Going to Work

“This is precisely the time when artists go to work… There is no time for despair, no place for self-pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal.”
– Toni Morrison 

A few Sundays ago I woke up to the sound of my daughter rustling in her room. I glanced at the window. Dark. Not a drop of light.

I crept next door and handed her my phone. “See you at seven,” I said reminding her about our deal. After a quick kiss, I closed the door softly behind me.

Coffee was waiting. The house silent and still. It was already 6:45, my time limited. I began to write.

When my daughter came downstairs, the sun had risen. The backyard was bathed in watery autumn light. It was 7:30. I had written almost 500 words.

Full disclosure: I began this post before the election. Before the world seemed more unhinged than ever (to me). Before Standing Rock, before Trump’s appointments, each one just as bad (if not worse) than the one before.

It’s hard to write during times like this. Write my own story, I mean. How can it compete with the global stories happening right now?

Well, it can’t. But writing is what I do, it’s how I survive. In times of struggle, my own and the world’s. My other work, helping to create a community that is inclusive and safe for all people is something I will continue to do. But I must also write. I can’t let myself be paralyzed or muted by my own feelings of helplessness, despair, or fear.

It’s easier, so much easier, to stay in bed. When the world feels safe, and even more so when it doesn’t.

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But I won’t. I’ll get up instead.

I’ll go downstairs and write. Watch the birds at the feeder, maybe catch a glimpse of my favorite red fox, or watch the squirrels and bunnies nibble on leftover clover. I’ll be grateful for my privilege to do this.

I used to think I needed hours to write, but it’s not true. Becoming a mother turned me (by necessity) into an incredibly efficient writer. I have no time to waste, so I wring out every available minute. I’ll write in scraps when I must. Scraps add up to hours. Hours add up to pages. Pages to manuscripts.

It’s taken me years to understand what is most crucial in my writing practice – staying present. Not leaping ahead to the unknown.

The only thing I can do is wake up. Sit at my desk. Greet the screen. Put my fingers on the keys. Follow my story for as long as I can.

We all have our own version of this, whether we are artists or not. Being human is enough to make this vital choice. To see light when the world seems so, so dark.

 

I’m pleased to be linking up with Writing Bubble’s What I’m Writing 

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On NOT Playing it Safe

I have a tendency to (over)protect my characters. Call it a mother hen complex, or maybe a more modern term would be helicopter novelist. I hover over my characters’ every move and the moment I sense a bad choice coming on, I swoop in and rescue them. Close call, I think, that could’ve been really bad.

Oh wait, isn’t that what’s supposed to happen?

Make your characters miserable! You hear this often as a writer. Make them hurt, bleed, fall off trucks, out of windows, walk into traffic, stumble over vibrating train tracks.

Photo Credit: ahh phooey via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: ahh phooey via Compfight cc
Only try this in fiction, please.

Often it’s metaphoric, but it can be literal (especially in the thriller and horror genre).

It makes sense because suffering adds interest, intrigue, and suspense. Playing too nice is boring, and the last thing you want is to make your reader fall asleep (the only time this is okay is if a reader conks out after staying up all night reading your book).

“Ask what the worst thing is that could happen to your protagonist and make it worse.” Classic writing advice.

Good? Yes. But be careful not to overdo it. If your character is miserable all the time, and for no good reason, it can turn your story into a different kind of (author) nightmare – predictable and annoying.

This, however, is not my problem.

My problem is playing it too safe. I rescue and avoid. I delete danger. I sense an oncoming train from miles away and I swoop in to save my character before the rails even begin to tingle.

I noticed this when I reread the first draft of my novel last year. Every time something bad was about to happen to my protagonist… it didn’t. She was always saved, either by me, or one of the other characters (um, also me). I didn’t do this consciously. I never set out to write a “safe” story, but apparently my instinct as a human being is to protect and defend. When I see danger lurking ahead I grab my characters and run for cover.

Maybe this stems from my actual mother hen instinct, which I believe can be a good thing despite the bad rap helicopter parenting gets these days.

Photo Credit: joannaro99 via Compfight cc Nobody messes with my chicks.

Photo Credit: joannaro99 via Compfight cc
Nobody messes with my chicks.

But in writing – and I’m talking fiction and creative nonfiction here (think about memoir, how tempting to write yourself in a more desirable light, to smooth out painful edges of your past) – it’s almost never a good thing.

Sometimes we must lead our most beloved characters in the path of a train or at least a fast moving cyclist.

Sometimes we must indulge their self-destructive habits, and perhaps even push them closer to temptation.

I’m keeping all this in mind as I head towards the final third of my (latest) novel draft. I have to make sure I’m not choosing the easy way out – for me or my characters.

As Miss Frizzle, the teacher and driver of The Magic School Bus, says…

“Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!”

magic school bus

Pretty great advice for writing, and for living.

Are there times in your writing when you play it too safe? Or do you fall on the other side of the spectrum?

If you’re not sure, take this fun quiz by author and blogger Janice Hardy: “Do you Suffer From NWS (Nice Author Syndrome)?

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I’m joining the lovely Maddy over at Writing Bubble for her weekly link up, What I’m Writing. There are some great posts this week on Setting and Story Structure, as well as one writing mama’s list of Editing Essentials (hint, coffee is high on the list, and I must concur).