Friday, 21 December 2012

Beginnings, Endings, and In-Betweens

We've discussed beginnings, and to some degree, endings, as well as moving full circle in our writing  . . . 
The winter holiday season always stirs up additional thoughts about cycles, the patterns of joy, sorrow, and movement through time that is particularly noticeable as we review our lives at year’s end and simultaneously look forward to the New Year with anticipation and maybe even a little dash of apprehension.

This year the stakes are ever more poignant with the infamous Mayan long count calendar cycle that ends today. For the Maya, this date signified the start of the “World of the Fifth Sun”,  in a way, what the New Year has always signalled in all the world’s cultures of which I have any knowledge – a transformative day, a time to turn over a new leaf, to make a new beginning.

But this winter solstice, for the first time in 26,000 years, the sun rose to conjunct the intersection of the Milky Way and the plane of the ecliptic. This movement formed a cosmic cross, a metaphorical embodiment of the Tree of Life that is sacred to many of the world’s spiritual traditions. This alignment of our sun within the heart of our galaxy is said to open a channel for cosmic energy to flow, raising all beings on our planet to a higher level of vibration. Perhaps this isn’t such a stretch of the imagination, living as we do in a world composed energetic particles.

So let the cleansing begin in this sorrow-plagued world. We have jellyfish days of epic proportion far too often now. Perhaps this is no different in the present era than in the past – we are after all, living in Samsara, a dimension of sorrow, suffering, and brief, illusory beauty.

For me, 12/21/2012 is also a meaningful date because the numerological vibration is clear in the repeating digits. From a numerological perspective, these digits reduce to the number eleven when added together, a karmic figure. Eleven is said to be a “master number” signifying the potential to push human limitation into higher spiritual perception. Oops, looks like the Mayans could see this potential for human enlightenment centuries ago through their calendric and astronomical observations!

As far as the massive natural catastrophes predicted by some self-made pundits (probably to sell books), I suspect that the global climate chaos wrought by some combination of human mismanagement and nature is one of Earth’s most pressing problems and will play out for years to come, perhaps symptomatic not only of illness but of our planet’s natural tendency to balance and heal itself.

For the masses of ordinary citizens around our globe, 2012 has been a year of great trial and tribulation socially, economically, and politically. The common man has stepped forward to question a world in which the lion’s share of resources are held by the wealthy, and the perpetual “war on terror” seems to merge with a perpetual war for diminishing resources. As 2012 began, the Occupy movement that arose worldwide in 2011 morphed from street theatre and protest to a quieter and more practical level of grass roots activism. Occupy is alive but in a transformed state.

Each nation has its particular struggle, and here in America, we are clearly contemplating our long-time relationship with violence and firearms. In the past week, the US was thrust once again into the glare of its violent past and present and its commitment to individual liberties, which seems  to manifest all too often at the intersection of the freedom to bear arms and mass shootings, this time of young innocents who never should've  had to face the terrible demise they endured. Not very different, as it turns out, than the constant snuffing out of young lives by drones or terrorists or warfare (legitimate warfare – legitimate rape?) in easily forgotten, far-away places.

If the current events of the past year are not fodder for storytelling in both fiction and nonfiction, I don’t know what is. I have not yet been inspired to write about the startling events of past year except in brief nods on this blog, but I’m sure one event or another, or maybe several, will percolate through my consciousness and emerge in in my work in the years to come.

I think most writing is like our long view of life – we begin on a noisy, showy, inspired level to write the framework of our story, then we progress into the subtle and quieter levels of revision to polish the finer details, reviewing our initial journey. Along the way, we’ve endeavored to write a strong hook and close with a firm and memorable ending that ties in a circular way back to the hook, answering the questions stimulated by the story opening. If we’re career-conscious writers, we’ll probably leave some room in our wrap-up for a sequel, or an expansion of a short story into a novel, or room for an essay to grow into a longer narrative.

