Tag Archives: practice

A full moat versus a network of canals

The working (creative) writer: allocating resources for residency and beyond

The glories of a sand castle lie in its walls... and moat system. CC image Sandcastle Competition courtesy of Victoria Pickering on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

The glories of a sand castle lie in its walls… and moat system. CC image Sandcastle Competition courtesy of Victoria Pickering on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

I grew up near the coast, the child of two beach lovers. My childhood summer memories are filled with sand and salt, the smell of sunblock and the roaring sound of the surf as it crashed ashore. I was especially devoted to two activities at the beach: spending as much time in the water as possible, which included boogie-boarding, getting knocked on my butt, and general frolicking; and building sand castles. The number one feature of any good sand castle, in my view, aside from perfectly shaped towers that didn’t immediately crumble and collapse when I removed the bucket, was the moat.

The moat had to be filled with seawater to be truly special and worthwhile; the more of the moat we could fill with water, the better the moat and the more successful the sand castle. You could fill up the moat by hand, running back and forth from the surf with a bucket, but this method was time-consuming, tiring, and in the final analysis, futile. The water would always drain away, through the sand at the bottom of the moat (nicely porous) and/or via the front of the moat crumbling in the direction of the sea. Much more satisfying was building your sand castle and moat in such a way that the sea itself would fill the moat for you — via incoming waves.

Building a sand castle so that the ocean fills the moat for you is an exercise in basic planning and engineering. The castle needs to be close enough to a certain percentage of waves so that the moat can fill, but far enough from the pounding surf to last (every castle eventually succumbs to the sea; the question is only when, and in terms of Child Time, “long” is a flexible concept). To do this, you need to take into account whether the tide is going out, or coming in, and whether you have sibling helpers or obstructionists, or if everyone is going competitively solo. You have to plan your resources: for instance, there are a finite number of buckets and shovels for creating towers and moving sand. You have to accept that some parameters are beyond the builder’s control (the surf; your siblings; people who walk around not paying attention).

The same can be true of preparing for a writer’s residency: planning and preparation meet resource considerations and the reality of limitations on the writer’s ability to control all circumstances.

Why my residency is like a sand castle

When I first realized that my residency was real — not only had I been accepted, but I would be able to go — I immediately thought about how to best use the time I had to prepare. So many thoughts and ideas around the residency swirled through my head, I embarked on a weekly blog posting commitment to address my personal experience and share information that could be useful to other writers. I jumped in without much forward planning but a lot of ambition — the equivalent of pouncing on the first sand castle site available on the shoreline, without considering the number one rule of real estate: location, location, location.

I also didn’t count how many shovels and buckets I had available, and I ignored the reality of other life circumstances that place limits on my time.

As a result I can see a gap now of four weeks since my last blog post. Dear reader, in all this time, I have been writing… a lot. I have been writing every day. I have pages and pages full of notes, queries to myself, scenes and expository sequences. I meet and then exceed my word count. My story is starting to knit together and thrive under my devoted attention. I didn’t so much forget about my blog commitment, as realize that I had a bigger, more important commitment to attend to first.

Which brings me to the moat

When designing a moat for your sand castle, you can go for simple, a ditch that surrounds the outside perimeter, or you can opt for a complex network of canals and tributaries, feeding one another from the main moat. I’ve seen people with gorgeous sand castle canals, forking networks around complicated series of turrets, sometimes with an inner moat as well as an outer one. I’ve tried to build a few of these myself.

The trouble with fancy canal systems is that they require much more, and more regular, water. I’m sure an engineer and math enthusiast could calculate water volume, but in practice the relative amount of water is the key. You are dealing with a structure perched at the edge of the incoming or outgoing tide. The water will drain away unless replenished. If you have a big, deep moat, you can get by with more infrequent waves. Complicated networks of canals require more regular feeding, and are subject to increased decay because of the destructive force of the incoming water.

That’s how I currently feel about focusing on my residency manuscript at the expense of weekly blog posts. The blog posts are the complicated network of canals that require regular feeding; they siphon off water (creative energy and time) from the larger project. If I can pour more energy, in a concentrated amount of time, into my manuscript, I am better off than diverting all my resources into a network of shallow canals that require greater upkeep but produce less lasting results.

I think this is only natural. Larger projects demand larger amounts of our time. We have to engage with them in a different way from smaller, bite-sized responsibilities. Don’t be afraid to make a commitment.

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When was the last time you gave yourself permission to focus on one big idea?

Make writing exercises work for you

or: Life after the exercise (pre-residency Week 2)

This post continues with Week 2 in a series of posts on topics that relate to writer’s residencies. I started at Week 1, and am counting up. You can find Week 3 here.

child playing around on piano keys

Practice meets play. CC image “piano practice” by woodleywonderworks on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Writing exercises are billed as a way to break through writer’s block, and a way to greater creativity if we are stuck in a rut or a theme. Be loose! writing exercises always tell us. Let it flow!

