Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Good-bye, Fantasy Keys!

Susie M. Finkbeiner, you've won a chocolate bar in the Valentines contest! Thanks for entering your wonderful haiku in the comments of Monday's post. Please contact us, and send us your mailing address. Mwah!

me back for our second book talk on Anne Lamott's classic, Bird by Bird. We're covering two chapters, "Getting Started" and "Short Assignments." Haven't read the chapters? No problem. We have an open forum here. Chat away!

Getting Started

I probably wouldn't have made it through Anne's first day of writers workshop. Warm-up exercises? Why not spend the day at the department of motor vehicles? Good grief, let's get on with it. Get to the game. Get to the problem at hand. Get to the story. I'm a yellow Lab with a swashbuckling tail who is either running at full-tilt or taking a nap. Come on! (Mixed metaphors duly noted. So sorry.)

But I get what she's after, this truth-telling about ourselves. No one is likely to see or care what we scribble in journals, but this is where it starts. To tell the truth about our characters--the way life works and sometimes smells like rotting garbage or feels like a paper cut to the heart--we must tell the truth about ourselves, at least to ourselves.

I'm embarrassed to admit that it took a year of "pre-writing" before I started my first novel. Not far into the experience, I realized the story's premise forced me to face down what I feared most. My character would have doubts, follow rabbit trails, treat those she loved cruelly. She would not deal well with loneliness. Act stupidly because of it. Just like me. She isn't me, of course. Let's be clear on that. But Mibby and I share a lot, some things better left in the back of the refrigerator. To begin Like a Watered Garden, it came down to a decision-- tell the truth or go back to teaching. I typed until my fingernails splintered.

"Good writing is about telling the truth" means going after writing like we should go after life--eyes wide open, the Divine embraced, never forgetting that redemption weaves a thread of hope through the darkest evil. It isn't our job to prettify our lost paradise, writers. It is our job to show we have a victorious King. He has surrendered no ground. Our darkness is light to Him.That's where we're dancing, crying, doubting, and calling out to the One Who hears.

Please note: Anne uses "bad" words in this chapter. Let's not allow words to distract us from the fabulous lesson taught here. Most probably, being published isn't what you hope it is. It hasn't been for me, although it's many other things--some like creme cheese filled delights of any name. Others maddening. Still others weird. Writing, however, is what you hope it to be. Writing compels us to live more fully, look for God everywhere, and enter into the joy of creating.

Short Assignments:

This chapter set me free in two very important ways: First, I loved knowing I wasn't the only one playing with the gap between my front teeth to avoid writing, and second, I'm easily overwhelmed. Big jobs set my heart a-pounding until I figure out the first step and have an idea about step two...and three. Anne's advice to give ourselves short assignments--a paragraph, a piece of dialogue, some description--makes writing a novel doable for flighty folks like me.

Here's my head chatter as the computer whirs through its warm-up: "Today, I'm going to write the scene where Lucy, Goody, and Mercy arrive at the farm. Period. I don't have to write straight through to the end. I don't even have to know the end. In fact, I don't have to know what I'm writing tomorrow. I'm going to write what I can see through a one-inch frame. That's it! Get to work. Grr."

A recommendation: When you hit page 100, hit the print button. You won't believe the heft of 100 pages. Fan the pages. Toss the pages in the air. Spread them on the floor and do a happy dance right in the middle of the crinkling pages. Go ahead and scare the dog to death and roll on them. In short, write small; celebrate big.

What does it mean to you that "good writing is about telling the truth?" How do you remind yourself to take one step at a time in the writing process? Anyone care to plug their noses and jump in, meaning write a short paragraph about their childhood? What does your pre-writing chatter sound like? What did I miss? Anything? Anything?


Marian said...

My childhood was about sex—about gender. I had four brothers. Not only were their body parts more complicated and interesting than mine, their futures sounded more appealing. They could clean up the world. I could look forward to cleaning the house. I rebelled. I tucked my hair up under a hat. I asked for a gun and holster set for Christmas. Good-bye dustcloth and dishrag. Give me the lawnmower.

Heather Marsten said...

Twenty years ago I wrote my memoir, but it was a listing of the facts, no emotions. I did get wonderful letters from agents who very kindly told me that the market was gutted, and that I might benefit from a few writing courses.

I am now tackling this same memoir and read my first try - those agents were very, very kind, not wanting to crush me. The subject matter is tough, dealing with incest and child abuse.

This time, with the help of critique partners I am learning to flesh out scenes so that I show and not tell, and am portraying the emotions.

Those who critique my work have pointed out how much my writing has improved, and look forward to the next installment. It took a lot of years to understand the past, to face the emotions, and now to tell the story.

You are right. It is about telling the truth. Thank you for your column, I look forward to reading it each morning. You are a blessing. Heather

Patti Hill said...

Marian: Four brothers! Yikes, it's a wonder you don't twitch. You don't twitch, do you? Thanks for your truthful remembering. Good job.

Wondering04: Memoir has to be the hardest thing to right true. What to include, what to leave out, and how to allow the reader to join into the emotions. It sounds like you're on your way with good critique partners and tons of determination. I'm sure your story will strike a healing note.

