On Writing

Many words written in journals and on scraps of paperI’ve been addicted to the written word forever.  I blame it on my father’s mother, who read to me soon as I was old enough to appreciate it.  She sat me on her lap and followed the words with her finger, and that’s how I learned to read (for a very brief while I could read some Swedish, too).  

I’m not sure when I started writing, but it wasn’t long before I submitted my first story to be published in my school’s creative writing publication.  That was a long, long time ago, but I never stopped either reading or writing.  I’m not sure I could do so and stay sane because TV and movies just don’t make it for me.  I haven’t lived with a TV in my house since 1993 and I don’t stream either.

photo URL https://public.fotki.com/hypoint/arabians/arabian_album_cmk/bennasrif17317378cs.html

Me & Ben Nasrif on the endurance trail in the 1980s

I wrote about horses a lot in the 1980s and 1990s because we were breeding and endurance racing our Arabian horses then.  Somewhere amidst all the junk I’ve got stored I’ve got stacks of magazines with the equivalent of blog posts in them — mostly stories about how I screwed up, since that seems to be the most entertaining kind of story of all.  Like the time we drove half a day to a ride camp, only for me to discover I had forgotten to bring my saddle.  Ha ha. I was the camp entertainment as I walked from rig to rig hoping someone had brought an extra saddle that would work for me and my horse.

It was around then that I ventured into my first self-publishing experience, creating trail guides for the biggest, toughest 100 mile endurance race in the world — The Tevis Cup — which uses the trans-Sierra portion of the Western States Trail. I sold more copies than I expected and actually recovered the publication costs.  

It wasn’t till after 9/11 that I turned pro — and that was only because I couldn’t stand one more day of my brief stint as a substitute teacher (sorry, but I just do not like kids).  I have no idea why the newspaper hired me, but suddenly I was a reporter and feature story writer for a weekly regional here in western New Mexico. My beat was the county I live in — all 7000 square miles of it.  I attended every meeting I could get to, showed up at every accident that I found out about, covered every oddball incident I could discover — but best of all, I interviewed a lot of… um… fascinating locals.  My county is full of them.  

Fast forward to spending about a decade writing for a natural resource research and analysis institute in southern New Mexico, and then a few years after that of working as a contract writer for my county (and several others). The politics of it — OMG. It was worse than being around kids all day. So I waved goodbye to a real income and, with the help of NaNoWriMo, plunged into writing novels.

Note that breaking into the field of fiction writing is not something I recommend for anyone who plans on supporting themselves or their family.  I could do it because I was by this time a senior citizen and receiving Social Security.  It’s not going to be a get-rich quick scheme for me, since I only recently found a publisher for one of the two novels I’ve completed (Evolution Device).  But besides a few self-published chapbooks and two (2) short stories , that’s it.  And yet I’m writing all the time.

Writing is not what I do, it’s what I am.  A state of being. Lines of dialogue and narrative float through my brain as I scoop horse poop, a mindless task that has become a kind of meditation for me.  Some of what free-associates its way into my consciousness is actually useful. Sometimes it just gets lost, like dreams upon waking. Ideas come from all over the place. I’ll be standing in line at the grocery store and get caught staring. I smile and find something else to look at, but I really wasn’t staring so much as forgetting to look away.  A story has captured my attention, you see — sparked by the person, or the conversations around me, or who knows what — and it’s unfolding in my mind and I’m lost to the real world.

I have a tiny field notes book with me almost all the time, though I seem to more often end up scribbling ideas on the backs of envelopes, receipts, or paper napkins. I’ve found that dictating my thoughts to my phone as I hike works, too. When I get home I put the phone’s speaker next to my laptop’s mic, open Google Docs to a new document, click on Tools/Voice Typing, and let Google do the transcribing.  Oh yes, the transcription is ugly — Google is a riot with its interpretations of what I’ve said, not to mention all the oh sh*ts and ums and backtracking and such — but at least I’ve got someplace to start.

I may have been born to write, but that doesn’t make it easy. Those words bubbling around inside are delicate things that need to be lured onto the screen or paper. Skittish things that will dissipate if handled roughly. Elusive and shy, even when they demand attention. They can’t be forced, but they can’t be ignored, either.

Writing is like being a slave to words. 

But is it fun?

Keyboard  2019 Lif Strand photoThe day after my birthday earlier this year, I complained that I spent it working.  I just looked back at that day in my journal — what I recorded was “wrote, made soup, called Mom”.  Not what I’d call a fun birthday, but it was an okay birthday.

