From the Basement

July 30, 2010

To Eschew:

Filed under: Choices,Faith,Fiction,Writing — jeannablue @ 4:06 am
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Deliberately avoid using; abstain from

“Eschew” is one of my favorite words. And right now, it could be used in the context of:

I am eschewing the job hunt for the next month in order to work on my novel – and to learn to trust God’s provision.

These last weeks have brought a lot of despondency and spiritual revelation, and I’m in a place – God, please help me – where I can honestly say that finishing the novel isn’t so much about selling it to a publisher as it is about learning to rely on my Savior for my daily bread. I cannot look to a job as my source of security, nor can I look to writing as my ticket out. My prayer this month is for a change in perspective — to develop a trust in God that resonates in the depths of my soul. I so identify with the cry of the father in Mark 9: “I believe! Help my unbelief!”

Hebrews 13:5-6 is my prayer for this next month:

Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” So we say with confidence, “The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?”

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June 27, 2010

Favorite Quotes that can apply (however loosely) to Writing

Hi all. Sorry I’ve been absent the last few days; I’ve been hard at work on the novel. Almost up to 10K. Some days are easier than others. I’ve also been busting ass applying for jobs – 9 in the last 2 days. I’m developing a distaste for the weekend, as there are no job updates.

But this post isn’t about job applications. It’s about writing and, specifically, some of my favorite quotes that apply to the writing process; I have several of these on my desktop background. Some aren’t explicitly about writing but are still germane to the topic. Curiously, some of the advice may also apply to the job application process. Good advice is often able to transcend the borders of genre, the compartments into which we divide our lives. Some things just cut through to the core.

So, without further ado, I present to you my favorite quotes that can apply (however loosely) to that glorious process we call Writing.

1. The difference between a successful person and others is not a lack of strength, not a lack of knowledge, but rather a lack of will. – Vince Lombardi

2. Fear is a sign – usually a sign that I’m doing something write. – Erica Jong

3. If you are going through hell, keep going. – Winston Churchill

4. Creativity comes from trust. Trust your instincts. And never hope more than you work. – Rita Mae Brown

5. We work in our darkness a great deal with little real knowledge of what we are doing. – John Steinbeck

6. The difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense. –  Tom Clancy

7. Why worry about the ending anyway? Why be such a control freak? Sooner or later every story comes out somewhere. – Stephen King

8. If everything seems under control, then you’re just not going fast enough. – Mario Andretti

9. If you do not tell the truth about yourself, you cannot tell it about other people. – Virginia Woolf

10. Done is good. Better is the enemy of done. – my friend Hilary

June 23, 2010

Breakthrough

Filed under: Fiction,Writing — jeannablue @ 8:25 pm
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Today, I was ready to set aside the novel-in-progress for a different idea. Just set it aside. I wanted to work on the other project – the more exciting, controversial project. At least, talking about the unruly women of history seems more striking than a quiet novel set in a small town on the Great River Road.

But my protagonist was having none of that. Today, she decided to come out and play. Finally.

Part of the reason I was ready to set the novel aside was because I was having such a tough time getting a picture of her. Almost all of my first writings are dialogue, and pretty much dialogue only. I’ve always had a good ear for speech and rhythms and such; of all the parts of a story, dialogue comes easiest. Description, now, that’s harder. And instinctually knowing what my characters feel – well, that’s just something that comes with time.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time – or at least, I’ve tried to spend time – with my protagonist, and I just wasn’t getting a read on her. Some things came; the post Trust Your Characters came on the heels of a good session.

Maybe it was the threat of moving to a different project – who knows? But today, I got a sense for her as I never have before. She started to do things and feel things, not just say things (for me, there is a difference, at least when I’m still getting to know a character). She decided to go kayaking with the guy I know she’ll fall in love with, and I only know that because he invited her to go kayaking before I could even catch up.

I love when characters do that.

So I am a very happy girl right now.

June 21, 2010

The Power of Twilight, part two

“It’s why we engage with literature, so we can see other people’s craziness.”

