Stayin’ Alive

I’m not going to spend any time on what’s been going on during 2020 and the first half of 2021 – we’ve lived through some horrible stuff already and many of us are still waiting for the other shoe to drop, hoping that it won’t. A lot of us have lost friends and family to Covid and however much the public health situation improves, the pain and grief will linger, making its impact on our future which will continue to include Covid, since it isn’t likely to be eradicated, just mitigated.

I know there are quite a few people out there who don’t want the vaccine. If you’re worried about its effects, talk to your doctor or another health professional. If you’re not getting a shot because you think Covid is a hoax or you believe you are entitled to not wear a mask or get vaccinated regardless of how it impacts your family or friends or even strangers, then plainly you’re an idiot and I hope you don’t kill someone else with your stupidity (hey, my blog, my rules).

Now off the soapbox and onto the subject of writing.

This year I did something I haven’t done in years: I was invited to join a writing group and I did. Best thing I’ve done for myself in a long time.

Some of you may know that I have often struggled with writing. I seem to have two speeds: words flowing like water through a spigot or nada, zilch, nuttin’. For years I’ve tried to figure out why that seems to be so and have not been in any way successful. (Ideally, I’d find out why and turn the spigot on and leave it on.)

The writing group hasn’t helped me with that. And some of the critiques I frankly ignore because why should I care if my grammar or spelling is off if a sentence or paragraph might not make it to the final cut? For me, spelling and grammar are something to be addressed in the polishing, when I’m satisfied that the story itself is all it can be.

Where the writing group has made a difference for me is in learning how I write, what’s important to me, why I’ve made the choices I have in terms of setting, character, perspective. This has come out of listening to my colleagues ask me questions about the story and them telling me where they had difficulty understanding what was going on. Explaining it to them was explaining it to myself. And that has been exciting.

Asking the same kinds of questions of my colleagues about their own work is also exciting. Writers, like other types of artists, love talking about the craft. It’s fun to talk to another writer about their work, to try to understand what they’re getting at, to help them refine their vision. And you often learn something about your own work in the process.

The excitement then spills over into writing and editing. After our weekly session, I’m often eager to get back to my work. Eager to incorporate the insights I’ve had. Eager to edit to clarify the presentation of my viewpoints (I’ve always liked editing. So sue me, I’m weird.). Even if nothing of mine was discussed at the meeting, I still come away energized by the conversation. It’s like fog breaking in front of me and suddenly I see more clearly than I had the day before and I can’t wait to move forward.

So even if I haven’t learned how to turn the word spigot full on, my excitement has helped get a trickle going that I hope will last.

Writers are loners. Even those who co-author books can’t write each other’s words. We each have to sit down and put our fingers on the keyboard. But there is more than one way to collaborate. And for me, the writer’s group has been the collaboration I needed.

As you might expect, all writer’s groups are not equal. Some get bogged down in petty crap and some have members who may not be so great at being able to ask the questions that can help you make your work better. In that sense they’re like any other type of help: doctor, therapist, teacher. If it’s not a fit, don’t try to force it. Find another group or make your own and invite writers you think will mesh.

Whether you have works coming out the ying yang or struggle to get 500 words a day done, a writer’s group could be just the help you need to find your equilibrium.

Note: also for the first time in years, I’ve submitted fiction to a national magazine. I’ll let you know the result when the email comes.

Resentful and Rebellious and – Literary?

HAL the computer from 2001: A Space Oddysey

I’m feeling resentful and rebellious today.

I’ve always wanted to write genre. I cut my reading teeth on Andre Norton and Conan Doyle. I had a series love affair with Kenneth Robeson, Walter B. Gibson, and Fritz Leiber. But in my desire to read everything I found interesting, my inner writer’s core was was pierced by Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, J.R.R. Tolkien, Ursula K. LeGuin, and something strange happened. What I loved to read and what I felt compelled to write became two different things.

