Archive for the ‘Rants and ruminations’ 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.

parallel universe

May 20, 2015

When I lace up for a run, I always doubt my ability to complete the miles.

When I sit down to write, I always doubt my ability to complete the words.

bits and pieces

May 2, 2015

I’ve never understood why troubled characters in literature always needed to “hit absolute bottom” before they could begin to recover. I suppose that’s because they wouldn’t make good story unless they were high drama.

*   *   *

I am both happy and surprised to report that I’ve had a flurry of note taking for my stories, including for one of those Finnegans stories that I’ve never been able to fully abandon. And the Fathers and Sons stories continue to clamor for me to get them completed, at least in draft form. I think I have three or four stories to write to get them all down, then it’s a “simple” matter of integrating and refining them. After that, I don’t know. Submit them to agents? Story collection contests? Move on?

That’s all a hopeful sign that my brain is beginning to release me from the prison its kept me in for the last year. This might be a false alarm, of course, but I have actually been getting some quality writing done when I force myself to take the time to try. Perhaps I’m facing a dearth of motivation rather than one of creativity.

*   *   *

As for my running adventure, I’m doing well. As of today, I am two-thirds of the way through the three half marathon series I signed up for last summer. Don’t get me wrong. Running a half marathon is HARD WORK for me. But overall, this has not been the brutal festival of pain I feared it would be. I have the third of the three next Saturday, and I made the choice to drive the course recently, which is nearly always a good and bad thing. Lots and lots of long, rolling hills. Lots of them. Long ones. I don’t expect to set a personal record on this one.

I did managed to log 100 miles in April. I didn’t expect to given that I needed to allow for rest days before those half marathons (and those would cut down on my mileage), but I was three days from the end of the month and saw I only needed 14 miles to break triple digits, so out I went. My April 30 run was only four miles, but that was possibly the very worst run of my life. Maybe I hit absolute bottom on that one, and now all of my runs will be better in comparison.

the view from on high

April 27, 2015


Where do you write? On the dinner table when everyone’s gone to bed? At a coffee shop with constant buzz and activity? At the library? At a desk in a repurposed bedroom of your empty-nest home? In a basement cubicle against a blank wall so there are no distractions? On the go, on your phone?

A recent post at the ever-interesting Carter Library blog lead to a nice conversation in the comments about the hows and whys of writing locations. I mentioned how my writing place (which you can see here, though much has changed since that photo), includes a window I can stand before to stare long distances. Above is the view from that window, at least right now in the spring.

That’s looking out the front of my house in suburbia. The pink-flowering tree is a dogwood. The reddish tree is a beech. To the right the bright green leaves are a river birch. And beyond that is a linden. My lawn is a scandal, at least by the standards of suburbia, but, obviously, I hardly care. Of course, you’re looking out my window at its best. In the winter the view is as bleak and lifeless as my black and withered heart. In late summer the heat and drought threaten to desiccate everything, just like the periodic dark nights of my own soul. Autumn is too brief and too obvious a reminder of the long, cold days ahead. So I usually just sit at the desk and try to work, rising to the window only to see what the dogs are barking at (generally a leaf blowing by).

I learned early on that I can’t do any creative work facing a wall. I don’t know why that is; perhaps it reminds me too much of the cubicle I sit in too many hours each week doing soul-sucking work for the man just to pay my bills. No, I have to be able to look up occasionally and gaze mindlessly to let the thoughts drift in order to enter (or remain in) the space where my stories exist.

In graduate school I worked at a folding table in the corner of my bedroom. The table was so wobbly that I had to wrap my leg around one of its legs just to hold it steady enuf to write on. Eventually I moved to the dining room table at the hub of the house. But with four active children and a parade of dogs, I found I had to rise very early to get a few uninterrupted hours of solitude. When the kids were finally gone (for good — a couple returned briefly), I acquired one of the bedrooms as my own space. And there I thrive. Or strive, anyway.

stickler? c’mon!

March 2, 2015

File this post under Rants and Ruminations. I have recently quit a group on Facebook called Grammarly. It is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek collection of complaints about people who have poor grammar, spelling, and usage skills. (Perhaps more about the skills than the people.) And it is the front door for a website, also called Grammarly, that sells a service that will analyze your writing and find all of the “mistakes” in it so you can become a better communicator.

I suppose.

