Creativity

Every so often I come across a writer who rocks my world so profoundly I want to share him/her with everyone I meet. So, if you’ve met me in the past few weeks, you’ve probably been told to read Connie Willis.

Add J. Ruth Gendler to that list of must reads, especially if you’re a writer/artist/person engaged in creative activities. I started with Changing Light: The Eternal Cycle of Night and Day. It’s a collection of stories, poems, and artwork engaging the times of change during the day, those times when people used to stop and pray because, without clocks, it was obvious that something eternal and mysterious was happening in the natural world. Twilight. Night. Dawn. Day. Sunset. This book completely changed how I think about transition points in my day, waking up, beginning my work, my son’s arrival home and the change in energy that accompanies him, meals, bedtime (both my son’s and mine). It’s really awesome, includes lots of Rumi (lovelovelove Rumi) and other gorgeous poetry that if nothing else, will bring you out of your daily life and into connection with the world.

I didn’t think Gendler could have done any better. Then I read The Book of Qualities. The Qualities are things like Beauty, Truth, Criticism, Shock, Resignation, Joy. If you’ve ever been in a writing seminar where you’ve been told to write about something in a completely new way and you think you’ve done a decent job, consider how Gendler describes the quality of Suffering:

“Suffering teaches philosophy on a part-time basis. She likes the icy days in February when she can stay home from school, make thick soups, and catch up on her reading. With her white skin and dark hair she even looks like winter. She has a slender face and dramatic cheekbones.

Suffering’s reputation troubles her. Certain people adore her and talk about her as if knowing her gives them a special status. Other people despise her; when they see her in the supermarket, they look the other way. Even though Suffering is considered a formidable instructor, she is actually quite compassionate. She feels lonely around students who dislike her. It is even more painful to be around those who idealize her. She is proud only because she recognizes the value of her lessons.” (pg 31)

Um. Wow. Okay, so I’m done for the day. My brain just went “pop!” and hear that rumble, that barely noticeable sound of the earth’s crust shifting? My world…rocked. In two short paragraphs she’s dropped words like “formidable” and “dramatic” while talking about “thick soups” and “supermarket”. She grounded Suffering in the everyday, the mundane while revealing the timelessness of the experience. I got the sense that my brain was richoceting around in my head, trying to keep up with image after image that rang true. Because haven’t we all looked away in the face of obvious suffering? And, maybe less frequently but no less true, haven’t we all recognized the value of suffering after the fact? It’s brilliant, and there are about 50 more Qualities.

I’m in love with this book. I don’t often feel like I need several copies of a book, just in case I can’t ever get one again. You know. Because that might happen. But I want to order four or five more copies, hoard them and yet give them away to people I know might also feel just a bit shattered by them.

And now, I have to write.

The Plot Stick

Megan Hart calls it the “Boom Boom Pow”. I call it “all the stuff that happens when my characters are talking and interacting and having sex  and falling in love”. Whatever you call it, the plot stick whacked me but good at the playground today. Something about sitting in the sun while my kid and a buddy played in the sand…or maybe it was just time. You see, the plot stick got me not for the story I’m revising right now, but for something I roughed out back in…March? April? Somewhere in there the book stopped working so I it set aside in that version and came at the same idea from a different angle. Wrote a different story, and made that work…and oh how I loooooooove how it worked, then dug into a book from two years ago to work up into a proposal and…

BOOM BOOM POW.

I’m a big believer in giving stories space and time. I have no idea why this story, an idea six months old and near and dear to my heart, is starting to resurface now. All I know is the first BOOM, the one I needed to get it going again, hit me last night while I was reading some Shannon McKenna. Add about sixteen hours of gestation time and some utterly mindless housework and I got the full-on BOOMBOOMPOW at the playground. Filled a whole page in my journal with dialogue snippets and ideas and what ifs.

Two weeks ago I felt like I’d never write anything decent again, much less WANT to write anything again, and now I’ve got a proposal all but ready to send to my crit partner and the second draft of something smacking me in the head with a broomstick and the next story, the story I want to write so badly I can taste it but is only in research phase so it’s gonna have to wait a while, 2-3 months, be patient baby, dancing around in my brain.

Awesome. It will pass, of course, just as the dry spells did – write anyway, it’s what you do when you’re a writer, but for now…boomboompow.

Awesome.

Reading, Reading, Always Reading

We will NOT discuss the failure to make progress towards the stickk.com weight loss goal.

Read a couple of books this week. I liked Doomsday Book so much I got Lincoln’s Dreams from the library. It was equally superb, and triggered some possibilities for a project I’m working on at the moment. I’ve been on my library’s wait list for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo for a couple of months, and that arrived on Tuesday. That was awesome, a really fantastic read, and nicely complicated – a serial killer thriller mixed with sharply drawn character analyses. I read it in one night – good stuff. I’m eagerly anticipating the arrival of The Girl Who Played With Fire.

