Tuesday, December 22, 2009

early morning writing

By the light of Christmas lights.

I woke up with a couple of lines of story in my mind. One snippet of dialogue and an idea. I laid there thinking Remember this for the morning and then I remembered all the other times I said to myself Remember this for the morning because bed was toasty and eyelids were heavy. And what happened then? Too much was lost.

So I got up and turned on the Christmas lights and sat in bed with my notebook propped on a pillow while my husband slept. I knocked out three pages before getting to a big question and decided to leave What happens next? for another writing session. I laid back, closed my eyes and kept thinking about my new story.

Sometimes I get story ideas on top of one another and so I'm writing two or three (even four) stories at a time. I don't know that I really like that. That approach seems like it could lead to a lot of so-so work. But when an idea strikes, I'm also not too keen on saying Later. I've got something else to finish first. Perhaps these new ideas are telling me to hurry up and wrap up the story that has been draaaggging on and on and start something fresh. Or perhaps I just need a diversion so that I can get a break from thinking too much about one story.

I just finished my sub job and am antsy for January when I'll be more disciplined about my writing. Right now I'm traveling and with family for the holidays so writing time is here and there when I can grab it. I think that's fine. Every part of me is resting this break: the teaching part, the writing part, the running part. I am enjoying a rest. But my mind keeps waking me up with ideas.

Don't I love it, though.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

plugs

Yesterday I listened to an episode of PRI's To the Best of Our Knowledge. The show is titled "Channeling Creativity" and I found the first segment to be especially interesting: cartoonist and writer Lynda Barry talks about overthinking and creativity. I was saying "yes, yes" to much of what she said. She spent nine years (I hope I'm remembering correctly) writing a novel because she felt that she needed to know everything that was going to happen to her characters before she wrote it out. After immense frustration she sat down and wrote her novel longhand (no delete key to second guess what comes!) and finished in less than one year.

I too am finding that I enjoy the writing process more when I sit with an open notebook. I am also wary of guessing too much of the story before I actually write it. My first creative writing professor had us do a character exercise in which we listed everything about a character we were working with: favorite color, favorite sandwich, elementary school memories, broken bones, crushes, ambitions, on and on and on until I really hated my character because there was nothing more for me to be surprised by when I wrote. I like the details that reveal themselves only a word or a sentence before their placement, when it suddenly makes perfect sense that Elliot wears an Army surplus jacket or Janet hates the feel of a knife slicing through raw chicken.

In the third segment of the show, Geoffrey Colvin, author of Talent is Overrated talked about late bloomers and how we cannot always predict success based on talent at a young age. This segment reminded me of some ideas in Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers and also of two articles featured in the same November 2008 issue of Psychology Today, "Confessions of a Late Bloomer" by Scott Barry Kaufman and "Better Late than Never" also by Kaufman but featuring five different late bloomers.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

and the winner is...

Short story collection.

That's my book.

I have one story that is finished (save a final proofread, which makes it not quite finished or, not mincing words: unfinished). Okay. I have one story that is almost finished. I have two stories that still need a lot of help (third drafts by indecision) and one more story that is well on its way to a finished first draft. Is that enough to say I'll make my book a short story collection?

I say it is. Because this is all new to me.

Monday, December 7, 2009

patron, where art thou?

I remember talking about teaching creative writing in a methods class in college; the discussion quickly turned to our own creative writing. When would we have time to write - really write - once we were in a classroom? Would we even want to write after a day of discussing Romeo & Juliet four times in a row or reading bland essays?

Early on in the classroom, I decided to write my own assignments. For my first year of teaching (and most of my second and third, too), these snippets of essays, stories, and poems were my only writing. I'd write examples and have fun with the start, but rarely have the time or creative energy to finish. That is part of the reason this Year of the Book project was born: I need to learn to see my writing through to the end. Finish. The End.

But the truth is that teaching literature and language arts saps me. I enjoy it, but it's tiring. Teachers understand. You read and reread what you're teaching. You're always looking up vocabulary or finding background or answering questions or settling quibbles about group work or whatever million other little daily things that are teaching. So now I am subbing a sophomore English class until the holiday break and find myself ready for January when, subbing and Christmas travel past, I'll be able to turn my attention again to the stories I've left simmering on the back burner. I only hope I don't lift the lid to find a scorched meal.

