Archive for the ‘Process’ category

stranger to myself

February 23, 2015

Okay, skip this navel-gazing post if you want. I’m pretty much just letting my fingers tap out whatever words they want in a stream-of-consciousness sort of way.

For several months I have been unable to write. I can’t seem to concentrate. I can’t enter the creative space where I find my stories. I seem locked out of my own head. (Have you ever been locked out of your house? Like you come back from a long run in your skimpy running shorts, carrying nothing more than your phone and a couple of depleted packs of GU, and you find the house locked and your wife elsewhere and not answering her phone? That’s how my brain has been lately. Oh, add two barking dogs who make a lot of noise but can’t let you in. My brain has been making a lot of noise but won’t let me in.)

On Saturday morning, in a feat of will just to persuade myself that I might still have some motivation, I looked at two of my stories that I think are more or less finished. I edited them, fine tuned them, I guess. Then I sent them to a couple of journals that are developing issues with themes that seem to match what I am trying to do with my stories. This took a lot of effort. My desire to do this didn’t come from my creative drive but from somewhere else. Maybe worry that . . . I don’t know.

(I am going somewhere with this.)

When I was reading my two stories, I was struck by how foreign they seemed. I can remember writing them, of course, but I don’t know how I picked the words I did or how I managed to structure the sentences to carry their weight. And crazy stuff like that. It was as though I was reading someone else’s stories. (A halfway decent writer, I think, whoever he is.) I was editing someone else’s stories, and I guess improving them a little, but it was as though I was never a part of their creation. Does that make sense?

This is unpleasant. It’s unpleasant enuf just to feel like a stranger to myself. But more immediately, it’s unpleasant to think that I am no longer (or at least not currently) the same person as the guy who wrote those stories. The person I am now certainly can’t write like that. (And I still have four or five Fathers and Sons stories I have to get written to complete the cycle.)

I’m not even making the notes about my stories that I occasionally would and that I could persuade myself was a type of writing. (One little idea did come up during the last week, but it wasn’t new material. It was more of a connection between two stories that I could make — if I ever write the second story.)

I’ve been told several times that I think too much. (By people whose discernment I never had much regard for.) Am I paralyzing myself with all of this introspection? Or am I on the way to a better me?

I think I know what’s at the bottom of this (not writer’s block), but that bottom is pretty deep and getting there to deal with it ain’t no fun, folks. Writing has been a part of my entire adult life (and most of my childhood once I figured out how fiction can transport a person). I suspect I’ll get back to it, get back to that creative space in my noisy brain where I find my stories. I’m not asking for pity (and certainly not empathy). I’m just “introspecting” and writing this post to see if there is still something in me, biding its time and waiting to return.

Yeah, it sucks!

brilliant thought . . . forgotten

January 6, 2015

I nearly always write down the brilliant thoughts that come to me (for my stories — my other brilliant thoughts I just bestow on whoever is lucky enuf to be near me at the time). I have a written journal I’ve kept for more than thirty years, and I keep a pad of lined paper on my desk at work to scribble the brilliance down when it pops into my head there. For the most part this works, though I have yet to start re-reading my paper journal to glean all of the brilliance from it (and I suspect most of it will be cringe-worthy).

Sometimes, though, the brilliant thoughts come to me when I can’t write them down. When I’m driving, or running, or showering, or trying to feign attention in a meeting, or when I’d drifting off to sleep. For the most part I remember these long enuf to get myself to a piece of paper and a pencil (a mechanical pencil). Alas, sometimes they elude me. All I can conjure is the memory that I had some brilliant thought, but the harder I try to recall what it was, the farther it drifts away.

One thing I have learned about myself is that I am a context thinker. Many of my thoughts are tied to where I am or what I am doing at the time they occur to me. The context doesn’t generally influence the thought but merely tie to it. Thus I can be sitting at the office thinking to myself that when I get home, I must be sure to do such and such. Then I get home and all I can remember is that there was something I needed to do. The next day, when I get back to the familiar surroundings of the office the thought comes back to me. (I often think to write it down this time.)

So I don’t fret too much when I lose a brilliant thought. It nearly always comes back to me. This was the case recently with the story I’m currently musing that I’m calling “Icarus.” I remember having an insight about the story that I thought would really help with its development (since that’s where I’m struggling the most with it), but I couldn’t remember what that insight was. In fact, I couldn’t even remember what story I had the insight about, which doubled the frustration. But then, last night as I was drifting off to sleep, the idea returned to me. I didn’t immediately leap out of bed and grab a piece of paper and a (mechanical) pencil, but I did repeat the thought several times so my synapses could store it properly. It has to do with framing and flashbacks in the story, and I duly noted it this morning in the file where I’m keeping my notes.

Does this kind of thing every happen to you? How do you cope?


January 1, 2015

No, not some musings on the change from one year to the next. (By the way, is there some celestial reason why January 1 is considered the beginning of the new year in most of the world? Or is it just arbitrarily agreed upon? Seems like the first day of spring would make more sense, as many cultures do.)

