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Road Trippin’: Shiny Pearls of Wisdom from My Inaugural Autumn Writing Retreat

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Retreat Headquarters (© Philip Jefferson)

 

OK, so my long-anticipated, self-initiated, inaugural writing retreat is now little more than a blur in the proverbial rearview mirror of my life. And, like most things one spends too much time thinking about in advance, it was, and was not, exactly what I thought it would be. So what’s the take-away?

 

“Everybody has a plan — until they get punched in the face!” (It’s not often that Mike Tyson “out-quotes” a former US president, but I find the aforementioned snippet far pithier that Dwight Eisenhower’s rather more prosaic WWII-era version: “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”) The main worry I was grappling with in my pre-retreat blog was that by seeking to maximize what I hoped to get out of the weekend — either creatively or socially — I might actually “plan the life out of it.” Well, I’m glad to say that I didn’t. True, I knew how I wanted the days to unfold — how I had calculated I could eek the most productivity out of the limited time I had before me — but once I felt that first fist against my jaw (in Tyson parlance), I’m proud to say I just let things unfold as they presented themselves. I knew there existed an overarching structural “plan” lingering in the shadows that I could revert to if required, but, instead, I simply sought to channel my inner Zen-novice and “relax into things.” Relaxing, of course, is anathema to word count. But it was an incredible autumn weekend and we had a lot of fun out and about at the farmer’s market and local wine festival. And ate waaaay to much!

 

I’m pretty much toast — intellectually — by the end of the work week. Those of you who are regular visitors here at the Gooseyard know that I’m something of a “fanboy” when it comes to the writer Ian McEwan. The one exception is an interview I once saw with him where he pontificated — rather flippantly in my opinion — that you simply can’t write serious fiction if you haven’t managed to divest yourself of a full-time “day job.” I think part of the reason I was so incensed at this “literary pronouncement from on high” was that, deep down, I rather suspect he’s right. It’s damn near impossible to find the gumption to knock out a few thousand decent words a night when you’ve spent the bulk of the day toiling in the salt-mines of [insert your job here]. (OK, yes, yes, shut up, I know, if I were truly committed I’d get up an hour earlier every day and get my writing done then, or get divorced and move into a studio apartment or something, but that’s a different blog altogether). And as hard as it is to discipline oneself to sit down and write something worthwhile after a single day at the office, I find it damn near impossible to write — or do anything else requiring any conscious level of dexterity for that matter — on a Friday night, after having logged five over-busy work days in a row. Maybe it’s a symptom of middle-age, but lately my ideal Friday evening seems comprised mainly of seeking to achieve a kind of languid, Netflix-induced somnolent trance, my eyelids drooping somewhere south of wakefulness, my belly full, a liquid intoxicant of some description at hand, and the hum of the laundry tossing itself clean in the washer in the near distance. [Aside to Millennials: See what you have to look forward to when you grow up?] So even though my retreat-mates and I made sure to take Friday off to give ourselves a full, three-day session at the cottage, the limited amount of writing I was able to convince myself to do that Friday afternoon — after my nap — was still a bit of a slog. And the evening, as usual, found us simply relaxing with a movie (though, in our defence, it was, at least, a book-related movie).

 

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Things suffer when you make them serve too many purposes at once. Remember those K-Tel ads for that ultimate, multi-purpose kitchen gadget: “It slices, it dices, it juliennes!” Well, sometimes — usually quite often, in fact — we end up over-burdening the things in our lives by trying to make them serve too many disparate purposes at one time. And thus overburdened they don’t end up serving their primary purpose(s) anywhere near as well as they should. The Porche Cayenne you bought, because you wanted a sports car, but still needed enough room to schlep the kids to school and pick up the groceries, is not going to perform like the 911 you always dreamed of. The writers’ retreat was no different. Because it was also a couple’s retreat. And a fall getaway. And a food fest. Which are all valid reasons to get in the car and go somewhere. But the more you load up something with the requirements for it to be something else at the same time, the less well it is going to perform in any of its expected roles.

 

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[Greta and] “I want to be left alone.”  The more I write, the more I realize that I need real solitude to do so. What Virginia Woolf referred to — though admittedly her focus at the time was on women writers — as a “room of one’s own.” This metaphoric room, as any writer will tell you, represents far more than a simple, physical space, however. It is, rather, the all-encompassing “realm” in which the writer most effectively undertakes his or her work. Every “realm” is different. In my case, I need three things to hit the “zone” running: a sufficient expanse of free time in front of me to get started and maintain some reasonable momentum; complete physical separation from other people (except, occasionally when I make the conscious decision to attempt some writing in a cafe or library); and a reasonably-sized window to look out of (preferably across a natural vista of some sort). Or to put it another way, and with a nod to Corinthians 13:13, “And now abideth time, landscape and solitude; but the greatest of these is solitude.” In a way — and this isn’t an original analogy, though it is one I’ve argued before in one form or another — writing is a lot like masturbation: it’s not something that’s particularly easy to undertake when there are other folks in the room (even if it is just your wife and a couple of really good friends). The retreat certainly gave me time to write, and we definitely had an incredible view across the Northumberland shore line from the cottage’s dining room window, but it seems I really need to be alone to truly hit my writerly stride. With all due respect to Meatloaf, two outta three may not be bad, but it’s not going to generate a proliferation of prose on my part.

 

So, what’s the final verdict? Would I do it again? Definitely — in fact I hope to do it agin next year. Did I achieve the purported goals outlined in the last paragraph of my pre-retreat blog? Let’s review.

 

Enjoy some fall foliage? Check.

