10.28.2010

book crush thursday: for the love.


Unsurprisingly, a side effect to blasting my way to the end of my draft this week? My brain is a little bit dry. (Meaning: only the dumbest movie lines are running through my head. I stare off into space. A four-year-old could whip me in Scrabble. That kind of dry.)

Which means that if I tried to talk up a favorite book, I'd probably let both book and you down. I might even drool on the keyboard a little, as I squint at the screen and then forget what I was thinking about.

You don't want that. I don't want that. The beloved novel in question doesn't want that.

So I'll save it for next week. Meanwhile, what will I do to recover?

Read, of course. Bellyflop into fiction for the evening, with my feet up, with some tea.

And for goodness' sake, why don't you do the same?

In fact, yes, let's make that an order. You absolutely deserve this sort of pampering. Cozy up to a little fiction tonight. Isn't that a good, sane thing to do, when it's getting colder and you might have an afghan in reach? Find the novel you've been saving, or unbury a childhood favorite.

Whatever impression this blog presents, I don't read as much as I used to. Chagrin!! But truly, I used to read all the time. All the time.

I'd try to read while getting dressed. I'd stick a book under my chin and pin it open so that I could read while I was making the bed, or putting butter on toast. The all-purpose hands-free reader, that was me. Multitasking before I knew that was the name for it.

(I also would have mismatched socks, rumpled sheets, and sometimes I'd miss the toast and put the butter on the counter. Whatever. It was worth the cost.)

Maybe you can do the same tonight--with or without the under-chin method. Have yourself a merry little fiction festival. Get word-drunk.

Or binge on poetry. I, for one, never read poetry reasonably. I'll go for weeks without thinking about it, then read a whole volume in a day or two. It goes right to my head, literary Champagne, but it's such a lovely rush.

So there it is. I'll be in the writers' recovery room tonight, digging into My Brother Michael, by Mary Stewart. (I'm soooo excited!!) Wrapped in a creamy flannel blanket, sipping some mint tea. I think that will do. It will do nicely.

10.27.2010

it's the little things, right?


Guess what. Yesterday I woke up, looked around, and ... took a deep breath. A really deep breath. An oh-my-goodness-I-think-I'm-finally-well kind of breath.

I made it. I'm alive. The world's still here. I'm in one piece. And I have energy again.

This is, without a doubt, the best part about being sick: the getting well again. Seeing everything fresh, and having the energy to dive back in.

So I feel newly aware, like I just woke up. And I'm thanking God for being well, and for all the wonderful little bits of life around me.

Like falling asleep the other night to the roar of wind and rain... tricking myself into believing it's the sound of the sea.

Like wearing fingerless mitts for a neighborhood walk yesterday, as twilight settled in, gawking at the trees. Welcome back, fall. Welcome back, me.

Like making plans for this, my much-belated birthday cake. (Crepes. Yeah, you saw that coming, didn't you?)

Like savoring a soy chai, and catching the first episode of Sherlock. (Did you see it? Finish reading this and then jump right over, you won't be sorry...)

And, you know, other little things... like--oh yeah!--finishing the first draft of that novel. Right. I kicked it into a higher gear this week, and added 21,000 words in three days flat. Nope, not my normal rate--that's absurdly fast.

I can only get away with it because it is, after all, just a first draft, and as Anne Lamott says:

The first draft is the child's draft. ... If one of the characters wants to say, "Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?," you let her. No one is going to see it.

Yeah. It was the Poopy Pants draft. And it's done: 307 pages of childish glory, and I love it.

Hooray for putting the pneumonia quarantine to good purpose.

Hooray for finishing a draft.

Hooray for really deep breaths.


(26 before 27: For those of you keeping score? Finishing that draft means scratching off #23. Yeah. That's a good feeling.)

10.25.2010

writer in progress: research! let's not and say we did

This is a matter of curiosity; and you have got a woman for your ally. Under such conditions, success is certain. -- Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White

He wasn't exactly lost, because cats never get lost. He merely didn't know where everything else was. -- Terry Pratchett, The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents

How often is imagination the mother of truth? -- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Valley of Fear

I have to lower my voice on this one, because it would seem, yet again, that I'm committing a writerly heresy, but here is the nasty truth:

I hate research.

