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I sit cross legged in my office chair, trying to find a yoga style position that will ease whatever it is I’ve done to my left lower lumbar region. The cat has her butt firmly planted on my left thigh while enthusiastically kneading my right knee. It seems to make her happy, and my bathrobe is thick enough to shield me from the claws this morning. A perfect cup of french press coffee steams on the desk. All is well.
Should be writing.
That is the mantra running through and through my brain. It starts when David’s alarm clock jerks us both out of the warm drowse of sleep and into a harsh reality of work and parental responsibilities. It mutters at me while I’m loading the French Press and making coffee. Sneers when I sit down here to send out an early morning Twitter message and discover my fingers are not yet capable of typing words recognizable in the English language. Or any language, for that matter, except for that of the sleep deprived.
Should be writing.
Thinking it now while I’m WRITING words here. Thinking it while WRITING morning pages in my journal. And later, I’ll be thinking it while driving kids around, tidying up the house, working with people at my job.
Should. The language of guilt.
Should is not an action verb. It is never motivating. It is a sneaky, manipulative word that leads along a path of regret, self doubt, and perfectionism. And the end thereof is a wasteland of books unwritten, dreams unpursued, moments of life unlived.
The other day, while I was sitting in an airport, bored and waiting for my flight, I opened my laptop and thought about writing. (I should write. I should). But the flight was boarding in half an hour and I really didn’t want to delve into the WIP. So I did something I haven’t done in years – started writing descriptions of the people around me.
During that half hour something happened. I don’t remember the other faces I saw around me that day. But the three directly across from me, and the one sleeping on the floor – I know exactly what they looked like, what they were wearing, what they carried with them. A sense of them lingers with me still. Writing made them real to me.
Should has kept me from that kind of writing. I think it keeps me from writing here as well.
Lately I’ve been thinking about my writing a lot – remembering the joy of it. Writing to tell a story without wondering with every chapter, every character that shows up in my head -“what genre is this? Can I sell it?” And I wonder if it’s possible to forget about all of the shoulds and just be a writer.
Writer: one who writes. One who writes to make sense of the world, to make bits and pieces of it real enough to fit on the page. Maybe, if I’m lucky, to frame a piece of my reality in words or story that will also mean something to people who read. For right now, the day waits. I can’t tell the shape of it yet, although there are a few landmarks I know to expect. And maybe, just maybe, I’ll pause somewhere in the middle of this day – not to write what I think I should – but just to capture a moment, a person, a time, a place – and put it on the page.
Not because I should. Because I choose.
Once upon a time I sat down to write a book. I confess that in that particular mindset I wasn’t thinking about intelligent and logical things like publication and where the book would fit into the market. I hadn’t considered comparable titles and marketing strategies. I had an idea. I was excited about it. Images, words, characters were clamoring to get onto the page and that was all that mattered.
Later, during revisions one, two, three and four, (and five? I’ve lost track) the idea of publication was on my mind, but largely as background static, a vaguely defined fear that this book wasn’t going to fit neatly anywhere in the known universe of publishing, that it wasn’t quite fantasy or magical realism or literary fiction. But it was far too late for such thoughts – the story now had a life of its own and would be what it was determined to be.
Which brings me to the present, to the business of querying and agent feedback and a semi-frenzied perusal of existing books that might be considered comparable titles. There are some – nothing perfect, mind, but things that put Swimming North in the ballpark at least.
An agent question – what would a series look like – set me off on another alarming quest, because I never see to the end of a book before I begin it, let alone a series. When I write I start with characters and a problem, and the characters interact with the problem and with each other, and things begin to happen. Random elements creep in and I allow them, because often my subconscious sees what I do not. While all of this is going on, I try to keep an eye on plot and character arcs and pacing and all of the stuff that makes for a compelling plot, but I never quite know where the story is going until I hit the end.
I am experiencing a moment of envy for those who sit down before they begin to write and plot the whole thing out, from beginning to end. But I blink, and the envy passes. The truth is, I enjoy the surprises and the unexpected detours along the way. And it’s not like I set out on a writing voyage without any landmarks at all. I have a general sense of where we are all headed, I’m just not sure of a) how we’re going to get ‘there’, and b) exactly what ‘there’ will look like when we arrive.
At the moment, the best compromise I can make is to sit down and play with ideas. If the story would go on, how would it look? What would happen with the characters? What would be the unfinished story winding through all three that would allow them to stand alone but still bind them together. I think I see. And that’s all I need to get started.