 

Have a couple of drinks and share a few laughs with friends? Check, and double check!

 

Produce a half a dozen pages of decent prose? Umm, not so much. Maybe three. Though they weren’t bad. (And we had a really invigorating discussion Sunday morning about using dialogue to advance one’s story — as opposed to a rambling interior monologue approach which, I’m sure, will eventually be my literary downfall.)

 

Next year, however, I’m going to take a page out of Bridget Jone’s diary and simply refer to whatever autumn excursion we decide to undertake as a “mini-break.” If I happen to get some writing done, great. If not, that’s OK too. And part of the reason that it will be OK is that I’ve decided to plan a true Writers’ Retreat before then. I imagine it will involve a locked door, a small room and a big window. I’ll keep you posted.

 

P.S. What are your “must-haves” when it comes to the creative endeavours you undertake? I’d love to hear from you.

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Planning for Fun: The Elusive Quest for Existential Balance

Photo by author. © Philip Jefferson

Photo by author. © Philip Jefferson

OK, I’m pumped! In 11 days I hit the road for a long-awaited, three-day “Writers’ Retreat!”

(Which is a fancy way of saying that another writer friend of mine and our wives have rented a cottage along the Northumberland Straight, about three hours away, and we’ll be bringing along our iPads for the long weekend with the purported goal of “getting away from it all” sufficiently to undertake some “serious” work on our current creative projects.)

And here is where two little voices in my head start waging a war of words that often leaves me exhausted by the end of the day.

First, the architect in me takes over — for architects are nothing if not professional planners: OK, we’ll leave by 08:00; have breakfast at the Big Stop in Aulac; then head back toward the road that runs along the shore; arrive at the cottage by noon; get 500 words down by mid-afternoon; pause for a quick G&T, then 250 more words by dinnertime; eat dinner; enjoy some after-dinner refreshments; share / critique each other’s just-completed 750 word challenge; allow for an hour or so “free chat”; partake of wee night cap; and off to bed by 23:00 (after having tabulated the day’s expenses and divided them in half to make sure both couples are paying their proportionate share of the excursion’s costs).

You get the picture: schedules, performance targets, deficiency reviews, budget updates. How could we not have fun given the breadth and scope invested in such an elaborate planning exercise? I mean, c’mon, I’ve even gone so far as to allow for an hour of “un-structured” free chat! I’ll make sure the day runs like a finely-tuned Swiss watch! (Or, as Chevy Chase’s character, Clark W. Griswold, so poetically phrases it when he realizes that his extended family just isn’t properly embracing the holiday plans he had made for them in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation: “Nobody’s leaving . . . . We’re going to press on. And we’re going to have the hap, hap, happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tapped danced with Danny fucking Kaye!”)

Then, through the other metaphorical ear bud, comes the sibilant voice of that darker, free spirit me. Hit the road whenever — sleep in if you want, no biggie; the Big Stop would be nice, but it’s a little out of the way — you’ll find some place to eat just as good somewhere along your route and, if not, you can always have an early lunch when you get to the cottage; 750 words for the afternoon would be great, but who knows if you’re going to be in the right mood to concentrate, and, ultimately, a trip to the nearby winery before supper might help to better put the weekend in perspective; as for presenting your work after supper, just let things unfold as they will — something will happen. Just chill, duuuude! Everything will work itself out. After all, there’s nothing quite so fun as having fun you haven’t scheduled. You can’t plan to be spontaneous.

Truth be told, however, I think I do tend to gravitate more toward the planning side of my personality. I’ve already established, for example, that the “Official Coffee” of this, our inaugural autumn writing retreat, will be the Pumpkin Crème Brûlée blend I picked up last week especially for the trip. Still, I’m not completely blind (or deaf) to allure of the “Other,”  that elusive, inconstant beauty with her fickle, seductive, anarchic siren song of the “Un-planned!” At least that’s what I tell myself…

I struggle with this same dilemma every time the weekend rolls around. If I schedule the hours too carefully or too fully, Sunday night finds me feeling that I’ve not had the chance to unwind and truly enjoy what limited freedom these two wonderful days have to offer. Conversely, when I give myself permission to make no plans at all, and just enjoy the weekend as it comes, I end up Sunday night wondering if spending 27 hours binge-watching three back-to-back seasons of The Walking Dead truly represents freedom in any meaningful way.

I dunno. I’ve been told that I have a tendency to over think things. (Me? Really?) I guess when all is said and done, as far as the upcoming excursion is concerned, all I really want to do is enjoy some fall foliage along the coast, have a couple of drinks and a few laughs with friends, and produce a half a dozen pages of decent prose. That should be possible over the course of three days, right? Right?

Hap, Hap, Happy Christmas!

On Returning to Writers’ Group

Photo credit: Skakerman via photopin cc

Photo credit: Skakerman via photopin cc

Hi. My name’s Philip and, apparently, I’m an addict.

Turns out, try as I might to neutralize it, I’m addicted to words. And sentences. And paragraphs. To grammar. And stories. And books. Glorious books! And thus I’m back with you today — as Tom and Pam and Charles may have already known I would be. Eventually.

George Orwell reminisces that he knew from the age of five or six that he was going to be a writer, though he qualifies this certainty with the recognition that “[b]etween the ages of about seventeen and twenty-four I tried to abandon this idea, but I did so with the consciousness that I was outraging my true nature and that sooner or later I should have to settle down and write books.”

I, likewise, seem to find myself  “outraging my true nature” on an almost daily basis as I — consciously or otherwise — scheme to try to keep the siren call of the keyboard at bay. ‘Cuz I’m already busy enough with work. And with family. With trying to keep the house clean, and pay the bills, and plan for this summer’s vacation. Yet the more I try to quash these impulses to compose, the more they coalesce — fester, really — below the surface, gaining ground on me even as I struggle to keep them in check.

