Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Writing Is Not A Mystery - Stealing From Yourself

When researching writer Raymond Chandler for a project that never happened, I came upon a lot of criticism of him and his writing.  One of the criticisms leveled at him from multiple sources was that he "stole from himself."  Now, even if you could steal from yourself, which seems impossible, I'm not even sure that it's worth mentioning.  However, what was being referred to was that he took earlier short stories, like the ones he had published in pulp fiction mags, and later re-worked them into novels.  This meant, to the critics, that he had run out of ideas, and that he was going back and stealing earlier ideas to create something to sell.

I'm quite the Chandler aficionado, and have been through all of his papers at the UCLA Archive and read lots of books and I have to say - I don't think that was what he was doing.

Chandler taught himself to write keystroke by painful keystroke.  He wrote at night, after a day in an office counting beans, and slowly but surely began getting published by the kinds of magazines that pay a penny a word.  It took him a long time to get from there to full time writer and he wasn't a young man when he began.  The writer who wrote "Blackmailers Don't Shoot" is not the writer who co-wrote the flawless screenplay for Double Indemnity.

Chandler was his own worst critic - he was well-educated, he lived in his head, in a bottle, and when he could, up a skirt (there's a theme emerging here if you add in Bukowski, Miller and some of the others), but he was not what you'd call a people person.  I believe writing was painstaking for him and creating stories meant teaching old muscles new tricks - his gift for analysis and criticism seem far more natural to him than those for spinning a good yarn.

My guess is that Chandler wanted another crack at what he thought were good plots or characters, now that he was a more assured writer.  Now that he had an expanded audience and an ability to tell stories on a grander scale, I think he wanted to stretch out certain concepts.  I think it's why he didn't mind having his writing adapted for the screen, yet mostly worked on other people's stories as a screenwriter.  He knew the material itself had multiple lives, and in reality, only lives in the mind of its audience  - the bigger the audience, the better.

There are a couple of lessons from this - one is go ahead and steal from yourself.  The other is don't try to run a marathon without training.

Chandler didn't start by writing novels.  He started small and worked up to a bigger canvas. He flexed his muscles for dialogue, character traits, settings, plot twists and then when he got good enough by his own reckoning, he tackled the 26.2 miles of a novel.

There's nothing wrong with this.  In fact, it's a good way to work.  Seeds of Woody Allen's biggest box office hit ever - Midnight in Paris - came from a short story he wrote decades before and the screenplay has scored multiple awards, including an Oscar.  (Also noteworthy - Mr. Allen made a time travel movie with NO visual effects.)

Chandler is expressly not guilty of what I see all the time in first spoken word pieces or first screenplays or novels - trying to tell the audience everything you know and everything you are about in one work.  You are limitless, your imagination is limitless and a work of art is held by time or space or both.  Let go of trying to cram it all in that first push -- you will get a much better story by focusing on that particular story.  You can have more novels like you can have more children - it takes work, dedication and commitment, but in the end you can have a whole shelf of books, instead of just one.  And they will be much better books.

That's my goal.

(There's another lesson in here - nothing is ever wasted.  My research on Chandler has left me in very good stead a number of times.)

(This blog is part of a series - you can look the others up on the side, or go to the blog search and type "writing is not a Mystery" - either should work.)

Monday, 27 February 2012

Quote of the Week - Dick (no - not what you're thinking!)


"Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away."
- Philip K. Dick (via Goodreads)

Aargh.  And ain't it just tax season.  

Have a great week!

p.s.  While preparing this post I learned that the "K" stands for Kindred.  Couldn't help thinking of Octavia Butler and wondering if there was a connection.

Friday, 24 February 2012

Practivist of the Week - Mike Eagle

Practivism = pragmatic, proactive, promotable activism.

How old are you, if you don’t mind?


What is the main focus of your practivism at this time and how does that manifest?

It's mostly trying to promote the arts as therapy for folks in impoverished communities.  Even in not so impoverished ones actually -- just really attempting to be an example of what the arts are here for.  It's not a commercial endeavor at its core; it's a way to express all the things we experience that can't be said.

The main project that I'm working on now is a cultural exchange program, with myself and Los Angeles producer Ras G.  We will visit and work with young musicians in Uganda.  We're still raising the funds needed to make it happen though -- you can help by donating.

