On Writing, Ranée

Disorder

Creativity requires a certain amount of disorder—a good kind of chaos, if you will, and I fully admit to being a bit Scarlet-Witchy (OK, more than a bit). However, in this post, I’m talking about the bad kind of disorder, the sort that comes from a lack of clarity and has nothing to do with creative spirit.

I’ve spent some time this week migrating content that I’ve written for my current story from my notebooks into Scrivener and, in the process, I’ve come to an important realization—I should not be writing when I’m depressed or stressed out unless I’m just writing about how I’m feeling. I haven’t got much of substance to show for the months when I’ve been trying to write while feeling bad; the little that I do have is a jumbled mess. All of the more organized threads that flow into actual chapters were written prior to depression and anxiety setting in. It is exceptionally difficult for me to maintain a decent level of concentration and to organize myself when I am depressed or anxious; that’s always been true. The difference now is, I’m aware of it. I know now that this was the real reason I could never finish a book let alone really get one started—my emotional struggles caused me to lose focus to the point that I just couldn’t get it together.

The other lesson I’ve learned is that I need to follow my own advice and when nothing good is coming or I’m just not feeling like working on a particular project, then I need to write something else, whether that something is journaling, writing a blog post, or working on another creative project. With regard to the latter, I’ve been forcing myself to stick with one creative writing project at a time out of fear I’ll never finish anything if I don’t make myself plow through, but I’ve realized that, by doing this, I’ve been hampering my own creativity (and as I noted above, the real problem for all those years was depression, not my tendency toward chaos-witchiness). I hate doing the same thing all the time; I get extremely bored and end up feeling constrained. I certainly need some structure to keep me on track, but instead of forcing myself to push on when my heart’s not really in it, I should instead embrace my own dynamic nature, be flexible, and work on whatever project I feel like on a given day (employ an organized chaos, so to speak). My hope is that by changing things up, I’ll avoid stagnating and will instead keep the embers of my creative fire burning.

Along the same lines, while my story ideas tend to be nonlinear, with scenes/flashes coming at random, I need to write in chapters. If I have a scene in my head, then I will write it but I also need to write what goes around or with it, connecting the dots. This will save me having to go back and fill in loads of blanks later and will help to keep me organized. I mean, even when Wanda was completely disrupting people’s lives, she still provided a substantial amount of structure. The least I can do is turn random scenes into full-fledged chapters (the fact that I have already done it is proof I can do it again).

So this will be my new process once I’ve moved over the stuff I’ve got in my notebooks. Maybe I’ll even consider going back to writing on the computer. Ha! Sorry, but computer writing for creative projects is reserved for revising . . . unless I find a good electronic approximation for a pen and notebook that can be transferred straight into the computer and integrate with Scrivener, but that’s another topic for another day.

On Writing

The Writing’s on the Wall

Or, as the case may be, in the song, in a perfectly brewed cup of chamomile tea, in your dreams . . . Literally, anywhere.

A while back, the topic of discussion for Paper Cuts, our monthly writers’ group, was inspiration. Our conversation got me thinking about ways to maximize or play to your different sources of inspiration. I’ve put together a short list below, but since, as I’ve noted above, inspiration can come from almost anywhere or anything, feel free to note your specific sources in the comments and I’ll suggest some ways to make that work for you and your writing. Note that all of these are also good tactics for battling the beast known as “writer’s block.” However, keep in mind that your triggers shouldn’t be a distraction from your writing; if you find that you’re spending too much time setting the mood and not enough actually getting down to business, then your source of “inspiration” is really just a procrastination strategy and you should let it go.

