Filling the Well

Many years ago I quit writing. The cessation lasted two years and almost drove me crazy. When I figured out what I needed (to write, regardless of the consequences—or maybe because of the consequences of not writing), a book called The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron was incredibly, incredibly helpful to me.

Though I’ve forgotten many of the specifics of that great book, one of Cameron’s suggestions continues to be part of the philosophical foundation I build my writing life on: Fill the Well. It’s basically just the conviction that all ideas come out of a life lived, so rather than cloister yourself away to write every minute you have time because dammit-you’re-a-writer-and-writers-write, you should do things that aren’t writing related per se without guilt, because every activity, experience, moment with others, pours into your creative well and if you don’t have non-writing time, eventually you won’t have a well to draw from—or what you do manage to dreg up will be stale and bitter.

It can be easy to forget to freshen the well. If you’re like me, your life is busy and you covet writing time and feel guilty if you have time that you could write, but don’t use it “productively.” And there’s wisdom in our you-gotta-plant-your-butt-tyranny—but there’s also a line where too much discipline squashes—where I find myself writing only out of a sense of obligation, not that agony/ecstasy feeling of I MUST WRITE TO GET THIS ALL OUT OF MYSELF OR I WILL EXPLODE.

When my writing has that “Ugh, I have to write,” versus, “I get to write” feeling, I know I have to spend some time doing other things, and ironically, it’s usually when my work/life schedule is at its most hectic and my writing time is already at its scarcest that this need to make time to do other things is crucial.

My family is out at a cadet camp this weekend and after a ticket-selling shift yesterday (good volunteering mom, eh?) and getting a brochure I needed printed for a client, I planned to get A LOT done, because I have (like always, it seems these days) A LOT to do.



Instead, I:



Made a very yummy veggie and cheddar wrap and drank two glasses of wine, sitting in the sunshine with Twisted by Jonathan Kellerman (famous novelist, new to me—am enjoying very much!) 



Then I had a nap. Until 6:00 p.m. 



Then I worked in my delicious smelling flowerbed and yard until 9:00. 

Then I poured more wine, tossed up a stir-fry and watched TV—what a treat. 

Very rejuvenating. Just what I needed!

Today has been low-key too: sleeping in, drinking coffee, reading short stories—and I might clean my house a bit . . . But I’m starting to feel a building urge to get to my novel—there’s a scene burning, a character screaming to be let out . . .

What about you? Do you have similar feeling about the importance of sometimes NOT writing?

p.s. Where was that jeep found? Who did it belong to and why was it left? Last weekend found me wandering, filling the well—I hope the old ghosts don’t begrudge the pictures I took . . .

Going Through Changes

I started a new job April 27 and as I was driving home from work the first Friday, reflecting on the week’s training, the thought occurred to me: I’m not a kid anymore.

It was a happy thought, triggered by the realization that I’m, for the most part, free of the obsessive worry to please that plagued me in younger years. I have confidence. Or at least far more than I used to

I attribute this change to a myriad of ongoing experiences. Running my own business has shown me that I’m competent in a variety of areas. Writing has given me a safe place to vent and to explore, while providing a sense of fulfillment that makes “job satisfaction” less critical to me. I want to do well at work, because that’s my personality type, but my job is a job, not my life. Aging itself, which has lent perspective about what to concern myself about.

This “not a kid anymore” strain of thought was lovely and apropos as it occurred on the eve of my 38th birthday and coincided with the realizations my main character has made lately.

I’m fascinated by how changes in our personalities or general approach to life can sneak up on us, catching us almost unawares—like until we’re put into a position where our personality/beliefs, etc are tested, we’d never know they’d deviated.

While my change in self-perception/outlook was positive, sometimes these sneaking deviations from formerly held views and approaches to life are negative. The person who wakes up on his 30th wedding anniversary and realizes he doesn’t love his spouse (or that she has never loved him). The person of religious faith who, after years of devotion, worries that their faith is baseless. The fifty-year-old who realizes now that their children are fully grown that they’d made the same serious mistakes raising them that their own parents did . . .

The most powerful part of these inner revelations is not the actual change in our thinking, but the awareness of our change and what we go on to do in light of it—how it affects the way we live and the way we relate to people in our lives.

