List: Top 5 Books that Illuminated my Writing Path.

I love lists so each Saturday my plan is to share a list of some sort,                                    covering a range of topics

five books

These are the top five books that started me on the writing path and that I turn to again and again.

  1. “Writing Down the Bones” by Natalie Goldberg. This is the absolute first book that offered me a glimmer of recognition that perhaps I could write. Actually, that I must write.
  2. “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott She helped and continues to help me loosen the grip of perfectionism by taking it word by word, allowing myself to write shitty first drafts and writing what I can see through a 1-inch picture frame.
  3. “Ron Carlson Writes a Story” by Ron Carlson As he takes us meticulously through his process of writing one particular short story, Carlson reminds of the importance of doing the work, of staying in the room even when—especially when—I want leave.
  4. “The Writer’s Portable Mentor” by Priscilla Long This is a book about process and craft but it goes deep into all the layers of craft far beyond character, plot and setting. Never fails to get my pen moving again.
  5. “Still Writing” by Dani Shapiro I have read this gem at least three times, maybe four and am currently reading it each morning as I eat my breakfast and drink tea at my desk before plunging into my own writing. Her honest reflection of the writing life comforts me as I continue to show up to the page and to my own writing life.

What books illuminate the writer in you? Please share in the comments!

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Quotable Tuesday.

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Ron Carlson quote

Making a Choice to Show Up.

X marks the spot

I’ve written for fifty days in a row.

I’ve meditated for thirty-five.

How do I know this? I am keeping track. Each day that I write, I make a red “x” on the dry erase board in my office. The app, “Insight Timer” keeps track of the days I meditate, alerting me of each upcoming milestone as well as the ones achieved.

Meditation stats

I am proud of each “x” I am able to make, of each milestone I reach. But.

But there is this lingering fear, just beneath the surface that I will blow it. And soon.

I mean, I always have in the past.

See, I am not much of follow-through type of person. I start stories but don’t finish them. Or I finish them but don’t submit them. Or I meditate for several weeks in a row then one day I don’t and it’s hard to start again.

I’ve met me. This is how I roll.

So, each day that I show up to my writing and meditation practice is a win but there’s also this voice whispering, “Huh, how long do you really think this is gonna last?”

The truth is, I don’t know.

What I do know is this: Each day I have a choice to make and that is all I need to focus on. Will I write today? Will I meditate today?

Writer and teacher, Ron Carlson, has said that we need to make each day a yes or no day. Choose, one or the other. Maybe days will kill you.

I get that. Maybe days leave me in limbo. They make me think what I choose is out of my control. Maybe I’ll write if I’m inspired or I figure out how that scene ends or if I have time.

The truth is, showing up is totally in my control. And that is reassuring since not many things are.

So, am I positive I will show up tomorrow or the next day or still be showing up next year? Of course not.

But I am sure that the choice is mine.

 

 

 

My Love Affair with the Short Story

Photo: John Levanen / Flickr

Photo: John Levanen / Flickr

I don’t remember the first short story that I fell in love with.

It may have been “Hills Like White Elephants” by Hemingway. I mean, the tension, the powerfully pruned prose, the dialogue that kept me on the edge of my seat. It may have been one of the first short stories I read for pleasure and not for a high school
English class, where I was expected to dissect every aspect of it. Instead of dissecting I allowed myself to be immersed in it—in the language, the setting, the characters, the story. I swam far out into the depths of the story, treading water, staying there as long as I could.

I remember looking up and feeling out of place. Like I had traveled some long distance.

And, indeed I had. That story revealed the power of the short story. The power to transport us in such a brief amount of words.

I don’t understand why story collections aren’t more popular. In this age of truncated attention spans it would seem that short stories would slide easily into those gaps.

Writing stories myself is where I began really honing my craft. The brevity of it allowed me to play with character, plot, setting and theme without drowning in the massive undertaking of a novel. As Lorrie Moore says:

“A short story is a love affair, a novel is a marriage. A short story is a photograph; a novel is a film.”

I could hold a short story—physically in my hands and mentally in my mind.

