A Woman Writing at Home

I recently ran across one of those test-your-knowledge clickbait pages on Facebook — the kind that offers a series of multiple choice questions and hypes that only a genius can answer more than half the questions correctly. This one quizzed the user’s knowledge of art, displaying an array of well-known paintings and asking the participant to guess the correct title for each.

Normally, I would scroll on past. But being a one-time fine arts student, I couldn’t resist playing. Not surprisingly, the works were so recognizable that a third-grader could have aced it. But it did make me take note, for the first time, that history’s greatest creative masters didn’t seem to waste much time looking for clever titles to give their works. Girl with a Pearl Earring. Starry Night. The Last Supper. The Water Lily Pond. Whistler’s Mother. The Scream. Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid.

No clever word play. No mystery. What you see is the title you get. These artists had no time to entertain you with piquant descriptions. The flavor is in on the canvas, and will not be dressed up with witty gallery wall placards.

I’m not sure writers have that luxury. After all, the written word is our art. But I do think we can become too consumed with churning out ever-increasingly shrewd observations wrapped in sparkling prose. And that drive, in turn, can lead to what would otherwise be a productive day of composing simple, honest observations ending instead in writer’s block and procrastination.

I know all about such dawdling. I’ve spent much of the last year wallowing in it.

My last entry on this blog was nearly a year ago, when I promised a published novel sometime in June. It was too ambitious a goal, and I knew it. My strategy in announcing a publishing date was a ploy meant to force me into whipping it into shape sooner than later.

The ploy backfired.

Instead of pushing me to meet my own self-imposed deadline, it left me paralyzed. I put off the edits it desperately needed. When I did get around to them, I edited mercilessly, suddenly unhappy with all of it. It felt as though all the progress I had made was being carried off by a riptide of doubt and inaction, and all my attempts to fight it left me too exhausted to do better. Worse, I allowed my misgivings to interrupt my writing.

A daily routine of writing is necessary for me to keep on task. Missing a day of writing makes me feel bad about myself. It makes me feel lazy and unproductive. The only thing worse than feeling lazy and unproductive is feeling untalented and clumsy. Which is why I had been procrastinating in the first place. And led me to feeling even more inept. I recently confessed this downward spiral to my grown daughter.

“I couldn’t think of one clever thing to say today,” I griped. “I’m a hack.”

“You are not a hack,” she insisted. I could hear the eye roll. “Why do you have to be clever?”

Because, I thought, who’s going to bother reading something that’s not clever?

 “You don’t have to always be on, you know,” she said. “Some days, it’s ok to just wake up and read. Or take a walk. Or do nothing. Or, to write something that isn’t the most profound thing you’ve ever written.”

She may be on to something.

Surely it’s better to write something, even if it’s not your best work, than to produce nothing more than another blank page. Because even if the something is not your best work, it serves to exercise the creative muscle that will otherwise atrophy.

With that in mind, I’m working — slowly, steadily — to stay on track, writing in my free time for both this blog and another and working on the novel, which has a new working title of Gumshoe (it had been Good Old-fashioned Shoe Leather). As penance for leaving a number of readers hanging, I plan to publish a second excerpt of it here — essentially, the second chapter — in the coming days. 

I don’t want to make the same mistake of promising a publishing date for Gumshoe.  But I will go out on a limb and say I plan to seek your advice in the coming weeks on what works and what doesn’t, starting with the change in title. More on that later, though. 

For now, in this age of pandemics and social distancing, I remain A Woman Writing at Home.

Chapter 1

As promised, I’ve published the first chapter of Good Old-Fashioned Shoe Leather in the “excerpts” segment; you can find the link above. Launch of the book on Amazon Kindle is tentatively set for June 15. I’m looking forward to it, as well as your thoughts on the excerpt. In the coming days, I plan to take a survey on a book cover for Good Old-Fashioned Shoe Leather, which will let readers choose from two mock-ups.

Thank you all for tuning in. So far, this has been a fun ride. I hope that serves as encouragement.

