Credit: AP via Variety

In the wake of Ursula K. Le Guin’s passing

As testimonies, tributes, and memorials flood the internet, many refer to the product of Ursula K. Le Guin’s writing career, her art, as a body of work.

I am fascinated by the phrase.

In leaving her physical body, Le Guin draws attention to that other body, the one she built with words. The body she created, the wake of her living, is extensive, dense, gorgeous, precise, urgently important, and breathing.

In library shelves, old hardback novels, stained by the fingerprints of generations of readers. On bookstore displays, pages crisp and fresh, smelling of new ink. Dog-eared on bedroom nightstands, piled together with co-conspirators of every genre.

It is right to mourn the passing of a person of such integrity, wit, intelligence, talent, dedication, discipline, someone who has influenced whole generations, and worlds, with her art. We should be grief-stricken. We have lost a giant.

And yet, she is not gone. Not totally. Her body of work now stands in for her person. It is not a fair trade, bound pages for a soul, but it is a glittering legacy. Every time her words are read aloud, mentally, heard, understood, pondered over, she grins and winks. She whispers in our ears words of power, passion, truth, and imagination. In this way, she is not dead at all, and never will be.

Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die. 

“Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep,” Mary Elizabeth Frye

 

Advertisements

2017 in Books

Ya’ll have seen that Weight Watchers commercial, right?

*clears throat*

*activates Oprah voice*

I. Love. Books.

 

I inhale them the same way I do bags of potato chips: whole, and in as few sittings as possible. If I get ahold of a really great book, and it’s 400+ pages, there’s a good chance I’ll get eye strain before I finish.

 

Dangers of the vocation.

In On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King wrote, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” In order to write well, to develop skill, taste, and writerly abilities, to fill the creative well, writers need, desperately, to read.

I also love book lists, pitting myself against the MOST IMPORTANT NOVELS OF THE 20TH CENTURY, or the BEST KIDS BOOKS OF ALL TIME, and seeing if I can identify FIFTY BOOK COVERS EVEN ENGLISH MAJORS DON’T RECOGNIZE.

I also love book recommendations.

So I thought I’d post a list of the books I read in 2017, as a (moderately) unique way to “define” and reflect on another 365-day twirl around the sun. These are in the order I read them. Italicized books are re-reads. Bold books are recommendations/favorites I would read again.

(NF = nonfiction, SFF = sci-fi/fantasy, YA = young adult, F = fiction)