It hurts to write — at least to try to write well. It’s a difficult, solitary, alienating process, and not for the faint of heart. But it hurts me more, though in a very different way, not to write. As with the protagonist of the very first short story I wrote for Writers’ Group who simply can’t keep the supple iconography of a once-glimpsed adolescent bathing beauty out of his mid-life noggin, eventually such suppressed agony will always find its way to the light:

“It is this crescendo of images [of the young, scantily-clad teenager] that he fears most. They would come upon him without warning, overpower him and leave him nearly spent, exhausted from trying to keep them at bay, but, as on the very day itself, unable to look away, unable to disentangle himself from the misery that the images would eventually leave draped around him. In the midst of the memory, which he now suffers with alarming regularity, he feels fragile, barely capable of controlling himself. He feels encumbered by some sort of toxic, sexual Tourette’s, anticipating the twitching and sputtering and pornographic language of his obsession that he imagines at any minute must surely come pouring from him like rancid, projectile vomit, leaving him shaking and used up and alone, with nothing left to him but his own strangely muddled desires and humiliation.”

How’s that for a creative call to arms?

It is with a similar, nearly debilitating anxiety, that I continually find myself stringing words together. Not because I want to, you understand, but because — as much as it hurts and as much effort as it requires — it ultimately does me less psychic damage to write than not to write. And yet as true as this may be, even this is only true up to a point. Because that’s what writing is as well — a shifting quicksand of ideas and perspectives where we cling to certainty at our peril.

“Art is a lie that let’s us realize truth,” posits Picasso.  And this is certainly as valid for writing as it is for painting. Perhaps even more so where “stories” are concerned. Still, the fact that fiction isn’t “real” has always been something of a sticking point with me as well. What kind of a person freely chooses to spend huge swaths of his limited lifetime in the netherworld of make believe at the expense of his actual human existence? With his literal head — or, more explicitly, perhaps, the imaginative capacity of his mind — stuck up his proverbial arse?

I guess there’s “truth” and then there’s “Truth.” The former is rather more straight-forward than the latter. It’s the brick wall that you walk into when you’re not paying attention to where you’re going. Or the 9-to-5 work you do on a daily basis without really thinking about it. It’s the place where you simply “act” and “re-act” to whatever your life throws at you. A place where “being” is only as valid as the natural laws — physical, chemical, biological — that constrain such a reality.

Creatively, however, as writers we’re after something far more elusive than the simple interplay of physics and chemistry and biology. What we’re after, I would argue, is no less than “Truth” itself. That’s the value the writer brings to the table. What is it to live? To love? To dream? To suffer? To exist as a human being? A real-word response to these questions only gets us so far. On the other hand, what the artist seeks to expose, I believe, is the Platonic ideal that animates the very essence of an issue, the existence-ness of existence that unites us in ways that our mere bodies simply cannot. The once and always, perpetually elusive, physically transcendent, “heart of the matter.”

Why do I write? To lance some some sort of intellectual, creative boil that continues to arise within me unbidden. Ultimately, I suppose, it’s all a mind trick. Everything’s a mind trick. These are not the droids you’re looking for.

Or are they?

(Written on the occasion of my return to my local Writers’ Group earlier this year after an eight month absence.)

dot-dot-dot dash-dash-dash dot-dot-dot; Or, the Allure of the Other

Photo credit: Peter Gorges via photopin cc

Photo credit: Peter Gorges via photopin cc

For anyone out there who either doesn’t have a military background, or isn’t over 40, the above-noted string of dots and dashes is Morse Code for “SOS”. For the purposes of this blog, however, this is not a reference to the traditional “Save Our Souls” distress call — at least not directly. Today, at The Gooseyard, it refers, instead, to “Shiny Object Syndrome,” a recent variation of the acronym I stumbled upon the other day that finally assigns a pithy mnemonic to my super hero-like ability to start about 87 new projects in the run of day, but seldom to finish a single one of them.

Last night’s foray into SOS territory was in pursuit of the new on-line writing game, Storium. The game’s in beta testing so I figured I’d drop by their site for few minutes, check out what was being written and how it worked, and maybe quickly submit a character of my own to one of the emerging stories. Four hours later I pulled my sorry, end-of-the-week carcass away from the computer and off to bed, having spent the entire evening not only creating and submitting a richly-developed, emotionally-conflicted Ranger-like character, christened Alswulff Glenn, for a “fantasy-type” story that was just getting underway, but also having set myself up as the narrator for my own “Occult Pulp Horror” themed tale which I’ve entitled Arcanus Rising. (Hey, don’t give me that look — the genres are pretty much pre-set and at least I had enough self control to not start developing my own unique story-line(s) from scratch! Give me some credit.)

Yep, just what I need (NOT!) — two more writing projects to work on! And, since those of us with chronic (terminal?) SOS like to spread our contagion like wildfire throughout the community, I figured I’d better invite one of my pals along to Storium to give me a hand. I mean, sure, he’s trying to get that YA book of his tweaked and edited for release this fall, but he’s still probably in need of a little shiny, writerly distraction as well, right? (Sorry Tom.)

And thus expired my Friday night, which should have been spent working on the weekly laundry, prepping for my writing group meeting today (sorry Jim), and fleshing out a couple of outlines for this week’s blogs. Yeah, blogsplural. ‘Cause, hell, two blogs are shinier than one, right? And I really wanted to try out that new “Coco” theme from WordPress…. And why not hitch that second blog to yet another new project — Project One for the Win, where I slowly turn my modest country bungalow from a cluttered family home into a clean-lined, minimalist Nirvana. ‘Cause, hey, a guy needs projects, right? Right? Are we beginning to see a pattern emerge here?