I know. Stunning, isn't it?


I didn't think that this was much of a revelation until I began digging deeper into writing circles--reading writers' memoirs, listening to talks at writing festivals. Over and over I'd hear a writer say something along the lines of this:

"I love research. I just love researching so much! It's the actual writing that's miserable, and I put it off by researching. The danger is getting lost in the research, letting it stretch for ever, and not getting the writing done!"

I heard two writers saying as much once in a room full of writerly listeners, and everyone chuckled, as if to say, I know just what you mean!

I was the one scratching her head saying, really? I can't even imagine what that's like!

Research has been the bane of my writing life--I'm stunned to hear that it's the other way around for some.

In fact, I wish I could inject a bit more of that mindset into my life, because I'll do just about anything to avoid research. In my mind, I've already done my share: There's a number of competent research papers with my name on them. Yes, I can regurgitate facts from other books... point proven. Let's move on.


Which is one of the reasons I landed in the fantasy genre. I look over my shoulder a bit nervously at the unicorns and dragons and wizardly writers, the "real" fantasy writers. I'm not quite there, but I do like stepping away from reality, giving my characters enough room to make up their own places, their own rules.

And also, or so I hoped, I would get myself off the research hook.

Yeah, right.

Truth is: even when you're making up a world from scratch, there's still plenty of research that has to be done. Readers are plenty savvy, and I'm guessing they know a lot more than I do. So I'm still piling up history books with a groan, and putting off the day when I need to read them all.

That is, I was. Until I finally saw the light, the big beautiful key to research: I don't do it.

Or at least, I don't call it research. And I don't treat it like research. Instead, I looked at all the learning and nonfiction I was already doing, naturally, on my own. All the stuff I was reaching for, without the big ugly Research bird on my shoulder.

What do I love learning about? Can't I write about that?


What if I write about the subjects that fascinate me no matter what. Things I was learning on the sly. If I write about that, if my worlds and scenes are based around that, then I'm home free. The learning gets done, the scenes are written, and I'm passionate about the subject--an enthusiasm that, hopefully, shows up in the characters and action.

Why did it take me so long--four years?!--to realize this? Is there a Puritan streak in me, which thinks, if it's fun, it's a bad idea? Maybe. But somehow, I was writing about subjects that 1) required research, and 2) I wasn't interested in learning about.

Looking at it objectively, I can see now that it was a bad idea. But at the time, it seemed to make sense...


So I've finally corrected my ways. At the heart of my current project--this draft I've been working on feverishly--is a massive library, the library to end all libraries. So I get to read about people who love books, collectors, writers, caretakers... anyone who is crazy about books.

Which is precisely what I would do anyway.

For an added bonus? I went on a field trip last week, to nearby Washington University, to look at their rare book collection. William Morris's edition of Canterbury Tales? A late 15th century book of hours? Yes please.

It's a moral that most people probably knew anyway: to get something done, make it fun.

Or better yet: Write out of your passion.

... And cook what excites you, draw what you've been doodling, knit what you daydream about, embrace the stuff you've always loved.

I don't know why this is hard for me--is it hard for you? Does it dodge you too, elude you? I'm going to practice sticking to what I love, from now on. 

10.22.2010

book crush, uh, friday: So Brave, Young, and Handsome

It was a story to make a boy lean forward. -- So Brave, Young, and Handsome, by Leif Enger

Why do the foolish insist? But I was thinking of the modest dimensions a thousand words actually describe--a tiny essay, a fragment of conversation. "How hard can it be?" concluded your idiot narrator, lifting his glass to the future. -- Monte Becket, in So Brave, Young, and Handsome


Here it is. A book so splendid I want to crawl into it and stay there: So Brave, Young, and Handsome, by the fabulous Leif Enger.

It's not because I'm a fan of Westerns--I'm not. Not at all. I love this book because I'm a fan of a good story--one with engaging characters, a bit of violence, a bit of romance, a bit of travel. Risk. Beauty. Hope. And if I can't see what's coming around the corner, so much the better.

It helps, too, that every single sentence is beautiful. That the story works on a micro level. That it has bits in it like this:

Violent and doomed as this world might be, a romance it certainly is.

Brilliant, isn't it? Makes me catch my breath a little, and this time it's not because I'm sick.

