Monday, February 20, 2017

Minding My Muse 02

By the end of last summer I found myself in a serious writing slump. That’s when I found Priscilla Long’s wonderful new book titled Minding the Muse: A Handbook for Painters, Composers, Writers, and Other Creators. I spent September reading and responding to the writing prompts at the end of each chapter. With Priscilla’s permission, I will post those prompts and my unedited responses over the next weeks.

Priscilla Long, Minding the Muse, p. 11
What is your work practice? Do you work every day? Do you place various unattainable conditions on when, where, or how you can work, resulting in a sporadic work habit? If so, how might this be improved?”

September 12, 2016
I am not working every day. I have done little actual new writing this summer, though I have completed a load of editing – four manuscripts represent a fair amount of work! It’s the morning pages and timed writing I’ve let slide, the creation of new work. In part because I want the old work re-published and in part because the new memoir is slow in coming.

I definitely place conditions on the where or when or how that I write. I feel I need to do morning pages in the morning! And when I don’t, I can’t seem to find another time to get that private writing into my routine. Maybe I could get fifteen minutes in bed instead of reading at night if I’ve skipped morning pages or thirty minutes in my campus office before leaving for home. But more importantly, I need to explore how to use the timed write/morning pages to re-enter the memoir and to create new work for the blog.

Priscilla Long, Minding the Muse, p. 11
What specific products do you aim to achieve during your next period of work (week, month, year)? What are the steps to achieving them? “

September 12, 2016
My next project is to read, edit, and submit Moving Mom. Possibly change the title. First I’ll read Marcella for Pam and share my thoughts. I’ll try to do that this week and next Moving Mom I’ll aim for Christmas, or by the end of winter break. To do that I need time at my computer reading. This is not morning pages time. This will be Fridays and Saturdays, and maybe scheduled afternoons.

At the same, I need to re-enter the Mexico memoir enough to establish startlines. These, as well as exercises from What if? These could be my startlines for Louisa’s (Fridays?) and Uptown practices.

Priscilla Long, Minding the Muse, p. 11
“Do you work on more than one piece at a time? Do you allow the pieces to interact with each other and influence each other?”

September 12, 2016
The only short pieces I do are for my blog. I tend not to submit short pieces, though I know Priscilla would insist I should. At the same time, I do let my blog and my long project (memoir or novel) as well as morning pages interact and influence each other so I suppose that’s on target. My biggest challenge is to re-enter the world of daily writing, daily focused writing. Once I do that, and once I feel my publishing schedule is as it should be, I should be able to re-enter The Ex-Mexican Wives Club as well as weekly or bi-weekly blog posts.

Priscilla Long, Minding the Muse, p. 11
“When you next complete a work, what will you do to reward yourself?” Which work will this be?”

Rewards? I’m not so good at rewarding myself. I suppose I see the book itself as the reward, or the number of views to a blog post. I see writing as a hobby rather than a job; completion makes me happy. It’s its own reward.

But then people comment on my productivity, speed, publications. Maybe I do need, or needed a break. A reward. Maybe that’s why I haven’t succeeded yet to dig deep into the Mexico years and find the story, the memories there that are needed for this third memoir. Maybe I needed this summer of distraction – Erin’s wedding, a houseful of friends and family, Booktrope going under, taking the time to re-edit before re-releasing with Bookadelphia. It’s been a long summer break from creation, and soon I need to return.

February 20, 2017 Update
I am slowing re-entering the world of Mexico 1979-1985. I continue to gather memories, and I’ve made contact with an old friend I once knew there, a friend with whom I share memories. But I question how far I should go with this searching for details through another’s memories. John Irving addresses this quandary in his memoir, The Imaginary Girlfriend:

“Of course I could phone Andre Dubus and ask him if it was his chest or Crumley’s that was splattered with Boston cream pie; I could call David Plimpton and ask him if he threw the pie, and whose chest he hit. But I believe the gaps and even the errors of my memory are truthfulness of another kind: what we fiction writers forget, or what we get wrong, is part of what a “memoir” means to us.”

Prior posts in this series:

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Minding My Muse 01

2016 was a year full of extreme joy and deep grief. Through it all I was in a serious writing slump. I suppose it happens sometimes. It was not writers block, but more like an angst-ridden teen’s What for?

In September I looked at the coming of fall gray, the start of a new academic year, the state of the country and the world, the delays in the re-release of my books, the losses of loved ones, the fears related to memoir, and I understood this slump.

But maybe that wasn’t the point. Maybe dissecting and understanding didn’t matter. Perhaps I simply needed the discipline of any writer worth her or his salt to put my butt in the chair every single day, close out the world, and put pen to paper to tell a story.

