Writing Challenge, Day 12: Magpie

30 Day Writing Challenge

Day 12: What is the last book, story, or poem you read that had an effect on your writing? Are you a better writer for having read this work?

Maybe it’s just the put-a-bird-on-it Portlandian in me talking, but when it comes to writing I’m quite the magpie: I approach every text with a discerning eye, eager to take from it what gold and shiny lessons I may.

I read The Hunger Games, for example, just before the first film came out and I have to say, it has been a long time since I’ve seen a character so fresh and well-developed as Katniss Everdeen. There is a fiery girl with clear motive, a short temper, and rich layers of conflict! I wonder if the use of the first person instead of third had anything to do with the way she simply jumped off the page? The fact that I’m still thinking about it shows that it is successful writing and prompts me to think I should revisit the book, study it more carefully, and see how I, too, can create such memorable characters.

I don’t think I can’t point to any one specific work, however, and say that it has fundamentally altered or influenced my personal writing style. I’ve not yet had enough of an obsession with any one author to have steeped myself in his or her writing mannerisms. In grade school I read loads of Goosebumps, Boxcar Children, and Sweet Valley High, and in high school I may have had a girly, guilty, long-term affair with Meg Cabot’s Princess Diaries series, but I’ve never once read my work and afterwards thought, “That sounded like Francine Pascal just there!” or “Why, I could be the next R.L. Stine!”

I do, of course, learn from just about everything I read. Even bad writing—clichés, dry narratives, gratuitous (not to mention bizarre) love-making, “liquid topaz eyes”*—can warn of what to avoid!

Every story touches me and my writing in one way or another, but perhaps most often I go through post-reading phases. After reading e.e. cummings, for instance, my sentences flow into one another with little or strange punctuation; following Norwegian Wood I wrote a dark story about suicide; after The Iliad I went about with a lyric tongue uttering things such as “Put away in your heart this thing that I tell you” and “…And his armor clattered upon him.”

*If you know what this is from then you are as bad as I am! 😉

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Day 11: You Can Have Your Cake…if You Research it First

30 Day Know Thyself Writing Challenge Day 11: How much of your writing time is purely research? The amount of research I do depends entirely on what I’m writing. And yes, now that I think about it, I’m pretty sure … Continue reading

Writing Challenge, Day 9: Voice

30 Day Know Thyself Writing Challenge

Day 9: Do you feel that you have found your voice in your writing? Or are you still searching?

This question is difficult for me to answer objectively. It would be like asking a painter “Have you found your technique?” or a fashionista “Have you found your style?” Anything I write has a voice, just like anything a painter paints has technique and any ensemble a fashionista fashions has style. Whether our work has a distinct quality—one that makes it our own—is a matter of opinion. I am too close to my work to see it the way that anyone outside of it would.

Also, I hesitate to answer “yes” to this question because it would imply a kind of stagnancy. A fixation. If work is an extension of the self, then shouldn’t our voices (techniques, styles, etc.) grow to reflect how we ourselves grow as people? If we get comfortable in any one “voice” does that mean that we are shutting ourselves and our writing to change? That certainly would not be my preference.

But then again, when it comes to art or music, for example, we often recognize a work as belonging to a certain artist. When listening to 8tracks the other day I heard a song for the first time and, by combination of sugary sweet voice and electronica, I immediately thought it a new track from The Knife. I looked and was surprised to see that the artist was actually Fever Ray, someone I’d never heard of before. Then I googled Fever Ray. Turns out the group is a branch project of the female singer in The Knife.

Okay. So perhaps all artists (writers, painters, musicians, etc.) do have their own distinct styles—ones that we can recognize them by. But I maintain that as a person grows, so does his or her work. Take Picasso, for example. Scholars classify his work in a number of periods: blue, rose, African, cubist, classic, surreal, etc. He goes through phases, and so do we.

Now, stepping back and looking at what I’ve written, I’m sensing that I may have made a slight detour to launch into this rant. Let me come back to the original question and answer it the simplest way I know how: I don’t know. I think that it takes a lot more work to be able to recognize discrepancies in writing styles and authors’ individual mannerisms than it does to learn and recognize the work styles of, say, a painter. One can eye a Klimt and a Da Vinci and know the difference in an instant. But two blind novels?

