Day Two: She Makes Word Salad and Eats It With Her Fingers

No Telling

I have passed from brilliant plotting to mostly incoherent stream-of-consciousness, and landed here where it now appears I’m writing a semi-articulate prose poem. Welcome to my NaNoWriMo novel, Day Two.

This always happens. My brain is hardwired for poems and I force it unwillingly to tell a whole story. It’s becoming obvious this is a right-brain left-brain thing for me and all I need to do is imagine a clear filament connecting the two on which all the letters dance across and line up in an obedient Times New Roman kind of lockstep.

See what I mean?

I anticipated this moment (and the twenty or so other ones yet to come) by making myself Think About What Happens Next. Tonight I have these strange camera shots that sound like whale song. I like them, though.

Okay. Back to the page.  

Be sure to tell me how your battle goes…

NaNoWriMo Unsolicited Advice Part 2: Time

No Telling

Remember when you were in your early twenties and all the world was an unrealized epiphany? Every day filled with fascination, raw understanding, the daily freshness of discovery and insight? Other than the obvious developmental reasons for this, you were able to see the world as unending possibility because you had time to think about it.

If you’re still in your early twenties, then bless your heart. Those are some good years.

It’s not as easy to be reflective and creative when you’ve got eleventy-seven things to do after nine hours in a cubicle or whatever. And all those people you’re responsible for – where did they come from? Now you want to write a novel in a month.

We need time. A little silence wouldn’t hurt, either. Stop laughing.

For inspiration, I defer to T. S. Eliot and his boy Prufrock:

And indeed there will be time
For the yellow smoke that slides along the street,
Rubbing its back upon the window panes;
There will be time, there will be time
To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;
There will be time to murder and create,
And time for all the works and days of hands
That lift and drop a question on your plate;
Time for you and time for me,
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

(There are some more lines about wriggling on a pin and coffee spoons and being ignored by mermaids, but we’ll save those for later when we commiserate in rewrite.)

There is time, I promise. All you need is an hour. The ebb and flow of your daily madness may dictate which particular hour, but if you’re like me you have to steal it from something else.

I steal mine from 5:00-6:00 am. This works for me because The Perfect Grandson is asleep and all my synapses are firing up. The bonus here is that I leave for school full of self-congratulatory mojo for having written my 1,700-ish words already. Instead of walking around with guilt all day, I can let my story percolate and the rest of my life gets done.

Maybe your Magic Hour is late at night. Maybe you have to break up your hour into two Magic Half-Hours. It doesn’t matter, really, as long as you’re realistic about it. Just keep in mind that the first few days are slower than the rest and give yourself permission to miss the word count a bit until the story really takes off. Luckily, NaNoWriMo begins on a Thursday this year and you’ll have a weekend handy to get into the rhythm.

What if you manage to find extra time? Wow. Use it to hedge yourself against the unexpected, because at least one unforseen time-gobbling event always happens at some point during the month. Anticipate trouble. Embrace your bad luck now and write an few hundred extra words here and there.

Simplify everything. Use this weekend to cook massive amounts of freezable food. Stock up at the grocery store and vote early. Train your family to do some things for themselves and vow to live happily with the results until December 1st. Plan to stay away from Ebay, Facebook, Pinterest, or whatever vile online thing distracts you. Think Lent.

In December, we can all take toast and tea.

NaNoWriMo Unsolicited Advice Part 1: Planning

No Telling

This year’s National Novel Writing Month will be my fourth rodeo. I’ve written and helped others to write for awhile now and so I thought I’d sling a little advice out there to help writers who are taking the plunge.

Still haven’t decided whether or not to participate? Aw, go ahead. The worst that can happen is that you don’t finish. At best you’ll find yourself suddenly in December with a novel. Your novel.

The realistic commitment for November is to give yourself an hour a day. If you’re a cracker-jack typist and don’t look at your fingers, maybe 45 minutes. So how much time do you spend on Facebook watching kitten videos or reading what your friends ate for lunch? Seriously, write a novel instead.