But what about the unremarkable passages in our lives and the narratives between big events in fiction? These are the memorable jellyfish and sundog moments of real life, and the big plot points in novels or the highlights of nonfiction. These middle moments are the daily-ness that provides a balance to life’s emotionally charged situations and are a respite from those highs and lows. But these in-betweens serve a different purpose in literature as transitions that connect the major points or scenes and by necessity, must move a story forward.

In fiction, these quieter scenes may flesh out the story with descriptive passages that explore the character arc or flesh out a setting or a new setting, or that focus upon dialogue or scenes of various combinations that ratchet up the tension for the next intense plot point. Some fiction genres like thrillers or suspense are generally plot-driven and may require almost constant conflict and action to satisfy readers. Romances and literary fiction often have slower-moving action and more character-driven scenes. Narrative and creative nonfiction both require a certain amount of quiet, supporting commentary to support salient points.

In all writing, the middle of the deal those quiet moments between the most interesting stuff  is where it’s easy to get bogged down and put your reader to sleep. Like this spot, perhaps. What stops the story and what keeps it going? Sometimes novels bog down because the stakes aren’t high enough. It feels like the protagonist is just hanging there spinning her wheels while everything is happening around her. Maybe there are neglected subplots that need more exploration. In nonfiction, we writers sometimes don’t dig deep enough into our research and fail to thoroughly explore our topic. In all cases, the result is a sort of unfleshed skeleton masquerading as a story.

Or perhaps we muddle the middle and don’t discover the mess we’ve left behind until well after the first draft. I have a first novel like that. I never quite knew exactly where I was headed or exactly how to write some key scenes properly and this shows, even after a half-dozen revisions. I’m a “seat of the pants” sort of writer, driven to discover exactly what the story is as I write it, which sometimes fails miserably. Some of my novel is clearly salvageable, but some chapters need to be dragged screaming to the recycle bin.

Don’t be afraid to follow your heart, but beware – we can spin our wheels in real life and still survive in a relatively normal but unenlightened way, but this muddling along doesn’t work in writing. Every bit of what appears on the page must move the narrative forward and keep the reader turning pages. In other words, we can vary the rhythm of a piece with slow, quiet in-between scenes, but there can’t be any boring, disconnected parts.

Sometimes what we thought was the story is simply a huge warm-up or an outline that leads us to dig deeper into the real tale. Maybe we’ve followed the least interesting slant in nonfiction or told the story from the wrong character’s point of view in fiction, and a deeper examination helps us find the real story arc.

Another stuck in the middle point may be writer fatigue – we simply lose our way in the middle of the piece and must regroup and refocus upon the protagonist’s dilemma or the essence of our nonfiction to recapture the story, or perhaps slow down to make the necessary additions or deletions to polish the work.

Like today, the writing process includes quiet, contemplative moments when the best work is a review, a time to tread water and scope the horizon for the next good wave . . . I’ve watched surfers paddle around the breakers for hours on end, surfing only a few times on the very best waves. They are patient – and poised, waiting in a state of focused concentration.

Sometimes the best wave is yet to come. Sometimes all we can do is wait and trust our writing process or trust that we’ll know the proper time to end an old course of action or start a new one. Be aware, keep your eye on the rhythm of the writing waves, and cruise with the best one when it arrives!

Photo by Puja Robinson, 2010

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Dabbling Creatively

Imagine: How Creativity WorksImagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Jonah Lehrer. Imagine: How Creativity Works. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.

Book Review by Kate Robinson

As a creative writer, I am perennially fascinated by imagination and the science behind it. Jonah Lehrer, the best-selling pop-science author of How We Decide, tackled the creative process in this rambling and diverse narrative. That Lehrer dabbled in some ironic creative maneuvers in this volume by fabricating Bob Dylan quotes made reading this volume even more enticing. It must satisfy something on my creative writing side, the side that as some writers like to say, tells lies for a living.