What route did you take to get here?

Just being a performer and a musician and coming to understand what psychological needs were being met by this outlet, and traveling enough to see how constrained we are as a people, especially if one lives in any sort of difficult financial or social situation. 

I want to help people understand that we have tools to deal with the heavy parts of life.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Writing Is Not A Mystery - Go Organic

(We are so not done with the subject of Writer's Block, but we're changing it up this week. Writer's Block will come back - be assured.)

There are generally three choices when writing - obvious, organic, and inventive.

When I was studying the Spolin Technique and doing  experimental theatre (no, really), my director warned against being clever.  I had no idea what he meant.  What was wrong with clever?  Clever meant smart or witty or intelligent, funny with an edge - why not clever?

It took a while to see it, but clever isn't neccessarily those things.  It's a surface grasping to diffuse or change a situation from what it is into something else more manageable.  It's inventing a reality.  (I'm using invent here as a broader term to embrace clever and other similar modes.  I'm not at all trying to put down innovation or the creation of something new; I'm using invent in a more specific sense we can hopefully define as we go along.)

What's the difference between shows like The Wire with rabid fanbases across all boundaries, and network procedurals  which have fans who tune in to be lulled into forgetting their own world for 52 minutes?  I believe it begins with the writing.  Shows like The Wire, Sopranos, The Shield, Breaking Bad have a tremendously different approach.

The defining image for Breaking Bad is a middle-aged white guy out in the desert, shirt on, pants off, gun in hand.  This image is iconic because it asks a lot of questions and gives no answers.  It might be sad or funny or some new feeling we haven't approached yet.  If you've seen the first episode of the show, then you know how Walt got there - no pants on in the middle of the dessert.  How'd he get there?  Writer/creator Vince Gilligan put him there.

Think for a minute of the same image, only pants on.  Nothing, right?  Pants on, shirt off.  Something, but not the right thing.  Did the writer start with this image and work around it?  Possibly.  But he arrived at this state of being for Walt from spooling a story that makes logical and emotional sense for all of the characters in the situation.

Walt is wearing no pants because (SPOILERS) 1:  Walt cooks without his clothes on - odd, but reasonable in the cirucumstances - he doesn't want his family to know that he is doing this and he is afraid they will smell something strange on him; he doesn't want to have to make excuses.  2:  There was quite a fracas in the trailer, leaving Walt running around naked.  3:  He was able to grab his shirt.  4:  His pants went flying, leaving him in his skivvies.

So the iconic image is born from extreme, but real circumstances --- the choices are organic to the story and the situation these characters find themselves inhabiting.  It is not "Wouldn't it be cool if he didn't have any pants on," and it is equally not he's just wearing his regular clothes, a bit torn and burned, but nonetheless dressed (who cares?).

It's the kind of choice that makes Breaking Bad a very different show from every show that came before it.  Makes this world and these characters unique, but simultaneously believable - we start wondeirng if our next door neighbor the car dealer might not be running crack on the side.

Walt without pants is intellectually harder to write than Walt dressed, but it's not narratively harder to write.  It's easier.  Why?  Because Walt without pants brings with him a whole set of possibilities that can be addressed.  Situations open themselves up -- by constraining him to not having pants, you are also forcing him to deal with that problem.  Dealing with that problem gives you options for him to be humiliated, to be smarter than his situation, to be deceptive, to get into further trouble.  Any and all of these have the potential for raising the stakes, connecting us more deeply to Walt as a protagonist, introducing new characters, adding humour, adding real pathos.  They are juicy and filled with opportunity.  Zesty.

Writing organic seems harder, but in fact, it's easier.  When writers start to feel like something isn't working, or they don't know what to have happen next, the tendency is to go directly toward the extremes of obvious or inventive.  Either something entirely pedestrian happens, or something completely out of the blue, which has to be invented at great expense of time and brain cells to the writer.  Both options are used to serve the plot developing as it has been carefully pre-visioned, and prevent glitches that have to be handled later in the writing of a draft.