Or, he pinpoints a feeling: Lost, that's how I felt. A page had turned and the story was a new one filled with doubtful creatures.

Or this one: We hear much about moments of decision, but often you don't know they have happened until later and there you stand in your cooling skin.

Or even, exact descriptions that leave me spluttering with laughter: The only nice thing about Rory was his teeth. Or, a bit later, The midget was a hard negotiator with a voice like a kazoo.

I mean really, kazoo? That's enough to send me back to my dictionary: let's keep pursuing the perfect words! Kazoo is dead-on splendid.

... Do you get the feeling that I could do this all day? Sit here typing out Enger's genius sentences, each one calling me back to read the whole story? That's because I could. It's a fantastic book, my friends, perfect for this sort of weather--warm and autumny, with that restless feeling of change that autumn always brings.

It's an adventure story, of course. With trains and detectives and outlaws. Arrests and legends and twenty-year grudges. It's also about an author who can't write a second story, and a long journey to an orchard, where, frankly, I'd like to move.

I didn't say it in my other post on Leif Enger (shame on me!), but reading his book is like unwrapping a gift. It feels like you're slowly opening something lovely, something put together just for you. I don't know why that is--but there's something very personal about his books. Makes it feel like he's writing just to me.

It reminds me of how intimate a novel really is. How personal. After all, these are all thoughts out of someone's head, sentences he's honed to a fine edge, and he wraps them all up, and then I take it. Bring it home, curl up with it, and unwrap it, unwind the story, sentence by sentence, and am, myself, transported.

It's why I read Enger when I'm depressed about writing, about books, about the ability of a story to move us. I read some other book, a thin, narrow sort of thing with flat characters and dull clich├ęd sentences, and think, why? Why do we still think novels can move people, can make any difference at all! All those little marks on paper--do they mean anything?

Then I read Enger. And I get back to work.

Recommendation: Find yourself some good cornbread, studded with corn kernels, steaming out of a cast iron skillet. And warm some apples with cinnamon, and pour some black coffee.

And clear your day, your whole day, and read this book at once. By nightfall, you'll feel as if you've been away, on a brilliant vacation, a marvelous journey. You'll have no regrets. It will be a perfect day.

10.21.2010

book crush thursday. coming soon.

It's Thursday, which means I'm meant to be drawing a cheerful little heart around yet another book. And I have a book in mind. And I really want to tell you about it. Because I know you'll love it.

But I have the energy level of a slug at the moment, or possibly of half a slug.

In any case, I can't think very straight, and if I write anything, it will be a long and desperate letter to pneumonia, to please stop eating my energy, and leave me alone. It's overstayed its welcome, and no one likes that. Not even me.

Anyway. I'll be back soon. With that book. Which, I promise, you will absolutely love.

10.18.2010

writer in progress: revenge is sweeter than i thought

Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days. -- Flannery O'Connor

I like to write when I feel spiteful: it's like having a good sneeze. -- D.H. Lawrence


I've been drowning myself in writing advice these last few weeks. For some reason, pneumonia walks hand in hand with insomnia, so I've been reading into the wee hours, piles of books about writing.


I'm calling it "the late late night writer's conference." Most of the books I've been browsing are compilations of writing advice: a few dozen writers offering various and conflicting points of view on what they do and why.


It's been a real blast--all those writerly voices crowding my head! Grumpy, inspirational, practical, mysterious, prosaic. I love binging on writing advice.


Write what you know. Write what you don't know. End each day mid-sentence. Revise before you write. Write before you revise. Show don't tell. Draft before agents. Work at night. Work in the morning.


And here's one I've heard several times: Write for revenge.


That's one that I've certainly put to work. It's a combination, really, of "write what you know" and "write for revenge." Every protagonist needs an antagonist or two. Every person who has survived twenty-six years has faced her own share of personal antagonists, believe me! I've mined my own life repeatedly, scooping out the people who made me crazy and inserting them into my novels.


That is catharsis, let me tell you! Putting junior high misery to good use! Dragging out the people who have tormented me in their own private way, and giving my protagonist the exhilaration of the perfect retort.


It's half the reason why we should write! And few things have made me so happy.


