Stoking the Creative Fire

Dinosaurs I made from fabric I took down from my work bulletin boards.

As I discussed in my last post, I don’t think that there is any special condition we can label writer’s block; however, this year I have come to believe in ‘life block.’ Not only have I had my own dark year of the soul (as opposed to a dark night, which would be wonderfully short lived), but I’ve talked to many creative people who have stopped doing anything joyful.

“Why,” I ask my poet friend, “aren’t you writing any poetry?”

“Who cares about poetry right now?” She answers. She means that there is no room for creativity in our political reality, in our upside down world.

I can’t argue that when we don’t want to get up in the morning and face the latest tweet, we are somehow going to want to creatively celebrate our craft. More likely we are thinking, ‘I could make myself some breakfast. Or I could jump in the river.’

Fortunately for me, my environment is arid. 

For a nephew who loves construction equipment.

Ironically, it’s in times such as ours that the work of creative people can be most appreciated as it countermands the sense that there is nothing good left in the world. I’ve always felt that it’s important to be creating something, any little thing, if just to provide kindling for the passion until we have the energy to maintain a roaring fire.

So how do people fuel their creativity when it seems pointless to create?

Being a perpetually and hopelessly guilt-ridden person, I’ve often tried a work

My niece suggested that small tote bags just the size for children would be great for carrying toys around the house, so I repurposed more bulletin board material.

around when writing was just too much. I do write. But I also try all sorts of things that are less creative than writing and more utilitarian—thus, appeasing the scold in my head who says, ‘Don’t waste time on things no one will ever

Teddy bears for the nieces.

use!’ I am probably the perfect person to use as the ‘DON’T TRY THIS’ example. But since I’ve committed to the DIY MFA book club in both reading the book and answering the writing prompts, I thought it would be fun to show a few of the things I’ve done to get through extended bad patches.

At a very young age—twelve, I think—I started to needlepoint because I felt adrift. I had the sense that I came from nowhere, a person with no household heirlooms and no family stories. I was trying to create these and somehow make a connection between the past and my future. I wrote about the intensity of this feeling in a personal essay about the death of my grandmother that was published in the Longridge Review, an online journal in which adults reflect (one hopes with wisdom gained) on childhood experiences.

The bell pull, in those crazy colors that my parents loved.

So as a tween, and then as a teen, I took needlepoint classes with older women. I made many items for my parents, most of which have not survived to be heirlooms: a pillow meant to be decorative but that over the years wore out, a purse that was never used, Christmas tree ornaments, god knows what all. A lot of these items were stitched in blues and shades of avocado green because those were my parents’ favorite colors for decades. Those colors haven’t stood the test of time. I also made samplers for my sisters when they got married (the colors were more palatable).

A few years ago, my sisters and I were packing up my parents’ longtime home as they were downsizing. Hidden in a closet unused, I found a bell pull that I’d forgotten I’d made. I also found a rug I’d hooked—a tiger because at the time my dad worked at Tiger International, a shipping company. I’d thought he would hang the rug in his office—hooked rugs on the wall were quite the rage at that time—but it, too, stayed in the closet.

Since the things I had hoped to use as family heirlooms had come to nothing, I decided to take photos of them and then toss them. However, these two are still around. My oldest son wanted the bell pull and hung it in his apartment. I worked at a high school whose mascot is a tiger, so I brought the rug to work, and one of the teachers took it to hang in her classroom, happily giving it life for the first time.

One of my youthful creations that I discussed in a personal essay in “Longridge Review.”

As a teen, I made one needlepoint sampler that was just for me and matched the colors of my room—red, orange, and yellow. All the women in my class advised against those colors as they wouldn’t stand the test of time. They were right. I framed the sampler, but it didn’t last long on the wall.

About the only needlepoint pieces I have made that receive a regular public airing are five Christmas stockings—for my husband, myself, and each of my three sons.

While much of this work came to nothing, stitching is an activity that is meditative or lends itself to woolgathering because it can be done without much concentration on the work itself. It allows the mind to be open to ideas and to the invention of story; it keeps the self centered and yet allows open space. To those who have never tried it, it may seem like a strange practice for opening the imagination, but it works.

Not my sons’ pjs, but more recent Christmas creations for nieces and nephews.

Similarly, sewing and quilting can have the same effect on the imagination. I don’t know how many things I’ve sewn in my life—again, I began as a tween—but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were a thousand. As a teen, I sewed all my own clothes. Since then I’ve made all sorts of crazy things when I needed to get through periods of anxiety and allow myself some creative space. When my sons were small, I would take them with me to the fabric store. There would be tables piled with remnants of all colors and patterns. They would jump into these and wrap themselves in various designs. I could be with them and in my own world at the same time.

Almost all of what I’ve sewn has been worn or used, but of course, I didn’t record the items. I do have some photos of my sons in shirts that I made for their first day of school and in matching Christmas pajamas that included booties and nightcaps, but I think they wouldn’t appreciate a public airing of those. I also have some photos (from social media) of my more recent creations.