In a roundabout fashion (very roundabout), it is a choice made from laziness.  It's easier to circumvent the reality now, than have to deal with the fallout of a reality-based choice later.  Ouch.  Making this choice means the writer now has to write around reality for the rest of the draft in order to keep it on course, letting the plot's needs for events to happen steer the characters, instead of the characters needs and actions create the plot.  It seems an easier choice to make up front, but the back end is messy.  Not only does the writing of the draft become difficult, but choices become murky when there is no longer a basis for the right choice.  The writer circumvents gut and reality, and is left (hopefully, at least) with a story outline to follow.  Writing can become boring and lonely, and the draft that ensues is usually listless and lost.

When doing script consultations, I find this to be one of the biggest causes of the story derailing and the stakes being too low.  I worked with a writer who had a main character who had taken out a very large loan he couldn't pay back.  The crux of the story is that he was forced to pretend to be someone else in order to make money.  In the initial draft, there was no visible threat from the debt.  His house, car, and lifestyle were in tact.  The debt was mentioned in exposition as a problem, but no one ever came to collect.  Nothing bad happened to him, but still the character had to be thrust into this deception.

I began to ask questions, Well, what if they take away his car?  What if they take away his furniture?  What if he brings the girl home and there's a truck there to take away his possessions?  What if he suddenly has nowhere to live?

Questions like these that naturally arise in this situation can lead to some great new answers.  More conflict comes in, the stakes get raised, and the character becomes more accessible to the audience.  They may seem problematic at first - now I have to figure out where he's going to live? - but they offer opportunities, too -- what if a grown man has to move back in with his parents;  what if he has to impose on his best friend - ways to heighten the drama, create more tension, expose the gaps between characters.  You don't have to choose everything - one truly grave consequence might be enough to get the audience on board and propel your story, but choosing something that's truthful in the context of the story is always going to be a great option.  It's also going to have its own narrative engine - which means all you have to do is steer.

When you get stuck, try asking yourself a question, or two or three.  Specific questions about what would really happen here - what's the most likely thing to happen here?  What's the best thing that might happen?  What's the worst thing that could happen?  Your path may be down one of those roads.  It's true - movies, art, books - they are not real life.  But the ones that base their choices on real life choices are always the ones that have lasting relevance.

Write real to get to the drama.

This problem doesn't just occur in script writing and fiction.  It can happen in poetry.  The cute ending is an outgrowth of this.  It's an easy out, it leaves the audience thinking, "oh, that was a cute ending" and nothing more.  They won't remember the piece the next day and the rest won't resonate.  Why?  Because the ending, cute though it might be - matching your metaphor -  is not of the poem.  It's a smirk or a wink tacked onto the poem.  It's the idea of how the poem should end - probably one you had before tackling the actual poem.  It ends up undercutting your poem - making it less visceral and memorable for the audience.  Just when the writer's supposed to get in there and wrestle with the material, they jump ship - closing a serious poem with an ill-fitting quip, or other non-poetic devices that release the writer from the intimacy they have begun with the piece.

Just like a screenplay or novel, a poem is a journey.  It can be a tiny journey, a fragment, a picture without a frame, a frame without a picture.  Yet a good poem - no matter how short or long, no matter the style or intended audience - resonates.  It sings.  It does this by hanging in the air on its own vibration once it's done.  The cute ending tragically cuts short the life of the poem like performing euthanasia on a healthy body.  Follow the poem, let it lead you.  It has its own ideas - just like characters do, just like groups of characters do, like situations do.  Good poems have conflict just like good stories - don't insert yourself between the writing and the potential conflict, blocking the way to its expression - this is how to get pedestrian writing - stand back and expose the conflict -- it's the paydirt, the motherlode, it's where the drama is, where the connection to the audience lies.

"I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”
- Michelangelo

THIS is our job as writers.  This and only this.  The story, the poem, the novel, the script - when it's working, it comes right through you.  Get out of the way so you can see it, then reveal it.  That reveal is where all the hard work lies - like chipping marble with tiny hammers, it might take time - maybe years, but it is the work, and it can create something breathtaking.

Go out there and find your piece of marble and get to work.


(This blog is part of a series - you can look the others up on the side, or go to the blog search and type "writing is not a Mystery" - either should work.)

Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Sunlight Is Blue

Yes - it's true.  The sun appears yellow, or yellow orange, but sunlight is blue.  On a scale of halogen lamps (daylight aka blue) to tungsten (interior light aka yellow/orange), you can see this pretty clearly.  (Fluorescent light tends to be green - boo - unflattering to all!  Some of the newer fluorescents are color-corrected, but they still feel antiseptic to me.)

Is the sky blue because the sun's light is blue?  Maybe.  Is it refraction or reflection?  I think the jury's still out.

I like light.  When I took Andrew Sarris' History of Cinema class at Columbia, the first question he asked was, "What's the one thing you need to make a movie?"  I knew the answer, but as a freshman in a class full of grad students, I was super shy.  None of them got it.  The answer:  light.  You can't make movies without light.

In photographs and movies, the past is often sepia-toned - yellow/brown.  It's a cliche to show things that are old.  One of the things I really didn't like about Deadwood was that the "Old West" was shown just like we saw it in pictures - all sepia.

And all of this comes up because I read this intriguing article in the New York Times today about what happens when the eye ages.  According to this research, we lose our ability to let in blue light and the world becomes more yellow.  While this has vast implications in relation to Circadian rhythms, what caught me was something else:

As we get older, our world literally fades to sepia.

Not only does the color of our world change as we get older, but it changes exactly in the way we've collectively chosen to envision the past.  Aesthetic choice, based on historical accuracy, which has become short-hand cliche, and therefore a metaphor for the past, actually mirrors the physical aging process of individuals.  (Wow.) As we get older, as we have more behind us than in front of us, everything gets viewed through a nostalgic lens.

There's a picture of my grandfather when he was about 17 and dressed the dandy in a brown suit, with a brown hat and a brown least -- I think they were brown.  Thing is, that picture would be almost a century old now, and black and white photographs weren't really black and white then.  Though I didn't meet him til he was much, much older, this picture is as much him to me as the real grandfather, in full color.  He clearly had to go to some photo studio to get photographed, and got all dressed up - he may never have really looked like that, but I have a story in my mind of this tall, thin, elegant, fashionable-conscious man going around New York with a walking stick!  Images do that - they tell us stories, and we, in turn, tell stories back at them and about them.

What's past is prologue, through a filter, paused in shutter-speed increments, selected for posterity.

It feels dangerous to me that the way the eye ages filters out part of our world and life experience.  We need the full spectrum to process reality.  Especially at the pace we live it now.

Maybe Prince was right - you gotta turn on the blue light to keep it fresh.

Monday, 20 February 2012

Quote of the Week - Finney

"Who can you turn and tell?  You can tell yourself.  That's who matters in the telling.  Then tell the page...tell the page...and the word will get out.  The family will then pass the word along."


It's so important to remember the validity of voice.  Regardless of who is listening.  This isn't THX - you may not have an audience (yet, or still), but you are listening.  You.  Tell yourself your truth.  Tell yourself what counts.  Tell yourself your story matters - maybe not more than anyone else's, but at least as much.

You've got a new week.  Tell your story to the page, the iPhone Voice Recorder, the built-in camera on your laptop - go tell it - like the man said - on the mountain.  Even if only the wind hears.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Writing Is Not A Mystery - The Myth of Writer's Block (Part 2)

Last week the topic was not enough ideas - an empty jar.  Another common cause of what people like to call "Writer's Block" is its opposite.  Either way - the result is the same:  you sit down, and nothing comes out.

So let's go back to the funnel.

Have you ever tried to get jellybeans from one jar to another through a funnel?  You tip over the top jar and empty it into the funnel and the jellybeans manage to create a formation that completely stops the flow, blocks the opening, and still - empty jar - despite having tons of jellbeans!

So you kind of start over, shake the funnel, pick at the jellybeans - it's a painful process and you wonder what's so great about a funnel anyway.

Having too many things to say when you sit down to write is a lot like that clogged funnel.  What you want is a steady flow - a river of words - a lovely stream, and what you get is the Holland Tunnel at rush hour - nothing's moving.

Your brain might look a lot like that Lego picture up there - you trudging up and down in impossible directions, with no true North, no sense of where gravity lies, no silence in the chaos.