Still, it seemed to me that other people do fun stuff on their birthdays.  So the day after my birthday I declared that the next month on that day and every month thereafter I would have a Lif Day, a regularly scheduled day when I would do only the absolutely necessary chores and I would stay offline so the rest of that day could be for myself.  To have fun.

Right.

Every Lif Day since has been pretty much the same story.  I’m a kind of workaholic.  The To Do list is long and I’m always trying to get one more thing in.  That tends to eat up a Lif Day.  I’m not very good at taking a day off to have fun.

Last evening my friend Laura and I were chatting via email, as we do, and I reported to her that I had spent the day writing a story draft of almost 4000 words.

Me:  I guess I had a lot of word pressure built up in me. I’ll let it sit for a few days then look at it again. I was offline most of the day because I was writing. It was heavenly.

Laura:  A Lif Day in mid-month — what a concept!

Me:  A Lif Day is supposed to be a day when I just relax and have fun. While I love to write, I want my Lif Days to be goof-off, do whatever days.

Laura:  Writing isn’t fun?

Me:  I love to write.  It’s not necessarily fun.  It is satisfying, it is necessary, it is what I love to do.  But fun?  Only occasionally — when the writing is going very, very well.

Laura:  I have trouble matching “love to do” with “only occasionally fun”, but OK.

Me:  Hmmm. It seems clear to me that there’s a difference, but how to articulate it? I’ll give that some thought.

So along with the 4000 word story, I let the difference between “love to do” and “fun” ferment in my brain till it was ready to come out.  It didn’t take long.  This evening I Googled “fun”, and that told the story.

Fun is something that’s “amusing, entertaining, or enjoyable”.

Reading is fun. I enjoy doing it, it’s entertaining, sometimes amusing enough to make me chuckle or even laugh out loud.  So yeah, definitely fun.

Writing is not fun. It is not amusing.  I rarely laugh when I’m writing, even when I’m trying to be funny. Writing isn’t amusing or entertaining to me, it’s work. It takes mental effort, and focus, and it’s something I do because I feel a powerful need to do it.

I could say that writing is enjoyable, in that it’s pleasing to come up with sequences of words that sound good to me, to come up with story twists that add to the richness of what I’m writing, and it’s so very satisfying to be done writing and have the feeling that I’ve written well that day.

The enjoyment factor is important — if I wasn’t able to write at least as well as I now do, I would be frustrated and unhappy, especially if I kept writing anyway and never got better. The reward for writing is when I read something I’m done with and I really like it. As for anybody else liking it — that’s pretty far from a given. Never knowing if my writing’s any better than only good in my own eyes is definitely NOT fun.

What writing is to me has little to do with fun, though it fills a deep need in me.  I have to write.  How different is that from, say, being addicted to heroin? I don’t know.

At least writing probably won’t make my teeth fall out or my veins collapse.  That wouldn’t be fun at all.

 

Website renovation

Raven in Flight 2019 Lif Strand photoI can’t believe it took me the better part of two days to renovate my website.  I did it because of advice on what an author’s website should include in order to get literary agents and/or publishers to bite the hook.

Oh whoops, that sounds so crass.

Except it’s the truth, the whole truth, and I’m sticking to it.  An author’s website is supposed to be professional.  I confess I’m having a hard time toeing that line.

What an arduous task, but it needed doing and I did it.  Now I’ve got a static home page — meaning it doesn’t change each time I post something to the blog (what you’re reading now).  That alone took a bit of reconfiguring of the website.

Most of the work went into the About page, the one that literary agents and/or publishers will go to to learn about me and my fiction writing without having to actually read any of that writing.  The About page includes a link to my resume, which had to be updated, and a link to a bibliography of my writing.  I had to figure out how to upload the PDFs to my domain via WordPress and a few other tricks.

Now that this task is done, it’s time for me to get back to the literary agent/publisher hunt.

Oh, and the raven photo?  Because I love the ravens that live in my valley.  Thought I’d share the love.

More bread

Selfie with yucca crownBefore I say anything about bread I want to say something about the image posted here.  This is my version of a selfie.  I take photos of my shadows and mess with them.

This one particularly pleases me.  It’s called Self-portrait with yucca crown.  It would make a great album cover if I ever recorded an album (don’t hold your breath on that one — the world is not ready for my ukulele playing).  I have put it on the back cover of my limited edition chapbooks, though, and it looks pretty cool there I think.

So about that bread

I like making bread.  It’s not hard using the recipe I’ve shared with you and I like not buying bread from the store.  But I also like that making bread is such a great metaphor for the writing process.

Making bread and writing?  Well, yes — my writing process at least.

Bread dough is amazing stuff.  There are only three ingredients needed:  flour, yeast, and water.  And writing is an amazing process, too, if you’re crazy enough to be serious about it.  There are only three “ingredients” to writing:  writer, ideas, and writing implements.

