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. 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
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!
Thanks to the last of the air-miles earned during my previous life as a jet-setting astronomer I was recently able to take a wee hiatus from mummy-duty and head solo to NYC for two days. The main motivator for the trip was to see the off-off-Broadway premier of Ed Falco’s play Possum Dreams (which I wrote about here) but I also got to hang with friends that I get to see way too infrequently these days. After a few travel hijinks I arrived in the city mid-morning on the Saturday and headed straight for the main library. Although I am super lucky in how frequently I get to visit NYC I’m not often in mid-town so I wanted to take the opportunity, while untethered by a two-year-old, to play tourist. It is such a beautiful building but it was slightly disappointing that the Rose Reading Room was shut to visitors that morning otherwise I would have loitered quite a bit longer.
My friend’s apartment, and my home for the night, is in the Upper West Side so I strolled from the library through the mayhem of Times Square. It has been years since I set foot in Times Square and I swear there were far more life sized (and frankly disturbing) cartoon characters this time around! But it was nice to get into the theatre-mood for the upcoming evening’s entertainment. The rest of the day was filled with a trip to the MET and great food before we found our way to the twelfth floor of a building on West 54th and a teeny-tiny blackbox theatre for Possum Dreams. The three friends who came with me had no exposure to the play prior to the show so I was really interested to see how their experience would differ to mine.
Leighann Niles DeLorenzo and Andrew Narten star in Ed Falco’s ‘Possum Dreams.’ Photo credit: None Too Fragile Theater
If you are interested in a professional’s review of the play you can read a, deservedly, glowing one here but let me start with – I enjoyed it immensely. The actors, to my mind, did the text proud and indeed Leighann Niles DeLorenzo brought a version of ‘Jan’ to life that was completely different (and far superior) to the one I saw in my head when I studied the play. The stage area was compact to say the least but they made effective use of the space and the actors navigated it well. They only aspected of the play that felt constricted by the stage area was the physicality and the destruction of the living-room set that the play calls for – I would love to see what these actors could do if they had the space to really throw the dinning chairs around! The ninety minutes of the play flew by and the actors held my attention throughout – even though I was eagerly awaiting the arrival of the possum (you’ll have to go see the play to find out what I mean)! As a newbie playwright what mostly stuck with me was the success of the ‘reactions’ that the actors brought to the play – by that I mean the reaction of the person who wasn’t speaking to what is being said. When you are studying, or indeed writing, a play you are intently focusing on the dialogue but when the play is translated into the visual medium up on a stage there is so much subtext and ‘story’ being told by the actor who isn’t speaking. I assume as a playwright you just have to cross your fingers and toes and hope that if you are lucky enough for a play to make it to production the actors are good enough to bring that level of performance to the piece.
I’m now gladly back to mummy-duty, spring weather, the last few weeks of semester and my playwriting class. For the end-of-class portfolio I have a one-act play (around 30 mins in length) to complete and I’m slowly, though frustratingly, forcing my concepts and ideas into something resembling a play – with the help and patience of the hubby, my professor and kick-ass classmates! I did have some very pleasing news this week though. A 10-minute play I wrote at the beginning of the semester has just won top prize in the prose category in the Shapiro Writing Contest – an annual competition run by the University of Toledo. Does this mean I can now claim to be an award winning playwright?! Nah – but it is very nice to know that I don’t completely stink at this writing malarky! If you want to take a gander at the play you can read it here: Thwarted.
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 …