Tuesday, August 18, 2015

on not writing fiction

8/18/2015




Summer is almost over, and mine was busier than I would've wanted!  However, I did get some rest, and I also got some time to reflect.  One big decision I've recently made is that I'm not going to continue working on my novel (for now).  As an experiment, I began working on a fiction piece last September, and somewhere around April this year, I found myself losing momentum.  I missed writing poetry.  I wasn't sure where I wanted to take my story, and why I needed to write it.  I felt lost.  And I felt overwhelmed by trying to do too many things at once:  teach, write a novel, write poems, and live the rest of my life.

In June, I signed up for a poetry workshop with Tresha Haefner, and it was amazing.  For six weeks, our group of five poets gathered in her home every week to generate new poems and workshop the ones we'd typed up and brought along.  Tresha is a spirited writer and mentor, and her passion for poetry is infectious.  I felt myself getting inspired and writing with a verve I'd missed these past few months while working on fiction.  It was a relief to be home.

So after some soul-searching, and reading this post on the pros and cons of working in more than one genre, I've made the decision that I'm going to concentrate my efforts on poetry writing for now.  It feels good.  Fiction writing may be in my future, but today I need minimalism.  And if I do decide to write a book someday, I want to feel a compulsion to tell a particular story, a story that can't be told another way. I began my project last year with the compulsion to write fiction, not necessarily a particular story.  And once I'd played with prose for a while, I realized I needed to have something to say.  With poetry, I feel a compulsion, and I have the desire to communicate something.  It's still work and it's still revision.  But I like the leaps a writer can make in a poem, the way she can filter a moment through symbolism, surrealism, metaphor, and rhyme.  I appreciate the brevity and minimalism of the form, often combined with its intensity.  I like taking photographs with words.

And that said, I am in awe of fiction writers.  Last year, through working on fiction, I got to experience first-hand how fun, challenging, frustrating, and mysterious the process of creating a story can be.  I love reading novels, and I love escaping into the dream of another world.  Good storytellers are magicians in that they are able to evoke a particular world. I don't think life would be as livable without moments of escape, without reading.

And though I may love reading stories, I don't necessarily want to put effort into writing one.   What I've learned through my process of experimenting with fiction this past year, is that the writing mind is like an ocean.  The waves keep shifting.  Sometimes the tides steer you one way, and at other times, another.  It's fine to move in the direction the currents are guiding you.

Monday, June 15, 2015

at the heart of suffering

Monday 6/15/2015


The journey towards healing begins with surrender.  I thought about this while fixing a peanut butter and jelly sandwich this afternoon.  I also thought about how I've missed posting on my blog.  So here I am again, after a hiatus of several weeks!  Summer is here, and I've been transitioning into a slower pace of life.  It feels good.  I'm reading Anna Karenina, and I'm working on writing my novel.  I went to a Crime Writers conference in Culver City last week, and it inspired me to make some major changes to the piece I've been working on.  I've been messing with that.  And I'm also taking stock of this past year...what worked, what didn't.  A lot of good things happened this past year.  And at the same time, it had its share of challenges.  Is there a word in English for "hilarious exhaustion", where you feel so tired it's almost funny.  I've always hoped that at the heart of suffering you find this enormous well of laughter.  Anyhow, I'd like to bake something soon and catch up with what's going on in the world.  Maybe etch a poem or few.  Meanwhile, the days are proclaiming summer, and my dreams move like frantic fish.  I see them passing by while I sleep, but I can't hook them into waking.  By the time I open my eyes, I've forgotten what they were about.

Monday, March 30, 2015

on writing & reading classic novels

3/30/2015




I'm about 120 pages into writing my novel.  It currently stands at 30,000 words.  Last week, I googled the average length of a novel and discovered that 64,000 words is about average.  Then I thought:  Wait, I'm almost halfway through!  Inspired, I sat down and outlined the rest of the story, scene by scene.  That's right, I outlined, writing nerd style.  Now I know where the plot is going and where the characters are going.  It feels like some of the pressure is off, and I can get back to the task of getting the writing done.  To be honest, I had been feeling a bit lost with the whole thing the past couple of months.  I had a number of ideas about where to take the book, but I wasn't committing to any of them.  Giving my ideas some structure has really helped.  What I plan to do now is actually different from what I had originally anticipated.  Figuring this out has been a relief.  So has letting go of my original plan.  I'd be delighted if I could wrap this thing up in the coming months.  I can see the light, as they say, at the end of the tunnel.