Rather, I’m going to moan about what may be my biggest struggle with writing: transitions.

I’ve been picking at my latest Fathers and Sons story, “Boys are like puppies,” for a few weeks. And by “picking at” I mostly mean staring at the screen, waiting for the next words to come.

There are several things I want to do in this story. One is to contrast different fathering styles and attitudes toward parenting. This will involve casual nudity. (Ten-year-old Davey fears he has a tick on him and drops his pants before his buddy and the buddy’s father so that his dad can check his bottom.) Davey and his dad are comfortable with this — often they go skinny dipping together — but the other father is aghast and his son is embarrassed.

That scene, and another about the two boys peeing in the forest, are the crises that cause the other father to storm away from the campfire, dragging his son along. Davey doesn’t understand what happens and only knows that his new friend is gone. Davey’s dad tries to shield him from what went wrong, and it results in a more fulfilling weekend for the two of them.

I have these (and other) moments of the story clearly in my mind. The problem is stringing them together. The problem is in the transitions between these scenes. And my mistake for the past few weeks has been in trying to make the transitions rather than just getting more words down (those other moments of the story) and worrying about the transitions later.

It’s an old lesson that I seem to need to keep relearning. With past stories that bedeviled me I have just written the various scenes within them and then found a way to fit them all together. (“The Lonely Road” is a good example.) Usually, when I have most of the parts completed, the assembly becomes more evident. It all needs reworking after that, but writing is rewriting, as they say.

And so it has been with “Boys are like puppies.” I stared at the blank screen long enuf, wishing I could get to the funny scene of the naked boy before the campfire, and then decided I would just get that written and worry about the transition to it later.

The result was 600 new words. Satisfying words, and even an inkling of how to make the transition to them. My regret is that I didn’t do this weeks ago, but at least I’ve done it now and hope the momentum continues.

There are two other “big” scenes to complete in the story. And then the transition work. The incubation of it all. The reworking. Maybe even sending the draft to a couple of writer friends (and non-writer friends, who I’ve learned can give more visceral feedback). And on to the next story in the cycle. (I really want to write these stories in chronological sequence now, since each feeds into the subsequent stories, but a later story in the cycle, “Father’s Day,” has been hammering at my brain for a while now, so it may be the next project. Or at least I could write some of the scenes within it. Hmmmm.)

Or I might do something completely different. I have a couple of stories not in this cycle at all that are presenting themselves to me, and maybe it would be healthy to step away from the Fathers and Sons stories for a while to do something fresh. Whatever, it feels good to be getting some words down.

voices in my head

December 8, 2014

I read my story drafts aloud. (My wife at first thought I was having long telephone conversations with someone.) I sit at my desk in my little writing room and read the drafts over and over to hear how they sound. I listen mostly for the narrative voice, to see if it’s being consistent, or if, when I break out with a ramble or playfulness or such, it is effectively inconsistent. And I listen for repetitiveness. I hate when I find a repeated word in subsequent sentences after one of my stories is published. Repeated words seems to be one of my writing problems. (“Repeated words” in that preceding sentence I’m using as a singular subject, thus the singular verb, “seems,” but it did sound wrong when I read it aloud.)

I’d read somewhere (probably on your blog) about how nice it is to listen to an audiobook read by the author. In that way, you get to hear how the actual writer intended the words to be intoned and the sentences to roll merrily along. I can’t say that I share that sentiment. The few times I have tried author-read books, I’ve really not liked them. (Roger Zelazny about put me to sleep with one of his Amber novels.) I’d much rather have an actor, or at least a voice actor, read a story aloud. (For all their faults as stories, the Sue Grafton Alphabet novels as read by Judy Kaye are about as close to perfect in reading voice as humans can achieve I think. Judy Kay is an opera singer among other things.)

In any case, one thing I’ve learned from reading my own scribbles aloud is that I don’t always know how I intend my words to be intoned. Take this example from the end of my story “The Lonely Road.” Sad, sad Davey is having a realization that maybe his life isn’t so horrible.

“Maybe it was true, he thought, as a tear escaped his eye. Maybe she really did love him.”

I’ve read and re-read those two sentences out loud a hundred times, trying to figure out where to hit with emphasis, where to pause, what to do with them.

Here’s one version:

“Maybe it was *pause* true, he thought, as a tear escaped his eye. Maybe she really did *pause* love him.”

Here’s another:

“Maybe it was true, he thought, as a tear escaped his eye. Maybe she really did love him.”

I go back and forth on these two versions of those two sentences. (Intended word and structure repetition in the preceding sentence.) The former emphasizes the actuality of the love. The latter emphasizes the possibility of the love. I lean toward the former — the boy finds himself worthy of love — rather than the latter — the boy finds himself the recipient of love.

Regardless, I don’t want to be the reader when my fabulous collection of stories is published as an audio book.

Do you read your drafts out loud? Do you puzzle and struggle over this kind of thing?

screw it!