– one of my favorite professors, the indomitable LKH

~*~

My last post was about Twilight. If you haven’t read it, I suggest doing so, since this one picks up where it left off. Specifically, this post is the explication of the following line:

It is my opinion that all this “bad vs. good writing” debate is covering up our real issues with Twilight, which will be in another post.

… This is that other post.

I previously talked ad nauseum about how compelling stories sell and how critics should not be surprised when a book with “bad” writing (whatever that means) sells, because compelling premise trumps Norton-worthy writing almost every time.

Addendum: for those of you who may not know what a Norton Anthology is, it is this Leviathon of a book containing all the “must-reads” of British and American literature from the past, oh, 1200 years. It is assembled by the folks who are slowly becoming one with their desks up in the ivory towers, a.k.a. academics, and is basically T.S. Eliot’s dream come true (it’s supposed to sort the wheat from the chaff, whatever that means). This book is required for any sort of survey lit class, and did I mention the best part? It is thousands of pages long. Or, as the afore-quoted professor put it, “Our friend – the hernia – waiting to happen.”

So, back to Twilight, which will probably never be included in the Norton (just sayin’). I suggested that part of its popularity is due to its premise, one that has proved to be inordinately compelling for the millennial generation. Fifteen years ago, average teenage girl meets sparkly vampire would not have sold. Why? Because there were YA vampire novels released in the 1990s that did not merit much ado about anything. The Vampire Diaries is a series that has profited tremendously in the Twilight afterglow; the series was initially published in the 90s but didn’t really pick up until after Twilight. And now TVD has its own television show.

I think it’s fair to say that Twilight was the right book at the right time. It has a powerful hold on youth culture and has inspired dozens of spin-offs, but nothing can top the original. It’s become popular that it’s almost as popular to bash Twilight as it is to love it.

One of the most popular anti-Twilight points is about the “bad writing” and how it’s ruining young people’s understanding of literature. Twilight being popular heralds the depravity of popular taste, etc. etc. etc. Whatever.

And now we’re caught up to where I left off – all this talk on how Twilight is bad writing, yada yada yada, so awful how could people like it … all this is just a cover for what critics think is really wrong.

When I picture Twilight, I think of it as an IV that has a direct line into the body that is our culture. Yep, in a hospital. And yep, I get the possible pun with blood. The books are saying something that desperately wants to be voiced. It’s like medicine. But is it the medicine we want?

Whether Twilight is compelling is not in question. What is in question is whether it should be compelling – and, more frighteningly, what it means to have such a story be so obviously representative of the state of our youth (at least the female half).

Let’s describe that story. A girl with low self-esteem finds her purpose entirely in a guy, a maladjusted 100+ year-old vamp who for some reasons spends his days repeating high school (like Groundhog Day, only voluntarily). Edward is a masochist, and Bella has low self-esteem and suffers from depression. We learn in the first chapter that she has abandonment issues. The starting point of their relationship is that they sit next to each other in biology, and Edward pays virtually no attention to her, yet she becomes unnaturally, inordinately attached to him. And sure enough, within a few hundred pages, she’s willing to give up her soul for him (that is, she wants to be a vampire, too). She doesn’t care about her soul; she cares about having him.

And let’s talk about Edward. This guy has issues. He’s emotionally stunted (who wouldn’t be, repeating high school?) and he plays with fire by developing a relationship with Bella. Think about it: he tells her she shouldn’t be near him, he tells her he’s dangerous, but obviously his desire for her outweighs his concern for her safety, because notwithstanding his suicidal sting in New Moon, he does not stay away from her. He has some self-control, but he’s thirsty for her blood. The word lush is used in the fourth book to describe this. And let’s not skip over the point that he hates himself, and that she is his purpose and reason (which is why he’s suicidal in New Moon when he thinks that she’s dead – Romeo & Juliet allusion!).

So, in sum, Bella is attracted to an hot, filthy rich vampire who loves her but really, really wants to kill her. They are both depressed, they don’t like themselves, and their identities get wrapped up in the relationship. And this has the makings of true love … how, exactly?

To say it’s an unhealthy relationship is an understatement. To say it is disturbing is certainly fair.