I think this subbing stint is telling me quite a bit about my own ambitions. A professor I respected very much told me I should go on to grad school and that he'd write me a letter for a writing program. I was too tired to think of applying. I thought: I'll teach for a couple of years and then go. But I haven't made it there yet. I'm okay with that, but I also know that I would eat those workshops up and ask for more: I want to become an excellent writer.

Another professor posed the question to all of us writers: Should you just take a job that allows you to write? Meaning, should you work at a job that doesn't drain you mentally or creatively so that you are always ready to write? If I were to take that sort of job, I'd deliver papers. I really would. (If it also paid the bills).

But I took a job that that does tire your mind with the learning and decisions. And now, after returning to teaching for the briefest time, after tasting what it's like to have time and mental space to actually write as an at home mama: well, what do I want?

I want a patron, that's what I want!

But I guess you don't get a patron if you haven't painted a collection first. Here's to January!

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

blogland wallflower

Okay. I had a rant going, but I deleted it. Lately, I've been struck by the narcissism of blogging. I started this blog to chronicle tackling a Book. But I didn't want to feel like I was writing in near isolation. In my mind I thought: I'll find an online writing community and we'll all be friends. I'll read yours, you'll read mine. We'll post comments and swap first drafts and do each other's hair.

Except that I'm a terrible bloggy friend. I don't read more than a dozen or so blogs and (I'll admit) a few of those I read only occasionally because I cannot fathom why they remain popular despite being packed with misspellings and exclamation points. No, I am not naming names. You probably read a few like that yourself. Sometimes I read a blog religiously for months and then forget about it for months. Sometimes I don't comment. I might have a comment, but I don't post it. Terrible, terrible bloggy friend.

But if I'm not going to go batty posting in isolation with a few stray comments from friends and family (much, much appreciated by the way, since otherwise I'd really feel silly posting anything on this site), I think I need to stalk some other writers and read their blogs. I'm a blogland wallflower but every now and then, I'd like a dance.

So to those of you that are reading (I think I know of three or four, officially), please, please keep reading. I will endeavor to become a better blogger with regular posts (maybe even a consistent two a week!?) and I will go find other writers in blogland and share their blogs here. I'm thinking campfire songs and s'mores.

P.S. Short story ideas continue to come. I'm still writing about the ten-years-later idea. I think this book might be a way to exorcise all of my past personal misgivings (because I have none in the present, right?), which means it will promptly be put in a shoebox under the bed.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

ten minutes

You can write a lot in ten minutes. That's how long I'll give myself to write this post.

(So now my mind is blank).

I started the story sparked by my dream. I went a couple of different directions with the idea and think I've found two or three characters I like enough to let talk. Tomorrow I'll carve some time to return to one of the starts and see where it leads.

Sadly, my writing has not been as consistent or focused during the last couple of weeks. I'm subbing for a sophomore English class and prep time and grading have eaten at my (near) daily writing habit. Instead of two or three pages of story at a stretch, I've been managing one or two. And somedays, none. Yesterday and today I've been antsy to sit down with my notebook - which means that tomorrow I will.

The subbing experience has taught me a few things. One: Teaching really can wear your creativity down. Or rather, I spend my creativity differently. My mind is busy, but not on my writing. Well, perhaps even that isn't entirely true. I do jot notes about story lines or characters. I think about the story I am telling, even if I don't have time to sit and write.

I take my writing time as it comes.

Today I listened to NPR's Selected Shorts and think that I'll load my iPod up with more. I want to hear how others tell a story.

But I'm still considering a novel for my Book in a Year project. You'd think I still had a year left. Perhaps I'm just waiting to meet the character who says Ten pages isn't enough. Thirty won't even get you halfway. Maddening.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

from a dream and a memory

I woke up from a dream last week and thought: there's a story in this. In my dream, a woman I know (but not very well) told me her engagement story. After nagging her boyfriend about when exactly they were actually going to get married, he exploded, "Four years from today!" And then I woke up. I thought: What if four years from today is a Tuesday?

