Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Things I Do When I Should Be Writing

Procrastination.  I know should be writing, but when I hit a wall, it becomes easier to occupy my mind with something else.  The harder I try to focus, the worse it gets.  I'll look for any excuse to get away from the keyboard.  If I just stick with it and keep my fingers typing, I can usually work through my writer's block. But instead I find ways to distract myself from the task at hand...

Like I might get the urge to play a little ball.


Go out for a bite.

Have a long soak in the tub.

Try on snazzy new outfit.

Go for long walks in the park.


Or spend time with a friend.

Then suddenly, I'll be dog tired.

How do you procrastinate and what strategies do you use to get back to work?

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

It's a Weird, Wonderful, Fruity World

My trip to my local market turned into a journey of discovery. I've never seen fruits and vegetables like this.

Jackfruit, from Asia.  A staple in much of the world.  To me, they look more like Jack the Giant Slayer Fruit.

Daikon Radishes from East Asia.  Used in variety of dishes, like Ponzu or Oden. They're as long as my arm and that's a lot of radish.

Black Radishes. A winter variety.  Okay, they're not the prettiest vegetable in the store.

Have you tried any of these fruits and vegetables? 

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Coffee Laced with Plant Food and Other Writing Hazards

The other morning, I was stumbling around the kitchen with my head wrapped around a plot twist that needed unraveling, as I made a pot of coffee. It wasn’t until water was already dripping through the filter that I realized I’d just used the jug with “tap water” scrawled on its side--the one I use to water my plants. Needless to say, I had to throw it all out.  It didn’t make me feel any better to know the water I’d been sipping since the previous night came from the same jug.  I don’t know if plant food is harmful to humans, but I'll let you know if I suddenly have the nagging urge to dig my toes in the sand and follow the sun across the sky.

Photo by Dan Holm
This isn’t the first time my breakfast has suffered because of my inattention.  While busy contemplating a character motivation, I once plopped a raw egg into my coffee mug instead of the frying pan.  I won’t even mention the time I stuck my cell phone in the refrigerator or drove three exits past my destination before I noticed. 
I’ve done all kinds of crazy things while my head was busy someplace else.  It’s one of the hazards of being a writer.  I spend a lot of time in my head and for much of the time, that's exactly where I want to be. 



When I’m in my head, I might be exploring worlds that never existed, or walking beside a character who's about to take the wrong path or puzzling about the best way to describe an oak tree’s gentle sway or the color of the sky after a storm.  No matter that I’m supposed to be vacuuming, or washing the car or chatting with friends at a dinner party, I can’t resist the temptation to spin tales or mull over possibilities.  No matter how much it annoys my family and friends, daydreaming is an unavoidable part my writing process. 

Unfortunately this tendency conflicts with another trait important to writers: paying attention.   



It’s a paradox that we who most want to escape into the space between our synapses, are also the ones who most need to pay attention to what’s happening in the world around us.  Writers need to be observant of details and to bring those details into their writing.  We need to interact with the world and to understand the people who populate it.  Only then can we bring this insight to the page and infuse our made up stories with relevant kernels of truth and authenticity.
We must listen, observe, and drink deep of our lives if our stories are to resonate for the people who read them.  That's all the harder for me since, like so many writers, I'm an introvert. Unlike my more extroverted friends, I'm perfectly happy submerged in the pages of a best-seller or hiding behind walls made up of my own thoughts and musings.  Instead of eating chips and guacamole and trading barbs with friends at a Superbowl party, I’d rather be hunched at my desk tinkering with yet another edit of my Work in Progress.

But somehow, I know a gentle balance must be struck.

‘Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves – slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future. 

Live the actual moment.
Only this moment is life.’ ~Thich Nhat Hanh



Being present is a zen concept.  For writers, it means stepping outside of our heads and taking the time to focus only on what’s in front of us.  It means concentrating on the scenery we pass when we walk in the woods.  It means making the effort to really get to know the people we interact with everyday.  It means striving for an effective balance between being part of the world and just writing about it.  Between truly living a life instead of just daydreaming about one.  

It’s tough for me to do these things, but I know sometimes it’s what I need most.  And it would make preparing breakfast a lot easier too.

Do you find yourself neglecting other facets of your life to focus on writing or reading?  How do you strike the gentle balance and keep yourself present?

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Fiction: Bringing Order to Chaos

Real life is random.  It’s boring, chaotic, imperfect.  Dangerous. That’s why it’s so temping to retreat into the comfort of a good book.  A story gives shape to the disorder of human experience.  It means something.

To create stories that capture and intrigue us, a fiction writer takes a series of events and gives them context.  She puts them in a frame and tells us what to focus on, which details are important.  Which are not.  
Photo by Dan Holm

In his book, THE STORYTELLING ANIMAL: HOW STORIES MAKE US HUMAN, Jonathan Gottschall says our storytelling mind “allows us to experience our lives as coherent, orderly and meaningful.”  Randomness makes us so comfortable, our minds look for patterns in everything. This capacity isn’t without its drawbacks, because the tendency for us to crave pattern also makes us vulnerable to getting it wrong.  Gottschall says our brain is “a factory that churns out true stories when it can, but will manufacture lies when it can’t.”