This past week I've been reading a classic novel, and I've been surfing the web looking for suggestions on other classic novels to read.  I'm talking about great works of fiction I should've read by now but haven't.  There's something comforting about reading a classic novel.  In the past, for pleasure reading, I've always been intimidated by the length and density of such novels, for they require patience.  But this past week I felt a hunger to be challenged, and to brave a slower pace.  And I'm glad I did.  There's much to learn about fiction writing from the masters--the old masters.  They're not afraid to go on tangents and make you sit with a scene while the weather changes in your apartment.  There's control but also randomness.  Dreams play an important role, and the transitions between scenes are not always handled with the skillfulness of a contemporary writer, where it's cool to be subtle.  Classic books have a reader in mind, but they're writer oriented too.  It's like they balance both:  the needs of the reader with the needs of the writer because you see these writers breaking the modern "rules" of writing and pulling it off.

What appeals to me about classic fiction is that these books were written before the MFA world sprung up.  These books emerged in a different era, and they speak to my romantic nostalgia about being a writer during a time before writing workshops became the norm.  Before the professionalization of writing took over.  When I read writing advice books nowadays, much of them have the same thing to say:  kill your darlings, prune adjectives, and make your opening scene a hook.  These books are meant be helpful.  But I think it's wise to balance practical advice with personal instinct.  And sometimes it's okay to include stuff because you want to without worrying so much about some imaginary reader.  I think writers of the 19th and early 20th century had more freedom to do that.  In many ways, a well crafted classic novel is the best writing advice book.  They give practical advice through example but also encourage you to tease out your vision and break the rules.

Anyhow, it's much too hot in Los Angeles lately.  But I drank an iced mocha the other day that almost made the weather worth it.  I suffer from Summer SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder).  When the world gets sunny & bright, I prefer to hide at home.  I like the sun and breezy weather.  But in the story of my life, the heat is a villain.    

Monday, March 2, 2015

Paula Hawkins' The Girl on the Train

3/2/2015


1)      I just finished reading Paula Hawkins suspenseful novel, The Girl on the Train.  It’s a twisted engaging story set in the suburbs of London.  The story jumps between the points of view of three different women coping with different challenges (mostly, their own unhappiness).   And of course, murder.  Hawkins crafts suspense well.  Her book makes the argument that romantic relationships become dysfunctional when dysfunctional people get involved and don’t take responsibility for their personal happiness—don’t grow together.  I felt a bit down after I finished reading the book.  Mainly because it rang so true—how broken we can sometimes feel in the modern world.  How alienated.  And how the pain we’ve experienced in our lives can make us victimize ourselves and victimize others.  The book doesn’t offer any solutions to this predicament.  It just seems to suggest that this is how things are—that being alive can be a lonely and bitter experience.  As a struggling optimist, I wish the book had included some sense of hope or beauty.  Even the ugliness lacked luminosity.  Still I loved the book’s writing, it’s urgency.  Although no solution was offered, I finished the book thinking…I want to promote healing in the world...I do not want to end up like these people.
2)      Fun Fact:  Did you know that when coffee was first introduced in Western Europe, the Pope at the time labeled the beverage, “Satan’s drink”?

Monday, February 16, 2015

7 things I'm passionate about this month

2/16/2015




Valentine's Day is a celebration of love.  I am grateful for the smart, funny, and generous people in my life who support me every day.  And although Valentine's Day is mainly about celebrating love in relationships, I also like to think of the holiday as an opportunity to celebrate one's personal passions.  So here are seven things I'm passionate about this month:


1) Reading Kara Candito's new poetry collection, Spectator.  The poems are spectacular and something to feast on.

2) Watching old classic movies.  This past week I saw Dr. Zhivago & Jane Eyre (the Orson Welles version).  There's something comforting about losing oneself in a sweeping epic.

3) Participating in a female lit book club.  Last week I went to my second meeting, and I felt inspired by the convivial gathering of women.