On September 1, 2016, Seattle author and teacher, Priscilla Long, released Minding the Muse: A Handbook for Painters, Composers, Writers, and Other Creators. It’s a gem for experienced writers whose practice has, for one reason or another, gone sideways. The book has fourteen chapters, each ending with writing prompts. It was exactly what I needed to put my butt back in the chair.
I wrote in a flurry through September, responding to the bulk of the prompts provided. By the time my fall teaching quarter began, I was no longer working my way through Minding the Muse, but writing my memoir again. I owe a debt of gratitude for the direction Priscilla’s work provided. With her permission, I’ll post my responses to her probing questions over the next weeks. To be true to the process, I’ll share these unrevised, unedited raw responses, taken directly from my writer’s notebook. In some cases, I’ll add updates to these 5 or 6 month old writings.

Priscilla Long, Minding the Muse, p. 2
Peruse these chapters in any order that strikes your fancy. I suggest beginning a notebook in which to reflect on your own art practice. On each subject, begin by describing what the reality is right now, since our efforts to move forward must necessarily proceed from a good comprehension of reality. Write for ten minutes on your present situation (‘My current situation with regard to – is …’). Do not stop. Do not worry about correctness or eloquence. Then write for five more minutes in response to the question: How can I make my practice in this area more effective by 5 percent?”

September 11, 2016
My current situation with regard to my writing practice is fairly nonexistent. I have written nothing new on the third memoir since early summer, and even my blog posts have dwindled. Still, I have read, edited and submitted all three novels and the first memoir to Bookadelphia for re-release. So that’s something. It’s work. It’s reading and editing, but it’s not creating, and I do miss creating. In all fairness, I suppose I needed a break from working so hard for so long, and then there was, still is, Erin and Elliott’s wedding with all the prep and house guests, etc. But I haven’t been doing morning pages, and now I’m looking at the clock because ten minutes feels like forever and my arm and hand are sore from lack of daily writing. I fear I have nothing more to say, that I’ve written all there is inside me. But I know that’s not true either. I’m a writer, but I’m not writing. I need discipline, and discipline went out the window this summer despite my early attempts at practice retirement. It’s so easy to let a day slip away, to write all of one day and do nothing the next. And I agree with Priscilla that daily practice is the key whether it’s fifteen minutes or four hours or anything in between. The DAILY is the key. I also know I need structure.

September 12, 2016
I don’t know how to measure 5% improvement, but I do know that I need to improve my practice and that the first step is by simply writing. I need to write daily and I need to find a schedule I can stick to whether I’m teaching full time or on break or traveling or whatever. I think that, no I know that what has worked in the past (and could work again!) is to do morning pages. Thirty minutes of writing every single morning first thing when I wake up. Coffee and pen and notebook. I also need to avoid that my morning writing become nothing more than a daily To Do list or a list of complaints about life. I want to write scenes or do character development for the next memoir or write blog posts.

February 12, 2017 Update
Fall quarter went well, winter break passed, now I’m in the depths of winter term. I get up most mornings at 6:00 to do a 30-minute timed write before leaving for campus. Fridays I type and rewrite. My current memoir project, The Ex-Mexican Wives Club, remains a challenge, but it’s coming along. I’m at 31,169 very rough words, and I feel confident I have a story to tell.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Staying in the Depths

My latest project, a memoir about my years as an ex-pat, is a bit like trying to swim in a cold mountain lake after a long hot hike. I want to get in. I know it will feel good. I’m certain I won’t regret it. I dip a toe in and pull back. I walk in up to my knees and run out. I just can’t get all the way in. So it goes with this memoir. What’s holding me back? What’s keeping me from diving in and staying in the depths until I complete the first draft?

Perhaps it’s the subject matter: memories buried deep by time, distance and language.

Perhaps part of me resists re-entering the world of that lost young woman searching for self in a foreign land.

Perhaps I struggle to face the truths and lies of that younger me, to look her in the eye and offer acceptance, understanding, even forgiveness for the pain she caused.

Perhaps denial is easier than facing the loss of friends once so dear who have slipped through the fingers of time.

Perhaps I have nothing to say.

Are these challenges personal or inherent to memoir writing? Perhaps a bit of both. For me, the solution is found in discipline: diving in and staying in the frigid water until the work is done.

If you’re in the Seattle area, I hope you can join me this Saturday to discuss and practice memoir writing.

Writing Memoir: What? Why? How?
Mountlake Terrace Library
23300 58th Ave W
Mountlake Terrace, WA
Saturday, February 11, 2017
10:30 a.m. - 12:30 p.m.