Speaking of the library, my city councilman, who has suspect politics to begin with and is clearly not a reader, actually questioned the necessity of libraries, “given that pretty soon everyone will be reading everything online”. I have two problems with this statement. First, we’re doing all right financially, but there is no way I can afford to buy all the books I want to read in a year. Low income students for whom books are a true luxury need the library even more than I do. And second, as an e-pubbed author, the councilman’s statement smacks of a misunderstanding I’ve encountered all too often, that “online” = “free”. Yes, you do have to pay for books you find online. If you’re downloading copies from file sharing websites, you’re stealing (and I’m guessing this guy is “hard on crime”). I was waiting for my son after school and got to talking with another mom about the Kindle. She said she thought about buying one (kind of like it was the latest fashion accessory – did it come in pink?) but didn’t when she found out she still had to pay for books. I wanted to say, “Yes, you do, because even if you read them on an ereader, I still had to work to write the book, as did Dan Brown and Nora Roberts and everyone else who writes what you like to read.”

/end rant

What else? Hmmmm….trying to write, be with my kid, deal with the Incredible Snapping Garage Door Spring, read, feed people, the usual. Yeah, the writing thing. I’m working on it. Working, reading, working, reading, always working, always reading.

Fun with Websites

We spent the long weekend visiting family, and as a result I am completely uninterested in work today. Today feels like a perfect day to take a nap under the tree in the back yard. It’s sunny, breezy and about 80 degrees here. Perfect.

But I’m also a new devotee of stickk.com, a website where you can set goals, find “referees” to hold you accountable, and set “stakes” to encourage you to stick to your goals. I set a goal for weight loss; my pants are getting a bit tight and I’m completely opposed to buying new pants. My bellwether for weight is a pair of jeans I bought in Vegas 2 years ago. They cost $80, an insane, hideous amount of money (I usually buy jeans at the Goodwill for $5) but my butt looked SO good in these jeans, I had to have them. Outgrowing them is not an option. I tried Weight Watchers, but when my husband decided he needed to lose weight, too, and began counting calories in a simple Excel spreadsheet, I ditched WW and went to stickk.com.

My goal’s pretty simple – to lose 6 lbs in 8 weeks. My referee is my husband, and the stakes are modest, yet meaningful. If I lose 3/4s of a pound each week, my husband gives me $10 towards the Kindle fund. If I don’t lose 3/4s of a pound…I give my husband $10 out of money earned from writing, which is a small enough amount that I’m not going to waste $10 of it on hamburgers when my favorite pair of jeans is getting snug in the first place.

I’m pleased to report progress! I lost 1 lb last week, and the Excel spreadsheet now includes +10 in the Kindle fund column. If you really want to up the stakes, you can authorize stickk.com to charge your credit card for whatever amount you determine if you don’t meet your goal. The friend who told me about stickk.com is trying to lose 50 lbs. If he doesn’t meet his weekly goal, that week stickk.com charges his credit card for a donation of $50 to a charity he finds completely repugnant. Talk about motivating!

For you writers out there, stickk.com is a great way to monitor and hold yourself accountable for goals. 1 page a day. 10 pages a week. Finish revisions by 10/31/09. Rough out storyboard. Send 3 query letters by 12/31/09. Select conference and register by the end of the week. All of these are specific, measurable goals within your control, perfect for monitoring via stickk.com.You don’t have to include financial repercussions if you miss your target, but they certainly motivate you to stay on track.

What’s your goal? Try stickk.com to help you achieve it!

Dreams

Just before waking this morning I had a very strange dream, involving door-to-door salesmen who wanted to rob us. They were arrested by a bike patrol police officer (complete with regulation yellow polo shirt) then we all ended up on a commercial jet plane: me, My Hero, Small Boy, the cop, the robbers, and two of our friends who were piloting the plane.

But the plane wouldn’t stay in the air. We kept having to touch down in big fields or on highways cleared for us. I was very tense (I could feel my body, my hands and arms, tensed in real life), sitting in my seat, watching the pilot and thinking of all the things he should be doing to get the plane in the air. I finally got my kid off the plane and started marching away.

I’m not sure what this means. I think it has something to do with being in the very early stages of a new book, one that’s really going to stretch me. Getting it “off the ground” is like getting a big plane off the ground…struggling for lift, for that flow of air over and under the wings that makes it possible to defy gravity. Which is really what writing’s all about. Writers defy gravity, in so many ways.

But the  walking away…that’s different. That’s me giving up on expecting someone else to get my plane in the air, and maybe giving up on their idea of “plane” as well. Maybe all I can do is run through a field, my arms outstretched, making plane noises. But that’s my own power…a smaller plane, soaring only in my own imagination, under my own power.

Time to work.

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

People recommend books to me all the time. It’s part of the job, swapping “Have you read”s with other writers, your editor, siblings, friends, total strangers you meet while waiting for your son to finish rehearsal. I recommended Sarum to someone who just finished Pillars of the Earth but got no return recommendation, which was probably just as well, because my editor recommended Doomsday Book as one of her all-time favorite, I’d-take-it-to-a-desert-island reads.