It's a fabulous noveling technique, and I highly recommend it. The very same people who have blocked my way, who have made me writhe with embarrassment or frustration or helplessness, are just the sorts of people I want troubling my protagonist.


Bonus: I know exactly how she feels!


They're people who brought the very worst out of me--and, it would seem, vice versa. They also bring the worst out of my protagonists, who end up acting on angry impulse, saying the wrong thing, or doing something crazy with their frustration. (Another bonus: my characters exact the revenge that I could not.)


But along the way, something weird has happened, every time I build an antagonist on the foundation of a person who made me berserk.


I can't write about characters that I don't, on some level, like. I can't write about a one-dimensional person, someone whose motivation I don't understand. Even the terrible ones: they have to be real. They have to have a few good points.


And with all the care I've put into building these revenge characters, all the time I take sculpting the antagonists of my past into the antagonists of the novel present... they become more real to me than ever. I find that I'm forgiving the real people. I'm thinking of all the reasons why they acted as they did, why we conflicted so miserably.


They still put my character through her paces, they still make her crazy, or I wouldn't have a story. But somehow, strangely, the sting left in me by the real person slowly fades, until really, I'm not upset at them at all. I can let them go. And, too, I kind of want to apologize for my own bad behavior.


So, yes, this might be a kind of "warning: you could end up in my novel." But I doubt anyone will recognize them anyway--the real life inspiration is truly just a jumping off point. The final product is a far cry from the person I knew.

It turns out to be more about redemption than revenge, really. More about redeeming the frustrating--sometimes agonizing--experience. And along the way, redeeming the person who inflicted it.


I would whole-heartedly recommend this, even though now it sounds like a therapy exercise. Maybe it is. But I get a lot out of it: my character is up against a realistic antagonist, who gets a fitting comeuppance before the end. And by that end, I'm free.

10.14.2010

book crush thursday: Ella Minnow Pea

No longer may we speak of the topaz sea which laps our breeze-kissed shores. Nor ever again describe azure-tinted horizons sheered by the violent blazes of our brilliant island sunrises. -- Mark Dunn, Ella Minnow Pea

The books have all disappeared. You were right about the books. We will have to write new ones now. But what will we say? Without the whizz that waz. -- Ella Minnow Pea


For starters, isn't it a beautiful title? I mean, you don't even have to know what it's about yet: just say the title, right now, out loud: Ella Minnow Pea. (Or, LMNOP?) Proof right there that author Mark Dunn is a genius, and that there's surely genius to come. (There is.)

Incidentally, I also love the cover. I refuse to acknowledge the cover of the reprint, which looks like a child's gardening manual. (What were they thinking??) This one, though, does it right.

Between the title and the subtitle ("a progressively lipogrammatic epistolary fable"), you can feel fairly confident that you're on wordsmithing turf. This is a book about language, lots of language. I'd say it's both a celebration of the letters and words we use, as well as an argument against silence.

It takes place on the fictional island of Nollop, where they worship Nevin Nollop, the guy who came up with The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog, that short sentence containing every letter of the alphabet. The Nollopians have the sentence on a monument to Nevin Nollop.

One day, the Z falls off.

And the town's council decides it's a message from Nollop himself: they're no longer allowed to use the letter Z. In speech, or in writing. First offense? You are warned. Second: you're beaten, or placed in the stocks for public humiliation. A third Z, and you're banished from the island. Come back, and it's to execution.

The first time I picked this book up, I thought it was a fantastic premise, and a lot of good fun. It's told in letters among the characters, which become more and more interesting (and creatively spelled) as more letters fall from the monument.

The style feels quaint at first (Nollopians aren't quite like the rest of us), but as suspense builds and language slips away, the letters are more urgent, more desperate, as Ella and others try to write a shorter sentence than Nevin Nollop, and thus rescue their alphabet from destruction.

I promise you, it changes the way you look at language. It makes me want to savor every word I write or say. (It makes me want to throw most text messages and their crippled little wordlets out the window.)

Even though it's a light read, I've spent so much time thinking about it. Wondering: what does it mean to lose a letter? A word? And then dozens and dozens of words? To be afraid to speak?

If you're a fellow language-lover, you owe it to yourself to spend a weekend with this book.

