On Writing, Ranée

Here It Goes Again

In a previous post, I wrote about how I’d made a complete mess of the story that I was working on with my disorganized, haphazard approach to writing. Well, as it happens, I wasn’t just plagued by my chaotic storytelling; in RPG parlance, I not only got too caught up in creating my characters’ backstory but also got distracted by a silly side quest.

It’s taken me over a year and a half to realize what this story is actually about—not what it started out as or what I intended for it to be—but what it truly is. It didn’t really hit me until I wrote my book pitch for Paper Cuts a couple of weeks ago. When I did that, I realized that the book I was pitching wasn’t the book I was writing. So what do you do when you find yourself faced with such a realization? Well, after cursing yourself (a lot) and vacillating between pressing on and giving up, first you reevaluate and then you take action—reboot.

During meditation yesterday, I asked my guides if I should continue with this book and they said yes. I’m not gonna lie; I wasn’t fully on board with that right away. So, I spent much of yesterday evening reevaluating this project, including talking through my dilemma with my husband. He asked me what I liked about what I’d written so far and that helped me to get to the heart of the matter, to see where the real story lay. If you find yourself lost, then I highly recommend you take a moment to analyze what you’ve got and, if necessary, ask a trusted soul to help you with this process. Most likely, there’s something that’s worth salvaging, but, often, we are too close to our work to see it objectively. Once you determine what those salvageable pieces are, do some further examination to see how they do or could fit together. That, fellow ink-slingers, is your real story.

The story that you’re actually writing may not be the one that you set out to tell. If you find that’s the case, then the next step is to decide whether or not you’re OK with that. For me, realizing that the story I thought I was writing wasn’t the one that I wanted to write was like finally breaking the surface, lungs burning, and gulping in fresh air; I’d been under water for far too long. I feel a huge sense of relief just accepting that the story I told myself I wanted to write wasn’t what I was really interested in writing and I’ve decided to continue with it. If, however, you’re not OK with a realization like that, then it’s probably best that you put your project aside. DO NOT TRASH IT! While present you might be 100% positive that you never want look at it again let alone try to fix it, a future you may feel quite differently some day and could approach it with a fresh perspective, so, trust me, just put those pages somewhere out of sight for now and move on.

If you choose what I feel could be the harder path and decide to press on, well, then you’ve got some work to do in terms of regrouping. You can keep everything you’ve written so far together in the same place (the good, the bad, and the ugly) and just continue on with the new aim in mind or you can start fresh with the pieces you’ve decided are the keepers, tucking the others away to keep for future use. In the name of clearing the chaos, I’ve decided to do the latter. I’m also beginning some focused journaling to help me gain further clarity (huge thanks to one of my best girlfriends for this timely gift!). Some ways to get reorganized include creating a new outline and/or mind map with the true story in mind, engaging in some focused freewriting to flesh out plot points, and taking a little break before diving into your project again.

In addition to regrouping, I’m giving myself a deadline. My goal is to spend the remainder of winter working on this draft and, if come spring, I find that figuring out the real story hasn’t made any difference and I’m still struggling, I will move on. Deadlines are always a good idea.

In any case, if you find yourself in a similar position, I hope that you won’t despair (at least, not for too long), but that you’ll carry on and take another stab at it.

On Writing

One Way or Another

This post came about because I’ve grown tired of the oft-repeated but rarely-expounded-upon non-advice of “just write.” It goes without saying that to write anything you have to actually engage in the act of writing, but telling some to “just write,” is unhelpful to say the least. Yes, you have to do the work, but for some people, especially those for whom writing isn’t a main job (or even a source of income period) or who have never attempted to write something before, that act of “just writing” can seem downright impossible or terrifying. Just write? Easy for you to say, I can hear them thinking. Where will they find the time? Assuming they’re able to carve out the time among all of their other responsibilities, how will they even get started? And when they’re stuck for ideas, how are they going to get over those hurdles? Telling people to “just write,” is dismissive and flippant. I want to help writers and would-be authors actually solve the very real issues that make it difficult for them to “just write.” As your coach and creative partner, that’s my job.

In workshops that I’ve held and in previous posts, I’ve offered some practical advice and suggestions for how to do things like make writing a regular habit, get started on a project, and combat anxiety and other blocks. However, I always strive to do so with the caveat that these are not the only strategies you can use because that’s the truth. I want to help you find the strategies that will work best for you.

What image comes to mind when you hear the word “writer”? Do you picture someone sitting at a desk scribbling on paper with a pen and ink or imagine someone typing away on a computer? When you get an idea in your head, do you think “I want to write a book” or “I want to tell a story”? The fact is, ink, pens, pencils, paper, journals, notebooks, typewriters, word processors, and computers are just some of the many tools available to you as a writer. If writing by hand or typing isn’t your thing, you can tell your tale using dictation or speak-to-text tools, make an audio recording, or use visuals like pictures, drawings, film, and animation. You can also do combinations of any of the above. Use the tools that are most accessible and useful to you based on your unique needs, preferences, and skills. The same goes for the medium or format that your story takes. That does not have to be a book. You’re a writer whether you write poetry, a personal blog, research papers, an advice column, film scripts, or graphic novels. There are as many ways to tell a story as there are storytellers and all of them are valid, so a one-size-fits-all approach to helping writers just won’t work and you won’t find that here.

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.