Archive for musings

Happy Birthday TPaL!

Happy Birthday Week TPaL!

Tomorrow, I turn 27 (years young!?) and my baby, The Poppet and the Lune, turns 1 year old. To celebrate, TPaL is available for FREE in the Kindle store until the end of May 17th, our official birthday! (Go on! Get ye to the kindle store! Download an app! It’s FREE!)

an original illustration from my little blue journal which holds the earliest chapters of TPaL

In another bit of happy news, somehow this whole “free” business has gotten TPaL some visibility! As I write this, The Poppet and the Lune is ranking #129 for free books in the entire Kindle store, #6 in free Fantasy Kindle books, and a mind-blowing #6 in free Children’s Sci-fi-Fantasy Kindle books. I am shocked, and amazed, and so, so grateful.

It’s been almost a year exactly since I published TPaL and released her to the world at large, and I want to say something about what I’ve learned. I’m not sure exactly, how to say it (a more common problem for writers than you think), but I’m going to give it a try.

Some of you may recall that TPaL was originally a free web serial hosted on my wordpress blog, with a very small, but very kind and loyal following. The story was told for the sake of telling stories–it was meant to be fun, and adventurous, and to explore the heart of my own love of story. I hope that it’s been all of that to those of you who have read it.

If manuscripts are like people, and many authors say that their manuscripts are like children, or lovers, or enemies, then I would have to say that The Poppet and the Lune has been a dear and constant friend. She has never been demanding. She has never been difficult. She has always been exactly what she is and was meant to be, never straying, never giving up. Even when people cock an eyebrow at her premise, or shrug their shoulders when trying to think of publishers to sell her to, she is steadfast, and certain.

I have a lot to learn from that.

original illustration from the blue journal

It’s so easy in life, especially in the publishing world, to lose sight of who and what we really are. For the sake of marketing, we don genres and audiences as if we’re trying on winter coats, seeing if our stories appeal more to one crowd or another, wondering if our story is appropriate for one age group or another. The line between telling your stories and finding an audience versus fitting your stories to a specific audience is not very fine, but it does get blurred. We get blurred–when we lose sight of who we are, and the heart of our stories.

Being true to your story means being true to yourself. Sometimes that doesn’t get you an agent, or a book contract, or very much in royalties. But it gives you peace of mind, and that is invaluable. That is what primes you for your next book, and your next. There is clarity there–precious, priceless clarity–that is sometimes called insight, or inspiration, which is at the heart of all creation, of all storytelling. We cannot afford to lose sight of that–we cannot afford to lose sight of who we are, even as we grow and change.

Birthdays and anniversaries are about more than celebrating that first breath, kiss, or step into the world. They are about taking stock, reflecting on change and what you’ve learned, the ways you’ve grown–they’re about setting goals, and planting hopes and dreams–and celebrating every victory and failure that has shaped you into what you are today.

So with another year under my belt, and many lessons learned, I think I’m going to take the time to do that for the rest of my birthday week.

Happy Birthday, TPaL. You’ve come a long way.

And Happy Birthday, Self. Remember, you never stop learning.

My Appalachia

When I was just out of high school, standing on (what felt like) the verge of the rest of my adult life, I developed a strong and unexpected desire: to thru-hike all 2,100+ miles of the Appalachian Trail. (If you’re not familiar with it, the trail begins in Georgia and ends in Maine, and takes on average 6 months to complete.)

I. Was. Obsessed.

For months, years, I read everything I could get my hands on about the trail and people who had hiked it. I read recommendations, novelizations, guidebooks, hiking books, hiking books specific for women, thru-hike planning books… my thirst for knowledge was unquenchable. I was in love with the idea that one could go on such a journey alone, through the woods, exercising both mind and body, attuning with the earth, meeting other hikers, walking with the seasons as they cascaded changes up the mountain range. I had no illusions–I knew it would require training, and the physical strain would be great. I knew that hundreds set out from Springer Mountain every spring with the intention of completing the trail, and I knew that many–most–88%–gave up.

But I wanted this.