Keep writing, friends.

Thank a Teacher

I was in a requisite college English composition class when life handed me one of those moments that make such an impression, it never leaves you.

The professor _ a tough, well-regarded wordsmith who had her own successful writing career _ was handing out graded papers from an assignment I don’t recall. She didn’t suffer fools, and she was a bit stingy with praise. So I noted it when she made eye contact and gave me a subtle nod as she dropped my paper on my desk. I’d gotten a rare “A” and a note scribbled beside it in the same red pen.

“So, the question is: What are you going to do with your ability to write?” it asked.

The thrill of that validation has never gone away.

There are maybe a handful of other moments I remember, although none as vividly. My sixth-grade teacher, noting my love of reading, was the first to encourage me to consider writing my own words. My first high school English teacher did as well. My high school senior English teacher went so far as to suggest writing might be my calling.

Tomorrow kicks off Teacher Appreciation Week. If, like me, you ever had a teacher who pointed you to a path you’re so thankful to have taken _ now would be a good time to let that teacher know what an impression she or he made on your life.

Keep writing, friends.

Finding Pearls …

I’m not one to pooh-pooh an idea on getting ideas. I mean, a good idea can spark anything from an insightful quip to series of novels. The trick is in sorting the pearls from the gravel.

Like so many others, I’ve tried my fair share of motivators _ methods that would ignite the imagination as efficiently as flint striking steel. A recently televised interview with author Delia Owens (Where the Crawdads Sing; PenguinRandomHouse) convinced me I should again try keeping a notepad and pen at the ready bedside, in case inspiration strikes in the middle of the night. Owens noted that a number of her bestseller’s most memorable lines were collected this way.

I’ve tried this before, with little to show for it. But maybe it was time to try again. Maybe, I thought, if I were to jot down some notes before going to bed, it would steer my subconscious self into a more creative dream state.

And, lo and behold, it worked.

Within a couple of days of jotting down ideas in bed, and keeping the same notebook and pen on my bedside table as I slept, lighting struck.

I don’t remember many details of the dream, but I recall that I was in the back of a Suburban with a couple of old friends. A character in the dream, and old college buddy, was recounting some serious event when she uttered something so profound, I paused the conversation in my dream to jot it down. I mean, told everyone in my dream, “Hold on. I need to write this down.” It was that golden.

It was enough to rouse me out of deep sleep, fumble for the pen and notepad and scribbled the gem down.

The next morning, I awoke like a kid on Christmas morning _ all giddy and pumped to see what the Idea Fairy had left for me in the magic nighttime notebook.

I fumbled for my readers and held up the pad, as the memory of the dream and its fruit had already left me. “And that,” I thought, “is why we write it down in the moment.” What had I written? What accolades, I wondered, would this literary pearl garner me? 

Written on the pad was: “It was like coming in out of the cold.”

That was the quip so deeply sagacious that I woke to write it down? Sigh.

It was disappointing. Some might consider it a bust. Not me. It’s true: I’ve yet to glean anything useful from my dreams. But I’ve gathered plenty from my bedtime ritual of jotting down thoughts before going to sleep.

Which might go to show that the best way to spark creativity is still the old-fashioned way: Practice, practice, practice. Read what inspires you. Write, even when your muse is on break _ but especially when she’s on fire. Don’t rely on your dreams to motivate you. Motivation is begat by doing.

Keep writing, friends. Not every trick works for every writer. But writers who write will find what works best for them. You’ll get there.

12 Words

You are 12 words away from being a novelist. Just 12 words a day.

Let me explain: I was 17 when I first got the notion to write a novel. I was hanging poolside with friends the summer before my senior year of high school, basking in the glow of laughter and lifelong friends and carefree days known only to adolescents.

I was a voracious reader, and often teased for it. In fact, I was teased that day by the pool about it, as my friends gabbed and splashed and talked of boys and how to use lemon juice to get perfect blond highlights. I floated amongst them reading a novel I’d picked up from the library.