It's an extremely frustrating situation, however, it's not bad.  The more you sit down, the more ideas you get out of your life and into that jar - the less of a problem it's going to be.  This problem will remedy itself over time.

Too many ideas is the best possible problem - as long as you can handle them.

But you must start somewhere.  And I'm afraid to say it again, but that begins with sitting down.

If you need a way in - try this exercise:

- Write down all of you writing project ideas

- From those, choose 10

- Put the top 10 in order of most to least interested

- Look at your top 3

- Choose 1

- Write!

Now - this may not be enough for you.  It may be that you know your number 1 project is a novel and you know what the novel is about and you want very badly to write this novel and no other and you get stuck every time you start.  (Still - you should do the above exercise to make sure this is where your energy lies - you might have something else churning that wants attention.)

If you know exactly what you want to be writing, but are still not writing, then you're in the place where a coach can help, and yes, disclaimer, I do do this.

However, here are some things you can try yourself:

Don't get married to starting in a particular place - write what's on the top of your head.  Sometimes, people get obsessed with starting at the beginning and going forward, or mapping out the ending.  My advice, echoing Pema Chodron's book title is:  start where you are.  Just get it down - whatever it is, all of it.  Then - if it's not what you need to focus on, file it with a name that makes it easy to find again in a folder you will look at and move on.

This makes some writers uncomfortable; there is a nervousness about letting something go, or losing something en route.  In order to make gravy, my grandmother always skimmed the fat off the juices first.  Then she added her flour and mixed it all up in the pan with a fork.  So gravy was born, after that layer of fat was taken away.  She didn't lose anything - being a Depression Era child, she held onto the fat (in a tin coffee container) and used it for other things.  You're not losing anything by starting where you are - you're freeing up the good stuff, and saving the rest for possible use later.  Gravy.

Our brains are excellent parallel processors, but they do not have infinite capacity.  Brains get stuck on certain memes and create trails to and from them - it's how habits are formed, it's how technique and craft are created.  Don't let the brain's pecadillos choose what you are going to write and how your craft is going to form  -- YOU CHOOSE it.  Those little dancing droplets hanging out around your third eye write them down and send them on their way so you can focus on what you really want and need to say.

Write everything you know about it - If it's just an idea, if it's not all the way there, my advice is always to write every single thing you know about it.  If it started in a dream, write the dream out, write the way you felt when you woke up, write any colors you saw, anything you heard, write down the name of the song that haunts you in relation to it.  You can use research and put in links to images or sounds that will spark you.  I'm a big fan of Evernote for organizing these kinds of details; you might prefer Pinterest - but there are free tools out there for you - use them!  Once you've safely downloaded (from the physical world and from your brain) everything about this thing that is haunting you and wants to be written, but possibly isn't fully cooked, you can walk away and know that you can come back to it at any time and it will all be there for you.  The more detail you get down - the more easily you will spark the same neurons when you go back to it and be able to get right into the flow of the ideas once more.

Do an outline - if this is a large project, this is a great way to start.  Inspiration-based writers can find this to be a block.  (But we've already gotten debunked the persnickety concept of Inspiration, so why not have a go at it?)  The best things about an outline is that you're suddenly not forced to write the entire thing every time you sit down.  You can choose one item, write it, and go on about your day.  Tomorrow, choose another item.  (Your items might take longer than one writing session, but you get the idea.)

NOTHING is written in one draft, you will ALWAYS have to go back and work transitions and timelines, so writing out of order isn't sacrificing flow, or time spent writing.  Sometimes, though, it gives you signposts to the key scenes, big changes, or touchstones of a piece - it can be a powerful way to work.

Start with a writing exercise or prompt - One of my favorites came through The Constant Creator - Poetry for Character Development.  Basically, you write poems in a form about the characters in your piece.  It's great for backstory, but I've also pulled entire scenes out of this exercise.  This exercise works for fiction, screenplays and plays.  If you're writing something else, search the internet for writing prompts - you'd be surprised how many come up.

Write about 1 aspect of the project and let go - Start by writing a character bio, a description of a place in the piece, a meditation on the time period.  If you are writing non-fiction, try writing a mission statement:  why are you writing what you are about to write.  Keep going once you've gotten through this - more will come.

