Writing is an Act of Courage

I strongly believe that writing is an act of courage. It’s almost a matter of physical courage. The second you have a brilliant idea, you make a point to remember it. Those of us who write know that never works. Ideas are fleeting. So we rush around looking for a pen and pad. Maybe we’re in the car, so we try to pull over and grab our notebook from the glove box. If you’re lucky enough to get in front of a note pad or laptop almost always what was brilliant before is somehow not so brilliant as you go to write. It’s as if you had a certain piece of music playing in your head that simply will not translate onto paper. And so you fail. You never really get that perfect work of art out of your brain.

What we cannot do as artists is consider the entire process a complete failure. First, do not call this phenomenon writer’s block, which means “the condition of being unable to think of what to write or how to proceed with writing.” Although writer’s block happens to every writer, it is not the end of your creative life. It can be simply a matter of timing. Some ideas need to percolate longer than others. It’s just not time to write yet. It can be a matter of fear. Truly, writers are often fearful of rejection, and for a myriad of reasons. It’s not just a matter of  fearing you’ll never get published. Writing is a very personal undertaking. Even when we don’t realize it, we’re bearing our soul. We all have “back story,” and we’re all prone to leaking information about our lives, our loved ones, our deep, dark secrets. Being genuine is risky. I’ve heard it said most writers don’t have a writing problem; they have a telling problem.

So what is writer’s block?

Jerry Jenkins lists the four main causes of writer’s block in this order:

  1. FEAR. What if I fail? Solution? Keep publishing. Don’t stop. Embrace the fear, because it is legitmate. Humble yourself. Writing is hard work. It’s a lonely profession. Fear can be a great motivator.
  2. PROCRASTINATION. This is a big problem for me, as it is for most writers. Procrastination is inevitable, so find ways to fight through it. Jenkins embraces procrastination as an asset. As long as you develop a writing habit, those times you’re away from your writing desk your subconscious is working through the story.
  3. PERFECTIONISM. Many writers struggle with perfectionism. Stephen King suggests you never show your first draft to anyone. A writer friend of mine refuses to discuss a project during the first draft, saying it spoils the process. Your first draft is for an audience of one: you. Many writers, including Jenkins, insist you need to write your first draft and edit later.
  4. DISTRACTIONS. Without fail, every time you sit down to write, even if it’s your “scheduled” time to write, something intrudes on your concentration. It can be a person, a pet, a phone call, social media. So ask yourself how important your writing dream is to you and take a stand. Select a specific writing time. Turn off all other media. This is not the time to use social media or do research. This is your freestyle writing time. Period.

“Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration; the rest of us get up and go to work”—Stephen King.

Keeping Your “Eye” on the Story

Tess Callahan, author of the novel April & Oliver, says you can’t learn to paint by looking at a Picasso any more than you can learn the cello by listening to Yo-Yo Ma, yet writers are expected to know their craft by virtue of having read books. Reading is of course crucial—just as looking is for the painter and listening for the cellist—but what artists, musicians and even athletes know about training for their field is often lost on writers.

EMULATION

Matisse Dog Paintint

Painters often learn their craft by copying master works. Try recreating a Cézanne or a Matisse and you’ll see how humbling it is. This method teaches the apprentice artist things about composition and brushstroke that he or she could never have internalized otherwise. Once the painter does this with 20 or 30 artists, she starts to get some serious tools in her toolbox. So it can be with writing. For example, take a signature line from Ernest Hemingway or Amy Tan and, while keeping the sentence structure intact, take out all of the nouns and verbs and replace them with your own. Do this with the writers you most admire, as well as those to which you have the greatest aversion. You might learn more from styles you hate.

Do not place these emulated lines directly into your own writing project. That would be like taking a Frida Kahlo self-portrait, changing the color of her hair, and calling it your own. Rather, the plan is to practice emulating lines so that the many different styles can work their way into your brain. After all, no art form exists in a vacuum. The masters often hung out together, sipping coffee in the same cafés, sharing ideas and pushing each other forward. Dancers learn from dancers. Jazz musicians learn from jazz musicians. In fact, new music genres develop from musicians comparing notes. Oh my, a pun!

