Saturday, September 25, 2010

Inspiration from Mentors

A few nights ago, a friend offered free tickets to hear Margaret Atwood and Ursula LeGuin speak here at Portland's gorgeous Arlene Schnitzer concert hall as part of the Literary Arts series here in town (which used to be called "Arts and Lectures" back in the day). The concert hall is a huge space, and we were, understandably, way up in the nose-bleed seats. On the stage were two armchairs and a small table with a pitcher of water and two glasses. In other words, it was an intimate arrangement in a cavernous setting.

I was prepared to feel disconnected and distant, but I couldn't have been more wrong. Atwood and LeGuin established a warm and personal rapport that somehow managed to climb up into the rafters and span across the wide, ornate concert hall as if we were all just a bunch of friends sitting in a room together. But beyond that, for the roughly two hours we were there, I had the feeling I was meeting with mentors - smart, creative women who had seen a thing or two, who had opinions, and who knew what it was to struggle in the dark to illuminate a story that hadn't yet been called into existence.

It got me thinking about the power of mentors. Whether they are people you know personally or writers you've never met whose work you admire, it makes a difference when you have someone who feels like an elder of your particular tribe, who knows the journeys, who can serve as a guide, point the way, honor the struggles, share their wisdom.

There are a lot of "mentor programs," but the best mentors I have had are never assigned or named as such. They emerge from the relationships I have. With women, it can be a strange and challenging thing to honor someone as a mentor. I worry that I will offend them by pointing out the fact that they are older than me. But the older I get, the more I love talking with older women who are smart and creative and can help show me the way.

Who are your mentors? How have they changed over time? How did you find them?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Joys and Agonies of Bookstores

It's a funny thing walking through a bookstore when you're a writer trying to get published. The part of me that loves stories and books and reading and language breathes it in and gets lost and can't get enough. The part of me that wants to be published and collects rejection notices and keeps struggling to be better looks at it all and says, "What's the point?" It can be overwhelming, and that's just the stuff that's been published.

This is especially true when I visit Powell's here in Portland. Powell's isn't called "The City of Books" for nothing. It takes up something like a couple of city blocks and at least 3 stories crammed floor to ceiling with every kind of book imaginable - new books, used books, trashy books, classics, books in other languages, rare books - you name it. When I was in my twenties I'd go there and hang out in their coffee shop on a Saturday night and it would be packed with other booklovers like me and I thought to myself, "I have found my people."

But on my last visit, knowing my own writing was in the hands of agents yet again, and that a rejection notice was most likely in my future, I had a bit of an anxiety attack. So many great books - who reads them all? How does one ever get noticed over the others? What makes me think I have something so worth saying that people will pay money for it?

I know I'm not alone in this two-sided relationship with bookstores. I wonder what other writers do to overcome that feeling.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fonder

Okay, I admit it. The title for this entry is absolutely a cliche. An alternate title might be "Perspective." (I'll save the whole subject of titles for another blogging day). I'm talking about the perspective on a piece of writing that can come with time away from that writing. There's something about being too deeply inside the story that limits your capacity to judge it fairly. I have a piece I thought was an absolutely useless mess. Someone critiqued it and I realized from their comments that I should not, in fact, throw it away and forget about it all together. But I still couldn't stand to think about it or look at it. I was convinced it would be an impossibly convoluted task to make any sense of it at all.

But it kept tickling at my brain, saying, "Come on. You finished a draft of me. You spent a whole year with me. Come back for a visit." I have resolutely steered clear of it for a good two years now. But when I finished my last novel, I decided to give it another look, fully believing I would still want nothing to do with it.

Lo and behold! I found myself caught up in the story, where before I thought there was no story to speak of. I discovered it had a lively pace and the main character had some real gumption to her that I had been completely unaware of. The whole thing moved along nicely and kept my interest. Then I looked back at the synopsis and it all started to crystallize. The problem spots offered solutions to themselves and the arc of the plot seemed to shimmer into focus. I guess sometimes you need a two-year break to really appreciate something, and what was exhausting at one time can be inspiring at another.

Saturday, September 04, 2010

Starting Over

So, I just finished a 300 page YA novel, revised, revised, revised, edited, edited, edited, and submitted. I'm sure I'll be revisiting it eventually, but for now, it's done. So, what's next?

I have a few ideas, all of which have something started already (thank God for my writing notebook). But as I sat down, after a week's hiatus, to look at them, I had the sensation of standing at the foot of Mount Everest and thinking "Didn't I just climb this thing?" The work you do at the end of a novel and the work you do at the beginning are so very different. So much more is known and mapped out at the end. So much is shapeless at the beginning. There are, of course, more discoveries to make at the beginning, which is something to look forward to. Still, that first moment, staring up at the mountain, is a daunting one.

I'm a teacher, and I'm also poised on the brink of the new school year just now. I am struck by some similarities. In the classroom, everything goes a little more smoothly once you've laid out the routines and procedures and you've gotten to know your students. In a novel, everything goes a little more smoothly once you've figured out the central conflicts and plot outline and gotten to know your characters. But those first few days of school, all the work to be done can feel overwhelming. In both cases, progress happens one step at a time and requires patience, consistency, routine, passion and commitment.

Most teachers have a collection of "getting to know you" activities as well as creative methods for teaching routines & expectations. I'm betting most authors do, too. I have culled a few from workshops and conferences. Character wheels. Scene sketches. Various excercises - interview your character, walk through their house, write a letter from them to you or vice versa. Distill your idea into a collection of purposeful sentences. Try writing a short-story synopsis first. Outline with index cards or sticky notes.

What do you do to kick-start a new work?

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