4) See's chocolate.  I got a box for Valentine's Day, and I was reminded that the things to cherish in life are often the pleasures small.  If there was a World Cup of chocolate, I would definitely be on team See's Candies.

5) Applying Rumi's poetry to my life.  I went to Rumi's Cafe the other day with a friend, and the owner of the coffee shop came by our table and presented me with a collection of Rumi's poems.  He asked me to turn to a page at random and listen to the advice I found there.  The page I turned to talked about letting go of what people think.  It also advised surrendering to love.

6)  Coffee.  Drinking it, reading about it, taking pictures of cups.  I drink my daily does with a dash of French Vanilla, but I'd like to find a new signature cafe drink (like mocha or latte) to order when I'm feeling fancy.

7) Minimalism.  I'm passionate about creating a life that is simple, light, and spirited.  There is always something to do (chores to complete and lessons to plan).  But I'm trying to simplify everything--from teaching to writing to living.  I believe less is definitely more.

Monday, February 9, 2015

three things

2/9/2015



1) I threw out over fifty books this past week, and now one of my bookshelves is completely empty.  I still have dozens of books at home and in my classroom at school, but it seemed like a big deal to purge this time around.  I got rid of so much, and the feeling has been both liberating and confounding.  I have realized that it takes a lot to let go of things because books, like clothes or articles of jewelry, evoke our connection to different time periods in our lives, and in giving these things away, we give away parts of ourselves.  I mean, the memories are still inside us.  But the anchor is gone.  And it's a poignant reminder of how all we really have is the present moment.  In the present moment, I am working on a story.  And at times I resist the impulse because it feels like too much work.  In life, it's so easy to get stuck.  Here we are, moving along, and then suddenly every step feels uphill.  So it's natural to want to take a break or turn around.  It's hard to keep walking.  But I guess it's easier to walk if you have fewer things to carry.  This is why, despite the sense of absence, I'm glad I got rid of those books.

2) I'm having poetry writing cravings.  At times, I think, I want to chuck my story aside and just write poem after poem without the burden of crafting a cohesive narrative.  I want to meander through a forest.  I want to find a metaphoric way to connect my spleen to the sunset.  Prose, from the point of view of poetry, seems to lack something sacred.  Yet it feels good to be working on fiction and building a world.

3)  Cyanide or a snake venom?


Monday, February 2, 2015

9 things I did this week to feed my creativity

2/2/2015


I'm at work on a book.  It's a psychologically dark story, and I'm about 100 pages in, which is both daunting and exciting.  I love diving into the task of writing with a cup of coffee in hand.  But writing alone is not enough to keep the novice at the keyboard.  I need to feed the impulse by doing things that are not writing.

Here's a list of ten ways I fed my creativity this past week:

1) Baked a blueberry lemon pound cake.  I want to write about characters who love to cook (and eat) sweet things.  Cooking helps me stay grounded and reminds me that in order to create something successful, I have to balance the right ingredients.
2) Gave the story I'm writing a twist by including some historical detail.  I have realized fiction is a space to give voice to my obsessions and better understand them.  It's also a way to learn and teach.
3) Talked to a friend of mine who's a journalist, who gave me some feedback on how crime reporting works.  I am interested in talking to people in various fields to deepen the characters and situations in my story.
4) Watched the movie, Chocolat, on iTunes.  When I see things that inspire me, I wonder, how would I describe them in fiction?  Sometimes it helps to think cinematically.
5) Posted a pic of my green typewriter on instagram.  I realized that we can all use writing totems, so I'm going to keep this typewriter on my desk.  Maybe I'll even give it a name.
6) Listened to a cafe country music mix on spotify.  Listening to music is like reading poetry.  I hope my subconscious picks up the rhythm of the sounds and words I hear, so I may develop a better ear for writing.
7) Realized I want to color.  I'm no good at drawing, and if I have any potential, I've hardly tapped into it.  But coloring is a way to get creative without thinking to much about content.  It's also a good way to focus on something while I think out plot complications in my story.
8) Made my students free write about their encounters with "strangeness."  I love the word strangeness. And sometimes my lesson plans help me sort out the elements of fiction.  A lot of creative writing is about making the familiar strange, and the strange, familiar.
9) Watched football.  The Superbowl didn't end as I'd hoped, but as I watched the game on Sunday, I paid attention to the different ways players attempted to win or deal with their emotions:  some got lucky, some used strategy, and some tried to instigate other players.  Maybe writing is an act where we compete as well--but with ourselves (our own insecurities, fears, and laziness).  Sometimes we have to employ different strategies to stay on task.

