Thursday, March 28, 2013

The Practice of Writing

Katie Walking the Labyrinth by James Jen
This started as a post about goal setting. I was going to title it Setting Doable Goals. But the more thought about it, I realized that I really have only one goal:

To write every day for the rest of my life.

Writing isn't a sprint, it isn't even a marathon, for me it's a way of life. To be both creative and productive is to be happy. I have a small constellation of lesser goals, but this one is my guiding star. This one keeps me focused on the fact that creative writing is, for me, a spiritual practice. This is important to remember when I find that I've committed to some overly-optimistic, unachievable goal that has scuttled my progress rather than encouraged it. That's when I return to my ONE goal and remember that every day that I leave a trail of words on the page, I walk away from my desk ready to be filled up again.

With that in mind, I do use short term goals as a tool to push myself to become a better writer and to keep my work organized. The latter is a challenge for me as I've adopted what I call the English Muffin Method for my writing. This consists of filling every available nook and cranny of my day with little bits of writing and/or editing; parsing big projects into a million tiny pieces. Daily, weekly and monthly goals help keep me on track.

A couple of books that exist in the real estate between writing as spiritual practice and writing for public consumption are: Brenda Ueland's If You Want to Write: A Book about Art, Independence and Spirit and Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (Shambhala Library).

Finding the Middle Way with Goal Oriented Writing

  1. Think about what you want to achieve don't just fill in the blanks according to what the world dictates. As I said in my last post, think about what success means to you personally. Spend some time on this, write it down in your journal.
  2. Try simply tracking your output for a week or two before you set an arbitrary number. How many words can you write taking into account job, family, dog, a school of guppies, a flock of hens, or in my case, all of the above? You might be surprised, it might be more than you think.
  3. When you're ready to set some goals be sure they are S.M.A.R.T. -- Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound
  4. Set low bar and high bar, and build in time off. My low bar is 250 new words each day. That's one hand-written page, two double spaced pages on the computer. I've even tapped out 250 words with my thumbs on my iPod's writing app. Almost anyone can toss off 250 words in under ten minutes. I am absolutely not allowed to feel bad about myself if I do this. It's this low bar that keeps me on track with the real goal of writing every day.
  5. Rejigger if you need to. Things change. We change. Life. The advantage to seeing your creative life as a spiritual practice is that you can work out the smaller goals any number of ways to support it. If one method isn't working, try something new. Even if it is working, but you're just feeling a little bored, try something new just for a change.
Remember this is supposed to be fun. Serious fun, sure, but fun. Creativity is close kin to play, and if what you're doing is not fun - not satisfying you on a deep, emotional level - then you're doing it wrong.

Hello spring!

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Doing It Their Way, Or Not

Illustration for Vasilia the Beautiful by Ivan Bilibian
There is something eternal about the way that we tell stories, the way we seek the emotional heart of an experience, the beauty of language and expression. The way we disseminate and receive those stories, on the other hand, is experiencing a sea change. Traditional publishing seems to be an ever-shrinking piece in a puzzle that now includes multiple e-publication methods and media outlets. And new creative venture revenue sources like Kickstarter are making things even more interesting. With so many choices, getting my work out into the world feels a little like venturing into a foreboding and enchanted forest.
While I scribble away, honing my craft, I’m also trying to take in the ever-shifting landscape that is the world of publishing. Lately, a couple movers and shakers on the scene have been making a big splash, and their stories have gotten me thinking. Before we go any further, the important thing to remember about me is that I don’t know jack! All I have are my opinions, but I do have plenty of those.

Hugh Howey and his breakout novel Wool have been popping up everywhere. Even The Wall Street Journal profiled him, describing how he hacked the traditional publishing model to get himself a sweet print-only book deal with Simon & Shuster. Like almost all “instant” successes, it turns out there’s years of hard work behind it. I first noticed him on Amazon for his excellent novella The Plagiarist, published in 2011. His love for spinning a great tale is apparent in everything he writes, and the hard work he’s put in mastering the craft shows in his direct and engaging prose style. Over the years, he’s amassed a large readership and leveraged that popularity into publishing success. 

Then there’s Amanda Palmer’s TED talk, which went viral and spawned lots of discussion about how one should go about making a living as an artist. 