  1. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo (NF)
  2. A Storm of Swords, George R.R. Martin (SFF)
  3. The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame (YA)
  4. The Habit of Being, Flannery O’Connor (NF)
  5. Trigger Warning, Neil Gaiman (SFF)
  6. The Gift of Being Yourself, David G. Benner (NF)
  7. Mr. Palomer, Italo Calvino (F)
  8. The City at World’s End, Edmond Hamilton (SFF)
  9. Iron Council, China Mieville (SFF)
  10. When We Were Orphans, Kazuo Ishiguro (F)
  11. The Eye of the Heron, Ursula K. LeGuin (SFF)
  12. The Annotated H.P. Lovecraft (SFF)
  13. Finch, Jeff VanderMeer (SFF)
  14. Grace (Eventually), Anne Lamott (NF)
  15. Annihilation, Jeff VanderMeer (SFF)
  16. Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino (F)
  17. Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn (F)
  18. Hero of a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell (NF)
  19. Authority, Jeff VanderMeer (SFF)
  20. Acceptance, Jeff VanderMeer (SFF)
  21. Magic for Beginners, Kelly Link (SFF)
  22. Kindred, Octavia Butler (SFF)
  23. Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather (F)
  24. Cinder, Marissa Meyer (SFF YA)
  25. Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury (F)
  26. The Sandman, vol. 1, Neil Gaiman (SFF)
  27. Anne of Green Gables, L.M. Montgomery (F)
  28. Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi (F)
  29. Some Assembly Required, Anne Lamott (NF)
  30. Anne of Avonlea, L.M. Montgomery (F)
  31. Night, Elie Wiesel (NF)
  32. After the Locusts, Denise Ackerman (NF)
  33. One of Ours, Willa Cather (F)
  34. rash, Pete Hautman (SFF YA)
  35. Borne, Jeff VanderMeer (SFF)
  36. More of Less: Finding the Life You Want Under Everything You Own, Joshua Becker (NF)
  37. Strange Library, Haruki Murakami (SFF)
  38. IQ84, Haruki Murakami (SFF)
  39. Basho: The Complete Haiku (NF)
  40. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, Philip K. Dick (SFF)
  41. Mr. Pye, Mervyn Peake (SFF)
  42. Journeys of SImplicity, Philip Harnden (NF)
  43. Titus Groan, Mervyn Peake (SFF)
  44. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis (SFF)
  45. Revelations of Divine Love, Julian of Norwich (NF)
  46. A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess (F)
  47. Swann’s Way, Marcel Proust (F)
  48. Entering the Silence, Thomas Merton (NF)
  49. Lud-in-the-Mist, Hope Mirrlees (SFF)
  50. Thrill Me, Benjamin Percy (NF)
  51. Six Wakes, Mur Lafferty (SFF)
  52. Scarlet, Marissa Meyer (SFF YA)
  53. Cress, Marissa Meyer (SFF YA)
  54. Sea of Rust, C. Robert Cargill (SFF)
  55. Fairest, Marissa Meyer (SFF YA)

Not sure I can top the sheer number of books in 2018…

But I’m ready to try.

 

Happy New Year.

Write Like a Child

Recently, I taught haiku to a group of elementary students. I started the lesson on the defensive, expecting groans, complaints, poetry bashing, and a general unwillingness to participate. I tried to counter some of that up front by telling the students I loved haiku  and that I expected them to be respectful of that.

I gave a brief history of the form. We read three poems by Matsuo Basho and discussed the basic rules for classic haiku. I gave them some concrete steps to begin (choosing a season of the year, then an image in nature particular to that season, as well as some kind of simile/metaphor or observation they could make about that image).

And then? They started writing.

Never written a poem before? No problem.

Never heard of haiku before? No problem.

They just went for it. Pencils scribbling, erasers squeaking. The most common question I got was, “Is this good?”

Not only did they jump in without second thoughts, they offered their newborn poems up to me for assessment. They were not afraid of being critiqued.

There’s an amazing 2006 TEDTalk by Sir Ken Robinson (watch it here if you haven’t seen it) about how we lose this ability to create with abandon as we grow up. He points to the format of our educational systems, the vulnerabilities we inherit as we struggle to find identity, and the social constructs in place around us. The end result: we lose that part of us that’s willing to take creative risks that might not pay off or will open us up to criticism.

We outgrow some fears, monsters in the closet, for example, only to grow into new ones. Fears of rejection, inadequacy, worthlessness, or inconsequentiality.

I used to stare at my closet doors, at the cracks that showed the deep inner darkness where, I could imagine vividly, monsters and murderers hid. The more I pictured this, the more afraid I’d become. I eventually found a fix. I’d hook a hanger across the handles. It might stop whatever was inside from getting out, and if nothing else, the sound of it jangling around would alert me and give me enough time to get away.

The more we think about the things that scare us, the more power they gain over us. The best way to get the monsters out of the closet is to ignore the thoughts of monsters.

It’s not that we should stop caring what other people think of our work. It’s that we shouldn’t fear feedback, or attach our self-worth to others’ opinions. We need that outside critique to guide us to successful completion.

We can’t endlessly fear that we don’t know what we’re doing. We need to start. We need to work. We have to take notes, draw pictures, meditate, problem solve, and write. We will learn by doing.

