Sunday, November 24, 2019

The Writing Journey: From Slogging to Bliss!

Well, I did it.

Once again, I slogged, and slogged, and slogged, and slogged - and also trudged, and plodded, and dragged, and moped - my way through the middle section of my work-in-progress, and then THE MAGIC HAPPENED. The story came together, it did, it did, and I found myself no longer slogging, but sprinting! - dashing! - racing! - panting! - toward the finish line.


I now have, by my estimate, one more hand-written page (the equivalent of two more typed pages) to go before I can write THE END. You might think I'd just go ahead and finish the darned thing and THEN write this celebratory blog post. But I want to take a long, deep breath right now and savor the closing moments of writing this book (that is to say, this VERY rough and VERY flawed draft of this book). I want to pause to reflect on how the magic ALWAYS happens if I just sit myself down for an hour every day and keep moving my hand across the page.

I searched through the delightful little book Walking on Alligators: A Book of Meditations for Writers by Susan Shaughnessy and found this line I was looking for. Shaughnessy quotes writer Gail Godwin, who is quoting artist Philip Guston: "I go to my studio every day, because one day I may go and the angel will be there. What if I don't go and the angel came?"

When I was in Tucson for my friend's wedding, I cajoled myself into writing by searching out inviting writing spots in the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum and the Tucson Botanical Gardens. Now no cajoling is needed. I wrote one page of Chapter 10 (the final chapter) while sitting in the waiting room of my therapist's office. I wrote another page of Chapter 10 in the car while my son drove me up to the mountains yesterday to pick up our little girls for Thanksgiving week. I can write the very last page of Chapter 10 absolutely anywhere - just give me a pen!

Oh, there is so much left to do on this book as I turn to revisions, but guess what? I love that right now I KNOW what I need to do. In fact, I know EXACTLY what I need to do. Now that I see how the story comes together at the end, I know how I have to change the opening chapter - and certain key scenes in the middle of the book - so that this ending flows inevitably from what has come before. I so love HAVING A PLAN! Archimedes is famed for having said, "Give me a place to stand, and a lever long enough, and I will move the world." I say: "Give me a clear enough plan, and I will revise any book!"

Dear ones, just keep on slogging. Show up every day. Move that pen across the page, or tap away at those computer keys, however little you feel like doing it. The angel is coming. I promise you: the angel is coming.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Writing Advice: How to Make Slogging Less Sloggy

I'm back from a glorious few days in Tucson at my friend Lisa's wedding, which I also turned into a mini-writing retreat for myself.

I was bound and determined to trudge and slog my way into finding the magic at the heart of my new work-in-progress.

And I did!

Here is what I learned about making trudging less trudgy, drudgery less drudgy, and slogging less sloggy.

Well, the first thing I already knew, but knowing doesn't always lead to doing

1) Toil is less toilsome if you do it somewhere beautiful and inspiring - indeed, in lots of different beautiful and inspiring places. In Tucson I sought, and found, new writing spots every day: a most pleasant mission.

I wrote in the Crave Coffee Bar, where Lisa's writing group meets.

I wrote in the downtown main branch of the Pima County Public Library.
The next two places were extra-special, super-duper spots for writing.

I wrote at the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum.

And I wrote at the Tucson Botanical Gardens:

This made me so happy, so happy!

The other thing I learned about de-sloggifying a writing slog was something I should have known but didn't, or at least didn't fully appreciate.

2) Sometimes you feel like you're slogging forward, but what you're really doing is slogging in place, just spinning your wheels and going nowhere. This tends to be because what you need is NOT to keep on writing in the desperate hope of making eventual progress, but to sit yourself down and figure out where your story needs to be going. You need a PLAN. If you already have a plan (which I did in this case), you need a BETTER PLAN.

I spent a lot of my writing time in Tucson making a better plan for the rest of the book - a plan I actually feel excited about, a plan that makes me look forward to my next writing stints with anticipation rather than trepidation.

In The Writing Life, Annie Dillard has this to say:

When you are stuck in a book; when you are well into writing it, and know what comes next, and yet cannot go on; when every morning for a week or a month you enter its room and turn your back on it; then the trouble is either of two things. Either the structure has forked, so the narrative, or the logic, has developed a hairline fracture that will shortly split it up the middle - or you are approaching a fatal mistake. What you had planned will not do.

Now, Annie Dillard, who prides herself on making the writing life sound as painful as possible, says that "you cannot do nothing" (true) and that "of course it will mean starting again" (false). What it means is just FIXING what you have: NOT throwing it away and starting all over again (as I see too many of my writing students all too willing to do), but simply figuring out the problem with the story (this story, not a completely new story) and SOLVING it.

In Tucson I figured out a lot of things that need to be handled differently in Boogie Bass, Sign Language Star: hooray! I figured them out while writing in some truly beautiful places and also had the privilege of seeing a dear friend marry the love of her life.

I would call this a trip worth taking.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

In Praise of Slogging and Trudging

I'm now partway through writing the fourth book in my After-School Superstars series for Holiday House. This is the series set in an after-school program where every month is a different themed camp. So far I've written Nixie Ness, Cooking Star (cooking camp), Vera Vance, Comics Star (comic book camp), and Lucy Lopez, Coding Star (computer coding camp). Camp number four will star Boogie Bass, in sign language camp.