No idea where to begin? Start with a character. They’re everywhere you look. When I was a little girl there was this crazy old woman who dressed up in her Sunday finest and pedaled a rusty Schwinn all over town. She had penciled-in eyebrows up to her hairline and failed to wear underwear occasionally, but she always sported a fine pillbox hat. I haven’t written her yet, but I will. It’s likely you have characters like this floating around in your memory or pedaling past your house. Build your story around the unanswered questions.    

Keep Planning Simple. I’ve seen folks compose elaborate, tabbed notebooks of plot twists, character biographies, geographical maps, and chapter outlines. Bless their hearts. If this sort of thing works for you, by all means use it to some extent. But beware, because I’ve also watched more than a few writers quit altogether the first time their fully-planned characters decided to change direction/motivation/gender/the whole plot, and your characters WILL DO THIS.

If you’re planning begins to look like a quadratic equation (whatever that is) or takes more word count than actually writing the novel, it’s time to step away from the computer. It’s possible to plan yourself into a corner and no one wants that for you. Remember, writing a novel isn’t about control as much as it is about possibility.

Think in Scenes. Before the first day of November, make a list of scenes. Don’t call them chapters because they probably aren’t. Open up Word (or whatever you’re using) set up a folder for each scene. Label each with a word or phrase like “They Find the Body” or “She Realizes He’s Cheating.” Why? It’s about frustration and choice – always leave a key under the mat so you don’t get locked out. If you find yourself suddenly stumped or blank or worse while writing one scene, CLICKETY-CLICK and you’re in another. At the end of your daily writing jag, copy and paste what you’ve written into a Whole Enchilada folder to get your running word count. Save it everywhere. Twice.

Keep adding these scene folders throughout the month. Once you’re writing every day and walking around with the story, new scenes will start popping up all the time. Ultimately you won’t use or need every single one and that’s just fine. Just don’t delete any scene folders, even the ones with only a paragraph or a curse word. Ever. You’ll thank me later when you decide to dive into revision.

What? You mean write the story out of my carefully crafted order? Absolutely. Here’s the thing:  you’re going to do it anyway so plan for the inevitable. Give yourself permission from Day One to alter or abandon course. It’s your novel – you can do whatever you want.

That’s why it’s fun. That’s why we do it.

National Novel Writing Month – Just Write It

No Telling

Hear that tick-tick-ticking? I do too. It means that in a little over a month the starting gun goes off and we’re galloping willy-nilly toward some ridiculous 50,000 word writing goal. Preposterous. Crazy.

And I’m still going to do it. This won’t be my first rodeo. In fact, it will be my third and I know in my tired bones the insanity inherent in taking on such a project. I don’t care. There’s no feeling like slamming out those words every single day, and no feeling like finally limping inarticulate and finger-bone aching to the 50K finish.

A novel. Done. There it is.

You stumble out of your house into the world and tell perfect strangers in the WalMart checkout line. You tell your friends, even the ones who don’t write, and even though you realize most of them don’t give a tinker’s damn, you whisper hoarsely…fifty-thousand words. The friends who love you will give you carb-filled goodies and say bless your heart. And you nibble and smile and say yes, yes bless me.

But it’s not about the carbs or the blank stares at the WalMart checkout. This is about the kind of winning that tattoos itself on your DNA. No matter what else happens – if you are, God forbod, run flat by a Cotton Belt freight train – you finished a novel. It might be a first-draft messy bed, but it’s unmistakeably there.

Join me. I know there are a thousand reasons not to, but do it anyway. November will come and go and on December 1st you will either have a completed novel or you won’t. We all have stories that need telling, and yours could finally be told. Imagine looking at a stack of printed paper that is all you, all story, and imagine that finally and for once you did it.

Now go sign up at the National Novel Writing Month website and look for me. We’ll talk about planning and not planning another time – I have SCADS of handy advice that can make this the best month of your life. Seriously.

You can do this. We can do this.