My life— AKA my addiction to the “new”, to anything other than what I happen to be stuck doing at the moment — often reminds me of one of those old Family Circus cartoons. You know, where Billy or PJ, or whoever the hell the young son was, is sent to the kitchen to fetch the scissors for his mother and then we watch that thick dashed line trace his progress on this quest over the course of the cartoon. Starting from the hallway, just before making it to the kitchen, where he gets distracted by a butterfly and climbs out an open window to follow it into the yard. Then, while he’s chasing the butterfly around outside, he sees a low-slung sports car drive by that he decides is exactly the car he wants to own when he grows up, so back inside he goes, down to the family computer station in the basement, to research his coveted future vehicle.

While on-line reviewing car payment schedules he finds himself suddenly re-directed to a mortgage amortization web site and decides he can probably now negotiate a better rate on his own mortgage given the recent dip in rates. And, considering just how low the rates actually are, maybe he’d be better off doing those kitchen renovations he’s been promising his wife this year, rather than delaying it any longer. But if he’s going to do the renovations, he should probably download some nice shiny new 3D kitchen design software to get him started. Which means he should probably back-up his computer first, but his old external hard drive is full so he probably needs a new one, and Future Shop is having a sale, and I should pick up Thief for Xbox while I’m there, and where did I put my car keys?

“Where’re the goddamned scissors I asked for,” screams your wife PJ’s mother from the top of the basement stairs….

Ahoy! The SS Gooseyard is going down! dot-dot-dot dash-dash-dash dot-dot-dot….

My Writing “Problem”

Photo credit: Nanagyei via photopin cc

Photo credit: Nanagyei via photopin cc

I suppose the impending apology / explanation for my near seven-month absence from The Gooseyard isn’t going to write itself, so I might as well get it out of the way once and for all. In fact, I’ve already broached it somewhat over at my “de-clutter” blog, Project One for the Win:

The truth is I took a little break from writing, which turned into a long break from writing. Like most of us who write, I have a bit of a love / hate relationship with the process and I suppose the pendulum has been swinging along the “hate” arc of late. Well, maybe not “hate” exactly, but sometimes you feel like you’re just not getting a sufficient return on your authorial investment. Y’know?

You just get weary sometimes. You’re sure you have a book — or two or three or eleven — in you (which, in fact, you should probably be working on now instead of continually feeding the thankless, insatiable blogosphere). And you know you’d have the will-power / confidence / energy to complete these literary masterpieces if only you had the luxury of being a full-time writer. But you’re already a full-time something else, and, in many cases, a full-time parent (or some other type of care-giver), housekeeper, Man / Woman Friday, etc., as well. Time — or, more accurately, perhaps, the lack of energy associated with having to expend so much time elsewhere — is your nemesis. But time itself? Well, as the irreverent, onanistically-minded Chuck Wendig points out in a recent post, Stupid Answers to Common Writing Questions, time doesn’t much give a shit:

How do I find the time to write? You do not find the time to write. You make it. You snatch it from the jaws of whatever temporal beast has your minutes and hours clamped between its gnarly teeth. We all fight for our time, whether it’s time for a meal, time for a TV show, time to mow the lawn, time to masturbate wantonly on the neighbor’s front porch so that their cat can watch you from the family room window. Time is not a lost set of car keys. It’s not extra money you find in a pants pocket just before you wash them. Time is a thing for which you fight. And if you want to write, you need to fight for the time to accomplish that task. Because time doesn’t care about you. It keeps on keeping on until you’re mulch for the fucking marigolds. Seize it. Or don’t. It doesn’t care.

Still, I would argue, time is only a symptom of the larger problem. More than time, what a writer really needs (OK, what I really need, ‘cause, if you haven’t figured it out by now, these blogs are really all about me) is discipline. Time can’t generate discipline after all, but discipline can generate time. And here I find myself wishing for the millionth time that I could actually muster enough discipline to write, instead of simply writing about writing. But at least I recognize I’m falling short. That’s a start, right?

Writing’s easy (it’s just putting words together). So is dieting (eating fewer calories than you expend). And quitting smoking (not lighting up). And staying out of debt (spending less than you earn). None of this — intellectually, computationally — is rocket science. It’s straight-forward action / reaction stuff. The difficult part of the process — and this is what keeps the self-help industry raking in obscene amounts of money year after year — isn’t in acquiring the knowledge of what has to be done, but exerting the will-power and discipline to, well (sorry Nike), “Just do it.” But you can’t order discipline on-line from amazon.com. I checked.

I mean, c’mon. How many pity-the-poor-writer posts like this have I issued from The Gooseyard? Most? Probably. When it comes right down to it, I’m really not sure to what extent the Internet has actually succeeded in liberating aspiring writers. What I think it has done, instead, is give wannabe writers a forum in which to while away the hours writing about writing without actually following through on the type of original, creative projects they’ve always dreamed of pursuing. Then they — OK, “we” — dole out all this psuedo-writing (yes, just like I’m doing now — the irony is not lost on me!) to all the other non-writing writers clogging cyberspace, gaining just enough “Followers” and “Likes” along the way to keep us motivated to pen our next self-indulgent missive. Instant gratification. Why does the phrase “circle jerk” come to mind?

