Wednesday, April 10, 2013

what's to love: brain walking

A friend of mine told me last week that she couldn't wait to read what I'm working on: It's a chance to walk around inside your brain, she said. It's going to be so interesting!

I didn't tell her that there's not all that much inside my brain lately, just wondering where I misplaced the tea, and oops I accidentally blew two hours watching trailers on, again. I didn't tell her how I waste time watching birds pick their way through the backyard. And also how I spy on my neighbors (not with binoculars so I hope I'm not too weird), how I obsess over the tiniest details of my day.

That is what's inside my brain, it seems.

But--I really do know what she means, too. Reading what someone else has written--it's an incredible experience, right? In On Writing, Stephen King calls it telepathy: "We're not even in the same year together, let alone the same room . . . except we are together. We're close. We're having a meeting of the minds."

A meeting of the minds. It makes me shiver a little. And it's true: which is why a good book, a good mind meeting, can quench loneliness.

I discovered this in college when my best friends were traveling and I felt abandoned. I curled up in front of a common room fireplace, with a book of personal essays. I read Seneca and Max Beerbohm and Charles Lamb and G. K. Chesterton. All of them dead, obviously, but I felt like I was in a room crowded with uncles, all of them outspoken, dropping pipe tobacco (um, except Seneca?) and giving me advice and making me laugh.

Books and writing... It's telepathy. Brain exploration. Minds meeting.

And just darn good company.

Monday, April 8, 2013

what's to love: the redemption machine

One of the great comforts of the writer's life: It's all material, baby. Anything can be boiled down, blown up, distilled, expanded, reimagined, or otherwise twisted, and used in the story. Anything. Anything. Anything.

Though we all know this, now and then it's worth celebrating all over again.

I can use the elementary teacher who would sigh at me all the time, like I was such a lousy waste of time. I can use the time when I happened to wave at Queen Elizabeth when we were both in Paris, and she waved back. (I just wanted to put my name and Queen Elizabeth in the same sentence, but yes, it's true.) Somehow, I can use that.

I can use the roommate who I think wanted to kill me, or at least to see me dead. I can use the I fell into a torture chamber in the Tower of London in front of so many people! story. I can talk about giddily running barefoot at night when I couldn't see. About hours of ceramics work, about goofy marching band stories, about my ongoing love affair with pie making. About all the lunch hours I spent in junior high at a typewriter in the school library, quietly retyping all the call numbers, spine by spine. About stings, about glories, about the quiet moments too.

I can write about what I overheard, what I dreamed up, what happened to me, and also all the things that never did. I can write about that. So can you.

It's poignant, sometimes painful, bittersweet, or joyous. But it's a gift, isn't it, to know that nothing is wasted. In this crazy work we do, it can all be used to tell the truth, to redeem what hurts. We spend it all in the service of something beautiful.

Friday, April 5, 2013

what's to love: they'll hold anything

During this massive spring cleaning, I found a crate of file folders, a bit cobwebby, with unidentified bug carcasses scattered in the bottom. Ick. As I was dusting and sneezing and discarding, I found a bunch of lined notebook pages stapled together. I instantly recognized it:

It was the first book I'd ever made.

I must have written it when I was about six. The spelling and penmanship were both truly, um, unique? Creative?

But I was already choosing a genre: Child's Early Book. I knew what went into them, having read plenty of My First Books: mainly lists of stuff, like colors and animals and opposites and things children are learning.

So I came up with my own collection: I had a list of the rooms in our house. I taped in flowers from our backyard. I drew a list of feelings. (The one for scared made me fall over laughing.) I listed foods, random words, the letters of the alphabet, holidays... and I was already getting part of the lure of making your own book.

It sounds simplistic, but: you get to put whatever you want in it.

I was my own little curator; those notebook pages were my museum. I could write any list I wanted to, put it in whatever order I wanted. An addictive experience. While cleaning I also came across spiral notebooks I kept when in second and third grade, filled with one page stories, like "Miles Starts a Band," "The Faraway Castle," "A Day at the Zoo."

