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What Scares Me

I’m suffering with serious motivation issues with my writing.  Trying to slog through part two of Northville and just really struggling with it.  But that’s not what scares me.

What scares me is this…

The well has run dry.  Kind of.  Sort of.  For the past ten years, once I started this writing gig, I have never stopped coming up with ideas for short stories and novels.  Now, while I have several half-completed novels that tempt me and frustrate me but which I don’t seem to find the ability to work on, the short story factory has closed as well.  Every idea that pops up in my head is the same.  It’s about longing and desire and need for something that is just not quite there.  It’s on the tip of the tongue.  On the edge of the horizon.  It is, unfortunately, a story that revolves all around where I am at in life at the moment.  And I don’t want to write that story.  I want to write a story that has nothing to do with me.  But I find myself completely incapable of contemplating such a story.  Every idea comes back to that same thing.  So, I don’t really even think about short stories anymore.  And struggle with the motivation to continue the slog through Northville and those other projects.

That’s what scares me.  I feel like something has fundamentally changed in my head.  In my creative mind.  In the things that go into storytelling for me.  Something is shutting down.  Or maybe has already shut down.  The first part of Northville is complete at 30,000 words.  Part two is now at 9,000 words.  I want to be able to complete part two at about 30,000 words.  And then a part three at another 30,000 words.  Every day I think about it.  Every day I wonder how I’ll possibly get it done.  I know there’s plenty of story I could tell about Pete, Sophie and Lily.  I just don’t know if I have it in me anymore.

Is it writer’s block?  Could be.  But this doesn’t feel like writer’s block.  Even when I’ve struggled with a work in progress, I’ve been able to switch gears and work on something else.  A short story.  A blog post.  Something that interested me and kept me writing until I could go back to that work in progress and carry it to completion.  Now I just find it so difficult to pull words out of me on anything.  Like I said, something fundamental seems to have changed and I don’t know how to make that happen.

 

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Thank You, Andrew Sullivan

Still my favorite blog because of the sheer variety of topics and the excellent writing, Andrew Sullivan’s blog is a go to for me every single day, multiple times during the day.  It’s amazing what comes out of his blog every day.  Here are two examples from today, and they just scratch the surface:

Jack London.  Andrew posted an excerpt from a review of a new biography of Jack London.  Here’s the interesting writerly thing that Andrew also highlighted:

Jack London’s writing routine was the single unchanging element of his relatively brief adult life. From the age of 22 until his death at 40, he wrote a thousand words every day, a quota he filled as a rule between 9 and 11 a.m. He slept for five hours a night, which left him with 17 hours of free time. But in his writing hours he was prolific: he produced short stories, poetry, plays, reportage, ‘hackwork’ and novels, many of them bestsellers. In 18 years, he published more than fifty books. ‘I’d rather win a water fight in the swimming pool,’ he said, ‘than write the great American novel.’

It’s a huge encouragement for the idea of a writing life.  Write for two hours a day, producing 1,000 words each day and, you too, can end up producing 50 books over the course of 18 years.  Only problem is this … the math doesn’t add up.  Go back and think about it.  Unless books back then were a whole lot shorter than they are now, which I don’t think is the case.

There are a couple of interesting quotes from the book referenced in the review:

After The Call of the Wild was received as an allegory, London said, “I plead guilty, but I was unconscious of it at the time. I did not mean to do it.”  According to the review, he’d meant to write a story about a good dog.  This confirms my own feeling that many stories that are interpreted as having particular “meanings” or “points” were frequently intended by the authors to just be a story about nothing other than … a good dog.

I also get this:  “Every time I sit down to write,” London wrote, “it is with great disgust. I’d sooner be out in the open, wandering around most any old place.”

*********

And then there was this.  According to the chart and the research, the top 10% of Americans average how many alcoholic drinks per week?  73.85.  That’s 10 a day.  Every day.  Week after week.  Wow.  I get that there are alcoholics and they drink a lot, but imagine this.  If these numbers are correct, one out of ten people you know drink that much.  It’s stunning.  I have a problem, but it never, ever got close to that.  I don’t even want to think what my life might be like if I drank that much.

