writing.stories.

writing.stories.

It’s none of their business that you have to learn how to write. Let them think you were born that way. 
~Ernest Hemingway~

 

We start learning at a very young age which sorts of stories work, and which do not. Who our intended audience should be, and what reaction we’ll likely evoke. Have you ever witnessed a toddler doing something she knew she wasn’t supposed to do? Like saying a bad word, or throwing her food at the dog? And instead of getting reprimands, the toddler is rewarded with laughter–sometimes stifled, sometimes not–so the toddler repeats it. For the laughter. The smiles. Getting away with being naughty.

Once she learns how to speak, she can figure out the lines that’ll get her out of trouble, which ones don’t work on Mom, but will work on Dad. Which tall tales get her detention, which make her Teacher’s Pet. Trial and error, over and again, seeing which stories make new friends giggle, which ones makes them cry, and if she’s lucky, she’ll discern the best time to tell each.

That’s basically what writing is like, except it takes a hell of a lot longer for feedback.

Over the weekend, I visited the American Writer’s Museum in Chicago. The Ernest Hemingway quote at the top of this page was displayed on a screen there and I stood and stared at it a long time. I’d heard many of his quotes before, but not this one. I committed it to memory. An old-school, writerly version of Fake It Until You Make It. I’m not sure why, out of all the inspirational quotes I saw at the museum, that one stabbed at me the most, but it did.

I thought about it all day, wondered if some people really were born that way and never had to fake it.

Later that same afternoon we sat in a pizzeria, listening to conversations going on around us.

Okay, fine, I was eavesdropping. You wanna know where I get my dialogue? I eavesdrop all over the damn place and there’s nothing anyone can do about it (except maybe, you know, you all could talk a bit quieter when you’re in public. Seriously, the only people who give a shit about what you’re saying are those with ulterior motives, who wish to put you in a blog or story).

Anyway, a guy was sitting at a table next to us, by himself. He was maybe in his mid to late twenties. For a long time, he was too boring to pay attention to, so I’m not sure how, exactly, the conversation started up between him and the man sitting a table over. My ears didn’t perk up until I heard him say, “My girl’s in rehab. It’s been real hard, ya know?” and the second man say, “Oh, sorry to hear that, man. That’s rough.”

At this point, my Ulterior Motive Writer’s Ears switched on. (I keep meaning to ask my husband if my face glows when this happens. I feel like something Super-Powery should signal when my ears turn on.) The first guy–we’ll call him Tattoo Steve–said, “Yeah, she was drinking too much wine.” (This is the part of the story where I became dubious. Or in denial. I don’t know, whatever). And the second guy–Gullible Bob–was nodding in sympathy, and Tattoo Steve turned it up a notch. “Yeah, we’ve got a baby on the way, too. I’m just trying to get myself together for when she gets out.” Cue Gullible Bob coming in with more sympathy, words of encouragement, general shit you say to a person you don’t know who is inexplicably baring his soul to you.

Then my husband and I had to order our food or something obnoxious like that, and part of the conversation was lost on me. (There may have been a pint of beer somewhere in there, contributing to my distraction.)

Once our waiter was gone, and we’d held some conversation of our own to make it look like we weren’t trying to listen in on anyone else’s conversation, we tuned back in to Tattoo Steve being offered some of Gullible Bob’s leftover pizza, even though Tattoo Steve had his own pizza. They were fast friends now, chumming it up, Tattoo Steve spinning all sorts of stories that were tugging at everyone’s heart-strings. The pace at which he was leaving bread crumbs of his story was impeccable, it didn’t sound rehearsed at all, not like some sob stories you hear from pan-handlers or people who are accustomed to begging. This wasn’t some regurgitated script.

That’s what I thought until it came time for Tattoo Steve to pay, and he presented his bus card. To which his waiter said, “Well, uh, hey you can’t pay with a bus card.” As if Tattoo Steve didn’t know such a thing. I grinned wide at my husband. It was all a scam, that story-telling little shit was just making it all up (that was what my grin said, for those of you who weren’t there and couldn’t see it).

I was about to kick Hubs under the table and demand we pay for his pizza–the story-telling was entertaining enough to me to be worth it–when, of course, his new buddy Gullible Bob offered.

This guy was excellent. He had perfectly picked his target and waited patiently, trusting in his story to do what it needed to do.

I thought, maybe some people really are born knowing how to tell stories. I mean, sure, you have to learn where commas and periods go (maybe), and figure out style and syntax, and maybe a few more of those other grammar rules over-and-above comma placement (perhaps), but telling stories? Maybe sometimes it can’t be taught in a classroom or workshop or on a YouTube channel. Maybe it can only be conditioned into you by years of throwing food at your dog and seeing who laughs, who screams, and who gives you more food to throw.

 

 

 

writing. stuff.

I’ve been debating for the last two days, whether or not to write about my weekend at the Writing Workshop of Chicago. I don’t want anyone thinking I’m some expert just because I forked out some cash and sat in five seminars all day this past Saturday. I mean, it would be nice if you all just went along with my delusion that I’m an expert all the time no matter what I do.

