Can (should!) a writer ever really go it alone?

Déjà vu Thursday – This is a re-post of a fairly recent pondering (written originally August 5, 2011), but it feels timely because the Internet—and its friend and foe ways—has been a big part of my writing life again lately. Just last night I was thinking, Yeesh, if it wasn’t for my writing friends and cohorts, what would I do? Maybe you’re feeling a similar blessing (or a sad lack?). As ever, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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If you have other things in your life—family, friends, good productive day work—these can interact with your writing and the sum will be all the richer. ~ David Brin

Last night I met with the Northwords Writers’ Camp writers and presented on how the Internet fits into/enhances my writing life. I mentioned how it’s a great resource for:

Support, Inspiration, Community
Education, Practice
Writing markets, Publishers
Marketing, Communicating and building relationships with readers

I also delivered the reminder that we all apparently need to hear on on occasion. Just like any super hero has their kryptonite, the Internet has a side that can cripple even the most stalwart writer. It’s called TIME SUCKAGE. Only writing is writing.

And I touched on a few other things to beware of online (in blogs or public forums):

Nothing is private
Nothing goes away
Published online (even “just” on your blog) is published.

But feeling that the pros of getting involved in the Internet writing community (how it can help one grow in and enjoy his/her writing life) far outweigh any small cons, I encouraged each attendee to start their own blog and we spent the rest of our time talking about Do’s and Don’ts of great blogs and did some writing exercise to per chance get us started.

As ever I was blown away by people’s creativity and how unique and highly individual each person’s results were, even with exercises as specific and guided as the ones we did together were. It reminded me yet again of why I write, why I read—to share, to learn, to grow. To think, to laugh and sometimes, though definitely not last night, to cry.

It also reminded me of how good it is to get together with other writers (in person, live!) and talk craft. The Internet is awesome and I’m incredibly grateful for it, but it doesn’t replace the value and importance (and fun :)) of getting together in real-time with flesh and blood people who share your interests. (We talked about that too.)

If you’ve been writing in solitary confinement (as is, of course, the necessity and norm)—or perhaps are feeling that you’re not getting enough alone time with your words—re-read the quote I opened this post with. It’s good to have people and other activities in our lives. They refill the well.

Yes, only writing is writing, but sometimes to keep on track with our writing (in a way that brings joy, refreshes our inspiration, soothes our fears, etc) connection with other kindred souls—online or face-to-face—is just what the Dr ordered.

What do you think? Can any writer truly go it alone?

What you always wanted to do

My little sister Ellie Higginson is an Opera singer and moved to Germany just over a year ago, after several extended trips to various locations in Europe. In many ways her artistic journey echoes my writing journey (and I suspect there are similarities between most artists whatever their mode of expression!); each exciting step is the result of many years of unseen work.

Ellie’s living in Goerlitz (a small town in the furthest part of East Germany, right on Poland’s border), singing under contract with the Opera theatre there. And now it’s audition season again and she’s eagerly looking ahead, working toward roles with other larger theatres—see, again, the writing connection: you get one gig, hurrah! But you haven’t arrived, you have to keep working, keep submitting, and repeat, repeat, repeat. 😉

The Terrace Standard and its sister publication, The Weekend Advertiser, ran articles about her recently because having any kind of an International performing career—let alone an Operatic one—is exciting news to the people you grew up around, but when you you’re a small town girl hailing from, of all places, Terrace, British Columbia, Canada, it’s that much more newsworthy.

A man who read the article approached me in the grocery store the other night.

“I saw that article about your sister in the paper,” he said.

I said something witty, like “Hello and oh yeah?”

“It was really cool.”

There was something so genuinely pleased for her in his tone that I can’t really explain it in words very well.

“I took it to work and showed all the guys—‘This is Wilf’s sister, man. She’s living in Germany and singing Opera.’” (Our brother used to work with him.)

We chatted on for a few minutes more about where she was exactly and how she was doing. Then he shook his head, and repeated with just a touch of wistfulness, “It’s just really cool. She’s doing it—she’s doing what she always wanted to do. Not many of us can say that.”

