Rebecca here: From “low dread” to sports psych to the art and patience of practice, this guest essay featured on Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog was spot-on for me. Hope it strikes a chord in you, too.
A quick story before I go–about humility and performance and the knowledge of our elders, etc., etc. My regular readers know I was a ballet dancer as a kid. It wasn’t just my thing; it was my only thing for a while, which is dangerous enough that one’s identity becomes wholly wrapped up in it. So that, when the pirouette fails, the person fails.
Anyway…about those pirouettes, I could practice and practice in a corner of the studio, sweating my proverbial balls off (sorry), but I wouldn’t entertain any other notions of practice besides putting myself in fourth position and taking off, spot, spot, spot, tight core, and land. Or fall. Or fall off pointe. Or spin out into the wall.
Before a performance of some kind, I remember my mom asking me if I ever visualized doing a perfect triple pirouette. I rolled my eyes in reply. Visualization, along with the self help-mumbo jumbo-yoga-reiki-dalai lama nonsense she’d gotten into since she got sick was just that.
Then, of course, she died (not just then, but years later) with more grace than I’d ever been able to perform with. No matter all my practice and all my sweat.
To borrow from this essay on the practice of writing, I wasn’t yet ready. I couldn’t yet plunge to the “deepest depths” for my art. My art is different now, but I think I can.
Yep, I’m ready.
Good evening and good writing and reading. Good practice–what ever that looks like for you.
What does writing practice look like for you?
But first…a bit of inspiration (and my last reference to Amor Towles’s novel, A Gentleman in Moscow and its hero, Count Rostov–I promise–at least until the TV adaptation comes out.):
For what matters in life is not whether we receive a round of applause; what matters is whether we have the courage to venture forth despite the uncertainty of acclaim.
I’m adapting “acclaim” for my uses, loosely here. And “venture” in the creative vein. (No bungee jumping or sky-diving for me.)
Here’s the thing…recently, funny mom blogger extraordinaire, Becca, from With Love and a Little Self-Deprecation, got me to thinking, when she asked of herself a question I’m asking myself, this week. When was the last time I did something brave?
Not just something required that was maybe a tad-bit outside of my wheelhouse (to use my fave maritime-inspired jargon). No, something that required guts.
Guts I’ve got when it comes to my kids. (Ask any mom.) Birth twins sans drugs–sure, got that… Forget my introversion (and the book I’m dying to read!) to introduce my toddlers to fellow toddlers on the playground–because, go figure, humans aren’t born knowing how to make introductions… Stick up for my kids when confronted by bullies… Overcome elementary math phobia to become a math club coach to teach kids that math is cool. Done, done, and done. Brave-ish Mom strikes and strikes again.
Now, can I be brave for myself? And can I be brave, when there’s no paycheck attached to it, when I’m the only one relying on me? Can I be creative-brave?
OK, let me back up to say that one reason I’m a writer is that I’m a nervous public speaker–and sometimes even not-so-public speaker. I’m just better on paper (you’re welcome). It’s one reason that I have five times the number of WordPress followers as FB friends.
And, funny thing, I taught freshman and sophomore-level college composition courses (yea, essays!) throughout my MFA, but teaching is different than speaking. Reading is different, too, if still a little scary. (Best done in a closet, as I was when I recorded my story, “Recruit.”) Reading my work before a group, letting my “weird” accent hang out–this I haven’t done in a while.
So, on my gutsy creative to-do list, this week: send my first, long-awaited literary agent query (first stop on the publishing road map) for my behemoth historical novel manuscript; and, even more to the bravery point, apply to present at a fall literary festival in my home state of Ohio, where much of my short fiction is set. This is new literary territory for me.
Part of my nervousness is due to the fact that to present at this festival really will be going home, and there’s a fear that I will be looked at as an outsider. (After so many years south of the Mason Dixon, I do say “ya’ll,” after all.)
