About a year ago I attended a Q&A session with the author Zadie Smith and an audience member posed her the question: “what is your writing process?” Her answer intrigued me. Like me she was mother to a, at the time, one year old and she basically said (and I’m totally paraphrasing here, cause it was a year ago) that she didn’t hold any stock in The Writing Process – her basic premise for writing was to take any given day and if she had child care organized she would write. Simple. Right? Actually, it is pretty profound. And one that is the same sentiment of what made me start this blog and what I am trying to put into practice more and more on a daily basis – just write, dag-nam-it!
A spot of light reading.
However, since I’m at home full time with my, now, two year old my opportunity to write is based more on if-she-naps and if-she-has-slept-well-the-night-before-so-I-don’t-need-to-nap and if-the-house-isn’t-a-complete-disaster and if-I-have-enough-brain-power-to-not-want-to-just-sit-and-watch-rubbish-tv then just write, dag-nam-it! But, I have discovered some unexpected pluses to being a parent that helps my writing. The biggest roadblock to my writing is that I am extremely easily distracted – especially by this wonderful thing called the internet. I can be deep into writing a paragraph for a new story and one of my characters is hungry for cake – which means I’m hungry for cake which means I have to start trolling the internet for new baking recipes which leads to me looking up a source to buy a new fun cake stand which leads to me thinking about completely remodeling my kitchen which leads me to spending hours on Houzz looking at inspirational photographs of kitchens I could never afford. Which ultimately leads to me wasting all of the time that my little one is napping doing anything but writing. So, I need to get away from the internet and that is where being a parent to a toddler has actually helped.
There are two times during which I am forced to be disconnected from the internet and at the same time not be required to eat play food that has been ‘cooked’ for me on her kitchen. The first is when we are out for a walk – I’m lucky enough that we live in a neighbourhood that has pavements (sidewalks) everywhere and that she hasn’t yet claimed that she is too big to go in the buggy (stroller) so I get anywhere between fifteen minutes to an hour of time to daydream while I push her around and she waves ‘hello’ to all the neighbourhood dogs. But there is a catch – I do own a smartphone and I am very adapt at pushing a buggy one-handidly while catching up on celebrity gossip on some rubbishy website, so when I’m not actively chewing on a scene in my head it is all too easy to no fully unplug myself and waste my strolling time.
One place I can not take my phone, or laptop, or kindle, or book, or iPad is when I’m rocking my toddler to sleep – yes, yes I still rock my two year old to sleep – to discuss how this makes me a “failure” of a parent is a whole other blog! But rather than it being incredibly annoying to be sitting in the pitch black rocking back & forth with no sounds other than that of the white-noise machine, the same CD of lullabies that we have been listening to every single day for two years, and the snuffles of my take-forever-to-fall-asleep toddler I’ve found it is the time that my mind does some of its best writing. It has been in her rocking chair that I’ve un-snagged a plot line that was so entangled that it was incomprehensible, where a character has spoken a critical line of dialogue, where blog posts start to find form, and where new stories have materialized. And once I finally have my toddler sleep in the cot (crib) I often have to make a beeline for my laptop to note down whatever thought has been bouncing around my head in the dark before it seeps out of my far-too-holey-memory. So, if in a few years I admit to you that I am still rocking my six year old to sleep you will fully understand that it is a sacrifice that I undertake purely for the advancement of my writing career … honest!
Two weeks ago I started a new semester in which I’m concentrating on all things dramatic. By that I mean I’m taking two classes – ‘Introduction to Theatre’ and ‘Playwriting’. I love the theatre. I love the ‘play’ and I’ve been involved in amateur productions in many capacities for most of my life but actually writing a play is kicking my ass! Not because I can’t envisage the actors on the stage – in fact I can see them clear as day in a set concocted in my mind following stage directions to a T. What is tripping me up is the drama.
I just got a rough draft of a short play that I wrote back from my professor – in it, a married couple have a conversation. Sounds dull? Yip, it pretty much was and my professor, rightly so, told me exactly that. “Flat” and “uninteresting”. That isn’t to say that there may be a play hiding somewhere in the draft but it is utterly missing the critical ingredient, the aforementioned drama. And so my new quest is to learn how to write dramatic characters that are not clichéd stereotypes but are complex, and real but happen to talk and act in a heightened way. Of course, these characters have to engage and entertain a paying crowd as well! We just finished reading and studying a wildly funny (and hugely dark) play by Ed Falco called Possum Dreams. The play pits a married couple against each other over the course of an evening when secrets are revealed and confessions are made. The two characters are intricate and genuine but do, at times, fall into the ‘clichéd’. After all, the catalyst for the action is a 40-year-old man that hits a midlife crisis and has extra-martial “sexual encounters”. But, the beauty of the clichés and the way that they play out is that they are both spookily real (I literary could hear real people from my actual life saying some of the lines from the play) and fantastically, dramatically, entertaining all at the same time.