Recently, I decided to use fabric from bulletin board displays because I thought it was a shame not to repurpose it. One set of bulletin boards became dinosaurs. Another, little girls’ dresses. (Right at the time of the solar eclipse, which is echoed in the design.)

Other than reading good books—which always spurs creativity—I think the last thing that helps me to find my way to writing is walking in natural places.

Poppies in a wilderness area near my home.

Last week, I was walking in the local botanical garden with my youngest son.

A rattlesnake on a walking path near my house. This walk/snake led me to write a short story entitled “Argyle.”

There was a display that played off the Game of Thrones popularity called ‘Grove of Thorns.’ In it were all sorts of thorny plants native to California. One display showed the loggerhead shrike, commonly called the “butcherbird.” It captures insects and spiders and then impales them on thorns so it can leisurely eat them. Tell me you can see that and not want to include it in a story.

My son commented that the desert areas with their Joshua trees reaching into the open alone appeared to be frozen characters and had, not the appearance of a prophet in the wilderness, but of the Medusa-killed character of the creepy statue people in the Dark Souls video game. Who knows—maybe that’s where the creator got the idea.

Open space for your thoughts and they will arrive.

A favorite wilderness path near my home.

Note: This is my answer to a DIY MFA book club writing prompt. The club is fun and will go a few weeks longer, If you want to try it, check the Facebook page. Next up is a prompt on your writing superpower. There’s a little quiz where you select photos of settings, character images, and books that you like best. This is to help you see what sort of writing (or personality) ‘superpower’ you have. While I find these sorts of quizzes fun, I don’t take them too seriously, so I am not going to write about my superpower, which turned out to be ‘Disruptor.’ However, if you’d like to take the quiz, try it here.

Writer’s Block, Real Life, and the Desire for Connection

I don’t believe in writer’s block because, generally speaking, there is no muse hanging out. In fact, I’m not entirely sure what writer’s block is supposed to be. I get a few ideas a day that seem like great subjects for short stories and novels. I don’t write about them because I never fill in the details. They remain just what they are—ideas.

Elizabeth Gilbert, who does believe in the muse, says that the many ideas writers get come from that living creative spirit. But if the writer is too slow to act on them, the spirit becomes restless and seeks another vessel to embody it and make it tangible. To her credit, she gives an example of this that is both excellent and incredible in her book Big Magic. (I reviewed and discussed it here.)

If writer’s block doesn’t exist, why are people—who claim that their lifelong/greatest desire is to write—so slow in acting on their ideas? Or worse, why do they never act on most or all of their ideas?

Let’s say some people are lazy because it’s true. Most people are not. I think writers who write little (or not at all) might be the do-gooders of the world. That is, duty binds them in a way that confounds others. This is particularly true of women, who have always been expected to put others first. It’s also particularly true of Catholics, at least previous to this generation, who were supposed to feel guilty whenever they did something that was self-glorifying or, well, self-anything. I’m not sure if it’s a misfortune—there are wonderful things about being female and wonderful things (so I’m told) about being Catholic. However, as I am the one and used to be the other, I can say the combination generates more anxiety and self-loathing than it does novels.

I’ve spent my life working pretty hard. There were times when I was working about fifty hours a week, was raising small children and was going to graduate school. I wrote when I could, but my sit-downs were far enough apart that I couldn’t keep any sort of through-storyline in my head. I’d forget pretty much all the details of my novel, even the minor characters’ names. Every time I wanted to pick up, I’d have to reread the entire text to remember what had happened. I’d think, ‘Wow! That’s pretty good—I forgot I did that.’ Time elapsed and notes were lost, computers crashed and software systems, as well as methods of backing up information, changed. (Remember those 5” floppy disks?) I lost a complete novel, tens of stories, dozens of poems, two children’s books. At the time, this felt like the universe was over and over again giving me the sign that I was meant for nothing beyond what I was already working at. I have since stopped believing in these sorts of signs, just as I stopped believing in writer’s block. Having moved past the heartbreak of loss, the experience has simply become part of the necessary 10,000 hours of practice required to become good at what I do. (My thoughts on Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers and the 10,000 hour rule are here.)

While the novel, stories, and poems were lost, the craft is retained. Like most people who work long and hard, I haven’t found myself to be an outlier in any sort of Beatles sense (surprise, surprise), but I do find that having a passion for the discipline of writing is rewarding. (Which is not to say that going on to have that writing published isn’t more rewarding. I’ve been around too long to start lying to myself now.)

Since guilt is such a destructive force, writers who are hard at work on many things other than writing might remind themselves of the value of what they are doing. If you’re raising kids, you want to be present. If you are getting paid to work, you owe someone a job well done. Are you really a terrible person because your novel is unfinished? Maybe the way to think of it is that you feel lousy, but not because you aren’t good enough or working hard enough (“I’m waking at 5 AM, but couldn’t I get up at 3 AM to write for a few hours?”).