Regardless of what you think of her, it’s hard not to admit that this isn’t an example of the perfect TED talk. She grounds a simple set of innovative ideas in a real emotional core. I don’t know much about Amanda Palmer. She strikes me as the kind of artist who is not only committed to her art, but to creating her own life as a work of art. For years she’s been putting herself out there both in performance and by connecting with people one at a time. Did she do it to become a millionaire? I can’t say, but it’s obvious she loves what she does.

I’m touched by her sincerity and convinced that she’s managed to put her finger on a truth. But what truth exactly? It took a while for me to puzzle out. There’s truth there, just not a universal truth. 

So much of the discussion around individual success stories like Howey’s and Palmer’s are framed in terms of a new business model that everyone then scrambles to replicate. As if they’ve discovered the path to success, when, in fact, they’ve discovered their path to success. There is a lot to learn from the paths they took, as long as you don’t get tripped up by looking for universal solutions from individual successes.

First, there’s the idea that a universal standard of success exists (often measured in dollars or views or followers). Not that those things aren’t great, but I think success is highly personal, and the path to it as individual as each of us. We do ourselves a disservice when we pursue an ideal of success without first examining what that really means to us. Stop and think, what is it that I want to achieve with my art and with the creative act that is my life?

From what I know of her life, Amanda Palmer has never been responsible for anyone but herself, which means that for years she could afford to commit to a lifestyle where she made very little money and traveled by couch surfing her way around the globe. Cool! I want to experience the art made by the Amanda Palmers of the world, but I also want to experience the art made by people who have mortgages to pay or children to raise or elder parents to support or any combination of the above.

Second, there is no one right way. The enchanted woods are vast, mutable and fraught with danger, but as most fairy tale characters discover, the way through isn’t exactly what they imagined when they went in. Hell, there’s never been a single path from the beginning to the end of any of my stories. More often than not, I make a turn and end up at a delightfully different destination. Once written, I can look back and see the single path that I took, but while I’m working, all I’ve got is the compass of my idea and a trail of breadcrumbs that was my outline. Like the unwritten story, I’ll enter the world of publishing armed with the accounts of the people who’ve made it through to arrive on the shining shore of their success. Their words may guide me, but, in the end, I’ll have to find my own way.

So, keep working. Getting your work out there can feel like venturing into the deep dark woods. Just remember, it won’t be the trail of breadcrumbs that will save you in the end, it will be your wits.

Or maybe a giant swan, but probably not.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Belated Grammar Love Day

Read up on semicolons here
Monday was National Grammar Day. I posted about it last year and have decided to make it an annual tradition. I continue to study grammar, and it turns out grammar is a lot more fascinating than I thought it would be back when I saw it as just some monster waiting to trip me up. It's also a moving target. Languages express our cultures and evolve with them. Check out this sampling of a few older grammar rules that have fallen out of use. Now you can indeed split that infinitive and feel free to boldly go!

A good book to wet your toes in the grammar pool is It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences: A Writer's Guide to Crafting Killer Sentences. It's practical and straightforward, and written by someone who's actually spent time editing in the real world. Because if this, she acknowledges that there can be more than one way to interpret a sentence grammatically, and many ways to fix it.

I have the Daily Writing Tips Grammar category on my RSS feed, and it's a great way to get a ten minute lesson in on a busy day.

This year, I'm also working my way through some more advanced books:

where Virginia Tufte "shows how standard sentence patterns and forms contribute to meaning and art in more than a thousand wonderful sentences from the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. " 

This workbook takes you through twenty sentence patterns, e.g. a series of balanced pairs, compound sentence with elliptical construction, object or complement before subject and verb

There are also chapters like: combining sentence patterns, myths about coordinators, and the twenty patterns in print (with examples drawn from published writing).

Heady stuff. 

I'm learning so much by intentionally writing sentences in a specific structure. I do this as an exercise - not while I'm working on stories. When I'm writing a story, all I can bring to bear are the lessons that I have internalized through practice. I want to have these elements DOWN, so that the story can flow unimpeded.

To some, my enthusiasm may look a little obsessive, and I'll own that. Certainly all that's required to convey a story is competency in grammar, but why shoot for competency when you can shoot for the stars? If the story is the message then the words and the GRAMMAR are the medium. The more I understand the nuances of grammar the more I can convey the story with subtlety and power. My ability to control and manipulate the elements of grammar is a big part of what makes up my writer's voice. It also gives me the ability to adapt my voice to the needs of individual stories. It's how I hone the emotions and themes of a story to a razor sharp edge.

I'll always be learning, always making mistakes. There's no such thing as a perfect story, but that's why art is all about the pursuit of perfection.