Thoughts on Writing, from Before I Started Writing

I recently reread my journal from December 2002, trying to find the exact dates we’d traveled to Aruba that month. I came across an entry about writing.

In 2002, writing was still a pipe dream of mine. I thought I wanted to write when I retired, but I hadn’t made any decisions. I wasn’t even sure I would retire when I became eligible at age 50, though that was my hope.

My journal

Here’s what I wrote about writing as of December 15, 2002:

“I’ve been doing some thinking about writing as I’ve [browsed in] libraries and bookstores. There are so many books—most with really cockamamie plots or poorly written. Surely I can do at least that well. I’ve also read an interview with a writer—talking about the difficulty of staring at blank paper and of editing. Surely I am no different, and surely I can overcome.”

It’s now fifteen years later, December 2017. I’ve added three more books to those so many books, with a fourth about to be published. I read recently that there are over 1 million books published each year. The competition is fierce. In 2002, ebooks were only a theory, now they are the majority of new books published. These days, there’s a publishing overload, and I’m part of it.

Some readers probably think my novels have cockamamie plots also. I think my plots are (mostly) plausible, but I’ve learned as I’ve been writing that realistic writing is in the eye of the writer . . . And the reader.

I also think my novels are written at least as well as half of those that are published. I don’t pretend to be a great literary writer, but I think I can tell a good story with reasonably strong prose.

And through it all, I have learned for myself the difficulty of staring at a blank page (though I stare at a screen, not at paper). It’s a challenge to figure out how to translate the scenes I see in my head into words. I am more forgiving of other writers now than I was in 2002.

Some days I write well. Some days I write poorly. I try to always remember Anne Lamott’s advice in Bird by Bird—shitty first drafts are the norm. I think it was Ernest Hemingway who first said, “The first draft of anything is shit.” Anne Lamott then expanded on shitty first drafts: “All good writers write them. This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts.”

Along with many writers before me, I’ve learned to overcome the blank page and get that first draft written so I have something to work with.

I’ve also learned for myself the difficulty of editing. Once that first draft is done, the real work begins. It’s only through editing—sculpting the work to approximate ever closer what I see in my head—that the novel takes shape.

Over and over I edit. For me, it takes several more than three drafts to get to something I can call terrific. . . . Or even acceptable.

I’m in the constant revision stage with my work in progress, Forever Mine. On the whole, I’m pleased with it. But I still see rough spots. So I’m still editing. Like with sandpaper, each pass gets finer. Soon, I hope I’ll have done all I can.

I will overcome the difficulty of editing this book, as I overcame the blank page.

And then I’ll start with another blank page on another book.

Writers, what’s your biggest challenge in your current work in progress?

P.S. My apologies to readers offended by the language in this post. Hemingway started it.

On THE ARTIST’S WAY and the Truth in Fiction

I’ve kept the Post-It from September 2005

I’ve mentioned before that I attended a diversity program called “Women Supporting Women” in late September 2005. When I declared to the other participants in that program, “I will write a book before I die,” one of the women in the group handed me a Post-It note. On that Post-It, she wrote a quote from Julia Cameron, “Sudden problems in my life usually indicate a need to work on my art.” She also jotted down the titles of two of Cameron’s books, The Artist’s Way, and Walking in the World, and recommended I read them.

I wasn’t sure I had “sudden problems” in my life, though I did feel I was at a crossroads. So, as a good student, when I returned home, I went to the library and checked out The Artist’s Way. It appeared to be a book that might be helpful to me as I flailed at how to become the writer I wanted to be. Its exercises were as much about self-awareness as they were about artistic endeavors.

I quickly realized I would need my own copy of the book to highlight and mark up. I bought myself a copy and worked through it in some detail. Over the next year, I also bought Walking in the World and Vein of Gold, both by Julia Cameron, and a few years later when she published Finding Water, I bought it.

In the twelve years since I attended that diversity program, I have read all four of these books at least twice (as well as a couple of Cameron’s other books). Most of them I’ve read three or four times. I’ve highlighted my copies until there is as much yellow as white on the page, and their paperback spines are all broken.

While it would be an overstatement to say the books changed my life, they certainly have contributed to my growth as a writer. First, they encouraged me to proclaim I am a writer—which is very difficult for beginning writers to do. Second, they told me to do a little bit every day—write three pages, take one small step toward my goal, do something physical or repetitive with my hands or legs when I’m stuck creatively. Third, they provided tools for me to use in examining my life, in determining where I’m on track and where I need to change.