- Free write.  It's really the solution to so many problems.  Blank page - pen - and keep writing.  And yes - do this by hand!  If you need to, add music, or an image - some touchstone. If you use an image or music, keep in mind marrying it back to the topic at hand, the thing you'd like to write.

So get going.  While too many ideas often manifest as a blockage - I wouldn't term it Writer's Block.  That term has taken on a life over the course of its usage that points to a kind of paralysis only lifted by some Deus Ex Machina.  The term is loaded, and suggests something undiagnosable and big is going on somewhere in the writer's psyche preventing actual writing.  Anything that feels like Writer's Block needs more careful inspection - too few ideas, too many ideas - these are just a couple of the the causes.  We'll look at more as we go on - and remember, you are not alone.  Most of these are universal - occasional, temporary, but universal.

See you next week!

(This blog is part of a series - you can look the others up on the side, or go to the blog search and type "writing is not a Mystery" - either should work.)

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

Happy Marmite Day!

Oops - I meant Valentine's.

Here's a link to a free EP download - Live At Folk-A-Dot!

4 tracks recorded at The Green Note:

Looking for Vegas
Heart Like Prayer Wheel
American History Y
The Full English

Goes best with wine and chocolate.

Monday, 13 February 2012

Quote of the Week - Alvarez Bravo

Sometimes a picture is worth a thousand words.  Sometimes words don't do it.

Feel free to use the above as a writing prompt.  One of my favorite images of all time.

UPDATE:  I'm feeling more verbal now.  Found this lustrous quote on Alvarez Bravo's website:

quote start When I work it´s by impulse. Not in the sense of planning a photograph in advance. I work by impulse. No philosophy. No ideas. Not by the head but by the eyes. Eventually inspiration comes. Instinct is the same as inspiration, and eventually it comes.  quote end

Manuel Álvarez Bravo

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Writing Is Not A Mystery - Follow Up

Just after posting the Sitting Down Like Bukowski blog, a couple of things floated up that seemed serendipitous.  One,  shared on FB by a friend, was an account of Henry Miller's "Commandments:"

This is a good list.  It's personal, but it's useful to writers at large.  It's clear he was battling some personal issues he had with writing - I think #1 and #2 and #10 seem to be specifically targeted at some battle he was hacing - I like to work on multiple things in different stages, it allows me less burnout (assuming I'm not on deadline pressure).  Still, these are all strong, clear, and point to a very serious process.  Mix and match - write your own.  Keep what works; throw away the rest.  Most of all, remember that prolific, published, and consumed writers need reminders, too.  You are not alone.

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Writing Is Not A Mystery - The Myth of Writer's Block (Part 1)


Number 1 reason people do not sit down.

Writer's Block - capital W, capital B - does not exist.  Writer's Block is an aggregate name for a combination of symptoms existing in people who would like to write, but feel stuck.  You get rid of it by creating a process.  The first step in the process is sitting down (see previous blogs ad nauseum).

Writer's Block often manifests as the refusal to sit down.

The refusal to sit down is coming from somewhere inside the person who would be writing.  Often it is a reflection of one or more anxieties about sitting down.  Anxieties come from anywhere and everywhere.  They may be idiosyncratic, but more often, take heart,  they are fairly universal.

Most common are the extremes - a paucity of things to say, or too many things to say.  These both manifest as the dreaded Writer's Block, yet neither has anything to do with that.

For our purposes the would-be writer is a funnel.

You put a funnel over an empty jar.  If you don't pour anything into the funnel from somewhere else - still empty jar.

This is a paucity of things to say.  If the original vessel is running on empty, nothing is going to come out and go into the new jar.  You are just the funnel when you are writing.  Your brain, your life, your heart, your experience, your everything is the original vessel.  Your  job as a writer is to give a path to the contents of that vessel into a new one - metaphorically a jar, but in reality a poem, a story, a screenplay, a book, or any other plastic art you choose.

Emptiness, in a Zen sense, can be a very good place to begin.  It denotes clarity, openness, and willingness to receive.  We're not talking about a Zen sense here, unless your ability to receive is highly skilled and you are a channel for filling vessels and then very lucky you - you won't have Writer's Block at all (and that's another blog).