The fears I’m talking about are all very real. It’s not just our imaginations playing games with us. It’s not that they aren’t worth being afraid of, or that if you do fear them you’re a coward. It’s that we shouldn’t allow our fear to take over, limit us, dictate what we can and cannot do. 

By the way, the haiku my students wrote? 100% inspired awesomeness. I was totally blown away.

At one time, we all knew how to create fearlessly. We can do it again.

How to Write Fearlessly, Like a Child:

Consider what you would write if you weren’t afraid.

Stop thinking about your fear.

Write it.

Why is Writing So Hard?

You’ve set aside a couple of hours to write, and you’ve been looking forward to it all day. You finally get home. You get your snacks, your tea or coffee, settle down to write, and…  You can’t find the mental energy to begin the process of writing, or stay in the groove long enough to be productive.

This lack of mental energy shouldn’t be confused with writer’s block or some other problem. It occurs simply because our writing brainpower is limited.

Every creative act requires us to make decisions. These decisions, conscious and un-, take a toll on the brain. It can only make so many in a day.

Writing requires TONS of decisions. In an hour, a writer makes hundreds if not thousands of decisions. Simply putting one word after the other means a decision: choosing what word comes next. And the English language in particular has many synonyms and shades of meaning to choose from. Then there’s the big-picture decisions. Character description and development. Dialogue. Scene. Overall plot. Subtext. The list goes on.

The problem is, our brain doesn’t distinguish between creative decisions and daily decisions, like what to wear, what route to take to work, what to eat, and etc. So when a writer sits down to write after a long day, her brain is likely already close to the maximum decisions it can handle in a 24-hour period. She has decision-fatigue. This makes engaging in the writing process extremely difficult.

Some famously creative people deal with decision-fatigue by cutting down on decisions. Steve Jobs, for example, had a uniform–the black turtleneck and jeans–so that he wouldn’t have to decide what to wear in the morning. Those were decisions he could spend on something more significant than his appearance. Routine ways of beginning the morning and schedules can also help.

Others choose to engage in their creative work first thing, before any other decisions crop up, demanding to be made. Sheila O’Connor, author of Sparrow Road and Keeping Safe the Stars, gets up in the morning and goes straight to her writing space. She doesn’t talk to anyone or interact with anything involving words. I don’t think she even gets dressed. Straight to writing, no questions asked. That way, her freshest, best decision-making energy is spent on her work.

It’s important to be aware of where our decision-making energy is spent.

It’s also important to know when a decision must be made, and to make it firmly.

Writers (myself included) often get ourselves into trouble by trying to put off decisions. Because of decision-fatigue or sheer wishy-washiness, we don’t want to commit to a certain character’s motivation, reaction, or an event in the plot. We want our options open. We keep writing, thinking we can come back later and clarify. Meanwhile, without a solid backbone of made decisions, the work that follows becomes spongy and disintegrates.

Even if we are managing our decision-making energy well, sometimes the fear that a decision is wrong holds us back from committing to it. It is almost impossible to know if the option we choose is the best one. Even those that feel right in the moment can be wrong.

But we have to choose an option. We can’t predict the result; we have to try the decision on and see what happens. Even if we lose pages of work on wrong decisions, we haven’t wasted our time. We come away from them knowing more about the world and the characters in it.

Writing, making endless decisions–it’s hard. Understanding the way our brains works can help us make the most of our writing time, and being willing to make decisions fearlessly helps us move forward, even if it sometimes feels like we’re moving backward.

If you want to learn more about the science behind creativity, check out Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s book Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention. He goes into much more detail about this concept and many others that can give you a leg up in your writing life.

 

How Do You Find Time to Write?

I came across this line in a tweet the other day:

You either make time to write, or you’re not a real writer.

My reaction was something like: YIKES. Harsh! Who is this person, and why do they think they get to define what a “real” writer is anyway??

