Category Archives: writing

Do we really expect so little?

cartoon-monkey-scratching-his-head-02I haven’t been doing a lot of writing this year, a lot of reading yes, but very little writing. I am very deadline driven and since I’ve had no fiction writing classes this year my writing has taken a bit of a backseat. It hasn’t been a bad thing – I have read more books this year than I have in donkey ages, and since I really do believe that the more good stuff you read the more good stuff you will write, my year has been far from wasted.

However, I do need to write more so I joined an online critique group. The premise is actually really good. You earn ‘credits’ by reading and commenting (constructively) on other people’s work and once you have accrued enough credits you can upload your own piece for others to critique. I mainly joined to give me motivation to work on my novel (I hate saying that, it sounds so snobby, but I’m trying to be less weirded out about it) which I have been ignoring for quiet sometime. I joined a couple of months ago, critiqued some work, uploaded the first chapter of my novel, and then waited with a healthy mix of anticipation and excitement for the critiques to roll in.

On the whole I’ve found the community in this group really lovely – polite and professional. Some of the comments I’ve received have been extremely useful, some very flattering, and some a bit random. Rather what you would anticipate from any writers group that is primarily made up of amateur writers. However, one comment got me wondering about what we as writers expect from our readers.

To offer a little background – the main character in my novel is Kathryn. She is a mid-twenties English woman who is the product of an affair and was raised by her single mum. She is a very ‘detached’ person – detached from her family, detached (as in doesn’t take responsibility for) from some questionable behavior in her past, detached from any real purpose in her life. She ends up living in Arizona married to an older man, and with a step child who she is only 13ish years her younger. In the first chapter you are introduced to Kathryn at this point in her life, then an event happens that shakes her up, and sets in motion her finally taking responsibility for herself and her life. The Event happens at the end of chapter one, and I strongly believe that I need to use the bulk of chapter one to make the reader invested in the characters so that they themselves are affected when The Event occurs. Of course, this means chapter one is fairly non-eventful until the very end. But, non-eventful doesn’t mean not engaging – at least I hope!

One critique I received was positive about my writing style and the topic of the story but (and I’m paraphrasing here) that today’s reader wouldn’t be prepared to read for a whole seven minutes before The Event happened, and that because of movies/computer games etcetera they need faster gratification. Really? Seven minutes? Really? Do we expect so little of our readers these days? I’m not saying that the critiquer is incorrect – in fact he probably speaks a lot of truth but it saddens me to think that he may be right. Of course, it depends on who the reader is.

I love books that embrace language and character. I’m not plot driven so I can be very forgiving of a novel’s plot if the language wraps itself around me in a luscious hug, or if the characters are so well painted that they feel like people I’ve known my whole life. What I can’t read are plot driven books which give no consideration to language or character development – which rules out most ‘best sellers’, let’s be frank. But of course, it is a balance. The indulgence of language can ramble on for too long, and the character description can get way too detailed (I’m looking at you on both fronts, Victor Hugo!!)

One of the best books I’ve read recently is Trumpet by Jackie Kay, and it does a wonderful job of balancing the two worlds. There is plot though would probably be deemed ‘slow’ as there isn’t any action within the timeframe of the novel. It centers around a secret about the main character, Millie’s husband that becomes uncovered after his death (he dies before the novel starts). Kay then uses the rest of the novel to delve into how the reveal effects Millie and several other characters connected to Millie, including her son. But, nothing else happens as such, it is just a gorgeous book about how people cope when life slaps them in the face.  However, it is certainly not a best seller – it was first published in 1998 and even in Kay’s native country, Scotland, it isn’t widely known.

Thus, as a writer, I need to decide who I want to write for. Am I writing for the best seller market that is swamped by high-action, straightforwardly-written stories that feed into this need for inpatient reading? Or do I write for the reader like me that will hang with a story as we weasel the plot out while reveling in the world the author creates with their words? I know this makes me sound snotty about ‘plot driven’ novels and I don’t mean to be that way at all – indeed these are the books that I will sit up all night and devour in one sitting, but they are typically not the ones I remember after a few months have past.

However, back to my first chapter. Although I don’t agree with the gentleman that I need to get to The Event in the first paragraph, I also don’t believe my first chapter is ‘right’ yet. I need to take on board a little of his sense that I need more conflict/foreshadowing or the like earlier in the chapter to hook the readers, but without sacrificing my integrity for my own love of language.