When I was 19, I began to save for the adventure, certain I would be able to take 6 months off from school once I’d saved up enough money. I had a plan. I had the resources. I was determined.

But Life has a way of undermining us in the ways we least expect it to. The summer I began to collect the gear I would need for my hike, the one piece of equipment I could not replace proved that it was unreliable: my own body.

The long and short of it was this: It took 5 year, 3 chiropractors, 2 orthopedic doctors, 1 x-ray, and 1 MRI to determine that I had degenerative disc disease and a herniated c-7 vertebra, which had caused the nerve clusters in my general left hip/butt area to be pinched off and, essentially, shortened. Chronic pain was my companion for many years until I found the right doctor (an Active Release Therapist, which I would not even know was an existing practice but for my brother’s masters thesis on physical maintenance and injury among professional musicians), but even at that, there are no cures for most back injuries. The best I could hope for was to avoid pain through physical therapy and avoiding things that could aggravate my condition.

I will spare you the depressing details about giving up on my Appalachian dream, worrying about my future health, and the difficulties of finding work in college that didn’t involve being on my feet for long periods of time.

Fast forward to now: The funny/magical thing about the human body is, if properly motivated, it can compensate for and eventually overcome most injuries, even if all medical science says otherwise. I’m not “fixed.” I still have “back problems.” But I am miles from where I was, and my desire to hike that god damn trail has not waned one bit. I have messed up–I have done stupid things to my back and suffered–but it fixes itself, balances itself out the way only the human body can.

So. I talked it over with the hubs last night (let’s not forget that, now, as a 26-year-old woman with a husband, pets, and a mortgage, that my responsibilities are very different from when I was 19), and I decided something that hopefully won’t surprise you:

I’m going to do this.

And not just that: I have another plan.

I have several plans, actually, and we’ll have to see how they really play out in the coming months/years as our lives change and our income (hopefully) increases over time. But I’ve done the calculations, figured out how much income I’d be failing to bring in those months, figured out how much I’d need to survive on the trail, both low and high estimates… and basically?

Three years from next Thursday, I will be celebrating my 30th birthday on the Appalachian Trail.

How d’you like me now, Life?

I’m curious though–how many of you have a dream that you’ve given up on? How many of you have buried a desire because of hurtles you feel you cannot cross? Maybe they aren’t as impossible as you think. And if they still seem so impossible, maybe they’re worth the risk of failing, so long as you know you at least tried.

Love you guys.

Small Victories

I did something this weekend that I’ve never successfully done before: I outlined my novel!

I know, I know, that’s not really a big deal for all you clever people out there who always outline your novel because you realized long ago the importance of having a track for your writing, so you at least know when you’ve fallen off of it. But I’m not as clever as all of you. I’m what they call a seat-of-the-pants writer. I get a basic idea that excites the hell out of me, a handful of characters that slap me around until I get them right, and a general idea of the ending… and then I write. I figure it out as I go, each scene as surprising as the next. This seems horrendously inefficient when I explain it like that, but it’s how I’ve always worked best.

So why outline now?

I’m beginning a second re-write of my current Work In Progress, a novel that has been an off and on love affair since 2008 (more obsessively the past two years…I kind of wrote it around The Poppet and the Lune). This new (and I hope final) version is a combination of version 1 and version 2, plus a little tweak that fixes a million different Problems I’d been having, so there is a lot less creativity involved at this point when it comes to the plot and structure of the story and character arcs. My job now is to write the scenes as beautifully and gut-wrenchingly and hilariously (you get the idea) as I can.

So I’ve outlined, essentially, to make a to-do list. Scene execution is the best part about writing–it’s the actually word play, the actual act of writing–so now it’s like I have this long to-do list full of things I can’t wait to do. Which is why this outline is so exciting!

I suppose what I can take away from this whole experience (if the outlining helps as much as I expect it will) is that perhaps my first drafts should be more like very detailed outlines. I can still write them seat-of-my-pants style, but also not lose as much when I discover plot holes or pacing issues. In writing version 3, I’m throwing away over 200,000 words from my previous versions. Which…ouch. Just ouch. Those are some really good words I’m tossing. But a novel isn’t just the sum of its pretty words–the pretty words need to weave within the structure of a well-crafted world and story.