I was already journaling before I read The Artist’s Way, but Cameron’s encouragement of daily “morning pages” made me a more faithful scrivener. When I retired from my job at the end of 2006, I made a commitment to write in my journal every day, and I haven’t missed more than three or four days a year for the last eleven years—I don’t always write in the morning and I don’t always write as much as she recommends, but I write. The exercises in Cameron’s books have provided topics to write about when I’ve felt empty. As she says in her books, when the same subjects come up over and over in morning pages, it’s a signal that area of my life needs to change. (And there are always a few areas of my life I need to change.)

I’ve been less diligent about incorporating her concept of “artist dates” into my life. These are weekly times of play, where one goes on a small, solitary expedition to fill one’s creative well—anything from a concert at the Philharmonic to browsing through a fabric store (I’ve done both on my artist dates). Even though I don’t go on artist dates regularly, I’m more aware now of when I could use a shot in the arm, when I need exposure to something different and playful in my life.

Earlier this year I read through The Artist’s Way and did many of its exercises for at least the fourth time. What amazed me was how much I’d grown since the first time in late 2005 or early 2006. The first time I worked my way through the book, I was not at all certain that I could be a writer, nor did I know how to go about making myself into one. I needed Camerons encouragement. During the years, I have become a writer, and I’m proud of myself.

This time, I focused on the spiritual aspect of the artist’s journey. I wrote the following affirmations to myself:

1. God intends me to have a writing life, to be a writer, at least at this stage of my life.
2. My stories speak of human frailty and fallibility, of people trying to do their best, sometimes succeeding and sometimes failing—as such, they speak the truth.

Those statements are far too wordy to be memorable affirmations that I can use when I need to give myself a pep talk. So I shortened them:

1. I am a writer.
2. My stories speak the truth.

It may seem strange that I write fiction, yet tell myself “my stories speak the truth.” But fiction is only good if it faithfully portrays the human condition within the confines of a story with a beginning, middle, and end. As such, fiction often clarifies the truth in ways that real life cannot. After all, everyone reading this has not yet experienced the end of life’s story.

I’m not done with my journey along the Artist’s Way. As Cameron says in the epilogue to that book, “Growth is a spiral path, doubling back on itself, reassessing and regrouping.” I will probably reassess my life and my work using her exercises in the future, and I hope twelve years from now I can see that I have grown even more.

What affirmations do you tell yourself? And when have you found that fiction speaks the truth?

Writing Milestones: Journaling and Blogging

I don’t want March to get away from me before I write about two milestones that occurred this month—the fifteenth anniversary of when I began keeping a journal, and the fifth anniversary of this blog.

My original journal. The picture at the top is my new journal cover, which I had to buy when the original leather cover became tattered.

I’ve written before about starting my journal. One of my early posts on this blog was titled “Take the Plunge—Start a Journal.” That’s what I did—I had bought myself a Christmas present of a pretty leather journal cover and three blank narrow-ruled notebooks to put in it. It sat in my drawer for a few months, until one day in March 2002, I took the plunge and started writing.

That month was a turning point in my life for many reasons, though I didn’t know it at the time. I suppose most fifteen-year periods in my life have been equally eventful, and some have been more stressful, but the last fifteen years—close to 25% of my life—have been challenging.

On the personal front, I’ve seen my children grow from teenagers to responsible adults. One child graduated from college, and has since had six jobs, more than six different addresses, and the same girlfriend for the past three years. The other child has graduated from high school, college, and law school, has lived in D.C. and two states, and has also had more addresses than jobs. In these fifteen years, I’ve also grieved the loss of a grandmother, both parents (one slowly, one fast), and a father-in-law.

On the career front, the last boss I chose to work for quit during March 2002—the month I started journaling. A new boss was appointed several weeks later. I was already wrestling with whether I should retire four years later in 2006 when I turned fifty. In those four years, I had two and a half different jobs (I worked on a special assignment for several months, hence, the half) and had three and a half different managers (same reason for the half manager). I dealt with corporate politics in ways I never had before.

I did retire at the end of 2006, and for the past decade I’ve been devoting my primary effort to becoming a novelist. So on the writing front, I mark March 2002 as the beginning of my career as a writer, because my journal started me on the path to writing, even if I didn’t take myself seriously at the time.

My journal has helped me stay grounded through all these changes. It has helped direct my life. I’ve debated a variety of courses of action in its pages, often repeatedly. When an issue keeps raising itself for discussion, it’s a sign I should change something. Sometimes I can, sometimes I can’t, and sometimes I continue to debate what to do.

