Back Here Again

15 Bean Soup at Strange Brew Coffee House

The tension is there but it’s obscured by menial tasks and busyness.  I finally sit down after months and months of avoiding it and making excuses.  Months ago, I shut the door to my creative mind, the part that strings words together for no one but me.  I stacked boxes in front of that door, boxes full of dusty phrases like, “I can’t,”  “I need to focus elsewhere,” and “first I need to take care of these things…then I will write.”  It seems noble to deny what makes me happy to take care of everything else first.  In fact, I start to believe that I don’t even want to write, that it’s too much work and I don’t have time to get into my own head right now.

I can press a 25 pound kettle bell over my head with one hand but sometimes the weight of a pen seems like too much trouble.

I got past it today, for today.  I had to leave my house and go to my favorite coffee shop and let Toni make me soup, but I got past it.  After about 300 words I felt something crack in my chest.  Something opened up that had been locked for a very long time.  I struggled not to let tears flow because I was in a public place and I would look crazy sitting there with my laptop crying in my soup.  But that’s how it felt to write again after all this time.

Road Block Ahead

Photo by Jacob Yager

Have you ever been cruising along on a pleasant little road trip with the top down, wind in your hair, enjoying the music on the radio when you crest a hill to find traffic at an abrupt stop?  You hit the brakes, put it in neutral and sit.  Eventually, the open top is an encumbrance, unfiltered access to the baking sun.  The former breeze is now still, tainted with heat radiating up from the pavement and laced with the scent of burning oil and diesel.  The radio plays nothing but white noise due to the gigantic cell tower off to the right and you’re pretty sure those three buzzards are doing a regular fly by over your car.  You’ve hit a roadblock and your pleasant day has turned sour.  That road trip is where I’ve been.

            In reality, my girlfriend and I just got back from a 1,500 mile round trip adventure to Iowa City for a graduation party.  The traffic was light, the weather was nice and except for stops at three separate fast-food joints, all at different exits, to placate the 5 kids in the back, it was a good trip.  The road block I experienced was in my mind.

            It’s happened before.  I skip a day of writing and then two days turn into three, four, and five.  Doubt sets in and I find a million convenient excuses for not picking up a pen.  Then, the bad voice starts talking.  The one who says,

“You’re kidding yourself.  You are not a writer.  You are just wasting time.  Give it up.  Your house would be cleaner and you could get the filing done.  Can you believe you were considering submitting that?  You have nothing interesting to say.  No one cares about your stupid stories.  There are people out there who are real artists.  You don’t belong with them.  Seriously, just give it up.”

And, I start to listen to that voice a little… a lot actually.  Doubt and Sadness take up residence in the back seat and they are needy.  They need a bathroom break and a snack and Sadness is thirsty but we are stuck on the road together with nowhere to go.  But then, out of the blue, the radio starts working and I hear a good song, one with a clever line of lyrics that gets my mind going.  Then, I find a new magazine while waiting in line at Tractor Supply to buy chicken feed and it might make a good market for that barn story I have on the back burner. 

Before you know it, the traffic starts to crawl.  Brake lights flicker and a breeze starts to stir.  We pass the roadblock for now.  There will be another one, up the road, but right now, it feels good to put my foot back on the gas.

Leaving Pleasantville

A little over a week ago, my good friend Amy invited me and our photographer friend Lisa to join her on a road trip.  She wanted us to travel with her along the path she drives to work every day.  She wanted to digitally document the people and areas in need along her daily path to help people understand that we have an opportunity to make a difference right here in our own back yard.  Amy took Lisa’s images, compiled them with a collection she already had, and put them to music resulting in a moving slide show.  You can see it at: http://www.facebook.com/?ref=home#!/video/video.php?v=1376934218096&ref=mf.

Following our road trip, I was looking for a writing exercise to get me warmed up to blog and good old Fred White, author of  The Daily Writer challenged me to write in haiku form.  Anyone educated past third grade probably knows that haiku is a form of Japanese poetry consisting of three lines with a syllabic pattern of 5-7-5.  I have no experience beyond high school in writing haiku and I’m no poet, but Fred said to do it so here goes.  My haiku attempt based on Amy’s Humanity Road.