The most interesting novels to me show characters grow and develop (and regress!) over time—they explore the twisty path of human experience, not just event.

I hope your characters have pivotal moments—large and small—in their interior lives, perhaps kindled by action happening in the story, perhaps intrinsic to, thus feeding the story. It doesn’t matter which comes first—the plot, then the characters’ change and growth or a character’s change that leads to some explosive plot, but inner change has to be there.

We shouldn’t create static characters, because humans aren’t static. Even in the silliest, most simple ways they change, grow, discover—and are changed by noticing that they do.

So what do you think? Do your characters change in big and small ways through your story or series? Do you agree that it’s important?

Wherever you go, there you are . . .

Photo by Ev BishopOnce upon a time, a long time ago, I was sitting at the end of a wooden dock in the purple-not-quite-dark haze of a warm northern summer night with a dear friend. We were discussing places we’d been (or he was) and places we hadn’t (me, everywhere; him, it seemed then, nowhere). I confess I was expressing a bit of jealousy and at one point he looked out over the shimmering dark mass of the tiny isolated lake we visited, and his side profile was a perfect black shadow.

“Nah, you don’t get it,” he said. “Wherever you go, you bring yourself. After about two weeks in any place, you stop being a visitor and they’re just the same as anywhere else, because you’re the same person. So if you enjoy where you are in general, you enjoy the place. If you aren’t happy in general, you aren’t happy in a new place.”

It was a life changing moment, though I didn’t realize it then; it grew on me over the years as the wisdom in his casual words came back to me time and again, applying aptly to so many facets of life.

And just recently, a variation of its truth struck me in how it relates to reading and story. I was commenting on a short exercise one of my friends did called *The Iceburg. In her reply to my comments, it became obviously, embarrassingly clear that I had completely missed her intended “understory” and put my own feelings and sentiments and past onto the character and his motivations/feelings.

I felt kind of stupid, but then I didn’t, because I realized that’s what readers do. They bring themselves to the book. To the short story. To the poem. Despite our best and most skilled writing, despite our subtle pointers and sometimes even didactic scenes meant to reveal something specific, readers will immerse themselves, with their personal histories, their guilts, their persuasions, in your story.

So can you challenge readers whom I’ve basically just said come into your story with preconceptions, prejudices, set ideas, notions, etc? Absolutely. The power and joy of reading—and its value—is that through story, you experience a new or different world and can add others’ experiences to your own, enlarging your thinking and ways of seeing/perceiving the world.

But equally absolutely, you will sometimes be surprised by what conclusions a reader arrives at about your story . . . hopefully not in too negative a way—my friend wasn’t offended—I hadn’t said anything offensive—she was just curious about how I’d gotten what I had from my read . . . and quite simply this was how: her character reminded me of someone I knew and I put all my “stuff” with that person on to her character.

So what does this fact that the reader brings him/herself to the story, thus colouring its reading, mean for us as writers? At least two things: 1) We should write our stories putting as much personal heart, care, and detail as possible. They are ours. 2) We should share our stories, knowing that once we do, they are ours no longer—or, at very least, not in the way they were, because now they are the reader’s. Precious and loved—or hated and scorned—perhaps for reasons we skilfully intended, perhaps for reasons that have nothing to do at all with what was actually in the story we wrote.

For me, it takes a bit of the pressure off—yes, I want to write stories that people love, relate to in some way, “get” . . . But if they don’t, perhaps it’s not me. It’s them. 🙂


* The Iceberg comes from a book of writing exercises that I recommend you buy: The 3 am Epiphany by Brian Kiteley.

If you’d like to try the exercise yourself—it’s a great one—here you go: “Write a small story or storylet that works with the idea of an iceberg, whose great mass is mostly below the water and therefore unseeable. Write a scene in which much of the actual story is not told. Let us feel the rest of the story that bobs quietly underwater, but don’t let us see it concretely. 500 words.”

If you do the exercise, I’d love to hear how it went, or better yet, let me read your resulting short story.

Souping it up

I’m a bit of a soup addict. Whenever I’m stressed, inching toward depressed, or feeling blue about something, I make soup. Chopping and grating, bringing to a boil, simmering. . . tasting. The steamy aromas of mingled garlic, onion, occasionally ginger . . . Mmm.