I kept grabbing at the dream, hoping that there was something more that I'd missed in my groggy good-morning-warm-in-the-sheets-first-minute-of-the-day. But I couldn't find anything.

Later I sat down to write that idea. "Four years from today!" I can easily see some exasperated boyfriend yelling at his impatient girlfriend, maybe lying about having a ring - all of that - just to get her to shut up about getting married already. But what if she holds him to it? Or what if he holds her to it?

In college, I had a guy say, "Maybe in ten years..." he could see us together. It was an awkward conversation and in college ten years is eternity and I skipped ahead to someone else. But those ten years are up now so I do find myself wondering what if? Not because I'm interested in him anymore (a fiery, brief infatuation I kept mostly to myself), but because I am really curious. What if I took him at his word? What if I waited around for ten years until he was done with medical school or graduate school or traveling the world or whatever he needed ten years to do?

The truth is, I am (thankfully) a very different person than I was then. So what would have happened if I had waited a decade and then stood before him, asking, "How about now?" Story possibilities abound.

I started writing from my dream and met a couple of characters who might work. I think I need to aim for a repeat of my Wham Bam story experience. Just write it. So now I've got some good background on my characters, which I may or may not use, and I actually did a loose outline before I wrapped up my writing so that I wouldn't forget a few of my better ideas for the two. I might take the dream idea and my own college experience and smash them together, see what happens.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

writing group

Last night I met with two other writers, each of us with different projects but all of us agreeing that meeting regularly to read and talk about our writing would motivate us to keep on.

Writing groups need boundaries so that trust is kept. So taking a line from Fight Club, one of the women suggested that the first rule about writing group is: don't talk about writing group.

So there you have it. I'm part of a secret writing group. I think it'll be wonderful. Only if we come up with secret handshakes and rituals will I write a tell-all memoir and cash in, right? Well, that would solve my book in a year dilemma.*


*Yes, I'm still not sure what I'm doing. The October deadline - decide, already! - is past and I'm a little fearful that if I commit to a short story collection, I'll end up repeating myself and recycling characters. And I'm fearful that if I commit to a novel, I'll get bogged down on page 342 and quit. Do I have three hundred and forty-two pages in me? And I'm fearful that if I commit to an essay collection, I'll get tired of my whining. Wait, I already am.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

wham bam

After feeling mopey and hindered, I sat down to write yesterday and just made myself do it. At the top of my page, I wrote:

Situations
1. A wife dreams her husband's affair and hates him for it

I didn't need a 2. I'll need to come up with a 2 and 3 and 4 and 5 eventually, but I didn't need to at that moment because I could write about that situation. So I wrote and it felt so good. I didn't overanalyze, I didn't stop to think too much. I even used the names that popped into my head first, Karla and Ian.

I was interrupted by the fire alarm which was directly above my writing desk. A horrible shock of adrenaline and I was scooping my baby up from her nap and down the apartment stairs. Nothing burned down. Someone was probably smoking in a stairwell.

I returned to the story this morning. Sometimes when I leave off, it's too easy to quit and start flailing around for another idea. I'd left off mid-sentence, something I hate doing. I reread "Karla sat down without saying anything. She took" and I wasn't sure what came next but again, I made myself write it. What came next was good. I concluded the draft and immediately typed it. It's short - less than five full pages typed - but it is by far more authentic than anything I've written in the last couple of months.

And for that alone, I am so very grateful. Just the little boost I needed to know that, yes, it is worth writing. I do have things to say and I can say them in an authentic voice.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

writing around

Lately I have felt like I've been writing around the story I really want to tell. I also feel like it's time I throw out a few ideas that have hindered me:

1. I took a class on Fitzgerald, Faulkner and Hemingway in college and after reading Fitzgerald's short story "Winter Dreams" and comparing it to Gatsby, my professor said that Fitzgerald once said something like: Every writer has just one story and they spend their lives retelling it. I know I forgot loads of other quotes and interpretations but I can't shake that idea that I have only one story to tell.