I’m not going to give away spoilers as the play is soon going to be staged off-Broadway (see the flyer) but what transpires in the play is nuts, like, seriously nuts. So much so that if your best friend met you in the pub the day after and told you about his night you would be insisting that he was a bare faced liar. But amongst the shenanigans Falco dismantles so many deep rooted notions about the institute of marriage in such a beautifully skilled way that it makes me want to be him when I grow up!
And so it is back to my dysfunctional couple and how to give them depth & growth & drama and a story that unfolds in a engaging way that makes also a statement – oh, and did I mention the play only lasts ten minutes! Thankfully, I love a challenge.
p.s. Off to book my flights for NYC for Possum Dreams … see you there?
For the last couple of years I’ve been suckered into partaking in a reading challenge through the goodreads website. The first year I was particularly gung-ho and signed up to read fifty books … and then I thought about it … and then I realized that I would have to average reading one book every 7.28 days! Yeah … no. I think I dropped it down to thirty books but still didn’t get even close. Last year I was more “reasoned” and challenged myself to twenty books. Twenty books seems like a fairly small number but you still have to average a book every two and a half weeks, and by this time my little sleep-stealer had come into our family so at the end of the day watching “shite tele” was typically the preferred option over concentrating on reading a book. So, did I do it? Well, no. But I did read 18.70 books! Though, in the spirit of full disclosure, ten of the books were compulsory reading for various classes.
Reading challenges appeal to many aspects of my personality: I’m competitive so I like to see if I’m doing “better” than others; I’m numerical (I did spend the years from age 16 to 34 only studying maths, physics and astrophysics) so to see the number count of read books increase makes me happy; I’m visual so I love to see my progress in the pretty infographics that goodreads produce (see above!).
Of course, the whole point of reading challenges is to make you read, or at the very least be conscience of making reading a priority even if the most recent episode of your guilty-pleasure-drama wins over the book sitting on your nightstand four out of five times. But do they make you read the “right” things. Over the last year I found myself not once but twice hunting the house for a thin book – a quick read that I could blast through in less than two hours in order to bump my flagging reading tally (notice Wonderstruck in my list above? Yup, that was one of those books). Now, to be fair to thin books, they need the love and attention of being read just as much as the thick-could-be-used-as-a-murder-weapon books of the world. But should I really only be hunting them out to up a reading count? Or do they not care as long as they are read?
Some reading challenges up the ante and take things beyond the simple “how many books you gonna read?” to here are suggestions of books you should read, or here are suggestions of the sorts of books you should read. This one caught my eye the other day from popsugar.com and I love some of the prompts such as a book with non-human characters, or a book that came out the year you were born. But I know which prompt the hubby will be hoping that I follow for all the books I read in the next year … a book that you own but have never read.
And so it is on to 2015. I’ll be sticking with goodreads to track my reading but I’ll dip into the popsugar list for inspiration. But for now I have 19% left of the book that I managed to read 69% of in 2014 and once I’ve hit the last page I will duly scuttle off to goodreads and make it my 1st of 20 for 2015. Happy reading!
To say my “career” in writing is in its infancy is an understatement in the extreme. So far my “body of work” consists of a smattering of short stories written for class, one semi-decent poem and a few more rubbish ones, and five unrefined chapters that I hope will one day will make a novel-length story. But since I’m trying to motivate myself to write more, and with it hope to become better, I keep one sleep-deprived eye, half-open for possible opportunities to submit pieces. But it is daunting. The sheer number of places you can submit work for publication and/or enter competitions is so overwhelming it is paralyzing. You also have to have the patience of a sloth (I’m assuming sloths embody patience?) as the speed at which submissions get reviewed for publication can feel glacier when you are new to the game. I’m learning it is best to submit something then just forget that you have done so until the rejection email pops into your inbox – saves you the energy of compulsively checking their submission managers. Competitions are a mixed beast for me – I’m pretty competitive in nature so the idea of winning a writing competition is extremely enticing, but then the realization that I’m unlikely to win any due to the greenness of my writing can feel deflating. But isn’t this the point of offering up your creative writing to an audience? So you can be scrutinized and judged and compared to others. And isn’t it just part of the process to become hardened to both the compliments and the criticism?
For me it is about lowering myself into the pool at a slow enough rate that the frigid water doesn’t take my breath away – at least that is how I like to approach cold bodies of water, others like to take a running dive-bomb in but I am convinced my heart will stop on impact if I try that. So I look for friendly places where I can expose my writing for digestion. One of those friendly places I have found is a local writing group where the people are constructive with their suggestions and are a lot of fun to spend time with. Sadly, due to some transportation issues (who would have thought living in America in your late thirties and not holding a driving license would be problematic!) I haven’t really been able to attend since my daughter was born. And so when I recently learned that they are running a competition for the first time I had the sense that I really couldn’t not enter! But there is a small catch that is slowing me down – there is a theme that the entries have to abide by, superheroes.