Emptiness in this sense is something else.  Like a car run out of fuel.  A car with an empty gas tank does not require inspiration; it requires gas.  What is gas for an artist?  Everything in life.  When does an artist run out of gas?  In multiple situations.  Life gets too stressful, people around the artist are draining, the drone of daily life has kicked over the ability to experience with sensitivity.  Exhaustion, illness, completion of a very large project or work of art - all of these can cause an emptiness.

You need to put in some gas.  Recharge, refuel in ways that are meaningful for you.  Julia Cameron's Artist's Dates are meant to do just this - keep the gas tank full.  Yes - go to a museum, a movie, a show, take a walk on a new path, get off the subway at a different stop, hike, play tennis, take a trip.  Those are all great.  They may not be what you need.  You may need to talk to your best friend, or take a nap, or help someone less fortunate than you, or teach a child how to play a game.  But you need to put gas in the tank.

Frustration over this empty vessel and empty jar is just what gets people talking about inspiration and ascribing it  mystical, magical, and elusive properties.  It must be all these things if you can't find it when you need it, right?  Let's debunk this here and now.  Just because something has the feeling of magic when it occurs does not necessarily make it random or infrequent, or even difficult.  We've all read the Harry Potter books - magic is clearly the culmination of tradition, learning, practise, and skill!  Even magic isn't really magic, is it?  Yes - you want that tingly feeling, that pierce of synchronicity, that pin prick of the collective unconscious, but its presence is not accidental and its absence does not constitute Writer's Block. (And when it comes to sitting down, Rowling is clearly Queen - how many thousands of hours of sitting must it have taken to create that series?  Which brings us back to doe...I mean...Zen.)

Inspiration is not just what appears out of thin air - it is - almost literally - a breath of fresh air you take in.  You don't wait for it to descend.  There's no need.  You know where to find it.  Give up being bored.  It's a nasty habit and it won't help you create anything.  Get to wonder.  Get to curiosity.  Ideas will start flooding (ah - our other potential problem).

Modern life makes it easy to tune out and turn off.  So let's take Timothy Leary's advice (just this once, he may not be the best role model) and tune in and turn on.  Just be present - cultivate that Zen emptiness and freshen your eyes and your mind into living again.  Inspiration is everywhere, but when you start snatching at it like the hem of a cute girl's skirt in a bar, it's just going to sashay away.  Then you're going to start calling it fickle and treat it like a woman who's just not that into you.  You see where this analogy is going?  Good.

Cultivate relationships and they will reward you.  That relationship could be with a person, with wonder, with fly fishing, with anything.  Your relationship with writing is inherently going to be about your relationships with other things - because, unlike fly fishing, writing is not really a thing unto itself - it is a tool to communicate with people about other things.  It is the offshoot of language and is only interesting when you have something to say.  That something - that's what needs to be cultivated.  If you keep running your tank on empty, you will be standing on the side of the road with your thumb out.  Ah!  And that is precisely when you are desperate enough to get into the next car willing to take you.  And I bet there's a story in that ride.

OMG - the frakkin hills are alive!  Joy, wonder, reverence, breathing - cultivate these!
More on Writer's Block next week.  In the meantime, go out and fill up!

(This blog is part of a series - you can look the others up on the side, or go to the blog search and type "writing is not a Mystery" - either should work.)

Monday, 6 February 2012

Quote of the Week - Gazzara

“You go where they love you.”  
-Ben Gazzara
 This is such an important message to artists.  Gazzara was interviewed about why he was doing so much work in Italy.  Very few artists and creatives do well without appreciation.  Truly, I think very few people do.  Go where you are appreciated, where you and your work are understood, and where you are given opportunity to do more and better work.  (This doesn't mean don't challenge yourself -- but there are other wasy of doing that than facing the wrong types of adversity.)

Find  your community.

RIP Ben Gazzara.

Friday, 3 February 2012

Practivist of the Week - YOU Helping Ingrid

The campaign for Tara Hardy's health care was fulfilled with a speed and intensity that made many of us feel reinvested in the values of our community.

Health and wellness seem to be recurring themes.  Our health care infrastructure needs attention, and has begun demanding it.