You feel lousy because you want to write as a way to connect with a larger community of thinkers, of people who sense the environment in ways similar to your own. You want to explain yourself to people who feel very different from you, and you want to understand those people as well. This, of course, is not only why you write, but why you read a shit ton of books—the other thing you have been making time for in a world that prefers the pace of tweets and posts.

While I attended a summer session in Cambridge, England—one of these things that anyone who can wrangle up the money is welcome to—I read E.M. Forster’s novel Howards End. I was already a teacher and went along with some dozen or so high school students. I don’t know how I missed Howards End as an undergrad, but I was so excited to finally read it that I went to a bookshop (Cambridge was a bibliophile’s dream in that regard—bookshops and knowledgeable booksellers at every turn), and bought a second copy to mail to my best friend. I wanted to talk about it as soon as I got home.

“Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer.”

I had a similar feeling when I was a young teacher and my school got a new textbook for the junior year American Literature class. There was another famous piece I had somehow missed—this time from that most American poet, Walt Whitman.

“A Noiseless Patient Spider”

A noiseless patient spider,
I mark’d where on a little promontory it stood isolated,
Mark’d how to explore the vacant vast surrounding,
It launch’d forth filament, filament, filament, out of itself,
Ever unreeling them, ever tirelessly speeding them.

And you O my soul where you stand,
Surrounded, detached, in measureless oceans of space,
Ceaselessly musing, venturing, throwing, seeking the spheres to connect them,
Till the bridge you will need be form’d, till the ductile anchor hold,
Till the gossamer thread you fling catch somewhere, O my soul.

So, yes, for many years, I was an English teacher and then a teacher librarian. My job was to help teens become better readers and writers. That’s not a bad way to live a life. I never had to be unethical or immoral, and I valued what I was doing. I should have been able to turn off the inner critic, but I couldn’t. I’ve always thought of myself as someone who never has met the challenge to run faster and jump higher. I’m guessing most writers feel this way.

Something that I think about a lot now—but have no idea how to begin—is to start and edit a literary magazine that accepts work from people who are 45 years or more old and are emerging writers. I see many lists of young people to ‘watch out for.’ What of people with a good deal of life experience who have been quietly, slowly honing their craft while they were duty bound to children, to parents unable to care for themselves, all while they were working to put food on the table and volunteering in their communities because someone had to do it? They must have stories to tell, stories they’ve been working on in the rare quiet moments. They’ll tell them from a different perspective than they would have in their twenties.

My worry about such a journal is that a shit ton of ‘chicken soup’ type submissions would pour in. Because most short work we see anthologized about anyone middle aged and beyond is about getting to the settled place, where the protagonist is working or has already worked things out and come to a Hallmark-channel place of happy new beginnings. So, if I were to ask for the writing of the literary cocooners, the latent talents, I would have to make clear that sentimentality is not allowed. It’s time to spin the silk.

Note: This is my answer to a DIY MFA book club writing prompt. The club is fun and will go a few weeks longer, If you want to try it, check the Facebook page. Next up is a prompt on the tools we’ve used to feed creativity. I can share some of the weird and wacky ways I have kept the creative fire kindled over the years. (The photo is a hint.) Because let’s face it, even when a writer isn’t writing, everything she does, experiences, sees and feels is filtered through the author prism. She asks herself: how does that experience fit into the next story? And then everything becomes writing.

How I Became a Writer

All things come to me slowly. I wish it weren’t so. I love stories of epiphany, of lightning bolt inspiration. But my consciousness river is turbulent with questions of creativity, of ethics, of purpose. What is heavy enough to withstand the agitation and upheaval–what isn’t thrown loose–remains on the riverbed, tumbling until it is finally (and I hope finely) polished.

The idea that I am a writer has rolled through my life for many years. In all that time, I have jotted ideas on napkins and index cards, fleshed them out in journals, written drafts of stories and novels, and eventually begin sending work out that felt ready for publication. I’ve been thrilled to have stories, essays and book reviews published because the end game of writing is communication with the reader, the beginning of a dialogue. I write because I want to live in the world of ideas.

So without being able to pinpoint an epic moment of clarity, I can only say that I knew I wanted to be a writer because I first knew I wanted to be a reader. I have mentioned in essays my wonderful third grade teacher, Miss Shuck, who took me for a reader before I knew I was interested. Seeing that I had a knack for words, she didn’t torture me with the Dick and Janes of the day, but handed me a high school English anthology and let me have at it. Back then these texts were a bit more moralistic than they are now; nevertheless, the stories were compelling, and I found myself reflected in them in a way that made me begin to think of myself as part and parcel of the community. I remember a particular story about an overweight girl who was to participate in a bicycle race. She was trying to eat right and practicing the route. She worked hard. And yet on the day of the race, she ended up taking a shortcut–unseen–and winning. While everyone was celebrating, she admitted to her teacher that she had cheated. Her honors would be stripped. This felt to me the bravest of behaviors because that girl was going to catch hell. I was a bit overweight myself, and I liked to think that I had the same honor in me.