I got it from the library (and anyone who thinks that libraries are going to go away because of the prominence of e-books is wrong, just wrong) and read half of it yesterday. I woke up this morning thinking about the characters (haven’t done that since My Hero and I watched The Wire in a month-long marathon Netflix session during which we did nothing else except feed ourselves and go to work) and finished it this afternoon (my reward for writing 5 pages). It’s amazing. One of the best books I have ever read. Funny, heart-breakingly sad, interesting, incredibly detailed yet fast-paced (this, despite being 435 pages long and printed in freakin’ 8 point font, or smaller), and truly frightening given its subject matter and the recent H1N1 viral outbreak.

It’s an incredible achievement, easily the best fiction book I’ve read all year, no doubt in the top five best books I’ve ever read. Read it. You won’t regret it.

Friday Fun and a Review!

Arwen Lynch did a fun tarot reading for Hunter. Stop by and check it out!

Jazlyn Johanssen over at The Romance Studio gave Liberating Lacey Five Hearts! She says, in part, “Liberating Lacey is a gem of a contemporary story. Both Lacey and Hunter are vulnerable, real, three-dimensional characters that leap off the page. The dialogue between them is tender and filled with heaps of emotional and sexual tension. Adding an additional element of realism are the secondary characters, who are all crafted in such a way as to bring out elements of the hero and heroine that we wouldn’t otherwise get to see. Ms. Calhoun’s voice is fresh and imaginative, delightful in the depth of description and in the range of emotional connection between the characters.”

Thanks, Jazlyn!

Dialogue…Of Sorts

Verbatim conversation at the dinner table tonight:

Me: Did we ever see A Room with a View?

My Hero: Who was in it?

Me: Helena Bonham Carter and Maggie Smith.

MH: Who?

Me: Maggie Smith. She was the House leader for Gryffindor.

MH: Doesn’t help me at all. Was she in Northern Exposure?

Me: No! That’s Janine Turner. She played Maggie something or other.

MH: Well, anything with Helena Bonham Carter in it has to be good.

Me: You just like her because she strips in most of her movies.

MH: She does?

Me: *eye roll* She played the crazy one in Harry Potter.

MH: Beatrice LeStrange.

Me: Bellatrix LeStrange and how you can remember that but not eggs and milk at the grocery store is beyond me.

MH: *big grin*

Me: You just like them crazy.

MH: *laughs* I like them crazy, and curvy.

Me: We’re a good fit, then.

Laura Ingalls Wilder and Reading

I was on vacation last week so I bought Oprah’s magazine for the plane and read this fabulous article/essay about Marie Howe and her daughter discovering the Little House on the Prairie books during the tough times of last fall and winter. Howe hadn’t read the books as a child so she was discovering the Ingalls’ story with her daughter. I’d read the entire series many times as a child, and I still have my set on my bookshelves today.

Howe’s adult experience with the books mirrors my own. With each rereading I read of the Ingalls’ trials and tribulations and humbled by the quiet grace with which they meet each new challenge. I tear up every time Pa returns after weeks or months away, earning money for his family after a bad crop or hard winter. I really tear up when I read about Laura’s delight over simple Christmas gifts – an orange, a penny, a tin cup. So sweet…and so sadly strange.

But when I recently reread These Happy Golden Years, telling the story of Laura and Almanzo falling in love, this passage really struck me. At fifteen Laura’s begun teaching school away from home to help bring her sister Mary home for the summer. She’s boarding with a really unpleasant family, scared and lonely. Her beau, Almanzo drives twenty-four miles round trip to bring her home on Friday afternoons and twenty-four miles round trip to take her back to school on Sundays. She’s told him he doesn’t need to do this (she’s shy and intimidated – he’s 10 years older and a homesteader). But he comes anyway…

While Almanzo was driving her out to the Brewsters’ that afternoon she thanked him for taking her home that week.

“No need for thanks,” he said. “You knew I would.”

“Why, no, I didn’t,” she answered honestly.

“What do you take me for?” he asked. “Do you think I’m the kind of fellow that’d leave you out there at Brewster’s when you’re so homesick, just because there’s nothing in it for me?”

“Why, I…” Laura stopped. The truth was that she had never thought much about what kind of person he was. He was so much older; he was a homesteader.

“To tell you the whole truth,” he said, “I was in two minds about risking that trip. I figured all week I’d drive out for you, but when I looked at the thermometer I came pretty near deciding against it.” [The temperature had dropped to well below -40 degrees and they were riding in an open horse-drawn cutter.]

“Why didn’t you?” Laura asked.

“Well, I was starting out in the cutter, and I pulled up in front of Fuller’s to look at the thermometer. The mercury was all down in the bulb, below forty, and the wind blowing colder every minute. Just then Cap Garland came by. He saw me there, ready to go out to Brewster’s for you, and looking at the thermometer. So he looked at it, and you know how he grins? Well, as he was going on into Fuller’s, he just said to me over his shoulder, ‘God hates a coward.'”

“So you came because you wouldn’t take a dare?” Laura asked.

“No, it wasn’t a dare,” Almanzo said. “I just figured he was right.”

That’s about the best description of a hero I’ve ever read…selfless, right-minded, doing what he knows is right despite severe obstacles. No bragging, no grandstanding, just simple honesty and integrity. The books are “childrens’ books” but their message and beauty are just as available to adults as children. If you haven’t read them, give them a try and if you have, reread them!