2. My mom will hate whatever I write if there isn't a happy ending. I don't know that that's actually true. And if my mom doesn't hate it, my dad will, or my brother or my sister or my best friend or my high school English teacher or my in-laws will. The thing is, when I sit down to write and they are crowding my head, clucking disapproval or not speaking to me again because I embarrassed them with my sham of a story, it is really difficult to write anything.

I know a lot of writing books devote time to dealing with the "editors" in our heads. I try to remember that when I sit at my laptop or at my open notebook. Sometimes I feel very choked and think that perhaps I should put off writing anything until everyone I know is dead.

3. I don't feel ready to write about some things. I really want to write about teaching and what I learned from the six years I spent in the classroom. I also really want to write about my two years in Colombia. Sometimes I want to write about church camp because it's a place that can strengthen or weaken a young person's faith and I have mixed feelings about my own week there each summer. But I am not quite prepared to write about any of these things yet. Maybe church camp. I could write about that. Really, I could write about teaching and Colombia too and not worry about everything being correct yet. I could write my memories and revise refine later, double checking journals. Maybe it would feel good to put these things on paper since I've been saying No, not now to them for awhile.

So there you have it. I need to let go of that comment my professor said, quit worrying about what anyone will think if my words actually find their way to the published page, and write what I want even if I'm not sure I'm telling it the right way yet. Well, that sounds easy.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

ten thousand hours of practice

I just finished Malcom Gladwell's latest book Outliers: The Story of Success. Good book. Challenges a lot of the ways we think about success. Obviously. (You could have read the book jacket for that nugget). But here is what stood out on the page, marquee lights blinking:

Ten thousand hours of practice.

That is what separates the good from the great. I don't think that is exactly how Gladwell put it, but that's the essence. You want to become an accomplished musician? A brilliant playwright? Computer programmer? There is a threshold to cross and you have to be willing to put in the hours and hours and hours of practice.

When I taught, I insisted on Writing Practice. In my classes, we used prompts or freewriting to get a feel for how to translate our thoughts into sentences and paragraphs on the page. I don't think very many of my students really understood why I insisted on Writing Practice notebooks. Most of them probably thought it was dumb, a waste of time. And for some of them, it might have been. But a college professor of mine got me hooked on the idea of practicing writing. In his workshop we all had LEXbooks. Language EXperiment books. And it freed me up to write whatever. It was practice.

That is how I've been looking at this whole one-year-to-write-a-book deal. It is a year of practice. I can't say that it always feels smooth. Most of my writing is bumpy. I am not making near the progress I was hoping for since much of my concentrated writing is accomplished while my daughter naps - which doubles as the quiet time I can read, sweep through the apartment, hang laundry, start dinner. I keep at it, though. Sometimes that means that I ignore the laundry or let the dishes pile for later.

So today I am thinking about my own ten thousand hours of practice and accepting that some people get theirs in before others. I'm okay with that. I take heart from another book I read recently, Julia Child's My Life in France. She learned to cook when she was thirty-seven. Or rather, she started learning all the hows of cooking when she was thirty-seven. She didn't wrap up her lessons when she was thirty-eight. So I am just shy of twenty-nine and I want to learn how to write a book. I won't be done learning how to write well when I am thirty but I will have a few more hours marked off on my ten thousand.

Monday, October 5, 2009

ready for feedback

Laine is ready to be read by a few friends. I'll be contacting people sometime this week. Looking forward to learning what this brings. It's been a long, long time since I have submitted my work to other people - or rather, it's been a long, long time since I have submitted my work to other people for their honest feedback, criticism and praise, with the intention to actually consider their ideas as relevant to my work. That's a mouthful. But it's true. It's one thing to say, "Listen to this, honey" and read a ranting essay to my husband who, of course, thinks it's hilarious because he was there and knows what I'm talking about. It's another thing to say, "Um. Please let me know what you think, even if it's terrible" to someone who has no idea why you're writing about this girl Laine in the first place.