Connecting with someone else’s story while reading is the first step for anyone who becomes a writer. Its natural sequel is the sense that the reader, too, has a story to tell. She then goes about the difficult task of working to tell it right.

Reading just about anything, no matter how unconnected to my own stories, is always inspiration for writing. At a writers’ conference this fall, I was surprised to hear author Lisa See report that she doesn’t read while she is writing. She’s afraid that the style and tone of the book might influence her own work, taking it out of her voice. I can’t imagine how this happens. In preparation to write, I will often listen to poetry as I walk or hike. (Yeats has a way of pulling ideas and images from the depths of consciousness as do old epics such as Beowulf and Gilgamesh). I’m no poet, but what a wonderful place to begin in listening. How lucky I am to have a multitude of voices, calling me to join with them in conversation.

Note: Today the DIY MFA Book Club begins. This blog post is in answer to the first writing prompt: “How did you become a writer?” It looks like a fun group. The prompts and discussion will be based on Gabriela Pereira’s book DIY MFA. Wanna join? Check for the Facebook Group ‘Word Nerds Unite.’

Inlandia Teen Issue: Time to submit!

Happy New Year! 

 

I just want to remind teens that the submission deadline for Inlandia: A Literary Journey is coming up on February 15. The new year is a great time to commit to getting your favorite pieces of creative writing and artwork together for submission. Check the submission guidelines and FAQs here. (If you’ve never used the submission manager ‘Submittable,’ you will create an account. It’s easy to do and it’s free.)

Quick lesson on how to submit to the journal.

I love the energy of the teens who are working toward submitting their creative work.  I had a great time with Mr. Luna’s journalism class, talking about Inlandia and its mission, the teen issue and recent good books! It was a great way to end the 2017 calendar year and the first semester of the school year.

Keep writing! Keep creating! Submit!

On-the-fly book talk using School Library Lady blog! (Isabel Quintero and Zeke Pena’s ‘Photographic’ is up on the computer.)

Reading for Renewal: Book Recommendations

As it is Christmas Eve Day, I decided that my ‘Literary Journeys’ article for the Southern California News Group should be about books that offer us renewal. Each of the novels discussed in the article have examples of how the characters need to change who they are in order to move forward on a spiritual journey. A few are classics; most are this year’s imprints; every one of them is a worthy, possibly life-changing read.

I didn’t include YA fiction since the readers of the newspaper are generally adults. However, I’m still recommending Photographic and Challenger Deep. In addition, I finally read John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down. Green’s novels are automatic bestsellers as he has a great fan base (and for good reason). But if you haven’t had a chance to read his latest, it’s a serious reflection on crippling anxiety, a medical state that is very difficult to change.

Below is the link to the Press Enterprise, one of the newspapers that runs the Literary Journeys series. I hope you’ll have a look and pick out a few of the recommendations as your New Year’s reads. You know you are going to get Amazon gift cards this week from those who love you but think you have everything. Tell them which of these books you bought and share; have your own intimate book club and discussion of new beginnings. What could be a better holiday gift?

Inlandia Literary Journeys: Follow characters on trips that end with a renewal of hope

Gabrielle Prendergast Interview

Zero Repeat Forever, which is Book I of The Nahx Invasion. She teaches screenwriting and creative writing and has written for television, print, and online. She lives in Vancouver, BC and was kind enough to answer some questions about the writing life and her recent publications.

VW: I want to focus on Zero Repeat Forever as I just finished it, but I’d also like to ask a few questions about your writing for Orca Book Publishers. Some writers, even writers of YA fiction, may not know of Orca, which is a Canadian publisher that serves struggling teen readers. I first learned of Orca when I became a teacher librarian. Our reading classes would come to the library, and I needed something that would interest the students. Over the years I read and book talked many novels from Orca imprints. (Two of yours that I recommend are The Frail Days and the recent Pinch Me.) I am deeply grateful for the existence of such books and I know many teens are as well.

I’m wondering how an author decides to write books for ‘undiscovered readers’—a term that is so much better than ‘reluctant readers.’ Does the publisher approach you based on your other work? Do they set specific limitations on vocabulary and the length of the book?

GP: While Orca has a sort of stable of authors who often write these books, they accept submissions from any Canadian citizen or permanent resident. When you’re writing for the “hi/lo” series, they usually contract the books based on a chapter outline and three chapters. My editor invited me to submit for “Limelights” (The Frail Days)  but I decided to submit for “Soundings” (Pinch Me) on my own. The aim is a reading level of about grade 2-4 for “Soundings,” so we just go on what our writing software tells us.  With “Limelights” the reading level was a bit more flexible. The word lengths are pretty strict though. 14-16K for “Soundings” and around 20-25K for “Limelights.” Vocabulary is not exactly simplified but we choose words carefully and use short sentences.