Recommendation: I'd do a teatime with this one. The Nollopians are so wonderfully cozy and domestic, it feels just right. Tea and honey and toast. (Though I suppose, to match the title, you could involve peas and fish in some way if you really wanted to. I just think it's a better fit for Earl Grey.)

10.11.2010

writer in progress: the constant learner

It is my business to know things. That is my trade. -- Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

What's the good of being an author if you can't make up a story? -- P.G. Wodehouse

The true University of these days is a Collection of Books. -- Thomas Carlyle


There are so many reasons to love writing novels. So many. And it's good to remember them from time to time, since the crushing difficulties also show up with unnerving regularity...

But there are so many reasons not to push that pencil between your eyes. So many reasons to keep going.

For instance, you can write plenty of scenes propped up on pillows in bed, putting your protagonist through one crisis after another. Very theraputic, that. I don't mind being sick half so much if my protagonist is rather worse off. What's a little cough, when she's running for her life ... again?

Also, the little things can make my day. I finally get the right name for the character, the town, the chapter? I'm happy every time I see it and feel that hole-in-one glee all over again. And if a gem of a sentence drops onto the page? Brilliant. I bask in that one all day.

Another fabulous fact about this discipline, this life, of writing?

You learn while reading other novels. Which is my first love, of course. I've been a nonstop reader for as long as I can remember. So, feel the delight: some of the best lessons I've learned have been while reading books for fun. And because I write what I love to read, I'm usually reading (and learning from) novels that fit the genre I'm writing to, the age group I'm aiming for, or similar subject matter... or, I picked them up because, hey, they looked like fun.

I always use index cards as bookmarks, and by the end of a novel, they're cluttered with notes: Fabulous sentences, my guesses at who the murderer is, questions about where the plot is going, wondering if a scene is necessary... basically, I'm talking back to the book.

And--okay, confession time--I still write book reports.

I was in the habit already, and I never gave it up after college. So every book I read gets a Word document in my computer. They aren't neat and tidy reports; I ramble about whatever grabbed my attention. I argue a lot. I note pages that I had trouble with. Sometimes I tweak the ending. Or, I just fill it with all the beautiful descriptions the author used, or I dissect the brilliant transitions.

Sometimes I wonder if this means I'm a terminal nerd.

But mostly I don't worry about it, because now and then, one of my book reports saves my novel's life. Those aren't the sorts of habits you want to break.

Two years ago, after reading On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, by the genius Andrew Peterson, I spent days wondering how he did it. How he could write about the truly dark, the truly scary, but make me laugh from cover to cover? How do you sustain tension and humor at the same time? And I realized that I firmly believed he loved writing that book. He had fun; it was evident.

I was so envious.

And I looked at my ball and chain er, manuscript, and asked: is this fun? Am I enjoying this? Am I having fun writing it? ... It took all that to realize that my protagonist had turned into someone I didn't actually like. I embarked on a massive rehabilitation of the whole project, and was much, much happier.

Or, on the other side of the spectrum, I read a novel that I, um, hated. I mean, hated. I ran around the house reading terrible passages to anyone who would listen, and then I ranted further still into my report. I didn't believe any of the action, the characters, the setting, not one bit. And it had come out in a hardcover edition. What?!

I tore it to shreds, and told myself I would do much, much better than that.

I was rehashing everything I despised about the weak villain, and then parts of the villain's character began to sound, oh, just slightly familiar. No. Wait. Was that right? I pulled up my character files, read my descriptions, dialogue, scenes where the villain acted...

Wow. I had fallen for the same traps.

After writhing with embarrassment, I made massive notes for revision, and then sheepishly wrote rules for all future villains. (No antagonist gets to wear black in my books. Ever. Ever, ever, ever. Ev-er.)

And I get all this out of doing what I love to do, doing what I've done all my life: read books that appeal to me. Read for fun; learn genius things.

... Which is another thing I can do in pajamas. Fantastic.

10.07.2010

book crush thursday: The Mysteries of Harris Burdick

His disappearance is not the only mystery left behind. What were the stories that went with these drawings? There are some clues. Burdick had written a title and caption for each picture. -- Chris Van Allsburg, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick


I always loved those books that let the readers inside. The ones that give you options, that let you make up part of the story. I remember a handful of those books that I checked out repeatedly from the library--I couldn't stop reading them. How could I, when they changed every time?