(I may insert more thoughts in here at some point, but the coffee buzz is wearing off and I want to wrap up.)

When it comes down to it, I think we’re scared of Twilight. Not of the Team Edward vs. Team Jacob mania – teenage hormones are nothing new. Rather, we’re scared of what it means if Edward/Bella, rather than Darcy/Elizabeth, is the idealized relationship for a teenage girl. We’re scared of what it means if our sisters and daughters are identifying with a character who retreats so deeply into her own depths she doesn’t have the strength to bring herself out. With a girl who would give up her soul for an immortal lover.

Bram Stoker’s Dracula was published 113 years ago (1897). In that book, vampires heralded the end of individuality, and as such, they were to be fought. They were dark creatures, villains, the natural of humans. Now, they are romantic heroes.

Edward is afraid of his own darkness. Bella, the reader proxy, is not. What does this say about our culture, especially youth culture? Bella does not fear human death, nor does she fear the consequences that come with immortality (immortality is rarely a good thing in literature – think what it meant in Harry Potter or, going back a few centuries, Marlowe’s Faustus). Vampires, once a threat, are now simply misunderstood. And, interestingly enough, it is not the sparkliness of vampires or even the immortality that attracts Bella, but rather the fact that she wants to be a vamp because (wait for it) … her boyfriend is a vamp. She is eager to be absorbed into his world, a world in which she only fits because she has him. Her identity becomes meshed with his. (There are so many gender issues in these books; check out bitchmagazine.com for some rockin’ articles.)

To close, I think that part of Twilight’s power stems from fear. Fear of its significance in the lives of our youth. Fear of what that means. Fear for our culture. And fear because none of us saw it coming.

I’ll probably be back to expound, edit, etc. In the meantime, I welcome comments, respectful arguments, links, etc. What’s your take on the Twilight phenomenon? The Girl Downstairs wants to know.

June 20, 2010

The Power of Twilight, part one

I’m going to come out and say it: I’ve read Twilight. More specifically, I read the first three books in a dizzy, coffee-induced fury two years ago. I have since labeled that frenzy “hours of my life I’ll never get back,” but in truth, I’m very, very glad that I’ve read 3/4 of the series that is defining a generation.

Like it or not, it is defining our generation’s teenage years. 12 years ago, I was on the younger end of the generation that grew up with the original Britney and Backstreet Boys, that cut its teeth on Harry Potter. Now, I’m on the older end of the spectrum – at the ripe old age of 22, I go gaga for Lady GaGa rather than Edward Cullen, but Twilight is a phenomenon reaching beyond the borders of age and into the consciouses of cultural commentators, professors, publishing professionals, and concerned parents. (Yes, they should be concerned.)

I have a feeling that this is the first of many posts on this subject, but I want to address a few things up front. Namely, the discussion of good vs. bad literature, and why I think the series is important regardless of the answer.

So, do I think Twilight is good literature?

To me, this is an irrelevent question that gets bandied about almost exclusively by those who are leaping out of their chair with the exciting revelation that Twilight is badly written. Thus, it is bad literature, and thus, you shouldn’t read it!

That logic doesn’t work for several reasons. First, we lack a definition of “good” versus “bad” literature. Do we mean the quality of writing? One major complaint is that Twilight is badly written. For the sake of argument, let’s take that claim. So – what makes it badly written? Notwithstanding S. Meyer’s affinity for adverbs, critics may point to overwrought emotions, constipated prose, and the poorly constructed story arc. Valid arguments that I actually agree with, by the way.

However, I doubt that anti-Twilight sentiment would be so vehement if those were the soul reasons for disapproval. While I’d like to believe that there are in fact enough former English majors out there to stir up a grammar revolution, chances are good that they’re not leading the brigade. Moreover, as one who has read Twilight, I can assert that Meyer’s writing actually improves with each book. It gets better, I promise! (The writing, not necessarily the story.) But in spite of this fact, critics still claim that Meyer’s bad writing is ruining teenagers’ understanding of literature. (And The Babysitter’s Club and Sweet Valley High didn’t? Please.)