Bam! I was at once so happy and so sad, because he’s so right. Not many of us can say that. Somewhere along the way of growing up, getting married, and/or having dependents or other responsibilities, it’s easy to give up on that thing we always wanted to do, that artistic or athletic or fill-in-the-blank pursuit that made us happy, made us feel uniquely us. I think that’s what we love about someone else accomplishing something unique or special—it’s a reminder: Following your dream, living your dream, is possible.

I feel very fortunate. Dreams are about the experience you have while dreaming, not “results” and while my dream isn’t over yet, just like Ellie, I’m doing what I always wanted to. I wish I’d thought to ask the guy what it was he’d always dreamed about . . .

I hope Ellie knows what an inspiration she is . . . I think I’ll give her a call this week and remind her.

Writing time never magically appears

My children are back in school, my husband has settled back into his regular routine at work, and I run my own Writing Services business from home. I should have hours and hours to write uninterrupted, right? Uh huh.

Some days it’s a struggle just to fit in all my clients’ work and take care of the phone calls and e-mails that are involved in the kind of work I do. Balancing work, my family’s wants and needs (and mine–I don’t want to sacrifice the most important things in my life!), the volunteer things I do, the alone time I need, and my personal reading and writing feels like a tight rope walking adventure. But I like the dizzying rush. I’m not scared to look down. I’d be more worried if I never climbed up and started to inch foot over foot . . .

People often tell me they’d like to write someday. That they’re going to write one day. That they’d write now, but they don’t have time. I have a standard reply: It really is never too late to start, but time doesn’t carve itself. We won’t wake up one day and find that our work calendar has magically cleared, our bank accounts have filled themselves, and our family and friends no longer have emergencies or just want to visit (or I hope the latter doesn’t happen!). We have to make time now. We might even have to forgo something that brings pleasure.

My aunt is up visiting right now and it’s wonderful. We’re good friends and close. I would love nothing better than to just hang out and gab all day, so it was hard to tell her that despite how glad I am to have her, I have to work. But tell her I did, and she’s been great about it. “Oh, Ev, you’re so good. So disciplined.” Uh . . . not really. Not at all, in fact. I just know what I want to do, and I know that next week, next month, next year won’t be any freer time-wise, so I write now.

You can’t try to do things; you simply must do them. ~ Ray Bradbury

While I was away . . .

I’m still in the process of Organizing My Office (note the capital letters, please). It’s a convoluted task. While I was away this summer, messmaker elves (a breed similar to the shoemaker’s elves in the old fairy tale, but nowhere near as helpful or benign) were hard at work. Or at least I’m pretty sure they were involved–I have no idea who else would’ve left stacks of notes jotted on crumpled scraps of paper, piles of mail (opened, but not dealt with), and mountains of miscallanea across the region called (in fond remembrance) my desk.

While other writers are in full fall mode and have already written inspiring posts about new energy to pursue goals and freshly scrutinized, revamped plans, I’m pulling out another trash bin. However, there’s been some progress. My keyboard is cleared (I do have my priorities), my year-at-a-glance calendar is updated (yes, I consider September the first month in a new year), and I’ve pulled down my corkboard (not sure that was a good decision) to replace with two new ones . . .

Before digging into my day’s work though (editing and writing a column, then organizing if I get to it ;-)), I wanted to share two exciting things that happened while I was away (no elves are involved this time): (1) I had a story accepted by AlienSkin Magazine. “Red Bird” will appear in their December 2009/January 2010 issue. (2) I got an e-mail about how well Cleavage – Breakaway Fiction For Real Girls is doing. It’s gone into a second printing and is listed in the Canadian Children’s Book Centre’s Best Books for Kids & Teens 2009, as well as in Resource Links Best of 2008 for Grades 7 – 12. The editors Deb Loughead and Jocelyn Shipley continue to promote it and the book now has a trailer. I know my story is just one small part of the anthology, but I’m very excited about how the whole book has been received!

Autumn is re-energizing, but even more inspiring than new post-it-notes, colour-keyed schedules, and the like, is the fact that bit-by-bit I’m starting to amass a body of fiction. I’ve published non-fiction for awhile, but I’m eager to share my stories. Slowly, slowly it’s happening. It’s happening! And I don’t want to rush my year, but I’m already wondering what nice surprises I’ll look back at next September.

Pen caving . . .