It’s easy to react to some irritating piece of internet space junk like this and fly off the handle without thinking about what it is that bothers us. Let’s slow down our reactions, put aside the judgmental tone in the statement, and try again.

You either make time to write, or you’re not a real writer.

Can I be a writer if I don’t make time to write? Here I am, not making time to write, and therefore not writing. Not writing kind of does mean I’m not a writer, since that’s what writers do. They write.

Dictionary.com:

writer

noun

  1. a person engaged in writing books, articles, stories, etc., especially as an occupation or profession; an author or journalist.
  2. clerk, scribe, or the like.
  3. person who commits his or her thoughts, ideas, etc., to writing
  4. (in a piece of writing) the author
  5. a person who writes or is able to write.

See?

Writers write. To do that, they have to spend time writing. That’s not a revolutionary idea. So why do we get so defensive when we read things like, “You either make time to write or you’re not a real writer”? And what does it say about us and about our writing lives?

Perhaps we already feel that imposter’s syndrome–we don’t believe we are real writers. This statement touches on our own insecurities, which are likely misplaced. All we have to do to be real writers is write.

Sometimes we really are avoiding writing because we don’t want to work on a certain project, or we feel stuck.

Maybe a negative reaction comes from a place of guilt. We aren’t being as purposeful or disciplined as we know we could be, and we’re letting minutes, hours, and days slide by without writing, zoning out in front of a screen or [insert preferred method of procrastination here].

Our schedules have gotten out of control. We made too many commitments and there’s literally no place to put writing time.

Here’s the thing.

We control our own lives. No one forces jobs, activities, or projects on us. We accept them. We think that life has to be a certain way. But it doesn’t.

If my first priority is to be a writer (someone who writes), then I must rearrange my life to that end. No one is going to do it for me. No one is going to ask me or remind me to do it. I have to learn to exert my will over the pattern of my days and weeks, because it is my life, and I am in control of it.

Action 1: I may need to quit something. 

I took up cello in earlier this year. I loved the instrument, but I couldn’t keep up my schedule, and give adequate mental space to writing as well as practicing. So I quit after a month.

It can be hard to let go of commitments, especially if you were raised to always finish what you start like I was. Sometimes, though, you have to reprioritize. We get to decide for ourselves what we need to do, and what we need to let go.

We won’t get to do everything we want. I don’t get to learn cello and finish my novel, and that’s okay.

Action 2: I may need to be more purposeful with my time.

Our time is so limited.

The internet sucks up a lot of it. I’ve been cutting back on social media and trying to break patterns of repetitive e-mail checking and pointless-article reading.

If I haven’t gotten to writing and it’s evening (my least-productive time), or I only have twenty spare minutes, I try to write anyway.

Some of us have demands on our time that we can’t exactly shuffle off. Then again, there’s writer Mindy Mejia, who just published her second novel Everything You Want Me to Be. I heard her speak in Fall 2015, and she said she wrote her first novel, The Dragon Keeper, during her lunch breaks at her very-full-time job while raising kids. Talk about using every minute.

Action 3: I may need to practice stricter discipline.

Try writing at the same time every day, for a set period of time, even if it’s “not very long.” Writing for a few minutes is always better than not writing at all. Guard that writing time with your life. Nothing interrupts it: not phone calls, social media, texts, pets, appointments, e-mails, reading, non-writing projects, chores, meals, etc.

Toward the end of the summer, I wasn’t writing regularly. So I set myself writing goals: a minimum of 10 new pages a week for the rest of the calendar year, and to finish a full draft of my novel by December 31. I keep track of my daily page and word count in a notebook. There are days I don’t write, but I make up for them by writing more on other days.

Stricter mental discipline may also help: practicing positive thinking/self-encouragement. See my last post about positive thought cycles for more ideas on this.

In any case…

Write every day, every other day, once a week. Do what you need to do in your life. But if you want to be a writer, if you want to wear the label proudly, you kind of, sort of, do actually need to, like… write.