We’re always learning about ourselves and our craft, aren’t we?

Anyway. I’m excited!

What about you? Do you outline, or write seat-of-your-pants? Do you perform major surgery on your first drafts to make the second draft work, or do you find most of the revisions in later drafts are less massive? Let me know! Sharing is caring!

Try, Try, Try, Repeat: Lessons for a writer, from my ukulele

It just so happens that I have some (limited) talent with musical instruments–the mediocre kind of talent that means I can pick up almost any one of them and play Jingle Bells within five minutes of fiddling around (except for percussion instruments, silly). My Instruments Practiced list includes violin, piano, cello, upright bass, bass guitar, saxophone, clarinet, bassoon, acoustic guitar, and my latest conquest, the soprano ukulele. 

This is me with my ukulele. Really.

Music has never been my passion like writing is–it’s more like my therapy. I took a break from novel rewrites the other day, feeling like I’d re-written one scene a bazillion times, and decided to practice a few Radiohead songs I’d been picking up lately (I’d found the tablature on-line a few weeks  ago).

I had a moment like this:

Did I just play Exit Music for a Film, when I struggled with Three Blind Mice not one year ago?

I did!

Back when I first got my ukulele, “real” songs had seemed so out of reach it almost wasn’t worth it to keep practicing. My fingers weren’t used to the small neck of the instrument, and they didn’t bend the way the chords asked me to bend them. But has that ever really stopped me?

This is probably more accurate. I do practice on my porch, and I am a dirty hippie.

I remember a few years ago when I first got my Casio keyboard, living on my own in a little one bedroom across the street from the zoo. I would hammer out scales and make up meandering melodies and feel generally like I wasn’t learning, wasn’t getting any better, because I wasn’t being challenged. Too cheap to pay for lessons, I picked a song that I knew had a killer piano part–Ben Fold’s Brick–printed out the sheet music, and told myself I would learn it.

I staggered along learning the left hand first, then the right. I’d play through, one-handed, over and over again, then with both hands, fitting their separate notes and rhythms together like the broken pieces of a shattered plate. I would play a measure or two, mess up, go back a few measures, repeat (repeat, repeat, repeat…), until eventually the notes I was trying to play came out the way they were supposed to–the way they were meant to be played.

I had a little epiphany while I was sitting on my porch, feeling all proud of how far I’d come with my ukulele skillz: when you’re writing a novel, sometimes it’s a lot like learning to play a song. You take it slow, you go over the parts you have trouble with again and again, writing, rewriting, and rearranging until all the pieces finally fit. You know you’ve gotten it right when the story flows, just like a song, harmonious and dynamic and alive.

Too bad I can’t find the tabs for my novel online.

I don't know what's happening here. I just wanted to share this.

 
What are some challenges you’ve faced and are proud to say you’ve conquered?
 

5 Reasons Why Aspiring Authors Should Not Trust The Internet

Wary woman is wary. Hmm...

Call me a hippy, or an optimist, or whatever you like, but I have a personal rule about any kind of advice: if it makes you feel good, take it; if it makes you feel like shit, it’s probably wrong. At least, it’s probably wrong for you.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been surfing around the internet looking for advice on a particular aspect of the writing process or the publishing process, only to have a brick dropped on me that makes me sick to my stomach, makes me question all 20+ years of my experience, and honestly believe that this king or queen of the blogosphere knows what he or she is talking about better than I know what’s right for me. Countless times. And it still happens, even though I make a concerted effort these days NOT to look for advice from anyone but trusted friends. I know it happens to a lot of us out there, innocent creative types searching for wisdom an guidance, and instead we have our dreams and ideas crushed beneath the jackboots of the All Knowing Bloggers.

This is not to say that the internet is useless, or that you can’t trust anyone out there/here. But I strongly, strongly encourage you to take all of what you read and experience in your pursuit of writerly knowledge with a large grain of salt, including this blog and this post.