Decisions, decisions, decisions…

When I was younger I was ruthless in my decision making. My choice of university was easy (once I got the grades to be accepted!) after hearing so many stories from my Dad of his days spent studying at St. Andrews. Post undergraduate my choice to quit one job even when I didn’t have another one was simple – I knew I could find another one fast enough (and I did). Doing my Ph.D. was a no brainer once I knew I needed it to do the job I dreamed of. Post doctorate it took me about half an hour to accept a job in Arizona – a state I had never visited in a country several thousands miles away from home. But, all these decisions were made when I was a free-n-easy single gal.

Even after the hubby and I got hitched decisions were easy. Indeed, the hitching part was pretty straightforward too – not just the decision of who to tie myself to for, you know, all eternity but where, when and how we would do it was simple even when life threw in a couple of curve balls. Then when it was time to up-sticks and move from the South-West to the Mid-West and give up my career so that the hubs got his dream job I didn’t give it more than a passing thought before I jumped onboard. It took us a week to buy house – a week from the starting-to-look phase to the signing-on-the-agreement phase, and at no time was there indecision. Then something changed. We had a baby. And now that baby is a three-year-old and suddenly decisions seem difficult for the first time ever.

Not the everyday decisions – though I have to be honest and say that making the decision every-freaking-meal what two of us are going to eat rather than just me gets tiresome! – those are still easy. It is the BIG decisions that now seem overwhelming. Where-should-kiddo-go-to-school?, do-we-stay-in-our-house-or-move-to-a-better-school-district?, when-do-I-go-back-to-work?, what-do-I-do-when-I-go-back-to-work?, do-I-go-to-grad-school?, do-we-have-another-kiddo?, aaarrrhhhhhgggg …

When we first moved to Toledo the hubs and I agreed I could take a year off and do what ever I liked – it was during this year that I started doing English classes. It was a complete surprise, albeit a quiet lovely one, when my first creative writer gave me really positive feedback and didn’t send me packing like I had somewhat expected. However, even for the first couple of years I never really considered ‘writing’ to be a future full-time endeavor, probably because I was too shattered from feeding our newly born daughter every 2.5 hours. However, in the last year or so I’ve become more and more intrigued by the question whether or not I have the ability (with a bucketload of hard work) to make ‘author’ into a career. But, how do I do that now that I’m not single and can’t change my life on a dim without consequences?

I know there are a billion writers out there that are dedicated and steadfast in their pursuit for publishing opportunities and free-lance work – many while raising families and holding down day jobs. And I applaud them for it, I truly do. But, I don’t know if that path is for me. Obliviously, I have to keep chasing publications as it is the only way to make me write and to make me better at it. And if I ever get to the point where I am ready to apply for an MFA, or approach literary agents I’ll need proof on my CV that I’ve been working hard at my writing. But what is the ‘end goal’? To be the next JK Rowling? To be the next Raymond Carver? To see my novel on the shelves at Barnes & Noble published by Random House? To teach creative writing at the college level? To teach writing workshops locally with a non-profit? To write one short story a year and just enjoy it as a hobby? All of the above? Esh! More decisions!!!

If anyone needs me I’ll be sitting in the corner hiding under a pillow and willing the right decision to fall into my lap….

The fear of the personal

When one first ventures into creative writing there is often a piece of advice that gets thrown in your direction: write what you know. I used to understand this as being: only write about things in your fictional world that you have experienced in your non-fictional world. And if one takes it that way, one would run out of things to write about pretty darn fast; unless you have lived a truly remarkable life filled with an unfathomable number of adventures. The more I write fiction, the more I believe what this advice actually means is: write what you can embody and write what you can do so ‘believably.’ If I take it this way I can certainly get onboard, and understand it to be very valuable advice rather than stifling anti-advice.

As I continue to write and create fictional characters, then attempt to tell their stories, I feel more confident in allowing their realities to differ from what I’ve lived, but are still ones that I believe I can do justice to. There are still many, many characters or experiences I believe I will never been able to write authentically – but perhaps in time that will change too. This all being said, events, conversations, people, and experiences from my ‘real’ world certainly leak into my stories. Fragments of conversations with my husband have made it into a play, a tragic even from my childhood was used in a short story, and my characters are often composites of people I ‘really’ know. This is entirely to be expected of any fictional writing, assuming it has been written by a human that hasn’t lived out their entire lives in solitary confinement.

