Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Precious Time


I woke this morning to the dreadful realization that I’d forgotten to write yesterday’s blog post.

It was Memorial Day’s fault, of course. While long holiday weekends are right up there with cookies in my book, I admit they wreak havoc on my sense of time. It’s only Wednesday and I’m already wondering how I’m going to fit my weekly household chores, library visits and play dates into the few remaining days left this week. While relaxation is good for the soul, it’s obvious slowing down comes at a price. I scramble to recover the lost ground.

This concept affects every area of life. It seems like only yesterday I brought Julia home from the hospital, but somehow she’s just a month from turning three. In the same vein, I realize my novel has been waiting patiently for me to finish revisions for six long years. Six years! How did time get away from me like that?

I understand the lesson: slow down for a moment and time rockets by. Yet, as writers, our truth is often found in those things that we see only when we slow down. As writers, we must look closely and then reflect. These carefully crafted details, the artful connections, are where writing transcends from mediocre to well-wrought. Skillful construction creates a work that readers connect with and remember. (I know I, for one, will always remember E.B. White’s outstanding essay, “Once More to the Lake.”) So how do we balance observation, reflection and productivity to create a work that lives in the hearts of readers?

I don’t know. Clearly. I’ve been plugging away at Somewhere for seven long years (a year to draft, six years of sluggishly picking it apart). More than anything, I want to finish this thing, answer the call of Jamieson’s Folly, my next novel project. But I get caught up in wanting to do Beth and Shel justice. I take breaks to write short fiction, to brush the cat, to bake a batch of cookies. So I fumble along in fits and starts, only making progress one lonely chapter at a time.

Some would argue this is still progress. But I’m not so sure. It takes a long time to get back into the groove after one of my short fiction/cat brushing/cookie baking hiatuses. I lose the feel for Beth. Her voice becomes an echo rather than a shout. I have to rummage through the junk in my brain to reconnect. All of that takes precious time.

Time. Slow down for a moment and time rockets by. It’s daunting, perhaps too daunting after this holiday weekend. Perhaps I’ll worry about catching up tomorrow. For today, perhaps I’ll just bake some desperation cookies.

Desperation Cookies*

1 cup butter
1 ½ cups white sugar
¾ cup brown sugar
2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
2 beaten eggs
2 ½ cups flour
1 ½ cups chips **
2 cups nuts ***

** use any combination of regular chocolate chips, butterscotch chips, white chocolate chips, milk chocolate chips, vanilla, cherry, or strawberry chips, or peanut butter chips—whatever you think will taste good. (I use semisweet chocolate.)

*** use any nuts you like, including walnuts, pecans, cashews, almonds, even peanuts. If you don’t have enough nuts, fill in with crushed cornflakes, rice krispies, coconut, raisins or other dried fruit. (I use 1 cup cranberries and 3/4 cup chopped pecans, plus a handful of rice krispies for crunch)

Melt the butter. Mix in sugars and stir. Add vanilla, baking soda, and salt; stir. Then add half the flour, the chips and the nuts. Stir well to incorporate, then add remaining flour and mix thoroughly.

Drop by teaspoons onto greased or parchment lined baking sheets, 12 cookies to a standard sheet. Bake in 350 degree preheated oven for 10 – 12 minutes, or until nicely browned.

Let cool 2 minutes, then remove cookies from sheet and transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. Makes 5 dozen.

* recipe originally from Joanne Fluke’s Peach Cobbler Murder, a Hannah Swensen mystery. (Note: this is a fantastic mystery series for those who like a good, old fashioned, cozy murder mystery. And these cookies are amazing.)

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

A Good Day, Indeed


Saturday stands in the annals as a very good day, indeed.

The day hadn’t started out promising. I’d gotten up late. The house was a mess, the kitchen counters cluttered, dishes in the sink, my husband and daughter milling about, looking for me to whip up breakfast. I was less than 30 minutes from opening our weekend garage sale and I still hadn’t found time to shower. I was about as flustered as I can get without going into full-scale meltdown. So what did I do? What I always do when I’m flustered and don’t know what to do first.

I sat down and checked my email.

I tripped into fantastic news. My flash, “The Burning Black,” had been published as Every Day Fiction’s story of the day.

Regular readers (Stephen) may remember: my acceptance from EDF marked my first foray into a paying market, something I believe is a significant step in my career. Granted, I made more selling a bundle of homegrown rhubarb at our garage sale, but being paid was a good feeling nonetheless. There’s something satisfying about being offered even the smallest honorarium for my work.

Even more gratifying were the comments and generous ratings Burning Black received. It’s good to know people are reading my work. And it’s good to know they’re enjoying it. For the most part, we writers work in isolation. It’s easy to find reasons to give up. Small successes like publication credits and kind comments carry a weary writer far, serving as rejuvenating protein drinks for the lagging soul, as balm for the oft-rejected heart.