Which brings me to this:

5 Reasons why aspiring authors should not trust the internet

1.) Opinions are formed from personal experience. I once read a blog post about how dream sequences ruin books and should never be written by aspiring authors, and it crushed me. What does it say about me as a writer that I love a good dream sequence, both writing them and reading them? Ultimately I got over it (I know you were worried), but it seemed irresponsible to make a statement like that when you have hundreds of readers out there who trust you to give them at least thought-provoking, if not good, advice. But almost all blog posts that give us “rules” or ”10 Reasons why” are based on personal experience and opinion, and therefore are never actual hard and fast laws. Maybe the author admits to that, and maybe they don’t, but it’s usually easy to overlook the admission because…

2.) These posts are written by writers, the best liars of the creative world. A good writer knows, consciously or not, how to get their audience on board with them–make them believe in magic, and true love, and that good can occasionally triumph over evil. A good writer also knows how to write a blog post and make it sound like they are an authority on the matter. I’m doing it right now. Don’t I sound official? It’s because I’m just telling you things, and I’m stating these things so matter-of-factly that you’re beginning to see the truth of them, whether it’s there or not. The other reason is because you want to believe people are doling out free professional advice. You saw a list of ten things to avoid or ten reasons to do or not do something, and that made it sound simple and easy to follow. These are all tricks, which brings me to the fact that…

3) The thing the internet wants to do most of all is trick you. It wants to trick you into clicking one more link, or into believing you need one more social networking site, that if you don’t re-post that status about fighting cancer then you’re not as good of a person as that person’s 10% of friends who actually care. Worst of all, it wants to trick you into wasting time, and believing you are working. “Oh, but I was reading an article on world-building,” you think. “It’s okay, I want to be a writer, so spending X more minutes learning about my craft is excusable.” No, actually, it’s not, because unless that blog post was written by Frank Herbert (greatest world-builder of all time, thank you very much!) himself, you’re not even getting professional advice. Have you ever noticed that, for the most part, the busiest writers aren’t writing blog posts about craft? That’s because they’re writing.

That’s probably the worst way the internet deceives us: it tricks us into giving up time for writing, in exchange for well-crafted amateur advice.

4) Haters gonna hate. Really, I don’t want to hear about how the gate-keepers are keeping us down, and so any self-respecting author should self-publish. And I don’t want to hear about how self-publishing authors need to keep their filthy DIY hands off of the term “independent publishing,” unless you’re that excited about being a hipster that you have to shout it from the rooftops. I’m not interested in any blog that paints a negative picture of any group of people, because that kind of advice can only reinforce narrow-mindedness or make you feel bad about the path you’re already considering. Really, when was the last time you Googled “advantages to self publishing” when you weren’t interested in what it had to offer?

The same thing goes for the old, salty veterans, weather-worn and wearing their badge of “experience” like a shroud. They’ve been through the system, they’ll tell you again and again, and the system is cruel. Well, we covered that in my last post, and you can’t take one author’s experience as gospel.

5) Bitter people are always more than happy to give you their opinion. That is certainly not to say everyone giving their opinion is bitter (ahem). But if you’ve ever given up your writing for a critique and gotten back the kind of feedback I’m talking about, you know it: hyper-critical, personally biased, and ultimately nothing but destructive (unless they’re clever at hiding their bitterness, in which case they do a compliment sandwich: “I liked this… hate hate hate hate hate… and this part was pretty interesting too.”). Offering up your writing to strangers can be, on the one hand, an amazing experience worth putting your faith in humanity to the test. But you have to be wary–the internet is full of trouble-makers. I’m probably one of them.

~*~

Now for the actual, constructive advice part of this post:

If you’re anything like me, or if you hated this post and will probably just ignore everything above, you’re still going to read advice about writing on blogs. So here are some tips I think we can call benefit from.

When reading a blog about writing, ask yourself:

  • How does this post make me feel?
  • Is this narrowing or broadening my perspective?
  • Am I inspired by this post, or do I want to smash my monitor/swallow my smart phone and all the shame it holds on its shiny little screen?

I’m sure you can see where I’m going with that, so I’ll just leave that alone for now.

There are a few blogs that I almost always enjoy:

Nova Ren Suma‘s blog has a guest post series on Turning Points for writers that offers a rainbow of different experiences from all kinds of different authors.