IMG_5973But what of writing non-fiction. I don’t mean a carefully researched article on a historical event, or a commentary on a topic of social importance but rather the ‘personal essay’. Non-fiction that is suppose to be a (re)telling of an event that truly happen in your non-fictional world – one that you, you know, actually lived through. In the last few months I have ventured into the world of the personal essay and it is, frankly, terrifying. Not because I’m worried about laying bare my ‘soul’ for critique by persons both known and unknown to me (you have to overcome that hurdle when you first do any form of creative writing), but, because, well, why would anyone want to read an essay about my life?
At the start of his chapter entitled “Modesty and Assertion” in his book, To Show and To Tell, Philip Lopate says if better than I ever could.

The most difficult hurdle confronting the would-be essayist or memoirist is the fear that one’s own life story, one’s own experiences, ideas, and impressions are of too little importance to pass on. “Why should I talk about my happy or unhappy childhood? Or my appreciation of nature? Why burden other people with the unsettled debris of my mind?” thinks the student.

This! Exactly this!

But then if I take a step back and breathe for a second rather than letting the panic set in I realize there was a similar emotion when I first started writing fiction: why would anyone read what I write? That fear has been dissolved (somewhat) by positive feedback – by letting people read my work and getting affirmation that it is worthy of reading, and that they found it “good” or “enjoyable.” Like anything in life, if we are told “you are worthy” we find the motivation to move forward and to grow in our chosen endeavor.

And so to the personal essay. I expect to learn a lot over the next couple of months as I study, and write, this format but I think I’ve already learned something that has allowed me displace the dread enough to put pen to paper. Firstly, people will read things that are well written – if you as the author put your efforts in writing well rather than stressing about whether or not your essay is ‘entertaining’ or ‘informative’ or ‘insightful’ you will end up with an essay that will be read. It is then in the hands of your reader to find their own connection to the story – and each reader will identify with your work in wildly different ways. The unknown-to-you reader might find something that resonates with their own experiences or an insight that they never considered before. The known-to-you reader may find themselves (literally) on the page and revel in the shared memory, or be aghast at your interpretation of the event that you’ve chosen to regale. But ultimately, it is not for you, the author, to worry about those things – just write!

 

When reality supersedes fiction

One of the most favorite new things I did in 2015 was start to write plays. I’ve been involved with amateur dramatics in one way or another most of my life. It started at the age of four with the quintessential end-of-year ballet show where I hopped across the stage with my fellow pint-sized bunny rabbits. Then my repertoire expanded to include jazz and tap dance and a very brief delve into musical theatre (I still have my Oliver & Annie costumes stowed away in my parents attic). I stuck with dancing on the stage until my first year of university, after which I preferred to be ‘behind the scenes’ as an choreographer and stage manager until the day I was coerced back onto stage as a chorus girl for my hometown’s production of Copacabana (which was a hell of a lot of fun and I kinda wish we got to keep the costumes!)

However, since emigrating to the US in 2007 I haven’t orchestrated a way back to being involved in local theatre beyond being an as-frequent-as-I-can-be patron of productions, small and large, about town. But I still love the theatre. The buzz that rattles through the audience when the house lights dim and the orchestra hits the first note of the overture – it gives me chills every time. Or, when the first actor bursts on to the set and drags us into their world. I’m thrilled that the toddler is getting old enough for me to finally introduce her to this passion – though I have to admit I won’t be rushing back to see Peppa Pig Live! again in a hurry!!

Screen Shot 2016-01-04 at 1.42.12 PM

Can you find me?? Copacabana 2006. source: http://www.idaos.org.uk

And so, it isn’t particularly surprising that I jumped at the chance to take a course in Playwriting when it was offered last year. The course requirements involved writing one ten-minute play (does what is says ‘on the tin’ – a complete play that takes exactly ten minutes to run. My attempt at this can be found here) and one one-act play. I wanted to challenge myself with my one act so I decided to tackle something that is a ‘hot topic’ today in the USA and most of the world – Islamophobia and the reaction to terrorist acts carried out in the name of Islam. But I wanted to look at it from a human level rather than a strictly political one.