As a side note, I’d like to point out that some of the evidence for “bad writing” – e.g. the overwrought emotions – are common traps of the genre – that is to say, other YA and Romance books. Similarly, cardboard characters are a common trap for thriller writers, one that John Grisham falls into all the time (Dan Brown, too). This doesn’t make it okay to fall into a trap; I’m just observing that Meyer takes a heckuva lot more flack than Grisham and Brown, partly because of the genre she’s writing in. That aside, Grisham, Brown, and Meyer get the last laugh – they’ve had some of the highest grossing book sales of the past decade, and none of them seem that bothered about not winning a Pulitzer.

Bad writing is in the eye of the beholder, and “bad writing” (whatever it is) does not mean that a book won’t sell or – more importantly – that a story isn’t compelling. People very much enjoy heaping criticisms of “bad writing” on authors, and yet they almost always fail to offer a definition of good writing. It’s quite annoying. Why are people so ticked off that bad writers are on the bestseller list? Why aren’t they buying books by good authors? And why aren’t the books with good writing selling?

This is, I think, the crux of the matter. Oftentimes, there is a gap between good writing and good stories. I’ll make yet another distinction: there is often a gap between these things for the pickiest of readers. Most of the time, bestsellers come from decent writers who have incredible self-discipline and an inordinately compelling idea (think J.K. Rowling). Notwithstanding Toni Morrison and Salman Rushdie, most bestsellers are nowhere near a Pulitzer. They do not foreground language; they emphasize tension and story, simply because most readers (yours truly included) put a compelling premise above quality of writing. If offered a scintillating page of description or a scintillating good vs. evil scene, um, I’ll take the scene (sorry, Ian McEwan).

This preference (compelling scene vs. inclusion in a Norton Anthology) is part of why Grisham, Brown, Rowling, and – yes – Meyer are on the bestseller list. And this is why literary writers are more often found in The Paris Review, Prairie Schooner, and Shenandoah, which – while outstanding – are not widely read publications outside of academia. (The New Yorker is the grand exception.)

I recognize that I am making enormous generalizations here, and I do not mean to set up the binary literary/bestseller. They’re not mutually exclusive. Plenty of outstanding “literary” writers enjoy popular readership (the aforementioned Morrison and Rushdie, Jhumpa Lahiri – love her). There are literary writers who produce beautifully constructed, emotionally compelling stories which are sadly overlooked. And, of course, there are plenty of decent writers whose work does not sell “decently.”

But – I don’t think my main point can be overstated. That is, as long as the writing isn’t painfully bad, people flock to compelling stories. Good is subjective, but few can deny that certain premises – a boy who discovers he’s a wizard, a young lawyer who gets taken in by the Mob – are compelling, even if it’s not your preferred cup of tea. This explains a lot about Twilight‘s popularity. Many critics of the series just don’t seem to understand the concept. When you start bitching about Twilight, everyone’s standards shoot through the roof.

(It is my opinion that all this “bad vs. good writing” debate is covering up our real issues with Twilight, which will be in another post.)

Of course, Twilight is also interesting for other reasons. Because it pushes the boundaries of what we consider “good” storytelling (is it the writing? the structure? the message?). Because it’s chalk full of controversy – allegations of unhealthy relationships, obsessive-compulsive behavior, blood play, teenage sexuality (it’s been called “abstinence porn”). It’s also a story we’ve seen before – Romeo & Juliet, Tristan & Isolde, and especially Wuthering Heights (which Bella is actually reading in chapter two of the first book). Yet it is a bona fide phenomenon – it hit on something that our culture is hungry for, perhaps starving for.

What most interests me about Twilight is not the quality of writing. It is simply this: what is it about this book that so resonates with youth today, and what does that say about our culture? At many points throughout the series, Bella seems almost a proxy for the reader. She is insecure, lonely. She has low self-esteem. Her parents are divorced. She considers herself average, or even below average. So why is she so popular with readers? And why is an emotionally stunted 100+ year old vampire a romantic hero? Lack of choice is a theme that permeates the series (it is almost the anti-Harry Potter in that respect), and it has hit on something deep within our cultural subconscious. Even those who do not identify with or enjoy the series find themselves enveloped in the conversations and debates surrounding Twilight and its similar cultural counterparts, such as the hit television series True Blood (initially based on Charlaine Harris’ pre-Twilight Sookie Stackhouse series).