Their teasing wasn’t malicious. It was more of an acknowledgment of who I was: The bookworm. The dreamer. The girl with her head simultaneously between pages and in the clouds. 

“You are ALWAYS reading,” one of the girls laughed. “If you love books so much, why don’t you marry one?”

“If you like them so much, why don’t you write one?” another offered offhandedly.

The idea hit me like a thunderbolt. Why didn’t I? I could write about anything. Even about friends embarking on what was likely the last of their 12 years together before heading out into separate worlds of college and work and family. Embarking on such a venture would mean a full turn from a life I had planned since before I could fully remember to be a visual artist.

So, I did the only thing in the face of such an epiphany that made sense at the time: I ignored it and went on to study art.

But like any good lightning strike, the mark of it never went away. It stayed, nagging, as persistent as an inquisitive toddler. “Why not write a book? Why not? Why?” it insisted daily. It followed me through six years and two different courses of study in college. It stayed when I took a writing job as a newspaper reporter in my early 20s. It continued even after I landed a spot on the editorial page with a regular column that allowed me nearly full creative autonomy. I’m still writing for a living more than two decades later, and the nagging voice remains, always needling. It wants the novel.

In those years, I sat down countless times to heed the voice and write The Great American Novel. Here’s the thing: Writing a novel is not as easy reading a novel would have you think.

I rarely got past the first hopelessly clunky paragraphs before giving up. Translating whatever drama I had in my head into words on a page was an exercise in frustration. 

Turns out, it’s supposed to be. Every writer’s experience is different, but even the best of them count on the process being fraught with obstructions, setbacks, vexation. Trying to find the right words often feels like trying to wring water from a dry cloth. There will be other times the words flow as easy and smooth as melted chocolate. Sure, a rare few swear they’ve thrown down fully-formed masterpieces with little more effort than taking dictation. Faulkner claimed he wrote As I Lay Dying in six weeks with almost no sleep and not a single word revised. But smart writers know the hard days vastly outweigh the effortless ones.

Most writers will tell you the process entails what feels like endless days of rewrites. You rack your brain and dissect your soul to get the right words, convey the right emotion, shape the right characters, only to throw it all out in the next draft. Yes, Virginia; there’s more than one draft. Read enough authors who expound on the art of writing, and you’ll come away believing they all have reams of discarded manuscripts stuffed into drawers, closets, the space under their beds.

Fear of that process and other daunting suppositions has keep many a wordsmith from trying. It kept me from trying for too long.

Writing is like tunneling out of Shawshank prison: You have to go into it knowing it will be long and hard and tedious, and whether you see any real success will require  timing and good luck. But you tunnel, nonetheless, because something worth tunneling to lies on the other side.

It’s been more than 20 years since I was hit with that first urge to write. When I hit the 20-year mark, I did some calculating. If I’d written 12 words a day in that time _ just 12 new words a day _ I’d have a novel. Or at least the first draft of one. And a first draft is a lot closer to a novel than nothing.

So, that’s your goal: to write 12 words a day. No matter what. No matter how busy you are. No matter how tired you are. No matter how blocked you are. 12 words. And if you end up writing more than 12 words, well, all the better. In the beginning, you might only write 12 words a day. And that’s OK. It’s a dozen words further than you were the day before. But in time, you’ll almost certainly find yourself writing more. So that, instead having a novel in 20 years, you might find you have your book in half that time. Or a quarter. Or one or two years. Who knows? Maybe you’re another Faulkner.

I’ve been writing at least 12 words a day for more than a year. And I have a blog, half a novel, a novella and the start of three others to show for it. Some days are harder than others, but all the days since I began are better than the days before I started. I think you’ll find that to be the case, too.

Because whatever fear is holding you back _ fear of failure or of ridicule or of mediocrity _ none of that can feel worse than seeing 20 years go by without trying.

Now, go write your 12 words.

Success! You're on the list.

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years _ twenty years largely wasted … Trying to learn to use words …”

T. S. Eliot