Monday, January 26, 2015

7 epiphanies I had this week

1/24/2015



1)  I want to read the love letters of great men:  Watching Sex & the City, the movie part one, I had the idea this week that I want to read the love letters of great men (and/or women).  I think this would be romantic & instructive.  And maybe it would inspire me to write more letters.  Also, it's almost Valentine's Day, so this is the time to read a letter.  Amazon sells a book inspired by the film, and I'm on the verge of ordering it.

2) Plotting:  At some point while writing a fictional story, you have to stop and reflect on what you're actually writing about and where you're going with your characters.  I mean seriously.  Who are these people?  What are their flaws?  What do they eat for breakfast?  I've been avoiding this, but now I'm ready to do this.  Going to draft a storyboard this week.

3) The profound effect of the right new purse:  I bought a brand name purse this week inspired by the character in my story.  I mean, I was channeling her when I bought the bag and I was channeling me when I created her.  There's something so satisfying about carrying a well-made bag that speaks to some magical part inside of you.

4) Baking is alchemy:  I baked chocolate cupcakes last weekend and topped them with home-made whipped cream.  I want to bake a blueberry lemon pound cake this week.  Baking is akin to dancing & therapy.

5) Kindness:  Cultivating it--first toward yourself and then toward others--is the true essence of self-confidence.

6) Walking with Music:  I started taking walks around my neighborhood again after the holiday hiatus, and I've been carrying my cell and headphones with me, listening to an album as I take a stroll.  My boyfriend said it's good to give each walk a soundtrack, and I liked that description.  This week I'm hoping to listen to some country music.

7) Decluttering makes you more stylish:  I love love *love* the feeling of throwing out something I don't need (or donating it when appropriate).  Somehow, it makes me feel chic, like I know who I am.  A year and a half ago, I trimmed my closet by half and started the task of rebuilding.  I want to do part two of this.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

why read & write and fiction??

1/19/2015



I've joined a women's book club, and last week we met at a cafe in the Valley to discuss Courtney Maum's, I'm Having So Much Fun Here Without You.  Courtney Maum's novel is set in Paris and is a light meditation on marriage, art, and an adult's journey toward maturity. 

A few years ago we started a book club in my family, and it lasted for about four book cycles.  I liked the experience of sitting down with other people to discuss a book.  The conversations would start with the novel and end up somewhere else.  The same thing happened in my women's book club meeting on Wednesday.  We discussed the book, and then we talked about the issues the book brought up.  Although I enjoyed reading Maum's novel, the experience of talking to others about it was more fun.  There were women of different age groups and personalities represented in the book club.  By discussing the book with other people, I was able to clarify my own thoughts on the work.

Reading this book made me think romantically about the art of storytelling.  The goal of a book is to dramatize a world and make it relevant for the reader.  So why read and write novels when movies do the same and require less effort?  There are several reasons I still keep reading books:  I've always found the world of fiction to be a reminder that our lives are both mysterious and magical.  I gain solace by reading fiction, and I find the investment worthwhile.  I enjoy co-creating a book with an author by picturing the characters in my mind (rather than having them presented to me in a film).  I like the spell a good description can cast on me.  Reading a book affirms my faith in things while making me question my easy assumptions.

As a high school English teacher, I frequently encounter students who question the purpose of reading. I try and sell my book-o-philia like I'm selling a car.  I think my job title should be "Used Book Salesperson."  That's really what I do.  And sometimes I wonder if it really matters all that much if a kid goes on to college without knowing Shakespeare or Shelley.  Einstein said that "Imagination is more important than knowledge" and while I agree that our imaginations are where it's at, sometimes it's easier to dwell on fact.  And it can be satisfying to learn things...to know things, to get concrete answers to questions.

