#amwriting: Process & Projects

My hopeful attempts at regular blog updates are always derailed by real life, this time I’ve been hopelessly sidetracked by summer (when teaching ends and I become a full-time mom for three months) and moving (twenty-one years of STUFF) to a new house. Now that we’re finally getting settled in and it’s almost time for everyone to go back to school (but it’s only July!), I’ve decided to start going forward with some writing projects.

There are three, to be precise, because three is the magic number, right? I’ve also heard from some time management experts that it’s good to have more than one project active (so that you can work on ones that require different levels of time and energy as needed), but that more than 3-5 projects at a time is a bad idea.

The projects:

An academic research paper, which I’m submitting for funding in a few weeks and then trying to turn into an article. This is simply to keep my career afloat, but I do like the process and I’m interested in what I’m writing about, so I can’t really complain. I’m so lucky in this day and age to like my job.

My novel. This hairball has been building for almost a decade and I’m ready to cough it up and spit it out. I’ll soon be looking for beta readers for this one, so keep your ears open if you’re interested.

Finally, I’m working a project called Timekeeper Stories, an interactive storytelling project/alternate reality game that I’ve been working on since last year (the idea came to me the day after the election-HA HA). For those of you not familiar with the genre, typically the PM (puppetmaster) stays hidden and anonymous, and the game is played is if it’s not really a game, but taking place in real life (“this is not a game”). However, this time around I’m experimenting with the genre a bit and trying some new and different things, so the frame story itself will be somewhat unconventional in that it will be autobiographical, and I will provide different different entry points to each story over time (trailheads), which will allow varied levels of participation and immersion. People will have the option to just read the story installments as they are posted, OR they can also interact with story characters and work to solve mysteries and puzzles which appear in the stories.

My motivation for this project is to include a broader audience for the stories (typically ARG audiences are a a very small, select group of people), and to play around with the potential for using this genre for educational purposes.

Why share and discuss these projects before they are completed? I recently read a book called Jay Lake’s Process of Writing, which is a distillation of his blog posts on writing. I found his blog and was sad to learn that he passed away from cancer a few years ago, but his blog is still there and I was captivated by how completely and honestly he shared his writing process: the ups and downs, the good with the bad.

There is little discussion of the writing process itself, and I think this kind of transparency not only helps writers, but students as well. There is certainly no transparency in academic writing, which is something I have struggled mightily to do and have failed at miserably, filling me with a sense of shame and isolation in my career. However, I’m determined to learn the craft and plan to share what I’ve learned here, in the hopes that it might help someone in the future.

Finally, I need the discipline of a daily writing practice, and I like the idea of creating a small amount of public accountability. Already I’ve had some feedback on social media which has greatly boosted my motivation and resulted in an extra long writing session this morning.

I’m off now, to write.

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Early

Aria woke me as usual this morning at 5:30. She just wants to be covered up and then she goes back to sleep. Sometimes she waits until 6:00 or 6:30, but then she usually wants to get up for the day.

This morning I headed back to bed in the hopes of getting some more sleep, but when I got there I realized that I might as well stay up and do some writing. I really didn’t want to, but most of my favorite writers do all of their writing in the early morning. Because when you’re a mother and you work full time, is there any other way to get anything done?

I made coffee and managed to write 300 words, which is not a lot but more than I wrote yesterday. The rest of the day will be spent getting Oscar ready for school, going to work for a meeting about a course that I’m designing for the College of Education (my first stint as a curriculum consultant), and then working on getting my summer course ready, which begins in less than two weeks.

Most people think now that school is out I have nothing to do. HA!

Back to writing…

Dusting off the novel…

During NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) in November 2013 I wrote about 70,000 words of a novel that I’ve been kicking around in my head for over ten years. I was proud of myself for “winning” NaNoWriMo, but knew that what I had written was a huge, lumpy mess. Not only is the novel not finished (I’m guessing that because of the pace at which the story is unfolding that the novel will ultimately be 100,000-150,000 words), but I also wrote myself into a few corners. In keeping with the NaNoWriMo philosophy, I plowed through and got my word count. I put the novel away for a month and tried doing a bit of revising in January, but I was overwhelmed by the task that I put it away again. After a busy semester and several strange dreams involving my persistent characters, I pulled the thing out, braced myself with a cup of coffee, and decided to take a close look at what I was dealing with. Could this hulking mass be saved?

It turns out that it’s not as bad as I thought. As I read through the opening scenes I found myself getting caught up in the story. I realized that it’s time to get this thing done, once and for all.

The first thing I did was read through it completely and cut a bunch of utter crap. Repetition, out-of-order scenes that have no place, and some useless stream-of-consciousness stuff that is incomprehensible to me. After chopping away gleefully, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I still have a solid 60,000 words to work with.

The next thing I did was print it out. 222 pages! Not only is this a LOT of writing for me, but oddly the number 22 has significance in my story. I don’t attach much significance to this, but it’s kind of a neat coincidence.