I’ve sometimes wondered what happens to all those writing exercises once we are done with them. I imagine them as a sort of Dr. Seuss creature, fluffy and green, being left at the side of the road and abandoned after the cuteness has worn off. So sad.

I’m not alone with this question. A blog post I recently read on Writer’s Digest makes the same point. Most of these exercises end up on dusty little fragments of paper or perhaps digital files that get lost in our computer’s file structure. They accumulate in corners until we forget about them, and if we happen to discover them eons hence, we often throw them out like trash. Is this really the wretched fate that awaits every writing exercise? Are they always only our creative trash?

Writing exercises as a tool

I’ve been thinking about writing exercises recently because ironically, since I’ve started working on my project for the writer’s residency, I’ve done very little writing. I am knee-deep in research. My writing takes the form of notes; I haven’t tinkered with the draft manuscript once I started pulling sources. Noticing this, I wondered if writing exercises might be useful.

Writing is a skill that improves with practice, like playing the piano. The more you practice, the more you can play (see more about this in my post on writing warmups). I don’t want to be all rusty and cold when I do start writing again on this manuscript. Plus, short creative writing exercises can be great fun (the billing ain’t all hype). Last week I tried one with nouns and verbs. My favorite sentence from that exercise is: “The toadstool listens to the conversations of the ants as they pass by.”

Yay! Fun! (You can’t steal it though; it’s mine.)

However, while practicing is great, eventually, I want to play Beethoven and Chopin. Or, in this case, I want a finished manuscript, dammit.

Use the tool for a specific purpose

Can writing exercises be more than fluffy green creatures we abandon for the Next Big Thing? More specifically, can I use writing exercises to bootstrap my way forward on the draft of my novel, instead of throwing them in the dustbin?

For the next month, I’m going to test these questions out on my own writing. My premise is that yes, I can use the material that comes out of writing exercises for my bigger, specific project… IF I structure the exercises correctly, and I do a small amount of pre-exercising. I don’t want to plan what I’m going to write — that would go against every tenet of free-form exercises to begin with — I want to be intentional about how I write.

The Writer’s Digest article suggests a number of questions to guide the development of writing exercises. Because my creative life is circling the residency right now, I am going in a slightly different direction.

The plan

I’m going to set up a 2-week alternating schedule. In the first week of the pair, I’m going to commit to doing a writing exercise (preferably short), one day a week, Monday through Friday. In doing the exercise, I am going to keep my project, the characters, the setting, and the main point of tension, in mind. I’ll allow myself to not have to write about these aspects EVERY single exercise, though I do want to be thinking about them.

In the second week, I’ll revisit the exercises I wrote in week one, with a view to taking one of the following two steps:

  1. incorporating the writing exercise into a scene or narrative I’ve already written or sketched out;
  2. re-writing a scene or narrative, using part of the writing exercise as the backbone or central point.

This will give me two sets of writing exercise development to work with in March.

Rules of engagement: writing exercises should be kept brief (~500 words), as should the scenes I am writing or re-writing (<1000 words). Time spent on the exercises in both weeks should not exceed half an hour each day. The point is I want to use quick bursts of writing to keep me in touch with both my writing muscles and my story development, while I am involved in background research. I want to avoid sinking into a self-critical/editorial morass.

I’ll report back here after the month is up with my thoughts on the practice — has my premise proven to be correct? Can writing exercises “recycled,” as it were, instead of falling onto the creative landfill?

If anyone wants to test out this way of playing with writing exercises, I’d love to hear about your experience! Feel free to modify the outline so that the work suits your goals, and report back here if you feel like doing so. Here’s to keeping our craft fresh, our writing out of landfills, and our stories in the forefront of our minds.

You Must Submit! (to doing your art)

Yes, we’ve got a theme here

lego figure under a glass

Trapped by art! CC image Help! courtesy of fisserman on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

For those of you who saw my last post about submitting (sending out our work to be judged… I mean, for consideration to be published or made public), the topic clearly has more to offer. For one, we didn’t talk about actually making the art.

(Yes, I do things backwards sometimes.)

We think about our art in relation to other people. We want to share our work (at some point). We want to know what other people think (nice things). We think about it being finished.

Every time I think about submitting my work, I feel a mental nod coming on. Yes, that’s a good idea. I should. I want to.

After all, that’s how people are going to read it, right?

Right.

Followed by more irrefutable logic: I will never be published [by anyone other than myself] if I don’t ever submit my work.