Why is Twilight such a powerful force in our culture?

That is what I want to think about.

And on the note of literature, good literature – the stuff that I learned in my English courses at college – is often what defines a generation. I’m not saying that Twilight will be anthologized and taught as part of university curriculum, etc. etc. But it’s clearly of cultural importance, and that makes it worth studying.

And last but not least, to the critics who routinely lambast “popular fiction” as not worthy of study, I would add that Charles Dickens, Alexandre Dumas, and Jane Austen wrote the “popular” fiction of their day. Dickens and Dumas were serialized in the newspapers. They had something to say that resonated with people in their time, and even after. And there’s no way they could have predicted that. /tangent

While another post on this subject brews, feel free to respond (I’d love to get your take on the series or anything I’ve said). I will also leave you with two marvelously entertaining links, both of which are rather critical of Twilight. (Please send me links to positive stuff; it’s hard to come by on the internet.)

The first is to a series of posts in which the LJ blogger Cleolinda gives a snarky chapter-by-chapter summary of Breaking Dawn, the last installment in the series: http://cleolinda.livejournal.com/630150.html

The second is a wonderful video blog entitled “Alex Reads Twilight.” It’s a 20something British guy giving short, >5 minute summaries of the chapters as he reads Twilight. He says such wonderful things as “Who the fuck is Lauren?” and “Stephenie Meyer plus science equals wrong.” He also has a remarkable eye for spotting S. Meyer’s dangling subplots. Hope you enjoy. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2L253VLwH3w&feature=player_embedded

June 18, 2010

Trust Your Characters

It’s a slow process, learning about characters. Sort of like making a new friend – it’s gradual. You can’t force it. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that you can’t force the characters. Force the characters and you risk killing the story. Ah hell, you kill the story.

It’s the same way with deciding which music will keep me going through the story. I write in silence but I listen to music to feed my muse, to put me in the mood, in that place that takes me there. Tonight, there were three songs that came to me for this story’s soundtrack: Beth (originally by Kiss, but I listen to the Glee version), Summer in the City (Regina Spektor), and Red Dirt Girl (Emmylou Harris). Summer in the City is for the piano; when I heard that song (God bless the random option on iTunes), I realized that my main character plays piano. Red Dirt Girl is for her mother. And Beth, I have no idea. Maybe the dad, who isn’t really in the story. Or maybe I just really like the texture of the song.

I cleaned my desk today. Clutter prevents creativeness. So I cleaned my desk, mostly. And I unwrapped a “note block” and started ripping off the small white notes (like Post-Its only without the sticky), and writing things I knew about my protagonist, and taping them onto my wall. I have 12 notes for her. Some are character traits, like that she’s impatient and restless. One is her favorite color (usually not something I think about, so that was weird, but it’s ice blue, in case you’re wondering). Some things come randomly, like the knowledge that she plays piano and her dad is the one who taught her. I know that she orders a Caesar salad with every meal and that she retreats into herself when asked about things she doesn’t want to talk about.

I also know that I have no idea what’s driving the internal conflict. Well, I know that it’s a conflict with her mother. Something happened three years prior to the story (that it was three years ago just got dropped into my lap), and I don’t know what. It’s big. But I don’t know. And I try to stop myself from filling in the gap: was it an abortion or a huge fight or manipulation or knowledge of her father or …? It does no good to fill it in. It’ll fill itself in.

When it comes to writing characters, I’m a firm believer that they should let themselves be discovered. I used to be the 20-step writer – you know, fill in 20 character traits, describe their physicality, decide on a personality, go from there. Now I’m more inclined to the Stephen King method (which actually applies to uncovering story, but I apply it to characters): they are bones that we as writers dig up. They’re already there. We just have to sense them, find them, excavate them carefully, removing one bit of dirt at a time until we get a clearer picture. It takes time, energy, devotion. The story is there. The characters are there. And if you trust yourself to find them, if you trust yourself enough to keep moving the pen, eventually the story and characters will start moving so fast you’ll struggle to keep up. Eventually, the story writes itself and the characters do their own thing.