Yikes, that got a little dark, didn’t it? Sorry. I guess I probably need more “Followers” to bolster my fragile ego. Either that or I might actually have to start writing something other than a blog to get my fix — though that seems like waaaay more work. As usual, where writers — pseudo or otherwise — are concerned, Wendig strips the emperor bare:

Uh, hello, please to meet every writer ever. We’re all fucking headcases. We all hit a point in every piece of work where we hate it, hate ourselves, hate publishing, hate the very nature of words (“Marriage? What a stupid word what’s that goddamn little ‘i’ doing in there FUCK THIS HOO-HA LANGUAGE IS STUPID I QUIT”). We all bang our heads against our own presumed inadequacies and uncertainties. Writing and storytelling isn’t a math problem with a guaranteed solution. It’s threading a needle inside our heart with an invisible string strung with dreams and nightmares. We are afforded zero guarantees. [Failing Versus Quitting (Or, “Your Lack of Confidence Is Neither Interesting or Unique”)]

Two blogs in, after more than a half a year hiatus, and already I’m starting to implode. But I don’t think I’m necessarily being unfair. Do you?

Saturday Morning and a Double Espresso

Photo credit: tonx via photopin cc

Photo credit: tonx via photopin cc

Apparently, suggest the cognoscenti, my blog lacks focus.

“If you think you have what it takes and are determined to stay the course then know that blogging begins with defining a purpose for your blog that clearly expresses your aim to blog with passion about something that matters…. From the outset you need to be able to describe your blog’s purpose by expressing what you intend to blog about in as few words as possible.” (Creating an Effective Blog Description by timethief)

One option, of course, is to embrace the obvious dichotomy between this recommended requirement for a “grand unifying theory” — as the physicists might call it — and my blog’s present lack thereof. My focus, in this case, becomes its inherent lack of focus, a deliberate thematic diffusion. A menagerie of miscellany. Which, I suppose, it already is. As are most blogs, I would argue, regardless of their purported descriptions.

I tried to start with a focus. My “official” tag line, below The Gooseyard banner, for example, is “Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think…” Hopefully that supposition at least hints at the fact that I’m interested in thinking / writing about the end-run we’re all attempting to make around the concept of our own individual mortality.

Then, beneath my author’s photo (as you’ve probably already seen if, in fact, you’re reading this blog) is a more explicit, supplemental attempt at defining a unifying principal amongst these digital pages: “A (mostly) literary blog.” Except it hasn’t been. Not really. But I do talk a lot about Ian McEwan. He’s awesome. (Though, truth be told, I’m somewhat less than impressed with his website.)

The “literary blog” thing, in retrospect, turned out to be more of an “aspirational” tag than an elucidating descriptor. It was required of me far too early in the process. Like asking a child what he wants to be when he grows up. We can’t all be firefighters after all, but we never really understand this little heartbreak until it’s too late.

Thus far, it turns out, my blog has simply been about what it’s been about. I’m sure there’s a special place in hell for those of us who traffic in such tautological pedantry, but I’ve decided — experts be damned — that I’m simply not going to be pinned down at the moment. Mainly because I’m not sure exactly what I’m doing yet myself. I don’t know if what I’m attempting in this forum can ultimately be construed as entertainment, human interest, or maybe just wordpainting for dummies. Comedy or tragedy? I don’t know if it’s good or bad or utterly indifferent. If it’s poetry. Or therapy. Or a plaintive cry for some last vestige of human community — digital or otherwise.

What I do know is that, when it comes to the various blogs that I follow myself, what matters to me far more than how accurately the authors describe what their blog is about is the quality of their writing. In fact, I seldom find myself reading blogs that focus on single-topic content. Blog-wise, I quickly determined that I’m far more engaged by a good writer writing about something in which I have no particular interest, than I am by a bad writer writing about something close to my heart. Ultimately, the quality of the writer / writing matters far more to me than the consistency of the topic.

And it’s this type of simply-write-about-whatever-may-catch-your-attention-but-make-it-interesting-and-writerly approach that I seem to have adopted by default. I suppose I blog at all because it is an inherently un-focused activity. I’m focused all day —  every day — at work. Like a laser. If I were then to also maintain this focus into my non-work hours, well, the universe might actually begin to falter. That would be waaaay too much focus for anyone to deal with. With that much focus I’d be liable to generate another big bang or something. (SHUT UP! This is so a brilliant metaphor! The big bang was all about things becoming too concentrated, too focused, right? Same as me. Really! I’ve done the math!)

So what’s the take-away in all this bloggerly beating of breast and gnashing of teeth? I’ve decided to revise my tag line to “An (occasionally) literary blog.” Whew, I’m glad I got that off my chest! I bet the suspense was killing you.

NB. timethief (onecoolsitebloggingtips.com) also writes that there are about 39 million posts uploaded to WordPress every month. Talk about the perfect opportunity to fall through the cracks and never be heard from again! Given those kind of numbers I may end up having to simply Freshly Press myself at some point. Though I imagine this would be considered rather gauche by all those who have actually already achieved such distinction. And probably frowned upon by the folks at WordPress.

Not that it really matters anyway given that timethief further advises that the stats indicate that most of us new bloggers won’t last out the year to begin with.

I may need to reconsider my subscription to onecoolsitebloggingtips…

The Making of a Public Spectacle

Photo credit: David Gallagher via photopin cc

Photo credit: David Gallagher via photopin cc

 

‘Art is a lie that makes us realize truth’ (Pablo Picasso, 1923)

For me, when I break it down, I think writing is a meta thing.

I write, I am slowly beginning to realize, to figure out why I write. Not to re-present a life, but to seek to expose Life. The search for some kind of Platonic essence that transcends existence by its very existence-ness. A sort of philosophizing from first principals without the requisite guise of academic convention.