There was the collection of unusual but simple drawings, which forced you to guess what each shape could be... (a hat? or a snake that swallowed an elephant?) And there were, inevitably, the entire range of Choose Your Own Adventure novels, which I devoured, over and over again.

I still think interactive books are endlessly fascinating. They've trained me to question even the "non-interactive" tales, which is probably why I'm entranced by retellings. And why my friends and I occupied ourselves by reimagining Shakespeare (I still prefer our corollary to A Winter's Tale: it's the only way it makes sense!), or reinventing Little Women. (My good friend Sarah came up with a far better ending than Louisa wrote.)

I guess I just love the collaboration: the story and I put our heads together, and come up with something else, something new. Isn't that much of the appeal of fiction, right there?

This, The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, by Chris Van Allsburg, is one of the best. A truly interactive tale that I read over and over, in the canary-yellow chairs of the children's section in the library. (Very static-inducing, those chairs.)

The whole concept thrilled me: on each two-page spread, there's the title of an unwritten story, an intriguing caption, and the stunning picture itself. (Who doesn't adore the illustrations of Chris Van Allsburg??)

Endlessly fascinating. Even now, paging through, I can lose track of time, forget all about the Blogger screen, the post I'm writing, and instead I'm wondering where the ship is going, what Captain Tory is about (would he be gripping the boy's arm like that if he were a nice guy? doubtful), if the other six chairs had such spectacular flights, if Venice will be left standing, and where Archie Smith will end up...

and most of all, if I could take a ride on that amazing railroad-cart/sail-ship, off into the fog.

I wonder if this book is partly responsible for making me a writer in the first place.

At the very least, it's required reading for every imagination.

Recommendation: You need a deep armchair, and a good window to look out of as you muse on each spread. And maybe something simple, like really fine toast with raspberry jam, and a bit of tea. Give yourself plenty of time: though the book isn't long, the stories you hear might be.

10.04.2010

writer in progress: first aid

The special function of literature is to diffuse enchantment without which men's minds become shrunken and cold. -- Constance Lindsay Skinner

"Well, now that we have seen each other," said the unicorn, "if you'll believe in me, I'll believe in you. -- Lewis Carroll

In this daily pursuit of writing, there are so many ways to get off track. So many reasons why, suddenly, I'm not writing.

Sometimes it's as simple as: the phone rang twenty times, curiosity got the better of me, I picked up. Sometimes, it's because everything in our house decided it needed to be repaired, and the family spends a week around roofers, carpenters, appliance repairmen, and the plumber.

Sometimes it's more personal: an emotional crisis wipes out any desire to work, think, imagine. Or, the exact opposite: a week of fun, time with family, brilliant outings with my sisters. It's what we live for ... but it's really hard to get back to work.

Sometimes a beast of an illness has one iron fist around the lungs, another around the throat, and I just don't feel much like writing.

Sometimes everything happens at once--the perfect storm.

And sometimes, I fall off the tracks for no apparent reason at all.


I used to respond badly when my writing schedule got stomped on. I'd make huge, elaborate plans (who, me??) intended to whip me and my novel back into shape, in two weeks, two days, two minutes. That writing superhero stuff. I was so sure it could work.

Except, it never did.

Jenn-as-superhero would stare at the gorgeous, beautifully formatted schedule, the ink still a bit damp, and then wander off to go do something else. Take a nap, watch a movie, unload the dishwasher. Pick at the paint on the walls. Anything else.

So, I got wise. Actually, I finally read enough of Heather Sellers' brilliant advice that she finally convinced me: it's not about whipping yourself into shape, but about inviting yourself into your writing practice again.

Ha, is what I used to say. Invitation? I didn't think so. I knew what got me through college, through one crunch-time after another, dodging the semi-annual minefield of deadlines. I never "invited" myself to enjoy my studying and essay writing. Nope, I pushed myself to the brink and a bit beyond. Everything got done. That's how you work, I concluded.

Except ... it really doesn't work with writing. Not really. Sometimes, yes, you need the firm boot of discipline to kick yourself to the writing desk. Absolutely. But when my writing's seriously off the tracks, I don't kick myself anymore. I do the exact opposite.