In her book Reading Like a Writer, Francine Prose helps readers pull aside the curtain to observe what the writer-magician is doing, to isolate how each one manages gesture, dialog and character development, and to learn from others’ strengths and weaknesses. As readers, the most important thing to notice is typically what we fail to notice—that is, how the writer keeps us immersed in what John Gardner in The Art of Fiction called “the uninterrupted fictional dream.” When we fall into that blissful dream as readers—when we actually forget we’re reading a story—it appears seamless on the part of the writer.

FREQUENT SMALL SKETCHES

Stick Figure

Figure-drawing classes often start with timed gesture drawings of initial poses lasting as short as five seconds before the model moves. Gradually, the time increases to 10, 15 and 30 seconds. By the time you get to a minute, it feels as if you have all day to capture the pose on your sketch pad. The idea is to keep you free, dexterous and more focused on process than end product. Process is paramount at this stage of an artist’s life. The more process he or she engages in, the more they’re able to hone their craft. Such short bursts also keep you from taking yourself too seriously—otherwise, you’d quickly become frustrated. I suffer this malady! I must remind myself to focus on the art of writing rather than the art itself.

Thankfully, you don’t have to take a creative writing class to use this technique. Simply take a moment here and there throughout the day, waiting for the train or at your favorite restaurant, jot down gestures, expressions or snippets of dialog. Given that these experiences are transitory in nature, the exercises will create their own time constraints. Whether or not these little vignettes make it into your story or novel, they will aid in deepening your awareness of the myriad expressions and experiences we go through each day.

One of my favorite “how to” books on writing is Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. Goldberg refers to writers’ journals as “compost piles” where ideas can sink down into the subconscious, heat up, and combust at any time. Most artists don’t start on a big canvas without doing countless thumbnail sketches that help sharpen their skills and drive their vision. My father was extremely creative. He did numerous paintings in various media, including oils, watercolor, pastels, and acrylic. He also build furniture, shelving, and wooden toys. I remember him making several sketches and reworking the idea before committing it to canvas or cutting his first piece of wood in the shop. Writers can benefit from this practice as well.

Julia Cameron Pic

In The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron teaches use of daily free-form writing in a journal. She suggests this exercise be done the moment you wake up, and refers to this as morning pages. Cameron says, “In order to retrieve your creativity, you need to find it” (p. 9). The morning pages are three hand-written pages of stream-of-consciousness writing. Writing without any concern for punctuation, spelling, grammar, or concern for mistakes. She believes it is better to use a pen and paper for this undertaking than using your laptop. Something about the tactile experience of words-to-paper.

UNDER-PAINTINGS

Traditional landscape and portrait artists often begin with a monotone under-painting using sepia or cool tones. Essentially a base layer, this has two benefits: First, it allows the artist to play with the composition rapidly in broad strokes before committing to a particular layout. Second, it forces him or her to put aside the issue of color and see the image in terms of dark and light planes. The artist “frames out the house” before putting up the walls. Once the artist begins applying color, he or she does so with a solid understanding of the image’s layers and dimensions.

Callahan says, “What I’m suggesting here is not outlining, which comes from the rational brain and works for some writers, but rather quick, loose first drafts that spring from the subconscious like dreams and proceed image by image.” Consider what it means to write a novel that has morphed from a 20-page short story. In order to flush out the complete tale in this fashion, you must be able to work the entire canvas at once, relating people and places and plots and subplots across great distances. For me, this is quite a daunting task. I’m sure that’s why I’ve so far limited my writing to short stories, flash fiction and prose. After all, to get stuck in one corner of the canvas risks losing the proverbial thread that connects it to the entirety of the story. And this needs to be done page after page, for hundreds of pages.

Brushes and Pallet

Just as painters must keep the brush moving, relating one color to another, writers must work threads back and forth so that their patterns of imagery relate and work together across the scope of many pages. Writers, keep looking at your recurring images and notice how they change each time they surface. They should never be redundant; instead, they must always move the story forward. A writer cannot achieve resonance on a minor note without constantly working the whole piece at once. Again, from my perspective, arg! I’m thinking, “Yeah, that’s gonna take some practice!”

