Mining the Wounds

Last week was a slow one for writing. I’d like to believe this has more to do with the snowy weather than my brain, but probably both were responsible.

Life gets in the way. I don’t know why I seem to forget this.

My life. Love these guys.

My life. Love these guys.

There was a two-hour school delay Wednesday, and then no school for the rest of the week, but somehow I managed to scratch out a few pages of my novel despite hitting another wall (made of brick, rather high) and almost letting it get the best of me.

I’m two-thirds of the way through this draft, and while I have a general sense where I need to end up, how I get there is blurry.

I’m trying to take it one step/scene at a time and not hyperventilate, but there is this nudging voice that says I ought to have a better plan.

That voice says LOTS of jerky stuff and I know I’m supposed to ignore it, and most days I do, but sometimes it gets a little bit loud and makes me cranky. Thank goodness for the bird feeder outside my office window and the gorgeous cardinal that makes frequent appearances. I am so grateful to my husband for what I think is the best Valentine’s present ever.

If you squint, you can see the cardinal's red tail feathers.

If you squint, you can see the cardinal’s red tail feathers.

Another thing that helps get me through winter and novel writing blahs is reading an AWESOME book. The nudgy voice tried to interrupt, of course, insinuating that my book can’t possibly compare, but I squashed it with my boot and kept on reading.

all my puny sorrows

The author writes in an almost manic style, winding these gorgeous and wrenching sentences around and around like an endless skein of yarn, which makes me a bit anxious, but that is, partly, the point.

The book is about sisters, one sane, one less so, and the lengths we go to keep someone we love alive, even when that person would much rather be dead.

But there’s humor in the pathos, which makes it bearable. Which makes life bearable.

In between bouts of novel angst and laugh-crying my way through “All My Puny Sorrows,” I somehow managed to write a draft of a new essay about reading, and writing, my mother’s eulogy.

It started out as a blog post, but as I gained momentum I could feel the roots shooting down, expanding. This was going to be bigger.

It makes sense that my mom’s eulogy was on my mind, because I was also practicing my audition essay for the Lehigh Valley Listen to Your Mother show (a live performance in 39 cities across the US) which happens to be about her death.

As I was getting “all nerved up,” to use one of my mom’s expressions, I realized with a jolt that the hardest performance of my life had already occurred. Reading my audition essay, as vulnerable as I might feel, could not compare to reading my mom’s eulogy.

The dress I wore to my mom's funeral, and to my audition.

The dress I wore to my mom’s funeral, and to my Listen to Your Mother audition.

This June will be eight years since her death. Despite the passage of time, scars remain. Misshapen ridges mark my heart, a topography of grief. Sometimes they break open and bleed.

But that’s what writing is for, to honor our wounds, to face the joy and pain of life, both real and imagined. To not look away. To scratch at the scars if they warrant another chance to heal.

What have you been writing and reading lately? Do you have any scars itching to be reopened?

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On Tuesday I’ll be joining Maddy over at Writing Bubble for her weekly link up, What I’m Writing. Check it out and perhaps add your own link. I love hearing what others are up to in their work.

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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).

Fighting the Mid Novel Slump

I never knew there was a such a thing. But a few weeks ago it happened to me. At first I thought it was just a moment of frustration. I hit a wall with my novel and had to take an unexpected detour, a longer way with a treacherous incline.

Suddenly, the idea that I was inches away from coasting downhill toward my novel’s ending disappeared. Poof, gone. I looked around, trying to orient myself, and realized I was halfway up a snowy peak with holes in my boots and dwindling supplies.

I started to wonder… was I wasting my time toiling away at a crap first novel? Should I cut my losses now and start something new, or shake off the doubt and trudge ahead?

Photo Credit: AraiUSA via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: AraiUSA via Compfight cc

(I’m writing this during a snowstorm, which is clearly influencing my choice of imagery, so I apologize in advance for hitting you over the head with my metaphorical shovel; but seriously, it’s a blizzard out there.)

So, I did what any rational person does during times of stress and indecision: I looked for signs.

Someone, other than myself, to tell me WHAT TO DO. Of course, this is ridiculous and a form of procrastination, not to mention self-sabatoge, but I looked, and of course I found plenty online. I was haunted by articles with headlines like, “Why We Write, Why We Stop…” and “In Praise of Quitting”. The first article by Julianna Baggot turned out to be uplifting (and filled with tangible advice, check it out), but the second nearly gutted me.

Photo Credit: coppirider via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: coppirider via Compfight cc

I know sometimes it might be better to quit a project that isn’t going anywhere, but the question that keeps me (and I’m sure, many writers) up at night is this: How do you differentiate between doubt and honest assessment? 

This crisis of faith made me a horribly grumpy person to be around (sorry family), and catching my son’s cold did NOT help matters, but fortunately I happened across another sign soon after:

Janice Graham on the Writer’s Midway Crisis

On the – Wha???

