The Re-Introduce Myself Blogfest

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The Re-Introduce Myself blogfest is hosted by Mark KoopmansElise FallsonC.M. Brown, and Stephen Tremp. If you want to join in, you can find the sign up and list of participants HERE.

Hello, dear bloggy friends. It’s time for the Reintroduction blogfest, and here I am typically tongue-tied when it comes to talking about myself. The abbreviated version of everything that matters about the public me is this: I write, I read, and I’m outrageously fond of the elasticity and head-spinny malleability of the written word.

I know at some point in this writing life I’m going to have to get comfortable with composing my own bio, but I’m going to go with Scarlet on that one and put off that grim task until tomorrow (or thereabouts).  In the meantime, I’m going to allow my dear friend Jo-Anne Teal entertain you with the fake (or is it?) bio she created on the about page of my blog.

Captured within her fantastical statements are four things that are true (although one of them is more figuratively than literally true)  and one thing that I very much wish were true. A $10 Amazon gift certificate for anyone who can pin down the truthiness and wishiness in the comments.

Rumour has it that Odd Particle lives in a vivid world of ‘hair raising’ vacuums. She sleeps at night and creeps aimlessly about during the day to avoid detection in the ‘real’ world. Odd Particle is also rumoured to love parentheses, gin and tonics and buy-one/get-one-free days at the local mall, though not necessarily in that order.

Favourite colour is plaid but she spells it b-l-u-e. Favourite folk singer is Arlo Guthrie’s Aunt Gertie. Favourite day of the week is yesterday. She was arrested once for boarding public transit and randomly calling out incorrect bus stops.

What does she look like? Well apparently, with the panda eyeliner, platinum-blonde hair and mirrored aviator glasses, even Kern herself doesn’t know.

Fascinating! If you see her, remember she will try to overwhelm you with fringe-based political arguments. You are asked to stand well back as Odd Particle is able to disarm even the most seasoned gunslinger with one swing of her massive purse.

Reading for inspiration, Part 2 – This writing life

Image.ashxIn a reply to one of the comments on my last post, I tossed in the late Gene Fowler’s bleak observation that “Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.” On the face of it, that’s not exactly a compelling incentive to race for the keyboard and start bashing away at your magnum opus, is it?

And yet, strangely enough, this quotation continues to be one of my favourites in spite of its gloomy summation of the writing experience, because it tells me that those lonely moments of doubt and dread and blind panic when the words refuse to be summoned aren’t unusual. That they are, in fact, normal. Joseph Heller’s insistence that “every writer I know has trouble writing” shores up that normalcy, and George Orwell cements it with his “writing a book is “a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.

There is something curiously satisfying in taking a brief detour from one’s one writing journey to sneak a peek at how other writers cope with the challenges of blank pages, balancing literary endeavours with work and family obligations, and feelings of inadequacy.

When sentences I’ve tried so painstakingly to shape into loveliness glare back at me from the page like warted, misshapen gnomes, and I start to think that there never has been or will be as hack-handed a stylist as I seem doomed to remain, how restorative it is to read William Styron say to an interviewer:

I never knew anyone who had a passion for words who had so much difficulty in saying things as I do and I very seldom say them in a manner I like.

And when I’m boggling at myself for having taken half an hour to decide on the exact, the perfect word or phrase to convey a particular sensation or image, I find vindication for my exactitude in John Steinbeck’s reflection that:

A writer lives in awe of words for they can be cruel or kind, and they can change their meanings right in front of you. They pick up flavors and odors like butter in a refrigerator.

It’s also interesting–and frequently instructive–to hear successful authors weigh in on some the issues we wrangle over regularly in the blogosphere. Take the plotting versus panting debate, for example. On the one hand, I’d say the preponderance of writing advice floating around on the interwebs lands on the side of plotting, and many of the plotting proponents would probably concur with John Irving’s suggestion that writers should “know the story—as much of the story as you can possibly know, if not the whole story—before you commit yourself to the first paragraph….If you don’t know the story before you begin the story, what kind of a storyteller are you?”