Stephen King talks about the best readers usually being those who know you well. I thought that was interesting. Perhaps that's because your spouse, sister, and best friend will know how to delicately suggest changes. They might better know that your outer shell is full of soft spots and just saying "This doesn't work" about something you've committed at least two months to creating - well, they know better. Or they might know that's the only way you'll believe them, if they just say it. The point is, those closest to you, even if they are not writers, probably know how to approach your artist self.

In the meantime, I have another story I'm continuing to write - a road trip that could really go anywhere and I need to figure a few things out about the characters before I make too big of a mess - and another I am revising. I am not sure about writing a new and revising an old simultaneously. I don't know if it stretches me too thin to do that. With the Laine story, once I started revising, I stuck with it and didn't dip into anything else. Perhaps I should do the same with this next revision, give it the attention deserved.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

biting my nails

It might be better if I did bite my nails. Instead, I bake cupcakes and lick the beaters. I desperately want to delete my last post because, well, because:

1. What kind of name is Laine?
2. You're already judging Lauren for driving drunk. (And perhaps you should. She did kill someone afterall).
3. Death is too dramatic a topic for a short story.
4. Why do I write so much about death?
5. Do I really?
6. Would a girl really write letters to the mother of a girl her sister killed? If you can even get that straight.
7. Insecurities abound.
8. When I reread anything - okay, many things - that I write, I am usually split between thinking it might be good and knowing it might be very bad.
9. I can't see your face when you read what I've written.
10. It isn't even done yet. Why am I posting an excerpt?

Because this blog is about the process. Deep breath. All is well. I am going to go into the kitchen now and cook a bowl of chocolate pudding with whole milk and I'll feel much better. What I should really do is just finish the story.

revision example

The following is from my handwritten Laine story. You need to know that her older sister Lauren has died - she was driving drunk and killed another college student, Samantha. Laine started writing to Samantha's mom Carolyn. This excerpt is from near the beginning of the story:

Laine didn't explain the letters to anyone, not really to Carolyn either except to say that her own parents were very closed to her right now, in their own closets of grief, she said. And her own friends couldn't act normal around her anymore because they didn't know if it was okay to cry about a failed calculus exam when Laine had something much bigger - a dead sister - to cry about. And if anyone mentions their brother or sister, everyone looks straight at me.

Honestly, I just need somewhere to put my own feelings and it can't be a diary because I'll open it up again too soon and get sad again or think I am stupid. I need to know my words are -

Laine didn't know what to write. Heard? Understood? It was study hall and most seniors got passes to leave campus, especially in the spring. It was May and the lilacs were blooming. But Laine liked the dusty smell of the library, specks suspended in streaks of sunlight. She liked the heavy tables and maple chairs, scarred by bored students.

Laine reached her arms high, arching her back for a stretch. She bent back over the page.

I am being selfish. I want someone to listen and maybe I shouldn't ask that of you. If you are tired of my letters, mail this one back and I won't write another.

Laine's stomach flip flopped when she wrote that but she included a self-addressed stamped envelope as if she were sending off for a contest entryform.

Okay. And here follows the revision. Keep in mind that the following will likely go through another revision before I call it done. However, I found the time off between the first writing and this very good - I think that I thought about how to make the story work, even when I wasn't thinking about it. So I've added more than I expected:

She'd been writing to Carolyn for a little over five months. She wrote about school and getting ready for college. She wrote about running the four hundred in track and what it felt like when her lungs burned at the end of a race - purifying. She wrote a list of reasons why she decided to skip her senior prom, even though she had a date and even though she could still find a dress in time. She wrote about ceramics class and holding cold lumps of clay in her hands, kneading them warm and workable. For a little over five months, she wrote to Carolyn but Carolyn didn't write back.

I think if my parents knew I was writing you they'd tell me to quit. They'd say it was "inappropriate" or "upsetting" for me to write you. Even though it isn't inappropriate or upsetting to me. Is it to you?

Maybe I'm using you. I hadn't thought of that before, but it might be true. I need a place to put my thoughts. I've never kept a diary. Probably because it seems like evidence that might one day be used against me: See, this is how stupid you were. And if I kept a diary, my words wouldn't be going out to anyone. I still wouldn't be heard and that's what I want, to be heard. Understood, even.