I didn’t know Janice, but I loved her immediately for giving a name to my problem. Midway crisis, yes, that’s exactly what was happening! Like so many problems (if not all), mine turned out to be completely unoriginal.

This made me giddy with relief. Whatever my decision, I wasn’t the only one stuck in this godforsaken place. Others had traveled a similar path and survived. Including Neil Gaiman, who wrote this wonderfully uplifting piece for National Novel Writing Month. Apparently, he feels this same malaise at the midpoint of ALL his novels. (Note to self, move The Ocean at the End of the Lane up to the top of my to-read list.)

In her article, Janice references Steven Pressman’s The War of Art, a book I had heard of but not yet read. He calls this particular ailment, and all its odious relatives, by one name: resistance. YES. A repelling energy that pushes writers, artists, creators, entrepreneurs to quiver with doubt and ultimately retreat. Resistance, or more specifically our surrender to it, is what makes us fail.

Soon after I read Janice’s article, my sense of equilibrium returned. I checked the window of my soul in regards to my novel-in-progress. The snow had lightened and the mist seemed to be thinning. My boots were still soggy and the path jagged and steep, but I knew now what I had to do.

Take a step at a time. In one direction. UP.

Photo Credit: zzzoz via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: zzzoz via Compfight cc

Now, I have some questions for you. Feel free to answer one, none, or all…

Have you any experience with the mid-novel slump/crisis?

Has their been a time when cutting your losses *was* the right choice for a project? How did you make that decision?

What is your experience with resistance or doubt, and how do deal with it?

I’m currently devouring, and loving, Steven Pressfield’s book, The War of Art. The first two sections have really resonated with me, but I’m having a little, ahem, resistance, with the last section which is about muses and angels (where he believes inspiration comes from). If you’ve read the book, I’m curious to know what you think.

 

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What I’m Writing

One of the reasons I started this blog was to find and foster community among my fellow mother-writers, and I’ve already found a lovely one in Maddy over at Writing Bubble. She invited me to join her weekly link up that she co-hosts with Chrissie over at Muddled Manuscript (oh, I love that name) called, “What I’m Writing,” which of course I can’t resist.

This week I’ve spent much of my (minimal) writing time polishing up the rusty bits of a blog post and formatting my very first newsletter (!) that I will be sending out shortly. I really enjoyed writing the newsletter, but felt a bit guilty that I wasn’t working on the novel.

Oh, the novel! It’s like my albatross, but a very special and beloved albatross that I tend to with absolute devotion despite its overwhelming weight and refusal to budge off my neck.

Photo Credit: ultomatt via Compfight cc They look so innocent flying in the air.

Photo Credit: ultomatt via Compfight cc
They look so innocent flying in the air.

But I will say, I’ve made progress on it this year. Last January I dusted off my woefully neglected albatross, I mean, manuscript – one that sat in a safe (literally, a safe!) for five years. I had finished it just two days before giving birth to my daughter…who is now six and a half. Do the math if you must. It’s not pretty.

Photo Credit: elseniorfox via Compfight cc Ok, it wasn't this old.

Photo Credit: elseniorfox via Comp fight cc
Ok, it wasn’t quite this old.

One day while my daughter was in kindergarten and my son with his sitter, I read the whole thing, from start to finish. I don’t know what I expected, certainly not perfection or genius (I’m not that deluded), but I also didn’t think it would be total garbage (though parts came close). When I finally put the pages down I felt a strange sense of relief. I knew what I had to do. Start again.

I salvaged what I could, about sixty pages, and then cut the rest of it. There is still a file on my computer with 200+ pages that should for all intents and purposes be deleted but I can’t bear to do so, yet. Since then I’ve written many, many more pages, some of which have made the cut while many more have not.

You have to be ruthless as a writer, but you also have to hold onto a certain naiveté or willful ignorance. Dani Shapiro says it well in her book, Still Writing:

“So how do we make peace with the knowledge that every word, every sentence we write may very well hit the cutting room floor? Well, we don’t make peace with this knowledge. We willfully disregard it.”

That’s what I’m doing as I work on my novel. Some days the task feels so monumental, so overwhelming, it’s like chipping away at a glacier with a toothpick.

Photo Credit: blue polaris via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: blue polaris via Compfight cc

But I keep on going, not knowing what will be saved or cut, not knowing if this latest draft will be good enough to merit an edit, and then, after that, if it will ever be read by eyes other than my own.

I’m writing in the dark, slow and steady like the tortoise because my kids are young and underfoot, and that’s how it has to be, for now.

But I sense with a kind of animal instinct, or maybe just a writerly one, that I’m approaching something with my novel. There is a quickening, a slight uptake in the beating of my heart. I feel as though I’m on a roller coaster, ratcheting up the tracks. Before all I could hear was the steady clacking sound, but now I can see something too, a glimmering in the distance. I am getting closer to the top. Closer than I have been. If I keep going I will finish. And that is my goal.

What are you working on? Are you chipping away a sliver at a time or are you making great gouges?

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