Paperback Writer

I have started writing again. Maybe it’s more correct to say that I have resumed being a writer. Anyway, I’ve been musing over some of the things that have helped me resume a former identity and be more comfortable with it.

Read

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The first thing is reading. Writers read constantly, continually, and compulsively. When I was a writing student in graduate school and met my friend Stephanie (not his real name!), I chastised her for only owning about 3 books. How could you be a writer and not be reading every book you could get your hands on? I didn’t understand.

When I was growing up in Columbus, my family took both the newspapers — the morning Citizen-Journal and the evening Dispatch. They were read to me until I could read them myself. After that point I read everything that came into the house, and learned that excellent writing was to be found even in magazines that did not reflect my core interests. Because of my father’s hobbies and interests I learned to flip to the last editorial page of magazines like Guns & Ammo and Road and Track and enjoy the editorial gems to be found there. Even today, I’m thrilled to be in a waiting room of any kind if I can get access to Field and Stream, Sports Illustrated, or AutoWeek rather than pap like People, Us, or Family Circle.

Lately I’ve been actually reading my Sports Illustrated issues. The level of their journalism and creative nonfiction is such that I can enjoy almost any article except something on professional basketball. (That league is a shoe commercial; I don’t care.) I garner new data. I relish a clever turn of phrase. I want to keep turning the pages forever.

 – ad

no-advertising

Advertising and commercials, though clever, don’t usually count as good writing. So I’m finding my reading matter in high-level magazines like SI, and in memoir (Carole King’s A Natural Woman), biography (Mark Zwonitzer’s Will You Miss Me When I’m Gone?: The Carter Family and Their Legacy in American Music), and fiction (Alexander McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series). Good writing takes you out of your self and your life and carries you somewhere else. It takes you to funny, clever, thoughtful places you could not have gone by yourself. Give me three pages of McCall Smith and a hot cup of rooibos tea, and I am in Botswana.

Quiet

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It’s not that I really want to world to go away. I like lots of things about the world. It’s just that I want the silence to be able to enter in, have a lie down on the couch, and get really comfortable. I love music, but when I listen to it constantly I realize I am listening to someone else’s writing, crowding out my own potential ideas and words and melodies. How much worse are television and radio for providing Hulk-level train-tossing derailments of your independent creative thoughts? So much of television consists of the reporting of distressing news, speculation on the future, the escalation of interpersonal conflict, and criticism of those who have talent and success. That kind of background noise really stifles one’s sonnet-writing abilities.

– et

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If I’m working hard enough at my writing, I’m not eating for the wrong reasons. We know what they are. Boredom. Frustration. Loneliness. Anxiety. Anger. Jealousy. Fear. Unrequited love. Confusion. And, ironically, writer’s block. If I come across a sentence that flashes across my vision and makes me chase it through the forest so I can write it down, I won’t care about that bowl of chips. The act of writing can burn calories by means of a pre-emptive strike.

Red

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I am such a fan of color coding that I should turn professional. I have certainly put my years into the craft. I color code my hanging files, my kids’ drink cups, and everything I can lay my hands upon. And for as long as I can remember, I’ve color coded my school folders, from the first Trapper Keeper until yesterday. Green is for life sciences like Biology. Yellow is for Chemistry and other hard/applied sciences. Blue is for History. But red… red is for literature, for writing, for strength through creativity. Red is a power color. Red is for blood, lifeblood. Red is for rage. Red is for anger, passion, fury, heart. If I want to find my old writing, I go to the basement, open a repurposed Hammermill Graphicopy paper carton, and pull out a red folder. Any red folder will do. My writing, from whatever era, will be within.

Read – ad + quiet – et + red = Required

Writing is required of me. It is who I am before I am anything else. It is what I do when I am at my best. It is what I turn to when I am at my lowest. My people have been “makers” for many generations, mostly with wood, but I “make” with words. I may not have a published book, but I have journals, a blog (all right, many blogs), a Facebook page, and private notes in which I record my thoughts, my frustrations, and my songs. Some of my writing is shared and some of my writing will stay private forever. It takes the form it needs to take, and I do what I must do.

