Writer’s Musings: A Writer’s Guiding Light

“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”
― W. Somerset Maugham

The thing I love and hate about writing is there is no road map.

When I wrote my first novel, I had no idea how to write something of that length. I actually never even intended it to become anything more than a short novella. The problems that cropped up were new, so naturally, I did what anyone else would do and turned to Google and books by the experts to guide my way.

I found that even the most famous, seasoned, best-selling authors can’t agree on what is and isn’t the key to writing a good novel. There were a lot of opinions, a lot of them vehement, and all of them different. I got the feeling that it would become quite easy to just pick one and take their words at face value as law. But who do you trust when there are conflicting beliefs among the giants?

What was even more disheartening was the way these attitudes infiltrate parts of the writing community to the point where lines are made in the sand, as if between factions. Arguments are made, insults are thrown, and writers on the sidelines are left doubting their own work and abilities after witnessing this mudslinging. In the end, we have people who fully believe in the ‘rightness’ of their own path to the exclusion of any other.

The problem with this is this fosters the belief that there is only one true way to write, which is inherently flawed. No two books even within the same genre are alike, so how can we expect two different authors writing two different books to follow the same rules to get two different results?

There are those that see the merit of experimentation, which is where I see the most value. The advice from these giants of the literary world should be taken with a grain of salt, as options to try, not as biblical law. Some things they suggest will work like a charm, and you can integrate it into your process. Some things won’t. Each writer has their own strengths and needs; we’re all different as people, of course, we won’t write the same. The important thing is to take the time to practice and experiment and see what works for you personally. Try it before you buy it.

As for the naysayers of adverbs, the cultists of third-person limited, the—I don’t even know,  what are people saying is the ‘right’ way to write now? it changes by the day it seems—whatever it is they say you should or shouldn’t be doing, keep in mind their intent, listen to justification, and make a conscious choice of whether you want to try to integrate it into your own process.

Writer’s Musings: Fanning the Flames: How Ideas Are Born (Pt 1)

“One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.”
– Friedrich Nietzsche

One of the most common things writers—and really any creator—is asked is the dreaded ‘where do you get your ideas from.’

I say dreaded, because most of the time the question is ‘I don’t know,’ or, ‘If I knew I wouldn’t ever have writers block.’ It can feel like the bursts of inspiration that become the foundation of some of the most unique ideas of our generation come out of the ether fully formed, as if granted by some god. In fact, the Greecians and Romans believed that spirits called geniuses bestowed creativity on the select few.

I can’t speak for others, but the more I write, the more I understand that the way ideas form for me is both a scientific process and a practice in patience. If you delve into brain science, you’ll find that our subconscious brain is much quicker at processing information than our conscious brain is. We can only consciously do so many things at once. This is why you may sometimes struggle to find a word, and then the moment you’re not thinking about it, it comes to you.

This may seem like a useless skill, because how do you consciously control what your subconscious brain is working out? But we actually do this by what we focus on consciously. Wherever you spend your daily energy, that’s what your subconscious brain will be processing in the background too. When we say ‘I’ll sleep on it’ what we really mean is that our subconscious mind is literally working on the problem as we sleep, running through scenarios and looking at all the factors when we aren’t even aware of it.

When it comes to creativity, this is possibly the explanation for the ‘lightbulb moment’ that leads to innovative ideas. It’s when our subconscious mind has come up with a plan of action that makes the most sense based on all the factors available to us, even the ones we hadn’t considered consciously.

From there it’s a matter of implementation, and that really depends on the creator. For writers, that may mean plotting an outline up front, or ‘discovery writing’ where you learn the story as you write and spend more time on the editing phase. Along the way, there will be roadblocks where authors need to circle back to letting their subconscious do the work for inspiration to strike.

In the next newsletter, I’ll explain how I use this and other techniques to come up with my own ideas, including using alternate avenues of thought and remixing.

 

Writer’s Musings: Sparks & Hero’s Journeys

The worst loneliness is to not be comfortable with yourself.”
― Mark Twain

Not all sparks come in the form of sweeping hero’s journeys. Sometimes these ideas are more tender and personal, meant for the creator alone. I experienced one such spark this week, when it came to one of my worthiest foes: impostor syndrome.