Writing’s not easy.

And it’s not easy to value something so counter-cultural, that emphasizes time alone, quiet, and results that probably won’t bring massive financial success.

That’s the beauty of it, though. Thou mayest, which also means, thou mayest not. It’s up to us. We may choose to empower ourselves as the determining force in the patterns of our lives, then with that power, reshape our lives to match our goals. Or, we may not. You choose.

 

 

 

 

The Twitter Revision Experiment: Writer’s Edition

Twitter has made me a better writer.

Sounds like clickbait, right? It’s totally not.

When I graduated with my creative writing degree, I lost a lot of involvement in the supportive writing community I had gotten used to. Thankfully, the internet is teeming with brilliant people building virtual writing communities.

In particular, there are amazing creative writers on Twitter. They tweet about their writing lives, what they’re working on, and give encouragement to each other, all in 140 characters or less. They’re pretty easy to find. Search the hashtag #amwriting.

I joined in. One of the best things I discovered were daily writing games. There are many, and they are known by their hashtags: #SunWIP, #MuseMon, #1lineWed, #ThruLineThurs, #Thurds, etc. Each different hashtag/game has a weekly prompt. For example, a recent #MuseMon theme was Love’s Worth Fighting For. The idea is, you post something from your work in progress (WIP) that resonates with the theme, hashtag it #MuseMon, and tweet it into the Twitter world.

Here’s what I tweeted for a recent #SunWIP for the prompt DARK:

screenshot-2017-10-11-10-47-37.png

Searching these hashtags brings up pages of people playing along. You can like their posts, see how they interpreted the theme, and follow them to see what other things they’re up to. It’s a great way to find writing community online.

It’s also a great way of becoming more aware of your own writing.

When I find something from a WIP that fits the daily theme, it’s usually too long. I have to squeeze it down until it fits the 140-characters limit, minus however many characters the hashtag takes up.

The result: I re-write the piece more concisely, and in the process, I condense my idea into its purest, most powerful form.

Here are two sets of original text compared to the text I eventually tweeted.

EXAMPLE 1

Screenshot 2017-10-11 11.02.39

Screenshot 2017-10-11 11.00.08

First draft = 31 words. Second draft = 22 words.

Cut = 30%

Final tweet with hashtag = 139 characters.

Sentence 1: I cut out “and scoops” which really didn’t add anything important.

Sentence 2: I substituted the (perhaps) pretentious verb “plastered” for the simpler and more straight forward “blew.”

Sentence 3: I opted to cut the final sentence and make it into a fragment. The WIP is in first person, and my narrator has a tendency to use fragments, so this worked just fine.

Result: I changed the description in my manuscript to match the tweet exactly. The tweet format had helped me hone in on what was most important in the description, and I wasn’t about to bulk it back out with unnecessary details.

EXAMPLE 2

Screenshot 2017-10-11 11.12.37Screenshot 2017-10-11 11.12.46

1st draft = 40 words. 2nd draft = 20 words.

Cut = 50%

Final tweet with hashtag = 137 characters.

Sentence 1: I cut out the adjective “haphazard.” I wasn’t thrilled about that, but it felt less important than the later adjective “cavernous.” Two adjectives in one sentence really weigh it down.

Sentence 2-4: I cut them completely. The descriptions were redundant. For example, both “countless” and “armies” are number indicators. I picked the one I liked best. I also didn’t like the repeated sentence fragments. Too rhythmic and simple feeling.

Sentence 5: I took out the repeated “all” and added a color detail about mold. Black mold has such a sinister feel…

Sentence 6: In my WIP, this was actually the start of a new paragraph. I decided I liked the way it fit with the description, and could then work to foreshadow the next paragraph where the narrator explains her negative reaction. I replaced “this place” with “them.” This seemed to make more sense, as the narrator talks about the file cabinets in the previous sentence, not the overall area. (And it’s shorter…)

Result: I discovered points of redundancy and some rhythmic issues. However, in my actual WIP, I ended up keeping some of the description that was cut, namely the file cabinet colors and the emphasis on the size of the place.