Interesting thing … wasn’t Jack London known for his vast consumption of alcohol?

A Confession

I am an objective-driven person.  As it relates to writing, I don’t write just to write.  Particularly since I started publishing my own work via Kindle Direct Publishing and CreateSpace, I write with an objective.  To get my books out there, to get feedback, to believe I am writing good stuff, and to, one day, figure out a way to make some money at this thing called writing.  One of the reasons I got sluggish about writing over the past couple of months is that I wasn’t seeing the objective anymore.  Without anything “new” out there and without running any promotions, or at least any that were working, I wasn’t seeing much in the way of sales and not a whole lot of new reviews.  And with my struggles to complete anything, I wasn’t seeing anything “new” on the horizon that would help meet my objective.

So, I withered for a time.  A couple of months of not believing the time and effort was worth it.  I’ve turned the page on that, however.  Last night, I finished my final edit of Northville.  I’ve got one more editor to go — my sister is a pretty incredible copy editor.  She finds all of the typos nobody else saw.  And then it will be on to the next chapter in Lily, Pete and Sophie’s story.  I’m undecided whether it will be a three novella series or one novel.  That’s my next decision.  I may just keep writing until I’ve got no more of their story to tell and see where it ends up.

My confession?  I’m a praise slut.  OK.  There, I said.  I’m a praise whore.  In person, when somebody tells me I done good, I’m embarrassed by it.  But behind the privacy of a computer screen, I can’t get enough of it and you can’t imagine how good it feels to read things like this:

Forty-something Kel is experiencing a mid-life crisis, but it’s not the typical crisis of wanting a sports car and a much younger girlfriend. His crisis revolves around a seemingly loveless marriage, two kids who don’t care if he’s around or not, and a job he despises. One night, after a conversation with a stranger in a bar, Kel decides to embark on a journey that may give him enlightenment, or if nothing else, a few days away from his unhappy household. Kel reaches his destination of Santo Cielo, Baja California, and seeks out Father Santos. Over the next week, the old priest teaches Kel lessons that have long been forgotten, and more importantly, shows him how happiness can be found in the simplest of things. In the ensuing weeks and months, Kel wrestles with what he has versus what he wants and needs, and agonizes over his needs versus the needs of his family.

This is a tremendously well-written story of one man’s struggle to find harmony and contentment, even where it may not exist. Eye-opening and thought-provoking, it delivers a powerful narrative of a man hurting inside, who only desires happiness for himself and his family. This book spoke to me (on so many levels) as few others have. There are some pearls of wisdom which the reader can take and apply to their own lives, especially the concept behind the title. An absolutely wonderful book. Five stars just aren’t enough!

That second paragraph describes exactly why I ended up writing Weed Therapy the way I did and my hope that it would reach people in a deeper way than just having read a story that was a throw-away.  (Yes, Beaver, if you read this, this is one story that had a point.)  The individual who wrote those two paragraphs is an unknown reader who has now read both of my short story collections and both of my novels, giving each of them five stars with glowing reviews to accompany the ratings.  That I have struck a chord with somebody who doesn’t know me is meeting the objective.

A co-worker just let me know that she finished reading the draft of Northville Five & Dime.  Her words for the story and my writing included “your writing is really powerful,” “a very insightful read,” and “never stop writing, you have a talent for it many don’t have.”

You can’t imagine how much I needed to read those words.  The review above, the comments from a friend.  They help.  They really do.  So, thank you to the strangers who post good reviews, the fellow writers I’ve met through blogging and who provide so much support, and to my friends, family and co-workers who continue to support my efforts.  It helps. It really does.

Whispering Pizza

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A thing I’ve “known” for some time is that refrigerating bread dough for some period of time during the rise can improve the flavor, the crumb, the crust — pretty much everything about the bread.  But it is something I rarely do.  I’m impatient and generally don’t plan that far ahead.  Unless I’m making sourdough, which requires refreshing my starter days ahead of time and then a two day mixing, kneading, rising process, I generally make bread as quickly as I can.