There’s something Zen about cooking in general, and making soup from scratch especially. And like my aunt says, even if you can’t cook, it’s hard not to make great soup, so long as you use quality ingredients. It will sound corny, but I think she’s right only to a point. Something of yourself has to go into the pot too—your love, your affection, your hope, your well wishes . . .

Yesterday I made salmon chowder (from a Spring my son caught last summer) and while I consider myself a decent cook, I impressed even myself. I was wowed by the scrumptious creamy, savoury results. I used a recipe from Allrecipes.com, then modified it (as is my style) ‘til the concoction in my pot could never be recreated using the recipe card sitting on my counter.

As I cooked (and tasted!), my mind wandered all over the place, but especially back to the novel that I’m working on. In the last scene, written just shortly before I started dinner, my MC was making soup. And there were soup references in my last novel too. The books aren’t the type that will be marketed at gourmands, with recipes in the back (though I do love those). In fact, the scenes are very brief—I don’t know if a reader would even consciously remember them, but they are, I realized, symbolic.

Soup is the epitome of comfort food, belonging and home. Every culture has its own variations of the dish, and while soup can be whimsical, there’s nothing trendy or passé about throwing things in a pot to simmer and blend all together into something, always a bit different, always good. Soup, regardless of its name, is as old as the human race.

And what does my character want and crave, but not have? Family. A sense of belonging. A home.

Food and eating of all kinds (not just soup!) has weighty (no pun intended) positive and negative connotations for the character as an individual and within his/her relationships. What your character eats or doesn’t eat, and the way they eat—standing over the kitchen sink, or with wine and candles even when alone—says a lot about their personality, their desires, their family background, their financial situation and so much more.

The way characters prepare food (or don’t) also shows who they are, how they perceive themselves, and how they want to be perceived by others. I don’t know what this says about me, but when I make soup, I feel like a good mom. What does your character feel like? A house elf? A slave? A fortunate soul to be able to cook when so many people in the world can’t put food on the table?

We shouldn’t make every scene about drinking tea or buttering fresh baguette, but we should remember that all humans everywhere eat—or need to eat—and have strong feelings about food. Sneaking in small sensory details about this primal need can be a great way to reveal information about your character.

So how about it? Have you ever considered what the food references in your story might be saying about your characters? Would adding some details about eating somehow enhance your characterization?

Overnight success

A few years back I was listening to a radio interview of a musician who’d just made it big, and the DJ asked her, “So how does it feel to be an overnight success?”

She laughed. “People keep saying that and I have to keep telling them my overnight success took 13 years of really hard work.” She went on to say that her “secret” was to learn to keep working through disappointment and rejection, to keep focused on her love for the music she was creating.

I use her words for encouragement and motivation in my writing life, often—Don’t give up, Ev. Keep writing. You love it and you’re getting better and better. Persist, persist, persist!

Just before starting to write this post, I plugged overnight success took 13 years into Google and was amazed by how many hits it got. Apparently this long arrival of “overnight success” is the rule not the exception—10 years, 13 years, 15 years, 20 years, 32 years—all those were referred to as overnight successes, triumphs, sensations. . . .

And it makes sense. The Arts used to be referred to as Disciplines, a name that better reflects the nature of creative pursuits. I also like referring to writing as a craft, because of the word’s connotations of work, practice, honing, refining . . .

Then just last week, my attention was pointed to an article from August 2006’s Scientific American, “The Expert Mind” by Philip E. Ross. He makes a fascinating, well-supported argument for the idea that “effortful” study and motivation are far larger contributors to success in academic and artistic fields than innate ability.

Here are just two of the quotes that really struck me:

“The 10-year rule [coined by Herbert A. Simon of Carnegie Mellon University] states that it takes approximately a decade of heavy labour to master any field.” ~ Phillip E. Ross

“At this point, many skeptics will finally lose patience. Surely, they will say, it takes more to get to Carnegie Hall than practice, practice, practice. Yet this belief in the importance of innate talent, strongest perhaps among the experts themselves and their trainers, is strangely lacking in hard evidence to substantiate it.” ~ Phillip E. Ross

As I am often dubious about my talent, I find great hope in the studies that Ross references. I love all things word and story related, yes. And sometimes I think I have a modicum of talent, maybe. But I know too many people whose natural talent for storytelling exceeds mine to the point that I should have given up long ago if mastery and success were purely talent-based.