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Published in: on April 16, 2014 at 11:22 pm  Comments (1)  

Week Fifty-Two: All Good Things

This week WordPress sent me a little “happy anniversary” notice. It was seven years ago when I registered my first blog with them — the one you’re reading now. I’ve started several other blogs since then, to focus on different fringe interests, but this is the blog that keeps going and growing, and gradually absorbing the other topics back into itself. I wonder why December 23 was the special day, when I had a six-month-old baby Tommy and three older children to take care of. It was probably time to switch to a blog from my e-mail newsletter, Wisconsin Crafter, because it was the end of a year.  I like starting new things on January 1, on Sundays or Mondays, or on the first day of a month. Launching a new initiative on, say, May 17 just wouldn’t make sense to me. How would I ever keep track of it?

But since WordPress is keeping track of it for me, well, happy anniversary to me! Hallmark’s website tells me that the traditional gifts for a seventh anniversary are wool or copper. (The modern gift is a desk set. I do have an antique desk at which I sit in front of my modern computer and write, and I do have a desk set somewhere; maybe I’ll tidy it up and use it.) I think I have bought enough wool for myself that I could knit up a little something special just for me. Copper is a bit trickier. Jewelry seems like an obvious path to take, but I don’t have pierced ears and I don’t wear rings, watches, or necklaces. I do have a few friends who make custom jewelry, and maybe they can give me some suggestions for some sort of commemorative item. A copper pen? A little hand-hammered copper bowl? I’m not sure.

Scratch that; I just found and ordered a hank of wool/silk laceweight yarn in a gorgeous tonal copper colorway. As my son James would say, “Achievement get!”

Well, now, since I’m closing out the year, I’d better be honest and take one last look at those resolutions I published 52 weeks ago.

Thusly, I resolve that, in 2013 (!!!) I shall:

  1. Blog on Chocolate Sheep again, and regularly. Dare I say, weekly?
  2. Finish the Doctor Who scarf I’m knitting for my friend Ginnie.
  3. Complete my calculus class.
  4. Learn one new cast-on.
  5. Find a Most Excellent Job in my chosen field of technical and scientific editing.
  6. Learn one new cast-off.
  7. Help my kids be awesome.

Seven looks like a good number, don’t you think?

I think I can honestly say I accomplished numbers 1, 2, 4, 5, and 7. Number 6 just didn’t get much attention, and Number 3, as mentioned in greater detail a few weeks ago, was a spectacular failure. Overall, though, I think I did pretty well. The weekly blogging was sometimes a challenge, but I did learn how to use the Schedule function for posts so that I could publish pre-written ones when I was traveling. After a while I got used to the rhythm of writing what was essentially a weekly column, and I found I could usually produce something mildly entertaining by Thursday (sometimes Friday).

So, do I have any new and impressive resolutions ready for 2014?

No… not really. I still have a lot of unfinished business around here. I would like to become more monogamous with my knitting, and finish the really large projects I’ve been working on for the last couple of years. I’d like to start quilting again and make some more durable and functional quilts that the kids and I can use. I’d like to deepen my friendships. I’d like to be braver. I’d like to be a better cook. I’d like to study more math and physics. And most of all, I’d like to keep writing. I can’t (and won’t) promise that I will keep to a regular weekly schedule for my posts here, but it’s quite possible that I’ve picked up a very good habit and that’s when the writing will appear.

All in all, it’s been a pretty good year for me. See you on the other side!

Week Forty-Nine: O Christmas Tree

CBXmasTree

With Thanksgiving behind us now, it’s time to prepare for the Christmas season. A lot has changed in my life over the past few years, and my idea of Christmas is changing, too.

Our house has a living room with a big picture window that faces our country road, and for several years we set up an artificial tree right there so people could see the pretty colored lights from the road as they drove by. We piled the kids’ gifts under the tree, which was covered with the kinds of ornaments that only schoolkids can make: Photo Day portraits framed in canning-jar lids or wreaths made from puzzle pieces painted green; craft-stick reindeer; pompom snowmen.