After great deliberation, and getting much needed sleep, I decided, eh what the hell. Hardly anyone reads this anyway. So without further ado, here are a few highlights from my weekend at the Writing Workshop of Chicago, 2016.

1). Even if it is May everywhere else in Illinois, you still probably need a freaking winter coat in Chicago. Because, when you leave St. Louis in your tank top and flip-flops, there’s a good chance that by the time your train stops in Chicago, it will be 34 degrees and raining and you’ll find yourself flagging down a cab sans coat, wearing a tank top and flip flops, outside Union Station.

2)   Despite what you may have heard about literary agents, none of them seem to have hinged jaws created specifically for the purpose of swallowing whole the authors of shitty query letters and first chapters told in first person present tense.

3)  Even though I did not see any agents unhinging their jaws to eat wayward authors, it is still a really terrible idea to pitch a story that you haven’t actually finished writing yet. I feel like that one shouldn’t even have to be pointed out, but there you go.

4)  Do not wear high heeled boots to walk around Navy Pier. Okay, you’re now thinking that’s probably something I shouldn’t have to be told. Whatever smartasses, okay. You get a point.

5) Be prepared to edit. Edit, edit, edit. And when you think you’re done editing, you should probably edit some more.

6)  Even if it’s only 40 degrees outside and raining, apparently the Congress Hotel is going to have it’s fucking air conditioning on, so go ahead and just buy a coat to wear to the conference.

7)  For the love of God, quit finding colorful ways to say the word said. Like, seriously. Stop it. This isn’t just advice I’ve loved forever, it is also advice given by literary agent Abby Saul at the conference. Characters can just say stuff. They don’t have to always be huffing or screaming or proclaiming or whatever. Just cut it out already.

8)  If you feel intellectually in-tune with a person, you may have weird feelings toward them. Like even if they are of a gender/sex that you aren’t traditionally attracted to and even if they supposedly have a hinged jaw made for eating people who unwittingly step into their space and spew one too many adjectives, at some point, they may say something like, “It’s okay for characters to just say things,” and then you feel weird and wonder if this is something you have to talk to your husband about.

9)  Now that I really think about it, there was a huge period of time where I didn’t see any agents at all. So I’m not entirely secure in my assertion that none of them offed any of the writers at the conference.

10)  If you’re not writing some kind of Young Adult Urban Fantasy Romantic Paranormal Something-or-Other, you’re pretty much screwed. Don’t worry, I am too. So at least you’re in good company.

11)  If you want to hear from and about a lot of people who have been exactly where you are, and have persevered, a writing conference is a great place to go.

12)  Taking a break from your own brain is a good idea.

13)  Keep a notebook with you everywhere you go, because the best inspirations might not come from the conference itself. It might come from the guy on the train who won’t quit talking/singing/hitting on girls, or the homeless guy who keeps asking your daughter where his baby is, or the grandmother giving out dating advice to strangers.

14)  You should really figure out how to work the Twitter because apparently that’s a big damn deal in the literary world. Don’t ask me. I still can’t figure shit out on there.

15)  There are a lot of us out there, and there’s room for all of us on the bookshelf. (You know, as long as you don’t use too many adverbs, start your story with the weather, or sound like a walking Thesaurus.)

Actually, I’m not at all comfortable with #2 right now. I just wasn’t following them sufficiently enough to make an absolute statement about who what any of them ate for lunch.

 

 

wasted.space.

I’ve been thinking a lot about space lately. Not outer space, the great beyond, final frontier. Just SPACE. Room to do stuff like read and write and stretch and live.

Recently we downsized. It has been quite the adjustment, one that has truly tested the boundaries of my family’s patience. At our old house, I had a desk in a giant finished room in the basement where I could go and write unhindered after the kids went to bed. Or even before they went to bed. For some reason, they just didn’t come down there that often when I was down there writing.

Now at the new house, the basement is full of boxes whose contents have yet to find a place upstairs. There just isn’t enough space for everything. It’s somehow easier to just leave all those boxes unpacked than to acknowledge that we have too much shit. I don’t know, maybe that isn’t it. Maybe we’re just lazy.

Anyway, the bottom line is this: at the moment, our children are supposed to occupy an entire second floor. Their rooms are a reworking of an attic apartment that has been turned into their rooms. There is still a full bath and working kitchen up there. They have a fridge, a TV. A microwave, an xBox. Awesome you say? You’d think so. You really would. But will they stay up there? No. They insist on taking over our TV every day and crying about having to sleep in their comfy beds, away from us.

That was really sweet for about the first two days. Now I just really need them to go to bed and quit making my life an unpredictable hell full of sleepless nights. Like, they come all the way down to OUR bathroom in the middle of the night instead of just peeing in their own, three-ten feet away from their respective beds. It makes no sense. Momma’s about to lose her mind.

So today I was mulling over my writing routine and my writing space (that is non-existent). And I decided, you know what? There’s a perfectly good desk in my daughter’s barely-used room. There are chairs in my kids’ rarely occupied TV room. There’s even a fridge I can stick my wine in. A microwave I can pop popcorn in. A TV I can put reruns of That 70’s Show on so I have background noise and no one will bug me because they’re afraid of the wind or a mouse or the boogeyman or whatever.

