Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Moment at Our Hands

Kat Dodd

Since we have just gotten through the holidays, I would like to reflect on one aspect of the holidays that people often avoid and complain about doing themselves, but enjoy all the same: Cooking. I hear people moaning and groaning around me about the effort that goes into cooking a great meal for themselves and their families/friends around the holidays. No matter how great the end product was for yourself or for others, cooking a great meal takes time, energy and even money. Similarly, writing is a chore to many people that have to do anyway whether it is for work or school. It can even be a chore to those who enjoy it the most, the aspirational writers like us, who fall into the trap of “writer’s block” or simply grow tired of laboring for the reward of completing a piece we have worked on.

I am one of those rare lovers of both cooking and writing, though even I have times in which I must force myself to do both. Right now, I cook for a living and I write as a hobby although I have the urge to create cooking on own terms quite often and it comes to me in creative bursts in the same way. Both of these activities are like a deep meditation for me, requiring complete focus and dedication in order to execute the end product to the best of your ability and create a sense of self-reflection that you can actually share with others. This is true of any art worth mentioning.  The best things in life are often not free as the cliché suggests, they require focus and sacrificing your time as well as your energy, which is a cost usually greater than money.

Because of this realization, I would suggest that the holidays are not only the time to appreciate what you already have and the power of giving to others. It is also a time to realize that the same effort that goes into the reward of the holidays, time and money, can be applied to your daily life as you ring in the new year. When you second guess the sacrifices you make to be a writer or to make others around yourself happy, think about how the world comes together to create the beauty at the end of the year and what contributed to that. Think about the actual end product of appreciating the present moment at hand.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Money Matters

By Jodie Cain Smith

On this Christmas Eve, you may expect me to write about the spiritual side of writing – bringing something new, joyful, even meaningful into the world. But, that’s not where my head is. Today, I am thinking about money.
Last Saturday, I had the privilege of sitting on a panel of authors to discuss the process of writing. During the discussion, a question regarding project selection and motivation was asked. I answered simply and, just in case Santa does exist, honestly, “I am a professional, fulltime writer. Therefore, half of my time goes to my clients and the work I am paid to do. The other goes to my passion projects, the writing I do for myself. That is how I select projects – what I am being paid to write and what I want to write for me. As for motivation, money drives my paid work, and my critique group pushes me forward with my passion projects.”

I may have ruffled a feather or two. A couple of audience members visibly flinched so much so that I need to challenge them to a little high-stakes poker. Another panel member dismissed my mention of money stating that he only writes what is in his heart and that money doesn’t have anything to do with it. I do not begrudge him his passion or love of craft. I also hope, because he writes in the inspirational realm, that his work remains sincere. However, I am left pondering why money is considered a lesser motivator in creative fields. Does money diminish art?
We have all been told that if money is your motivation to become an author, don’t write. I agree with this only because the money is, more often than not, slim. The chance of striking it rich off a book is poor in the too-crowded publishing hallways of today. But, shouldn’t a professional writer be paid according to the value of the skill involved? Shouldn’t I want to pay my bills with the skill I have cultivated over the last two decades?
I think it is time, today especially, for us all to be honest, to own the fact that we write and publish novels to get paid. Our work may include a powerful meaning, teach an important lesson, bring joy to the downtrodden, or expose injustice, but unless you are giving it away, every novel schlepped to book signings or placed on bookstore shelves has a price.
Expecting to be paid for writing, to make a living with words, and to give proper time and attention to paid work does not make me a creative Grinch. It does not blacken my teeny, tiny heart or frighten dogs who carry misplaced loyalty. But, pretending I have no interest in money because my writing is above that worldly evil while calling myself a professional writer would be sanctimonious and naïve.