  • Music. If, like me, you’re inspired by music, then why not listen to music while writing? Put on a record, create playlists to accompany your work, or just allow some ambient music to play in the background. Going to a concert, orchestra, symphony, or other musical event is another way to tap into your source.
  • Atmosphere. If you find that there’s a certain type of atmosphere that’s conducive to your writing, then create that environment for yourself or seek out that ideal writing space (library, coffee shop, etc.). If you need a cup of coffee or tea in your favorite mug, a glass of bourbon, candles, certain smells, a particular writing implement, absolute quiet, a blanket, whatever it may be to get you ready to write, then make it happen.
  • Dreams. If you’ve ever woke up from a dream thinking, “That would make a great/weird/cool story,” or if you often find yourself getting ideas from dreams you’ve had, then try keeping a dream journal. As soon as you wake up, jot down all of the details you can remember from any dreams you’ve had so that you can use those notes to generate future content.
  • Nature. I often find that going for a walk in my favorite nature preserve/park stirs up new ideas and images for me. If you’re also inspired by nature, then do your writing outdoors or choose a spot facing a window with a view. If, like me, you’ve got a particular place with which you feel a connection, then go spend some time there and see what comes up for you.
  • Images. Put up pictures or artwork in the space where you write so that those visual cues are prominently displayed where you can see them as you work. Alternatively, go to a museum or art gallery or watch a film that you find inspiring.
  • The Zone. If you’re inspired when in “the zone,” then try meditating on your project before getting to work to help you get into that highly creative space and tap into your subconscious. You can also do some automatic writing to see what ideas flow up from beneath the surface.

Again, these are just a few strategies that come to mind for me. I welcome your thoughts to build upon this list.

On Writing, Writing Prompts

Writing Prompt 33

The terribly bored-looking gargoyle in the forefront of this photo I took atop Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris back in 2008 is this week’s writing prompt.

Gargoyles atop Notre Dame de Paris, June 2008

Maybe you want to try some personification and write about the gargoyle itself—what it’s contemplating, feeling, or daydreaming about, what it’s saying to its companions (Disney did it ages ago, but I believe you can do it better). Perhaps your bored AF character sees the stone figure and it prompts some inner reflection on their part. Or maybe you’ll be inspired to record the thoughts and feelings that the gargoyle stirs in you. You might even choose Paris as the setting of a new story. Or, if you’ve been to Paris, maybe you’ll choose to write about your own journey to the City of Light.

The possibilities are numerous. Bon chance and happy writing, fellow ink-slingers!

On Writing, Ranée

Spark

The creative spark runs in my family.  My father has it.  My mother has it.  I have it too.

My father’s surname means distaff or spindle, the part of a spinning wheel that holds the thread.  Like that ancestor long ago who first bore the name, Dad is a weaver.  Not of cloth but of stories.  He’s woven a great tree of life from our family genealogy, an entire tapestry that connects our families to every other one in the small rural area of southwestern Pennsylvania where we grew up.  Back in college, he wrote poems and when my brother and I were kids, he told us a whole series of stories about a character named Grouchy Grump who had a pet skunk called Odie Colognie (a play on eau de cologne).  At some point in every one of those stories, we’d hear the line “Out popped the black and white tail.”  We would wait for it and every time I heard it, I’d squeal and laugh.

My mother’s surname was the German equivalent of farmer and like her grandfather who was one, Mom has nurtured things to grow.  As a girl, she had all sorts of animals as pets—everything from horses to a skunk—and growing up, we always had a dog or a cat or both.  Dad created worlds with words, but she created them with her hands, landscaping in the yard, planting beautiful trees and flowers, and creating a little fairyland complete with a small pond in the back yard.

That spark of creating lives in me, their daughter.  The best way I can think of to describe what happens to me when I write or get an idea for writing is indeed a spark or, as Emily of Bright Moon called it, “the flash.”  It can happen at any moment anywhere, so I’ve learned to carry a notebook and pen with me at all times.  Sometimes I wake up with a sentence or two in my head or I’m out walking and something strikes me and I get an image.  Sometimes it’s a few lines of dialogue.  It comes just like that—a sudden flash of inspiration, like a spark igniting a tiny flame.  And there are moments when I’m writing that the act becomes sort of unconscious.  Fellow writers know what I’m talking about—those times when you give yourself over to the craft, let yourself become so immersed in the world you’re creating that the words just flow out and when you come out of your little trancelike state, you look back at what you’ve written and go “wrote that?”  For me, those moments have always been the ones that produced my best writing.

But you need to feed a fire if it’s to burn steadily and grow.  That requires time, something I’ve lacked until relatively recently.

I’ve had several stops and starts on the way to fully embracing my gift.  When I was a kid, my best play time was spent using my imagination like when my brother and I sat in mom’s hooded dryer chairs, put the hoods down over our heads, and pretended we were astronauts on a space mission.  I started writing my own stories when I was in junior high.  I was a rather morbid, reclusive, and contemplative teenager who dwelt a bit too much on death and “dark” stuff (think Raven from Teen Titans).  I begged to have my room painted black but had to settle for black bedding and a black rug.  Obsessed as I was with the likes of Edgar Allan Poe, most of my stories were bloody tales of horror.  I lacked confidence, though, and didn’t think that I could “make it” as a writer.  Who, I thought, would want to read the garbage that I write?  That sort of self-disparaging remark is the hallmark of someone who doesn’t believe in herself.