Oh wait, there’s a fourth and fifth ingredient for each:  time and peace.

Bread dough ingredients get mixed together and then the yeast needs to be left alone.  No poking at it.  No jiggling it around.  No interruptions and no hurrying it along.  I’m convinced bread rises better and ends up tasting better when the rising is done in an emotionally peaceful environment, too, but that’s a subject for another blog post.

So yeah, it does seem to me that making bread is just like writing.  A writer needs the time to write and the peace to write — at least this writer does.  I can’t happily write if I feel the psychological equivalent of poking, jiggling, interruption, or hurrying.  I am in awe of those writers who can create novels by stealing a few minutes here and there from their busy lives, but I need time and peace.  Blocks of time and the peace of no interactions with the outside world.

That’s why I’ve designated the month of April as a writing month (I already take November for participating in NaNoWriMo). This is my time and peace month, when I’ve myself permission to just say no to everybody. No I can’t go anywhere, no I can’t take the time to __(whatever)__.  For a hermit like me it’s a relief to be antisocial anyway, but to be creative I have to get aggressive about guarding my time and peace.

It truly is more than just luxury to be able to settle into the world I’m writing about and just hang out there. Time and peace allow the yeast of my imagination to give form, breadth (oooh, see what I did there), and depth to my ideas.  Immersion in the world I’m building protects the dough of creativity that’s rising in me from the poking finger of collapse.

Well, enough of metaphor.  I better get to work.  But first — I think a slice of last night’s baked bread is in order.

Back cover of self-published chapbook

Sometimes it’s good

Moon rising in evening skyI write all the time

I don’t mean all the blabbery on social media.  I’m talking real writing — at least by my definition of “real”.

Stories.  I stopped writing them a long time ago but now I do again.  Why?  Don’t know.  I write the occasional poem.  I’m no poet, believe me.  I journal and have done so since I was a kid.  I wrote my first novel-length manuscript nearly 40 years ago and nowadays I’ve always got a novel in the works.  Two at this time, with a third that I’m poking at.  I write scenes for what I’m working on or for no reason at all.  I jot down ideas about character motivation.  Sometimes I just spew words that have to come out and because I don’t know what I’ll do with them I email them to myself and then forget about them.  In November I commit to NaNoWriMo and drive myself crazy keeping up.  I wake up in the night and record my dreams.  I scribble phrases, sentences, paragraphs, scenes on scraps of paper or I text them to myself.

It’s kind of embarrassing, actually.

I mean, if I was a published author — which I am not, having just today received yet another story rejection — what I write would be Important.  It’d be MeaningfulSignificant.  It would Matter.

But I’m just another wannabe writer.  Um. By wannabe I don’t mean I’ve never been paid to write, since that’s how I earned my living for the past two decades. I mean I want to get paid for writing what I want to write, and for me that’s fiction.  In other words, I don’t want to write about what’s out there but what’s in here.  In me.

So yeah. I have this burning desire to be paid for writing what I want to write, not what somebody else wishes they could write but they can’t so they hire me to do it.

I want to make stuff up.  To transform possibilities into reality by writing them. That’s a kind of magic that has always attracted me.

I love writing.  Good thing, because I have to do it.

I love writing but I have to do it?  Hah!  That’s kind of like saying I love being high and oh, by the way, I’ll go into withdrawal without that drug or drink.  Ahem.  So what.  I have nothing against drugs or alcohol (but remember — don’t drink and drive, my friends).

I love writing.  I love the process and challenge of making a direct connection between the inside of my head and the outside not-me world.  I seek to capture the words that express precisely what’s percolating in my brain.  I call it flavor — the fullness of what I’m trying to convey.  Not just description but the wholeness of it.  When it’s good it’s as close to psychic sharing as I can get.  That quality of writing gives me the shivers.

It’s a kind of magic, that, and I love letting that power flow through me.

But whoa — just like a drug addict  I need more.  I can’t just write in the dark.  I can’t just write for me.  I’m compelled to wreck the sublime joy of capturing my inner imaginings by exposing the writing — and myself — to the world.  As scary as it is, I have to risk it.

Because oh yeah, I need the audience.  I crave applause.  I want outside validation that my writing is doing what I want it to do.

I wanna get paid

And there’s the rub, isn’t it?  I want to get paid for what I create — in today’s world, payment being the functional mark of approval.  So it’s not just about writing for myself, is it?  I have to write stuff other people want to read.

Do I write for me or do I write for you?

Obviously… the answer is yes.

 

PS You can become a patron of mine, yes you can!  A buck a month will get ‘er done!