It was Laine's study hall. Most seniors got passes to leave campus, especially during the spring. Outside, lilac bushes were shades of purple, but Laine liked the hot dusty smell of the library, specks suspended in streaks of sunlight. She liked the heavy maple tables and chairs, scarred by bored students.

Laine reached her arms high, arching her back for a stretch. She bent back over the page.

I am being selfish. I want someone to listen and I shouldn't just expect that of you. I keep thinking our losses are the same, but they aren't. Not really. If you are tired of my letters, mail this one back and I won't write another.

Laine signed her name and felt sick to her stomach. But she mailed the letter on her way home after school, including a self-addressed stamped envelope. She thought of Lauren entering contests and sending off for cereal box prizes.

I'm not entirely sure how I feel about posting a work in progress online. When I think the Laine story is ready for more critical eyes, I'll recruit a few honest people to read it.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

building an addition

Takes a certain amount of vision. Also, it helps if you know a thing or two about architecture and design. Right now I'm adding additions to the Laine story. When I returned to the pages in my notebook, I expected a few revelations. I thought I'd change the order of the story a bit. I didn't think I'd find that the floorboards had warped or that the electric wasn't hooked up yet or that the basement was flooded. I thought I'd just tack on a nice little addition at the end and repaint the walls.

Instead, I reread the story and thought: hm, this needs a lot of work. My problem (big problem) was that I secretly hoped I'd find that Laine and her story were basically intact, even thought I did rush through the ending (as in, there isn't really an ending yet) and hodge-podged the order of the scenes. I secretly hoped I was more brilliant than I actually am. I took a deep breath, reminded myself that this entire project is about immersing myself in learning how to write a book. So learn.

Most days I manage an hour or two on the laptop, typing my fiction. With the Laine story, I had to type the first draft from my handwritten copy and so I revised bits as I typed. I cut a lot that seemed, well, gaggy. But I also realized that the story didn't hold together so I've been adding to dialogue and creating entirely new sections because I need to tell the story. I think my first draft was more like a sketch of what I might be able to create and that this second draft is more like a first draft.

Today I panicked a bit when I saw that I could easily turn my story into one of those houses you see that might have started off neat and tidy but are now a meandering mess of ill-planned additions, all eras and styles smashed together in sloping porch roofs and gigantic plate glass windows you can't help but want to launch a rock through, and gingerbread shutters. With an ancient solar panel the size of a door raised up top, next to the TV antenna. That is what my story could easily become.

I will not let it keep the old solar panel. It isn't even hooked up anyway.

I am close to finished with the Laine first/second draft. I'll repeat the Leave It Alone Week and see what happens when I return to revise a more cohesive story. Because even though I joke about what a dump it is, the contractor tells me moving a wall isn't as difficult as it sounds.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

three starts

A couple of weeks ago I finished reading Stephen King's book On Writing. I don't read too much King, but this book was good. Helpful in unexpected ways. For example, King writes about giving a first draft a chance to rest before you begin revising. Take a few weeks away from the project so that when you return, you're fresh. And during that time, resist the urge to pass a copy around to friends. You don't need back pats or criticism yet.

So I decided to try this. I'm still on the "letting it rest" part. I have one short story finished and another almost finished. First drafts, I mean. And I'm ready to return to the first short story to try revising.

For a moment, I couldn't remember the character's name from the first short story. Laine. As in Elaine. That might change yet. Anyway, when I put that one aside, I wanted to return to it the next day but decided not to. I didn't want to make it worse. Let it alone, quit picking at it. So I started up another story - one that I like very much and can imagine getting long and wandering and out of control - but I needed to leave that story until I could get some research done. So I began the third story and this is close to done.

I am still trying to decide what my book will be. In two of my short story (starts) I have found other stories I might want to tell. So perhaps a collections of related shorts might be a good idea. However, the middle start - the one I need to do some research for - could make an interesting novel.

Well, interesting to me.