Still, I’m going to submit my proposal. Worst thing that can happen is that they say no. Second worse, they say yes, and then I need to start stewing with nerves until September!
So, help a girl out, readers and writers:
Ever been to a literary festival? What do you look for (besides free books–yeah, I’m with you there)? What do you want to hear? Learn? I have no wares to hawk, no tsotchkes to share. It’s just me. And, in the immortal brand slogan of L’Oreal and imitator memes everywhere, I’m worth it.
What’s on your gutsy creative to-do list this week?
My powers of observation are not so keen that I’m going to brave the very crowded depths of reviews of A Gentleman in Moscow. (Want to read my reviews, I’ve got a whole category, above.)
Let’s just agree that Amor Towles’s second novel is a modern masterpiece, shall we? If you are one of the four people on the planet who haven’t read or at least heard about this story of Count Alexander Rostov, here’s a brief intro (from the jacket copy):
When, in 1922, the thirty-year-old Count is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, he is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin…the [erudite and witty] Count’s reduced circumstances provide him entry to a much larger world of emotional discovery as he forges friendships…
Basically, drama, relationships, and meaningful meditations ensue. Just read this novel about the Russian soul–its art, history, toil, treasures, and catastrophes. (And be sure to watch the best novel trailer I’ve ever seen at Towles’s website, above.)
Just as this former kid ballet dancer (me) can’t watch a ballet without my feet twitching, my calves contracting, my back straightening, and my head lilting this way and that with those on stage, I can’t read a book without wondering how?
But here’s not the place for a deep-dive into craft. I simply want to note a few miracles of invention in A Gentleman… and provide a word of caution to the dutifully outlining and character backstory-charting new(er) writers out there.
An image of note: the Count’s twice-tolling clock is much more than a clock that tells time by tolling only at noon and at midnight. It provides a mechanism to discuss industriousness, for Towles to tell us of the Count’s father, who had the clock made because a man (of a certain class, time, and place) should be too busy with work to heed the chimes between waking and noon. And by noon, having had an industrious morning, a man should then leave his work to commune with others. Should he hear the midnight chime, he is too late to bed. And the replete uses for this image are only beginning…
Description of note: readers come to a book like this expecting description befitting its learned main character. Towles delivers, but fear not, he doesn’t (like in real Russian novels) let his pacing lag in many-paged sections of description. No, his descriptions are just as clippy and cutting as his dialogue.
Take the goose chase section (trust me), a funny and farcical bit that brings together in a hotel hallway a melange of worldly guests: two French journalists, a Swiss diplomat, three Uzbek fur traders, a representative of the Roman Catholic Church, a Russian opera tenor with his family of five, and an American general. (All that’s missing is a partridge you know where, but then we do have geese!) Each becomes a character–and a caricature in the Count’s eyes–in the briefest of scenes, thanks to Towles’s powers of description. The ambassador from the Vatican advised; the Swiss diplomat heard the Russian and the Italian out, mouth shut; the tenor, “who spoke only a few words of Italian, informed the prelate (fortissimo) that he was not a man to be toyed with.” The American general, from “The Great State of Texas” took charge and threw the geese out the window.
A sleight of hand (and humor) of note: recently I read a wonderfully-informative and instructive piece on Brevity‘s nonfiction blog, “The Sound of a Memoir,” about shying away from using song lyrics in our writing (whether fiction or nonfiction). Practically-speaking, citing song lyrics (titles are OK) can be an expensive endeavor–if a writer manages to get permission to use them. Creatively-speaking, there are better ways to note a song in a story–to provide a bit of soundtrack to a piece, to get the reader’s foot tapping and put him or her in mind of a certain time when that song said so much! (If you now, as I do, have Elton John’s “Sad Songs (Say So Much)” in your head, you’re welcome.)
