NaNoWriMo as Therapy

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National Novel Writing Month — cheaper than therapy and you get stories out of it.

For real, though. It’s been a therapeutic month for me. In other years, when I’ve seriously pursued my NaNoWriMo 50,000 words, I’ve had one large project to focus on, an actual novel. I filled in my word count with a few smaller pieces of original writing, but had a path already started and more or less went down it.

This time, my goal was to finish the first draft of a novel that was already nearly complete and then write a bunch of short stories and essays. I’m never at a loss for ideas. I always have too many works in progress at any given time, to be honest. I knew a couple of the story ideas I wanted to work out, but hadn’t decided on all of them when I began the month.

Now I’ve completed six new short stories and three essays, two of which are memoir. If you ever want to have your brain talk to you about what your issues are, push yourself to write a bunch of new stuff in a short period of time.

Even though my short fiction pieces all had different settings, themes and characters, looking at them now, I can’t help notice a couple of things I keep inserting in my stories over and over. I love for my characters to rescue vulnerable animals. And food insecurity pops up repeatedly. I know some reasons why this might be.

Then the memoirs. Oh my goodness. I most likely will not share them with anyone ever. At least not without severe redactions. The piece I wrote this week presented me with a major psychological breakthrough. I began writing about one incident from high school, planning to include everything I could remember about it and use it in the future to mine for bits and pieces I could include in other projects. Not too far in, I realized there was a kind of sidebar that needed to be explained for context. Well, the sidebar explanation took over and became the core of the memoir.

In fact, the more I wrote, the more I saw how this thing I was explaining had influenced me. (Sorry to be cryptic. I only want to share the effect and not the details at this time.) I kept believing I was nearly at the end of what I had to say about it, and my brain would nudge me. Dig a little deeper. There’s more. I kept putting words on the page until I had a walloping epiphany about the root of many of my triggers and anxieties. There’s a situation from my formative years that has so obviously informed my life and actions and reactions for decades. But I never consciously realized the extent of it until I wrote it out.

Here’s what I will be open about. My anxiety has been spiraling lately. And now I see how my feelings about current life events are largely reactions to similar past life events. That alone has relieved a lot of the angst and was worth the price of admission.

Writing doesn’t have to be for someone else. Even if you don’t ever want to share a single word you put down, take some time to write for yourself. It’s damned good therapy.

NaNoWriMo Goals, Lagging and Met

Happy cat
This guy is my writing companion, or writing hindrance, depending on his mood.

Once again, I have signed up for National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. I’m a semi-rebel this year. Instead of attempting to write one single new novel, my goal is to reach 50,000 words in thirty days through a mish mash of projects.

Number one on my NaNo to-do list was finish the first draft of the novel I’ve been working on for a year. After that, I hoped to fill out my word count by writing a variety of short stories and essays.

I regret to say, I am lagging badly in word count and might not hit 50,000 this year. I even scheduled time off from my day job for a couple of days at the beginning of the month in order to get ahead early. Then I ended up using part of the time picking up gigs for a side hustle I do, because I need the money. I guess that’s life.

In the good news category, I’m pleased with the goals I have met. I did finish my novel’s first draft. I also have completed one long, rambling memoir/essay, which will need a lot of editing. And I’ve written complete first drafts of two different short fiction stories, both of them turning out better than I had hoped when I started. Even if I don’t “win” the word count, it’s been a great writing month for me.

The novel has a fair amount of dark humor. The short memoir/essay piece has a theme of thumbing one’s nose at “the system.” One of the stories has characters working to save a cat, and the other has characters just trying to eat their lunch, damnitall. So basically, adhering to the “write what you know” adage.

Happy wordsmithing, fellow NaNo participants!

Thoughts on Mary Oliver

Now seems like a good time to repost this. RIP Mary Oliver.

Nomadic Noesis

“And there is the thing that one does, the needle one plies, the work, and within that work a chance to take thoughts that are hot and formless and to place them slowly and with meticulous effort into some shapely heat-retaining form, even as the gods, or nature, or the soundless wheels of time have made forms all across the soft, curved universe…” – Mary Oliver, Upstream

upstream

I’m a big fan of Mary Oliver’s writing. She makes connections, or rather shows connections, that are not obvious on the surface. Her descriptions of nature do more than make you want to re-read the passage. They make you want to go see the world for yourself and then re-read the passage. Her poems are bereft of sentimentality, but full of mindful observation. And I can guarantee there’s some sweat behind those words.

Here’s the thing about writing poetry — it takes work…

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A Word About Redemption Stories

I love a redemption story as much as anyone. But there are certain necessary elements — remorse, concern for people who may have been hurt, an attempt to make amends, a change in behavior going forward. If those pieces are missing, it’s not a redemption arc. It’s a story of a stunted character trying to shirk responsibility.