Despite the self-plagiarism that derailed Lehrer's career recently, his work is peppered with nuggets of valid information, if not wisdom. Readers and writers are keenly aware that the unconscious mind experiences fiction as reality, and that scenes portrayed in literature and art do not have to be real to provoke profound insights about life. The confabulated quotes cited in the flurry of articles about Lehrer’s misdeeds are insignificant taken in context to the entire scope of his work. Lehrer accomplished a good bit of legitimate research for Imagine, and he sheds light on the process of creativity in the straightforward, accessible language of “new media” journalism. We need interpreters of science like him. Sadly, there isn’t much hard science in this book, though there is certainly enough to keep a humanities major like myself busy navigating the byways of neuroscience.

Lehrer’s greatest contribution to the study of creativity is his assurance that we are all creative, and that we can all learn to harness our imaginations more efficiently. Whether we experiment with seventy versions of a musical phrase like Beethoven, or produce only a handful of plodding revisions in an academic science paper or a short story, we all share the ability to focus upon and solve creative problems. As Lehrer points out, the extremes of the creative process – the transcendent generation phase coupled with the more attentive revision stage of the creative process - are somewhat like the vacillation between mania and depression in bipolar disorder. We must learn to navigate these changes of mental and emotional direction in order to harness our creative perceptions, surrendering logic and focus to find imaginative prowess.

There are many dimensions to the creative process, and Lehrer aptly previews many different types of creative problems that benefitted from various forms of creative intervention: a jaded musician seeking a new groove (Dylan), researchers seeking new ways to mop floors (Proctor and Gamble), a surfer grooving in the pipeline (Clay Marzo), a production team making a computer animated film (Pixar), and many other situations.

In conclusion, Lehrer points out that “the creative process begins with the brain, that fleshy source of possibility . . . but the brain is only the beginning. . . There was nothing. Now there is something. It’s almost like magic.” In this respect, Lehrer’s study of creativity is somewhat short on science, but certainly long enough on inspiration to make Imagination worth reading. We need science and we need the stuff of psycho-spiritual inquiry. As far as creativity goes, perhaps pondering the process from these two diverse viewpoints may be the wisest course of all.

View all my Goodreads reviews

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Life Is Our Writing Process

As I write this, Hurricane Sandy is still swirling around the Eastern seaboard of North America, a big quake has rattled the Canadian Northwest (the latest aftershocks are still reverberating), and the moon will be full on Halloween for the first night since 1955. These events are  all a darn interesting prelude to the U.S. presidential election on 6 November.

Or a prelude to anything, really. Life is continual grist for the writing mill. But where do our narratives begin?

At the point in which our lives, or our protagonists' lives are changed forever. Or in the case of narrative nonfiction or a feature article, in the place where something important happens.

We begin our stories at that critical impact of form and emotion that draw us inexorably forward. This is where Hurricane Sandy pulls us from our observation point into sea or the big one rattles our house off its foundation into pieces. We begin with a defining moment from any point in our lives or the lives of our characters and work forward.

Anything else may be little more than warm-up. When I was a new writer, my stories often began down the page, or maybe even on page two or three. I warmed up to my stories’ entry point with backstory, or maybe descriptions of my protagonist or the setting, or perhaps chewed around the edges of the scene itself.

Warming up and not wanting to cast away the warm-up is a perennial problem that new writers display. More experienced writers also sometimes warm up as a way to get into the meat of the their scenes or into their characters heads, but have the good sense to delete or revise these throat clearings.

I’ll never forget when I attended a writing conference for the very first time. I had the good fortune to sign up for workshops with Brady Udall and Mary Sojourner at the 1999 Hassayampa Institute, back when the program was a week-long conference.  Brady told each one of us fledgling writers when he critiqued our fiction at his daily workshops: “your story starts here” – on page 2 or 3 or even 4 – of our shaky, green manuscripts.

I now think of Brady whenever I begin a short story or an essay. I think of Mary whenever I try to find just the right words. I can't thank either of them enough for their influence on my writing life.