Once I sit down to actually, physically take on the task of submission, a lot changes.

I’m not nodding anymore. I’m fighting.

Resistance, in fact, sweeps over me like a hurricane. The winds lash me, the rains drench me, I’m afraid I’m about to be swept away. The best I can do is hunker down and wait for the storm to subside. Then I walk around gingerly, on tip toe, for a while. I don’t want to rouse the demons yet again.

Sound familiar?

Submitting and writing are not the same thing

Art first needs to be made. This submission concept is really frou-frou, like frosting on brownies. Before the frosting can go anywhere, we need to bake brownies. Then we can agonize about what flavor frosting we want.

The act of making the piece, or even editing the piece, is separate from the submission storm, although the storm does bring up writing debris.

The making brings up its own resistance.

Say I am not even thinking about making a submission. I am working on a first draft. Better yet, I’ve just had an idea, and am running down the track after my idea, trying to determine what species it is, what habitat it likes, whether the idea wants the shade or a river, what it likes to eat, and if it prefers the pen or the computer. Even here, I have to deal with a storm of resistance. And dealing with resistance here is much more of a dicey proposition than at the submission stage. If I wrestle too much at the source, I’ll be distracted with my struggle while the idea gets away.

Hop-hop-hop. Nothing doing. Do you know this dance?

Resistance is everywhere

The siren voices of resistance at the writing stage are the usual menagerie of rabid self-judgments. A selection: This is awful. Where is this going? You can’t say that… So-and-so [famous, published and wealthy] would never say that. So-and-so is better than you.  That’s why So-and-so is published, and you’re not.

Sometimes the eye-rolling pedant in me gets a word in edgewise. Example: I also won’t get published if I never WRITE anything until the end…

Storm voice: Maybe that’s the way it should be. No one wants to read drivel.

Then there is the distraction ploy. For example: I’m hungry. My ankle itches. Listen, I haven’t done laundry in a week and I’m running out of socks.

Finally, lest we forget, there is resistance posing as the voice of logic. Actually, this isn’t the best time to be doing this (writing). You should prep for that meeting. Or wash your hair. This isn’t a quiet spot. You’re going to be interrupted. What a waste of your flow! You’ll get started and then disturbed right at the crucial moment. What about going somewhere else? You should choose a quieter time of day. You should choose a more secluded location. You should sit in a chair that doesn’t turn you into the Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Dear Reader, do you recognize this mess? Do you feel familiar with the scenarios I have just sketched for you? Fear not — I have a diagnosis.  The sickness is this:

You aren’t submitting (to your art).
I am not submitting (to my art).

And we must, or we’re never going to be happy. Screw fame, publication, and wealth. Let’s back up to the first step. We’re never going to get out of this loony bin the way we’re going. We are bouncing off the walls: look at us!

This is important— no matter what else we do, we must always, always, always submit to our art.

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What happens when you don’t submit?

The Myth of Originality

"Wanted" poster featuring hero of Life of Brian

CC image courtesy of dangerismycat on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

There is an unforgettable scene from Monty Python’s The Life of Brian, in which Brian addresses a crowd of people.

Brian: You are all individuals!
Crowd (in chorus): We are all individuals!
B: You are all different!
C: We are all different!
Bystander: I’m not–
C: Shhhh!!

For anyone working in creative industries — or, let’s face it, technology — there is an incredible pressure to produce something new, original, unique… and the problem then becomes, is there, in fact, anything new under the sun? Or are we all just working on a better mousetrap?

Influence versus Imitation

In the history of literature (or music, or movies, or TV shows), how many love stories or coming-of-age stories have already been written? In the smaller universe of personal development and self-help, how many different ways can we think of to say “No fear!” and “Trust!” and “Try!”? How many rock songs or blues songs or operas already exist? How many pianists are brilliant and how many artists know how to paint or to sculpt or to draw or to photograph?

I’m a member of several online music communities. In addition to the specific musicians in whose name(s) the communities have been created, members often discuss other musicians whose music they enjoy. These other musicians might have taken a lot of musical influences from Musician or Musicians A. Periodically, community members would get into vociferous disputes with each other about these other musicians, and whether the musical similarities (outlined in technical detail according to each arguer’s musical instrument of choice) were really just INFLUENCES, or if the musicians were actually IMITATING Musician A, without contributing anything unique or original of their own.

These were scorched-earth battles, and I saw a lot of them rage online over the years. Occasionally the situation would become so extreme that one or all arguers would be banned from the online community or would leave in a huff of their own accord, spewing profanities.

The question began innocently enough in each individual’s mind, and is close to my own mind today: what is originality? Can we define it? Shouldn’t we strive for it?  … Or, as I increasingly believe, is originality the wrong goal to aim at?