To write this way, quick and without restraint, means giving ourselves permission to create crap. We cannot, nor should we, predict what will come out of our first draft. Then again, the first draft is always written for the audience of one—you, the writer. Stephen King says, “When you write a story, you’re telling yourself the story. When you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.” In fact, in On Writing, King describes how he pens his first drafts with the door closed, no one watching over his shoulder, his internal editor shut away. Not until the second draft does he open the door to allow in criticism. Fluid first drafts, like under-paintings, hold open a space for the real story to emerge.

When we write, our minds have a million thoughts running through them. How do I want to organize this chapter? What are my main points? Am I being consistent with my characters? Not surprisingly, the best way to focus is to allow plenty of time—ideally two or three hours with absolutely no interruptions or distractions. Find the time, whenever that might occur in your day, and cherish it. Defend it with all your might. When we write, we delve into another world. Interference tends to quell immersion in this nether world. This practice must become routine—it needs to be established in a pattern. It is through this routine that you will be able to write more consistently.

So…

References

Cameron, J. (1992). The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. Los Angeles, CA: Tarcher/Perigee.

Gardner, J. (1983). The Art of Fiction. New York, NY: Random House.

King, S. (2000). On Writing. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Prose, Francine. (2006). Reading Like a Writer. New York, NY: Harper Collins.

I Wrote a Poem Once While Sleeping

I wrote a poem once while sleeping,
Each line flowing into the next, flawlessly fitting,
As easy as knitting (remembering Grandma).
It was as if I could not stop, I could not fail.
Although the words were like building blocks,
As if I were erecting the world’s greatest skyscraper,
It was not about architecture.
It was not even about substance.
It was, dare I say it?
Poetic.
Truly rhythmical, imaginative and melodious.
Not epic. Not really. But not the least bit commonplace.
I was soaring. Becoming one with the atmosphere.
Unstoppable. Insatiably gluttonous for words.
Dining on the abstract. Gobbling up the abstruse.
It seemed as though I could write forever.
And then the alarm clock went off.

©2015 Steven Barto

Rowers on the Schuykill

Let us be early medieval or late Renaissance,
spike-featured Norman Christ
or bone-faced Dureresque peasant,
skeleton staining the flesh.

Let us descend the granite steps
and gather at at the river’s edge
for today is an Eakin’s day on the Schuykill:
boat races, festive crowds, spontaneous celebration.
See the strong young men lift their sculls
from the racks and carry them overhead
like slender varnished beetles
to the murky and opaque waterway.
See the girls sleek and oiled cheer them on,
the losers as well as the winners.
See the geese that summer and winter here
spring up over the island. See them sport
with one another in raucous feathery
gaggles and announce to the daily horde
the absence of human frailty.

For all seems well under the cutting sun:
Joan of Arc is heroically bronzed
though even she cannot halt traffic along the drive
and Mad Anthony Wayne rears on his horse
with the famed golden testicles.
How miraculous we seem to ourselves on this fair mountain
as cyclists weave round us, in and out
of joggers and skater and strawberry mansions.

There is more: deep in the earth
an orchestra plays something lush,
romantic, called back and tempered
by the limping Hungarian.
And there on the bank I see
an old black man-
fishing for catfish, stepped from a genre painting.

But remember, we have come to watch the boat races-
the crews in their sculls on the Schuykill,
2-man, 4-man, 8-man and coxswain,
barking his rubbery lips stretched
over a frightening oracular beak:
Stroke! Stroke! Stroke!
And the coach puttering around
effortlessly in his motor boat,
looping lazy figure-eights about them
as they rain sweat, snap ligaments, and groan.
But this is only practice,
the race is soon to run.
Only then will these young oarsmen show
an old and tired Charon the ropes-
how to run his ferry faster
on this one of many rivers,
stroke by stroke by stroke.

By Leonard Kress (1987)
From the anthology Common Wealth: Contemporary Poets on Pennsylvania

Monarch Butterfly

April is National Poetry Month. Typically, I celebrate by sharing poetry with my blog followers. If ambitious enough, I will be posting a new poem each day for the remainder of April. Below you will find a poem I wrote in the Spring of 2016 after searching archived National Geographic Magazine articles for a teacher who wanted to do a lesson on butterflies.