Anonymous said...

It took me WAY too long to start the writing process, but when I was given the NaNoWriMo kit for Christmas (I realize the NaNoWriMo is in November, but that's besides the point), I took the hint, plugged my nose, and jumped in.

On January 29, 2011, I printed out 146 pages (50,000 words) and couldn't not believe I really did it. I have read Anne's book recently and found it very inspirational. And I am loving these discussions!

I have yet to read through my manuscript, but I am finding inspiration in the fact that I DID accomplish this writing feat. And the inspiration keeps on flowing.! A lot of childhood memories are surfacing, giving me a multitude of great material. One example being the summers my dad would tell us a story of the pirate captain who would haunt the campground playground. Dad brought Captain Ablaze to life by lurking around the swing set in his best pirate-ie outfit.

I plan to take that story far.

Happy Wednesday!

Wendy Paine Miller said...

This Lamott quote reminds me of something King wrote in his book alluding to the fact that we are all of our characters. Part of telling the truth and making sure we have genuine and believable antagonists is going there with ourselves. Knowing our own fears, joys, tragedies will help our novels ring more true. Same goes for our protagonists.

~ Wendy

Patti Hill said...

Lana: Congratulations on your grand achievement! It sounds like you have plenty of inspiration to work with. What a blessing! And support from your family. You're on your way.

Wendy: I loved King's book, too. He took me completely by surprise. I would love to meet him. And, of course, I agree with him. There are pieces of me in the dearest character and the most vile villain I write.

l said...

Since the beginning of this year I've been getting 1,000-1,500 words written almost every day, and it's because of Anne Lamott's "one-inch frame" exercise. Some days, I'll sit down and have a typing fury right away. Others, I'll drag my toes about getting to the computer, and those days, I remind myself, "Just a one-inch frame. Just this little paragraph." And most of the time, I find myself two hours later, still typing away like crazy.

Ellen Staley said...

My childhood? If I wasn't reading I daydreamed my own action hero: A young girl named Lauren, bold as as boy and sharp as a tack. Oh, the dilemma's I put her through!

So I write about a woman as I dreamed back then? No. A man. Act two is finished. He's through the doorway of no return and though I know what's coming, I've lost two days looking for that next step. I sought the whole picture instead of just that one inch portion.

Heidi said...

Marian, I have four brothers too! Balanced by a sister, though.

I thought she had a lot of great points in these chapters. I like the idea of short assignments, and it reminds me of a cliche (but true) quote that goes, "A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step." And then another step. And another. So here's my short assignment:

Outside. That one word defined life as a child. Outside, we built worlds and played games and were together. Siblings, the best of friends. We fought with the enemy in guerrilla wars and soared high in our swingset airplane, singing songs from Mary Poppins. In the winter, our worlds were made of snow and igloos, and our faces turned red instead of brown, but the magic remained the same.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

Yes...short assignments! I'm there right now with my "poopy" first draft.

And I am more than honored to have won the candy bar! Yay! I never win! How fun!

Here's my childhood thing.

"D.J.!" My teacher called. "D.J.!"

She garnered no response.

"D.J., if you don't come over here right now..."

I turned, looking to see what was going on with D.J. He was constantly getting into trouble. My teacher grabbed my shoulders, shaking me gently, causing the short hair on top of my head to move ever so slightly.

"D.J.!" She yelled in my face.

"I'm not D.J.," I cried. "I'm Susie."

Blast that awful mullet!

Patti Hill said...

Heather: It still amazes me that my short assignments add up to a novel of 100,000 words or more. I was the girl who couldn't finish anything. Anne demystified the process for me. Glad you're making good progress with your one-inch window.

Ellen: No day is wasted when you write. Your brain is always working subconsciously on the the storyline, the characters...all of it! You're at such an exciting place.

Heidi: Sounds like your childhood was lovely. I'm sure your siblings are great fodder for characters.

Susie: Great surprise! Really? You wore a mullet? Your idea? You would be fun to know.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

Oh, Patti. I am not ashamed to admit it (after YEARS of therapy)...I had a mullet. Twice.

First time was third grade. 1986. My beloved mother thought they were "cute". Oh, oh, oh.

Second time was my Junior year in college. 1998. I got dumped by my boyfriend and was in need of a new "look". The guy at the cut rate salon (pun intended) told me he could give me a cute bob, no problem. I left with a mullet. Even my mother didn't think that was cute.

BUT, little clips were fashionable, and I was ever so thankful for them. And it was then that I started dating the man who would become my husband.

You know it's true love when they can overlook a mullet.

Footprints From the Bible by Cynthia Davis said...

"Writing is about telling the truth"-not just any truth, but your own personal truth. Which does mean a lot more of me, the author, creeps into my writing than I'd like to admit. On the other hand, writing helps you "soften, can wake you up," as Lamott says. You learn and grow as you write-and that's good.

Susie Finkbeiner said...

Cynthia, well said! The beauty is that no one need know what parts are you! And I love how I grow and even see God differently through my writing process. I guess that makes it worth it (put publishing would make me grow too...hee hee).