I still love to read and write stories. It still stuns me to read stories that are perfect whole worlds unto themselves. I read them for pleasure, for the ability to be transported, to read a story that will, as David Sedaris, says:

“…take me out of myself and then stuff me back in, outsized, now, and uneasy with the fit.” 

I love that feeling of being a tad discombobulated after reading a story. Like all of my cells have been slightly rearranged. Nothing is exactly as it was.

And I strive to write stories that evoke the same thing in my reader.

I love how an entire life can be revealed in the brief space of a story as Alice Munro does so masterfully.

I love reading a collection and the writer’s obsessions are revealed through what she chooses to write about—love, family,loss, betrayal, loneliness.

I love when a story takes me to some place unexpected like a man’s memories and literal brain as in Tobias Wolff’s “A Bullet in the Brain.”

I love when a story that I read years and years ago still lingers like “MIlk” by Ron Carlson.

I love when linked short stories all stand on their own yet merge together to reveal a whole life like “Stop That Girl” by Elizabeth Mckenzie or “Normal People Don’t Live Like This” by Dylan Landis.

I just love the short story. The really short ones, the long ones and all the ones in between. I love reading them. I love writing them.

How about you? Are you a fan of the short story? Reading them? Writing them? Please feel free to share in the comments.

“I love short stories because I believe they are the way we live. They are what our friends tell us, in their pain and joy, their passion and rage, their yearning and their cry against injustice.” ~ Andre Dubus

“Short stories are tiny windows into other worlds and other minds and other dreams. They are journeys you can make to the far side of the universe and still be back in time for dinner.” ~ Neil Gaiman

“Short fiction seems more targeted – hand grenades of ideas, if you will. When they work, they hit, they explode, and you never forget them. Long fiction feels more like atmosphere: it’s a lot smokier and less defined.” ~ Paolo Bacigalupi

“My short stories are like soft shadows I have set out in the world, faint footprints I have left. I remember exactly where I set down each and every one of them, and how I felt when I did. Short stories are like guideposts to my heart…”  ~ Haruki Murakami

“When well told, a story captured the subtle movement of change. If a novel was a map of a country, a story was the bright silver pin that marked the crossroads.” ~ Ann Patchett

Writing Process Blog Hop

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I love musing about, writing on and discussing the creative process—mine and others. My favorite writing books focus more on process than craft since we all come at it from different perspectives in order to arrive at the same place— getting our words onto the page and out into the world.

So when I was asked by the lovely Deborah Brasket to participate in this Writing Process Blog Hop, I was thrilled. Deborah lives on the central California coast where she writes fiction, poetry and writing inspired by the natural world. Visit her blog, Living on the Edge of the Wild where she explores “the borderlands that lay between the human and the more-than-human worlds, and the ways they overlap and mirror each other.”

Now, I am supposed to tag 3 more writers to participate. After asking my entire Twitter and Facebook communities, plus reaching out to many writers personally, I have not found anyone able to participate.

So… consider this a shout-out tag. Anyone who has not participated yet and wants to, please leave me a comment. I will do another post highlighting you along with a link to your contribution to the Blog Hop. Seriously. Let me know. Let’s keep this going. We all benefit from sharing our writing and creatives process.

Here are the questions:

What are you working on?

I like having several projects going at once, just as I always read several books at once—different genres of different lengths to fit my current mood and time frame. Having several writing projects allows me to take a break from one, letting it simmer and percolate while not allowing my writing momentum to stagnate.

1. I just finished a revision of a novel-in-stories, “Learning Curve.” I am in the process of writing an agent query letter and getting it ready to submit. The stories follow the life of Martha Jane Fiske from age 10 through adulthood who, after her parents’ divorce, is left in the unfamiliar and awkward care of a father who has been somewhat on the periphery of her life and is now at the center. Marty (a new name to match the new identity she tries on like it’s an accessory) finds herself slowly yet intently gravitating away from that center, as she looks to fill the gaping hole her mother’s departure left with anything and anyone who makes her feel like she is enough. The novel explores identity and the complexities of motherhood and marriage and the ways we struggle to define ourselves in the midst of living complicated, unpredictable lives.