My premise is straightforward. An eclectic group of girls who meet during their college days are still friends twenty years later even though their lives are now vastly different. They come together for the funeral of one of the girls’ mother – who just so happens to be Muslim.  Oh and did I mention the funeral takes place on the day that a fictitious attack, similar to the attack on the Charlie Hedbo offices in Paris, occurs in New York City. Throw into the mix a new boyfriend who is meeting the group for the first time and is ever-so-slightly (insert sarcasm) Islamophobic.

As of yet, I’ve not posted the play here, or on the website, because it is currently only around thirty minutes in length and I have (had?) notions to expand it into a full length play of around ninety minutes. I strongly believe that the theatre stage is where the ‘extremes’ of real life should be explored; that the reality seen on the stage should be a heightened version of what we experience in our ‘actual’ lives in the hope that we can untangle how we feel about things. To this end one idea I had for extending my play was to paint a ‘heightened’ version of contemporary America where all Muslims are forced to register themselves with the authorities and wear a visible label/branding on their persons at all times in order to make it clear to society around them that they are Muslim. You know, like the Jews were forced to do in a certain country at a certain period of history.

I thought I was onto a winning idea of where to take the play next and how to take it deeper. Then enter stage left, Donald Trump and his run at the US Presidency. For those of you who don’t know me personally it is pretty safe to say, politically speaking, I lie firmly in the ‘left’ camp on most all subjects. But even if I didn’t, even if I were a centrist or even right of center I strongly believe that I would still consider Mr. Trump to be a vile human being. Not only for what comes out of his mouth but because I think he says many of those things just for effect (if you have been lucky enough to miss what Donald has said in recent weeks about Muslims, go do a google search, it won’t be hard to find!)

[Editor’s Note: I deliberately made one of my female characters English so I could have her call The Donald a T*at … and this was before the presidential race started!]

I am an immigrant. But I am one of the fortunate ones. I came here through choice. I didn’t have to flee my home under the very imminent threat of death. I came here for a job and I stayed here for my marriage and family. I also don’t have any outwards signs of being ‘different’. I am Scottish (if I were any more white skinned I would be transparent!) and even though I do still have a slight accent it is deemed ‘adorable’ by strangers rather than ‘frightening’. I can’t fathom what it must be like to come here after escaping war & refugee camps and then hear a person that is running for the highest office in the land call you a potential (probable?) terrorist just because you happen to share the same religion as some thugs that are using that religion to justify acts of horrifying violence.

Are we really entering into a society where daily reality is started to encroach on a fictional world that I thought was ‘extreme’? Or is this all hullabaloo that will settle down again post-election? I have my fingers and toes crossed for the latter.

So where does this leave me with my play? Do I push on and expand it the way I had intended but scratch my head to come up with even more extreme/scary prospects of how America could end up if it starts down the path that Trump claims to want to take it on? Or do I close the book on it. Leave it where it is …

 

Pipe dreams

source: blogfactory.co.uk

source: blogfactory.co.uk

It was when I was a freshly minted university graduate at the ripe-old-age of twenty-one that I experienced New York City for the very first time. My friend, Sarah, and I had travelled over the ‘pond’ from Scotland to Richmond, VA to meet up with another friend, Jacqueline, from uni – an American none-the-less – whom we had met and become BFFs with during her JYA studies in St Andrews. Although we’d all know each other for a couple of years, Sarah and I waited until we turned twenty-one to make the trip to see Jacqueline in her native country for the simple fact that we wanted to be able to sit around and have a cocktail or three during our “Great American Adventure”. After some time in Virginia we all hopped on the train to The Big Apple. We arrived at Penn Station (which is directly below Madison Square Gardens) around 9pm on a weekday evening and as Sarah and I followed Jacqueline up to street level we felt like we’d been whisked straight into a movie set.