So, to sum up…

  • Squeezing bits of your work into 140-character tweets can help you realize what words, phrases, or sentences are most important.
  • It forces you to examine sentence-level details, like repetition, redundant descriptions, and ineffective word choices.
  • Tweeting your work can alert you to patterns in your writing you want to change, like overuse of fragments.
  • It can also give you great ideas for revision.

In his book On Writing, Stephen King relays advice he once received: the second draft of anything should be 10% shorter than the first draft. Twitter can be an amazing tool for finding those places you can (and maybe should) cut.

So, by all means, tweet on…

Write on…

Positive Thought Experiment: Writer’s Edition

My writing life is a constant rollercoaster of emotional ups and downs, especially in how I feel about the work I accomplish. I am realizing how much the way I feel effects my writing, and at the same time, that the way I feel does not always match up with reality.

My writing times tend to be colored with resentment, insecurity, or unwillingness to write. These negative emotions sometimes fade as I become more present with the work I’m doing, and sometimes make it almost impossible to get down to business.

I started to wonder whether my manuscript is still unfinished because of these emotional experiences, these negative thought cycles.

Negative thought cycles begin as self-deprecating internal dialogue. If the thinker allows the dialogue to continue long enough, those negative thoughts become engrained mental habits. It can actually change the way the brain operates. People with anxiety, depression, PTSD, and similar problems deal with this phenomenon on a daily basis, and work hard to break the mental habits their brain has developed as a result of something like trauma or genetics.

I deal with anxiety, and in the process of dealing with it, I came into contact with the idea of replacing negative thoughts with positive ones. Of course, this wasn’t in the context of writing. But as I began to realize how much my negative emotions were messing with my writing, I started to suspect a negative thought cycle in action.

The next time I sat down to write, I turned up the volume on my internal dialogue. There were infinite negative thoughts. I started to hear myself think things like,

You’re not a good enough writer to do this story justice.

This story isn’t worth being finished.

These characters are flat and you’re never going to be able to make them realistic.

You don’t care enough about this story to get it done.

You don’t have the time or energy to write.

You can’t figure this story out well enough to put it down on paper.

You shouldn’t even try.

So, I decided to do an experiment.

Every day before I started to write, I would journal positive thoughts. Even if I didn’t believe them, even if they sounded ridiculous, even if anyone who found the journaling would think I was insane (a la April Kepner), I would drown out the negative thoughts by consciously thinking and then writing down positive ones that directly contradicted the negative.

For example:

Thought: “I can’t write well enough to meet my own standards.”

Replacer: “I do have high standards and am careful about how I put words together. I do not let that care stop me. I produce more exactly. I rise to my own challenge. I will meet my goals.”

Thought: “This will never be finished. I can’t finish it.”

Replacer: “I am working hard and making progress. It is okay if I don’t finish it today. If I keep working, I will finish it someday.”

In the psychiatric world, this is called positive thought replacement. And let me tell you, it works.

I was far more productive than I had been in previous weeks. My emotional life was more stable, and so was my writing life. I had given myself permission to feel good about the work I was accomplishing, and I did.

The practice carried over to other areas of my life, too. I started to feel more positive during the rest of my day. I would catch myself in the middle of a negative thought about something totally unrelated to writing, and reverse it. Even though the experimental term I set for myself has passed, I still do positive journaling before every writing session. I have no intention of stopping.

I highly recommend trying this! Here are the steps I followed:

  1. Identify the negative dialogue you are allowing and engaging with.
  2. Write down empowering, positive statements that directly contradict each negative thought.
  3. Repeat.
  4. When you feel all the negative thought demons of the moment are still, begin writing.

Good luck silencing your negative internal dialogue…

Write, and be happy.