Next week I'll focus on revising the Laine story and I'll post a paragraph or two to show my revisions. I am optimistic but that is likely because I am not in the middle of making sense of my first draft, trying to find even a single thread of good story.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

be inspired: now

Wow.

I have no idea what to write about. I sat down with my notebook today and managed a short page of nothing and thought: let's try the laptop. Magic keys. Maybe the tap tappity tap will let loose a story my pen couldn't keep up with. Maybe just sitting in front of this shiny magic laptop, fingers dancing lightly on the keyboard - maybe a channel will open and I'll be inspired. Now.

Not so.

Last summer I was pregnant and my husband and I couldn't agree on a girl name. We didn't really agree on a boy name either, but Justin gave up resisting my choice after awhile. Still, we were stuck for a girl name. I asked my mother if she had any ideas.

"I've always liked the name Claire," Mom said.

Claire didn't sound bad to us either.

So today I said to Mom, "What should I write a book about? Your nomination won last time. Maybe you'll win again."

"I don't know, Sarah," she said.

Neither do I. And I think that this could become a problem. Not yet, not quite yet. But if I don't figure out what I am going to write an entire book about soon (like, tomorrow), how goes the whole project of actually writing a book!? What if it takes me a year to think of something I want to commit two or three hundred pages to telling?

So here is what I am deciding, to give myself a little peace: I need a book idea by October. Or rather, I need to choose a book idea. I've got gobs of ideas but they all fall flat because I also have gobs of reasons why none of the ideas are worth developing. By October, I need to know.

This reminds me of a writing exercise I've used many times. (I think this is from Natalie Goldberg's Wild Mind or Writing Down the Bones, both excellent books). Halfway down your page, draw a line. Write, write, write until you get to that line. Just pour it all out. When you hit the line, stop. Write "What I really want to write about is ___" and finish that. Then go finish your page with what you really want to write about.

I think that's what I am doing now with a book idea. I'm freewriting. Just dumping a bunch of ideas in my notebook and on my laptop and hoping that something sifts to the top. Hoping that I see that flash in the pan and look closer. Come October, I should have a much clearer idea of what I really want to write about.

Or maybe I'm just still too chicken to get started.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

words on paper

In May and June I started telling close friends and family that I was going to write a book this year. This next year. Meaning this next school year. I will have time to write then, I thought. Time to write a book that might not be spectacular or publishable but will be written nonetheless.

Through the month of July, I thought about this book I am going to write. I thought about when I should actually start writing this book and what it should be about. Memoir? Novel? Short story or essay collection? Did I have to have to know what my book was about before I could write it? Should I just start?

And now it is August. Eeps.

When I was in college I spent a couple of semesters leading a poetry writing workshop at a juvenile detention center. This was a great experience that ended horribly and maybe someday I'll tell that story too. But the guys that I worked with showed a lot of raw emotion in their poems and sometimes I'd get home and cry because what they wrote made me sad or angry or feel very hopeless. I enjoy teaching poetry but not always as much as I did then because once in my own classroom, I found that a lot of students were more concerned with whether or not this poetry exercise had a point value attached. Meaning: was it really worth doing? The guys at the detention center weren't like that. They earned the privilege of attending the Sunday afternoon sessions and if a writing exercise didn't work well for them they didn't freak out about their grade or grow apathetic and scrap the whole stupid idea of writing a poem.

Early on in my Sundays, a few of the guys were having a difficult time with the writing exercises. I might say, "Let's come up with a concrete image of Anger or Love or Sad." And they'd write a bit but weren't sure if they were doing it right. "Don't worry about being 'right,'" I'd say. Then one Sunday afternoon a young man read what came out of a ten minute freewrite. "It's just words on paper!" he said. And that became our refrain. At any given time on those Sunday afternoons, one of us might say, "Hey, it's just words on paper." That made the whole business of actually writing something seem manageable.

So that is what my book is, at least right now. It's words on paper. It is just writing it out, getting it down - in my notebooks, typed on my laptop. The whole idea of writing a book seems much more manageable if I think of it as just words on paper.

But even so, those words won't write themselves.