We were suddenly surrounded by skyscrapers taller that we could fathom, yellow cabs with drivers leaning on their horns, police in ‘funny’ outfits with ‘funny’ squad cars, steam pouring out of manholes, people going in all directions but miraculously not bumping into each other, and a city buzz that instantly intoxicated us. I fell in love with NYC right that second and it is a love affair that has lasted almost twenty years. I’ve been very fortunate that I’ve been able to return to the city countless times in the intervening years and I always assumed that I would one day live there. This weekend I was again in the city. The reason for going was bittersweet but I always cherish time with my Jacqueline regardless of what brings us together. I also got to go solo leaving my toddler in Ohio with her Dada. Again I fell under the spell of the city. Of course, when you are staying in a delightful apartment on the Upper East Side with family and your wonderful host is, frankly, one of the best cooks you know, it is easy to drift off into a lusty haze and imagine you actually live there for real.

IMG_5074Although I was away from Ohio for the weekend I couldn’t completely tune out my life here for three days – aside from putting calls in to speak to the toddler and her Dada I had a homework exercise to complete for class. The exercise was simple, write a mock query letter looking for representation from a literary agent. To make it even more fun we were tasked with finding an actual real live, living & breathing agent that would be interested in the type of fiction we write. I first thought about Ian McEwan – cause who wouldn’t want his career! – but after some internet snooping I learned that the agent he worked with passed away last year. I poked through the company of the late agent but didn’t see a ‘perfect’ fit with any of the other agents.

Contemplating other authors I like I decided to be more “realistic” and pick a new, young author whom I have just discovered. Maggie Shipstead has two novels out and I recently read her second – Astonish Me. I like her style, it is approachable but her language is more lyrical (and by that I mean, better!) than most ‘best sellers’ and I am an absolute sucker for flowery language that wraps the character’s world around me as I read. The novel is a family drama set in the professional ballet world and since in another life I’m totally a prima ballerina it was right up my street. Researching her literary agent came up trumps too and so off I went to write my query letter to Ms. Gradinger of Fletcher & Company whose offices, of course, are in New York City, New York! Fifth Avenue between 13th & 14th street to be precise – only a short(ish) bus/subway ride from where I was staying in the Upper East Side.

And so my brain took off and really launched itself into a fantastical dream-world where I am a celebrated author, represented by Ms. Gradinger (who I meet with often to have business meetings over a martini), and I live in a beautiful apartment on the Upper East Side (or Upper West Side, I like them both, I’m not picky). Of course, in this fantasy world you can totally afford to live in a palatial apartment in NYC off the proceeds of selling one novel … it is fantasy, people, fantasy!!

Needless to say re-entry back into my at-home-mama-mid-west-america-suburban actual life has been a little bit bumpy this week but it has been made easier by toddler (and her Dada) cuddles and kisses. But the really great thing is that I now have this query letter sitting on my computer ready to go – should I ever feel brave enough to send it out (and brave enough to receive the rejection that will follow). I may never get to live in The Big Apple, and I will certainly never have the bank account that would be needed to live in the style that my fantasy paints, but one day I may be a bona fide author that is represented by a literary agent with a publishing deal under my belt… maybe, just maybe…

Never gonna join the circus

I’m bad at juggling. Terrible at it. Truth be told I can barely catch one ball far less keep multiple balls in the air in some wonderfully beautiful choreographed jiggery-pokery. The ball catching genes landed firmly on my big sisters shoulders – she can stick her hand out at the last second and a ball will glue itself to her palm. Me? I could have a half hour warning of the incoming projectile and I still fumble the catch.

Sadly, my inability to juggle isn’t just limited to balls – I’m also truly terrible at juggling ‘things’ in my life. When I focus my energy on two or three things I can do those things really, really well – but when the number of ‘things’ creeps up beyond that (painfully) limited number things get dropped, fast. I have a number of friends that are my heroes for their ability to do all the things all the time. It boggles my mind how they do it – and still look more rested and put together than I do on any given day.

My life is incredibly uncomplicated. I don’t work. I stay home with my toddler who is as content to stay in pjs for big chunks of the day as I am. On most days we don’t have anywhere we have to be at any specific time – no school yet, very little activities that we have to be on time for – really we are so relaxed that most people would be jealous of the life we have created for ourselves. For example, here is a list of ‘things’ that I’m ostensibly responsible for.