Then I read the NY Times this week.  Their Wednesday Food Section was dedicated to all things bread.  There I learned about Josey Baker and his new bread book.  He refrigerates his dough for days before baking it.  The description intrigued me.  I started poking around the internet and found this article about refrigerating pizza dough.  The writer made enough dough for ten pizzas and stuck in the fridge.  Every day for the next ten days, he took out enough dough to make one pizza and recorded the results.  His verdict was that refrigerating the dough for 3-5 days produced the best results.

What did I do?  I raced home and made pizza dough Friday evening, stuck it in a baggy and put it in the fridge.  I was planning on making pizza today anyway, so why not try it.  The dough was only the fridge for about 40 hours before I took it out this morning, but that’s certainly longer than I’ve refrigerated dough in the past.  I made five pizzas.  They have two different kind of sausage on them.  Whiskey fennel and green chile.

How did they turn out?  Well, I don’t know.  I was making these pizzas to put away for lunches at work in the next week or two.  As much as I really wanted to have one today, I resisted.  I do know this, however.  I don’t think I’ve ever had my crust look like this…

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See those pockets of air.  That’s a good thing.  There was also more blistering around the edges of the crust than usual and the bottom was well charred.  Not burnt, but charred and crispy.  So, I’ll be doing this more often in the future.  And, hopefully add a day or two to the refrigeration.  Not just for pizza but for bread as well.

What you ask does this have to do with whispering?

Absolutely nothing.  The whispering refers to something wholly unrelated.  I’m in need of a writing whisperer.  I haven’t written much in the last couple of weeks.  Haven’t blogged much either.  I worry that I’m falling into the thing I didn’t want to.  Unlike many writers, I haven’t been writing since I was knee high to a grasshopper.  I didn’t spend my teen years journaling.  I didn’t take creative writing classes in college.  I have not spent my life as a writer.

What I have done is spend most of my life looking for things to motivate me, to challenge me, to stretch my limits.  In sports, I’ve played baseball, softball, golf, tennis, and who knows what else, including playing organized soccer for the first time at the age of 45.  In other areas, cooking is a constant source of opportunities and possibilities to experience something new.  I have tried to learn the violin, classical guitar, saxophone, and harmonica.  In other words, I am constantly in a search for something, that thing that I can do well and take to a different level.

Writing is the thing that has stuck with me longer than any of those other activities and I think I have, as a result, got better at it than anything else I have tried.  Here’s the problem though.  I think I’m getting stuck.  I’m not sure if I’m moving forward anymore and, maybe even, I’m moving backwards.

I discovered something about where I’m at with my writing this week.  I tried through the last few days to write a short story, a couple of different variations.  I kept falling back on the same kind of idea, which is a repeat of so many things I’ve written, and worse than that — I was writing in the same style.  The short, choppy sentences, frequently incomplete, that has started to fill my writing.  And I don’t want to do that with every story I write.  Doing so would mean I’m getting lazy, falling back on a gimmick.

A few years ago I read The Book Thief.  The author had this thing in that where he would describe somebody making a statement and how the words of the statement would flow into the room and do something there.  At first, I didn’t think too much of it, but by the end of the story, it was one of the things that made the story so incredible.  Much to my disappointment, I then read another book written by the same author and he did the same thing in that book.  So, it wasn’t something particular to The Book Thief, it was this author’s gimmick.

Stephen King has a gimmick or two as well.  One of them is his voice — the kind of snotty, know-it-all, teenage smart aleck voice.  I think that’s what bothers me the most about what he has been doing for years now — it’s always that voice.  Why can’t he ever write in a different voice.

Now I’m doing the same thing.  Or at least I feel that way.  I need a writing whisperer to coax me out of this.