Maybe creating all art is like this. I dunno. All I know is writing and architecture. What you might consider the “slow-burn” arts. Where the practice of the visual arts (drawing, painting, sculpture) or music (singing or playing a instrument) is concerned, on the other hand,— those forms of artistic expression with substantially more inherent immediacy — I draw a blank. Nada. I’ve a huge appreciation, certainly. But insight or ability? Not so much.

And that gets me into trouble sometimes — ‘cause I get jealous.  Jealous because the painter or singer can make an instant, visceral connection with an audience in a way a writer — at least a writer of anything longer than a haiku or short poem — simply cannot. Plus, once they reach a minimal level of competence in their field (not always an easy thing, I grant you that at least), they can generate and be out there flogging their latest still life or love song in little or not time at all. As competent as I become, however, it takes me a long time to write and publish that novel. And if it doesn’t quite take off, well, that’s years of my life I can’t get back.

In just under two weeks from now my writing group is undertaking a public reading of some of our work at a local library. I was instrumental in backing the group into this particular corner because early in the new year I kept on at them about how frustrated I was that yet another local artist was having a lovely showing of their watercolours or oils in the library foyer. Or I had been to a benefit concert where the singers and musicians had those in attendance tapping their feet, clapping their hands, and hooting with appreciation. Meanwhile, all we did was meet sheepishly once a month and read passages of our latest work to one another. But damn it, I challenged (pleaded?), we were artists as well! Weren’t we? (The answer, of course, was “yes,” but, as our intrepid facilitator Tom pointed out, apparently some of us “artists” needed a little more external validation than others!)

God only knows how the evening is going to turn out. We’ve put posters up, and are trying to get the word out with PSA’s and news releases, but, in my mind’s eye, I can already see the assembly in front of me as I stand at the lectern about to get underway. The first row comprised of a handful of spouses and / or significant others (who, by now, have probably heard the material enough times to be thoroughly bored with it already) and a few really close friends who feel obliged to attend though, if truth be told, they’d probably be having more fun at home watching the Stanley Cup playoffs with a cold beer in hand. Then, behind them, a veritable sea of empty seats. Empty until you come to the last row that is. The last row is packed — populated entirely by a gaggle of hobos and rubbies, whose “Free Admission” has gained them unimpeded access to the “Light Refreshments” advertised in our promotional material.

I wish I had some clever McLuhan-esque interpretation of how this should go down. Or, at least, some explanation of why we’re not going to pull in the same droves of people we would if we were, say, an amateur jazz quartet instead of just four writers. Something about how the medium relates to the message. Because as engaging as the various snippets of our stories might turn out be, ultimately we’ll be nothing more than talking heads. Nobody’s going to be stomping their feet or singing along with abandon.

Maybe these reading things only work when the author is already well known and the event is more about simply being in the same room with such an accomplished wordsmith than it is about listening to what he or she has to read. Maybe, until you’ve already made a mark of some sort, you should simply be satisfied if every now and then someone curls up alone in a corner somewhere and dives into something you’ve written. Maybe, in the final analysis, that remains the best way for writers to communicate with their “audience” — not with them sitting in front of you, but, instead, with them in that place where they truly have the time and freedom to embrace the work, to sit and think with the author’s mind.

The disconnect I suppose I’m stumbling over here is that writers aren’t typically performers in the same way as, well, performers, are. (Traditional storytellers might be, but that’s a different blog altogether). If you’ve got a half-way decent voice and can play your own guitar accompaniment, hell, you can busk on the street — singing somebody else’s songs — and people will typically throw at least some coinage in your direction. I wonder how much money I’d make standing there reading somebody else’s book out loud? Ironically, it’d probably be about the same amount I’d make standing there reading my own work — zilch!

Okay, the pity party’s almost over. As convoluted as my ravings have become at this point, I think what I’m trying to say — with a tip of the hat to Tolstoy — is that though the creative process seems strangely similar from individual to individual, different types of artistic endeavours are difficult in different ways. I think one of the reasons writing is so hard is because people think it’s so easy. Most folks would admit freely that they can’t paint, or sculpt, or play the oboe or piano, but I imagine many of them think they could write something, in one form or another, if called upon to do so. They can speak after all, and writing’s just an extension of that, right? This has the tendency, as you might imagine, of de-valuing the writer’s currency. Of placing our work in the realm of the potentially “do-able” for most folks, rather than the realm of truly inspired creativity like, say, writing a pop song!

For me writing’s hard. Like pulling a full-grown elephant out of my butt hard. Then again, maybe I’m just a poor writer.

Painting (and Life), Not Exactly as Advertised

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No time for my usual full-fledged, navel-gazing missive this week, I’m afraid. I’ve just been too busy. Not finishing the floor tile in the back hall as you might expect after last week’s post, but painting the master bedroom instead.

I truly like painting. I kinda get a zen thing going on when I’m in the “paint zone.” Painting takes your mind off things, especially once you get a good, steady rhythm going. It’s not particularly taxing, but, like driving, it still requires your undivided — if only partially conscious — attention to keep from having an accident.

What makes me crazy about painting, however, is that is doesn’t involve as much, well, painting, as one would hope. Advertising, DIY flyers, and every damn RomCom that has ever sought to depict an attractive couple painting a room, are, not to mince words, full to the brim with crap!