I haven't outgrown that delight. I love this, love this: I get to put whatever I want in it.

So yesterday, when I found an early scene in my current draft boring, I gave myself a shake. It's my book: if I'm bored, it's not working. So I made characters collide. Why do a stiff Hi-I'm-so-and-so-and-who-are-you scene, when you can make two characters literally hit each other, sputter, and then run off somewhere when a bigger threat shows up? So much more fun.

And I wasn't bored anymore.

I have to remember this more often: to delight myself in each scene, get my own heart going, surprise myself. I understood that when I was six: oh the delight of choosing which words got to go in my exclusive, carefully considered list of WORDS?  Which emotions on the FEELING page?

Okay. I'm being silly. But it's still true.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

what's to love: ink

In one of his novels, P.G. Wodehouse called a writer an ink slinger.

I can't tell you how much I love this title for what we do. Scribbler, scribe, wordsmith... yes, all good names, but I'm awfully partial to ink slinger. And sometimes it's true in the most literal way.

Are those freckles on your face?

Why, no, they are splatters of INK. I got just a little carried away during work today.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

what's to love: the uniform

What's to love about writing? This is kind of a corollary to yesterday's, but it's not to be underestimated either:

You get to pick your work clothes.

If you want to work in your pajamas, go for it. If you want, you can wear a writing hat, like Josephine March, or a three-piece suit, or even, ahem, leave it all off and write completely naked.

(Does this actually work for anyone?? The single time I tried it--at the suggestion of one of those crazier release your creativity!! books--I only felt 500 times more uncomfortable than I already did, and my writing didn't get better. My sentences sounded panicked, and like they would really like a sweatshirt, please.)

It's whatever works for you. You can write in whatever clothes (or lack thereof) that you choose.

My favorite uniform lately has been some well-worn yoga pants and an oversized top. I'm totally comfortable, and can either see it as clothes for a workout, for brewing some sweat, or clothes for relaxing, for easing into those longer paragraphs. Because any given writing day, both can be true, right?

I take that freedom for granted too often, but, seriously, isn't it nice? I'd probably melt away if I had to be flawlessly presentable every day, and have a manicure and dozens of shoes and figure out how to, I don't know, coordinate things. Shoot. Even the thought of doing my hair every morning sounds exhausting...

I'd rather be in bed late, like this morning, with a book of poems, another of essays, and a bulky Mark Twain collection.

Who needs hair spray??

Monday, April 1, 2013

what's to love: seating arrangements

What's to love about writing?

A good writing friend of mine once said, "The best thing about writing is that it's something you can do sitting down." It had been a long, sweaty day at a midwestern writing conference, and after trekking here there and everywhere across a campus... well, her words struck a chord.

You can write sitting down. You can write sprawled in a recliner. Or in bed with your pages spread all over.

A small thing, maybe. But I'll take it.

tales of love & maybe even adventure

I remembered something about drafting last week, as I scribbled my opening chapter. There were all the usual woes: how to introduce character after character, how to make the setting new and fresh, how to make Chapter One count for more than just a big "Hello My Name Is _____."

I remembered the hate side of my love-hate relationship with writing. I remembered that the editor voice inside my head doesn't actually talk during the first draft, but instead it crouches in the corner of my mind and makes noises like a cat retching.

And I remembered one more thing. That if I push through this, and really do push, then I get to this sunny, happy, the-hills-are-alive-with-the-sound-of-music kind of place. Last time, it took me two weeks. Two solid weeks of grinding my teeth, but then I really did make it through. The next six weeks were glory.

So. It's only been one week, and an off-and-on week at that. I really don't want another week or so of cat retching. I mean... come on.

I'm gonna drown it out. With a big, bold, air horn. Here's what I'm going to do. I'm focusing on everything I love about writing. About storytelling. About books. Because it really is a super-huge list. I really, actually, do love this work.

So brace yourself. Because April is going to be a big love letter to the literary life.

And that editor in my head is just going to have to go puke somewhere else for a while. I have a draft to love.