Friday, February 22, 2013

When Inspiration Strikes

I hit a rough patch after some tough family stuff, and my writing had ground to a halt.  But I think last week's post actually helped me break through.  I accepted the fact that writing can take many forms, gave myself credit for keeping something going in the midst of it all and printed out the messy hodgepodge that is the middle-to-end notes of my current manuscript.  I read through the hodgepodge, and a funny thing happened.  Some shapes began to emerge from the primordial soup.  I made notes on the manuscript, scribbling here and there.  Nothing quite beats paper and pencil and objects in hand when you need to shake up the etch-a-sketch of your brain.

After a satisfying session of reading and notating, I had to jump in the shower.  Wouldn't you know it?  As so often happens, inspiration hit in the shower.  A new, crystal clear opening paragraph that brought the whole mess into focus.  Grabbed my bathrobe, jogged out of the bathroom and down the stairs to catch the fire in words.  Typed it up, printed it out, and tucked it in my bag to bring to my writing partner that day.

The end?  Not quite.  Walking the 15 blocks or so to the coffee shop, a steady rain falling, and BAM!  The next chunk of text crystallizes in my head, with a nice, fresh emerging metaphor that launches me where I want to go.  So I stop in the middle of the sidewalk in the pouring rain, grab what shelter I can from a nearby tree, and scribble down that second chunk.

Still not done.  I get to the coffee shop a bit early, grab a seat, and start scribbling more.  More!  More!  After great feedback from my writing partner, I ran with the new stuff when I got back home.  Suddenly, I've gone from stalled and stagnant and how-will-this-piece-of-&(*%&^-ever-work to jazzed, excited, clarity, fresh and vivid language fun awesomeness!

I'm an aquarius, and, while I don't normally put much stock in the zodiac, it certainly seems like there's something to this water sign thing.  Clearly, inspiration strikes me with the droplets.  How about you?

Friday, February 15, 2013

What Counts as Writing?

I've been searching my brain for some words of wisdom for this week.  I've got nothing.  Life (and death) has sent my writing careening off course over the past couple of weeks, in the worst way.  The funny thing is, I realized I AM still writing.  I'm writing blog entries.  I'm writing in my journal.  I'm writing emails.  I'm just not writing fiction.

The latest push in education is the Common Core Standards.  In the area of writing and reading, these new standards put a huge emphasis on nonfiction (informational text, they call it) because it is the type of writing most people use and interact with in their daily lives.  But in the community of writers, nonfiction sometimes seems to be treated as a second-class citizen.  Why would I think my nonfiction writing "doesn't count" somehow?

Of course, blog entries and emails and journaling won't help me finish my novel or revise that short story of mine.  But they keep my muscles healthy while the rest of me is spluttering my way through life's sudden onslaught.  And they remind me that I am a writer.  I process this adventure of life through writing about it - fiction, nonfiction, you name it.  I can't help myself.  It's how I think and feel and experience.  Not everyone responds to life by straining it through words to find it's essence.  Those who do are writers by nature, if not by profession.

This blog entry is a nice little representation of writing as processing.  At the beginning, I said I had nothing to say.  As I continued writing, processing my thoughts, I found I had plenty to say, and more importantly, I was able to put to bed one recent source of personal discouragement ("I'm not getting any writing done at all; why do I bother?  Maybe I'm not a writer.").  Yes, life's travails have derailed the big fiction project for now.  But they haven't stopped me from writing.  Not even close.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Required Reading: Bad BBQ

A fellow blogger, The Tex Files, made a recent comment about how people tend to hate any literature they are required to read in English class:  "No lie: among my adult friends, this is the best possible predictor of who loved Catcher in the Rye or The Great Gatsby and who found them unbearable. If you read it cuz you were told to, and had to spend six weeks thereafter dissecting all the themes in class, chances are you will not be a lifetime fan."  

This got me thinking about my own experiences.  I wouldn't say I hated all the literature I've ever been required to read.  Some things I grew to love, or loved immediately.  Still, especially in college, when the reading load was beyond intense, my goal was often just to get it done, rather than to ruminate on it.  When I wrote papers and dissected the work on demand, I'm betting more often than not that I missed the real heart of the matter, because my own heart wasn't engaging with the text.  Only my intellect was.

Of course, I'm viewing this in retrospect.  While I was in college, I loved digging into literature with other students.  I was fortunate to be at a college  where I was surrounded by people fueled with intellectual curiosity.  It was a breath of fresh air after high school, where an interest in talking about the reading assignment was viewed as a sign of irredeemable nerd-dom, and this at a time well before nerds were considered even remotely cool.  However, though I loved digging into the literature, the workload didn't leave room for the kind of slow-turning contemplation that brings depth and cooks into the skin.

I'm suddenly thinking about barbecue, and that's not such an off-base image here.  Really good barbecue takes time.  It's slow-cooked all day long.  That's the secret.  You can have the greatest piece of meat in the world, but if you rush the cooking, all you've got is bad barbecue.  Maybe experiencing great literature works the same way.  Certainly, I've gotten more out of the classics I've read by my own choice and at my own pace than I did from those texts I powered through in college.  But all that dissecting in college trained my brain for deeper interaction with literature.  Yes, it felt like drudgery at the time, and may have left a bad taste in my mouth, but maybe that's just the necessary collateral damage of all that brain training

When you read something because you choose it, you're bringing a more meaningful purpose to your reading experience than you do when that same text is required.  You have a goal in reading it.  Somewhere in your mind, you are bringing questions you yourself have generated that inform your interaction with that text.  Purpose makes a difference.

This line of thought brings me straight to my third graders.  They are young enough that they still need to be trained on how to choose a "good fit" book.  They don't always choose books that will stretch them the way they must be stretched to grow as readers.  I imagine it's the same with college students.  We all need a push outside our comfort zone from time to time.  When we're learning and developing, we need that extra nudge to challenge ourselves and grow those neural connections.  Maybe the collateral damage is worth it.  Still, we educators have to keep it in mind and try to minimize that damage as much as possible.  You can push someone too far, and then, instead of neural connections, all you grow is hatred, dread and negative associations.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

When Words Fail

During significant or profound moments in life - birth, death, marriage, other milestones - when called upon to say something, to speak before my community, I often discover I cannot find the words.  Nothing seems adequate to the emotion of the moment.  Words fail me.  As The Writer, this is disturbing, embarrassing even.  I should be the one most able to distill the meaning of those moments into words.  All around me, those who do not name themselves writers stand and speak eloquently.  They find the words.  I find myself standing at the bottom of the mountain of emotions and significance and no words are enough.  Words fail me.

Perhaps it is because I cannot extricate myself from BEING in that moment enough to give it words.  Perhaps I am someone who needs distance, time, perspective to shape such experiences into words.  Perhaps it is my lack of confidence.  I don't believe I could possibly succeed in expressing the truth of such moments, and so I release myself from that burden.

Perhaps it is simply a question of form.  I don't often write poetry, and in these big moments of life,  I sometimes find my feelings expressed best in the poetry of others.  Maybe poetry's particular quality can best hold the mystery of such moments.

Fortunately for me, the community of writers spans the entirety of history, all of space and time, and the full tapestry of human existence, so where MY words fail me, the words of others do not.

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