I’m sorry there was such a long time between my last post and this one. I was off gallivanting for much of July and all of August, but don’t worry, I kept busy, doing NO WRITING AT ALL. Yes, you read that right. I didn’t write. *Anything. Perhaps that seems a weird admission from a writer who calls her blog, “Write here, write now,” and uses most posts to thump the drum: write daily, write regularly, don’t get out of practice, write, write, write . . .

I wasn’t just being a slacker, however. And it wasn’t that I kept meaning to write, but got too busy and didn’t get around to it. My four-week hiatus was intentional. Once a year or so, I take some time off from writing (this year’s 4-weeks was a bit extreme, and I don’t think I’ll ever go that long again). I find the break beneficial for a number of reasons, the biggest being that not being allowed to write makes me want to nothing but write. By the time I let myself back to it, I’m a bit crazy in my eagerness and the words flow and flow–which brings me to a weird phenomenon.

Sometimes in the middle of feeling, thinking, observing and ruminating “face-to-face” with an event, person, or moment, I find myself slightly removed, watching with my psychic pen in hand, wondering even as I experience something how I will write about it.

It’s not a bad thing. It might even intensify living in the moment, forcing me to really note the small details and nuances, similar to how going for a walk with a camera in tow makes you focus on the millions of tiny details that make up the “big picture.” The view you have and even think you appreciate in a cursory glance suddenly becomes deeply intricate and profound.

This slightly strange, constantly penning side of my brain grew louder and louder the longer I denied it a paper outlet, and I was fascinated by a growing awareness of parallels between various adventures I was having and my writing life.

At no time was this kinship more dramatic or clear than when I was caving in Horne Lake. Yes, caving. As in burrowing deep into the earth via rocky tunnels and winding, blacker-than-black channels into surprisingly wide caverns and the like.

My obsession with caves (and writing) started when I was young; I blame Mark Twain. While I loved Tom Sawyer (of course) and could never understand his passion for insipid Becky Thatcher, I adored Huck Finn. And the descriptions of the caves he got to explore (where Injun Joe lived for a long while) always threw me into paroxysms of jealousy. Why couldn’t I live in a cave? Why couldn’t I at least live near caves? Second only to sunken treasure, caves were the top of my romantic-things list.

Fast forward to holiday planning 2009. As I investigated interesting things we could if we got tired of Rathtrevor Beach or jumping off small cliffs into Englishman River (which would never happen, but it was nice fun to see all the things the Island offers), I came across ads promoting Horne Lake caves. Real caves. Twisty, freaky, creepy, awesome ones.

We knew we were leaving the surface before we even entered the cave; the change in temperature is immediate and complete, even just at the mouth. Squeezing through crevices that put off the claustrophobic, we ended up in strange room after strange room (there were even, I swear, platformed layers in various nooks and crannies that would’ve made perfect sleeping quarters!). I was almost giddy with the knowledge of how much there was to explore (so much that I suspect no one could ever get through all of it). It didn’t matter that other people were doing the same thing, sometimes in the same area–caves are unique through each person’s eyes, imagination, fears, and purpose. I felt completely alone and cut off–in a delicious, adventuresome way at times. In a slightly awed, fearful way at others–what have I got myself into? Can I get myself out?

The light from our headlamps (and from any others in the caves, though for the most part my son and I were alone and even went our own separate ways a few times) shone in single narrow beams, the inside of the earth being so dark, so void of light that it seemed to devour the rays we tried to cast. I could see only as far ahead as I could shine the light directly. But it was enough. For fun (???), we turned off our lights and tried to figure out where to go next, how to get out of a particular spot, by feel. Worms of panic squirmed occasionally–what would we do if our lamps went out? Or if we turned them off and they wouldn’t turn back on? The answer was simple and obvious: we would get out the same way we came in. Step by step, hand-over-hand. We’d close our eyes, so the dark would feel like a choice, and move by thoughtful gut, prodding the air ahead with hand and foot, making sure a steady hold waited for us. Eventually we’d make it through.

