder it.

“Been Lonely” been busy

April 23, 2015

I got another rejection this week for my story “Been Lonely So Long.” (I actually do remember making this submission.) Once again, it was a personalized, very encouraging rejection email. The editor took the time to tell me that my story had made the short list, and they even published those of us on that list on their web page.

“About 10 percent of more than 300 entries made the shortlist. At that level, all of the pieces were in some way well written, entertaining, innovative or insightful. Although the following pieces did not make the cut, we’d like to acknowledge the writers here for their compelling work. It was a close call. Thank you to everyone for submitting.”

(Then they spelled my name wrong. Oops.)

The editor encouraged me to submit again (when the window opens), which is always a warm fuzzy.

Apparently “Been Lonely So Long” is a good story. I can think of one or two mags I ought to inflict it upon. I may even do that.

so I got a rejection . . .

April 6, 2015

. . . which means I apparently made a submission. The story is “Been Lonely So Long.” It’s a one-off. It’s not part of the Fathers and Sons universe at all. It was just something I tossed together based very loosely on a group of people I sort of know, heavily fictionalized, and set in a different city. Yes, it involves runners. And beer.

It is narrated in first person plural, and I did that not for the novelty but for thematic reasons. (Basically, it’s easier to avoid responsibility by being part of a group than by being an individual. It’s my musing on the nature of charity. Sometimes I think that is my big theme.)

I had forgotten that I had submitted it, though I had done so less than a month ago. Oh well. But it was a very nice, personal rejection letter. The editor said my story came close to acceptance, and he encouraged me to submit to the journal again (when their submission window opens next time). Such encouragement is nice, but as I said, it’s a one-off piece. I don’t have anything else with such a thematic structural build to it. I’m sure I’ll write something that crafty again sometime, but for now, it’s all I have.

inspired (or maybe not?)

December 22, 2014

There is a school of thought (school?) that says one should not wait for inspiration to strike before working on some creative project, in my case short stories. Rather, one should plug away at whatever is underway and muddle along until something gels or inspiration does strike or at least you’re not wasting your time on social media.

I’m of two minds about this. I’ve had too many stories (and even attempts at novels) go astray because I was simply plugging away at them without knowing where I needed to go. I didn’t have the big picture or the fine ending or the controlling metaphor or the overarching theme or the elusive inspiration. Or even a plot at least once. I’ve devoted a lot of time and effort to things that turned out to be frustrating dead ends. (And don’t tell me I was at least practicing the craft. I don’t think I buy that.)

So I’m reluctant to stare at a blank screen or a stuck story and try to “force” my way further. When I’m stalled, there’s a reason, and I think my job at that point is to figure out what that reason is and how it can be addressed. Neither is generally clear then. In my story “Twice Blest” I needed to come up with the “twice” part of it. (See Quality of Mercy. Note: I am by no means a Shakespeare scholar!) And I didn’t have it. I built to it, but I didn’t have the delivery. I was stalled. And no amount of fidgeting with the words was making any difference.

What I needed was some time away and some reflection. I know it sounds cliched (or at least thoroughly unreliable), but when I’m struggling with something like this, the resolution generally comes to me as an epiphany. It just dawns in my little head in some useful and (in the end frustratingly) obvious way. (Often it happens when I’m out running, far from paper and pencil.) And so it was with this story. The answer was there all along, in the notes I had been keeping for the story. I just didn’t recognize it until I started reading one of the other stories in this cycle and saw an important connection in theme (that is supposed to run through them all).

“Twice Blest” is not finished yet, but the core of it is in place. I need to plug away at it now in a way I couldn’t have allowed myself before (with an eye to the controlling metaphor business). And I’ve already turned my eyes to the next story in the cycle. I’m hoping it will be less difficult, but I’ll need to dig in to find out.

force of will

November 16, 2014

I rose early this morning, committed to forcing myself to spend some time before the computer, the recently and expensively upgraded computer, and stare at the screen for a few hours in an effort to get some new words on the page. It’s been a long time since I’ve been able to do that.

It worked.


I managed to get down a couple hundred words. And good words too, I think. I’m trying to deep dive into the motivations of one of my Fathers and Sons characters, trying to make his (in)actions and attitudes in the story credible without revealing too much. (That comes as an aside in one of the later stories.) It’s not been easy, in part because I haven’t lived the kind of life this character has; I’m relying on my imagination (never sufficient) and force of will (rarely tested) to wring some ideas out of my head and onto the page.

I’ve always said that half the tale is in the telling, and that’s my challenge here. I know the man’s history. It’s the expression of it that stymies me. But some words came. A couple of hundred words. Not like the days when I was writing the Finnegans novels and could count on a thousand-word sprint across the page. But something.

The story I’m working on (working title: “Quality of Mercy” though I think I may change it to “Twice Blest” — both from The Merchant of Venice) will be the first one in the chronology of the Fathers and Sons cycle. It’s critical to set the stage correctly, which is probably why I am struggling so much with it. A lot is riding on getting it right. And if I do get it right, then I think it will allow me to fix some of the subsequent stories I’ve already written that just don’t quite work. Big job for this little story.

At some point, someone said that my Fathers and Sons stories are “sentimental.” I anguished about that for a while. I want them to be literary and serious and suchlike. But then I thought: screw it. I will write the stories I have to write. I will do the very best I can with what I have. This story is going to have a sentimental ending. A life-changing sentimental ending. But that’s what happens sometimes between fathers and sons. That’s true to life. That’s what I have to offer.


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