While I drank at the fountain of flighted fancy, I wrote stories that had more in common with the authors we had studied in school; books with plots that made no sense to me or books and stories that seemed to have no plot but were all about characters I did not like. My happiest days revolved around the shared-world writing I did with my best friend where young women had the kind of adventures Doc Savage had, they showed the guys how defeating evil was done in the pages we traded back and forth. But in notebooks I didn’t share were parts of stories that were like Polaroids of my life – me trying to make sense of the crazy quilt of my experiences. I wanted to understand what had been un-understandable to me about my family, where and how we had lived and dealt with one another.

For a while, in my twenties and thirties, I gave myself over to these explorations on paper, which led to other stories; stories that seemed to fall out of my pen with the effortlessness of water streaming from a thin spout. I even tried to sell a few, which did not sell, but garnered notes and encouragement from magazine editors.

Life intervened and I pursued painting and sculpting, writing only when compelled to and sticking to short prose poems and fanfiction that was shared with no one.

When I began, decades later, to write again, I started by taking a memoir class with a friend. From there, we went to meeting once a week to exchange progress on our genre novels. But he was young and newly married and life as a husband and then father overtook his enthusiasm for his fictional characters. Left alone, I managed to finish my novel, but not to re-write it. I had no energy for it. I thought, I am a collaborator at heart. I may write on my own, but I cannot make progress without having someone to share the journey with me.

Social media grew, caught my attention, gave me a few places in which to find other writers. I wrote genre short stories. I plotted out a genre series. All of this work gave me satisfaction, but not the experience I longed for – those times where the words came thick and fast and my fingers could barely keep up with them. I had had that, and I missed it. I thought it was because I had become too much of an analyst and could no longer enjoy the process in its purest form. Or that I was being naive; a translational type of writing was not the normal way of things. Workmanlike application was.

An early retirement had left my days free of work-related obligations. The conditions of a long-held dream had been met: I could create all day. Still, my dissatisfaction and disappointment grew. I was writing next to nothing. I turned again to sculpting to create something in some form, but the writing would not leave me alone.

In response to something said in a Twitter Chat, I wrote my first flash fiction. It surprised me. The first sentence came whole into my mind and the rest followed without pause. I could barely keep up. I tried it again. And again. And again. And each experience was the same.

I thought, maybe this will free me and I’ll be able to get back to my novel and write other things – by which I meant the genre things I had been playing with for so long. But as days and short writings passed, I came no closer to returning to my detective/fantasy novel or the fantasy short story I had plotted out. I grew even more restive and frustrated. This came out in my online writer conversations and a friend approached me to discuss it. In talking, I mentioned an old, old idea for a literary novel which I had discarded as pretentious and unworkable. Through our conversation, it became approachable and workable. I was amazed. I was enlightened. I wrote down what we had talked about, feeling tenuous hope and some astonishment.

That was yesterday. Today, I am resentful and rebellious.

Last night I finished off a book in a series I have been binge-reading. I finished it by skipping ahead to the last few pages while a voice in the back of my mind yelled, What are you doing?! I purchased the next two books in the series and promptly hid them on my Nexus 7 so they wouldn’t be visible to me the next time I opened it. Then I went through all of the other titles visible – most of them genre – and hid those as well.  What are you doing?! It was like that scene in 2001: A Space Odyssey, where Hal keeps asking Dave about his actions and Dave just keeps on working, never answers.

All of a sudden, I had lost interest in reading genre. I have rejected it.

I’m sure this won’t last. I have not somehow come suddenly ‘to my senses’ or now view genre writing as less than. But for now, some part of my writer’s mind will not let me enjoy it, lose myself in it, binge on it. Nor do I feel impelled to start work on that literary novel my friend and I talked about. I don’t know what will happen. This experience is new to me. But even though I feel resentful about losing my enjoyment in genre books – however temporary – and rebellious towards my writer’s mind for whatever it is planning for me, I plan to go with it.

I am an impulsive person who learned early not to indulge her impulses without thinking first. But I trust my intuition. I know this is the right direction to take. It’s upending me, re-arranging how I think about some things and I have to give it the time and energy to do that. It’s scary because I’m not in conscious control of the process. I will be different, though not necessarily better. I accept that. But I may resent it – at least a little.