  • keeping my daughter alive (2.75 years in and we seem to be doing OK)
  • keeping my daughter entertained (mmmm … I would say I have a 50/50 hit rate on this)
  • class work (this semester that has been writing personal essays, workshopping classmates fiction & compulsory reading)
  • this blog (yeah – not going so well)
  • writing (been going great!)
  • reading (horribly, horribly failing on this)
  • running Love Letters To Toledo (so much fun and a really lovely creative outlet!)
  • housework (the hubby will testify that I’m shockingly bad at this!)
  • paying the bills (not had our electric cut off yet so I must be doing ok)
  • keeping my daughter alive (see #1)

So you can see – not exactly a lot! But yet, two things on that list have been resoundingly dropped recently: namely keeping up with this blog and keeping pushing with my reading. One could argue that it is better that it is these things that have been dropped and not the only thing I’m really, truly responsible for – the well being of my daughter. But … if I’m serious about being a “writer” then I need to get better at doing the multitasking dance, for life will get more complicated in the not too distant future – my daughter will start school in the next year or so and I will be looking to re-enter the working world & will be required to be out of my pjs before noon.

But, I hear you say, surely reading and this blog are only for ‘pleasure’ and it is really inconsequential if they are ignored for a month or two. Well, yes, in a way that is true but if I am wishing to pursue the completion and publication of a novel at any point in my life these two things are important. Firstly, all successful authors are avid readers and I know for certain that my writing is better when I am reading frequently. And secondly, this blog not only keeps me accountable to keeping writing at the forefront of my thoughts but it makes sure I frequently flex the ‘writing’ part of my brain which is critical to keeping it lubricated and functional!

So how am I going to get better at the juggle? I guess the same way we get better at anything, practice. Now that class is wrapping up in a couple of weeks and I’ve completed a (super-teeny-tiny) micro-version of NaNoWriMo I can shift the focus slightly back to blogging and reading. I have a long way to go to catch up on my 2015 Reading Challenge but the winter weather is settling in and my fireplace is begging to be curled up in front off with a book and a hot chocolate! How do you all manage the juggle? Anyone come up with a wonderful new way of keeping those balls up there without sacrificing your mental health? I’d love to hear all about it in the comments below!

Writing not blogging

Excuse me a moment while I whip out my broom and dust off the behemoth spider web that has appeared in the corner of the blog. Though, I’m pleased as punch that the lack of blogging hasn’t been due to laziness or inertia but because I’ve been a busy bee writing a new story – yay me!

One of the bigger struggles I have with my writing is accountability – setting goals that I stick too. Taking class is wonderful for me because I have hard deadlines that have real consequences if I miss them or don’t put in as much effort as I know I should. I know how it feels to not get the grades you want due to lack of effort (hello, BSc Astrophysics 2:2) and it ain’t a nice feeling! But since I am attempting to actually gain my BA not all my classes can be creative writing ones, which often means months go by without me writing anything new. So for this reason I was rather gleeful when I tripped over a novel (as in innovative not book!) on-line writing contest at the beginning of August.

The Write Practice is a blog/website I’ve been following for a little while but I didn’t appreciate it is also an online community for budding writers from all over the world. One day an advert for their new writing contest popped up in my reader feed and it pricked my interest. For a small fee (most submission opportunities come with fees) you got six weeks access to their writers forum in which the goal was to post a brand new, 1500 word short story and have it ‘workshopped’ by the other participants before submitting your best effort to the actual contest. I think what captured most writers interest though was this contest is offering to publish all short stories submitted even if they don’t win one of the three top prizes – very unusual.

Writing stories is not an endeavor one typically takes on to keep one’s end product secret. Most people who write creatively are doing so for a number of reasons but one of those reasons is to be read by others – to have an ‘audience’, and to gain validation & appreciation from said audience. When I started this website I was driven by two reasons: to make writing more present in my daily

life, and to have a conduit through which to share my work with family and friends. But really I wasn’t very honest with myself. I wanted an audience and I wanted that audience to grow. And you know what, that is ok. That is part and parcel of being a writer. A desire to have your words ‘seen’ – to have your hours of (solitary) toil acknowledged and (perhaps) be told that you have something resembling talent.

So in all honesty, it was the fact that my work will be published online regardless of how I do in the contest that drew me to this particular opportunity. However, I got so much more out of the experience than I expected – especially from the online community. Although most of the people on the forum have writing experience similar to myself (that is; just starting out) many of them had great insights to my story and helped me mould it into something better through the feedback they offered. In this digital age I think newbie writers such as myself can gain so many benefits from what can be found on the internet from information to support to publishing opportunities – but as with anything ‘online’ a grain of caution has to be used.