I hauled my wine, my laptop, my phone, and my cork screw up the stairs. I put on my favorite sit-com. I plugged in my laptop and poured my glass of wine. And you know what? It was the best writing space ever for about two whole minutes. Until both kids, a dog, and a husband came up to join me.

 

 

 

worth.a.try.

worth.a.try.

I realize I haven’t been around much, lately. Summer is hard. Blogging is hard. Life is hard.

We moved, recently. It was a significant down-sizing and I am still dealing with the massive overflow of STUFF my husband, children, and I have accumulated during our lives. We thought simplifying would be easy, but it’s been a real struggle. Mainly because, as my husband says, I’m “an episode of Hoarders waiting to happen.”

I feel like I’ve gotten a little better, lately. While I still miss my mother fiercely, the sting of her death isn’t as harsh as it used to be. It seems to be easier to let go of the things that made her her a little more bearable. Sometimes that realization sends me into a spiral of depressive thoughts and self-loathing, but it is what it is. We’ve gotta move on.

Writing has helped. Writing is this wonderful thing where you can make your thoughts tangible, and if you want, you can strike them down dead again before anyone reads them and realizes what a looney you are. Writing teaches you what belongs and what doesn’t. What is necessary to keep the plot hurtling forward, and what should be discarded. It teaches you how to simplify. It teaches that the most straight-forward way is most likely the best way. It also teaches patience. That your first draft of anything is probably shit, but more importantly, that the shit is okay. Not only okay, the shitty first draft that you cringe to read weeks later is necessary.

That’s a nice thought. I wish it could be expanded. What if I could say, The last ten years were just a messy outline of how I want the rest of this story to go. These next ten, I’m going to cut the fat, limit the long sentences, cut a few of the characters, and focus on moving this story forward to its destination?

I know we can’t, but maybe I’ll try, anyway. Instead of starting a brand new story, maybe I’ll just edit the one I’ve already started. Flesh out the characters. Polish it up. Maybe by the time I’m ninety, my basement will be immaculate, my life will be simple, and my story will be a best-seller.

It’s worth a try.

clearance.rack.

The last words my grandfather said to me were, “To be, or not to be. That is the question.” Which is Shakespeare of course. Anyone who knew my Pa wouldn’t be surprised by this one bit. Pa loved to recite poetry and literature, he had rows and rows of book shelves in his basement, all overflowing with book after book. It seemed like a secret library when I was little. I’d pretend I was in a book about a secret place, like Indiana Jones looking for the X on the floor, or the clue in an ancient script, as I thumbed through the old books. And the smell… well who didn’t love the smell of old books?

Some people get rid of books after they read them, but I’ve never been able to. Borrow them out? Sure. Donate or trash? Nope. I’m sure this is an inherited trait and that one day I’ll end up on an episode of Hoarders, but I can’t help it. Every book leaves a little impression on me, there’s always a word or phrase that might cling to me. What if I needed to find it again? What if I wanted to revisit a time or place later on after I had a new understanding of the subject matter?

Today I found myself wandering around a bookstore, looking for a new book to adopt into my Hoarder’s Hall of Shame. I usually peruse the bargain shelves first, unwilling to pay full-price for a book because I’m a cheapskate (in fact, later on I ended up at Goodwill and bought 3 hardback books there for a total of $8). The bargain shelf is miraculous because sometimes if you time it right, you can find the bestsellers which are still being advertised at the front of the store. Of course, next to those are some of the duds. The books no one wanted. Next to those is the Clearance Rack: the ones that were even worse than the duds.

I found myself staring at that rack as I pondered the books in my hands. I had a sci-fi by Margaret Atwood, and a new best-seller by Kate Atkinson. Both were on the bargain shelf. Being on the bargain shelf wasn’t a big deal, there wasn’t a stigma about it. If your book is anywhere next to Atwood, even if it’s been marked down to $5.97, you’re doing Ok. But the clearance rack? I perused the titles of misfit books, authors I’d never heard of. Boring titles, overused clichés. An irrational fear gripped me. What if that’s where I ended up?

What if, after working for years on a project dear to me, no one wanted to read it and it set sadly on a crude clearance shelf? As I thought about this, I realized this was a familiar problem for me. My senior year of high school I sat in my Art class, speaking to my teacher about the end of year senior awards he was in charge of awarding. He looked straight at me and told me who the Senior Award would be going to. Not me. Someone more deserving, someone who turned in his work on time. After telling me who would be receiving the prize he then said, “But you know, if I had an award for the most pissed-away talent, hands-down that would absolutely go to you.”

And I shrugged, because that was fine with me and didn’t hurt my feelings at all. Because I knew I’d rather my projects end up in the garbage than on a clearance rack. And I haven’t shaken that fear, yet. Being nothing seems more manageable than being just ok.

So, I spend my time fiddling with a project I’ll probably never finish while thinking of secret basements filled with beloved words their owners couldn’t part with, pondering Pa’s recitation of Shakespeare’s words, those last words he said to me. To be or not to be. It’s still the question, and I still don’t have an answer.