Back to Towles’s mastery: In A Gentleman… the author artfully explores the passing of time and trends, in one part commenting on jazz music. In not one but a few places the author has the Count muse about the popular jazz tune that speaks of a distinct absence of bananas, a lack of bananas, for want of bananas… You get the idea. Anyone who hasn’t lived his entire life in a cave knows the song is Louis Prima’s “Yes! We Have No Bananas,” (hear the song here) but by not citing even the title, the reference becomes more than a song but a clever running joke.
All that’s to gush, yes, and also to provide a word of caution to the new(er) writers out there looking for the keys–not only to plot but to imagery and motifs, the characterization and quirks–that make a piece of writing beautiful. How to make these little miracles happen on the page? If I knew, I would be doing it, right now. But I think one of the keys to being a great writer is being a great reader. Another is to trust your mind to make the miracles as you go. Call it a state of flow or the (ahem) muse catching you by the hand, whatever, but writing is more about writing than planning. (OK, you caught me; I’m a panster.)
Yes, you can plan for plot. Outline all you like. Get a sense of your characters before diving in. But can you plan for the clever bits, the brilliant tropes and descriptors and “bananas” that make a piece sing, I’m not so sure.
What do you think? What miracles of invention have you encountered thus far in your summer reads? I’d love to hear from you!
*I grabbed the American and UK cover (which I prefer) images from Goodreads.
Every human being has hundreds of separate people living under his skin. The talent of a writer is his ability to give them their separate names, identities, and personalities, and have them relate to other characters living with him.
Amen, Mel. (Ahem, with the addition of “her skin,” “her ability,” and “with her,” thank you very much.)
Ever have one of those weeks (or months) when you feel like you’re juggling too many balls–but also too many names, identities, and personalities? And not only on the page.
I am a creative writer (“dang it,” she pounds fist on desk), but I am also a writer and editor for
modest pay universities and etc. It is this latter personality that lately has taken precedence over the former (because the fruits of this personality can buy actual fruit, or veggies, or ice cream from the truck that smartly parks itself at our neighborhood pool.)
Fear not, one of two looming work deadlines met, I am seeing the light. (Sometime, I’m going to see how many myriad scads of mixed metaphors I can cram into a single post!) Back to my creative endeavors I WILL BE (soon-ish).
In the meantime, I enjoy my work that allows me to pick the brains of academics young and seasoned and learn things I’d never come to on my own, like the powers of biofilms, the miracles of flexible solar cells, what rotorcraft even is. Really, I remind myself, it’s all creative, right? Who knows, maybe this work will create burgeoning new identities in my fiction.
I talked in my last post about list-making, reining in those cows. (Another metaphor gone awry.) I’m trying to be better about writing it all down, so I see what I must do, and what I AM DOING. (Sleeping past 8am, now that the kids are out of school, for one. Big, big win!)
Creative right now:
Reading: A Gentleman in Moscow (read me gush about it on my FB page.); next up, Warlight
Listening to: Above Us Only Sky, audio novel by my uber-talented author friend from my MFA program days, Michele Young-Stone
Submitting: yesterday, a travel-ish short story of mine set in India to the literary travel mag, Nowhere; agent query submissions coming soon (see next line)
Editing: that last 40 pages of my historical novel manuscript–woo to the hoo!
How’s your creative list looking? What are you reading, writing, loving right now? Let me know here or at FB.
It’s a Rust Belt Girl roundup for an end of the work week that also coincides with the beginning of
CRAZY summer vacation.
Going with the “roundup” theme, I can say that the cows are loose, having broken the fence, and now they’re just roving around the plains willy nilly. (I know I’m impressing you with my vast knowledge of cowpoke life right now.)
Let’s be real. There are no cows. The cows are the items on my to-do lists, lists which don’t actually exist anymore, because so much of my life has gone digital.
I used to have real paper-and-pen lists: meal plans and menus, work to-dos based on deadline, and post-its galore with snippets of story ideas. Concrete things I could hold in my fingers. Then I’d go about numbering the items according to importance.