I’ve battled this villain in the muddled middle of my own hero’s journey for so long I honestly thought there was no climax to be had, that it might be an impossibility for me to ever get the upper hand on it. How do I overcome a belief so instilled in the core of my being that it makes me believe that anything I do is laughable, dishonest, fake? That any success is a matter of luck and that at any moment the people around me are going to realize it and turn on me.

If you think that this logic is flawed and presumptuous at best about the goodness of people to look the other way and lie for my sake—you would be right. Which ties into what brought impostor syndrome to its knees for me this week.

I was talking about my struggle with needing outside affirmation of my own writing, and how frustrated I was that I both wasn’t getting it and that I didn’t want to need it. That’s when my friend asked me with all seriousness what it is that they could say that would make me believe them when they said I was doing well.

I started to answer reflexively, then paused. Because I didn’t have an answer.

The truth is, there is nothing they could say that I would believe they honestly meant, that they weren’t just being nice. This goes for friends, family, complete strangers, and even agents (of all people!) My impostor syndrome is so instilled in the core of my being that there’s not a single person in the world that could compliment me that I wouldn’t believe in some small way that they were just being nice.

It’s at this realization that the chokehold impostor syndrome had on me was released. We’re still in a constant battle of wills; sometimes he wins, sometimes I do. But with a spark of belief that perhaps I’m more than what I give myself credit for, the battlefield has been evened in a way it never has been before.

Maybe one day I’ll win.

Writer’s Musings: Butterflies & Unlit Fires Pt 2

“When she transformed into a butterfly, the caterpillars spoke not of her beauty, but of her weirdness. They wanted her to change back into what she always had been. But she had wings.”
– Dean Jackson

Last week I talked about butterflies, and how the chrysalides of our literature are just decoration. In the same vein, this week I’d like to talk butterflies again, but this time let’s go into the thick of it.

A more well-known fact about butterflies is that caterpillars completely lose all physical shape within their chrysalis, breaking down to imaginal cells and becoming something akin to primordial ooze for their transformation.

Lesser known is that they retain memory in this state, despite having no brain to speak of. So consider this. A caterpillar, butterfly, whatever you would call that amalgamation of a being, will remember its own transformation well into its life. What would we think of if we could, remembering back?

In other terms, what of the stories we tell, the ones we write, as they transform into something polished, perfect, pristine?

As writers, we remember the pains of transformation as a story grows; from an idea to a draft, to a revision, to another revision (and another), the arduous journey through editing, and finally the final beautiful winged butterfly the readers see.

As readers, we see this butterfly and look on in wonder and awe. We’re left with the feeling that we’ve seen something profound, divine even, and left without the memories before. Or maybe we don’t. Maybe we see a butterfly, but it’s only a butterfly—one we’ve seen a thousand times that year, our lifetimes, and we pass by.

They don’t see the moments when the story was broken down to its very cells and reborn over and over, the times when it was half-caterpillar and half-butterfly, when it waited for its wings to dry. Whether readers enjoy or loathe your book, they still won’t understand the hard work and growth it took to complete, and in a way that can be hard to swallow.

We as writers will always have that memory, for better or worse. At some point, there will need to be reconciliation with what the readers see and what we as writers know, and though there is a difference between the two, one does not erase the other. A reader’s perception (good or bad) of a story, does not change the suffering and joys of the transformation of a book from idea to draft, manuscript to novel. That memory, like the butterflies, will remain.

Transformation, memory, the journey, wonder—in all of it, what we have in common is that at the end of the day, we all love to see a butterfly.

Writer’s Musings: Butterflies & Unlit Fires

“A creative life cannot be sustained by approval any more than it can be destroyed by criticism.”
― Will Self

The Little Hungry Caterpillar is one of the most well-known children’s stories of all time, one that has been around long before I was the one young enough to be reading it. Spoiler alert: In the end, the caterpillar goes into a cocoon and becomes a butterfly.

It’s a lesser-known fact that caterpillars do not go into a cocoon for their transformation. It’s their close cousins, moths, that cocoon away in silk. Butterflies find their homes in a chrysalis—similar on a visual level, but made of their pupa form.