Stuffed all 222 pages in a binder and now I’ve begun the sometimes fun, sometimes painful task of re-reading it again. I’m taking notes as I read. Once I’m done I’ll read it again and make an outline, then I will rewrite the novel from scratch. This may seem extreme, but it’s actually a pretty common process among the writers I know and those who write about their process in articles, books, or blogs.

My goal is to have a complete and coherent first draft that I can send out to beta readers by August 25th, which is the first day of classes.

I plan to write about the whole process here, including logging my daily work and word count on the novel.

novel

Why I Write

I am writing. I have written. I will write. I will have written.

I write because it is, for me, the clearest distillation of the human experience. I write to tell the truth.

For me, writing is unlike anything else I do. When I move through the world I am a bit lost, a bit discombobulated, a bit out of my element. I am as parched and oxygen-starved as a fish far from the sea. I bungle, I bump, I crowd, I dodge, I cringe.

When I sit down to write, a space opens up. I slip into it. I glide. I breathe, expand, remember, and love.

Words are not chosen with care (that happens during the revision process), rules are not remembered, and the Editor is silent. Time and everything else falls away…

what to do what to eat what to say what to exercise what to clean what to dress what to change what to cook what to buy what to believe

Everything. Every thing. Falls. Away.

The experts call this “flow.” It’s what elite athletes and musicians achieve. It’s what leaves us breathless and spellbound. I don’t call this flow. I call this life.

I write to create artifacts. Each word, each sentence, each idea and phrase is an artifact. They are my sculptures. When you enter my writing you enter the museum of my mind.

When I was a child I stood looking at the mummified form of a kitten that an ancient Egyptian had taken with him to the grave. There was an x-ray of it next to the display. It was delicate, shadowy, beautiful. It took my breath away. I thought to myself, “Finally, this is something I understand.”

That is why I write.

The Worth of Words

I’ve always lived in the borderlands. No place to call home. I am not a mother. I am not an academic. I am not a woman. I am not rich or poor. I am not a teacher. I am not a writer. I am…me. How does that find expression? Who are my soul mates? Others like me, certainly. There are many. They identify themselves to me at school, at family gatherings. Pulling me aside, quietly, secretly: “I just wanted you to know that I really like what you wrote about blah blah blah…”

It’s like water in the desert.

That’s what pulls me back to this blog. That’s what compels me to to put my pen to paper. It’s why I write and why I read. Just this morning I read a line in a book that startled me with its truth. It’s very important to remind people that there are threads connecting some of us at the deepest levels. We may not be the best teachers, students, parents, daughters, or friends; but we are the best for each other. We are there for each other beyond time and space.

A writer’s words carve their way into my soul like nothing else.

I am cleaning vomit off of my son at 3:00 A.M.. I am nursing my daughter back to sleep at dawn. I am standing at the kitchen counter wiping up crumbs, the words I long to write spilling out of my fingers and eyes and ears, lost forever to the wind because I don’t have the time or energy to create books, or stories, or articles. But they are there with me, these other women. Across time and space. Anne Lindbergh, Anne Lamott, Joan Didion, Maya Angelou, Barbara Kingsolver, Sylvia Plath, Anne Tyler, Sharon Olds, Faulkner Fox, etc. They whisper in my ear, “I know, I know.”

This is what I can give. I can tell other mothers, other writers, other women, that the journey is hard. It’s hard. But if I can give you words that you can weave into a blanket, or a life raft, or a balloon, than I have given you everything I can give.

 

 

 

 

The Life of a Writer

Fifty years ago today Sylvia Plath took her own life. I’ve been fascinated with Sylvia Plath since I was twenty years old and came across a copy of  The Bell Jar. Twenty is a really good age to read this book; at the time her voice spoke to me in a way that nobody else could.

I went on, over the next two decades, to read everything by and about Sylvia Plath. I read her poems in grad school, I studied her short stories and her novel when I was learning to write fiction, and I devoured her diaries, letters, and biographies at each stage of my life that mirrored hers: writing, going away to college, finding love, teaching, becoming a mother, and grappling with trying to create a life that is both fulfilling and artistic.

I am not interested in how Sylvia Plath died. I try not to think about it because it only depresses me. I don’t care about her death; I care about her life. She was a fully formed, fascinating woman who worked tirelessly every day to balance her life as a mother and a writer. She craved domesticity, baking and sewing and relishing motherhood at the same time she wrote some of her darkest and most brilliant poetry.

When she was a single mother caring for two children under the age of three she woke between 4:00 and 5:00 every morning to get some writing done. In one month she put together an entire manuscript of poetry, Ariel, the book that would be published to great acclaim after she died. In the middle of this productive month, she wrote to her mother, “I am a writer…I am a genius of a writer; I have it in me. I am writing the best poems of my life; they will make my name.”