September 3, 2014

I’ve mentioned here (or maybe it was in the comments on your fine blog) that I’ve been stymied by a story idea that I can’t ignore and yet can’t seem to write. It’s been frustrating, as you can probably imagine, because it wouldn’t let me focus on anything else, which meant my Fathers and Sons stories have been languishing (and I really need to get those finished).

The story had its genesis probably thirty years ago. I was at a party where I saw a man I knew and respected (who was old enuf to be my father) chatting up a woman (old enuf to be my mother) who was not his wife. He looked so at ease and even happy with her that the thought instantly sprang into my head that he was about to embark on an affair with her. Did that ever happen? I doubt it. But I know the woman was not happy in her marriage, and I later learned that her son (who was old enuf to be my brother) came to hate his mother in her later years for the way she treated her husband (and that son’s father). I never knew the details of that hatred, but the fact of it dovetails with my imagined infidelity.

Couple that with a rumor going around my office in recent months of a man (who should know better) apparently carrying on with a woman (old enuf to be his daughter) in apparently not-so-discreet ways at the office. This uncomfortable situation (if it was even true) stayed on my mind. And what does a writer do with troubling thoughts? Put them in a story, of course.

But the story wouldn’t gel. I made copious notes about it: impressions, bits of dialog, insights. All about a subject that is pretty much foreign to me and unpleasant in any case. And I struggled with writing the story. I even kept the draft of it on Google Drive so I could access it at work (!) when no one was looking to try to sustain the writing effort.

Weeks and weeks and weeks of this struggle passed, and I was getting nowhere with the telling. I rearranged sentences and fine-tuned images and did little more than nothing at all during this time, feeling frustrated and confused and knowing that other writing needed to be done but wasn’t getting done.

So I finally said “Screw it.” I’ve abandoned that story. It ain’t coming. And I ain’t fighting it any longer.

And as though to reward my resignation, my Muse has visited upon me several important insights on one of my Fathers and Sons stories, an important, early story that needs to be added to the canon and that will resonate across all of the subsequent stories in the cycle.

That other story, though, still asserts itself. I’m not sure what I want to do about that. I guess I’ll keep taking notes about it. Maybe enuf of it will come together to let me write something. If not, fine, too.

epsom salts

February 23, 2014

So I managed to run 40 miles last week. That’s a new distance record for me, and while that may be a pittance for many, it’s a big deal for me. I didn’t set out to achieve that distance, and it was only Saturday afternoon when I realized that it was within grabbing distance, so I went for it.

After my long run on Sunday (9 miles, which isn’t the longest I’ve gone and which is, I’m sure, a pittance for many), I did something I’ve not done before. I took a hot bath with Epsom salts.

It was wonderful!

I thought, what a great post-run recovery tool! I wallowed in the hot water and bath salts on my aching leg muscles (those quads). And I wanted to have my laptop with me because I felt as though all good things were suddenly flowing through my brain. (Yes, it was probably just endorphins.) The writer Stanley Elkin was said to have done all of his work in the bath tub.

So I thought maybe an Epsom salts bath might be a creative tool as well as a recovery tool.

I’ll never know.

I fell asleep in the tub.

3,000 words

January 4, 2014

Is it just me, or have a lot of publications been limiting word count on short stories to a mere 3,000 lately? The last few calls for submission I’ve pursued had this limit, and I wonder if it’s the new thing (or maybe just a coincidence).

I found a magazine that put out a call with a theme that seemed to be a good fit for one of my Fathers and Sons stories, so I revisited the story (which had been simmering on my hard drive for a while) with the idea that I would submit to the theme and maybe have a shot. Of course, the magazine limited the word count to 3,000, and my story was 3,350 words. So I asked myself if I could cut out 10 percent and still tell the story I had to tell.

Turns out I could nearly do it. (I came up through journalism, so cutting superfluous words is a skill I’ve acquired.) I chopped and chopped and reworded and slashed and burned and killed my darlings and all of those things and got the word count down to 3,145. So close!

I had given an earlier draft of the story to my wife to read some months ago, and at the time she told me that the story had ended at a given point but that I had kept blathering on. I remembered that as I faced those last 145 words. So I checked how many words my ending blather came to, and they came to exactly 145 words. Truly. If I ended the story where she believed it ended, then I would make the cut.

My extra words at the end were intended to reinforce the theme of the story. (I tend to start with a theme and build a story plot to serve it.) But if my wife was correct then I didn’t really need that reinforcement. And presumably the editor would see that too. So I saved the file under a different name (to preserve my original ending) then chopped out those last bits of blather. With a little more tinkering, I got the word count down to 2,980, which I think is a safe buffer that did not comprise the story telling I wanted to do.

I sent the story in this morning. The magazine has a higher-than-average acceptance ratio according to Duotrope’s Digest, but its response time can be up to six months according to the reports. I dug a little deeper at the magazine’s site and learned that their 3,000 word limit is not some editorial preference but an actual physical limitation of the blogging software they use to post stories. So that cleared up at least one mystery.

The year is only four days old, but I’ve already submitted two stories (with reasonable hopes of acceptance) and I have a third I’m muscling to get ready for submission too.


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