VW: All of the Orca novels I’ve read have an upbeat message; characters often solve problems in original ways. Is this something that Orca asks for or did it occur naturally in your work?

GP: For those series, yes I think that’s what Orca wants, though they don’t specifically ask for it. Since they are aimed at undiscovered readers we don’t want the kids to feel miserable at the end! I also feel that when writing for kids, stories should be resolved in some satisfying way, maybe not in the first book, but by the time the series ends. That said, I always feel like at the end of a YA or middle grade novel the story is just starting, since the characters are still so young with their lives ahead of them. I could write a sequel to every book I’ve ever written!

VW: The storyline of both The Frail Days and Pinch Me involve teenage musicians. One of the things I enjoyed in both these novels was how the characters’ natural creative drive was part of the problem solving. It’s so tiresome that young people are made to think that their creativity is not an asset and that cultivating it is a waste of time. Thanks for helping to prove otherwise! Are you a musician in your life outside of work?

GP: I was a musician as a teen. My band was called Fall Down Go Boom and The Frail Days is dedicated to the other members. Two of them still play together and work as professional musicians in Toronto.

VW: I’d like to turn the conversation to Zero Repeat Forever, the first book of the Nahx Invasion. It’s a work of science fiction in which an alien race of tall, armored anthropoid beings have invaded the world and seem bent on the destruction of the human race. Our human protagonist is Raven, who along with some friends, has survived the initial invasion because she is at a camp in the wilderness preparing for the summer campers to arrive. As survival becomes difficult, Raven encounters Eighth, a Nahx, who, like all Nahx, is voiceless and follows directives he receives in his mind. Circumstances require that they attempt to work together, a situation that creates its own set of dangers.

This may seem like a strange connection, but bear with me. I’m working on an article that has caused me to read and reread Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nobel lecture.  One of the many things he says about good writing has to do with why readers connect with characters: “The reason why so many vivid, undeniably convincing characters in novels, films and plays so often failed to touch me was because these characters didn’t connect to any of the other characters in an interesting human relationship. And immediately, this next thought came regarding my own work: What if I stopped worrying about my characters and worried instead about my relationships?”

While Zero Repeat Forever is exciting and fast-paced in terms of danger and hope, one of the wonderful things about reading it is that a teen and an alien have a very engaging ‘human’ relationship. This is an achievement because Eighth can’t speak. Did you model their relationship on any that you know? How did you come up with the sign language that Eighth uses?

GP: Oddly Eighth’s side of the relationship is inspired by the way animals form relationships with humans. You know how cats bring strange little gifts to you or dogs seem to be trying to understand you when they turn their heads to the side? And how loving and non-judgemental companion animals are, sometimes even to people who neglect or mistreat them. And of course how they can eventually thaw even the coldest hearts. August [Eighth] is a bit like that with Raven, very loyal, maybe even by his very nature.

Raven’s side is partly Stockholm syndrome, partly the relief of being able to vent all the rage she has built up inside her. She basically has a tantrum in one scene and afterwards she feels like a changed person, all her rage is gone. One reviewer described her as a “hot-head” and that’s fairly accurate. She was having a bad year even before the invasion and never was able to fully process all her feelings. That with the loss of Tucker [her boyfriend] and the terror at what’s happened to the world was too much. Being with August was like a safe place where she could rage and be alone to think and work it all out. And not be judged for it. That’s key.

August’s silence is one of the things that makes him perfect for Raven. She has to verbalize her way into understanding him and everything that’s going on while he just listens. She needs a good listener.

The sign language was inspired by tactical hand signals used in the military, which the Nahx adapted to be a more complete communication system. The idea is that anyone who is denied language will spontaneously develop a communication system with whatever tools are available to them. This has been observed in deaf kids who are denied sign language instruction – they invent their own languages which can be quite complex.

I watched a lot of ASL videos also, just to get a feel for how sign language looks. I also took a course in Auslan (Australian sign language) years ago, so I kept those lessons in mind too. That said, Nahx language is meant to be a “sign system” rather than a complete sign language.

VW: I really enjoyed the settings of Zero Repeat. Although it takes place in real (Canadian) spaces, you needed to make your reader see and feel them. I’m a good example—I live in Southern California, which sadly, is on fire right now even though it’s technically winter. I’ve never lived anywhere that’s truly cold, yet I felt Raven’s suffering when she lacked the proper gear. In creating a dystopian world, do you use any of your own experiences with nature and neighborhoods? (I’m wondering if you’ve nearly drowned in freezing water. . .)

