Tuesday, July 30, 2013

5 Tips for Catching a Pterodactyl

Jeopardy Question: What do Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Dickens, and my friend Holly from grad school all have in common?

Answer: They've all -in their own natural, unthreatening ways- been convicting me about writerly procrastination.

When some writers procrastinate or go way out of their way to do other things instead of write, there's usually a reason for it. As a creative writing teacher, I hear these stories and say, "Well, it sounds like there's something scary in your writing that you're avoiding" or "Maybe your idea is just so big that you're blocking yourself." The latter might be true as there are just too many ideas floating in my head and I don't know which one to write first. But recently I've also discovered that it's a seasonal thing: as a teacher, I want to pack as much into summer as it can possibly hold, which so far has included Disneyland, Portland, and, unfortunately, tonsillitis. It's also included an increase in reading and I'm proud to look back and recognize that I've read:

-The Sex Lives of Cannibals by J. Maarten Troost
-Old Man in the Sea by Hemingway
-On Paris by Hemingway
-The Kiss by Kathryn Harrison
-The Thin Man by Dashiel Hammett
-Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier
-The Road by Carmac McCarthy
-More F in Exams/F for Effort by Richard Benson
-Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome
-Hemingway vs. Fitzgerald by Scott Donaldson
-Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
-The Paris Wife by Paula McLain

Um, that's 12 books, guys. That's three books short of a grad school semester's load. Now all I need to do is write an annotation for all of them and I've just completed 12 credit hours. I don't slight it by any means, but no wonder I've only managed to write a short bit when my focus has been so unfalteringly upon reading -okay, reading with interrupting for grading ENG101, writing freelance articles, and day-tripping.

Someone kindly told me that freelance writing is still writing -writing that I'm getting paid for- so I shouldn't be so harsh on myself. But I am hard on myself, because what creativity comes from writing about pterodactyl sightings or "How to Properly Sit in a Kayak"? Some of these might take creativity to make them interesting, but at the end of the day, my artistic hunger isn't sated for it.

Then the reading started speaking to me. Hemingway was frustrated with Fitzgerald because Fitzgerald didn't take the time to write, and when he did, he would block himself so much that all he was good for was sweet little stories for The Saturday Evening Post instead of real, important work. Charles Dickens wrote Oliver Twist as a serial over the course of two years. For two years he'd committed to one story line, printing chapters weekly. No breaks. No apologies. No "Well, I just don't feel like it." I read The Paris Wife in two days, a historical fiction novel from the perspective of Hadley, Hemingway's first wife. Even through fiction Hemingway doesn't alter his course. He pisses people off because he needs time to write. He has vision. He is unapologetic. He has focus.

So in the vein of wanting to write creatively but stuck in freelance writing mode, here are five tips for catching a pterodactyl -or rather, keeping a consistent writing practice:
1. Show up. Nothing gets written if you just dream about what you're going to write about.
2. Outline if your ideas are too big.
3. Give yourself permission to only write about one facet of your big idea.
4. Set a timer and commit to the time. It doesn't have to be all day, it can be 20 minutes.
5. Give yourself permission to write all crap. The longer you wait to come back to writing, the harder it'll be, so it's best to write something -anything- now. Even if it's crap. Especially if it's crap. It can only get better from there.

Ready. Set. Go.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

What Writers Say in Tragedy

By now I'm sure that you've heard about the 19 firefighters that fell in the Yarnell Hill Fire. It's made national news, and it was heartbreaking to see Andew Ashcraft's widow on the Today show yesterday.

What do writers say in tragedy?

People think that because we're "good with words" that we know what to say and how to say it, but how artificial would it feel if we as writers had practiced phrases that we whip out in these times? A writer's job is to be true to emotions and true to ourselves, and when we ourselves have been struck by tragedy, writers are no more expected to materialize words than other grievers.

My brother was on this crew a few years ago. It seems like a cliche to say that this "struck close to home." What does that mean, anyway? That we had a close call? Because we did. That we're thankful my brother is still with us? Because we are. That we are devastated for those families as if they were our own? Because it's true. My brother being on the crew drew me close to a group of men that I wouldn't otherwise have known, men that I would have merely thanked for being public servants. And while I only knew one who perished (Clayton Whitted, you're with your Lord and Savior now), by association I knew all of them.

I'm an active mourner. When stuff happens, my first instinct is to do something. It's funny that writing is only my second instinct, but if you think about it, it is still an active something. I may not be called to serve to these families directly, but through writing, I can serve them, and best of all, I can serve the firefighter's memories.

To you 19 who perished, I honor and respect your sacrifice. You went into every fire knowing that you might not come out, and for that I thank you for going into this fire honorably. Thank you for loving your community, and thank you for serving us by the greatest sacrifice. I promise to serve your families whenever I can and to keep your memory strong.

(This was the last photo taken by Andrew Ashcraft, and the last text he sent to his wife.)

See, in times of tragedy, writers don't need to say something that hasn't been said before (because I'm sure everything I've written has already been written), but it is up to a writer to speak what is true. Hemingway said that if he couldn't write anything else, he would strive to write one true thing a day. This is the truth today, and writing it down makes it as real and as immortal as the memory of these great men.

It doesn't feel like enough, but it feels like something.