Wednesday, January 30, 2008

If You Could Be Any Genre...

Okay, I quit sulking and got to work, which was a major victory for me. It doesn't usually happen that way when I'm feeling anxious and tired. I did as much writing as I could make myself do and then took a short reading nap until my son woke up from his nap.

Made myself a small pot of coffee, put on a movie for him because it's one of those days and really cold outside to boot, and started musing. Something that Deanna Raybourn said in an interview by Material Witness struck me. She said she worked for fourteen years writing manuscripts and not getting published. Then her agent told her to take a year and just read. So she did. She read only what she loved, which often turned out to be historical and British. The result: she decided to write what she loved to read and was published. I finished recently her Silent in the Grave, a fun and surprising Victorian-era murder mystery, and I applaud her decision.

What I mused on this afternoon was this: I read children's novels all the time. The slight majority of the books I own are children's or young adult books. In the last month, I've borrowed these books from the library: The Story of Doctor Dolittle, Little House in the Big Woods, Swallows and Amazons, The Amber Spyglass, and Little House on the Prairie. Two months ago I re-read for the tenth time The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. At the moment, I'm reading All of A Kind Family. Hmmm. What do I love to read?

Yes, I just finished a draft of a children's novel. But I wrote that because I had an idea about gnomes and I didn't picture it going over well for the adult audience. I thought it was going to be an exception for me. Maybe it shouldn't be.

Today's Mood

Today I feel like I could falll asleep at the desk. I am here under protest. That's all.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Progress Report Card

Time for a progress report. How am I doing with the advice from Madeleine L'Engle that I said I was going to follow this month?

1. I'm still reading at least an hour a day. Most of the time I get that good-for-me reading done as well as the pleasure reading. I'm reading a good-for-me Home Comforts by Cheryl Mendelson right now and a pleasurable All of A Kind Family by Sydney Taylor.

2. I have not been writing consistently every day for the reason that I've been sick and so has my son. This is a legitimate and useful reason (skipping writing allows me to get a much-needed nap when my son does), but now that we're both mostly better, it's hard to get back in the swing of things.

I'll start revising my children's novel on February 11th, and I know that's going to be a huge job. I don't want to start another big project before then. The story I'm working on is fun but not going anywhere yet. I don't feel like I've gotten serious about it. This makes it even harder to make sure to write every day.

3. "Hold true to your vision." This is still the trickiest piece of advice to follow. I think if I did this, I would already be working on my new novel idea, even though I'll be getting into revising my last novel shortly. I'd be writing as fast as the inspiration came, for as long as it took. This is unrealistic with a toddler in the house, but I could be doing it to the best of my ability, writing in all my spare minutes rather than in just one toddler-nap chunk.

In my original post about Madeleine L'Engle's advice, I wrote: "How will I do this as I sit down to write? I think I will actually turn to a piece of Anne Lamott's advice. She sits down, rereads what she wrote the day before, and muses about it. Actions, thoughts, and descriptions flit through her head. When they begin to form themselves into sentences and paragraphs, she types them down like she's taking dictation."

I tend to not want to sit down to my keyboard until I already know what I'm going to start writing. What I want to do instead is, as they say, "Suit up and show up." Then we'll see what happens.

On this report card, I give myself a B. Plenty of room for improvement.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Building Up

"Being a writer does not necessarily mean being published...When you have a vision, you want to share it. But being a writer means writing. It means building up a body of work. It means writing every day. You can hardly say that van Gogh was not a painter because he sold one painting during his lifetime, and that to his brother. Van Gogh was a painter because he painted, because he held true to his vision as he saw it."
-excerpt from Madeleine L'Engle Herself: Reflections on a Writing Life (Chase, Carole F.) in The Writer, June 2002 v115 i6 p26(4)

Building up that body of work, if I follow my vision for it, can be as satisying as anything in life. The joy I thought I would feel upon being published is already accessible.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

truth and Truth

Today I told the truth about how I felt to a family member. Shouldn't be too hard, should it? It was. I'm an honest person, but when I talk to people, I empathize with their feelings and opinions and usually leave out or smooth over the parts where I disagree with them. I tell the truth, but not the whole truth. Today I told the whole truth. I was shaking, I was so nervous about it. When I was done, I felt light as air.

Later this afternoon, I was struck with inspiration for a new book idea. It was an exciting idea and it felt Truthful (the way that fiction tells the Truth). Is it coincidence that inspiration came to me after I had let my whole truth come out?

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Writing and a Spiritual Life

Madeleine L'Engle (author of 62 books and this month's No Shame Novelist featured author) did not separate her spiritual life from her creative life. I think she would say they are inseparable.