Next up for me is a creative (personal) non-fiction assignment for class – another little shove on the boundary of my comfort zone but I’m up for the challenge!

I am an ostrich

I am an ostrich. If I encounter a problem academically that I can’t solve fairly quickly, rather than hunkering down and bashing the living daylights out of the problem until I get the answer, I stick my head in the proverbial sand and hope the answer jumps into my head all by itself. I’ve always done this – which may be a bit of a surprise considering I’ve gained the highest academic degree possible in a physics based subject – but trust me none of my degrees in astrophysics came easily nor was I at the top of any of my classes (firmly rooted in the bottom quarter more like it!). I am insanely jealous of my husband’s academic tenacity. When he encounters something he doesn’t understand he will surround himself with text books and resources and people ‘smarter’ than him and whack his head off the problem until he thoroughly understands it and can explain it to anyone. It is a big reason he is the quality of scientist that he is and it is certainly why he is developing into a much loved and respected professor. It is also a quality I truly hope our daughter has inherited from him – rather than my ‘meh, I’ll look at it again tomorrow’ stance.

Fortunately (or is it unfortunately) I’ve realized as I’ve gotten older that this trait comes from a place of insecurity rather than just being ‘dumb’. I get scared that I can’t ‘be’ what it is that I really want to be so rather than truly trying and failing I give myself the get out of clause of “well, I didn’t get an A cause I didn’t study enough.” I’ve done it in my personal life too – “well, that relationship didn’t work cause I didn’t throw myself into it.” From when I was eight I wanted to be an astronomer. Did I truly know what that meant? Nope – but it is what I wanted. I was good at maths and physics throughout high school and achieved the grades I needed to attend the University of St Andrews. It was here at the start of my (many, many) years of university study that I took on the persona of an ostrich as it is after high school that shit gets real when you are studying science. It is hard. Like, hard hard. And although throughout undergraduate studies there are still ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers in science those answers aren’t as simple as 4 anymore.

The MMTO where I worked for five years. source: mmto.org

The MMTO where I worked for five years. source: mmto.org

But I did persevere in my own way and though I never attained the highest quality of degrees (2:2 undergraduate for me!) I did complete and was awarded BSc, MPhil and PhD degrees. I went on to find my niche in the professional astronomy world and was offered a permanent position after my first post-doc. However, I never lost my insecurities nor my ‘fingers-in-ears-shouting-la-la-la’ method to deal with them and I know it held me back. Now that I have decided I want to ‘be’ an author those insecurities are rearing their ugly heads once again. And I have started to sidle into my comfortable sand pit in the corner in which I’m using my daughter’s bright-orange plastic shovel to dig the hole for my head (thankfully she is in there with me making the hole digging a lot more fun!)

The biggest insecurity I have when it comes to creative writing is: do I have enough stories to tell? It isn’t that I can’t put words into pretty/informative/invoking sentences by rather do I have enough characters and situations in me to create engaging stories that will build me an audience and keep them! I have only written two new pieces this year – both plays and both for class. They were sizable pieces of work that took all semester to craft but it was only two stories. I haven’t written any new fiction in over a year. That is bad. That is not how I make myself an author. That is how I fully morph into an ostrich, again, and hold myself back. But I am older now and I am certainly more self-aware (and less distracted by beer) and so fingers crossed I can ward off any unsightly transmutations by making myself do the hard things. So I’m off to try and tease out some more words on a new short story under the theme of ‘first meetings’ … wish me luck!

Inspired by …

Last year I happened upon a small book sitting on the shelves of my local bookstore whose cover drew3619573 me in (yes, yes I know you aren’t suppose to ‘judge a book by its cover’ but hands up if actually don’t pick up books because you like their covers – anyone? anyone?) Flipping to the back cover to read the blurb I was sucked in even more and I duly headed to the checkout with book in hand. The book is The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway and it was the image painted by the first sentence of the blurb that convinced me to spend my pennies. The sentence is this:

In a city ravage by war, a defiant young musician decides to play his cello at the site of a mortar attack for twenty-two days, in memory of his fallen friends and neighbors.