2. I wrote a novel for NaNoWriMO several years ago. I still love the characters and feel drawn to their stories. While I have a draft, I feel I am rewriting it more than revising. It is still untitled which tells me I haven’t unearthed the heart of the story yet. I am still struggling with the structure as it is told form the POV of several different characters after the unexpected death of their husband and father.

3. I’ve jotted notes and scenes for a YA Fantasy I am kind of in love with but am not ready to discuss at any length. All I can say is that it involves guardian angels.

4. I have many short stories in various stages of completion. I love the compactness of a story. I love that it can be written and shared in a relatively short amount of time.

5. I am a columnist for elephant journal where I write at least one post a week. I have also volunteered to edit several pieces a week for them as I learn so much from editing others’ writing.

6. Then there is my own blog, which I have been trying to give more consistent love and attention.

How does your work differ from others in its genre?

For the most part, I write literary fiction, which Ron Carlson defines as “a story that deals with the complicated human heart with an honest tolerance for the ambiguity in which we live.” So, I try to enter the complicated hearts of my characters and their stories with that kind of honest tolerance. I don’t believe in neat, tidy, tied-up-in-a-bow kind of endings. I try to follow my characters instead of my ego, letting them show me the way.

Why do you write what you do?

I don’t set out to write on any particular theme though I do see certain themes emerge in many of my stories: motherhood, marriage, identity, faith. I write what needs to be written, what bubbles up from inside of me. Characters and scenes often emerge when I am playing with writing prompts. I sit down without any agenda, just to play and see what happens. I trust that the stories I need to tell will reveal themselves at the right time.

How does your writing process work?

Calling it a “process” is a very flattering term for I what I actually experience. I feel like it’s a much more intuitive, fly-by-the-seat of my pants kind of space where I honor the ebb and flow of my particular creative process.

I write most everything in longhand first. I feel more connected to my writing that way. Often, I start with prompts that then turn into characters, conversations, scenes. Once I have a collection of these, I sit down and type them up, seeing where I’m at. Is it a story? A novel? A novel-in-stories? I make notes of what I like, what is missing, what questions I have and use those as little assignments for myself. I try to keep on top of typing all these bits and pieces up because typing is not my favorite thing. Once I have a draft, I let it sit—could be for days, weeks or even months. I need enough time to pass so that I can look at it and almost forget that I wrote it.

Then the same process starts all over again. Read it with pen in hand, making notes to myself as if I am workshopping a piece from somebody in my writing group. Once that draft is done, I’ll show it to my group to get their input—incorporating what resonates with me, trusting my instinct as to what that may be.

As far as when and how much I write on any given day…well, I don’t stick to any rigid, consistent schedule. Or if I do, it’s for a set amount of time. When I was revising my novel-in-stores for a contest, I worked almost daily, usually at the bookstore (away from dishes, TV, laundry) and I would work for 45 minutes, break for 15. I’d do up to 5 sets of these. It worked at the time, but I haven’t really used that since. Not to say that I won’t again.

Another part of my process involves keeping a notebook for each WIP. I’ll write from prompts in there, focused on specific characters. I’ll brainstorm names or plot possibilities. I’ll ask questions, track my progress for the day, write new scenes coded with a letter and a page number so I know where in the ms to insert it.

Daily yoga and meditation nurture my writing process, allowing my mind to stay focused and all my energy to flow.

The most important part of my process involves showing up. I wrote these intentions at the beginning the year instead of resolutions and I find they have been a beacon for my writing:

1. I write daily with courage, an open heart and compassion for the ebb and flow of the creative process.

2. I devote myself to my writing time with focus, clarity, passion and joy.

3. I connect with other writers in person and on-line for encouragement and support.

4. I commit to sharing my words by sending them out into the world again and surrender the outcome to the Universe.

5. I continue a daily meditation and yoga practice that allows my writing life to flourish.

So, that’s it. That’s what my writing process looks like today. It could be totally different next year, next month or even next week.

How about you? Interested in sharing your process? Please leave a link in the comments. We’d all love to hear what works for you.