Patricia Highsmith is the only author that immediately comes to mind who successfully made a character like this the main focus of her stories. Usually, a character of this nature would have a starring role only as an antagonist to the hero. And if said character gains power, that’s not evidence of redemption. That’s just upping the stakes.

Yes, these thoughts were prompted by current events.

 

My Favorite Authors Pitch Their First Pages

I recently sat in a “First Page Reads” session where two agents, an editor and a creative writing professor collaborated to Gong Show writers on their work. Writers were instructed to submit anonymously the first page of a work of fiction. A moderator read each work aloud, while the panel of four followed along from printed copies, stopping the show when one of them found a spot where they would quit reading if the piece were submitted to them for publication.

Writers were expecting constructive feedback on the entire first page. But for the vast majority, it was only some snarky comment after a sentence or two, with the rest of the page not even being read. And it was all done with an air of this is the one right and true viewpoint. Also, without any positives to balance the negatives, or remarks about what was working on the page. This is a major peeve of mine, seeing aspiring writers bullied and discouraged by those who could be helping and encouraging them.

crumpled paper on gray surface

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I’ve had enough work published, and experienced enough legitimate editing and critique to be able to put the “feedback” in context and not take it to heart. But I could see this wasn’t true for some other participants. Attendees who entered the room buzzing with optimistic anticipation left an hour later looking defeated. At least one was muttering about giving up entirely. Well done, panelists! I can’t believe I paid money for that experience.

And here’s the thing. For every work they scathingly lambasted based on only a couple of sentences, I could think of a book I loved that would not have passed their muster. I imagined some of my favorite authors pitching first pages to this group.

You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.

“That’s enough, Mr. Twain. We don’t need to hear more. So much wrong in one sentence. The character speaks directly to the reader. Just no. Fiction is never written in second person. And the over the top dialect. Nobody has the energy to read that for an entire book. Stick to mainstream English. You know, how regular people (people like us) talk. Next!”

Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide.

“Stop, stop, stop. Ms. Hurston, you’re giving the reader no idea what this book is about or even whether a character is going to appear any time soon. This is mere philosophical meandering, not a story. Show us some action. Next!”

“To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth.”

“Mr. Steinbeck, did no instructor ever tell you not to open with weather? You never start a story talking about weather. It’s simply not done. Next!”

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much.

“Hold up. You’re telling, not showing, Ms. Rowling. Next!”

“To be born again,” sang Gibreel Farishta tumbling from the heavens, “first you have to die.”

“The first words of a narrative should never be dialogue, Mr. Rushdie. Next!”

So there you go. Put the literary world in the hands of this panel and we would have none of these wonderful works.

I hope the writers in the room who looked so downcast will come to realize this. I hope they will realize they are in excellent company.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Worst Poem I Ever Heard

Poetry Books

Credit: brewbooks. I’m sure their poetry reading was fabulous, unlike the one I’m describing.

I wish I’d said something, after the reading. I wish I’d approached the esteemed professor, though I was a young nobody, not even one of his students. I wish I’d had the nerve to tell him You’re not so enlightened. I wish I’d said to the those heaping praise on him That was some messed up crap. Sometimes I wish I’d shouted out in the middle, while he was still at the mic. I wish I’d booed while others were politely clapping.

The poetry reading was memorable, I’ll give him that. It was the late 80s or early 90s. My blood still boils decades later.

He read a serial killer poem, but not really a serial killer poem. It was about Ted Bundy, in particular, but not really about Ted Bundy. It was about a woman who had a conversation with Ted Bundy without being abducted, but it wasn’t about that, either.

The poet spun a verse about a fat girl who later discovers her girth made her an unattractive target. But think about it. How would she find that out? The poet thought he could get in the head of this young woman he called a girl, whom he referred to as a fat girl. He related her thoughts to us as he divined them — how being a fat girl (and by extrapolation unattractive, joyless, unfulfilled in life because nobody would date her) had only been a curse until that fateful day. But upon realizing her hideous visage (not his words as I remember, but the meaning behind his words as I remember) of fat had saved her, she becomes happy with her looks, for the very first time in her miserable existence. Again, I’m pretty sure miserable existence was not his exact phrase, but was his exact meaning.

At the end, some of us sat stony-faced, unclapping. At least there was that. I hope someone said something to him, showed him the many layers of wrong upon wrong in his poem. A colleague, a nephew, a daughter — someone who could make him listen. I hope he came to know. I hope he never published that poem. I hope he never again read it aloud. I hope he burned that poem. I hope he now carries around ashes of regret for having ever written it.