Intern Spills, by… the former intern of a publisher, or agency, I can’t remember. I read all of her blog in two days at work one week, and loved it to death. You will see, however, that this is the site of the entry regarding the dream sequence hate. I got over it, but I do read everything after with an eyebrow ready to be raised.

Terrible Minds, a blog by Chuck Wendig, the King of the “[NUMBER] Things About [SUBJECT]” posts. The reason I love his lists is because he is full of wit and snark, and actually gives solid advice about the craft of writing. How do I know it’s solid? He is constantly admitting that the rules are bullshit if you know what you’re doing.

So what about you? What do you love or hate about finding writing advice on the internet? Do you have any writing blogs or sites you’ve found valuable? Writer by Night wants to know!

On the Road Again

I’d like to take a moment here to wax philosophical on the idea of The Road to Publication.

Depending on how long and deep you dig into the over-flowing informational pool on “What to expect when you try to publish a book,” you’ve probably come across all kinds of stories, and have been told to expect radically different things. Early on in my search for information (as a young and eager student who still believed there was an exact process for achieving anything), I kept hearing horror stories about authors who were asked to make radical changes to their manuscripts, or who were given hideous book covers, or had neglectful literary agents.

That’s not a story that ever goes away in the field of “how I got published.” It’s a huge and driving force behind the self-publishing movement, and something I fully support not wanting to deal with (if you’re also ready to deal with the other aspects of self-publishing like cover design, formatting, marketing, getting the attention of book bloggers and readers, etc.).

But, then again, with the blogging boom making the stalking of debut authors so much easier, I also hear beautiful stories about authors, agents, and editors working together in harmony, like mice and birds and fairy godmothers creating the perfect night at the ball for the author, Cinderella. I hear about publishers actually letting authors help to design their book covers (when did this start?), and editors becoming fast friends with their authors, and everyone dancing together at some massive magical dance party in an enchanted publishing palace in New York City (or something along those lines).  

The truth is, we can never know how it will happen to us, and it doesn’t do us any good to try to predict it. These stories we hear about how it’s done and how to get there? They’re all as good as gossip. And what do we know about gossip? The only thing it’s good for is trouble (and maybe entertainment), and certainly not basing our career goals, personal standards, or expectations on.

Our experiences will not be theirs. The only thing we can do, as writers, is write the best story that we can, even if it doesn’t follow many of the various formulas and checklists that we’ve been told are necessary. We must follow our instincts, and take every bit of advice, every ounce of feedback, and every push or sway with a grain salt. 

One writer’s path will never be the same as any other writer’s path. That’s not meant to be daunting–you’re not striking out alone. It’s meant to be liberating. The only thing you can take away from all of the contradictory gossip about how to “make it” as a novel writer is that your journey will be unique.

So have hope. Take chances. Do it the way you feel best suits you and your career goals. Only never be dissuaded by one person’s rejection, one persons experience, or one person’s opinion.

Best of luck to you all.

In Like a Lion

"I do say, good Sir or Madam! Is it March already?"

It’s MARCH. WHAT?

Winter has been shockingly–shockingly–mild here in Buffalo. For the first time in years, we can accurately say at the beginning of March that spring is right around the corner. For me, spring always brings with it a surge of passion and determination. My To-Do list quadruples, but so does my Got-Done list (and this year, my first year as a homeowner, my To-Do list is going to be loooooooong); I breathe more deeply, but have more moments where my breath is taken away. Maybe because I’m a springtime baby–born mid-May, when Lilly of the Valley is out in force and the world has just finished turning that bright green of new growth–but spring is the season in which I learn, and re-learn, every year, that Life is a beautiful, beautiful adventure.

In typical hey!-It’s-almost-spring! fashion, life feels like it’s picking up speed, though I don’t have much to point to as evidence. I sent some chapters to an agent who requested them, which is EXCITING and NERVE-WRACKING. I also happen to know that a copy of my book, The Poppet and the Lune, is sitting on a shelf in the home of an amazing, prolific, and iconic fantasy author, which is both baffling and thrilling. These things feel awesome to me, and they happened all at once which makes life seem like it got really interesting all of a sudden.