That’s the point I’m excited to get to. I’m not there yet. I’m only three thousand words in right now. It’ll take a while longer before a picture starts to emerge. But it’s already changed from what I thought it was, and that’s a good thing.

Trust the process. And, to offer one of my favorite quotes on writing, never hope more than you work.

P.S. The reason for the hiatus was an excursion out west to attend the wedding of a dear friend. And then I was tired and took a break from blog writing. And now I’m back, working on a novel, still applying for jobs, and hopefully continuing to blog through the whole process.

May 9, 2010

Reading to Write

I get a lot of ideas for stories when I’m listening to sermons, which is admittedly not the most convenient time. But sometimes, I go to a church where I can pretty much guarantee that the sermon will not hold my attention, and so after worship, I let my mind wander …

This morning, my mind wandered to the land of Mother’s Day and all the rich stories that unfold in such a day. There are all sorts of mothers and not-mothers in this world, and when the sermon began this morning, the ideas started flowing for a short story.

Lately, my brain has been on fire, and it’s exciting. I haven’t been this prolific in months.

This burst of creative energy is due to two things, I think. First, I’m out of school, and I’ve been out long enough to get the “it-feels-like-spring-break” schedule out of my system. I’m itching to work on projects. Second, I’m reading again. That probably sounds strange, but I had a difficult time flipping between my academic reading and my pleasure reading (while they can be synonymous, there is a distinct difference between literary theory and murder mysteries).

During college, I forgot how essential reading was (is) to my writing process. To write, you must first read. And read a lot. At the moment, I’m engrossed in one particular book – Interpreter of Maladies, a Pulitzer-prize winning short story collection by Jhumpa Lahiri, who is (in my humble opinion) one of the most talented short story writers living today. Her narratives are subtle and emotionally compelling. But my reasons for reading her work are twofold: I read to enjoy, but I also read to learn. I’m new to the short story craft, and for the last year or so, I’ve been latching onto different short story writers. Lahiri is one; the late Angela Carter is another.

Reading for pleasure and reading to learn often overlap. There are authors I read to learn from, like Lahiri and Carter. And then, frankly, there are authors I read who, while enjoyable, are also great teachers in the school of How Not To. I’m thinking of Grisham, Patterson, Brown. I just picked up Patterson’s Women’s Murder Club series this month, and while I enjoy the stories, they don’t intrigue me on a structural level. It’s a lesson in How Not To.

Of course, I don’t write like the authors I emulate, either. I couldn’t write like Lahiri or Carter if I tried. I can only write like me. But that means that I need to spend time with me, reading with me, brainstorming with me, in order to learn to write like me. I can’t go for a month without writing (or pleasure reading, for that matter) and expect to pick up where I left off months ago. This is why writing every day is so wonderful – it helps me find my voice and remember where I left it.

When I’m writing and reading every day, wonderful things happen. Juices flow. Energy sparks. And if I happen to find both my voice and a story buried in a Sunday sermon, well … I’ll take it.

April 28, 2010

Doing what you love > Fearing what you love

Do you ever get nervous after you finish a project and then start a new one? That’s where I’m at right now. I just finished a multi-chapter short story (under 10K words) for an online gift exchange that I’ve participated in for several years. I think this might be the last year I do it, because I’m itching to dive into my own work.

Many of you know that I had the darndest time finishing this story. I’ve sort of figured out why – it wasn’t the story, per se. I liked the prompt and I really enjoyed the writing. What held me back was a latent fear of what comes after, a knowledge that once I finished that story, I had to stop BS-ing myself and actually sit down and take time to write my own stuff every day. This is why I so enjoy creative writing classes: built in deadlines, quick feedback, explicit assignments, and the I’m-doing-it-for-a-grade mentality. Not that I write for grades (goodness, no!); it’s just that when there’s the knowledge that I’m turning it in, the other fears are suppressed.