Mary Sojourner makes readers catch their breath with the lyrical, descriptive phrases in her fiction and nonfiction. During her 1999 workshops, she didn’t emphasize the place to begin writing so much as crafting prose around a vivid character or turn of event. But she displays both aspects of good writing both then and now by example:

I finish my reading at a Southwestern Writers’ Conference. I have spoken about crippling pain from a hiking fall and seeing a dust cloud from the Gobi Desert turn the sun moon-silver over the Black Rock, and how a volcanic out-cropping seen against sunset can become figures from a Javanese shadow play. A woman in the audience stands. ‘Could you please tell us,” she says, “your writing process?’” 

Sometimes our story map is so compelling that we naturally begin on that vivid, high note and progress through the story with ease. Other times it takes some experimentation and lots of exploration and revision to achieve the right presentation. I’ve written successful stories in a few hours in one sitting that needed little revision and have also written and rewritten stories for as long as a decade until they finally opened well and had the proper flow and clarity to hold a readers’ attention.

If you want to look at this issue through a magnifying glass, crafting a compelling story opening may also depend upon a strong opening line. Not all first lines have to be stellar as long as the opening paragraph offers readers a tantalizing ferment of action and emotion, but it doesn’t hurt to begin with a clever hook. Most readers can quote an opening line from their favorite books, essays, or short stories, or even historic speeches. Examine these, then examine the opening lines of your work, whether stories, novels, essays, poetry, or even feature articles. Does your first line naturally propel the reader into your work?

There’s such a thing as being too clever. A hook crafted for effect that doesn’t particularly blend well with your story may be misleading or confuse the reader. An effective hook might be compared to an essence of the story, a scent that wafts from within the work, and leads the reader into the heart of the story. Some extremely effective hooks are used in a circular fashion in which the same imagery or prose is repeated at the end of the story. Or the story returns full circle in some way to the beginning of the piece.

In this circular way, story imitates life. We enter a situation, then move from moment to moment, or paragraph to paragraph and scene by scene in a circular or spiral fashion. We gain experience and knowledge through these real or fictional encounters, whether pleasant or fraught with pain and obstacles. Eventually, we complete a particular phase or mission in our lives, or our characters reach an epiphany, or our prose leads the reader to the place in which greater understanding of a topic is reached

Sometimes when it seems we or our characters or our nonfiction prose is stuck and running in place or going in circles and that we’ll never reach a conclusion, we succeed in telling the story and find we’ve spiralled upward in understanding, or that our characters have moved onward and upward on the spiral of the story arc.

No matter what genre we write in, we have to propel the writing forward from the most meaningful moment and then spiral through it to that golden point of understanding. Our writing process is life and the way we tell  the best stories is by showcasing the most memorable and vivid moments.

When we’re able to ride this spiral in writing poetry or prose while simultaneously enjoying the words and yet not noticing them, then we succeed in inviting readers to take our journey.

Life moves in a spiral, not marching down a line . . .

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

The Shapeshifters’ Library - Interview with Amber Polo

A sundog welcome to author Amber Polo!  

There’s no better way to escape the craziness down here in my rabbit hole (seabed?) than a good read (believe me, there’s been plenty of craziness around here since my last post and plenty of reading to offset it). 

I’m particularly partial to good fantasy novels whose peculiarities offset my grim and clammy “realities”. Amber Polo’s  The Shapeshifters' Library: Released (Blue Merle Publishing, 2012), the newly published first volume of a series, is just the ticket to chase away bossy Red Queens and your jellyfish blues.

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting this busy author around my former literary stomping grounds in the highlands of Yavapai County, Arizona. She’s the quintessential jack-of-all-trades, though I suspect she’s also an expert at many of the trades she’s taken up. Her multi-faceted careers as a librarian and yoga teacher, with a few stops in between, have culminated in her current life as an author and a blogger at Wordshaping and Relaxing the Writer. She lives in Camp Verde, Arizona on an airpark mesa.