I think about this in terms of inspiration when I'm writing. I don't want it to be a purely rational process where I think about options, choose some and reject others, and write from an unchanging plan. I've been reading L'Engle and C. S. Lewis and Louisa May Alcott all my life. Out of many influences, they were the heaviest on my love of reading and writing. Each of them had strong spiritual or moral beliefs that affected their writing to the point that their works would never have been written without those beliefs.

Writers don't need to go to church or profess faith, but I think we do need to tap into something outside our normal experience in order to do the best work we're capable of.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Einstein and L'Engle

Whew. I did the latest writing exercise, and it led to some work getting done.

But on to L'Engle. One of her greatest inspirations was Albert Einstein.

In an interview with, she said, "I was asking myself all the big questions about life and the universe and not finding the answers. Then I picked up a book of Einstein's and he said anyone who is not lost in rapture at the power of the mind behind the universe 'is as good as a burned out candle.'"

Later in the same interview, L'Engle said, "And particle physics says nothing is without a purpose, everything has an impact."

You can see her philosophy in the books she's written, perhaps most memorably in the five Time books: A Wrinkle In Time, A Wind In the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Many Waters, and An Acceptable Time. In these books, a child often plays a crucial role in events affecting entire worlds, from the cellular level to the outer environment.

Her philosophy is in her writing advice, too. In Madeleine L'Engle Herself: Reflections On A Writing Life, she said, "Why does anybody tell a story? It does indeed have something to do with faith, faith that the universe has meaning, that our little human lives are not irrelevant, that what we choose or say or do matters, matters cosmically."

She also liked Jean Rhys's description of the whole of writing as an enormous lake. Big rivers feed into the lake, but so do little streams. Each drop of water becomes part of the lake's composition.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Writing Exercise, Prefaced By Stuff That's Not Writing

I am feeling lazy about writing today. Instead of writing this post, I've been:

1. Doing laundry.

2. Looking up potty training tips (for my son, not me--I totally get it).

3. Checking my email.

4. Searching for and writing down homemade recipes for toothpaste, deodorant, shampoo, and household cleaning.

5. Voting for Joshilyn Jackson's gods in Alabama for Spread the Word's Top 10 Books to Talk About. You can vote here, too.

Ugh. After typing that list, I'm still stuck. Here's a simple writing exercise for you and me: Open up the *^%%$# program that is storing our work in progress and at least, for the love of Madeleine, look at it.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Once Upon A Week

I was going to tell you about the nonfiction works I've been completing over the last few days and how it's not as fun or inspiring to me as writing fiction, and then I remembered something.

I have a Once Upon A Week post due today! My brother and sister and sister-in-law and I have this thing going: One of us posts a trigger (word, image, lyrics, etc.) at the beginning of the week and all of us write a response to it by the end of the week. So far, we've posted comic strips, short stories, snippets of fiction, essays, one-liners, and even a song via audiofile. This week's trigger involves, well, cursing, but we don't have any rule against that at Once Upon A Week.

Our past triggers have been:

Thanksgiving haiku
7th grade
the song "The Nurse Who Loved Me"

I'm off to work on the rest of the fiction piece I started for this week's trigger. And here I thought I was going back to writing a nonfiction article. Wheeeeeeeeee!

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Interlude: The Pulitzer Project

Thanks to Sherry's comment yesterday, I found The Pulitzer Project which I love already. The subheading tells most of the story: "Reading all 81 winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction".

The participants post their reading progress and reviews of the Pulitzer Prize books they've read. I can't say I'll read the Pulitzer books this year because I have my own long book list to get through, but it's a great goal and one I'll consider for the future.

So there you go, readers. Have at it!

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Our Truest Response

"Our truest response to the irrationality of the world is to paint or sing or write, for only in such response do we find truth."

Madeleine L'Engle said this, and it gives me comfort. Sometimes I think I'm being selfish to write. What if I'm no good at all, and I've taken all those hours away from my family for no reason? But no. There's a reason. I could have never put it as eloquently as L'Engle, but the writing I do gives me the strength to live the other parts of my life. I rejoice in the blessings of those other parts, but it's a lot harder to rejoice when I don't have the outlet of creating.

On a more mundane level, writing reveals to me the truth of my feelings. I find that a lot of times I'm not aware of what I think or feel about something until I'm writing and it comes out on the paper. I read it and think, Right. Of course. That's what I feel.

Monday, January 7, 2008

How L'Engle's Advice Works for Me

I'm feeling calm yet productive in L'Engle Month so far. (See this post for more about Madeleine L'Engle Month. For more about the No Shame Novelist Project, see this post.) Here's what I'm doing and how I'm feeling about the three pieces of L'Engle's adviced that I picked to follow.