That’s one thing I need.  Here’s another — something good to happen with my writing.  Something to tell me that all of the mental and emotional energy I invest in this, the time commitment, and everything else that goes into being a writer is worth it.  Because there are very few things I do just to do.  As much as I may not want to be like this, there has to be a reason for doing what I do with my time.  Particularly something like writing.  I enjoy when I write, when I’m spinning words into a story.  When I get that feeling that I figured out something and got it done.  When I feel like I’ve done something special.  But there needs to be something more than that.  I’m not even sure what that “something more” is.  I just know that I don’t write just for me, just for the sake of writing stories.

Anybody know a writing whisperer?  Anybody know the reason why I write?  Why do you write?

You Should Always Listen to Your Father

(Disclaimer:  This post is not meant to cover fathers who did not earn your trust and respect.)

In my version of family lore, my father told us kids before we decided to go off to college that there were two ways to approach college.  One option was to study something you enjoyed.  The other was to study something that would lead to a job.  I have always wondered why we can’t be lucky enough to find something that covers both categories.  Sadly, for many of us it just doesn’t seem to work out that way, so in his odd way, my father offered true words of wisdom.  Sage advice.  A decision that drew in stark relief something that was impending – adulthood and choices that could have a huge impact on your life – decisions, none of which lead to perfection.

I followed his advice.  Both pieces of it.  My undergraduate degree was in Government (also known as Political Science in most universities) because I enjoyed the subject.  It did not, however, lead to a post-degree job.  I ended up getting a job as a word processor, receptionist, man of all office trades at a local law school because my only marketable skill seemed to be that I could type really fast.  After a year, I enrolled in a Masters in International Relations program and continued working.  Why that subject?  Because I enjoyed it.  I quit after about a month because I realized that it would have simply been impossible to work full-time while meeting the program requirements – I mean, seriously, papers and presentations due at all too frequent intervals, hundreds of pages of reading each week, and all sorts of other things.  It was unworkable.

But, I didn’t want to be a secretary the rest of my life.  By that time I had promoted to an Executive Assistant position, working for one of the school’s deans.  It wasn’t bad, but I was pretty sure I was meant for something more than that (not that there’s anything wrong with being an executive assistant or secretary).  I just didn’t want to spend my life filing.  Seriously.  I’m a stack person, not a file person.

I looked around and saw all of these other fools who were making it in law school, so I decided, if they could do it so could I.  I enrolled in law school, got my degree, passed the bar, and got a job as an attorney.  Not because it was a subject I enjoyed and wanted to study, but because it was a path to a job that was hopefully better and had more upward mobility than the one I had.

I can’t say it was the worst decision I’ve ever made.  The truth, however, is that I have spent most of my 20+ years as an attorney wishing I had picked something else.  Social work, elementary school teacher, financial advisor, chef, and most recently and for a longer duration than any of those other options, writer.  Actually, what I’ve really wanted all along was to be retired, but for some reason that’s frowned on in our society.  At least until you’ve slaved away for a few decades.

Which leads to the second pearl of wisdom my father gave me.  After I finished writing One Night in Bridgeport, I started working on something else and then wanted to change gears and work on something else, and then I had this “great” idea for a short story.  Suddenly, there were all these ideas ping-ponging around in my head and I couldn’t stay focused very long on any one.  I talked to my dad about it and he told me that I should finish a story that I had started before I moved on to something else, otherwise I would never finish it.

Turns out he was right about that too.  I have too many half completed works in progress that I can’t figure out how to get back into.  The Irrepairable Past is the one that breaks my heart.  I had something beautiful going with that thing and after taking a break because it was getting too hard and because I wanted to write Deviation and then Northville, I can’t figure out how to get back into it.  I’ve re-read it over the past couple of weeks and absolutely love what I’ve done with it, but I can’t get my head back into the story.  It’s not there.

I posted a few days ago about an omen that suggested I needed to return to Sullivan Bay.  The problem is that I think I have lost the directions.  And I think I know one of the reasons why.  It has to do with why I write the way I write.