What an image. What a story. I don’t recall at what point, before or after I started reading the book, that I learnt that this scene (and the catalyst for the novel) was inspired by the real musician Vedran Smailovic. Smailovic became renowned for playing his cello in ruined buildings during the siege of Sarajevo – many times playing Albinoni’s Adagio in G Minor. Never heard the adagio? Go look it up – it is a hauntingly beautiful piece. Smailovic’s actions have inspired many artistic tributes including; a piece entitled The Cellist of Sarajevo composed by David Wilde and recorded by Yo Yo Ma, Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24 by Savage and a folk song by John McCutcheon called In the Streets of Sarajevo. As far as I can gather all of these endeavors have been embraced by Smailovic himself.

Clearly, it was also an act/image that affected Galloway sufficiently to become the hinge of his book in which he considers a fictionalised version of the siege of Sarajevo which took place from 5 April 1992 to 29 February 1996 during the Bosnian War. Indeed, Galloway talks here about how it was a photograph of Smailovic printed by the New York Times that sat with him for a decade until after the 9/11 attacks that gave him an avenue into writing about what war does to people who are ‘not in the business of war’. In addition to the unnamed ‘cellist’, the novel looks at the siege through three fictional characters. It is not a sensationalist book, indeed it is surprisingly ‘internal’. It is also not dialogue heavy and although there are moments of violent action much of the book focuses on the thoughts of his three main characters. I don’t typically read books about war – indeed if a book is too ‘military-y’ I will stay clear of it – but I loved this book. I could ‘see’ this book playing out as a piece of theatre in my head as I read it (what a way to start a play … a solitary cellist playing the adagio surrounded by ruined buildings … my spine tingles just imagining it).

After finishing the book I started poking around the internet to learn more about Galloway and to discover if he has published other novels but what I found surprised me. It is very well documented, in many forums, that Smailovic despises Galloway and hates the success this book has brought the author. Huh. Why? A quote from a 2008 Times article in which Smailovic explains: “It was like the explosion of an atomic bomb, emotions of anger and pain. How is this possible? They steal my name and identity. Nobody can take the rights to that from me. It’s quite clear that it is me in the book.” Apparently Galloway contact the Times in response and he is quoted as saying: “I’m not sure entirely about in what way he feels that what I’ve done with his identity is different from the other works of art which have been inspired by him. I don’t use his name, I call my character the Cellist and he’s really only a character in the first five pages. It’s not really about him, it’s about the other characters and their reactions to what he does. … The problem is that Mr Smailovic took a cello on to a street in a war and that’s an extremely public act.”

I’m not intending this post to be a full (or accurate) account of the people’s feelings involved in this specific case – if you are interested a quick google search offers up lots of details – but it got me thinking, more that I ever have before, about if and/or what we owe real people for the inspiration they give us for creative/fictional writing. I’m sure there have been many people before me that have thought long and hard about this and as I go further into my writing career I’ll have to learn about the legalities but this is the first time I’ve sat down and thought about this. I could anticipate that if I used a copyrighted piece of art that there is a very clear path for financial compensation. But what if I’m inspired by a famous photograph that is in the public domain? Or a news article such as the story which hit today about the American dentist who killed a much-loved lion in Zimbabwe? What if I change the occupation of the American and tell the story from the point-of-view of a local child who never interacts with the hunter? Would I owe ‘something’ to the parties that originally inspired me?

What about family members? Obviously any writer’s life inspires what they write about and one day, when I am a good enough writer to be able to do them justice, I want to write about my Aunt and Uncle who both died a couple of years ago. If I were lucky enough to secure a publishing deal for a novel with characters that are inspired by them would I owe financial compensation to their estate – namely my cousins? It is a little daunting to consider these things – not just from a financial aspect but from a ‘pissing people off’ aspect. I suspect there are a lot of stories that writers don’t tell until their real life inspirations are long dead just for this very reason. I guess at the moment I have the ‘luxury’ of this being an academic thought exercise since I am a long way from making any sort of money from my writing but it is one I will carry closer to me having read about the contention surrounding Galloway’s novel.

Writing to a theme

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?

ContestFlyerFor 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 witLittle Girl Superheroh 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 …