Typically when I start a new piece I start with an image. A single image that I then expand into a scenario, and then finally into a story. For example, the short story “News” started as an exercise in class where we had to write a less-than-three page story in 3rd person objective with the words “bomb threat”. I started with the image of a man sitting in bed reading a newspaper and the story unfolded from there. I have been throwing images around in my head for ‘superheroes’ and to even come up with an image I like has been a struggle, far less an image I can unravel into a story. I don’t know why this theme is proving difficult for me, is it too general, is it too specific, does it relate too much to a genre of books I typically don’t read and I can’t find a way to connect? I finally landed on an image … that of a young girl dressed in a gold and black superhero costume surrounded by grownups in their best finery awaiting to attend the New York City Ballet opening gala. Now what? Something has to happen, right? A gunman starts shooting into the crowd and the little girl’s mother throws herself onto the girl to save her – blerugh, too much. A car crashes into a food cart and the little girl’s father rescues the vendor who is pinned under the car with superhero strength – blerugh, too clichéd. A homeless man … yeah, just blerugh.
My writing is at its best when I’m detailing small events, everyday events that can happen to anyone. It is what typically interests me in my reading too, ordinary people dealing with ordinary life. So what can I find in this image that is “ordinary” but engaging for a short story? I guess all can I can say for the moment is: to be continued …
My first love.
I aspire to being a book collector. I’m sure my husband would claim that I am already a book collector given the rate at which new books appear on our living room shelves, but it is far too grand a title for me. I’m more an accumulator of books. I have a condition, an addiction even. I have a need to own books. To me a house is not a home unless it has multiple bookshelves stacked high with books. I find any and all excuses to buy new books; I need them for class, it’s for my daughter, it was buy 3 for the price of 2, it wasn’t my fault. I smuggle books in to the house and stack them on the shelves before my husband gets home so they look like they’ve been there all along.
Simply put I have a problem but it is isn’t one I intend to find help for anytime soon. I suspect my magpie-like tendencies started as a young child. My parents home was always full of books, all sorts of books from cheap paper-back copies of every Agatha Christie ever written to beautiful hardbound editions of classics from the Folio Society that sat on the very top bookshelf to keep them out of reach of sticky fingers. My parents started buying and collecting books by the Folio Society in the 70s and have done so at scattered intervals ever since. My sister and I soon got folded into the ritual of getting one book each from the Folio Society as a Christmas present and we loved it. The books are works of art with original illustrations and love poured into every aspect of design from the covers to the fonts to the slipcases. For those of you who have yet to discover the joy of the Folio Society it is a small English publishing house that started in the late 1940s to produce “editions of the world’s great literature, in a format worthy of the contents, at a price within the reach of everyman” (- Charles Ede, founder of the Society). It is run as a club and as a member you commit to buying four, or more, volumes a year and so it is an investment. Unfortunately, at this current point in my life, it isn’t an investment we can justify. But, to my giddy excitement, not long after moving to Toledo and on our first trip to explore the nearby Ann Arbor I discovered a gem of a secondhand bookstore that always has a stack of beautifully nurtured Folio Society books. And so, as a treat whenever I am able, I get to sift through the stack and pick one to bring home with me.
But why blog about this now? Well there is a two-fold reason. Firstly, this is my version of standing up and saying “Hello, I’m Morag and I’m a book-oholic” and secondly, the intent behind this site and blog is to motivate me to write and to send writing out for consideration. And it is working! At the very last gasp I decided to submit a condensed version of an article I wrote on the history of the Folio Society to the Mill, the literary magazine of the University of Toledo. I haven’t heard yet if it was accepted, and I’ve just realized that in my rush to submit it before the deadline I forgot to format it correctly and so it will likely be rejected. But it almost doesn’t matter if it is published or not. By setting up this site I pushed writing to the front of my mind again and I found the time around my daughters crazy (non)sleep schedule to pull something together for submission. Now I just have to do that again, and again.
Blogging has never been something I’ve desired to do, mainly as I’ve never felt that what I think about on a daily basis is worthy of another person’s time and energy to read. However, as some of the motivation to start this site is to make me accountable for putting effort into the thing I claim to love, namely books and writing, it makes some sense to force myself into keeping the site ‘ticking along’ with new content. However, given my current status of a ‘mama’ to a sleep-is-for-the-weak toddler, producing fiction or poetry that I would consider ready for human consumption does not happen at a particularly sprightly rate.
And so I turn to this blog to make sure this site doesn’t just sit collecting dust in some dingy corner of the internet. I will endeavor to keep the content relevant in someway to books/writing/fiction/publishing and I promise the entries will be sporadic, and extremely inconsequential, but on a selfish front, at least I’ll be writing something!