I will say this: I use a lot of dashes in my writing. A lot. I don’t know that that gives me any particular style, though. It’s just one small element in my present signature, whatever that may be. Am I still searching for my voice? Absolutely. I’ll never stop.

Writing Challenge, Day 8: Ghosts, Superhorses, and Sock Monsters

30 Day Know Thyself Writing Challenge

Day 8: How old were you when you started writing? What did you write?

I started writing in grade school. To be honest, memories of my earliest work are vague, but here is what I recall:

1st or 2nd grade

I wrote a short story having to do with Halloween and ghosts. I found ghosts to be simply fascinating at the time and, along with writing about them on paper, may or may not have scribbled the occasional crayon illustration on my wall…

As would portend to much of my future writing, however, I grew frustrated with the piece and never finished it. Two hours is a LONG TIME for a six year old to keep her butt in the chair!

3rd grade

Although I didn’t know what it was until a good seven or eight years later, it was at this age that I first wrote fan fiction. I was BIG into Judy Blume and her Fudge books at the time and my favorite character from them was Sam. I remember admiring Sam’s mischievous genius—particularly the way he once pretended to dislike all his pajamas just so he could see, with each item he refused to wear, the looks of frustration on his parents’ faces grow crazier and more disgusted. He found it amusing. This scheming prankster was one of my childhood heroes and I determined to pen more misadventures for him.

I also remember envisioning (but never actually wrote) the first scenes for a book that would be comparable to Jaws. I resolved that people would read this book and be astonished a nine-year-old had written it. I imagine I was also proud that I knew what ‘astonished’ meant.

4th grade

Influenced by my favorite 2nd grade book Ghost Horse (which I have since searched for and been unable to locate—the author’s name was something like Jannie Lee Simner or Janie Lee Simmer…) and other horse adventure books, I started my very own story of a girl and her magical horse. NO JOKE. THEY COULD COMMUNICATE TELEPATHICALLY AND EVERYTHING.

4th-5th grade:

It was around this time that I made my first earnest attempts at poetry. I wrote about deep and meaningful subjects such as starlight, snowfall, and the laundry monster that ate all my socks.

Many years and many more writing endeavors have passed. I’d like to think I’m a little more grounded these days (none of this sock monster, superhorse nonsense) but I do still tend to begin many more projects than I am humanly capable of finishing. Three chapters into a novel I start a short story that takes me over a month to write the first draft of and then somehow, in the middle of that, I decide it’s a good idea to start an offbeat and possibly publishable third project. True story; this is my current predicament. Somebody slap me!

Writing Challenge, Day 7: the Myth of the Muse

30 Day Know Thyself Writing Challenge

Day 7: Do you find that inspiration to write happens organically, or do you sometimes feel that you need to seek it out?

I feel that we must court experience: ideas sparked and new connections made are the organic results of exposure to new people, places, and things. Sure, a significant part of writing—and often what makes it the bewildering, enchanting, mind-bending journey that it is—is the ability to draw from one’s imagination. But what feeds imagination?

I have yet to read Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine (you’ll note it’s on my to-read list), however I did see Lehrer appear on The Colbert Report and speak about it. In his book-promoting appearance Lehrer explained that (and I’m paraphrasing from memory here) nothing in this world is original; what we assume are ideas invented out of thin air are really just new connections between old ideas. He even when so far as to call the Muse a myth.

If Lehrer is right, then what better way to foster new connections and generate ideas than to flood your subconscious with images, words, concepts, sensations, experiences, etc.? Courting experience is like adding colors to your mixing palette; the more materials in the arsenal, the better your subconscious can forge connections and lead to “organic” inspiration. In other words:

 Chance favors the prepared mind.”

—Louis Pasteur

Chance in this case, of course, being the Muse.

Lehrer said something else about creative generation, too. Something that every writer should know: daydreaming is good. “Although most people assume that to solve a problem what you must do is focus, focus, focus—chug a cup of coffee and chain yourself to your desk, stare at your computer screen—that’s exactly backwards. When you need a moment of insight you need to find a way to get relaxed.” (Yes, alright, I went back and watched the segment of Colbert Report in which he appeared. That’s a direct quote.)