But in reality, life always has something interesting to offer if you’re looking for it. These have just been external events, things in the outside world that are taking place and making things exciting. Really, every day something amazing has been happening in my head–a story that I am still head-over-heels in love with has been unfolding and transforming, like a gooey-winged butterfly emerging from its chrysalis. It’s spreading its wings out to dry now as I’m hammering out this new draft, all colorful and elegant, and strikingly, beautifully, fragile. And soon I’m going to see just how far and how high it can fly. How is that NOT exciting?

All around me, people are announcing wonderful news, from fantastic cover reveals, to life-altering leaps of faith. My heart is brimming with joy for them. In my own life, the excitement is quiet and internal, a deep-seated, riveted joy, patiently focused on the little miracles happening within and without. And I keep getting this impression of abundance, just… everywhere, and in all things. I keep getting a glimpse, catching a whiff, of something huge, and ineffable, and satisfyingly good.

So, spread the joy! What wonderful things have been going on in your life, or in your head?

Wailing at the Wall

Life has been a whirlwind.

Let me tell you about the past few weeks as succinctly as I can. Nothing major has happened, not by certain standards anyway. But my brain and my heart have been on a strange journey that can’t quite be captured in words. Perhaps that’s the reason behind my blog-silence–it’s certainly never because I have nothing to say.

I was in the desert recently, physically and metaphorically. Creatively, I was all dried up, too terrified of a misstep to even crawl my way towards water. But then, I went to Israel. Really. For ten days, I traveled the country with a tour bus full of other 20-somethings, thinking about the history of the land, about our ancestors, about what it meant to be who we are. It was from a Jewish perspective, in many ways, but for me no deep thinking is possible without my creative self cropping up.

 

Wailing Wall, Jerusalem

 

I looked out over the complicated border between Israel and Lebanon. I partied in Tel Aviv, and stuck my feet into the Mediterranean Sea. I felt an array of complicated emotions, complicated further by socio-political awareness, and my unwillingness to identify with a cultural pain-body. I wandered in the desert, stumbling over sun-bleached bones. I heard the call to prayer ring out over Jerusalem from the Muslim quarter, as the sun set over the holy city. I came to the Western Wall, as unreligious as I am, and cried. And I saw thousands of names at Yad Vashem, not knowing who among them I might have called family if history had not been what it was.

I am still unpacking that journey. I don’t know all of what I felt, all of what it means. But I do know that when I returned, despite having come down with the flu during the last days of the trip, I felt stronger and more resolved than ever.

I’d broken through something, managed to inch forward in my creative desert, and the moment I did that I found my oasis. I found the strength to recommit, and begin again.

The book I have been working on these past few months, the one that stalled after some intense interest from agents, for which I’d begun to put so much pressure on myself because of that interest, suddenly opened up to me like the arms of a loved one. “You have changed,” it told me. “And it’s okay for me to change, too. I’m ready to be what you want me to be. And you’re ready to write me as I am.”

Hopped up on decongestants, I began a total re-write of this manuscript last week, switching from first person present to third person present, and then last night I switched it again from present to past tense. I am okay with these sort-of-mistakes, and the work it takes to correct them. I am okay with the new scenes my mind is drawing up, the new ways the characters are showing themselves on the page, the new focus of the story as a whole. I’m okay with leaving behind the beloved scenes I crafted for the original draft. I’m okay, because at least I’m writing, and that will always feel better than standing still in the desert.

I am slowly peeling back the layers of this new manuscript, and at the same time peeling back layers of myself–as a writer, and an artist–as a traveler changed by my journeys. I’m no longer beating myself up for failing my “original” story, or beating my head against the wall trying to make it something safe, something appealing, something that fits into the mold of what an author’s first agented book should be.

Not only that, but my office is finally taking shape, after months of disarray. We moved into our house this past August, and just last weekend we finished painting the chalkboard wall, and I was finally able to set up my desk, move my bookshelves, unpack my reference books, run an extension cord so that all my electrical things had outlets. I finally have my own space, where I can slam on the piano keys and compose ballads on my ukulele, play movie scores on my cello, or do yoga without a cat scratching at my legs. Oh yeah, and I have a place to write.