What happened? Hmm. Could it be that I jumped on social media last year, and my lists are collateral damage?
Whatever. The upshot: I’m bringing back the lists, because they’re real.
Because…my children (though they are playing virtual FIFA soccer at the moment) are real. Their need to be fed and watered (and maybe even educated and socialized even on the hottest days) is real. Yep, it is really summer now, and they are really home—ALL DAY LONG.
You don’t need to be a mom to lose your cows—or to rein them in (or is that only with horses?).
With two work deadlines looming, these cows will dominate my lists for the next little bit. But, fear not, I will leave time for creative writing and tinkering, literary agent soliciting and journal submitting…and even dreaming—doing some of that right here.
What’s on your reading and writing list this weekend, this summer?
Want to know what I’m reading in my stolen moments–when I’m not abiding by my lists? (One of the best novels I’ve read in a long time!) Find me on FB.
Nope, I’m not going to get all weepy on you (and I’m not going anywhere), but I am going to share a few of the coolest things that have come out of my first year, social–as in, social media.
A retrospective as it were (we will miss you, Daily Post.)
But first, a little tongue-in-cheeky lyrical accompaniment–hum along if you can–from “Brotherhood of Man” (a la How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying):
There is a Brotherhood of Man,A Benevolent Brotherhood of Man,A noble tie that bindsAll human hearts and mindsInto one Brotherhood of Man.
I don’t know a lot about brotherhood or business (OK, maybe a little about the business of writing), but I know that noble ties that bind are hard to come by anywhere.
Question: What connects us human readers and writers, really?
Answer: A love of ideas communicated as words, right? Carefully chosen ones–yes, all in the right order. Not the sort of stuff you can dash off between your Dunkin Donuts run and the office (unless you’re Hemingway and D.D. is a bar).
Rarely do I feel more alone in the writing world than I do while pawing my way through my FB feed populated by thousands of “writers” group members. You (and Mark Zuckerberg) don’t need me to tell you that there’s not enough real connecting–or even real socializing–going on, on social media, for writers, readers, or anyone else.
Not so for my WordPress Reader feed. Of course, I’ve taken the time to curate the scads of sites I follow. (If I’ve missed yours, let me know!) But there is, generally, great care and feeding done to the words that make up WP posts. And that care feeds community. So, here’s where I lament the draining of the Community Pool, especially, and and thank the WP editors for making it and the Daily Posts, like this, happen. (Not to worry, though, there is another pool I plan to dip my toes in and hope you might join me there.)
Back to the good care and feeding of our reading/writing community here and everywhere…remember when e-book readers made us fear the end of real books was nigh? In the same way I worried that email would disappear with my foray into social media. My findings: I still email the friends and fam I used to. And, guess what, people–even strangers–still respond to emails, even from bloggers (like this one), who reach out to writers they want to interview. I’m here to say email still works, and stay tuned for an author Q&A with Cinderland memoirist Amy Jo Burns, who will fill us in on her upcoming novel, Shiner!
My final finding in my very unofficial year-long social media study: the heated FB or LinkedIn debate: which is better suited to connecting with other writers and readers. My sense is that the pace of FB is more frenetic, making LinkedIn the place to connect with other communicators of your ilk looking to take the time to consider something more substantial than a jumping pygmy goat. (FB has cornered the goat video market, and that’s OK).
How do you best use social media to meaningfully connect with your fellow communicators?
I’d love to know.
And, as it’s the last day of short story month, I’d love to present a little gift, the latest issue of Flock literary journal (FREE to view online only until June 4), chock full of carefully tended words, all in the right order. Short stories not your thing (wah?)? How about a poem about honey? Art or interviews your bag? This issue’s got that too.
Hope you enjoy.
Lately, I’ve been American Dream-ing. My historical novel-in-progress interrogates the meaning of this term so overused as to be often scoffed at now, and questions what it means to be an American at peace, and at war on the Homefront. My short stories ask whether there is an American Dream to be found anymore in U.S. places defined by rust, and loss of industry, jobs, and people. Being a pessimistically optimistic Midwesterner by birth, I must say, um, yep.