So here it is, my best writing first aid: I get lost in all the stuff I love.


To be more precise, I surround myself with all the reasons why I write. I plunge into stories, of every kind, in every form.

Which means, I listen to brilliant musicians, with stunning lyrics and gorgeous melodies. (Right now, that would be Andrew Peterson, Coldplay, David Crowder, and Mumford & Sons.)

Or, I have myself a little movie festival. I watch the stories that tug at me, the ones that remind me why stories are important. Why I love the fantastical narrative. I'll watch Peter Pan and Finding Neverland, hand in hand. Stranger than Fiction usually gets me psyched up to write. Or Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, or the Pirates flicks (especially the third), or the recent Narnia movies.

Or I'll go on a book binge. Billy Collins, of course--I'll read him until I'm drunk on words. Or Leif Enger, because he reminds me how perfectly beautiful a sentence can be. I'll drown myself in any of the book crush books, really--especially fiction, especially young adult or middle grade fiction. Or even picture books, like next Thursday's book crush. I read until I believe in books again, until I believe in what a narrative can do.

Or click through some of Anne-Julie Aubry's truly astonishing art work. Browsing her site puts me right back in the mood to write.

The precise tool kit changes with the circumstances, but I usually know what I'm after. It isn't inspiration, not really. I think I'm trying to wave a juicy morsel in front of my inner storyteller. Trying to tantalize the word-loving, story-swallowing part of me, trying to draw her out and back toward the desk.

And it works. Every time, given time, it works.

Suddenly I hear all the stories I've been thinking of; I hear my characters poking at me and at one another. I can see the best settings, hear the fabulous dialogue, get a thrilling, three-dimensional sense of what my story could be. If I don't give up on it.

I remember exactly what it is I love about this, why this is the only life I can imagine. And I'm back to work. ... And it doesn't feel like work.


This is how I get un-blocked with any creative area, really. If I feel bland in the kitchen, I try something crazy at a new restaurant. I browse brilliant cookbooks until I'm drooling on the pages. I get lost at a good grocer. If I can't make myself knit, I go touch all the wool at a yarn store.

In high school, after watching a drum corps perform, I remembered why exactly I suffered through the drills, the wool pants, the August heat. When I couldn't make myself practice piano any more, I'd put on a Debussy CD or go to a piano recital, and marvel at what those keys can do.

I think it's about love, really. Every creative pursuit has plenty of punishment, hardship, failure. Lots of failure, really. And I've learned, I can't discipline my way out of a failed manuscript. I can't force myself to do more hours, bigger leaps, harder assignments.

It's when I put that aside and fall in love with stories again... that's when I'm ready to leap and fall once more.

10.02.2010

let's count the days like falling leaves

I like autumn. The drama of it; the golden lion roaring through the back door of the year, shaking its mane of leaves. -- Joanne Harris


I've spent today writing love songs to autumn in my head.

I love this season. And I love everything that it embraces, everything it does well, like spice and fallen leaves and that zing in the air.

I love how it's all about pumpkins: in spicy pies, in those massive chocolate-studded cookies I grew up with, in a custardy bread pudding with apples and sweet cream.


It's pots of mums crowding the back deck, and the smell of woodsmoke. Apple cider simmering on the stove.

It's the lists that start cropping up as we close the distance to Thanksgiving: dishes to make, the old favorites, the new dares. Can we outdo last year? Can we try?

It's finding all of last year's cold-weather garb. Pulling out the boots, the scarves and hats, legwarmers, fingerless mitts...


It's the trips to the nearby apple farm, stocking up on kettle corn and enough fresh-picked beauties to satisfy our apple pie hunger.

It's the way the weather does everything best this time of year. It has the take-your-breath-away windy days, sending leaves scudding down the sidewalk. And the wraparound gloomy, rainy days, perfect for working through a stash of mystery novels. And then the brilliant blue skies and glorious warm sun... nothing showcases a blue sky like autumn.

Because most of all, it's about the trees, holding their breath till they go scarlet, then bursting to pieces at the end.


Gosh I love it. I always want to wrap my arms around these weeks, and dig my heels in, and keep them from escaping.

The trick is savoring each day, like brown sugar candy dissolving on the tongue.