Something about my trip to Israel has made me come undone, in an excellent way. I stopped fearing. I embraced the grace in my gracelessness, the thrill of each uncertain step. I found faith in things I cannot name. I came to terms with the fact that the desert will always be just beyond the border of the oasis, a fact both comforting and sobering.

And I understood, and understand, that I will learn these lessons again and again, until the day I die.

Here’s to finding an oasis–and the exotic fruits of a strange journey.

Let Go.

In the past month, I’ve reinvented the universe, abandoned my baby, and discovered the power to be found in completely giving up. That’s right–as I write this, I am on the waning side of a full-fledged creative block. I realized my novel needed to be hacked to pieces in order to be fixed. So I decided to take a break. And I let it go.

And life has shown me so much since then: the story has unfolded to greater depths than I thought possible; I’ve learned more about myself as a human being, and as an artist, and as a writer than ever before; and I’ve renewed and strengthened my faith in that unnameable force that compels us to do what we do. I am grateful, and humbled, and in love, once again, with the sometimes painful, sometime beautiful, always transformative art of storytelling.

But during these transformative weeks of late, I went to some pretty dark places, asked some pretty cruel questions, and thought some pretty mean thoughts. It took some time to get here, to this let-go-and-let-god(dess)(es) place that is working out for me remarkably well.

One of the dark things in my mind was: yeah, maybe you’re good with words. Maybe you’re good with building expansive worlds and subplots, and metaphors, and making a scene heart-wrenching. But are you a good storyteller? Do you have any real talent for the structure? For compelling your readers to keep going and to care?

The truth is, I don’t know if I have that talent. And I could go on and describe the pit of despair that I sat in while I contemplated that, but instead I will tell you this: all that pain I felt, thinking I had no talent for stories, knowing how much I want to tell them, was just the pure and simple evidence of my soul screaming out it doesn’t matter if you have talent. You have love. Stop belittling your passion and desire, and just dare.

Stories… are sacred. They are vast, multitudinous, and, like human beings and snow flakes, no two are the same. There is no wrong way to tell a story, just as there is no story that is completely worthless. If it was told with the sincere desire to tell a story–a desire as real, as important, and as ineffable as to drink or eat or be loved–it is good.

I know, it takes more than that for a book to sell to a publisher. But some part of me knows that my desire, my passion, is so strong and unwavering, such a driving force behind my existence, that I can and will learn to tell stories in the way that they need to be told. No matter what.

In hindsight, clear of the fog of despair, I don’t actually think I’m a bad storyteller. I think that I’m impatient, and enjoy the wild adventure of seat-of-the-pants writing too much to outline and make sure my pacing and structure work before I dive in. As much as I love spontaneity, my stories tend to be massive, fat, hearty things, huge adventures that require planning. I can’t escape that. Even The Poppet and the Lune, written and posted sometimes the same day, had at least a vague outline in my head before I sat down to begin the whole thing.

And I can’t escape the fact that sometimes my stories take longer to percolate than I would like. I have to learn patience–I am not a fast writer by nature, though I can pump out thousands of words a day. But, especially if I am unable to come up with an outline, I have to recognize that maybe my story isn’t ready to be put on the page just yet.

It’s not, and nor will it ever be, a step by step process. To conceive and create a story, and then a manuscript, has more to do with intuition, feeling, and emotions than experience, knowledge, and understanding. I suppose that’s why I keep journaling about the process here and elsewhere, despite my repetition, with the hopes that I might keep gaining insight, enough to avoid the same pitfalls–and maybe help navigate the new.

All that said… I feel so incredibly blessed to be where I am: so much closer, every day, to knowing how to tell this story, and future stories; I am humbled by my recognition of my shortcomings in the past, and I am proud to have survived that, grown, and matured–I am, right now, the best storyteller and writer I have ever been; and I am so, so grateful for the incredible support I have received and known through all of you reading these entries, and writing your own stories in your own entries, and offering the world and me even the slightest assurance that it will be okay.