The terrain of the caves was captivating and varied: by turns rough and jagged, alternatively smooth and rounded, like mounds of mud rolled down in layers. Deceptively soft looking. Bone dry in parts, sweating beads of moisture in others–and in still others, crystal clear pools glimmered with reflections when your light happened to touch upon them. Often, but no less delightful for the frequency, the glow from my headlamp would bounce against seemingly black, dense stone only to have it light up and sparkle like it was dusted in stars. The phenomena, I think it’s actually called “cave glitter,” brought to mind those writing sessions where you go in feeling blah, sure that your project is a full flop, only to get ten minutes into working and realize that you have idea after idea.

Yes, my writing life is like exploring caves in every way. Exhilarating. Intimidating. Sometimes fear-invoking. Challenging. Revealing. Often I can see no further in a story than to the end of a line. I know I have to accept the necessity of feeling my way around in the dark. I am continually amazed by the depths and diversity I discover. And just like I can’t wait to do more spelunking, I’m excited to be back in the cavern of my office, climbing through the gnarl of passageways, dead ends, and mysterious spaces that make up my writing. And my head. 😉

I hope you had a great summer–and whether you took a conscious break to “fill the well” as Julia Cameron calls it, or wrote ferociously, making the most of longer days, I hope you’re feeling inspired and itchy to do some keyboard caving of your own.

I’d love to hear about the types of non-writing activities you feel work as analogies for your writing life.

~ Ev

*Okay, with two exceptions. (1) My family and I have a camping journal that we take on trips and leave randomly about the campsite, cabin, or hotel room. Throughout our vacation, we take turns jotting down memorable moments/thoughts. But this year, I reined myself in even there and wrote entries in keeping with everyone else’s, so two. Under a page each. (2) I did work required to keep my business afloat, of course. For me, limiting myself to those few things is not writing. 🙂

SiWC 2009 or bust!

So I just did something very exciting—booked a four-night stay at the gorgeous Sheraton Guildford in Surrey, BC. It seems unbelievable, but it’s already time—really time!—to start planning my favourite annual indulgence: The Surrey International Writers’ Conference.

I normally try to rein in my freakish enthusiasm and exuberance while blogging, so I don’t scare readers away, but allow me one, YAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY!

I know some writers are sceptical of the advantages of conferences. They think they’re nothing but a money grab. They feel you don’t learn anything that you couldn’t from a book or a bit of research. They’re sure everyone’s just there for their egos—I’m a writer, look at me. They’re convinced you’d be better off spending the time writing, not talking about writing.

I confess I don’t understand conference bashers.

1. Yes, attending a conference is a financial commitment. That it costs you something is part of its value. Say what? Just that: Putting money into your craft, saying in essence, “I’m serious about my writing, and it’s worth not just my time, but also my material resources to pursue,” is like giving yourself a big ol’ permission slip to take your goals more seriously. It’s also a big cue to family and friends—Oh, she’s serious about this little writing thing.

Professional development (Yes, a little FYI, conferences are P-D, not just wonderfully social times where everyone sips wine, talks about their favourite things—books and storytelling, of course—and comes away absolutely inspired) betters the quality of your work and boosts your word counts. Being with other people who are excited about the same things you are is motivating.

2. Books on craft are great, and yep, you learn a lot reading them, but—and gasp, I can’t quite believe I’m saying this—there are some things being alone with a book can’t do. Reading alone in your study doesn’t give you the experience of being with 1000 other souls who love what you love—ideas, words, stories. It doesn’t give you the chance to laugh along with one of your favourite authors. It doesn’t provide the opportunity to stick up your hand in the middle of the information to say, “Gah—I don’t get it!” or “Yay—I love how you put that!”

Hearing authors talk about their personal experiences, reassure you that it’s an achievable dream (they’re living proof, after all), and answer every-question-you-can-imagine is invaluable. As is getting to learn face-to-face from agents and editors who accept books (maybe even one like yours!) for their livings.

3. As for the complaints about “egos” . . . I don’t see it. I’ve met people I don’t click with, sure. I may have (it’s terrible) even cringed or grimaced inwardly a time or two on behalf of a cornered agent or author, yep. But people are people wherever you go. The great, the bad, the meh—they’re everywhere. And for what it’s worth, I think writing conferences having a higher per ratio capacity of hilarious, generous, kind, and witty people than most public groupings. The feeling of community and camaraderie is almost the whole reason I go. I work alone day after day all year (Yay for the Internet, but that’s an aside). Even the most reclusive of us benefit from and need human company sometimes.