So, Santa, hear me now. If I am on your nice list, and I pray I am, here is what I want for Christmas:  More paid work, please! I’ll change the world later. I promise. Right now, I just need to keep the lights on.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Coming Back to Writing

By Sharon May

6 a.m. I am sitting at the computer, staring at the first four of 64 ounces of water I will drink today. This is the first opportunity I’ve had to write in a while. The sudden illness, then death of my favorite cousin, followed by completing over two weeks of grading five classes in two days, surgery, and a short hospital stay have pulled me away from it. What better way to get back to the discipline of writing than to have a blog with a deadline?

I am very frustrated as a writer as I have lots to write about. During the past five weeks, a kernel of a story, a moment of tension, a striking line of dialogue, an interesting face to shape into a character, all came my way hour after hour. But I neither had the time nor the energy to take notes. Exchanges with others would have stifled by notetaking. Once alone, I lacked the physical energy to write. But I had lots of sleepless nights, so I cataloged ideas, words, and phrases in my brain, and this week I will start retrieving as much as I can. 

7 a.m. I sip a protein shake, chocolate of course, the first of three on the menu. I am afraid the sound of Old Regular Baptist Jimmy Hall’s cadence of his funeral sermon will fade away. The faces of twenty-five or more cousins I have not seen in over 20 years will merge into a generic “Lawson face,” while younger cousins I just met will be mere impressions, not memories. The pieces of family history never heard or stories long forgot will hide further in recesses of my brain.      

I do know I won’t forget the three times during the funeral when Willow, Billy’s fiancé’s three-year-old daughter, reached out toward his casket, and said, “Let me wake Billy up.”

8 a.m. Four more ounces of water. I know that those ideas and words stored in my mind will come to not resemble real life as they have merged and morphed. Characters will say things their inspirations would never say. Events will be merged into even better stories than I could have recorded at the time of hearing them. I guess that is one of the beautiful stages of writing – incubation, that time you think, ruminate, and toy with ideas and words but not write because you have to deal with what life requires. I repeatedly tell my students they miss the opportunity for incubation when they try to write an essay in one draft or wait to the last minute to start.

9 a.m. four ounces of diluted apple juice. This morning I moved from being frustrated to reconciled to albeit a long, emotional, and exhausting incubation period. That change of view is due to writing, and now I won’t doubt “the reality” of what I write. Instead, I will honor its truth.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

The Opportunities of a Love Triangle

By Kasie Whitener

I’ve been binge reading romance novels lately. Every year I begin my literary year with some high intentions: the National Book Award finalists, the Booker Prize finalists. Then we go to the beach in August and I pick up a courtly romance and I’m sucked back in.

In high school, I belonged to a book club that sent me four new regency romances a month. A regency romance is historical fiction that does not bother being accurate in its historical details. Think antebellum costumes without the complications of slavery, candles and oil lamps without the discomfort of outhouses. Regency romances forget how rarely people bathed and that few, if any, cleaned their teeth. It’s a polished version of old manners, old social norms, and the subtle sexiness of glamourous costumes.

Usually my August romance novel will spur a binge of genre novels for a few weeks before I return to my more sophisticated reading list. Last year, I was caught up in a series by Sherrilyn Kenyon that had me downloading each successive novel as soon as the previous one was finished. This year it was J.R. Ward then Sarah MacLean then J.T. Geissinger.

When I finally emerged from Geissinger’s series about shape shifters, I found a series by Mary E. Pearson that brought me deeper into my fantasy fiction habit. Beginning with A Kiss of Deception, Pearson has crafted a series around a compelling love triangle that has me completely obsessed.

Romance novels very rarely play with love triangles. If they do, the triangle is shallow and mostly a device to make one party jealous of another. But Pearson’s book relies upon the triangle for at least two books (I haven’t started the third) and I never got tired of it. A love triangle offers a unique view of characters. There is the sense that betrayal is lurking all the time, that secrets are knotting themselves deep in the fabric of the story, and that someone is going to end up losing.

Love triangles are common in Young Adult (YA) fiction like the The Remnant Chronicles by Pearson. The Twilight series made use of the Jacob-Bella-Edward triangle, Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments series stood on the Jace-Clary-Simon triangle and her Dark Artifices series is hinging on a new love triangle Julian-Emma-Mark.