What I do possess, however, is tenacity. I’m stubborn. Always have been—childhood pictures prove me out: mini-Ev, all of four-years-old, brow furrowed obstinately, jaw jutting in firm commitment to my focus. And I have a strong work ethic (my euphemism for obsession ;-)).

But even importantly, I find joy and challenge (yes, even with the frustration!) in the learning, in the toil, in the striving to say it better, be more evocative, be more honest.

There’s a small, weird part of me that knows success as the world calls it won’t be my idea of success at all. The point of writing for me, the fun, is the growth, the power of developing writing muscle, and (I’m sorry, it’s the worst cliché!) the journey . . .

I’ve been writing seriously, working on my craft, for just over ten years. Do I hope to see my novels in print soon? Absolutely. I want to share my stories, to give (hopefully) a bit of what so many others have given to me through their carefully scribed words and thoughts. But when “it” has happened, when I have a book or ten out there, will I think I’ve arrived? Nope. I hope to be the kind of writer whose best work is always yet to come.

So here’s to the work and to overnight successes for us all—be they tomorrow, ten years, or even more from now.

Happy writing,
Ev

The Power of Story and Theme

I’ve known for a long time that I listen to, read, write, watch and tell stories for fun, yes, but also to help figure out what I think, to mash out how I believe I should live, to discover what it’s like, at least partially, to be someone else with different life experiences, to express things I feel that can’t be described in mere recitations of facts and statistics.

As a teacher, a student, a writer, I am always wowed by the power of story to create understanding, convey meaning, show relationships, and provoke thought. It’s not that I agree with every idea a story puts forth or even think agreeing is the point. The point of stories—what makes them so important and valuable—is how they provide glimpses into how people arrive at the places they do, how events shape other events, how life is perceived and experienced by another.

If you tell me war is damaging or that prejudice hurts generations of people, I’ll nod thoughtfully, because intellectually I know those are truths. If put me in a war via story or subject me to cruel indifference (or worse) because of prejudice via a character, I will know the truth on a whole different level, because I will have gotten just a bit of taste of what it must be like to suffer those things.

If you tell me that constant bullying can create a monster, I might or might not believe you (or I might start framing an argument for how people can’t just blame their circumstances on people around them). If I’m put in the situation as a fly on the wall, made to see the effects of one person of constant abuse over time, I’m probably going to be a rash of more elaborate things: a) less likely to bully b) more likely to recognize when something is mean c) more intent on being kind to people I perceived as being picked on d) less wishy-washy and permissive of mistreatment of others . . .

My own kids have shown me the power of even “little” stories. I was uptown with my son the other day and he was playing with a novelty pen that had a big rubber head with googly-eyes that bulged out, as if on springs, when you squeezed it. He was making it make weird faces, kind of chuckling. Then he stopped laughing and said, “Just like a hamster, right, Mom?”

Gack! I thought and got ready to launch into a momesque lecture. “That’s not a funny way to joke.”

“I’m not joking,” he said quickly. “It just made me think of about Uncle Wilfie’s birthday party and his poor hamster baby. I still use that story to scare little kids, you know.”

Just as I started an inner monologue, berating myself for telling that story where the intrinsic message was so obviously lost, he went on.

“You know, show them, especially – – – – , he doesn’t have very good control, the danger of giving into that I love you so much I wanna squeeze you feeling.”

Awww, I wanted to squeeze him. So I did, but just a little, cause hey, he’s 13 and I’m pretty fortunate that he allows me to be seen with him in public, let alone give him a half-hug—and besides, as established, hard squeezing can be dangerous.

Where am I going with all this?

Do I think every story should have a conceived lesson on behalf of the writer? Gah, no! (But I also don’t mind if there is one, so long as it’s done well and is integral to the story, and the story isn’t just some pale, whinging thing tacked on to try to disguise a lecture.)

