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.

Using Magic and Percolation to Generate Story Ideas

Recently one of my dear Twitter friends sent out a call for help to a few of her fellow Tweeps. She’s a dab hand at flash fiction and has no qualms about noveling, but when she’s staring a short story deadline in the face, her mind goes blank. Not an uncommon dilemma, as I’m sure most of us can agree.

My co-askees offered some excellent practical advice on using beatsheets, grids, outlines and post-first-draft outlines. I, on the other hand, focused on magic. Okay, not entirely, but magic really is one of the critical ingredients in my toolbox of story-generating tricks. Magic and Percolation–an unbeatable combination.

I decided to share my (somewhat edited) suggestions here, in case any of you are struggling with a looming deadline and finding your brain bereft of the barest whiff of story potential.

Using Magic and Percolation to Find Story

Rule #1 for kicking your story-writing brain into gear is: Don’t Panic! (also a pivotal rule in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, so you can’t really go wrong by embracing it.)

Rule #2 for kicking your story-writing brain into gear is: Continue Not Panicking Whilst Embracing the Fact That YOU CAN DO THIS.

Keeping those two rules top of mind, let’s dive into the nitty gritty.

Beatsheets, outlines and the griddy McGriddlecakes approach to story-writing are all useful and might be common-sensical enough to ground you and stave off the panic, and I strongly suggest giving them a go. My approach, however, is a bit more woofty, and it’s a multi-pronged strategy. In no particular order, I’ve use the following techniques to generate short story ideas (most also work for stirring up flash and novel ideas, too):

  • When you go to bed at night, take a glass of water with you. (I SAID my ways are woofty!) Just before you turn off the light, you tell yourself (aloud or not, doesn’t matter): “Self, I need to wake up with a story idea. If it could involve a pixie living in the trunk of Ford Escort, that would be helpful. This magic elixir (cue sipping of water) will ferment the story while I sleep, and when I wake up, a story will be born.” If you like fairytales, there’s no reason at all that this can’t work. It’s worked for me on more occasions than I can count.
  • Think back to a flash fiction prompt where it was difficult for you to pack your story into 100 words (or 500). Can you take that fragment and examine it for story potential that you suppressed in the first go around due to space constraints?
  • Do you have ideas for novels that you’re probably never going to write? Yank a character or two out of one of them and play with them on the page for a while. You can’t take the whole concept with you, because you’re going to get stuck again in the “hideously complex” trap, but you might be able to play on the conflict you’d originally envisioned, to create the briefer, more intense snapshot you need for a short story.
  • Go for a long walk with an idea. Make sure it’s a small, basic idea. Just a kernel of an idea, really. It’s your single ingredient. Just let it float around in your head while you pretend it isn’t there, and be open to all the other ideas that are constantly clamouring to be turned into story. You’ll reject most of those ideas, but in my experience this particular exercise has worked well, even when the original idea is hopelessly vague. It’s like cooking. You have an ingredient that is kind of bland and unappetizing on it’s own, like a handful of spaghetti noodles, and then a bottle of pesto sauce comes floating out of the ether, and bam! Dinner is served!
  • Talk it out with a writing buddy, either in person or via email. If you have a kernel of an idea, flapping your gums about it in a safe environment can help you stumble over the obstacles and bump into the essence of your story. If your idea is bulging at the seams with a bazillion and four characters, conflicts and plot divergences, chatting about it with a writing buddy can help you strip it down to size.  As a rule, I’m horribly secretive about my WIPs, but when I do, I find that articulating my woes can be enough to get me past the roadblocks. It can be especially useful to ask your writing buddy to just listen and answer your specific questions before piling on with the suggestions and questions of their own.
  • Finally, and probably most importantly, read short stories. Lots of them. Glut yourself on them until you start collapsing every situation and every conflict you encounter into short story structure.

Just remember: Don’t Panic!

So, how about you? Any sure-fire tips for tickling the short story muse?

R is for Random

Apologies for the tardy “R” post. I had another day of dizziness and nausea yesterday, courtesy of my faceplant on concrete a couple of weeks ago, and after leaving a few comments on other people’s blogs, I realized that staring at a computer screen was exacerbating the situation. Because my  pudding-brain wouldn’t let me concentrate for long enough to slap my thoughts into shape either, I decided to delay posting until today. And fortunately today the brain is much happier, so big yay there.

Good old R. I had been going to talk about “Reading”, but since I already posted about “Literacy” a few days ago, and since I figure that approximately a bazillion other bloggers would be doing the same thing, I tossed that plan in the virtual bin. As I was rummaging around in the back drawers of my brain for another topic and coming up with a bunch of random but fairly useless ideas, I thought, hey, random.! Why not? Why not a fairly random and useless post? Or, rather, a post about some of the random things that inspire me, or make me happy, or both? With pictures! So here we go, a (very) short list of inspiring and happy-making things:

Cherry Tree
First up, the tree outside my house. The cherry trees on our street are always the last to bloom in the spring and the last to drop their leaves in the fall. Other trees around Vancouver are losing their blossoms now, but this beauty and its chums are just gearing up for the pink explosion. This is even more delightful now that we don’t have a car to scrape clean of gummy dead flower residue every morning.

I posted a picture of our dog, Rory earlier this week, so it’s only right that Lyra gets her moment of fame. Lyra is our highly neurotic, skittish, oddball kitty who likes to sit close but never on laps. Originally a rescue cat, she’s lived with us for several years now and does what she can to keep Rory suitably cowed and in his place.

Currently reading
How bleak would life be without books and magazines? These are a few of the titles I’m currently reading, not including ebooks. (A note on the Mark Kermode book: if you don’t already listen to his Wittertainment movie review podcasts–via BBC website–you’re missing something special. For a taste, watch/listen to his awesome review of Transformers 3 here. I don’t always agree with him, but he’s consistently intelligent, insightful and entertaining.

I’ve saved the most important for last: my beautiful, brilliant, thoughtful, generous quirky, adorable daughter, Azaia. She’s in her third year at university right now, studying sociology and political science, and is planning to go on to law school. An unapologetic feminist and a fiercely independent thinker, she’s passionate about social justice and women’s issues. I could not be prouder.

Zombie Azaia
Oh, and did I mention she’s a zombie in her spare time? This was taken when she participated in the Zombie Walk in Vancouver a couple of years ago.

During the month of April, I’m participating in the A to Z Blogging Challenge. My challenge posts will focus on 26 of the things that have inspired me as a writer or that I’ve learned as I stumble my way toward becoming a writer. Clicky-click on the link to read some of the other bloggers who are participating in the April madness.