Her published work includes Romancing Rebecca, the novella Christmas on Wherever Island (The Wild Rose Press, 2007 & 2008), the award-winning romance Flying Free (Treble Heart Books, 2009), as well as the guided relaxation CD, Relaxation One Breath at a Time (cdbaby, 2005), and Relaxing the Writer: Guidebook to the Writer’s High (CreateSpace 2011) and Relaxing the Writer: Relaxation, available as the entire MP3 and in single tracks. She is also proud of her short story due to be released soon in the forthcoming anthology Biblioteca Fantastica (Dagan Books, Fall 2012). “Egyptian Holiday" is a prequel to The Shapeshifters’ Library series, explaining that Cleopatra was a dog-shifter and Caesar, a werewolf.

As for the new novel:

“Liberty [Cutter] had been born in Shipsfeather [Ohio] and had lived here until her mother disappeared when she was five years old. Her four law librarian aunts had swooped into town and taken her home with them, eventually adopting her. They refused to talk to her either about her parents or Shipsfeather. She’d taken the job of Library Director because she wanted to run her own small town library and make a difference to the townspeople—and hopefully uncover the secrets of her own history. She should have been suspicious when no other librarian in the entire country had applied for the job, but she’d been too happy to question Fate.”

Liberty’s mother’s disappearance isn’t the only strange thing about Shipsfeather. When she’s on her way to work on the only Monday she hasn’t gone in early, she finds the two-story red brick library is sheathed in smoke and flames and spots a rangy critter fleeing the scene . . .

The story amps up quickly amidst a cast of quirky characters. Liberty must deal again with her nemesis Harold Dinzelbacher, Shipsfeather’s bankster and Chairman of the Library Board of Trustees. He’s blocked every innovation Liberty has ever proposed to update the library. Amid clues that the library fire was no accident and that Dinzelbacher may be more conniving than she realizes, Liberty questions his and the mayor’s plan to situate the new library in the crumbling, old Shipsfeather Athenaeum and Academy building.

But Liberty buckles down anyway to help renovate the Academy into a shipshape library with all the cyber-age bells and whistles, even as she senses someone following and observing her. Gradually she discovers more than she’d bargained for. Her new books begin to disappear, and she finds that the Shipsfeather Academy was once a training ground for an ancient race of dog-shifters whose mission is to protect the world’s knowledge. A powerful curse sealed those shapeshifter librarians in the Academy basement while a pack of book-burning werewolves took over Shipsfeather in their quest to destroy all books and their defenders forever.

Chronus, the English Sheepdog headmaster of the old Academy and leader of the dog-shifters, cautiously befriends Liberty and they join forces to keep his pack – and the world’s books – safe from the werewolves and their crafty human supporters.

I found the premise of shapeshifting dog librarians not only fun and fascinating, but also convincing and possible. I’ve often suspected librarians and dogs as having much more colorful lives than meets the eye. After all, librarians have all the knowledge of the world at their fingertips and can answer any question given enough time to research it. The domestic dog has over 400 distinctly different-looking breeds, all cultivated from the genes of the ancient grey wolf. If any critter can shapeshift or hide its talents in plain sight, it has to be the “ordinary” dog. Blend these two versatile elements – the humble dog and the humble librarian – as cleverly as Polo does in The Shapeshifters’ Library: Released, and you’ve got, voila, a well-considered, zany fantasy.

KR: Amber, your books and CDs span the gamut from quirky paranormal romance to meditation and relaxation techniques. You’ve obviously taken the adage “write what you know” seriously. Tell us a little about your decision to write and publish particular books

AP: It all makes sense to me. I started writing a paranormal romance because there was a romance writing group close to the rural Arizona town where I moved. And I was near Sedona and these famous vortices helped. I learned many new romance publishers were looking for manuscripts. A friend told me to submit. I was accepted and I began to learn at a faster rate because I was working within the publishing process. Since my first romance started out as a parody of a romance novel, moving to fantasy felt natural. I write funny and had trouble making sure the HEA was not too quirky.

My second novel Flying Free takes place in my aripark neighborhood. All I had to do was imagine some unlikely new neighbors and try not to let my real neighbors know they were going to appear in my book. Guys like this book for the airplanes. “Senior” citizens love it for the oddball neighbors (who, of course, have NO relation to my neighbors.)