Then there’s my own little dream, something like a lowercase american dream, not at all dire, to write: to dream on paper, I guess.
Recently, I ran across an interview with Crooked River Burning author and Ohio native Mark Winegardner, in which he talked about his start in writing as a journalist. The idea of being a “creative” writer was foreign and impractical, not done in his family and town–until, of course, he did it. Rust Belt Boy: Stories of an American Childhood author and Pennsylvania native Paul Hertneky said much the same thing. Practical doesn’t trade in dreams.
My (late) mom, a child of the 50s and early 60s (when one could put a finger on just what was meant by “American Dream”), was lucky enough to attend college–if unlucky enough to do so when the prevailing idea was to send a girl to college to land a husband. Still, her love of art and literature stuck (as did the husband), and, of course, it grew in me. I guess I’m propagating dreams through the generations here, tending and growing them. Sounds kinda like gardening, which she would have liked. Really, I’d rather just have her back.
Maybe I’m feeling melancholy with remembrance because it’s Memorial Day weekend here in America, a time of remembering dreams secured and dreams dashed. I know who this day is really for and will send up a prayer for them.
I know I shouldn’t take for granted the freedoms we have–freedom to feel melancholy, to trade in the impractical, to dream on paper. I sometimes imagine living in a place where hitting “Publish” is truly terrifying, not trivially terrifying.
Luck has followed me to my own little spot in America, where my complaints are few.
Oh OK, here’s one, since you didn’t ask: these springtime days I am awakened from my real dreaming just around 5:40am by the loud, screeching calls of our favorite local raptors, the osprey, or fish hawk. First world problem, I know. They are beautiful and majestic, I have to groggily remind myself, like another American bird we know. And so I try to fall back to sleep and weave the call into my dreams for when I turn to writing it all down at a suitable hour.
So, while my characters are parsing “American Dream” so am I, in the America of our past, present, and future. Whether you are American or not, I’d love to know how you define the term.
I’m guessing there are as many different definitions as there are those to do the dreaming. The term is interrogated in a recent feature article (with fantastic b&w photography) on Bloomberg.com: “Why Do Americans Stay When Their Town Has No Future?” The gist of the piece: “Family and community are the only things left in Adams County, Ohio, as the coal-fired power plants abandon ship and the government shrugs.” Best quote:
“‘The American dream is kind of to stay close to your family, do well, and let your kids grow up around your parents,’ he says. It was a striking comment: Not that long ago, the American dream more often meant something quite different, about achieving mobility—about moving up, even if that meant moving out.”
Happy Paper Anniversary! (Ironic, but true.) It’s Rust Belt Girl’s one year blogiversary.
Happy, happy day! We made it a year. I appreciate you sticking by me—and just think of all the writing paper we haven’t wasted!
For the obligatory anniversary stats: this post make 51, with an average word count of 370 (wordy me), for 347 total comments (lots by me) from 593 total followers, some of whom hopped on this train on that banner day when my post was a WordPress Discover feature. Thanks again, WordPress editors!
I started this blog to wrap my head around the literature of my native Rust Belt. For sure, one of my favorite comments, starting out in the Community Pool (best place to be on a Monday) went something like this: I don’t know where the *#$& the Rust Belt is, but I like it!
WordPress is definitely global. As much as I enjoy connecting with my fellow native or current Midwesterners (and I really do), one of the best things about this blog has been finding commonalities between far flung people and places—and the literature and art that comes out of those places.
Author interviews, photography, blogger collaborations, book reviews, apropos re-blogs (thank you, Belt Magazine), stories, essays, and—new this calendar year—writerly advice and notes on traditional publishing. Whew! Hopefully, even if you’ve never heard of the Rust Belt, you can find something here that suits your taste. Even if it’s funny. Especially if it’s weird.