Do I think fiction writers have a job to inform, reform and educate? Not in any calculated way, no. Do I think writers must have deep reaching themes that they set out to tackle? Absolutely not—not intentionally, that is.

I do think the best stories—the ones that stick with us, that we ask to hear again, that get reread and reread—contain ideas and situations that affect us in a far deeper way than being merely entertaining. They are about far more than escalating action, a wacky offbeat laugh-a-minute MC (or a deep, brooding one), the gruesome, vivid details, the ahh of perfect romantic love . . . They resonate—Yes, this is what it means to be human. Or they challenge us—This is what it could (or should!) be like to be human. They speak to us somehow about how we live, have lived, or want to live.

The trick to writing these “best stories” then—actually, that’s badly worded. It’s no trick—it’s the one aspect of writing where craft books and technique can’t help us, where the only “skill” lies in just being ourselves. We have to allow what we really care about, fear, ponder, hate, love, question to well up in our stories. Our characters are not us (usually), they’re not even based on us (again, usually), but they are people and people have universal wants, needs, fears, questions . . . Let yourself (and your characters) tackle those things and you will not only have a book that the reader won’t put down, you will have written a book with the power to affect, transform, challenge, affirm and encourage—

Intimidating, isn’t it? Yes, but I don’t know if it needs to be. If we write whatever story currently yelling in our heads, the best we can, letting ourselves “go there” (those places we want to shy away from because they feel too personally revealing), I suspect, without any intention at all, when we reread our first draft, we’ll see our theme emerging. We’ll be intrigued by, maybe even a little awed and challenged by, the emerging power in our story.

I know I was a little long-winded this post, sorry–I had no Internet for eight days, so I had lots of time for my words to build up! I’d love to hear about your thoughts on theme and how you approach, consciously or not . . .

Axe sharpening . . .

I was introduced to Ecclesiastes 10:10 the other day—Using a dull axe requires great strength, so sharpen the blade.

The verse was used in the context of faith, how it can be easy to go through the motions, to seem fine when really you’re discouraged and struggling. How instead of taking strength, joy and peace from your faith, sometimes clinging to it can seem like drudgery. The speaker went on to talk about how to sharpen your blade and the importance of doing so.

I appreciated the message and felt the verse applied to a lot aspects of life—relationships, jobs, writing. Almost everything in life, no matter how passionate we are about it, has seasons where continuing on just feels like work, where we wonder if what we seek is actually attainable, where we question whether there is anything special or valuable in what we’re trying to hold on to…

If you’re like me (and since you’re probably a writer reading this blog before getting to down to work, I suspect you are), you’re no stranger to hard work. You’re used to sitting down whether you’re inspired or not and putting words on the page. You’ve steeled yourself against rejection. You will keep wielding your axe because it’s what you need to do—and let’s face it, in the end, a dull axe does the same job as a sharp one. And for that pragmatic attitude and ethic, we should be congratulated. We rock!

Thankfully, not every writing session fit the description above—far from it. We know flow. We’ve embraced the muse. Had those wonderful times when the stories and thoughts in our heads pour out faster than we can type, those moments when we finally glance at the clock we can’t believe that we’ve been writing for hours and we still feel so energized. All is right in the world. All is right in our heads. We are writers; we pour our inky-hearts out on paper—we rock!

I guess what I’m trying to say is yes, persevere when the work is hard and it’s all sweat and fear. But yes, double-yes!—seek those things that remind you that writing is your passion, that make your time spent at the computer less like hacking and more running a warm blade through butter that has fresh bread waiting for it.

Here are a few of the things that sharpen my blade and make me feel that I’ll burst with contentment because I get to write: Spending time with my opera-singer sister and laughing about the angst of the artist’s life. Keeping close contact with writing friends, through e-mail and an online forum. Reading good books. Writing things that are just for me, like poetry. Doing writing exercises and taking “no pressure” classes and workshops—and, maybe ironically, giving workshops. Playing outside, rain, snow, or shine. Making sure I have do-absolutely-nothing slouch time. And (again, perhaps ironically) writing through those uninspired dull-hatchet times.

Have a wonderful writing week, fellow axe-wielders! And if you have time to share, I’d love to know: What sharpens your blade?