Boys stand chest to chest

Building anger in their eyes

Stare and drive on by

Spray paint marks the wall

Tall brown grass and broken glass

Plywood for windows

Dusk falls on fountain

Lonely man sits on park bench

Pretty girls look on

Nightlife is hopping

Man with sign collects their change

Pass without a glance

Becoming aware

Noting the poor feels empty

Time to take next step

 

If you can’t say anything nice…

Is it just me or has anyone else noticed that people who most often comment after news articles online have nothing positive to say?  Sometimes, the commentary gets so far off track that the commentators forget what the original article was about because they are too caught up in calling one another out for bad spelling.  Sometimes whole conversations play out having nothing to do with the topic at all.  Today, NPR posted a call out to parents who might like to have their child athlete interviewed about his or her role model in sports.  Right off the bat (pun intended), negative comments started to roll.  First the people speaking out against professional athletes as role models got on board.  Then the Tiger Woods comments started to fly.  Next the women’s rights people started complaining that no one was posting suggestions with women athletes as role models followed by the people who blame athletes for distracting the world from the unsung heros of education.  Now, many of these folks had valid points but NPR was just trying to interview some kids.  Uh Oh, now some lady is offended because NPR used the word kids to describe children.  What is this world coming to?!  So, then this guy responds to the offended lady’s post and asks if anyone has used an Oxford comma today.  It goes downhill from there and I stopped reading when a lady posted that it was unfair that NPR was only going to interview articulate “kids” to which a guy responded, it’s radio and if your kid isn’t willing to learn to communicate properly…

What if, we all followed that old rule,” if you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything at all?”  Seriously, let’s do an experiment.  For the next week, anytime you feel compelled to make a snarky comment online, turn it into a positive.  For example,  if after reading an article about Oscar the Grouch from Sesame Street moving from his trash can to the recycling bin next door you post a comment.  Now, you think Oscar is selling out by leaving his old hood.  Instead of revealing your sour grapes by posting that Oscar is a tree-hugging snob, find a way to turn it around.  Post well-wishes to Oscar as he moves into his new home or just resist clicking on that submit button at all.  Either way, the World Wide Web will be a happier place.  Just sayin’.

Bibliography Schmigliography

School lets out for summer in about a month and I still recall my golden days of freedom after the last bell.  Remember that senior thesis paper we all had to write?  Back in 1986, my English teacher, Mrs. Marsland, assigned our class a paper entitled, The Meaning of Success.  We read 3 biographies of our own choosing about successful people and then wrote our papers as the final assignment for the class.  I was an A student so I figured I had this one in the bag and that may have led me to be a little brash.

Leading up to that paper, I remember a lot of lessons about footnotes and bibliographies.  Hours of class time was spent on the technical aspects of writing.  What I don’t remember was any discussions on brain storming or how to form a coherent idea.  I don’t remember how we were supposed to transform 3 disconnected biographies about people we deemed successful into that thesis.  But, I know what I did.

As a 17-year-old girl in rural Mid-America where some boys went to college and girls aspired to marry rich farm boys, I was a little bit of a rebel.  At 17, I was determined to go to college for the sole purpose of getting the hell out-of-town.  Luckily, one of the founding families of my small town set up a scholarship fund for kids like me and I was allowed to go.  But, before that, I had to write that last high school paper.

My dad and I share a love of reading and he introduced me to the public library when I was a pre-teen.  Our town library was a sparkling new, one story, pre-fabricated box of a building about the size of the modern great room in a 3,000 square foot custom home without the vaulted ceiling.  Well, I didn’t want to write my thesis paper based on one of the dusty biographies in our school library.  I was sure Mrs. Marsland had read them all cover-to-cover and had read every conceivable research paper based on each of them.  So I headed to our tiny public library for some fresh material and hoped to find some bios with a little shock value.

My friend Laura’s mom was the librarian so I put on my polite face as I answered all the standard questions about school and family life and then asked for directions to the biographies.  Mrs. Montague stood over my shoulder for a while as I perused the chest-high faux wood shelf for something controversial.  She made suggestions based on the choices her older daughters had made and proudly told me that Laura was half way through her second biography.  A subtle hint that I’d better get started, I think.  She eventually wandered off to do librarian stuff and I sat down on the floor to get a better view. 

I left the library with three biographies that day and Mrs. Montague with a look of concern on her face.  I checked out the life stories of John Belushi, Marilyn Monroe, and Jesus of Nazareth and my failure to conform was rewarded with a C+.  Fortunately, I had already been accepted to Playboy Magazine’s #16-rated party school in the nation at that time, good old Southern Illinois University.