That's why I mostly find most "reality" TV shows unwatchable. In order to connect with the viewer, a reality show needs to tell us a coherent story.  But since a series of events by themselves don't make a story, no matter much action is packed in, it's up to the producers to create one.  To achieve this, they pump up the conflict between the participants, take events out of context, and warp the meaning of unimportant details.  Participants are steered in directions they might not ordinarily go, act in ways they wouldn’t normally, act and say things they’ve been told to say.  Yeah, OK, it's compelling, it's interesting, but it's not reality.

Fiction is made up, but at least you know that going in.  If you look at it that way, and a novel is way more honest than any reality TV show.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Celebrating the Fourth

After he signed the Declaration of Independence, John Adams wrote his wife, Abigail, a letter predicting that this momentous event would be remembered and celebrated as a great festival for generations:
It ought to be solemnized with Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations from one End of this Continent to the other from this Time forward forever more.

Photo by Dan Holm
I’m sure Adams would be pleased to know we’ve taken his advice.  We celebrate the 4th (not the 2nd, despite what Adams said) with picnics and pool parties and fireworks.
But, of course, Independence Day is about more than that.  It’s about how a brave, audacious people stood up to the mightiest power of the age to claim their inalienable rights.

It’s easy to take the success of our democracy for granted.  We forget how hard it is to make this form of government work.  Democracy is about endless discussion and compromise.  It’s about finding balance between public and private, state and federal, the state and the market, the needs of the individual and the needs of the many.

By its nature, our form of government is frustrating, tedious, and fragile.  But, if the founding fathers (and mothers) had wanted it to be easy, they’d have given us a king instead of a constitution.  

As Ben Franklin said, they gave us: “A republic, if you can keep it.”

We’ve kept it for 237 years so far.  While we sing patriot songs and watch the rockets light the sky, we ought to commit ourselves to work together to protect our rights and our privileges, to find the balance, no matter how hard it may seem, and to ensure our laws and practices guarantee ALL a chance for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, from this time forward and forever more.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Feed Your Head: Why Your Brain Craves A Good Story

Without a good story, beautiful prose is just empty calories . 

Lisa Cron examines this idea in her book WIRED FOR STORY, one of the best writing books I've read in a long time.

See it on Goodreads
I love Cron's book because it talks about how recent breakthroughs in neuroscience help us understand what our brains are hungry for and how writers can use this knowledge to tell better stories. 

I'm fascinated by brain science.  I love to know how the mind works, why people act the way they do, how the structure and mechanics of our brains influence the way we act and think.  Applying it to writing is the next logical step.

It's all in your head

In her book, Cron asks, why do humans naturally crave something as ethereal and seemingly unimportant as stories?  The answer: survival.  We evolved to love stories because they help us simulate and learn from experiences, without actually having to live through them.  So if we're ever captured by pirates, chased by flying monkeys or lost in the Sahara desert, we'll know what to do.  While reading or listening to a story, subconsciously, we continuously ask ourselves, what would I do in this situation?

Like a harrowing ride on an upside down roller coaster, stories provide the chills and spills and adrenaline of a threatening situation, with none of the risks.  We play out the scenario in our minds, so we won't need to face a charging elephant stampede to anticipate how we might react.  

It's especially true in the social realm.  We need to know what other people might be thinking.  Why do they act the way they do?  How do I deal with them?

The connection is so subconscious, we aren't even aware of it.   We feel what the protagonist feels and experience the story, just as though it's really happening.

In order to engage this hard-wired response in our readers, writers have to tell the right kind of stories.

 Now that's a good story

A good story triggers our desperate need to know what happens next.  Our curiosity is aroused, and the mechanisms in our brains drive us to find the answers.  And when we finally do, our brains reward us with a little charge of dopamine.

Haven't you felt it?  You're reading a fast- paced thriller or a heart-breaking love story and feel compelled to know how it ends.  You skip lunch, stay up late, neglect your dog, just to read a little bit more. And when you finally figure out who committed the crime or learn the secret that's keeping the loving couple apart, it feels great

That's the reaction every writer is after.  A story that gets into a reader's head and rewards her with the "aha" moment she's craving.  To achieve this, the first thing a writer has to do is to make the reader care.

Make something happen

Something must be at stake from the first page.  No matter how exquisite the descriptions or scintillating the dialogue, if there's nothing at risk, there's little reason to pay attention.

Cron says, a story is the telling of events that affect someone in some way and causes them to change as a result.   "Not only must something be happening, but there must be a consequence we can anticipate."

A story with no consequence is flat and uninteresting.  The higher the stakes, the more the reader is engaged. 

To achieve this, someone in the story has to want something.  To find the hidden treasure.  To catch the bad guys.  To win the bowling trophy.  To earn a father's approval.  To save the world.  Something. Even in a "literary" novel, characters must have a goal.

Figure out what the main character wants and create obstacles to keep her or him from acheiving it and you'll have the reader eating out of your hand.