But the popular narrative of butterflies emerging from a cocoon does no harm for children of this age. In fact, the correction to a favored childhood story takes out some of the joy in the activity. There comes a time where yes, children should learn the difference between a cocoon and a chrysalis because there is power in words. But for a child, the purpose is the same—it’s where the butterfly transforms. That is the lesson: change. Everything else is decoration.

As we become adults, there’s another lesson to be learned from The Little Hungry Caterpillar. There will always be those to remind you: It’s not a cocoon. It’s a chrysalis.

Sometimes when we share stories we’ve written, or stories we’ve read and loved, the reaction we’ll get from those we share it with might be a letdown, like a fire unlit. Much of this time, it comes down to the decorations—the chrysalis. The things that we don’t see or don’t bother us in a story because they’re unimportant in our eyes may become eyesores to others.

A lepidopterologist may see the cocoon in The Little Hungry Caterpillar and die a little inside every time. A stay at home soccer mom who raised four kids on the book may see it and have only fond memories. They simply have different eyes.

Don’t let someone else’s sight get in the way of your enjoyment. At the end of the day, it’s just a chrysalis. Enjoy the journey, and remember, the rest is just decoration.

Writer’s Musings: To Each Their Own Flame

“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson

I’m going to tell you a secret.

Anyone who tells you they know what they’re doing in life is lying.

It took me three decades and a lot of self-reflection (read: panic) to come to this conclusion, but it’s true. The greatest secret of adulthood is that we’re all just making it up as we go along. None of us really know what the future holds—we can’t secure anyone or anything from the world, despite our best intentions to do so. Sometimes, bad things happen, and all that’s left is to muddle through.

But I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. It’s what we do when we’re faced with the unknown that makes us individuals. Viktor Frankl, a brilliant psychiatrist and a survivor of several Nazi concentration camps, said that when a man is stripped of all physical autonomy, he is left only with the ability to “choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

So why do so many of us expend so much energy worrying about how our choices will be received by others? As a creative this is double-edged—we want our audience to enjoy our work, so there’s the temptation to only give them what they want in conflict with our own needs.

I challenge you, my dear readers, to stop giving credence to the voice within you that says that the tastes of those around you take precedence over your own creativity. If we’re all making it up as we go along, why not make up a story you enjoy telling?

Writer’s Musings: Misfits & Matches

“You can’t grow without acknowledging that we are all made up from the weirdness that we try to hide from the rest of the world.”
― Jenny Lawson, Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things

In my July 6th newsletter, I included a flash fiction story about misfits, and I can’t get the word out of my mind.

I feel camaraderie with the word whenever I hear it—in my life, I’ve been a part of a great many groups but belonged in few. I don’t say this for the pity, nor do I begrudge anyone any eye rolls, because I look at it as a scientist would study a moth’s wingspan; interesting, noteworthy, but with distance.

Ultimately I’ve come to terms with my tendency towards being a misfit. I have a strange, slightly macabre sense of humor and an ingrained need for equanimity that makes social interaction difficult at times. I don’t like gossip, and petty frustrations can get on my nerves.

These traits have leaked into every aspect of my life, even to my reading and writing habits. I’ve all but given up on bookstore trips, as my tastes lean towards the ‘odd’ and quirky’, which isn’t really a category (it should be!) Writing summaries for my own fiction is near impossible, and categorizing it is always a challenge as I bounce between archetypes.

One of the most difficult things in my life has been seeing this as the strength it is instead of a weakness. Now, for all my self-confidence issues, the way my brain processes ideas differently than others is something I can take pride in. A lot of us are taught that in order to be intelligent we need to breed conformity, but our ability to innovate relies on our ability to deviate from standard ideas and create new ones from those foundations. Creativity relies on the misfits, the weirdos, the strange ones, the people who see the world from a different perspective.

So to my fellow misfits, I want to give you permission to have pride in the way you look at the world. Be joyful for the parts of you that make you different, the parts of you that make you who you are.

You’re in good company.

Writer’s Musings: Change Comes in Wildfires

“Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.”
― Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein

We all know the adage, ‘change is good.’ In all honesty, whenever I hear it, I want to roll my eyes far enough back in my head to lose them. It’s not the phrase itself I get embittered over, but the ease at which it’s uttered versus the herculean effort it takes to actually implement.