How an author employs the triangle to test her heroine’s resolve is fascinating. Even the Ron-Hermione-Harry trio had its loyalty challenges through the Harry Potter series. A triangle provides the writer with opportunities to test the protagonist but also opportunities to get the reader to pick sides as well.

Pearson’s first book in The Remnant Chronicles series was a well-organized narrative that provided enough confusion for readers that I didn’t know which of the suitors I wanted Lia to choose. What I did know, though, was that I was fully invested in Lia and the choice she would inevitably have to make unless one of the boys made it for her.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

The NaNoWriMo Hangover

By Kasie Whitener

National Novel Writing Month or “NaNoWriMo” is a frenzied 30-days of creation. The goal is to write 50,000 words of a novel. Thousands of people participate every year. Imagine how many novels are out there right now as a result of this ambitious month.

I have never written “The End” as the last two words but I have made the 50k goal four of the five years I’ve participated. This year I stopped at 50,392.

On December 1, I woke up with the worst hangover.

It’s like the morning after losing a football game. At first, blurry-eyed and foggy-brained, you wonder what exactly happened last night. Then it comes flooding back to you: the turnovers, the punt run-back for a touchdown, the poor play by the offensive line. We lost.

Waking up after a loss is the worst. Remembering how things went awry, wishing you could take it all back, feeling sad all over again.

December 1 is like that for NaNoWriMos. We know we should continue the work. The book is not finished yet. But we’ve been writing so much for so long, we just can’t bring ourselves to compose another scene. There is no dialogue left. No character’s fatal flaw. No coincidental circumstances. No villain nor valiant heroine. There’s no story left in our fingertips.

For the first time in 30 days, we’re not required to live in the world of the novel. In fact, we’re expected to walk away. Rejoin your regular life already in progress. Get back to family and friends and football.

The frenzy of NaNoWriMo consumes the writer. Every year I replace my morning gym workouts (5:30 a.m. until 7 a.m.) with writing. I can typically get between 1800 and 2500 words in that time. If I stay on track, I can surpass the 50k before the 30th.

This year I took a long holiday over Thanksgiving and on Monday, November 27th, I was 15,008 words short with four days to go. That’s 3,762 words a day I’d need to make up the gap and finish on time.

On Thursday, I had 10,000 words to go. I knocked out 5,000 between 6 and 9 that morning and sat down at 4 p.m. determined to get the other 5k done before the Redskins game kicked off at 8:25.

When I hit 50,392, I quit. There are still at least three major scenes to go before the novel is finished. At least 6,000 more words. But I’d done what I set out to do, so I closed the laptop.

Then the Cowboys beat the Redskins.

And December 1 was miserable.

I couldn’t write anything. I couldn’t focus on the screen. I couldn’t even think about Neverland and Lost Boys and Peter Pan that unscrupulous tyrant.

The NaNoWriMo website told me I’d won but I felt like it had won. NaNo had taken all I had to give. Now I’ll just be sucking down ice water for the next few weeks.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

You Write Like a MOTHER

by Lynda Maschek

We all do it. Straight or Gay. Male or female. Young or old. Experienced or novice. Alien or human. When we write, we write like a MOTHER.

Mothers and writers guide the plot, (child) into new directions and can change the course of a child or a story. A good writer will grip your attention, change your outlook, give you hope or tell you what you need to hear but don’t want to know, all in the same sentence. Mothers are like that, too.

Much like a writer, Mothers guide us to find new adventures at the neighborhood playground, the mountains or foreign shores.

Mothers nurture and nudge our curiosity, they educate and inform. 

Mothers can hold us in suspension about our next Birthday surprise or they can hold our suspension about the next psychotic character they plan to marry. 