But, hey, pantsers, don’t be daunted by Irving’s dictum (or by his somewhat insufferable tone). There are many, many critically acclaimed authors who don’t share his opinion:

Simone de Beauvoir: “In general I start writing a novel long before working out the plot.”

Marilynne Robinson: “I really don’t [plot my novels]…I feel strongly that action is generated out of character. And I don’t give anything a higher priority than character.”

Paul Auster: “You find the book in the process of doing it. That’s the adventure of the job. If it were all mapped out in advance, it wouldn’t be very interesting.”

Chuck Palahniuk: ‘Let yourself be with Not Knowing…You don’t have to know every moment up to the end, in fact, if you do it’ll be boring as hell to execute.

Right now I’m reading The Paris Review Interviews, vol iv. Not cover to cover, and not every day, but here and there throughout the week, whenever I need a little pick-me-up, a little encouragement, a dash of insight into my own writing challenges. The conversations contained within its (virtual) covers are long and rich and focused squarely on writing and the writing life. If you don’t have the cash to fork over for the Review, you can find the interviews online, and The New York Times also has an online archive of their Writers on Writing series that makes for fascinating, addictive and and inspiring reading.

How about you? Do you find it helpful/interesting to take a little stroll through your favourite authors’ brains as they reflect on the writing experience?

Reading for inspiration, part 1

Like many of us who are groping (come on, get your mind out of the gutter) our way into the writing world, I have my share of brain-stuttery days when the whole creative process grinds to a painful, definitive halt.

You know those days. There’s a tumble of words slopping around the old cranium, but the few that want to be written only allow themselves be slung together in strands of relentless triteness. All the ideas and imaginings that felt so fresh and vital yesterday have turned to mold overnight. The characters who bounced off your fingers and onto your keyboard are now so stultifyingly tedious that you’d strangle them yourself if they had any actual substance.

Yeah. Those days. Whether you write, or paint, or take photographs, or throw pots on a wheel, if you create, you’re probably bitterly familiar with those days, in all their grim, uncompromising absence of spark and inspiration.

We all have our own little tricks for reinvigorating our saggy, baggy, flagging inspiration. Many, many tricks, if the truth be told. Some tricks work well when our plot has taken a detour into the realm of convolution and improbability. Some tricks are just the ticket when we realize that our main character has the personality of a desiccated booger. It’s all about knowing which trick is going to wreak its tricksy magic on a specific creative crisis. Is this a “just keep your butt in that chair” problem, or is it a “take the dog for a stroll and blow the stink off” problem?

One of the most effective strategies I’ve found for rekindling the writing magic is reading.  It’s a piece of advice we hear all the time, isn’t it? If you want to be a better writer, read! But reading doesn’t just fuel our writing talents; in my experience it can also fire up the creative barbecue with startling efficiency, even when the ashes appear to be stone cold. I’m not talking about just picking up whatever novel you’re currently reading and diving in–although that, too, can be just the poke you need. No, again, I’m talking about figuring out the specific piece of reading that will wreak its tricksy magic on the specific writing damn-jammer that is currently causing you woe and despair.

Over the next few blog posts I’m going to share a few of the writing quagmires that tend to suck at my boots and the reading inspirations I’ve found most helpful for slogging  my way clear. I’ll be talking about the reading remedies I use when I’m laid low by plotting woes, by insecurities around structure, by character implosions, by stagnant prose and flat dialogue, and by the general malaise of indolence that has me convincing myself that just one more episode of Dexter or the IT Crowd could be construed as research if I only squint hard enough.

And I’ll try not to mix my metaphors as egregiously as I did in that last paragraph, but no promises. If you have your own reading inspirations that you’d like to share, have at it in the comments, or tune in again on Wednesday when I’ll be looking at the therapeutic benefits of taking a voyeuristic peek into the writing practices and processes of other authors.