GP: I certainly called upon my childhood enduring Saskatchewan winters. I’ve never nearly drowned, but I have swum in many a near freezing lake. It’s…refreshing! We spent a lot of time outdoors as kids and the winter cold was both beautiful and terrifying. It was important to me that the winter be almost like another antagonist in the book, someone you can’t turn your back on, you can’t trust. Someone who will kill you if given the chance.  

VW: Writers and readers alike are always interested in the title and cover illustration of their favorite novels. Both the title Zero Repeat Forever and the cover illustration of a dandelion splashed with liquid metal are based on important events and themes of the novel. They are wonderful choices for the North American edition! Did you know right away what the title would be? Did you influence the cover art or was that a decision that was out of your hands? Why does the UK edition have a different cover that looks more like a Stranger Things connection?

GP: My agent suggested the title, and I immediately loved it as it was already such an important scene in the book. I had no influence on the cover(s) but loved both of them when I saw them. I think the UK cover skews a little younger and less literary, which is where they wanted to aim the book, I suppose. All they said was that they thought their design would work better. I love them both!

VW: Characters must suffer in order to grow, yet many authors have a hard time putting theirs through some of the worst moments. Both Raven and Eighth suffer mightily. Did you have a hard time with that? How do you manage to drag your characters through a life of torment?

GP: It was easy enough at the time, but the more I wrote, the harder it got to punish them. I don’t think anyone wants to read books about people with perfect lives, so I don’t write them. But, in particular, I didn’t want to sugar coat the reality of war, invasion, occupation. These are present day situations for a lot of people. Some reviewers have praised the “realism” in ZRF, which is ironic given that it’s science fiction. But I did try to keep as much as possible grounded in reality to make it feel real.

VW: As Zero Repeat Forever is the first book of a series, I wonder if you had the general plot outline for the entire series before you began writing or whether the story develops as you write.

GP: I had a general idea but a lot of that has changed. I feel like the world has changed a lot recently and some of my ideas no longer felt relevant and fresh, so I changed them.

VW: Writers tend to suffer because they have to deal with so many rejections. Do you have any advice in terms of dealing with rejection? Have you always had something new coming out, new work, so that rejection was more easy to accept?

GP: I have a neurodivergence that makes dealing with personal rejection sometimes catastrophically hard. But for some reason, I think that makes professional rejection much easier. I get nervous, but I’m never hurt by criticism or rejection or my work because I see that as separate from me.

But yes, I do always like to have a few things lined up, not so much for making rejection easier but more to keep up the momentum of my career.

VW: You have written in a variety of genres and for different age levels. Do you try different methods of writing/different writing styles just to see what works? Or does a specific genre seem like a natural match for the story from the outset?

GP: I pretty much know how each story is going to be told and who the audience is. A lot of that is because I always have a “comparable” or “comp” in my mind. Comps for ZRF included The Hunger Games and Divergent. The comp for Pandas on the East Side was Because of Winn Dixie, etc.

VW: Writers always ask successful authors about their writing routines—such as whether they write daily. Since no two people are alike, I find it strange that anyone believes in a magic schedule. However, I do know that all people have fluctuating energy levels that affect their schedules and can derail their plans to write. Do you have any hints for increasing creative writing energy when you need it?

GP: I try to write pretty much daily, though sometimes I give myself breaks. Writing with a friend (not co-writing, just you writing your book and them writing theirs) helps. At the end of the day, you can compare notes and discuss your word counts, etc.

VW: Thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts with us!

GP: My pleasure.

Gratitude: Local Literary Events

I always think about giving thanks after Thanksgiving is over. That’s because before Thanksgiving, I’m getting ready for it. Afterward, I have no desire to shop, either in person or online. So, with leftovers packed in the fridge, I’ve always had a few days freed up from work and toiling around the house.

While I have much to be grateful for—health, family, and friends—I’m thinking about local and lesser known authors who enrich my life. While I regularly read from bestseller lists, prize lists, and the classics, as a constant reader, one of my joys is stumbling upon and reading midlist authors and those who have been published by small presses.

I enjoy the little serendipities that make their way into my days—this is one from a few weeks ago. The tea bag tag says “‘No person has the right to rain on your dreams.’ —Martin Luther King, Jr.” The cup admonishes that ‘Friends don’t let friends write bad books.’ I love this combination: help others hone their craft and then support their way forward. It’s good advice. But stumbling upon writers who don’t get much publicity isn’t that easy.

And so I am making a greater effort to brave bad traffic and get to author events. I always find being tired or overworked is a good excuse not to go. But it also turns out that when I do push myself to arrive, I am more than rewarded.

A bit over a year ago, I listened to the poet and founding partner of Writ Large Press Chiwan Choi read from recent work. Some of his poems were about his wife’s much-anticipated pregnancy and miscarriage. His words were heartbreaking, elegiac. I wanted to take those words home with me, but they weren’t in a book yet. I bought his (then) most recent book of poems Abductions, in which he reimagines his family through an alien abduction mythology, so I still came home with a prize.