How to be a One Percenter, or 14 Minutes in Heaven

No Telling

It occurs to me that something’s awry. I’ve gotten out of my daily writing routine, which is particularly tragic on two different levels. First, because writing makes me happy and failure to scribble is a silly kind of self-flagellation. Second, because I have another site with almost 1,000 writing prompts that I’ve accumulated for students and strangers, but have failed to use a single one myself. Crazy.

Where did I go? How do we manage to slip ourselves in last place? I know it’s not just me. I’m confident there are a few of you out there who, right now, are fist-bumping the screen or talking to yourselves out loud. Nod with me and give me an amen. Too many of us.

Enough, I say. Time to fix this mess. I used to be in love with Morning Pages. For those of you unfamiliar with Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, here’s the gist of it…

“Morning Pages are three pages of longhand, stream of consciousness writing, done first thing in the morning. There is no wrong way to do Morning Pages– they are not high art. They are about anything and everything that crosses your mind– and they are for your eyes only. Occasionally colorful, more often than not Morning Pages are negative, fragmented, repetitive or bland. Good!  Worrying about your job, the laundry, the weird look your friend gave you – all that stuff distracts you from your creativity. It eddies through your subconsciousness and muddies your day. Get it on the page first thing in the morning and move on with your day with a freer spirit.”

I’ve done this. I have teacher friends who’ve done this. I have more students than I can count who have managed to do this morning page business. All of this despite the fact that they were too busy feeding children, falling in love, studying for chemistry, finding cheap shampoo, kissing boo-boos, folding underwear, or scraping out a living. After a few days, the morning page routine kicks in and the writing becomes easier, lovelier, automatic.

Not everyone can do the morning thing. I get that. Not everyone wants to write about themselves, and I get that too. The beauty of the thing is that there are no rules other than the three pages. I’ve found that even that is negotiable.

What I do have is 1,440 minutes in a day. Most is devoted to a mountain of duties for Other People, but I’m going to steal back 14 minutes. That’s less than ONE PERCENT of my day, your day, our day. To be an exact One Percenter, you’d have to write some portion of a minute longer, but don’t you dare.

Steal your 14 minutes when you want. Give yourself permission to take it. Write something dreadful and don’t worry about it. Scribble in a notebook, type like banshee, start it on a roll of paper towels. Doesn’t matter. Throw it away if you hate it. Share it, don’t share it – it’s your call.

I’m starting right now. Are you in?

(Image via, a very cool site indeed)

Not a Poet After All

No Telling
via Little Yellow Birds

I don’t think I’ll write poems anymore. Making poems used to be easy as breathing and just as involuntary, but for the past few years it doesn’t seem to be so urgent. In fact, after spending almost a whole life making poems, deciding to stop doesn’t make me sad at all.

It’s a little like looking at your own baby pictures. Who’s that child? I remember her and I remember being her, but it’s easy to shut the family album and go on about my business. Same thing with the poems.

Maybe I’m just too tired to feel so lovely and terrible and gut-wrenched. Maybe some menopausal mechanism has clicked over to make me scribble stories with voices rather than take word snapshots. Maybe I burst a poetic blood vessel writing 50,000 words in a month and my circulatory system has rerouted around the wound.

It’s possible all that metaphor wafting in the world doesn’t have to be announced by me. I’m fine with that.

I don’t hate poetry. In fact, I’m one of its biggest fans. And those young ones who still understand poetry as the subversive underground and foreground to their life landscapes? I love them even more. Shout the f-bomb into the crowd, I say, raise your articulated fists into the air! The emperor isn’t wearing any clothes! Love hurts!

Nothing wrong with being a spectator. Everyone needs an audience. It’s even better when the audience isn’t (even in secret) competing with the poet on some level. Ask any writing major or MFA candidate, they’ll know exactly what I mean. Teaching public school again has reminded me just how valuable an open audience can be.

While cheerleading those poems, I think I might finally fall in love with The Sentence. If I’m still enough, I can feel Story tattooing itself on my DNA. Double helix typewriter ribbons of text.

Much better.