I was thrilled when the editorial team at Holiday House encouraged me to do a sign-language book. Ooh! And Boogie is probably my favorite character in the previous books: as his name suggests, so funny and dear. Yet so far I'm still in the slogging and trudging stage of the writing process. This is the stage where I don't quite know where the book is going (this despite having a decent outline, of sorts), the stage where the story still hasn't yet come fully alive for me, the stage where I simply write one sentence, and then another sentence, and then another. And then another.

I would feel worried about this book if I didn't know this has been my process for all my books. I always start out this way, with my hand moving across the page for an hour a day, in the hopes that sooner or later the magic will happen. Until that point, there is a certain amount of sheer drudgery, which brings to mind a comment made to me by a former Philosophy Department chair: he asked me to serve on some particularly dreary committee, and I replied, "It just sounds like so much drudgery." And he said, "But you're so good at drudgery!"

And I am.

But I'm starting to get itchy: what if this time the magic DOESN'T come? Oh, but it has to! It just has to!

One problem for me right now is that although I've done a fair amount of the requisite slogging and trudging, I can't say I've done it every day. Mine has been intermittent slogging and sporadic trudging. Faithful drudgery, I'm sad to say, yields much better results than drudgery every-once-in-a-while. I need to put my nose to that good ol' grindstone and keep it there!

Luckily, tomorrow I'm heading off to Tucson for a dear friend's wedding. The actual ceremony will take place on Saturday, but I decided to go a couple of days earlier to make this a little writing retreat and general escape-from-real-life. I will be slogging amidst the saguaro cacti! I will trudging in a charming cafe near the university! I will raise my eyes from the drudgery of the page and feast upon a desert landscape!

I feel the magic on its way to me right now, if I just slog and trudge a little bit longer...

Friday, November 1, 2019

When Even Your Best Survival Strategies Are No Longer Working

Confession time: my blog has been boring lately, even to me. I've been reduced to writing about my defunct furnace and snow-day activities because I can't bear to write any more posts about the really sad, scary, and unbearably stressful things in my life. Plus, writing about them would be boring, too. I have discovered what few people talk about: the sheer tedium of massive life problems that DO NOT GO AWAY AND ARE NOT GOING TO GO AWAY ANY TIME SOON. How many times can I say: My life is hard! My life is hard! My life is hard! Even I get sick of the sound of myself wailing this over and over again.

So today's topic: what DO you do when even your best survival strategies for getting through Hard Stuff aren't working any more? When you are totally and utterly and irredeemably stuck in the La Brea Tar Pits of your life, how the heck do you get (at least partially) unstuck?

I'm quite interested to see how I'm going to answer this one!


1. First of all, make sure that you really ARE employing your usual survival strategies, rather than just thinking that you're doing this. My "four pillars of happiness" have always been: writing, reading, walking, and spending time with friends. Those are my fail-proof paths to happiness. But they aren't working any more. WAHHH! Oh, but wait.... during this past week of snowstorms and freezing temps, I actually didn't take any walks. None at all. Hmmm. And, despite putting FINISH CHAPTER FOUR of my new book in all caps on each day's to-do list, somehow that final page still isn't written. Hmmm. A friend dropped off a tantalizing new book for me to read, and somehow I haven't opened it yet. Hmmm. And I am blessed with having friends galore who would be most happy to while away a few hours with me, and yet I haven't summoned them. Hmmm.. . .

So: before you give up on your usual strategies, make sure you're giving them a fair chance.

This may be the single most important thing I'm telling myself today.

2. But what if you aren't using your usual strategies because you simply can't make yourself do it? The worst thing about depression is how it stops us from doing the very things that would make us less depressed. So what do we do then? Huh? Huh?

Well, when you do have a flicker of energy (I'm having a flicker of energy right now), take steps to make certain activities more likely. Call a friend and make a date for a walk (two of my survival strategies in one!) - or in my case, call a friend and make a writing date (ditto).

It also helps if I remove all competing temptations: the I-pad for Sudoku, the phone for social media. If I take away literally everything else, I find myself thinking, oh, well, I guess I might as well write the final page of that chapter after all.

3. You could also try not just maintaining your usual strategies but intensifying them. Instead of taking a walk, go on a hike with some elevation gain, or try running (though frankly I can't see myself doing either of these). Instead of assigning yourself one page a day to write, assign yourself two. Cram your days filled with projects and play dates.

4. Consider some dazzling new strategies. In my case, it would be flying to Paris for a long weekend to be all by myself in a cozy hotel near a cozy cafe where I would sip hot chocolate and nibble on croissants and write poetry. I COULD DO THIS. I'd have to cancel a bunch of stuff, but at this point my mental health might be a legitimate reason for a few days of "sick leave." It would cost a bunch of money, but one of the good things about my current woes is that money is hemorrhaging out of my life at such a hideous rate (attorney bills, nursing home bills) that all of it is going to be gone soon anyway. I can truly go to Paris for a week on less that what I pay for a single day of our lawyer's time. Even depressed as I am, I do feel a little tingle of tingly-ness at the thought of doing this.

So these are my thoughts today. Now my challenge: take this advice I am giving myself. Writing this blog post was a first step in the right direction.