This week I'm hoping you can help contribute to making a short life a happier one, and one with precious memories for her family.  Baby Ingrid was diagnosed with brain cancer about 6 months ago.  Currently she is 20 months.  Her cancer has returned and the doctors do not feel that further treatment will not impede the progress of the disease.  They have given her a prognosis of only 3-5 months to live.  This means she might not see her second birthday.

Her parents would like to make the rest of her time with her family sweet and memorable.

Ingrid is too young to be considered for the Make-A-Wish Foundation program, so they are dedicating themselves to fundraising to make her wishes come true.

To donate to Ingrid's Travel Fund, CLICK HERE.

UPDATE!!!!!  Baby Ingrid's Travel Fund has now surpassed its goal!  But please feel free to keep on giving!

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Writing Is Not A Mystery - Creating A Safe Space

"You can write anything.   
Just don't show it to anybody."*
- Allen Ginsberg
This is so simple and so important.  And so often forgotten.  The writing is yours - of you, from you, and first for you.  If it's not good (by your standards and yours alone), if it makes you uncomfortable, if it scares you, put it in a drawer.  Forget about it.  Move on.

Somewhere I read that Bukowski said that when you wrote a poem, you should put it away for 18 days and then come back to it.  I don't know if this attribution was correct, I don't know what it might be about 18 days, but sometimes putting things away for 18 days - or forever - is a great idea.  A little distance can help.

We are starting to get into the realm of editing and rewriting here, just a bit, which we're not quite ready for.  However, I do want to stress how incredibly important it is to create a safe space for you and your writing.

Visceral, go-for-the-jugular Rachel McKibbens pointed this out in a workshop she ran at WOWps - and no one would say her work lacks courage and candor on the stage.  Being safe is a different principle.

As a poet/performer, there are poems you write and immediately want to jump on stage and read before an audience.  You are burning to share, you are burning to see if it works for other people like it does for you. There are also things you write that make you cringe in parts, that feel too fleshy and raw.  Feel free not to jump up on a stage and read them.  Feel free not to blog them, tweet them, FB them, tumblr them, or share them in any way, until and unless you are comfortable doing so.

This is permission to hide some of the things that you write.  This is therefore permission to write anything and everything that you want.  Are you a mom with 4 kids longing to be the next Anais Nin?  Go ahead.  Write it.  If it makes you uncomfortable, put it in a drawer, or an encrypted file, or a locked folder when you're done.

I'm not suggesting you all go out and become Henry Dargers - working in private secrecy your whole life and revealing a treasure trove of wondrous oddities upon your death.  If you find you're hiding more than you are exposing, it may be that you need to realign some things in your life, or tackle some issues in a different forum, with guidance.

Detail from a larger work by Henry Darger

What I'm saying is that there's no need to block the creative impulses you feel in order to appease a hypothetical, perceived future audience.  So you give yourself permission to never show them while you're writing, and even after you've written it.

There are times you have to write through something to get to something else.  This is true in relationships, too - you have to work through some knots in order to be able to grow.  By blocking the impulse out of fear of exposure (a huge universal fear), you may block yourself from getting through that difficult bit of writing in order to find the juicy writing you have been seeking.

Ginsberg was arguably one of the most open writers and people ever.  Just look at his eyes in the picture above - it's like he's living right there in the lens.  But he still knew about creating safety for yourself.  Writing can be an emotional maelstrom.  The subjects you want to tackle are the ones with the most energy and may also be the ones most fraught with peril.  Give yourself permission to back off.

I evolved a rule a while back - anything that makes me cringe in any way, any where, for any reason gets cut.  It could be too personal - or personal in an incorrect way for sharing.  It could just be bad writing.  If it makes me cringe, I cut it.  Simple.  Useful.  Effective.

Find your own healthy boundaries that allow you to express yourself fully, while allowing you to present your best work publicly.  Find or create a comfortable nurturing area in your life for your writing - whether it's writing in your favorite cafe, or an easy chair that was your grandmother's, or working in a writers' group - find your spot and cultivate it.

*I haven't been able to verify this quote before posting, however, I've had it written down long enough that I believe I've memorized it correctly.  However - it may be a paraphrase.

(This blog is part of a series - you can look the others up on the side, or go to the blog search and type "writing is not a Mystery" - either should work.)