Public libraries often have reading events, and I’ve been to several. My local public library has a poetry reading on the fourth Sunday of every month except December. I’ve had the opportunity to listen to Charlotte Davidson read her darkly humorous Fresh Zebra, a book of poetry that riffs on a French language primer. (Yes, I know it sounds strange, but it’s full of the off-beat creativity the listener/reader craves.)

The local Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden sponsors a Poetry in the Garden event each April in celebration of National Poetry Month. There, I have heard local poets Cati Porter, Tim Hatch, David Stone, and Marsha Lee Binnquist Schuh among others. At one of these readings, Porter was soon to launch “My Sky of Small Horses.” Knowing this, I was on the lookout for it.

I also enjoyed listening to Tim Hatch at Riverside City College, so I was excited to see that he was on the program for the reading event to coincide with the Inlandia Institute Book Fair at the Tyler Mall in Riverside last Saturday. He plans to publish his work in about a year; meanwhile, his readings range from light to dark as he muses on everything from hair ties to childhood abuse.

Another local author whose work I admire, Isabel Quintero, was also presenting on Saturday. She’s a poet, but I know her through her YA writing. My students loved her novel Gabi: A Girl in Pieces. (Great stuff; I reviewed here.) On Saturday, Quintero discussed her new book Photographic: The Life of Graciela Iturbide. Until I heard her speak, I didn’t know that this was graphic nonfiction. I was happy to hear her say that she had become friends with the cover artist for Gabi, Zeke Peña, and suggested that he be the illustrator of this new graphic work—that the two of them were indeed honing their craft and supporting each other’s way forward. (I was so excited about the book that I bought two and reviewed it here.)

(I couldn’t resist this photo of Tim and Isabel together. They just look like confident, happy authors.)

I hope for one more event before the end of the year. Gayle Brandeis is coming to Cellar Door Bookstore in Riverside this Thursday to talk about her latest book The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide. I’m waiting to buy the book at Cellar Door because I want to support them for supporting her. But I have read several of her books and enjoyed them. (I have several reviews on School Library Lady.)

So, thank you to all the local authors that I’ve had the opportunity to hear. Your voices inspire creativity. Thank you to all the organizers of author reading events, especially Cati Porter, Executive Director of the Inlandia Institute, because you make it possible for me to bask in creative environments.

Here’s to locally-grown literature. May every community have these enriching opportunities! I encourage you to find and create them. Help others hone their craft and support their way forward. Seek others who will do the same for you.

A Bowl Full of Jelly

 

I’m very happy about today’s launch of The Longridge Review, which includes my piece “A Bowl Full of Jelly.”  The journal seeks pieces by adults that reflect on significant childhood experiences. Something they sought was reflection on the first significant experience of death. My piece is about my feelings on the death of my paternal grandmother. The timeline of my youth is condensed for the piece, but the events are things I really did. As weird, old ladyish, and nerdy as it sounds, I did needlepoint in my early teens in an effort to create something that would last. I made things for my sisters, parents, myself. Crazy.

I hope you’ll have a look at the Longridge Review. The featured artist, Deb Farrell, created wonderful pieces to accompany the essays. The image above is entitled “Reluctant to Let Go”and accompanies mine.

The birth of the great white whale engenders thoughts about staging fiction

Today is the anniversary of the publication of Moby-Dick in 1851. So I was thinking about that novel when I happened to read Jane Friedman’s blog post “What Writers can Learn about Voice from Opera.” * While these two things may seem to have nothing in common, they connected for me because I have only seen two operas live; one of them was Moby-Dick.

I didn’t like Melville’s Moby-Dick when I was required to read it as a college freshman. Too much whaling, too philosophical in its musings and too much boiling of blubber. I was glad to be done with it and never looked at it again until I was finishing a master’s degree in English. I was working full time as a high school English teacher; I was going to school part time in the evenings; my husband was also working full time as an educator and working on a PhD. In my last year of the program, I was pregnant. During the final spring semester, I was so overtaken by nausea that a photograph of food—say a billboard advertising a hamburger—would make me vomit. The professor told the class that I was quitting and wouldn’t be back—something he had incorrectly divined when I once had to leave a class session after running to the restroom. He was the only teacher I had in my program who was an asshole, but I was determined to stay in the class because I had a timeline goal.

The following fall semester, I was doing independent study of the heavy hitting American classics and would also take qualifying exams. Moby-Dick was the most difficult of my reading material. But this time I loved it.

I would deliver my first son during that semester. I wasn’t allowed to have a doctor of my choice, but had to see whoever showed up at each of my appointments. In the final months of the pregnancy, the doctors all gave me a quick up and down, telling me I was too fat, and that I should get more exercise and drink nonfat milk. I had been drinking nonfat milk for more than a decade, and I was exercising as well. So I started walking in all spare minutes though these were the Southern California dog days. Finally, a mere week before I delivered, there was no doctor to be had for my appointment and a merciful nurse practitioner poked a finger into my calf, making a deep dent. “You don’t need more exercise,” she said. “You need to put your feet up and get some of this water off.”