The point I tried to make with my less than effective thesis was that success in life, as it is in writing,  is a subjective matter.  One person’s definition can have little meaning to someone else.  I choose three people whose common bond was untimely death.  They were three people who under separate definitions could be deemed successful.  Webster’s defines success as the following:

 suc·cess -\sək-ˈses\,  noun,  Latin successus, from succedere, 1537

1 obsolete : outcome, result
2 a : degree or measure of succeeding b : favorable or desired outcome; also : the attainment of wealth, favor, or eminence
3 : one that succeeds

All three were famous, two amassed some wealth along the way, and that last guy was the catalyst for a world-wide religion so I think favor and eminence apply.  Now it’s true John and Marilyn’s successes came to an abrupt halt in their failure to go on living but it’s hard to dispute the success of a guy whose death was just the middle of the story.  So, my C-plus paper was not a success, but it makes me wonder.  How can we do a better job of teaching the process of writing?  The technical stuff is important but what about creative thinking. 

 It would be nice if, like Harry Potter, we could just tap a wand on our temple, recite an incantation, and swirl our thoughts into a bowl of water to share but we muggles have to practice.  We need to develop our craft and learn from one another.  The writing community has it figured out and the evidence appears in the multitude of blogs and web sites on writing. But, who is teaching the teachers how to write or at least, how to teach writing?  Who decides which is better:  a well-structured mechanical piece that follows a predetermined theme or a meandering but creative fresh-perspective?   Well, in my case, Mrs. Marsland did. 

So, at 42, I am thrilled to find myself still learning about the craft that I have always loved and I hope that the kids sitting in their classrooms for a few more weeks are encouraged to take a little creative license now and then.

http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/success

Barista Envy

Last night was the monthly meeting of my south side writers group.  We meet at The Strange Brew, my favorite local coffee shop.  Because Al and I are small business owners, I try to support our local mom and pop shops as much as I can.  Truthfully, though, I just love hanging out at Strange Brew.  The walls are painted warm organic colors and art from local artists is featured there.  The owners are fun, friendly, creative people and the coffee is way better than the burnt flavors at that other well-known chain coffee shop.

We had a really great critique’ session.  Throughout the evening, the group discussed the mental state of prisoners held in concentration camps, zombie existentialism while dealing with revenge, if it’s worth changing the reality of the world to make your story work, and whether villains have to be bad guys or just guys with issues.  I didn’t actually submit anything this time but the group walked me though a brainstorming session about my antagonist in The Barn and it really got me thinking.  I plan to get to work on it this week.  But that wasn’t even the highlight of my night.

Toni, who owns the coffee shop along with her husband Daniel, brought my iced tea to the table before our meeting got started and she had a story to tell.  It’s her story http://joanofdarkknits.blogspot.com/2010/04/meeting-neil-gaiman.html, but the gist of it is she had tickets to see her favorite author speak and ended up not only a V.I.P. with back-stage passes, but also went to dinner with him…swoon.  I wasn’t familiar with the author so I came home and looked him up.  Neil Gaimon is the author of Mirror Mask among many other best sellers (I haven’t read it but I loved the movie)… double swoon!  Now, as I said, I’m not familiar with his work so I went to his website to check him out, and there on the most recent entry in his journal is a picture of Toni as her alter ego, Joan of Dark of the Naptown Roller Girls, dressed in all her roller derby gear. http://journal.neilgaiman.com/  His headline reads:   Vonnegut and Rollergirls.  Holy crap, I say.  I wonder if Toni feels like I would if I saw myself featured in Stephen King’s journal?  “Bargersville chicken farmer – King’s biggest fan.”  Ok, Kurt Vonnegut and Roller Derby are much more exciting than my chickens and Toni is way cooler than me but you get the idea.  This was an event of a lifetime.

Now this was all so very cool for Toni, but what made my day was that she took the time to share it with me.  I don’t think we became BFF’s on the spot or anything but it’s nice to know that the lady with the pink hair who smiles when she brings me my coffee sees me and knows I would appreciate her story.  That’s what it’s all about, making connections with people.  Never forget that. 

Now, I’ve got to make a trip to the book store.  I think some Neil Gaimon will be included in my summer reading.  I’ll have to ask Toni where to start.

Pardon me while I stab you in the back, please.

 Characters live in my head and from time to time, I let them out to play on paper.  All the characters in my head are happy, fun-loving people.  I would be friends with my characters.  This presents a problem in my writing because I don’t like creating antagonists.  I don’t like the guy who causes conflict or creates a problem for my happy people.  I don’t want to go there which often makes my stories go nowhere. 

Looking back at some of my work, the bad guy is the least developed character if he is even there at all.  Many times, the source of conflict in my works is a vague idea of potential turmoil but not really tangible.  I am just too nice.