This blogiversary coincides with the anniversary of my jump onto social media via FB. Yep, you read that right. When everyone else starts jumping ship, I’m like: that boat looks nice and sturdy! (Really, dinghy pics definitely forthcoming.) What have I found as a social media newbie? If I let it, social media zaps my focus so that I have the attention span of a hyper puppy. (Nope, still haven’t taken the real puppy plunge yet; I’ll keep you posted.) Social media also keeps me connected to friends, family, and writers too nice to ignore my friend requests! But those connections are more like taps on the shoulder—“remember me?”—than conversations.
We’re conversing here—real two-way street stuff. So, now it’s your turn. Happy Blogiversary to you, because it definitely takes two! What would you like to see from me in year two? (Cotton anniversary, btw.) I’ll try to oblige. ~ Rebecca
We writers love to talk about finding our literary voice (good piece on that here), along with our favorite tropes, motifs, and images. Basically…stuff we know.
We’ve all heard the “write what you know” advice, often attributed to ol’ Papa Hemingway. What he really said (and more Hemingway writing advice here):
Write about what you know and write truly and tell them all where they can place it…Books should be about the people you know, that you love and hate, not about the people you study about.
So, we read, travel, meet, live, repeat, and read some more–to amass the places, people, and ideas that we know fully, that become an integral part of us. So much so that these places, people, and ideas pop up in our writing as setting, characters, tropes and all those other fun literary terms.
All that’s to say that our writerly voice and our place in the world (weekly photo challenge) go hand-in-hand. For me, the way to discovering my literary voice–my place on the page (definitely still a work in progress)–and my place in the world are parallel journeys. And both follow water.
They say the apple doesn’t fall far… My dad, a lifelong Lake Erie boater, went around the world’s waterways as a young man in the Navy and still didn’t get enough of the stuff. Being landlocked makes him itchy. (Here he is on his 1942 Lyman he restored himself.) I suppose I inherited some of his itch.
From the Great Lake of my girlhood to the river I’m on now (header photo)–water makes its way into much of my creative writing. Not only as setting and a handy trope, but I’m interested in water’s relationship with our human bodies (which are so much water!), and I wish I could fish and swim and dive with an expert’s ease. And there’s where I write what I don’t know, because I want to know more.
This summer I will do more to know more to write more. How’s that? And I’ll do it in a dinghy! Yep, we bought a dinghy–my little family’s first foray onto the water.
Does your place in the world inform your place on the page? I’d love to hear about it and to see pics!
OK, I don’t buy that entirely, but I do believe in “garbage in, garbage out,” in most things.
That’s why I try not to read crap. I mean, no one tries to read crap, but the older I get the less guilt I feel for starting a book and not finishing it.
What I’m saying is…books have a great power over me. For this reason, I expect a lot from them, as I would from any encounter that will suck up, what 6, 10, even 12 hours–for a doorstopper.
Truth is, I have become an old man (as far as reading habits). I am that crotchety guy at the bookstore who wants to get his history, his humanity, and his poetry all in one tome.
Is this asking too much of one of my fave genres, historical fiction? Of course, as soon as you say, “genre,” literary types are thinking, well you might get your history and your humanity, but the language won’t sing. On the other hand, historical fiction buffs don’t want their story bogged down by MFA-grad-style poetic language acrobatics. Walking a tightrope indeed!
Am I oversimplifying. Of course. Are there novels that tick all the boxes? Yes. Since we’re talking historical fiction (in which I’m up to my eyeballs, as I’m working on a historical novel manuscript), I’ll throw All the Light We Cannot See out there as pretty stellar. In the WWII vein, I’d also add the less recent Snow Falling on Cedars. What do you think?
This weekend I hope to finish Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly, which ticks two of my boxes, and that’s OK.
Let’s chat books. What are you reading? How many of your boxes does it tick? Is it informing what you’re writing?