Last year, when it was only up to me and how I wanted it to be, I bought a real tree and let my daughter decorate it with all the trimmings she liked, even the ones that brought me particular pain and heartache. I wasn’t feeling much of the “Christmas spirit” then, so it was a relief to see that she had it in abundance.

Since last year, however, I’ve repurposed the living room, and there isn’t room for a tree in the most obvious place in the house. None of the other rooms made sense to host a tree. The kids and I talked about it, and we (probably mostly me, but they were game) decided to get a real tree again, but put it up outside, on the deck. We don’t have a way to safely run electricity to it to light it up, so we’ll be making bird-edible garlands from Cheerios, popcorn, cranberries, and raisins, and hanging new feeders and birdseed ornaments.

Said my dear daughter: “So, Mom…. basically, we’re making a giant bird feeder?”

Sort of, although I hope it will also be a big playground for the birds that already hang around to see what kind of suet cake I might put out next. We have Hairy Woodpeckers, Nuthatches, Tufted Titmice, Chickadees, Purple Finches, House Sparrows, Goldfinches, and (sigh) starlings and crows. The birds should enjoy the tree, and I also bought some pine garland to help dress up the porch and meet our own human aesthetic needs.

There ought to be something in this setup for everybody. We’ll find out soon. But we’ll have a real tree, a pretty thing, a mixture of holiday tradition and gentle change, and the chance to cut down our own tree (Middle Son is all for any enterprise that might let him wield an axe). Most of the kids won’t be here at Christmas to open gifts — we did some early exchanges right after Thanksgiving — so there’s really no need to take up half a room with a big pile of gift-wrapped temptation. But maybe we’ll start to develop other ways to celebrate the holiday, ways that over the years will turn into our own traditions.

———

As I wrote this post, I recalled my favorite Christmas-tree pictures taken over the years, and realized that right now I have access to almost none of them. But as I do find them, I’ll come back to this post and insert my own family photos from over the years. And I’ll take some pictures this year, too.

Published in: on December 5, 2013 at 9:00 am  Comments (1)  

Week Forty-Seven: Creative Mode

aesops-fables

This week we had a little incident at home in which my middle son delivered a burn worthy of an arsonist.

It was bedtime, and it’s been years since I’ve read my kids bedtime stories, or sang them bedtime songs, or performed more of a bedtime ritual than giving each one of them a backrub and well-wishes for peaceful slumber. But on this bedtime, Jack demanded a fable.

“Mom?”

“What?”

“Can you tell me a fable about why I should go to sleep?”

“Um…right now?”

“Yes. A fable like this one: ‘Once upon a time…’ ” And he launched into a Proper Fable about that very thing. (By the way, props to whoever is doing the Fables unit at school.) Then he wrapped it all up and challenged me again. “Can you tell a fable better than the one I just told?”

“Well, probably not.”

I was too concerned with being honest to notice that he’d been verbally stacking dry tinder around me for the previous three minutes… until he tossed the lit match.

“Well, Mom,” he said, “it’s a shame your creativity burned out thirty years ago.”

———

I told myself that my degree wasn’t in Drama, or Theater Performance, or Improvisation. But, as a matter of fact, I have a Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing and in English Literature. I’ve been telling people for years, with a wink and a smile, that I have a degree in Making Things Up.

So why can’t I just make up a bedtime story?

One answer is that I don’t practice storytelling. I’m not a verbal person; my voice doesn’t command attention, and my spoken word goes unheard in large groups. If I am drafted to stand behind the microphone and say a piece I will do my duty, but I don’t enjoy it or feel comfortable doing it. Even reading a storybook to a classroom of kids of any age typically ends in disaster: I’m not interesting enough, the kids’ attention wanders, and the teacher gets hoarse from reminding them to LISTEN TO OUR GUEST and USE OUR MANNERS. This amount of negative feedback is sufficient for me to avoid storytelling gigs with as much grace as I can muster. And that’s a gig that calls for me to read someone else’s published text, not spin a yarn of my own.