That lack of belief in myself prompted me to study psychology in college instead of English, but it was my English courses where I came alive.  I wrote a novella about a vampire plagued by all the pain of his life and the absence of God.  It was an expression of my own emotional torment.  I asked one of my professors to read it and although she didn’t care for the subject matter, she told me “I think you should be writing professionally.”  Those words were all I needed to stop lying to myself about becoming a psychologist (shit, I didn’t want to spend my days listening to other people’s problems; they unloaded on me all the time anyway!).  I changed my major to English the summer before my senior year and ended up having to go an extra semester to fulfill all of the requirements.  All I had needed to do for the psych degree was take a bio psych course, write my thesis, and do an internship, but I knew in my heart that it wasn’t for me, so I switched and never looked back.

I submitted my work for a creative writing fiction course and got accepted.  It was the one thing that got me through a very tough time—writing and sharing stories.  I got valuable feedback from the professor who called me a “master revisionist” and praised me for telling a story almost entirely with dialogue.  But I stalled after that.  I submitted some stories to indie publishers, but gave up after a few rejections.  Self-doubt had got me again.

I worked some boring retail jobs for a while, but although I liked helping people find something they liked, I hated having to push stuff on them that they didn’t want.  My first full-time job was working for a bully patent attorney in a technical writing position.  When I say bully, that’s putting it mildly.  I’m talking about a man who belittled staff, paged them over the intercom to phone his extension and when they didn’t immediately do it, paged them repeatedly until they did (up to seven times in a row for the poor older woman who worked as the receptionist).  Stories circulated around the office about how he had abused employees in the past, causing someone to have a nervous breakdown, and punching a pregnant woman.

After that nightmare ended, I was at a loss as to what to do next, so applied to grad schools.  I got accepted into Kent State’s English program, so moved to Ohio to earn a master’s in English with a concentration in literature and writing.  It’s a really useless degree, I have to say.  I didn’t need it for any of the work that I did subsequently, nor did it give me an edge over other candidates.  It was just a couple of letters after my name if I wanted to show off and put them there.  I didn’t and don’t.  While there, I had a fellowship and taught some introductory composition courses, teaching expository writing to college freshmen, which I continued to do as an adjunct faculty member for a year after I graduated.  The class was a required course so the students didn’t really want to be there.  Neither did I most of the time, but there were a few students who actually enjoyed my classes and one in particular whom I remember.  I don’t recall his name, but I can picture him just as clearly as if he were standing in front of me now—a white guy with dirty blond hair under a backwards cap, round brown eyes, and an ugly purple bruise across his broken nose from a rugby injury.  He stood there in front of my desk on the last day of class, the last student to leave, and thanked me, said he’d really liked my class, and extended his fist for a fist bump, but it wasn’t me or the class he’d really liked, it was the encouragement I’d given him.  I’d had the class read High Fidelity, one of my favorite books, and he’d written a heartfelt thank-you for me in the style of the opening about how I wasn’t up there with all the other teachers who’d influenced him only to flip it and say that I’d been one of the best.  It meant a lot to me that I’d seen something in him that others hadn’t, that I’d made a difference for him as some of my teachers had for me.  Students like him and interactions like that made me love teaching and helping others with their writing.

That was one of the highlights of my two years at Kent State; that, discovering the poems of Carol Ann Duffy (primarily her fantastic book The World’s Wife), and meeting my mentor.  Ironically, the creative writing course I took there wasn’t helpful because the only valuable feedback on writing came from the teacher and as always, we didn’t receive any guidance about how to actually get one’s work published.

After KSU, I wrote less and less because I moved to the DC Metro area for a job working at a strange little publisher of dead journals, another messed-up anxiety-inducing situation.  I tried doing National Novel Writing Month a couple of times, but I found that I didn’t have time to write.  Work consumed most of my time and then family life took up the rest.  It stayed that way for over a decade.  Every now and again I would find something calling me back to writing and I’d pick up a pen or sit down at the computer to bang out some personal or creative work and I’d realize once more just how much I needed that spark.  It filled a void in me.  It was something that I loved and thought I couldn’t have or had to give up.