Note on the Fridge: Mea Culpa

No Telling

Dear Friends,

Now that I think about it, it might have been a better idea to leave a note on the fridge a couple of years ago when I stopped posting Just Like That.

But the thing is I always meant to get back here for a scribble. Here I am teaching writing all day long and somehow managing not to write one single word myself. I tell my students to be fearless on the page, to write every single day, to spit in the Muse’s eye, to make a voice and let others hear it.

And then I put down my own pen.

I don’t have to tell you that sometimes life gets in the way. You already know that. It gets in your way, too. That’s not a reason for much of anything because I understand full well that writing is the gift of sanity in such times. It is, in fact, the antidote to most every ailment real or imagined.

The writing stopped, then couldn’t get restarted, so I berated myself for waving my hands in the air like some midnight televangelist faking miracles for cash. Since hypocrisy is exhausting, I self-medicated by knitting really large shawls. This was either an act of penance or procrastination. Maybe both, since I gave every last one of them away.

Enough. It’s time to get back to the page and re-acquainted with you.

All You Do Is Blink

No Telling

Nothing makes you feel older and younger like standing in front of teenagers all day. I teach in the very high school I graduated from thirty years ago, and while the physical building has changed very little, I am reminded every minute that everything else has changed a great deal.

It seems like just weeks ago I was stomping the halls of this high school in platform shoes and bell bottoms, peasant blouse flapping.

At the same time, the wild-eyed possibility of these teenagers is catching. Makes me feel like the world is round again, that the orbits are infinite and the end is not near. That’s a lovely bonus.

The mad pace is eating into my writing time right now, although I can see a time soon when I’ll be caught up and – with luck – trot a little ahead. Just not in wooden platform shoes.

Gathering Audience: Blackbird Academy’s Coffeehouse Reading

No Telling

In the beginning is the word, and we write for ourselves. Secret notebooks stashed in backpacks, odd scribbles on napkins or the back of a shopping list. Sometimes a string of words so bright we repeat and repeat them hoping the glamor of it won’t fly off before we can net the wild thing on paper. That’s how it begins.

Then we gather large stories in small rooms, tentatively sharing what we’ve written. That’s the next step, and the one that binds us to each other as writers. We grow into our voices and become fearless on the page.

Finally, we go out into the world. This time, family and friends in a familiar place so all this bravery has elbow-room and a soft place to land. There’s a certain alchemy in hearing your voice read aloud the words you’ve written, and to see an audience rapt. For you.

Next time, we’ll fling poems and stories even wider, because we can.

Top, left to right: Jennie Strange – Blackbird Academy executive director, Amy Ness – art instructor. Middle, left to right: Laura Craig, Hannah Laws, Mary Margaret Hambuchen. Bottom, left to right: Amy Ness, Tara Walls – dance instructor, Jennie Strange, Pam James.

Special thanks to Something Brewing for welcoming us and for having iced coffee on such a hot evening.

Singing in the Dead of Night

No Telling

I spend my Monday nights at Blackbird Academy. It’s a non-profit arts school here in town dreamed up by Jennie McNulty Strange offering dance, music, visual art, theater, and creative writing. I teach creative writing workshops to high school students and adults there.

It’s magical, really. all that creative energy in one place. Week after week I’m audience to these amazing writers who, having found a safe haven, literally pour the words out each week.

Next week my two classes will meet at the local coffee shop to give a public reading. What does this mean? Group poems as well as individual readings of poetry and prose. They are everyone of them nervous and excited because we’re moving a few blocks out of our nest and into the world. Writing does that. It makes us brave in increments until we’re standing on top of some picnic table shouting fresh poems scribbled on paper napkins.

While all of my students are trying their hands at online public writing right now, the high school folk are the most eager to find an audience. They’re fearless, I tell you. At their request, you are cordially invited to read their summer scribblings. You all know the importance of encouragement, so do please drop by their blogs, enjoy a read, and leave an inspirational note here and there.

Just imagine – they’re launching their writing lives and you’re here to watch. It’s like the moon landing, only more important. Enjoy!