Check out these morons from the Women’s Day decorating site, for example: http://www.womansday.com/home/decorating-ideas/blue-walls#slide-4. They’ve obviously just got their requisite bout of pre-painting playfulness out of the way by having an exuberant, romantic paint fight. But staged paint fights are as phony as Hollywood fist fights — no furniture or flooring ever gets ruined in the case of the former, and nobody ever seems to lose a tooth in the latter. In real life, things — and teeth — get damaged.

And don’t even get me started on the fact that they’ve rolled out a giant island of paint onto the middle of the wall with nary an attempt to first cut-in their surrounding interior corners or maintain a proper “wet edge” necessary for recommended coverage as one moves neatly from one end of the wall to the other.

Rolling the paint on the wall is the best part of painting, but actually undertaking to paint a room requires more than simply showing up with your roller and some product from Benjamin Moore. It’s like . . . well, in many ways it’s not unlike sex, I guess. You don’t just get to jump right in. It requires a reasonable investment of time and no small amount of effort dedicated to “prep” work in one form or another. When all is said and done, you’re pretty much committed to at least a minimal level of, shall we say, foreplay, if you’re to have any hope of real success.

For the five minutes it might take me to smoothly roll out 100 square feet of wall, it’s taken me ten times that amount of time to move the furniture out of the way, cover it, repair any damage to the surface that is about to be painted, sand the wall and trim to better accept the new paint, repaint or mask off the affected trim, tape off the heaters, remove the electrical plug and light switch covers, take down the draperies, and complete the “cutting in” on all the interior corners and trim on the wall which I’m about to paint. (The related parallelism of the afore-mentioned sexual metaphor, I’ll leave with you to explore on your own time…)

Everything other than the actual “rolling” out of the wall with paint, I don’t particularly enjoy. But it’s a means to an end. And I enjoy the “end” enough that I just kinda put my head down and muddle through the “means” part as necessary. Which, I suppose, encapsulates so much of what we find ourselves doing in our day-to-day lives. Working 50ish weeks a year to get two or three off for holiday. Paying down a mortgage for most of our lives in order to enjoy true home “ownership” for at least a few years before we die.

And this certainly seems to hold true for writing as well. The actual joy of sitting down and having the opportunity to compose something — unencumbered by anything else for even the briefest of moments — is the sweet spot of the whole process. But it’s the tip of the iceberg. So much of the real work of writing — research, editing, marketing, networking, publishing, and generally finding the motivation to  drag your ass to your desk every day — lies below the water. Where it’s dark. And murky. And cold.

Still, the “prep work” is simply too significant a portion of any endeavour — of our existence — not to try to figure out a way of attempting to enjoy it, of embracing it, as an integral part of the process. (Crap, that sounds a lot like that cloying “It’s not the destination, it’s the journey” refrain, doesn’t it. Sorry. But shut up — mine’s better.)

Maybe the answer is simply more foreplay. What was the question again?

Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/chrisjohnbeckett/2468154839/

On the kindness and, one hopes, the prescience of one’s early readers

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Every time I lock myself in this room and try to put something to paper, my mind reels.

Why? Why do I do this to myself?

Why the hell, after an exhausting day in the salt mines of [insert your day job here], do I come home and seek to force myself on the page?

When it’s sunny outside. Or when I should be playing video games and bonding with my teenaged son. Or finishing the floor tile in back hall that I started last year.

If you’re a writer, you already know why. You’ll also have your own very personal reasons, of course, but, ultimately, it’s a compulsion thing. You can’t help yourself. It’s kind of like masturb . . . uhmm . . . I mean, like when you open that big bag of potato chips promising to only eat one. Maybe two or three, tops. And then proceed to eat the who bag. You simply can’t stop. The only thing harder than writing — and this only goes to prove the universe’s twisted sense of irony — is not writing.

What makes it all worthwhile though, and I suppose this is probably true for any endeavour, are those little bursts of joy we get when stuff actually works out to our satisfaction. Like Hannibal from the A-Team: “I love it when a plan comes together!” And for writers there’s that extra little jolt of accomplishment that comes when, every now and then, we learn that we have actually made some sort of connection with our readers. That we’ve gained another “Follower” on our blog or won a story competition or had something published — all things contingent upon there being actual human beings on the other end of our words with whom we’ve somehow made a connection.

It’s surprising how minuscule such tidbits of positive feedback can be and still provide huge spurts of motivation. Even over relatively long periods of time, and especially for those of us writers who don’t yet, and very well may never have, an honest-to-goodness “fan base.”

I remember my first job out of university. I worked for a PR and advertising firm and spent the better part of a year organizing a national conference for a large professional association. During the conference itself I barely slept for about 72 hours. The day after it was over I returned to my desk to find a cream-coloured envelope there with my name on it. Inside the envelope was a crisp $100 bill and a handwritten note from the company president thanking me for my diligence in putting together such a successful event. Before then I barely had the sense that the president even knew who I was, but everything about that card was just right. It was immediate enough after the event that there was no way it could be construed as an afterthought. It contained cash, rather than a company cheque, which further personalized the monetary token — and it was a nice crisp $100 at that, obviously not something he had simply reached into his pocket and pulled out. And the amount, while not staggering, wasn’t a pittance (at least to me) — it was just enough to show gratitude without being vulgar. He had made — to my mind — an authentic connection with me. After that, I would have done almost anything for the guy.

But when writers get positive feedback from a reader, — when someone’s actually crawled into your psyche and experienced your words along with you, and is able to communicate to you that they have gained something by the experience — now there’s a rush! And you hoard these experiences as a bulwark against the bleakness of the daily writing grind. Squirreling them away to be re-ingested at 2am sittings when you’re on the fifth edit of a particularly troublesome piece of crap that has you considering ditching writing altogether in favour of doing something a little less painful like, maybe, gouging your eyeballs out with a butter knife.

