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Jan. 2nd, 2017

winterhike

New Year's ideas

I won't call these resolutions. Maybe they're aspirations, or reminders, or ideas. Whatever.

1. Pay attention.
2. Speak up.
3. Know what to take seriously and what not to take seriously.
4. Goof off.
5. Ask why and what if.
6. Say the nice thing you're thinking.
7. Keep in touch with nature.

Dec. 30th, 2016

flower

The hazards of biography

After reading a few biographies of well-known writers that left me liking the subjects less than I did beforehand, I began to ask myself whether it's possible for this not to happen. Generally we come to know writers through their work; we see the polished product. In a sense, we're seeing the best the writer has to offer. But any biography will acquaint us with the writer's flaws, sins, and worst moments as well. This is even true of writers who write memoir. After all, memoir is not autobiography, and what's included in a memoir is carefully chosen--not so much to make the writer look good, but to show us the world through that writer's perspective. Seeing the writer through a different perspective may be jarring.

But then, I don't need to like a writer to enjoy his or her work. There are several writers who sound, quite frankly, like pains in the neck IRL, but whose books still move me and entertain me. And who's perfect, anyway?

Dec. 27th, 2016

flower

Surprise

At YA Outside the Lines, we've been blogging all month about endings. My contribution is about surprise twist endings. Which I love in fiction, if not so much in life.

It can be difficult to bring off a surprise twist without its feeling gimmicky; another danger is the reader feeling betrayed by the misdirection. But it can be satisfying if we think we are plodding toward a predictable resolution, only to find ourselves transported somewhere else. Every now and then, a surprise is a delight.
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Dec. 16th, 2016

KeepWriting

Talent, persistence, and luck

"The other day I had a letter that asked me to what I attribute my success. Of course, I do not have 'success' in the ordinary definition of that word, but I answered, 'A talent, persistence, and luck.'"
--May Sarton, At Seventy

Sarton was able to support herself with her writing, in a lifestyle that included a beautiful house on the Maine coast. She gave poetry readings to packed houses, and people waited in long lines at her book signings. Even though she often wrote of feeling short-changed by critics, she actually achieved a measure of success that few writers attain.

I don't have her level of success, but from what I've seen of others' careers, I would agree with her choice of the three ingredients. I've heard a few established writers say that persistence was the number one factor they saw in writers who "made it," that simple perseverence was more important than talent in the long run. And in recent years, I've come to appreciate the significant role that luck plays in writing success, as well as in life generally. Talent alone doesn't go far enough; it needs healthy doses of the other two.

Of the three, persistence is the only one over which we have any control. So we keep on typing, and thinking, and reading, and revising.

Dec. 11th, 2016

capemeareslthouse

Home is

"Home is the cats, my books, and my work never done."
--Patti Smith, M Train

My version would be slightly adjusted:
"Home is my husband, the cat, my books, and my work never done."

The fact that the work is never done is actually a blessing, even though I have to stop and remind myself of that every now and then.

Dec. 9th, 2016

KeepWriting

Digging through the toolbox

One of the advantages of having been at this writing game for so long is that I have a vast array of tools in my toolbox. Some of them get shoved to the back, covered up, or slide between the cracks. But eventually I remember they're in there.

Today I had a high-level, big-picture writing problem to approach. After staring blankly and apprehensively at the screen for a bit, I decided to brainstorm and plan in longhand. I routinely do my drafting and revising on the computer nowadays, but for some reason this task needed the concreteness and simplicity of pen on paper. Then I sat down to the electronic manuscript with a (handwritten) list of specific edits to make to this draft. For some reason, this worked on this particular day with this particular problem.

Another example of living my motto, "Whatever works." If one approach doesn't work, there are plenty more to try.

Dec. 6th, 2016

flower

Auto reply

Some light humor at a time of year when the nights are long and the days are cold.

Out-of-office messages:

"I am out of the office for the next week. If you have any questions in my absence, please look deep inside your soul for the answers."

"I am currently on vacation and am not giving this place a thought while I frolic in the sun and surf. I will answer your message when I drag myself, weeping, back to the office in two weeks."

"I am away. Whatever you are contacting me about, no, I didn't get to it before I left. Probably won't get to it when I come back, either."

"I am out searching for the meaning of life. If I don't find it, I'll be back at my desk in a week."

(These were inspired by a humorous out-of-office message I saw recently.)

Dec. 2nd, 2016

flower

The questions we need to answer

"I have never written a book that was not born out of a question I needed to answer for myself. Perhaps it is the need to remake order out of chaos over and over again. For art is order, but it is made out of the chaos of life."
--May Sarton, At Seventy: A Journal

Nov. 28th, 2016

flower

Delayed discoveries

Imagine that some creative work you produced in your late teens--for which you had high hopes, but it never went anywhere then--has been "discovered" decades later. This work that's so far in your past is current and fresh to others. It's what they know you for. Whatever directions you've taken since then, however much you've changed, now you must revisit that old work.

This is the premise of True Story, volume 1, a nonfiction essay called "Fruitland." Two young brothers recorded an album in the late 1970s, which only received wide attention and celebration within the past few years. It makes for an interesting read, but it also made me question how much of my own adolescent writing I would still stand behind. I'm a better writer now, I hope. My perspective on many issues has changed; I'm much more politically aware now. There's little of my unpublished work from back then that I would care to put forward now.

And yet, who would want to turn away new fans, no matter how belated the attention, no matter how far we've come since creating that work? We all know that some artists aren't even discovered until after they're dead.

It just reminds me that fate is quirky, and art is unpredictable, and we never know where the dandelion seeds of our work will drift and take root.

Nov. 25th, 2016

flower

Writing for the family

On this blog, I mostly talk about writing for general audiences and writing for publication, but today I'd like to encourage another kind of writing: writing for one's family.

Take the time, and encourage your relatives to take the time, to jot down some of the following:
--What you know of the family history
--Funny stories and memories (You know, the ones that get told and re-told around holiday tables over the years? Write them down.)
--Your own accounts of big moments in your own life: wedding day, first job, birth of children, etc. Maybe you've climbed a mountain or won a Pulitzer or competed in the Olympics. Tell about it.
--Your personal accounts of historic events: where were you and what were you doing on 9/11, during the moon landing, during any big event for which you were alive? How did you feel? How did the average person experience these?
--How you've experienced life: do you remember what life was like before the internet? What have we lost that you don't want to go unremembered?

People say we will no longer need personal historical documents like letters and diaries because we document everything on social media. If you want to know what Great-Grandma's life was like, you'll be able to look at her Facebook account!

Well, maybe. But maybe not. The fate of our social media accounts is not entirely under our control. And even if all that information is preserved in perpetuity, it still might be nicer to have the information in a more reader-friendly format.

Your kids may not want to read your account right now, but sometime far in the future, they probably will. And even if they never do, someone in your family, somewhere along the line, will get interested in family history and will want to know this stuff. Which reminds me: label your photographs, too. Include first and last names, and dates.

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