Change isn’t always better. Change can be blood, sweat and tears that wrings me out for all I’m worth, and not only pushes me three steps back, but throws me horizontally down a different path altogether. Change is like rearranging my bones while I’m still breathing. Change takes time and dedication, and sometimes, it feels like an impossibility.

But the benefits of change—of evolution—go beyond better, good, or reward. Change, when approached with insight and fastidiousness, can simply make me happier.

I’ve spoken about my declining health before. When the pain from my arthritis and ankylosis spondylitis started setting in at a more severe level, I had to start making some tough choices. Choices and changes I didn’t want to make; ones that weren’t better, but would in the long run would make me happier.

No, I didn’t want to be restricted in how long or how much I could sit, stand, draw, write, walk. But the sooner I accepted these limitations I could neither control nor change, the sooner I could make decisions to let me live a creative life, even if it didn’t look like the one I had envisioned.

There was the change I was given and then the change I chose. Let us not forget there is a difference, and let the change we choose be the ones that leave us feeling lighter.

Writer’s Musings: Fire Escapes and Emergency Exits

If you want to see the stars, you must be willing to travel through the dark.”
Hannah Blum, The Truth About Broken: The Unfixed Version of Self-love

Sometimes the things you love the most are the things that will kill you. I have always lived by the motto, ‘Everything in moderation, including moderation.’ But I’ve realized some point the things I love and obsess over become the things I DO instead of things I could FEEL.

And maybe that’s okay—in moderation. But at some point, we have to put down the paintbrush, keyboard, running shoes, game controller, TV remote, what have you and face the things we’re running away from.

I gotta be honest with my (wonderful) readers, I got a lot of baggage I haven’t processed. When I first started this journey of writing I tackled my demons with abandon, slinging words and phrases at them like a goddamn cowboy. It was freeing, it was fun, and for a while, it worked.

At some point, it stopped freeing me. Then it stopped being fun. And then, I stopped being able to write altogether.

Writing is no longer my savior because I was asking of it something it wasn’t meant to give. It wasn’t meant to be a catch-all for all my darkness, but a fire escape and emergency exit for when it became too much. By trampling through the passageway over and over like a stampede of elephants I damaged what was meant to be cherished and sacred.

I have to face my demons, the right way this time. Head on. Meanwhile, I’m finding new ways to write that are exciting to me, open myself up to new possibilities that I would have been too afraid to tread in the past because it wasn’t safe to do so with the cargo it carried.

For all of you, I wish you courage. To face the things that are on your mind, but that you push away reflexively. Whether they’re big or small, don’t think they aren’t affecting you, or that you will handle it ‘someday, someday.’ Someday is now. Even an inch is better than never, and if you want to be free, you can’t be chained to the things you can’t even turn to within your own mind.

Writer’s Musings: Chasing Fool’s Gold

“Life is a long preparation for something that never happens.”
– W.B. Yeats

There’s something to be said about being realistic with your dreams. I say this not to be a downer, or to discourage someone from pursuing concrete goals that may as of yet seem unattainable.

The realism I’m talking about is less about the end goal and more about the emotions that plague someone as they’re on the road. The self-doubt we all expect, even though we may not expect the depth or longevity of it. But there are aspects to it that may catch us by surprise.

We see so many examples of overnight success in the media, that we forget the majority of us only succeed after months, years, and even decades of near anonymity. We don’t realize that with the expected self-doubt of ‘can I do this’ there’s also an added helping of ‘should I do this’ or ‘am I doing this the right way.’

As a result, we try to rely on other people’s roadmaps, but the truth of it is all that leads to is fool’s gold. What worked for one person is wonderful for that person, but we all have unique strengths, weaknesses, backgrounds, and goals. As we should. The most obvious path may not be the best one for you.

Listen to what your instincts are telling you, and don’t tread down the emotions that accompany your dreams. Let your goals live alongside the things that you know you will struggle with, and celebrate the things that you excel at. Give yourself space to breathe.

So where do we go from here? I wish I had wise words or a concrete answer. Suffice to say, the only thing I know for sure is that whatever path I choose, it will be the one less traveled, and it will probably stay that way. Not because of any inherent uniqueness on my part. Simply because what works for me probably won’t work for anyone else.

Maybe that’s what makes it a dream.