As I clicked close my email, I thought things couldn’t get better. Then I sold loads of baby stuff and fattened my daughter’s college fund with a whopping $250. I met the nicest lady in the whole wide world, who gave me a fistful of bookmarks she’d made from old greeting cards. Her mission: to remind people how much Jesus loves them.

Yes, a good day on so many levels. I stand rejuvenated, soothed, vindicated, my beleaguered heart and soul ready to write.

One last bit of business, if you haven’t read Burning Black yet, here’s a link. Comment if you feel inclined, either here or on EDF. I welcome and appreciate the feedback.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Play’s the Thing


I feel like I need a creative shot in the ass, so I signed up for the Rhinelander School of the Arts this summer.

SOA is a week long program where people of all ages and backgrounds come together in the piney, lake bejewelled northwoods of Wisconsin to immerse themselves in the arts. Painting, sculpture, theatre, writing. You name it. It’s the arts lover's idea of orgasmic overload.

As I browsed the course catalogue, I came across an introductory playwriting class. I vacillated between playwriting and a course on writing a novel that seemed like a much better fit. But something about playwriting resonated and I couldn’t let the idea go. I’ve been a fan of the theatre for almost thirty years. When I was in high school, I worked in a professional theatre as a dresser. I still go to plays every chance I get—I have tickets to see five plays in the next four months. But I’d never thought of writing a play myself.

The more I thought about it, the more it made sense. What better creative challenge than to try to write a cohesive story with multi-dimensional characters than by doing it with a different set of tools. Forget my poetic imagery, my artfully described settings, my viewpoint character’s internal dialogue. I won’t even have much in the way of stage direction (That’s the director’s job, not the playwright’s) Plot, character and dialogue—that’s all I’ll have real control of. The rest is in the hands of set designers, directors, costumers and actors.

I spent this past weekend thinking. Early yesterday morning, I sat outside wrapped in a granny square afghan and drank coffee, my notebook open in front of me. I hadn’t slept well the night before, a refrain echoing in my head most of the night. Casualties and consequences. Casualties and consequences. Over and over, the words linked together, like a chain of events, dominoes falling, lock tumblers clicking into place. From the way it hung in there, claws dug into in my brain, I knew I was onto something. Yesterday morning, before I finished my coffee and the sun had burned the dew from the grass, I’d sketched out the barest of storylines. I closed my notebook, satisfied with what I’d done. I was ready to let my idea ripen.

Like a ghost in the attic, it’s still rattling around, trying to get my attention. So today, I hunted up my copy of Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing. (My writing teacher, Gail, recommended this to me as a must-read on motivation and character.) I have no doubt, as I read it, more components will fall into place. And two wonderful nights watching Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! under the stars at American Players Theatre in mid-June will no doubt inspire me more. I’ll be watching with the eye of a literary coroner—taking the pieces apart and examining how they work. Come July 20, I should be bursting with the need to write this thing.

The machinations of the creative brain never fail to amaze me. One thing links to another, spreading scope, drawing connections, weaving a web that catches art. It started with the desire to try something new. To invest one week in late July and see what I might come up with. Already I’m learning something and here it is just May. I’m inspired before I even go.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Shouting in the Wind


I admit it: this blog is starting to get me down.

It’s not just the deadlines. Lately, I find myself up against a familiar foe, something I gave serious thought to during those first desperate, fruitless months of submitting my short stories. I wondered then and I wonder now: why write if no one is reading?

I guess the answer lies in who you’re writing for in the first place. If you write for yourself, not having an audience is no real issue. As the saying goes, open a vein, let it drain, then walk away and go do the laundry or something. But if you write for others, because you truly want to connect, not having an audience becomes disheartening.

Personally, I write for both. I get a lot of out writing for myself. New ways of looking at things I didn’t completely understand before. A way of putting things to rest that may have felt incomplete. And of course, I live to develop my craft. But, mainly, I write for others. I love it when people tells me they know exactly how a character felt, that they’ve been through something similar themselves.

Perhaps if I did more (ok, anything) to promote this blog, I’d have a larger audience. But promoting means time away from writing and marketing my work. And that’s time I don’t have to spare right now. Still, I’m loathe to give up this enterprise. It’s been good for me and I’m learning a lot from it. Besides, there’s a lot to be said for persistence.

So I persist. I hope, one day, to grow my readership. I include this URL in my bios on published work now. And perhaps one day I’ll take the time to promote this thing properly. But for now, I write for myself and for my loyal friend, Stephen. (God bless him for so many reasons.) For now, I’ll just keep shouting in the wind.