“Be yourself; everyone else is already taken”

Artists often struggle with this. Influence and inspiration have a central place in the development of any artist. We all started by admiring the work of others. When we began, our influences could sometimes be painfully clear. In my early days of story-obsession, I just about oozed Mary Higgins Clark. I had no difficulty answering the question, “Who’s your favorite author?” Neither did anyone else.

We are influenced by our predecessor artists, just as I for a time strove to write mysteries and thrillers featuring a plucky heroine facing personal challenges. Sometimes, we consciously copy our inspirations. Both forms of practicing our art are valid.

On the other hand, as Oscar Wilde points out with his trademark razor-sharp wit, it’s no good trying to be them.

We already have a Hemingway, a Charlotte Brontë, a George R.R. Martin, and a Maeve Binchy.

If I simply rewrite what Stephen King wrote, no one’s ever going to remember any of my work. They’ll (rightly) remember Stephen King. I might even help them to remember him. But am I not doing a disservice to my audience?

What if my audience is there for me?

I went to a meeting of the local chapter of the National Speakers Association this month. The keynote speaker told the audience: “Nobody is there to hear your content. Even if you are a content speaker. I’m sorry, they can find that for five dollars on Amazon, or for free on Google. They aren’t there to hear your content. They are there for your performance.”

Setting up a new goal

Which is why people who like love stories or coming-of-age stories will continue to read the new stories of this kind that we create… even though they’ve read other stories before. This is why people who love paintings or sculpture or photography will seek out more, although they’ve seen other photographs, paintings, and sculptures. It’s why people still listen to music, although they’ve heard other music before.

The question then, isn’t about originality. The question is, what is it about me that I can bring to my art?

That’s what we are here for.

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Do you struggle with being “original” in your art?

Words like to hang out together

using language chunks to our advantage in speaking and writing

statue of a jester in avon England

Listen to my words! CC image “Stratford Upon Avon” courtesy of Jig O’Dance on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

A couple of months ago, at Voice & Speech class, I asked about a tricky thing regarding my first speech as a Toastmaster: The Icebreaker Speech.

I was trying to figure out how to balance the need to practice my speech and know it well, with the desire to maintain spontaneity and engagement, and fluidity while I was presenting it — in other words, I wanted it to sound effortless, but not rehearsed.

My teacher pointed out that that was very much acting… what an actor would do. She encouraged me to keep the following in mind in working with this situation:

At first read-through, we know a piece pretty well.  As we continue to memorize it, she said, we all go through a patch of badness, where we just tank. She referenced the experience of voice-over artists, who usually hit badness when they’re asked to do too many takes of the same piece. There is a line where repetition becomes too much… but, she insisted, if we persist through the badness and continue working with the material, we will come out the other side, knowing the text much better and having left the badness behind.

So, number one, persist through the badness.

On a mechanical level, for practice, my teacher suggested breaking down the speech by taking the whole thing, if I’d written the presentation out in full sentences, and:

  • breaking the sentences into phrases
  • breaking the phrases down into bullets

Then practicing the speech using the bullets only.  As a species of mile marker. Until (theoretically) I could discard the bullets (I haven’t gotten that comfortable yet).

We all think that we speak in full sentences, she said, but in fact, no one does. We speak in chunks.

Linguists call this “lexical chunking” and you can read an interesting article about it here. (If you’re a real linguistic nerd, like me, you might enjoy the video discussion between McWhorter and Zimmer, here.) Lexical chunking has become a big part of the discussion in language learning and teaching, because harnessing the way our brains naturally process language should provide advantages over memorizing vocabulary lists (remember that, anyone? those pop quizzes were the best).

A lot of what the casually interested reader can find when googling “lexical chunks” pertains to language learning, specifically learning English as a second language. This deals mostly with spoken language. A lot of the rest of what the reader will find has to do with reading, or processing written language. We don’t read word for word, either. In both cases the argument is that “chunking” enhances the ease of our understanding. The theoretical underpinning to this argument rests on the role and limitations of short-term memory. At its most basic: we don’t have much room in short-term memory, so multi-word language units that come as a prepackaged whole mean less work for the brain.

Hooray, less work! As far as my speech was concerned, chunking should provide advantages both for me, who was trying to remember everything I wanted to say, as well as for my audience, who I hoped would understand and remember my speech!

The other good news about my Toastmasters presentations is that I have leeway with my choice of words. Unlike actors working with a script, I don’t have to hit the same exact lines every time, as long as I keep the sense of the talk where it should be. Instead, I can focus on persisting through the badness, keeping my eyes on the mile markers.

Language chunks at work.

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What are your tricks for remembering what you want to say? Does writing your ideas down hurt or help you?