Maybe a worthwhile novel is not just the psychological exploration of characters and their motivations--but a place to inform the reader about something as well...a historical event or historical figure.  Maybe tell them about the history of the invention of something.

It's up to contemporary writers to keep fiction relevant
and fresh.  I'll keep that in mind as I work on my story.

Monday, January 12, 2015

finding the time and energy to write

1/12/2015



Sometimes it's hard to find time to write!  Also, the energy.  (There, I've said it.  And now I feel better.)

Last week, I decided to start journaling again, and it felt good.  I wrote a couple of entries in a Buddhism inspired notebook.  I listened to Eckhart Tolle's, The Power of Now, on my drive to work.  Breathe, breathe, breathe, I reminded myself.  Tolle's voice opined:  Your thoughts are not you.  But once the semester gets going, the weeks fill up, and I become my thoughts.  Grading and lesson planning take precedence.  Lately, I sit down to write in the afternoons with a mind racing with the chores I need to get done--the students I still need to email back.  And then I'd rather write a poem or a song praising the sunset.  My mind chants: resist, resist, resist.

Someone might suggest I wake up early to tackle fiction writing, get my allotted thirty minutes done in the morning.  But I find this challenging as well because I wake up around 6:30am, and then I begin the 45 minute commute to work soon after.  When I'm tired, it feels like there are not enough hours in the day.  When I wake up, I need a spacious hour to settle into writing, with my cup of coffee in hand, and some instrumental music to keep me company.

Maybe 30 minutes a day is sometimes too much?  Maybe on the weeks I feel tired and zonked, I can make it 15.  Or even 10.  And maybe I need to think more carefully about who, in particular, I'm writing for.  And maybe I should find a writing mentor, even if it's just someone's twitter page to follow.  I think a daily commitment to a project is important.  That much I'm willing to hold on to.  But the creative process, at times, requires some flexibility.

That said, the previous week has had its share of ups:  I saw the Foo Fighters in concert at the Forum on Saturday, and it made me want to shake my head.  I baked two vanilla cupcakes, and felt I successfully handled the challenge of making less.  I started to connect with that voice inside, behind the messiness of things, that keeps saying, you're doing okay...let go.

Monday, January 5, 2015

villains in fiction



1/5/2014



The story I’ve been working on the past few months is getting darker than I’d anticipated, and at first I felt guilty about this.  I mean, if I’m going to follow a character around for dozens of pages, I want her to be someone worth rooting for.  I want the antagonist to be fearsome, but not so heinous that a reader might question the author’s sanity for inventing him.  And yet it feels natural to let my characters expose their weaknesses & flaws.  The darker they get, the more engaged I become in the task of writing them.

I’ve read that Stephen King routinely gets letters from readers who are outraged by the villains in his books.  This sort of negative fan mail disturbs me.  I respect King for letting the monsters of his imagination speak.  Moreover, Jung believed that it was important to confront the “shadow” side of our minds because it encourages personal growth.  As a reader and a writer, I couldn’t agree more.   

Writing a villain is more challenging than writing a protagonist.  The protagonist may be flawed, but there are limits to her behavior.  She generally operates from the standpoint of good and is usually the victim.  The villain, on the other hand, must be human enough to be relatable, and perverse enough to do the unthinkable.  A villain is a more complex character than a protagonist because he has more creative freedom.  And to make him real, the writer must put herself in the villain’s mind.

When I was in college I wrote an essay in my philosophy class that argued human beings are essentially evil.  If I had to write the same essay again today, I’d argue that human beings are essentially good—but we have to reckon with our dark sides. We all have demons that manifest in the form of greed, obsession, jealousy or pride.  And for most of us fiction alone provides a playground where these demons may safely come alive.

And of course I’m still struggling with this.  How to write a credible villain?  How to test what the protagonist is made of?  How to keep things real?  I keep asking myself, am I being honest?  Am I being authentic?  Am I letting these characters speak their truth?  Edgar J. Mohn said that “A lie has speed, but truth has endurance.”  This is applicable to both life and art.  I make it a priority to be honest to others, but in the act of writing fiction, telling the truth is more complex because it involves unmasking the lies we tell ourselves.