I am a Monarch Butterfly. I was a mere larvae a few days ago. Just hatched from my chrysalis this morning. I looked up toward the tree top and started climbing,
Climbing, climbing, finally reaching the top of the giant tree.
The sunlight was bright and overwhelming.

When I first saw the others, there were more than a dozen, and my enthusiasm grew with their numbers. It took a few minutes to realize the extent of what I was seeing. One hundred of my fellow cousins fluttering against a blue sky, wing tips touching. Simply breathtaking.

Seeing one million Monarchs swerving and soaring above me,
Realizing there were more in the trees waiting for the right moment
to open their wings and join us,
Felt like nothing short of a miracle.

I looked below as a woman cocked her head to the sky, cupping her hands
behind her ears. The husband leaned over and whispered, “Listen.” His bride grinned from ear-to-ear as she heard the butterflies flapping their wings
Against the air, sounding like a rainstorm falling on verdant forest.

Suddenly, thousands of butterflies above me began to let go of the branches they’d been desperately clinging to and poured into the sky;
I felt the wind from their wings as they soared around me.
I got lost in the swirling kaleiodoscope pattern they made against the sun.

I know butterflies aren’t noted for emotion, but I was filled with an inexplicable surge of energy that made me want to laugh and cry at the same time. We looked like orange confetti setting the sky ablaze. At about two hundred yards above the tree, we all turned right and headed to North America, where summer awaits.

Life’s Poetry

April is National Poetry Month. Typically, I celebrate by sharing poetry with my blog followers. If ambitious enough, I will be posting a new poem each day for the remainder of April. Below you will find a poem by Tosha Michelle. I discovered the wonderful, brilliant, persuasive poetry of Tosha when she first commented on one of my poems. I started following her blog immediately. I am sure you will be swept up by the imagery of “Life’s Poetry.”

I sit. Heart in hand. I
create. Some of you
may turn away from
the blood. The red
spilling over. It’s OK
if you do.

Sometimes it scares
me too, but still I
hold it. Palms out.
I’m giving you what
frightens me. This
is me saying, yes, I’m
still here.

I give you my less than
moments, my insecurities,
my madness, my ideas
about life and love, my
shrine of longing.

My heart slipping from
my hands, falling past
my knees to the floor.

Falling toward your
shadow I hope you
will pick it up.
Feel the hopeful
beat that wars
with my still
soul and chaotic
mind. I give you
my wounds.

We connect through
our pain, my friend,
my reader. Through
the hornets in our
coffee cups. Our
syllables of what
we can’t forget.

As we suffer together,
fear becomes less.
Our hearts beat stronger.
Place them on the
dashboard like a
plastic Jesus.

It’s doesn’t matter if
they leak on the
floorboard. It only
matters that we travel on,
even if we’ve misplaced
the map, even if our sanity
becomes displaced, even if
we drive down a reckless road
on a moonless night.

Understand, if we want
heaven and angels,
sometimes we have
to ride around with
our demons.

Understand, sometimes,
darkness is the heart of
life, of beauty, of art.

-Tosha Michelle

Please click on the following link for more of Tosha Michelle’s engaging poetry: https://laliterati.com/category/poems/

Dover Beach

April is National Poetry Month. Typically, I celebrate by sharing poetry with my blog followers. If ambitious enough, I will be posting a new poem each day for the remainder of April. Below you will find a poem by the great Victorian “poet of doubt,” Matthew Arnold. The poem recalls a brief moment from Arnold’s honeymoon in 1851. While standing by an open window, overlooking the cliffs of Dover, England, Arnold takes in the shoreline below, mesmerized by the sights and sounds of the sea as the tide goes out…

The sea is calm to-night,
The tide is full, the moon lies fair
Upon the straits—on the French coast the light
Gleams and is gone; the cliffs of England stand,
Glimmering and and vast, out in the tranquil bay.

Listen! You hear the grating roar
Of pebbles which the waves draw back, and fling.

At their return, up the high strand,
Begin, and cease, and then again begin,
With tremulous cadence slow, and bring
The eternal note of sadness in.

The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furl’d.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,
Retreating, to the breath
Of the night-wind, down the vast edges drear
And naked shingles of the world.

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! For the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain.

And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.