My experiences over the months of pregnancy—the harried schedule, the illness and uncontrollable vomiting, the ballooning weight, the dismissal by unsympathetic doctors, and the fact that I was carrying not only a baby but, apparently, my own internal ocean, affected my experience of the novel. The words were the same, but, both internally and externally, I was in a new setting. I felt the close quarters of the ship. I was trapped with the belittling doctors who held authority over me. I caught myself in philosophical musings about my future at all odd moments.

So, it was the right time and place for me to read Moby-Dick. I understood why it is one of the great American novels. Years later, because I couldn’t stand the fact that my husband, who didn’t major in literature but rather psychology, hadn’t read the book, I bought an audio version with my favorite reader, Frank Muller. My husband loved it. I decided I might as well listen to it to refresh my memory. Oddly, what came through in Muller’s reading that I had completely missed as a grad student was bright comedic moments. That I was no longer worried about catching the ‘deeper meaning’ had to be part of that. But it was Muller’s voice that was giving me a fresh reading.

To give a character the appropriate voice is a lesson of Friedman’s post on listening to opera. When, almost exactly two years ago, I cajoled my husband into going to a modern opera based on the novel (“You liked the book, right?”), I did experience voice in a fresh way. (There’s nothing like an operatic tenor swearing to strike the sun if it insults him). The staging itself gave me a new emotional understanding of the lives of the characters.

While the stage was crowded with the large masts and intricate rigging that would be foremost in a 19th-century whaling ship, the transformation of the back wall into the curved hull of a ship with several hooks embedded in its side was brilliant minimalism. The crew used the metal grasps to climb as though they were steps in the rigging or a ladder. They would grab them and be thrown about to indicate a storm. They slid down the sides of the ship in more tossing or in readiness for work. With the addition of simple projections, this single ship scene seemed to change over and over, allowing us both the confined sense of the ship’s deck and its bowels as well as the broad emotional stretch of a vast sea. While the opera couldn’t contain the entire philosophical depth of the long novel, the production was great stuff if you needed to know how it feels to be locked down with a madman.

I might not have been willing to go to the opera, even though it was Moby-Dick, if I hadn’t been tricked into my first opera about a year and a half before. In fact, if I had known I was going to see an opera, I might have feigned a cold. I had season tickets for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which, as you might guess, usually performs symphonies. Nevertheless, their season always includes something outside the box. And so I was present at the Disney Concert Hall for a performance of the Mozart and Da Ponte opera Cosi fan tutti.

If you aren’t familiar with the story, think about the Shakespeare plays with mistaken identities, of characters in disguise. Cosi fan tutti is a comedy on the fecklessness and infidelity of women, a few of whom who throw over their fiancés (whom they believe to be off at war, but who are right in town in the guise of Albanian suitors), in a ‘love the one you’re with’ move.

The Disney Concert Hall is not a space designed for opera productions, but the staging was brilliant. Perhaps, because of the fame of the architectural design, you are familiar with the interior of the concert hall. Though the wood is warm, its curves suggest waves. The organ acts as a centerpiece to the audience members, and its pipes look like the leaping splash of ocean foam. (If you haven’t seen it you should check it out online and then go in person.)

Since I’m looking at production here, let’s put aside the worthiness of the music. Outside of it, we have a dated story about the lack of integrity in women. Yet through staging and costume, this sexism is turned upside down. Men are shown to be as fluid in their values as women. The very ground the characters stand on is fluid. As I mentioned, the Disney Concert Hall has a wavelike atmosphere. In this production, the stage curved and swirled, continuing the ocean theme. There was a whirlpool concept at the center of the floor which looked alternately like water and a nautilus. The floor actually moved–part of it was solid, part was some sort of fabric over hydraulics so the waves went up and down. A curve of the inner circle would become a high wall and then recede.

The costuming also contributed to malleability. The devious men show themselves to be just the same as the women when their clothing expands from pants into dresses in the wedding scene. This very original, perfectly conceptualized staging extended the themes of turbulence in love, of infidelity and fickleness. Everyone is flawed and this allows the audience identification with the characters. I’ve never seen a more beautiful, emotionally articulate setting.

If characters are hard to develop, think about your own settings. I’m guilty of writing dialogue for characters who seem to live in a void. (I’m lucky they don’t start hallucinating from sensory deprivation.) The opportunity to experience creative staging is a reminder that environment contributes to character development. In novels, it helps readers to make the emotional connection to the character’s destiny that will keep them turning the page. Indulge in stagecraft.

 

*If you don’t follow Jane Friedman, you should. She’s one of the most helpful writing advisors you’ll come across.