Winston Groom, the author of Forrest Gump, created a memorable character who typified the essence of motherhood. Mrs. Gump was a proper Southern woman who startled the reader with her savvy sexual methods to persuade the school Superintendent to accept her son into mainstream school.

Seeing the potential for a strong plotline and character structure is another mothering gift. A writer has to dig behind the obvious, (think teenagers,) and discover what is hidden within the character.  Writers and mothers can guide a mediocre personality and develop it into its full potential, for good or evil, as did Mrs. Gump. She saw the potential in young Forrest and filled him with wise quotes that later were necessary to guide him in his life, proving him more intelligent that the people he encountered. 

Mrs. Gump also taught Forrest that he had no limits, nothing to fear, and to not let anyone tell him he was ‘different” or unworthy of accomplishing great things.

A writer writes a story, holds the hand of the story, builds it up nurtures it and then knows when to let go. The storytelling of the sacrificial mother, working multiple low paying jobs so that her gifted child can attend Juilliard, will one day realize her hardest sacrifice will be to surrender her child and allow them to pursue their dream. 

The mother/writer gave all she could and then struggles with the dreaded right-of- passage, when her work will ship out and make its own way through the world to be reviewed by critics.

Writers naturally develop a mothering consciousness about their work, be it novels, short stories or poetry.  Similar to a brooding mother bird, writers protect their literary nests of heart and art. They minister to the growth of words, characters, mysteries, dramas and adventures, allowing their unique stories to unfold.

Just like Mom.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Reclaiming Creativity, Rediscovering Self

By Jodie Cain Smith

Last April my family and I, all eighteen of us, spent a week together in a house in Destin, Florida, to celebrate my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. My sister Kellie is creating a photo book to commemorate the trip and my parents’ accomplishment of sticking together all those decades.

Kellie called me last night. “Jodie, I barely have any photos of you from Destin. Were you hiding from the camera?”

“Well, mostly, I was the photographer, but I’ll take a look at what I’ve got on my phone.” I hung up with her and turned back the clock seven months.

First, I saw what appears to be a collection of “before” pictures. Before my diagnosis. Before treatment. Before forty-two pounds and the most stressful year of my life melted away. Before I reclaimed creativity.

I hate every picture of myself from that trip. But, not for the reason you may think.

I hate those pictures because they show a woman I never want to be again.

Polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) had robbed my body of its ability to use insulin and brought with it a nasty cocktail of anxiety and depression to poison my mind. Unknowingly, I had struggled with this for over two decades, but always had writing to depend on as my way to embrace the world or rage against it.

However, for the year leading up to my diagnosis and treatment, I feared I had lost that coping mechanism. Most days, I struggled to write at all, much less anything worth publishing. I stopped listening to my instincts on writing, allowing others too much influence over my writing style, stories, and characters. Then, I just stopped writing at all.

I had lost my ability to be creative, authentic, and brave.

Then, a succession of miracles occurred.

First, a doctor listened to me and forced me to face the reality of anxiety and depression. She did this by asking me if I was still writing. I told her, “No.” She responded, “Jodie, that’s not good.” She also said the words PCOS and pre-diabetes. The latter was terrifying.

The second miracle was the treatment for my PCOS and insulin resistance. Within a week, I could feel the positive effects of the medication, healthy eating, and increased exercise. I felt hopeful. The constant fog in my brain began to lift. I began to like myself again. And, the scale began a nosedive.

The third miracle came via my husband and an overdue heart-to-heart. He told me to stop coddling him, worrying about him, trying to control him. Now, seven months later, I know this was the miracle I most needed.

By ditching my need to control everything and everyone around me, I freed my mind to write. One month into my new lifestyle of letting go, healthy eating, and rigorous exercise, I began a new work-in-progress, one I never thought I was capable of writing.

As for the “before” pictures, I printed one out, but it is not displayed where you might think. It’s not taped to my mirror or stuck on the fridge. It will now live on my desk as a constant reminder that if I continue to live healthily in body and mind, I can be my best creative self.