When I read a book and I’m done with it, the story for the most part disappears from my mind.  When I watch a movie, same thing.  When my kids were younger, I coached one of their baseball teams with two guys who could sit there and spout lines, and entire chunks of dialogue, from movies as though they had roles in them.  I could never match them because I simply don’t retain those kinds of memories of what I see on the screen.  It’s there while I watch and then gone when the story is over.  For the most part anyway.  There are some exceptions to this.

The same is true when I read.  My kids used to ask me questions about books we all have read.  Like “Hey dad, do you remember when Harry was doing X in the third book and Y happened?”

“Umm.  No.”

“You don’t?”

“No.  I don’t.  I never remember those kinds of details . . .”

“Oh yeah.  Never mind.”

They’ve stopped asking me questions like that, because it is a simple fact for me.  Nine and a half times out of ten, once I’m done reading a story, I’m done with it and I lose a whole lot of memory of the thing in the transition to the next story I’m going to read.

I think this applies to my writing.  It explains why I write the way I do and why it is so important for me to finish something once I’ve started.  For the most part, there’s no going back for me.  Let me use Northville as an example.  I’ve spent months working on it.  I edit and re-write as I write.  Typically, when I sit down to work on something, I’ll go back a few pages, maybe more and read through what I have already written.  I do it to re-familiarize myself with the terrain.  I also edit as I do so, cleaning things up, tweaking this, fixing that.  Sometimes, I go back further.  By the time I’ve finished writing a story like Northville, I’ve probably read the entire 30,000 word piece, in bits and pieces, at least ten times.  The reality is that every time I write on a work in progress, it’s about taking a couple of steps backwards before I can go forward again.  As a result, when I type the final word, I view the piece as pretty damn close to final.  And I’m done with the story.  It’s gone.  Time for the next one.

Which makes the next few weeks for me extremely difficult.  I’ve asked some people to read Northville.  They’re coming back with edits, comments, suggestions.  Things for me to consider.  Good feedback.  Really good.  I knew that this would happen.  Hell, I knew I needed to do some things to the story even without their input.  It was, even with my involved writing process, not as final as my final drafts usually are.  This story represented something I knew would need additional work after I typed that last word.  And I dread going back into it and tweaking it and fixing it and doing all of those things that will make it a better story.  I’m done with it.  It’s gone.

I have to, however, do what needs to be done with Northville.  I want this story to be better than anything I’ve written.  I’ll be pulling out a lot of hair in the weeks ahead as a result.  Forcing myself to sit down with Northville and considering the comments of the readers.  And finishing a story after it has left my head.

There’s another problem with all of this.  It goes back to The Irrepairable Past.  I put it to the side almost a year ago and, as I said, I don’t know how to get back into it.  I’d like to think I’m not done with the story.  In fact, I know I’m not.  I’m just flummoxed by how to continue.  To do so will basically mean a re-introduction, a re-consideration, a re-telling of the story from the beginning.  Even if I don’t actually re-write a word of it.  And after so much time away from it, it just feels too much like what I try to avoid.  I don’t know how I’m going to do it.  On some level, although not complete, the story has left me.

Maybe my father was right.  It’s important to finish what you start when you write.  Otherwise you may never finish it.  The Irrepairable Past seems to be a perfect example at the moment.  I started it.  Then I stopped before it was done.  I got sidetracked and now don’t know how to get back on track.

Which leads me to this.  I wish my sons would learn this lesson.  Always listen to your father.

We are currently dealing with my oldest son’s desire to life with his girlfriend.  At a time when he is only now completing his first year of college.  At a time when they have no real savings and no real earning potential, they want to live together.  I’ve told him it’s not time.  That they’re not ready.  That the only way it could possibly work is if one of them were to quit college and go to work full-time and that simply should not be in the equation for either of them at this point in their lives.  They should be focused on their education, committed to the idea of getting their degrees, and then starting a life together.  There is so much more that is wrapped up in this, but I’m not going to blare it to the world.  I only wish he listens to me.  Sometimes a father actually knows what he’s talking about.  And usually, it seems, we only realize that after it’s too late.

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