Back in 2016, I changed jobs in the name of self-care.  I took a position that was a step down from my current role career-wise but paid a higher salary and offered me a substantial amount of flexibility and freedom.  I didn’t have to go into the office every day; instead, I could work at home if I chose.  I could set my schedule around my son’s so that I could be there to get him on the bus in the morning, was close enough that if something was going on at his school I could easily be there, I could get him off the bus in the afternoons, and I would be able to take time off when he had sick days or snow days.

I really didn’t start taking advantage of this freedom for myself until a couple of years ago.  I met a couple of fellow writers and started workshopping with one of them and coaching the other.  I enjoyed that experience so much.  It was, as always, like rediscovering a part of myself that had been missing.  I decided that if writing was important to me, then I needed to make time for filling that void (along with a lot of other things that I needed to do for me).  Now a portion of every day is devoted to writing, whether it’s personal journal writing, writing this blog, or jotting down notes and inspiration for fiction stories.

My current job is ending in December and I see this as the perfect opportunity to finally embrace my gift.  I can have a career doing something that I love.  I’ve decided that I want to use my skills to help others with their writing.  Embracing my passion and becoming my own boss will not just bring me financial wealth, it will bring me even more in the way of emotional and personal wealth because I’ll be doing it for my soul.  It will be the combination of the creative gifts my parents passed to me—the love of storytelling, the craft, and the impetus to grow something that I love, the act.

The spark is my calling.  It’s time I heed it.

Ranée

Digital Witnesses

Twelve years ago, Disney and Pixar’s Wall·E gave us a vision of a dystopian future where humans lived in a state of perpetual lethargy, sipping on Big Gulps and interacting solely with glowing screens, oblivious to the world around them.  I think we’re already there, just missing the spaceship.  Some would argue that we’ve been there for a while now.  Unfortunately, for many of us, breaking out of that state seems to require something extreme.  My fall-off-the-chair moment came five years ago in the form of panic attacks at work.  The only difference between me and the people in Wall-E is that I always knew there was something else, something more, and I was never OK with ignoring it.  In fact, I continually felt it calling to me, like the howl of a wolf beckoning me to join my pack.

Unfortunately, ignorance and blindness are exactly what the culture we have created for ourselves expects of us and it’s become so ingrained that it’s normal.  We think that we have to do X in order to have Y, that we can’t have what we truly want, which is Z, and we are slowly destroying ourselves with this way of thinking and being.  But what if we all got off those hover-chairs?  Not just fell off accidentally or got pushed off, but actually chose to stand up and look around us, to see things for what they really are.  Holy shit, we just might start a revolution!

But we’re conditioned not to, aren’t we?  I grew up in a household where my dad spent most of the day doing a job he didn’t really enjoy just to make money to provide a house, food, clothes, etc., for us and my mom spent all day keeping the house clean, making sure bills got paid on time, cooking meals for us, and making sure we got to school, did our homework, etc., and while she loved us, she certainly didn’t love doing that.  My parents were doing what they were “supposed” to do rather than all that they may have wanted to do.  At heart, they were creators like me, Dad telling amazing stories and Mom nurturing beautiful things to grow, and I saw what they might have been had those sparks been kindled rather than nearly extinguished.

It’s tough as hell to change it, change yourself, I know, and incredibly scary.  I’ve had several starts and stops along the way, little deaths, if you will. The biggest obstacles were my inability to believe in myself and being thrust into the middle of a game that I never really wanted to play in the first place.  Well, the blinders are off now and I’m done with the game.  When I started having chest pains at work at the age of 37, it was an extreme wake-up call and I knew I had to stop what I was doing to myself and make some major changes.  I might’ve been forced off of my chair, but I’m choosing not to get back on it.  That is the scariest part of all.

I could just tell you what I’ve done over the past few years to right myself, but you don’t just do that nor do you just happen to become a stressed-out emotional wreck one day.  It happens over years, like the melting of a glacier, and you can’t see the full impact until you look at all the markers along the way.  And unless you see the extent of the damage, you can’t fully appreciate how much work must be done to fix it.  I think I need to tell this story not just for myself so that I can fully heal, but perhaps also for others who are too afraid and ashamed to tell theirs because we are none of us ever alone, however much or often we might feel like we are.  Maybe we can heal together.  Stand up together.  Run together.