I didn’t write daily in the first few years. But since I retired, I have written almost every day of every year. I’d bet there are only 10-20 days in the entire decade that I have missed. In fifteen years, I have filled fifty of those narrow-ruled notebooks—160+ pages each, about 300 words per page, or roughly 240,000 words. The equivalent of two to three novels.

And, oh, by the way, I’ve published three novels, am well into a fourth, and I’ve written many essays, short stories, and poems, some of which have won contests and been published.

And I’ve written this blog. I really began Story & History in January 2012, but I didn’t start posting weekly until March, so I consider that to be the anniversary of the blog. (I increased my posts to twice a week later that year—a schedule I’m amazed I’ve been able to continue for so long.) So in my mind, this is the month I have completed five years of blogging.

While my journal is my private musing, this blog is where I muse more publicly. As readers know, I muse about all sorts of things. Enough to have written well over posts. I write another blog under my pseudonym, which I’ve also kept up for about five and a half years. Between the two blogs, I estimate I’ve written about 375,000 words in the past five years. That’s another three or four novels’ worth.

I guess I have to say I’m a writer now. And take myself seriously. I often wonder if I should be spending my time journaling and blogging, or if I should focus on moving more novels from my head to the page. But as long as my journal directs me, and as long as blogging connects me to others, I will probably continue.

Does writing help direct your life? Have you tried it?

Why Do I Ask Questions At the End of My Posts?

questions_answers_1The short answer to why usually I ask questions at the end of my posts is that I read somewhere that it was a good thing for bloggers to do to get readers to engage.

The long answer is a little more complicated.

It is true that I’ve read that bloggers should ask thought-provoking questions to hook their readers. But I usually ask the questions at the end of my posts. My purpose is less to hook my readers than to get you thinking.

Why do I want to get you thinking? Well, I hope that this blog provokes some dialogue and that it isn’t purely entertainment.

The stated theme of this blog is “One writer’s journey through life and time”—a pretty broad theme, but it describes a journey I want to take my readers on with me.

Sometimes my journey is through history. I give my thoughts on how the past impacts the present (and future), and I want you to consider these things as well.

Sometimes my journey is through my own and my family’s lives. Readers have their own family histories that impact who they are. I hope my questions help you reflect on the joys and sorrows of your own past and how those who have touched your life have influenced you.

My journal

My journal

Sometimes my journey is into myself. I ask myself questions all the time in my journal. I don’t always answer them, but the questions indicate what’s troubling me at that point in time. When I find myself asking the same questions over and over, it means I need to change something, to work on that area of my life. I’ve made many changes as a result of these questions over the almost thirteen years that I’ve been journaling. (Yikes! That’s the time a kid goes from kindergarten to college—I hope I’ve made some changes!)

So some of my questions are intended to help readers explore their own lives as well.

Do you find yourself pondering the questions I ask after you read? If not, how can I make this blog more meaningful to you?

Focus on the Present: Be a Buddha, Not a Janus

One morning last week as I wrote in my journal, I grumbled about the Midwestern cold and ice. The snow that had fallen a few days before Christmas had melted just enough to leave a glaze behind on walks and driveways. On Christmas Day I fell on the ice and injured my wrist.

So the morning after Christmas, I bemoaned my bruised and sore arm and wrote “I am already ready for winter to be over.” Not the most artfully crafted sentence, but it expressed my opinion about the season.

The winter solstice had just passed. We have at least two months ahead of us of cold. Threats of snow and more ice are likely to be frequent.

But I just wanted to skip the season. Or get through it as quickly as I could.

I mused to myself about hiding at home until winter is over. I’ve always told myself I would not become a little old lady afraid of driving in the snow. But that day last week, I rethought my position.

And then I caught myself and wrote “Why is so much of life a rush to the future and a mourning of the past? Too little time spent in the moment.”

It didn’t seem right that I was wishing several months of my life to pass in a flash. What life will I experience in the months ahead of me? What will I choose to do with my days?

Once past, the time will not return. So I must make use of each day, cold or not.

800px-Janus1I thought of Janus’s two faces, looking at the past and the future, at endings and beginnings.

Throughout this holiday season I have thought of Christmases past, when my children were small and giddy with the excitement of Santa Claus. Or I have dreamed of Christmases to come, when my grandchildren (I hope they will exist someday) will bounce with their own anticipation, eager for me to spoil them.