A few months back I read Ogilvy on Advertising and was surprised to see that David Ogilvy, one of the fathers of modern advertising, recommended basically the exact same thing for copywriters and admen: to overcome a creative block, get away from your work. Go for a walk; take a shower; fold laundry, potter about the garden, do the shopping. Drink a beer. It is when we give time and space to our subconscious, allow it to wander and play, that our imagination churns out the best material. Ogilvy himself once dreamed of a wooden cart filled with baked goods drawn by a white horse; that horse-drawn cart became the brand image for Pepperidge Farms.

The one thing that’s important to remember, of course, is that you have to put in the work before you can daydream and expect to get results. If you really want to be inspired, experience the world around you! Go with an open mind, ready senses, and always be curious.

Writing Challenge, Day 6: The Spinning Wheel

30 Day Know Thyself Writing Challenge

Day 6: What do you find to be the most rewarding aspect of being a writer?

The work is the reward. For me writing is a struggle to convey myself, to portray thought and emotion and senses in words and structures and rhythms. Expression is creative problem solving, and like any problem to be solved can make nests of our hair and sawdust of our pencils, and otherwise generally be a maddening ordeal. And yet, the greater the frustration, the greater the passion; the greater the challenge, the greater the victory. Finding the right word, image, or the perfect line of dialogue is so satisfying! Finishing a short story or reading a completed poem aloud for the first time? Magic.

Another great thing about writing: (at the risk of sounding like Chandler), can there be anything more magical than creating something from nothing? A writer is an imagineer. A writer spins whole worlds.

Apologies for the short length of entry; I’ve really got to start writing these before ten o’clock at night! I’ve plenty of time before the midnight deadline, but not if I can’t keep my eyelids from fluttering…

Writing Challenge, Day 5: “The Honey of Peace”

30 Day Know Thyself Writing Challenge

Day 5: What do you hope a reader will take away from your writing?

Short Answer: “What? No! When does the next book come out???”

Real Answer: Just kidding. I wouldn’t want my readers to come away unsatisfied! (Though hungry for more is perfectly acceptable… ;))

Robinson Jeffers has this fantastic poem, “To The Stone-Cutters” (see below), that communicates the ultimate evanescence of all things—and yet, even knowing that all things are doomed to blacken and wilt away, how we can find refuge in the written word. When readers come away from my writing I want them to feel that their lives are the richer for it. It is my sincerest hope that a story, a character, a conflict, or even a single line or poignant image will stay with them, a beautiful sanctuary for the rest of their lives.

Here’s the poem. Meaning to live by in ten short lines.

To The Stone-Cutters

By Robinson Jeffers

Stone-cutters fighting time with marble, you foredefeated

Challengers of oblivion

Eat cynical earnings, knowing rock splits, records fall down,

The square-limbed Roman letters

Scale in the thaws, wear in the rain. The poet as well

Builds his monument mockingly;

For man will be blotted out, the blithe earth die, the brave sun

Die blind and blacken to the heart:

Yet stones have stood for a thousand years, and pained thoughts found

The honey of peace in old poems.

If I can reach people through the pages so that the words affect them…make them shudder, sigh, weep, throw the book across the room in frustration or get up and dance like a madman, I’ll know I’ve done my work.

Writing Challenge, Day 3: The Inspiration Jar

30 Day Know Thyself Writing Challenge

Day 3: What’s the BEST writing advice you ever received?

“Good writing is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration.” That both reminds me my frustrations are worthwhile and encourages me to keep sweating because it means I’m going somewhere. It means that any writer can start with almost nothing, or something quite shoddy, and with continued hard work transform it into a shining masterpiece.

It also makes me feel a whoooole lot better about the short story that I’ve been working on for over a month 🙂

Another thought this ratio begets: the value of saving up ideas for a rainy day. Last year I started a running document of ideas. It contains plots, lines, images, metaphors, concepts. If I can reach into that document like a jar and start with a single idea—just one grain of inspiration—and with time and effort turn it into a castle of stars, that’s a very good reason to jot down the smallest of whims or details. Better yet, maybe I will keep an actual jar. I feel an art project coming on!

What writing advice do you hold sacred?