I am sitting in a coffee shop, staring out at the ocean and reflecting on life and writing and the nature of things. The reason I am so far from my natural habitat is the life changing event of launching my eldest child into independence. He is hanging out on a college campus getting initiated and registered, while I am face to face with reality once again.
Once upon a time this young man did not exist. Even after he made his appearance in this world he was, for a space of time, still an extension of me: under my control, subject to my rules, knowing only the things I allowed him to be exposed to. Now, he is a fully autonomous being, about to go his own way in the big wide world. He is a creator of songs, stories, and original ideas. The world will be different because he is in it.
At fifteen, his younger brother is also an autonomous being who thinks his own thoughts and creates his own chain of events. But, like a work in progress, he is still subject to revision and polish.
In the synchronous way of things, my writing is at the same stage of life as my kids. Once upon a time, none of my books had existence.
If you write, you know how it is. A moment of chemistry, the meeting of ideas on the right day at the right moment, and a story is born. In the beginning of a new novel things are under my control – to write, or not to write. To allow this character to live and breathe, or to shut her up. And then, somewhere in the writing, the book takes on a life of its own. It insists on certain things, refuses others. My job becomes one of listening and shaping. Sure, I could insist on full control, but this stunts the writing just as it stunts a growing child.
Swimming North is complete, and has somehow taken on a life of its own, much like my eldest child going off to college. I can sign him up and help him pay his way, but what happens from this point is entirely up to him. The book is crafted, shaped, completed. Queries have launched it out into a larger world, to succeed or not to succeed, while I look on and try to catch my breath.
The current WIP, like my second son, still at home, has a personality and a will of its own and is no longer fully under my control. It is my responsibility to work with it – to see its strengths and weaknesses, to shape and polish and redirect and prevent it from going down paths I know lead to disaster. And when it is complete, to let it go out into the world as well.
I have no intentions of creating any more children. Books are a different story, so I guess I’d better get used to this.
So. It’s been a week since the last day of PNWA Conference. I’ve had time to let things settle, to think a little more about what I learned and what it means to my life as a writer.
I think the single most important concept that I carried away with me is the reality of writing as a business, not just something I do in a corner of my house because I like to play with words and characters and stories. It’s not like this is a sudden bolt of lightning from out of the blue – I’ve understood for a long time that publishing requires marketing efforts on the part of the author. But I had sort of compartmentalized the two things in my mind. First, write a good book. Second, find a good agent. And then – something, something, something. The All Knowing Agent would surely help and guide me.
Life doesn’t work that way. If something is important to you, if you want something done, nobody is going to figure it out for you. You can get help, but in the end you have to do it for yourself.
Maybe you are all more grown up than me, and learned this lesson years ago. Me? It’s not that I haven’t learned it, it’s that somehow it doesn’t stay learned. I should know better.
The first time it really sank in was after my husband died suddenly, leaving me with two kids, a job, an unfinished master’s degree and absolutely no understanding of our financial situation. I’m hopeless at numbers, he was good at them, and he had always taken care of the bills. It was an equitable arrangement. It worked. At least it worked until he was suddenly and dramatically NOT THERE. My beloved big brother and a friend stepped in, went through everything, and explained it all to me. They explained it clearly and concisely. And then they went back to their lives and I ran into one of those brick walls reality likes to set in our paths every now and then: I Am Responsible. I’m the one who needs to take care of this, I’m the one who needs to understand it. The way I live must now change not just once a month when the bills are paid, but daily. And, as it turns out, numbers aren’t my thing but I can manage just fine.
And now I am learning that lesson all over again with publishing. Planning my writing career is my responsibility. It’s part of everything – part of the writing, part of my social networking, part of who I am as a writer.
Change strikes again.
I’ve already taken steps. If you follow me on Twitter, you’ll notice that I no longer identify myself as Uppington. This is sad for me. I’ve had a great deal of fun being Uppington. I hide behind her, let her be my public face. But, if I truly want my name known and recognized in the publishing industry, if I’m striving toward getting a book on the shelves with my name on it, I need to be known – as me.
Yesterday I registered a domain name and began planning an author website. That is going to take awhile, and in the meantime I’ll be here. But when the day comes to make that change, you’ll find me not as Uppington, but as Kerry Schafer. Writer. And business woman.