Surely I should be focused on the blessings of this season, of the present, not feeling wistful for past delights, nor desirous of future pleasures that may or may not come. I should face my days straight on and experience each moment’s joys and sorrows in its own time.

buddhaThen, as I was writing this post, I came across an entry on another blog, Married to Alzheimer’s, that quoted Buddha:

Don’t dwell in the Past;
Don’t dream of the Future;
Concentrate the mind on the Present Moment.
 

So others—other bloggers and even the Buddha—have experienced the same thoughts I have, the same desire to look forward or back that Janus displays. And they, like me, have come to the realization that we should focus on the present.

That was my serendipity this week, as we look back on 2013 and anticipate 2014.

May you savor each moment of this new year!

Preserve Your Family’s Stories During National Family History Month

Granddad Hooker, Theresa & brother

Granddad Hooker, Theresa & brother

October is National Family History Month—a month for those with an interest in genealogy to spend a little extra time on their hobby, and a month for all of us to reflect on our forebearers and on how our pasts have shaped our todays and tomorrows.

For tips on activities you and your children can do during National Family History Month, go to Family Tree Magazine here, to the Family History Research Group here, or to About.com’s Genealogy page here.

Some of my favorite family history projects from these sites include:

  • Asking older relatives about their childhood memories
  • Putting together a scrapbook of old family photos—labeled, of course, so you’ll know in years to come who those people are
  • Keeping a journal of your daily life
  • Writing your own life story—don’t worry if no one has asked; some day they will want it
  • Telling the story behind some of your favorite possessions
  • Creating a family recipe book, complete with the story of how each recipe came into your family
  • Putting together your family’s medical history, which can be a lifesaver, as well as tell you more about your ancestors
Theresa's parents in high school, ready for the dance

Theresa’s parents in high school, ready for the dance

One of the things I have loved about writing this blog is the opportunity to explore my own family’s history. From love stories to murder, from heirlooms to toys, every bit of history I remember or discover is like finding buried treasure.

Does anyone else in my family care about these stories? Some do. Some may in the future. But in the meantime, I am doing my part to preserve our knowledge of our past.

What do you wish you knew about your ancestors? What can you find out during Family History Month this October?

Life Without Electricity

Tornado over Oklahoma TownSunday morning the electricity went out in our house. It seems to happen more and more frequently. The lines in our subdivision are underground, so usually the lights just flicker, or we get our power back after a minute or two.

But Sunday morning it was out for over an hour, from about 7:30am until about 9:00am. I’d already had my breakfast and read the newspaper, but I was just starting the crossword puzzle. The sun was up, but the skies so dark under the storm clouds that the house was dark, except just next to our windows. And even there, I couldn’t see the small font or squares of the puzzle.

What could I do without power?

I found a large flashlight, and took a shower by its light. The master bathroom in our house has no windows. Neither do two other bathrooms in the house.

Home design has changed since electricity became the norm. Houses did not have windowless rooms before the convenience of light at the flick of a switch. We turn on lights as we move from place to place, each new transmission of electricity seems free in terms of time and cost.

We do not have to take time to fill our lamps with fuel, nor strike a flint to light them. We do not have to dip candles made from the tallow of animals we raised and slaughtered. Our only exposure to the cost of light is the utility bill we pay once a month, so we have no concept of the resources and labor required to create the power we use.

After my shower, I pulled up all the blinds in the den, sat in a comfy chair, and in the dim grey light I wrote in my journal. I had to move from one chair to another, needing the window behind my left shoulder to illuminate the page. When the window was behind my right shoulder, my right hand cast a shadow on my journal, and I couldn’t see to write.

Our ancestors would have known where to sit for maximum light unconsciously. They would have learned the lesson in childhood. I had to learn again this cloudy morning, no diffusion available from my many lamps and overhead fluorescent bulbs to block the shadows.

As I watched the minutes pass on my battery-powered clocks, I worried about cooking without power, about the food that would spoil in the refrigerator and freezer if the electricity did not return soon, and about laundry without the convenience of washer and dryer.

Although many of us find it fun to spend a few days in the wilderness camping without electricity, we say we are “roughing it.” We think we are living like our ancestors, but we do not consider how our Goretex boots and nylon tent were fashioned. In fact, even our backwoods adventures are beholden to our high-tech society. They are not what our ancestors experienced.

The electricity returned.

I then typed this post about my hour without power. On a laptop that could have survived only a few hours without its cord. To post through my network router that did not connect at all without electricity.

The Stonehenge in UKAnd I was grateful when the sun reappeared from behind the clouds. The storm had passed. I had both natural and artificial lighting. Which did I appreciate the most? Hard to tell.

What lessons have you learned about life in the past from failures of our modern technology?