One of the things I love about Sylvia Plath is that she considered motherhood to be just as important a vocation as writing, but she refused to give up either one. She wouldn’t give up motherhood to be a better writer and she wouldn’t give up writing to be a better mother. She felt that motherhood, despite its difficulties, made her a better writer. She also knew that without writing, she wouldn’t survive.

And despite her death, she did survive. She was alive on this earth for over thirty years, she was a mother, and she wrote books which are still in print. She loved cooking and eating and she loved the ocean and drawing pictures and painting and sewing dresses for her daughter. She took ten-mile hikes and long baths. She learned to ride a horse on her 30th birthday.  She became a bee-keeper and played the piano for her daughter.

There are a lot of misconceptions about mental illness and creativity, and about the death of Sylvia Plath. She was not a genius of a writer because she was mentally ill, she was a writer and a mother in spite of  her struggles with depression. She did not commit suicide because she was a writer, or because she was a mother, or because her husband left her. She took her life in the throes of a clinically diagnosed depressive episode, one in which she had experienced before several times in her life. In fact, her previous suicide attempts, and her hospitalization in a mental institute, occurred before she had children and before she met her husband.

I do not admire her writing and read about her life because I am morbid, or depressed, or suicidal. I read her words because they are some of the truest words I have ever read about life, parenting, and being an artist. Her words speak to the universal truth about what it means to live at the edge of art and life, what it means to be pulled in many directions, and what it means to turn all of it, the love and pain and laughter and sleep deprivation and hunger and fear and wisdom and the experience of the senses, into words. On the one hand, her words are like a stone statue or monument: timeless, beautiful, and a lasting legacy. On the other hand they are alive, breathing, and ephemeral, like the moments spent with a young child.

In one of my favorite poems, “Morning Song,” she writes:

I’m no more your mother
Than the cloud that distills a mirror to reflect its own slow
Effacement at the wind’s hand.

All night your moth-breath
Flickers among the flat pink roses. I wake to listen:
A far sea moves in my ear.

One cry, and I stumble from bed, cow-heavy and floral
In my Victorian nightgown.
Your mouth opens clean as a cat’s. The window square

Whitens and shallows its dull stars. And now you try
Your handful of notes;
The clear vowels rise like balloons.

My Writer’s Notebook

I think having a writer’s notebook is one of the most important steps to becoming a writer, and one of the most important things about being a writer. I take mine everywhere I go and would be lost without it.

What kind of notebook should you use?

Does a writer’s notebook have to be an actual notebook? Well, I like using an old-fashioned composition book, the kind you can get for $1 at Walmart or Staples.

I like these for several reasons:

1. They are cheap. I find that if I buy a fancier notebook, like those lovely leather-bound ones at the bookstore, I save it for something special. I have a small collection of fancy bound books that I haven’t been able to bring myself to write in.

2. They are a standard size. I fill these up pretty fast, and they are all the same size so they stack well or line up neatly on a bookcase.

3. I hate spiral notebooks. Not only do comp books not have an annoying spiral (more annoying since I’m left-handed), but there is no temptation to tear out pages when you “mess up.”

What do you put in a writer’s notebook?

My writer’s notebook is not like a journal or diary. I try to avoid writing about my day or writing personal stuff about other people. Occasionally I put in a dated entry, or a few thoughts on an issue, but for the most part my notebook is filled with a lot of random crap. Things you can find in my notebook:

  • Lists of books I have read and want to read
  • Lists of books and stories I want to write
  • Possible titles and opening lines
  • Character sketches
  • Cool words and sentences
  • Bits of funny dialogue that I hear people say or that I imagine
  • Funny things my kids say
  • Dreams
  • Admonitions to write more (I need to include less of these and MORE WRITING)
  • Actual scenes for my novel
  • Partial essays and blog posts (some of which never get written)
  • Recipes
  • Inspiring quotes
  • Random thoughts while sitting in faculty meetings
  • Notes taken during conference presentations
  • Freewriting
  • Ideas for teaching
  • Packing lists
  • Poems

What do you do with your notebooks?

I credit my writer’s notebook with helping me come up with my award-winning play idea, Pork Belly Futures, which was based on a conversation I had with my father. I keep some notebooks, especially the ones with partial novels or lists of ideas I don’t want to lose. Sometimes I copy things from an old notebook into a new one. I just recently dug through a pile of old notebooks looking for some teaching ideas I jotted down in 2007. Because I often label my notes at the top (Teaching Ideas, Novel Notes, Novel Scene, Dialogue, etc.) it’s usually easy to find stuff. My goal is to eventually transfer my notebooks  to searchable documents, partly to make them more available to myself and others, and also to prevent a bunch of dusty clutter from piling up.

I have seen some really amazing and cool-looking writer’s notebooks. I would love to see pictures of notebooks or hear about what you put in yours. I’m also considering writing a series of posts or articles about this, including more tips on how to get started and what to include, links to blogs and sites that address this, as well as excerpts from my notebooks and other notebooks.

Tell me what you’d like to read about here, link to any cool resources you know about, and submit pictures and excerpts from your notebooks.