1. “Read at least an hour a day, something you feel you should read for most of the time and something just for fun the rest of the time.”

I'm meeting this goal easily because, as I said earlier, I read all through the day when I'm eating, resting, and going to bed. Her encouragement to read something I think I should read for most of the time has pushed me to read Tortilla Curtain by T. Coraghessan Boyle and I'm glad I did. It was an engrossing book with what I think is a fit ending, but I resisted reading it because I knew it would be about hard lives and covert racism. No neat happy endings here. Still, the characters resonated and the story will stay with me for a long time.

2. Write consistently each day. Do this in the spirit of fun, too, but make it a discipline. It's the only way to "build up a body of work".

I'm going to the computer consistently and usually getting a blog post out of it. My new short story is hard for me to get into. It's not going smoothly or easily. I'm also finishing up some nonfiction projects which are less enticing to me than writing fiction. I'm not getting a large word count. I actually expect to break out of this whirlpool soon. I think my productivity comes in large bursts, and then goes. It'll come back.

3. "Hold true to your vision."

Though Michael Palmer's method of outlining a book very carefully before starting seemed to work for me in November, I think I'm not willing to work on a project unless it comes from a strong feeling or force within me. There are so many discouraging times through the writing and publishing process that I don't think I can make it all the way through unless I believe in my project at a gut level or a heart level. A story that I write simply because I think it is a good idea that somebody will want to publish will not survive the process. At the first rejection, I'll stop believing in it.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Interlude: Joshilyn Jackson's gods in Alabama

I mentioned some new-to-me women authors in this post and said I was going to read them all. After starting Joshilyn Jackson's book gods in Alabama less than 24 hours ago, I've finished it. I feel like Tony the Tiger because it's Grrrrrrrrrreat! She's got two other books out, Between, Georgia, and The Girl Who Stopped Swimming, that I must now read.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Madeleine L'Engle's Places

Madeleine L'Engle was born in New York City and went to school there. She also went to an English boarding school in the French Alps and attended high school in Charleston, South Carolina. While there, she vacationed in a beach cottage in Florida. She studied English at Smith College. After she married and began having children, she and her husband moved to a country town in Connecticut. They eventually moved back to New York City but they always kept the country home.

If you've read many of L'Engle's books, you'll recognize most of the settings of her books in the places she lived.

Friday, January 4, 2008

Response to Writing Exercise

In the picture, I look pretty with my long hair and red ribbon, like I could have been one of the Little House on the Prairie girls. But I also look tired. There are bags under my eyes belying the pretty, kind, posed smile. One arm is draped around Johanna's side--she's tipped over against me--but one is flicking or moving the rattle in her other hand, surreptitiously. My face gives nothing away, as if I am sitting perfectly still simply posing and smiling for the camera as I've been told to do. I don't know what I was trying to do with that rattle. I imagine I was trying to keep Johanna from bringing it up to her face, trying to make sure everything works out perfect for my mom and dad taking the picture.

On Jeff's face is a curious, crowd-pleasing smile, too. For some reason his expression brings back my memories of him being stubborn and making sure to do whatever it was he had set his mind on doing. He would bite you if you didn't let him. I remember that. Perhaps it was his method of preserving his true self against all attempts to civilize him. He has always been like that, I think. Polite and responsible on the outside, determined to be himself and only himself on the inside.

I look at Johanna and remember her only as a passive, grinning, sometimes angry baby. She has the roundest, softest body of the three of us in the picture, though this is because she is the youngest--only half a year old, probably. All of us have some version of the Shreve nose, but I now notice that each of us has slightly different-shaped eyes. Different colors, too. I can't read Johanna's round, blue, wondering eyes. I have never been able to tell what she was thinking. She has been a mystery to me most of her life. For me, that has been a deep source of sadness and confusion. Lately she entrusts me with more information and it makes me feel hopeful for her. Jeff seems so easy to read, on the other hand, that I wonder if I am missing something about him, something big and important and hidden.

Back to me: What do I remember about being six and a half years old? Nothing much. A brick house in a bad neighborhood that I didn't perceive that way. It was simply our house. A house was a good thing. There were people in that neighborhood that made me feel bad and suspicious, but that was the way things were, not bad nor good. One person who made me feel funny was our next door neighbor Nikki, a twelve-year-old who may have been hiding terrible things behind her careful adult demeanor. Her parents screamed and threw dishes at each other and I remember once a police car showed up at their house. I didn't connect her parents' screaming and throwing to that of my own parents because I didn't think about her parents very much. That was her life. I was wholly concerned with my own.