Long-time readers of this humble blog know that I have only grudging regard for the so-called “rules” of grammar, especially in creative writing. (See my old Continuum post.) Communication comes first, and generally a person’s meaning is clear despite “incorrect” grammar, word choice, punctuation, and spelling. I believe I have the chops to make such an assertion. I have written technical manuals, feature articles, newsletters, and fiction. I have been both a book editor and a magazine editor. I have a master’s degree in professional writing, and I taught English composition at community college for several years. I know my way around a sentence. (My grammar “error” of choice is the sentence fragment, and none of the editors who have published my stories has ever complained about them. As Emma Darwin has said, grammar is a tool, not a rule.)

In most of the examples of errors they cite and then slightly ridicule, they are, to my mind, a bit mean and even condescending. (Your/you’re, its/it’s, supposably, less/fewer, and the like) The group also includes readerly or writerly quotations and occasional links to their website. It’s all benign, but it feels petty. I have occasionally left a comment on some of their posts when I find their point especially elitist or unkind. Usually I get flamed, saying I lack a sense of humor and that the point is just joking around. (Funny, isn’t that what bullies say too? And should I put a comma before “too”? Ellen?)

One of their posts cited a somewhat famous article in the Harvard Business Review by Kyle Wiens. In this article he says that he will not hire a person, regardless of qualifications, if that person exhibits poor grammar in the pre-employment test he gives all applicants. He calls himself a grammar “stickler.” That’s being generous in my view, but read and judge the article for your fine self. (There is a story, probably apochryphal, that Henry Ford would take potential employees to dinner, and if they salted their food before tasting it, they would not be hired. Imagine the talent that went on to work for his competitors based on this arbitrary standard.)

Grammar, of course, is the codification of how we communicate today. Hamlet could not have been written by our current set of rules. Nor Moby Dick. Some grammar is optional, often dependent on no more than which style book you’ve sworn allegiance to. Much usage is regional. Even spelling can be variable. (My life goal is to get “enuf” accepted as standard spelling.) So-called poor grammar is probably the most common failing of people as well as the most easily “corrected.”

Further, I’m convinced that the vast majority of employers, consumers, and other potentates wouldn’t know a good sentence from a bad one. That’s certainly been my experience in the working world.

Bottom line: I would not want to work at a place that has such an intolerant approach to such an ambiguous matter.

a spark

February 24, 2015

Following Saturday’s feat of will (when I rose early and managed, despite my inertia, to get two of my stories submitted to lit mags), I rose early on Sunday to see if I could do some actual, you know, original writing.

Sometime back I had said I needed to work on my Fathers and Sons stories in the order they will occur in the chronology of the tale. I assumed that by treating the cycle somewhat like a novel, I would see/know/develop the relationships between the characters, the stories, and so forth. Sounds like a fine idea, but I haven’t had the luxury lately working in a sensible, coherent manner. Any story, in any order, that presents itself to me, that asserts it should be written, is motivation enuf for me to give it a try.

And so it was on Sunday morning. One of the stories in the cycle I’m calling “Father’s Day,” and this has been the one that has been growling at me, is insisting that it be written now. I’d been making notes for this story for as long as I’ve been working on the Fathers and Sons stories (I think it’s three years now!). I’ve learned from experience that if I don’t wait until I have critical mass, an attempt to write a story that isn’t ready will fail. I took the growling as an indication that part of my creative self had decided that “Father’s Day” had reached critical mass.

And so that is the one I chose to attempt to try to perhaps maybe just maybe make a tentative, un-confident beginning with. I have the “plot” of it mostly worked out already in my head. (It begins and ends with two people together in bed, the same people but different beds.) And I certainly know the theme and tone I want to achieve. These two have, for me, been the greatest indicators of critical mass in the past. All I had to do was get some words down. I could revise them later, but I needed to get the pixels on the page (so to speak) and make a beginning.

Surprise! I managed to get 500 words strung together. I agonized over these words for several hours. I wrote them and erased them. I moved them around. I reconsidered. I strengthened. I obscured. (Can I use that as a verb?) I fussed and fretted. And I stuck with it despite my doubts and misgivings. I think they’re 500 good words, and I think they are a good beginning as well. I think I can come back to them now and pick up where I left off.

The 500 words are barely the beginning of the actual story. I suspect this will be one of the longer of my stories, so I may be at this one for a long time. That means I need to be concerned that I don’t lose the momentum or spark or vision or whatever it is that has allowed me to write once again.

But for now, I am writing. I said yesterday that I lately have felt like a stranger to myself. Today I feel like a stranger in a strange land.

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!


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 29 other followers