I have ungodly-high levels of expectation for my writing, expectations which will probably never be met in this lifetime. And if I ever come close, it will only be through that daily practice of writing. Writing is work – it is a craft, and like any craft, it requires practice. Apprenticeship. Years of toil. Everyone writes shitty first drafts (as Anne Lamott says) and they only get better if you roll up your sleeves and dig in.

Everyone has a different writing process, sort of like how people practice their spirituality/faith in different ways. I had an instructor this last year who is a self-described “binge writer” – she writes multiple chapters in a fury, and then doesn’t write for a few weeks, and then comes back to it. And then there are the folks who write every day, even if it’s only for fifteen minutes. On the faith side of things, I have friends who need daily quiet time and friends who don’t, friends for whom art or dance is their primary mode of worship, and friends who light candles at the alter in their room.

While I can do the binge writing and even the binge praying, truth is, I need a daily schedule to keep myself in the zone and focused. (This is part of why I’m keeping a blog.) I need daily prayer and quiet time, and I’ll preferably be reading a book (Angela Thomas, Katie Brazelton, etc.) along with it. Finding daily faith time is something I’ve got in the habit of over these last two years. But daily writing time… I’m not quite there yet.

I long for a time two summers ago, the time when I finished my first novel. There wasn’t fear or anxiety; it was erased by the knowledge that every day over my lunch hour, I would go to Acoustic Café, order a half hoagie sandwich and a Coke, and then sit for the duration of the hour writing as furiously on yellow legal tablets as I could. It was a daily practice, something I did to keep myself sane in the midst of a crazy internship, and I long – oh, how I long – for that feeling again. I haven’t been writing regularly (save for creative writing classes) since that summer.

A book by Barbara Demarco-Barrett has been my writing salvation for this last year. It’s entitled Pen On Fire: A Busy Woman’s Guide to Igniting the Writer Within. Her writing solution is fifteen minutes a day, plain and simple, whether it’s when the water’s boiling for dinner or when you first wake up in the morning. I took that advice to heart last summer when I worked at a daycare. I would take my legal tablets to work with me, scribbling furiously in the off-moments when the kids were reading or having free time. There weren’t many off-moments, but over the course of the summer, I completed the rough draft of the short story that became part of my honors project.

This last month, I’ve been at home – both at Mom’s and at Dad’s – and I’ve got some writing done, sure. I’ve been writing this blog. But I’ve been lazy about my fiction because I’m so darn afraid of what’s going to happen when I get in that schedule. Part of me is afraid that I’m not going to want to let it go, that embracing my writing means acknowledging that grad school is on the back burner.

It might seem like we’re switching gears here, but I promise we’re not. Let me put it this way: my boyfriend wants to be a professor because he honest to goodness loves teaching physics – and he’s really good at it, too. Me, I love the material. I enjoy literature and lit analysis, lit theory … I never want for research subjects. But when the BF asked me about my ideal job in academia, I said that my ideal was a position where I taught part-time, thus having time for writing. (Because I hold no illusions about professors at liberal arts schools; they work their asses off and are lucky if they get their own research done.)

It’s not that I’ve put writing and grad school into binary opposition, that it’s one or the other. But it’s hard – so hard – to keep writing while you’re in grad school (unless you’re in the MFA program). I have it on the authority of those who know. And writing is not something I want to sacrifice for a life in academe. It’d be great to do both, but I’d rather write.

All this to say, the answer that I gave should have been a clue that the Little Girl Downstairs was alive and well, and that maybe the Big Girl Downstairs was ignoring her strongest desires. The LGD is that six-year-old who declared to her parents that she would be a writer someday and who never relinquished that dream; she is the ten-year-old whose poem about the Titanic was published in the local paper after winning a contest and who realized how wonderful it was to write things other people actually wanted to read – that little girl has never gone away. That little girl longs to write for the rest of her life, and preferably to get paid for it, too. But that little girl is also afraid of what it means to realize her dream.

I think that what our biggest dreams can be the things we’re most afraid of. Funny how that works.

There are only two things I can do at this point: first, pray, because love casts out fear. And second, get my butt in a chair and start writing. Confront the monster head on. Get back in the saddle. Get back to doing what makes me feel more alive than anything else on this earth.