During this time, I was teaching yoga and realized what my students needed most was real help in learning to relax. Even if they didn't know it, the last twenty minutes of every class when I talked them through savasana was what they needed most. I decided to record it and add a track without a wakeup, allowing anyone having trouble sleeping to use the same techniques. When I wrote Relaxing the Writer I decided to re-record that CD and call it Relaxing the Writer Relaxation.

The techniques, of course, work for non-writers and both CDs are about as non woo-woo as I could make them for anyone who is stressed.

KR: I love any sort of relaxation recording, woo-woo or not . . . I need all the help I can get to relax . . . I love your voice on both your relaxation CDs / MP3s by the way, very soothing . . . Writers are contemplative folk, but we’re also often notorious workaholics . . . how do you convince writers on fire to slow down and do your relaxation exercises?

AP: Most writers know they need balance in their lives but don't know how to create that balance. In Relaxing the Writer  I've tried to give them ideas that would work for them. In short everyone need to find a mix of three categories:
  • Active - Get out of the chair and move your body.
  • Meditative - Find an activity that creates so much focus you forget everything else.
  • Artistic/Senusal - cultivate activities that feed your creative soul.

Don't tell anyone, but I wish I could follow my own advice all the time.

 KR: Me too . . . especially the writing advice I dispense here! 

You obviously love fantasy as evidenced by your work in paranormal romance and your interviews of fantasy writers on your Wordshaping blog. What inspired you to take a leap from the romance genre into urban fantasy in Shapeshifters?

AP: The Shapeshifters’ Library is the series of my heart - I am a recovering librarian. And for ten years of my life I was owned a flock of Old English Sheepdogs. I showed in conformation and exhibited my dogs in obedience on the West Coast and later from a base near Blacksburg, Virginia (and, yes, I met all the characters portrayed in the movie Best in Show). Combining two interesting parts of my life in a fantasy felt right, and has given me a chance to promote libraries and dogs. I'm excited about Book 2 of the series and can't wait to begin Book 3.

KR: Wow, that is a fantastic feeling when our other interests and our passion for writing merge into the creation of  short story or novel . . . I can’t think of anything more fun than that.

I’m struck by the fact that you’ve produced so many books in a short time (makes me feel lazy and guilty) plus serving other writers with interviews on your Wordshaping blog and with tips on your Relaxing the Writer blog, as well as doing other volunteer work. Tell us about the drive and the discipline that keep you going .

AP: As passionate as I was about other things in my life, writing (on the good days) feels like what I was meant to do. I don't think of stopping. Actually, the first two books of the Shapeshifters’ Library each took a year. The other two novels took a year each too. The relaxation book took less time. I could have spent years on that one, but I wanted to make it short enough for the busy writer to take away some tips without boring them with stuff they already knew. I put in a lot of alternatives and enough quotes and writerly anecdotes to make it light and fun. This book gave me an opportunity to try out the self-publishing path. Throughout the publishing process, a good portion of my writing time was spent learning about writing, editing, and things like designing websites, writing blogs, setting up Facebook pages, reviewing books on Amazon and Goodreads, and many, many more tasks. Initially I did it all myself. More recently, the talented Connie Lee Marie Fisher has helped me by creating banners and book covers. She designed the interior of Relaxing the Writer.

KR: I admire her work. If I ever self-publish anything, I just might check in with Connie. . . Do you now look at librarians and figure out what dog breed they remind you of?

AP: Sometimes, but I can always tell which ones are the werewolves.

KR: *Giggles* What dog breed were you in your librarian life? 

AP: I refuse to answer that question. I'd like to think I happily retrieved information like my heroine with Golden Retriever tendencies.

KR: *Smiles*

AP: Thanks for inviting me into your jellyfish world!

KR: Thank YOU  for braving it, Amber!  I hope you’ll return with your sequel, The Shapeshifters’ Library: Retrieved.
~ * ~

Join Amber at The Well Red Coyote Bookstore in Sedona, Arizona on Saturday,
September 29 at 2:00 PM for “Anthropomorphizing Animals in Print” plus dog biscuits