Yet this unique behavioural feedback loop only really works if those folks from whom you’re receiving praise don’t have some previous vested interest in your success. Thumbs up from Mom does’t count — she’s a ringer. And spouses are doubly problematic. Part of them wants to be your champion no matter what you undertake. The other part, however, may very well want to scream at you to stop wasting your time playing make believe and actually finish the tiling in the back hall. Both, I would argue, are equally valid responses. And, with this insight, it may often be better to simply leave this particular keg untapped when you’re looking for reassurance of your emerging, literary genius.

Of course there are always exceptions to the spousal rule. A friend from my writing group, for example, earned some high praise from his wife indeed, after the performance of a play he had written a few years ago, when she informed him, “I thought it was great. By the end I had completely forgotten you had written it.” Okay, maybe a little bit backhanded, but still on the positive side of the ledger nonetheless. (Another friend of mine offered a similar “compliment” on my short story, “Anhalter,” that I posted last month: “Oh, that was yours? I thought it was just a story you stumbled upon by someone else and posted it to your blog ‘cause you thought it was interesting. I liked it. It’s didn’t sound anything like your usual stuff.” Uhmm, thanks. I think.)

But the real breakthroughs come when disinterested (or, at least, mostly disinterested) third parties are able to “pick up what you’re putting down.” Sometimes they’re even able to discern what you’ve done better than you are yourself. I remember when I originally read “Saturday Afternoon” (which I posted here last week) to my writing group. I was a little worried because the several friends I had shown it to previously were completely confounded by it: “Uhmm, it’s . . . good? I had to read it a couple of times. I’m not quite sure I get it. There was a plane crash, right?” But one of my writing group colleagues immediately exposed something I didn’t even understand — consciously — about the piece until she mentioned it: “I like it. Engaging imagery. It’s really more like poetry, this story, isn’t it.” YES! YES! That was it! The imagery, the cadence of the climactic paragraph reeling and arching with the rhythm of the poor, pre-destined pinball. Someone “Got it!” and, in doing so, had even helped me to see my own work more clearly. This insight kept me writing for a least another six months.

Then, last year, I sat down and wrote the first chapter of a novel that had suddenly taken up residence in my mind. I had seen it as a vision: The literary love child of Ian McEwan’s Saturday and Elizabeth Kostova’s The Historian. (Yes, more vampires, but not really. Trust me!) I’m enthralled with this first chapter. I think it’s evocative and atmospheric and richly character driven. Somehow I haven’t had the time and / or energy to block out the rest of the book yet, but I know it’s going to be a winner if I’m ever able to — stop blogging long enough to — get back to it.

I think they liked it at writers’ group, but I recently got some first-hand reader feedback from the sister of a friend of mine to whom I had e-mailed an e-pub copy so she could read on her i-Pad:

OH MY STARS !!! When I got to the part where he thought Gretel was skinning a baby I almost passed out. Your description made it feel like I was standing in the kitchen and I had goosebumps . . . . I need more of that story.

I’m all subscribed and am getting your blogs.

Keep that shit up. It’s good stuff and I enjoy reading it.

Manna from heaven!

And a ringing enough endorsement that I imagine I’ll be “keeping this shit up” for the foreseeable future. Or at least until someone trips over the edge of the hardwood transition in the back hall and I simply can’t put off finishing the floor tile any longer.

Photo credit: University of Warwick (http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/soc/al/learning_english/leap/reading/)

Postcard from the Edge

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Below is an entry I submitted to the Writers’ Union of Canada’s 250-word “Postcard Story” competition last year. Another delicate, young thought-dove cast forth from my solitary literary ark, never to be heard from again. Truth is, I think I’d probably be willing to part with a kidney to have something even remotely resembling an olive branch come streaking across the horizon and into my writing life at this point. (Wait, the kidney’s the one you can donate and still get by with just one, right? Anyway, you know what I mean…)

Whatever the judges may have thought, however, I always rather liked this tight, modestly-sized narrative. It might, perhaps, be a little obscure, but, then again, so am I. So what other options do I have? Plus, you guys are clever, right?

I’d love to hear what you think.

It’s called…

SATURDAY AFTERNOON

“Show me.”

“What?”

“It’s 250 words. You’re going to want to tell me, but you need to show me.”

She was right, of course, but it was a tall order. An approach that would allow for only a single vector. Gear down, essence screaming toward truth at alarming velocity. The subtle rubber-kiss of wheels at tarmac versus a vulgar, titillating fireball.

“Only connect,” Forster rails at us from the grave, yet we are alone as always. Alone with our apparent immediacy, our e-mails and texts. Maybe more alone than we’ve ever been before.

Reclined, I can feel the warmth of the afternoon sun stealing through the window and embracing my extended legs, crossed at the ankles. Drowsing, willing myself not to surface, but, instead, to linger unfocused, suffused with the presence of absence.

What an odd sort of emotional calculus seethes within us. Equation after barely understood equation twitching at our puppet strings, overwhelming us with the complexity of the exercise. Pinball math. The glimmering buckshot of lives rocketing forward on the hard cusp of some phantom plunger. Bouncing, twirling, re-bounding, generating light and sound like fireballs along constrained parabolas infinite with possibilities. Until a final, deceptively smooth arc awakens us to the creeping momentum of our descent, beyond the salvation of bumper or paddle, accelerating toward oblivion with no second chances remaining in the breech. Oh, to swerve, to master the trajectory…

“Wake up,” she whispers.

“I am,” I respond.

Am I? I wonder.

photo credit: Marty.FM via photopin cc