Life is so strange, so beautiful, so full of surprises. I suppose we have no choice but to be okay with that… because to resist it, even when it seems like it makes sense to cut yourself off? It hurts. But when you go with it, just let go and let god(dess)(es), it is such a beautiful ride.

So I’m working in that. I think I will be until the day I die. And I guess I have to be okay with that, too. :)

On Words, Human Creativity, and the Ineffable

Friday night I was driving from South Buffalo to a friend’s house in Amherst. The radio was playing all kinds of awful music, so I turned it off and just drove. I kept being struck by how familiar the roads were–the roads I grew up with, that I know like the back of my hand without having ever really learned them. And yet, living farther away, having less reason to travel them, they become something from the past. At what point, though? At what point does the familiar become nostalgia?

I was feeling odd, thinky feelings as I drove through, imagining characters I may or may not ever use in my writing, wondering what the point would be in creating them, in sharing my own moments with the world under the cover of fiction… and then I was marveling at how naturally it all came to me, the feeling, the understanding of it, the ineffability of it all but the knowledge that through character and actions and dialogue and scenes I could still convey the feeling, and all that went with it. I cannot name it, I cannot describe it in any number of details that would really do it justice. But I can set up a frame and an image that draws the eye to what I mean to convey.

And isn’t that an odd thing to realize? A writer does not show you what s/he means to say with his/her actual words. S/he writes around the idea, using words to sculpt and direct and evoke thought and feeling, not to directly express anything at all.

On Saturday, I was on my way to the grocery store to pick up some things for dinner, and I decided to try the radio again. I tuned it to WNED, the local classical station, and they were broadcasting live from the Metropolitan Opera. It was a contralto, and a mezzo soprano, and I don’t really know if they were singing one song together or two songs right after another, but there was something in the almost-immaculate pitch and timbre and tone of their voices that actually brought tears to my eyes (the echo of perfection is, to me, made all the more perfect by the rasp of a flaw). It wasn’t a sad song. It wasn’t particularly joyful. It was something much harder to express, those in between emotions of real life: realization, understanding, existing, enduring. I sat in my car in the parking lot for five minutes while the song concluded, and felt utterly moved, and alive, and content. (I found out later that it was Handel’s Rodelinda)

At night, after we brought our Christmas tree home and filled the whole house with the scent of pine, my husband and I watched The Cave of Forgotten Dreams on Netflix streaming. It’s a documentary about the Chauvet Cave in France, where they’ve discovered the oldest artwork in the history of mankind. And it is beautiful.

 

These stills, of course, do not do it justice.

Watching the film, seeing how haunted the scientists were (being surrounded by the ghosts of prehistoric man) I couldn’t help but wonder what drove humans to make those drawings–single-handed, by torch light, scraping away the first layer of the uneven walls to get to the white beneath, then using the charred remains of their fire to depict with mind-blowing accuracy the essence of an animal. Many of the animals looked like the artist only tried to capture the shadows on and around them, never defining their shape with solid lines and curves. Some of the drawings even suggested movement, a kind of “proto-cinema” as one scientist said. And they suggested that, with the play of shadows on the uneven walls cast from firelight, the animals draw could appear to be very much alive at times.

What was it that drove our ancestors to draw on cave walls? Is it the same thing that drives us to create today? Maybe it was a desire to be remembered, to leave a fingerprint on the world for future generations. Did the cave man in question simply want to tell a story? And at what point does this ancient, human compulsion to tell stories and reproduce the world around us become what we call art? (*sigh* I miss my anthropology classes sometimes.)

Anyway, I think you should all go out and watch that movie. Ask yourself where your motivation comes from. Think about your stories, your creations, your life–do you live your life and make your art in the hopes of being remembered? Or do you live your life and create your art because you are moved to, because the world around you begs to be captured and shared in charcoal and words and paint and sound? And if it does, then why do you think it does?

There are no wrong answers. I just think these are interesting questions to ask ourselves, as individual human beings, inextricably connected to our own species, and also, of course, as artists.

Thinky thoughts, my friends.