4. Four days of conferencing and sushilizing does not, in anyway, take away from my productivity. I write almost every day—and that’s in addition to my business writing, editing, and workshops. Surrey energizes me for a whole year. If I have a day where I feel kind of unmotivated, I look at the calendar and recall the goals I’ve set for the next conference . . . Speaking of which, I’m on track, but not ahead of where I wanted to be by this month, so I should go.

Happy writing, everyone—and if you’re heading out to Surrey this October 22, 23, and 24 for SiWC, let me know.

I’m also interested in any comments about why you love writing workshops or conferences—or really mix things up and tell me why I’m out to lunch and they suck! 😀

~ Ev

Ye Olde Idea Shoppe

Stephen King has said he’s frequently asked where he gets his ideas. He gives slightly varying answers, but one of *my favourites, he attributes to a friend of his: “I buy them at the supermarket.” Now it’s obvious he was being a bit facetious—on some level asking a writer where he/she gets ideas is like asking the moon why it hangs in the sky or where the ocean gets its water. There probably is a perfectly reasonable scientific explanation to the query, but I’ll be darned if I’d ever know how to articulate it. And even the best responses would be destroyed with one further question: why? Why do you get ideas for stories? Why indeed. But I digress. Back to ideas, where they come from, and the ones at grocery stores—oh yes, the grocery store. S.K. and his quoted buddy were speaking partially in jest, but they would agree that the statement is factual.

Story ideas abound in grocery stores. They arrive in the produce section (who hasn’t lifted a big yellow clump of bananas and thought about the huge, hairy spider that might have arrived with the shipment?). They lurk about the deli. Why does man keep standing there like that? Is he going to try to shoplift bulk olives? Does he have a thing for the girl at the counter? Is she his long lost child? They sit in well-ordered rows in the canned foods sections. Do you know what’s in that can of refried beans—the third one back in the middle of the row? Well, do you?

When short on cash, or just not in the mood for a big shop, have no fear. Ideas are everywhere:

In conversation, like when a friend recently expressed his suspicion that the reason there are so many more vaccinations now than when we were kids isn’t disease-prevention at all. It’s a safe guard for world governments worried about over-population. If at anytime they want to cull the population, they just have to press a button and release whatever it is that reacts with whatever injection. Story idea!

In overheard snippets of dialogue. “I can’t believe she’d do that. It’s sickening.” What can’t the speaker believe she’d do? And who’s she? And who, come to think of it, is the speaker? And what’s sickening? How sickening?

In dreams (See, that’s what I’d like to know—forget ideas—where do dreams come from? Come to think of it, a story about where dreams come from would be pretty fascinating!)

In physical work, especially it seems to me, in gardening and yard work.

In doing absolutely nothing (which is why, even when I’m really busy, I strive to have do-nothing time . . . It’s good for your brain).

Even in random personal moments. I bought a full-length formal gown (of all things) two weeks ago. Wearing a dress like that makes you (or makes me, anyway) just feel different. And that made me think of a story idea—what if you walked into a vintage store, tried on an outfit, and suddenly—poof—you were you no longer—or you were, but only in the flesh suit and life of the person who’d owned the apparel you now sported? (Hey, I didn’t say every idea was a good idea.)

Chances are if you’re a writer, you don’t need to find ideas. You need to somehow stop tripping on them as they lift the floorboards late at night. You need to carefully replace the stone you moved only to find another one scuttling beside a centipede. You need to do something, anything, to stifle them, so you don’t lose focus on the ones you’ve already collected and are trying to coax onto the bright white page. You understand full well how ideas just appear, well, everywhere, from nowhere.

My question for people who ask, “Where do you get your ideas?” is this: Don’t you get random weird ideas all the time?

I know that not everyone writes, but it never actually occurred to me that perhaps not everyone is inundated with the what-ifs, questions, and strange observations that spark story ideas. I think I thought that ideas came to everyone, just that some people are compelled to do something with them . . .

* If you happen to know where on earth I read this bit—I want to say it’s in On Writing—could you give me page number? I’d like to give the actual name of the person King attributes it to, and I’d like to confirm how it’s worded. Thanks!