And then, keep doing it.

April 20, 2010

Why do we watch television?

Now that I’m no longer bound by the chains of homework, I have time during the week to actually watch the one show I enjoy. Castle airs on Mondays on ABC at 9 p.m. sharp. I love the show – witty banter, engaging characters, and (usually) great story writing. It rarely disappoints.

This week was no different. But I realized that I found myself looking forward to this new episode days in advance. I have never been like that with a television show before.

Is it Castle? No. Pleasurable though the show may be, it’s not the show. Rather, it’s where I’m at in life right now. I’m usually up to my eyeballs in homework, lunch dates, meetings, and the pleasanter obligations of life (spending time with those I care about). Being at home, though, is a very isolated place to be. I occasionally talk on the phone with girlfriends and Skype with my boyfriend; I sometimes see my old girlfriends who are still around my hometown – but not much. Mostly, I’m by myself during the day. And so the books I read, the stories I write, and the television I watch become the relationships I’m most engaged in. And my guess is that there are plenty of people who are in the same boat – who may not be in my situation but who mark their lives by the passage of other people’s stories.

How does this happen? Are there characters we connect with? Or do we gravitate to the predictability of certain plots and devices? As the author Tom Clancy said, “What’s the difference between fiction and reality? Fiction has to make sense.” There’s a predictability to, say, a love plot.  For instance, the will-they-or-won’t-they set-up that has been driving the show Bones for so long. While the relationship between Bones and Booth has been painfully drawn out (I hear from whinging fans), I’m betting that the show will end in a satisfactory way. See, the writers have made an implicit promise to their audience: we will put you through hell for X amount of seasons, but you will ultimately be rewarded by having the couple come together.

(How TV writers fail to realize that audiences can handle the story post-getting together is beyond me. TV is sorely in need of a decent, mature adult love story that goes beyond the first “I love you.”)

We mark our lives with stories, but sometimes it seems uncertain where that boundary is – does fiction reflect life or vice versa? I once had a girlfriend who, in telling me that she was leaving school, said that she realized she’d learned everything she knew about relationships from television. I thought she was over-exaggerating at the time (still do), but the point is made. We are greatly, greatly influenced by the stories we absorb. We may begin to act them out in our own lives. Or perhaps we fall deeper and deeper into the show, into the fantasy.

I don’t know where or what the answer is. I don’t know why stories hold such a power over us. And to any of my worried friends who are reading this, trust me, I’m not deeply into the fantasy that is the show Castle (though the mystery writer in me would really, really like to land a gig like that). But I do enjoy it, and there’s something about having a story to come back to at the same time every week that is soothing. It’s a structure that’s predictable, entertaining, reassuring: at this time, you will sit down and encounter a new and intriguing story that these characters who you’ve come to know and love will be embarking on. Hang on for the ride.

Two hundred years ago, this form of entertainment came via the serial novels that were published in newspapers. Now classic writers like Charles Dickens and Alexandre Dumas amassed cult followings, a mass of readers who would pick up a paper every week to read what antics Pip or d’Artagnan were up to this time. Where reading was once a public activity (any period movie will have a scene where one character reads aloud to a group, I guarantee it), it is now solitary, individual, isolated, solo. Entertainment has evolved from the text to the screen, and so now we go in groups to the theater to watch the latest film, or we gather around the television set in the dorm to watch Grey’s Anatomy (to my great shame, I did that freshman year). Movies and television are the stories we experience with other people, which is perhaps part of their allure.

A history of Western storytelling may go something like this: oral tales evolved into texts which evolved into recorded entertainment, which is oral storytelling of a sort. The visual, scripted, lighting-enhanced sort.

I enjoy a good television show, and Lord knows my movie collection is constantly growing. I love stories, and a good story can impact me in a powerful way. I don’t know why, but it does. I just want to remember to stay grounded, to not become so absorbed in the relationships I am seeing, reading, or writing that I forget to nurture and nourish the ones in my life.

Ultimately, I want to write my own life story, and I don’t want it to read like a summary of other people’s lives. I’ve got my own to make. So I’d best keep making it.

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