Take Mr. Orville in my barn story.  The story is suspenseful but Mr. Orville…not so much.  He is the shadow of a bad guy.  He’s a little grumpy but who wouldn’t be when his neighbor is snooping around on his property.  So I am issuing myself a challenge…

Come up with a DECENT bad guy!

History as It Happens

In The Daily Writer today, Fred White talks about writing to preserve history.  He talks about the importance of being true to historical events.  He goes so far as to say we have a moral obligation to record history and that it is a betrayal to the resulting human experience not to.  I wonder how any historical events get accurately preserved.  I am continually amazed at how people living in the same community, let alone the same state or country can have polar opposite perspectives on life. 

American politics, in general, seem so polarized right now; it’s hard to keep up hope.  It seems as a country, we are stuck in a sort of bi-partisan stalemate on every issue across the board.  I blame the media including the World Wide Web for perpetuating untruths and dividing our nation.  The news networks have given up on pure journalism and constantly report events out of context.  My email box is hit daily with forwarded messages about how over 50% of America is dumb enough to vote a terrorist President and how one party or another is openly planning a conspiracy against the other. 

Still, I do have hope.  I see groups popping up on the internet about finding facts instead of picking sides.  I hear folks asking questions instead of just regurgitating what they’ve heard elsewhere.  What will it be like in a hundred years when a historian looks back to sift through all the data we’ve spouted out there?  How will he ever be able to make sense of it all?

Food and Fiction

Some of my favorite books include scenes where people are eating.  The description of food adds such richness to the storytelling and often reveals something about the characters doing the eating.  I love the food descriptions in John Grisham’s A Painted House.  Not only does Grisham describe the prepared food itself in a way that makes cold biscuits sound delicious, but because his characters are poor cotton farmers he reveals the energy required just to put food on the table.  He describes the whole family rising before dawn to tend to the farm animals, collecting eggs and feeding the livestock.  He describes the women working in the garden behind the house and baking biscuits and pie and frying chicken all morning to have lunch ready for the crew working in the fields.  In the first chapter, Grisham’s protagonist, a 7-year-old boy, is seen savoring a Tootsie Roll by taking a small bite and wrapping the rest of the penny candy in its wrapper for later.  That attention to detail left me hungry after every chapter.

Stephen King uses food in a different way in his book Song of Susannah.  The title character Susannah suffers from a fractured personality and her alter ego Mia is pregnant with demon spawn.  King sets up scenes in which Mia, in control of Susannah’s mind and having midnight cravings, envisions banquet tables filled with aromatic roasted meat and pastries.  In reality, Susannah is grabbing pond toads from out of the muck and crunching them live.  In this way, King creates a world out of control and stirs the reader’s imagination with repulsion and sometimes even stimulates the gag reflex.  He brilliantly uses these scenes to help the reader form an unfavorable opinion about Mia and sympathize with Susannah who is sometimes captive in her own body.

Lack of food is another technique writers use to emotionally connect the reader to characters.  Anne Rice tends to tease her vampire characters by putting them smack in the middle of scenes where humans are enjoying Creole cuisine and French wine but the vampires are only tempted by the scent of the humans.  Another example is Yann Martel’s Life of Pi in which a 16-year old boy is stranded on a lifeboat at sea with a 450-pound Bengal tiger.  Not only does Pi have to solve the problem of his own starvation but he has to find a way to keep the belly of the tiger full so as not to become a meal himself.  Martel captures the surrender required to survive 227 days at sea on a diet consisting mainly of raw fish.

Writers, if you find yourself stuck in a scene, why not go back and serve your characters a meal.  It might reveal something new and take the scene in a whole new direction. Readers, go pick up a good book and really appreciate those food scenes.  I’ve got to go make a snack.

Different Minds

The crazy, creative part about writing a blog is the freedom of writing it, posting it and moving on.  I admit, I sometimes look back and make corrections but for the most part, it’s a task I complete with that last period on the page and then I focus to other things.  It’s so freeing.  You have to be a little daring because posting off the cuff means laying out something rough and unpolished.  But, sometimes I think the result is better than a piece that has been edited to death.

Have you every finished a free writing session and looked back and thought, “Wow, that was in my head?  I didn’t know that about me.”  I like that feeling.  I also love when someone reads something I’ve written and the perspective, based on his or her unique life experience, alters the effect.  We often forget as writers that we are not alone in our writing.  Each reader contributes to our story by bringing his own point-of-view.  We can’t base our writing on this collaboration because we don’t have access to other brains (at least I don’t.)  But, the result adds richness all the same.