I’m fascinated by improv, I really am. I admire tremendously the comics and writers who thrive on it. I attended a performance of the Second City Touring Company when I was in college, and I couldn’t believe that people could just go up on stage, ask for a few prompts, and create a unique, evolving show from it. Granted, they were different people — extroverted in inverse proportion to my introverted nature, and mugging to the camera instead of hiding from it at every opportunity. They wanted people to look at them, to react to them, to interact with them. And in more recent years I watched several seasons of Whose Line Is It Anyway?, and Last Comic Standing, and Kids in the Hall, and SCTV, and Big Train. Some people are born to perform. I am not one of them. I can watch them on The Green Room or Inside the Actors Studio, talking passionately to each other about baring their souls in front of cameras and live audiences. My own soul is safe in the bottom drawer of a locked filing cabinet in a dark room behind a basement door marked ‘Beware of the leopard,’ so their public trials are my escapist literature. I could listen to them for hours.

Personally, I need structure for a story. I need to know who’s in it, and why they’re there, and where they’re going, and what the crisis is, before I can start writing. I need to see it before I can write it down.

But I also know, from having studied Story and Literature, that everything has been done. It was thousands of years ago that someone wrote “there is nothing new under the sun.” Intellectually I know that there are only novel combinations of tropes and themes. You learn the rules so that you can break them when it’s appropriate, but you do learn the rules.

So, what do we mean when we call something “creative”? If we take it literally, it is the act of creating something, making something that is completely new. But if there is nothing new, what can “creative” mean?

To Jack, it might mean “say something I haven’t heard before.”

To Neil Gaiman, it might mean “say something in a way that no one else dares to.”

To Frank Herbert, it might mean “create a world nobody else has imagined.”

To Ursula LeGuin, it might mean “change the rules and keep going.”

To me, it means “be different; be eccentric; be surprising.” But if you’re writing, you must plan ahead to be able to surprise others… which makes for a rather tedious bedtime story. Sorry, kids.

———

All my kids are adept at the “game” of Minecraft, which is really an interactive virtual world. You mine for elements, you craft items, you build structures, you battle evil creatures. It sounds simple, but I’ve seen Minecrafters create amazing things: player pianos, quiz boards, electronic sorting devices, elaborate prank wars, collaborative games, and challenging adventure maps. There are so many ways to use the toolbox that Minecraft gives you. One of them is the mode you choose: Creative, or Survival. In Survival Mode there are creepers, zombies, witches, silverfish, and all manner of possible deadly attackers; you play in this mode with your head turned, certain that something bad is sneaking up behind you. Because it is. Given enough time, your screen will tint red and you’ll see a button that reads “You died!” (Even worse is Hardcore Mode, in which your entire world is destroyed upon your death. That’s hardcore, all right.)

DinnerboneDied

In Creative Mode, however, the rules are dramatically different. You have unlimited resources, no enemies if you don’t want them, and you pretty much have superpowers. You can fly. And the only way that you can die in Creative Mode is by tunneling so deep in this Flat-Earth construct that you fall through the last level of bedrock and go out into the Void.

In Creative Mode, you’re the sixth son of landed gentry. You don’t have to be a doctor or a minister or a lawyer or a soldier — you can follow your heart and your whims. You can build a castle on shifting sand and nobody will raise a hand to stop you. You don’t have to watch your budget or your back. You have the luxury of godlike powers to assemble, build, create, and design. You have what every director in Hollywood wants: creative control.

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How would your real life change if you could live it in Creative Mode? If you didn’t have to worry about not getting your paycheck or your support check? If you knew you couldn’t get hurt and wouldn’t get sick? If you could arrange things your way? If you always had reward without risk? Would complete safety and freedom lead to innovation, or to sloth? Would you write your own story, or read someone else’s?

Published in: on November 21, 2013 at 8:01 am  Comments (1)