My teacher at the time, Mrs. Musselman, once made me drink spoiled orange juice that had been packed in my lunchbox. I still remember the taste of it--too sweet and too filmy with a strong rancid undertone. I think I cried. Mrs. Musselman was very strict. We learned phonics and the Spanish names of colors and spelling.

I had a crush on John Somebody-or-other at this age. I thought the blue-eyed blonde boy walked on water. Who knows why. The only things I remember him doing are shooting a cap-gun at the ceiling of our classroom during show and tell (against the teacher's orders) and walking across the school parking lot to get in one of the cars and go home.

I don't remember anything else at home. I don't remember much about my younger brother and sister until we were older. I don't know if that's normal for young kids or not. But I do still remember the nightmares I had in which I tried unsuccessfully to save my baby sister. In one, I was in a deserted dark airport in the middle of a big city. A fat Garfield-esque cat was doing terrible things. I tried to stop him but his underling cats tickled me until I had no breath. In another recurring nightmare, two cartoon bears with bright blue flower garlands around their heads took Johanna and threw her down headfirst on our concrete patio leading out to the backyard. I never had these dreams about Jeff. I think he's always had to take care of himself.

What I feel for my siblings is awe for the wonderful people they are, an abiding respect, and an eternal anxiety about their wellbeing. In this picture we all look happy, well-groomed, adorable, even matching in our red and white stripes. When I glance at it (it's up on the wall above my desk) I think about the love that binds us. But I don't ever think we were simply happy.

There have been happiness and joy in my life in greater measure than I expected. I have always acknowledged these gifts and moments of peace and been grateful and guilty for them.

Now is the time to acknowledge all the other feelings.

Repeating the Younger Self Writing Exercise

I wanted to come up with a writing exercise that would help me follow L'Engle's advice to "hold true to your vision". Then I remembered I had never done the exercise I posted about tapping into my younger self. Here it is again:

"A writing exercise:

Sit in a room alone and stare at a picture of yourself at a tender age. I'm going to find a picture of me at four years old, because I think that was the year I was most engaged in life. Stare at it until you think you can't stare at it any longer, then sit there for another five minutes. Let memories flow through your mind. Watch them.

Then begin to write."

After I post this, I'm going to take down the 24-year-old picture of me and my siblings in our matching red pajamas and do what I wrote above.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Madeleine L'Engle Month

I was sad to hear that the wise Madeleine L'Engle (full name: Madeleine L'Engle Camp Franklin) had died September 6th, 2007. The world is lucky to have her books as lasting reminders of her contributions and thoughts.

Below are the pieces of her advice that I will be following for the month of January.

1. “Read at least an hour a day, something you feel you should read for most of the time and something just for fun the rest of the time.”
(excerpted from Madeleine L'Engle Herself: Reflections on the Writing Life by The Writer, June 2002 v115 i6 p26(4))

I follow this advice already, by reading every time I sit down to eat, every time I go to the bathroom for more than a minute, before bed, and other times throughout the day. It's what I do. As far as the material I choose, I've mostly read things for fun, but I've also read my share of things I thought I should. Right now I'm reading a book called Friends for 350 Years about the history and practices of Quakers that counts as both. For something I feel I should read, I will start Tortilla Curtain by T. C. Boyle.

2. Write consistently each day. Do this in the spirit of fun, too, but make it a discipline. It's the only way to "build up a body of work".
(from same source as above)

I wrote about the importance of vacations from writing in yesterday's post along with the importance of keeping at a story until it's finished. This month, I will write something every day unless I need a vacation for one of the legitimate, useful reasons I listed in the post yesterday.

3. "Hold true to your vision."
(same source)

L'Engle believed each of us has something unique and valuable to contribute to the universe. My interpretation of this piece of advice is that we must be careful to contribute what we are meant to contribute rather than what we decide to contribute on a solely rational basis (for example, by plotting everything ahead of time and writing to the outline). As writers or artists, we must explore our leanings and curiosities and processes while remaining open to inspiration that seems to be bigger than ourselves.

How will I do this as I sit down to write? I think I will actually turn to a piece of Anne Lamott's advice. She sits down, rereads what she wrote the day before, and muses about it. Actions, thoughts, and descriptions flit through her head. When they begin to form themselves into sentences and paragraphs, she types them down like she's taking dictation.

I've heard the writer described as a typist for another power from many great authors. Stephen King, C. S. Lewis, and Anne Lamott are just three of them I can think of off the top of my head. This is very different from Michael Palmer's advice, of course, and his advice did seem to work for me. Well, we'll see what really works when this project is ended.

So begins Madeleine L'Engle Month.