Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Writer Gene

Me in my 'Birthday Suit'

When I was three, my mother bought me a new outfit to wear on my birthday. So I called it “My Birthday Suit” which of course got a lot of laughs that I didn’t quite understand. Those laughs are the reason I remember that it was a birthday outfit at all, instead of it just being some cheesy 70’s outfit my mother made me take a picture in.

Things like that always fascinated me, different meanings for words and phrases. I loved to find a new a different way to say things – double entendres still crack me up. Then again, with a name like, “Merry” I guess they should’ve seen that coming. I can still remember being baffled that other girls with my name spelled it the wrong way. Later, when I realized I was the odd one, I could actually hear the difference between someone else’s “Mary” and mine. People pronounce them the same way, for some reason I hear the spelling.

Erica Orloff often touches on topics of why writers write, why we’re wired to hear and see the things we do. And I wonder sometimes if it’s nature or nurture – I think it’s probably just in us. Another person without the odd writer gene might still have a name like mine and not feel the need to use a blog url like “Happycat”, or to think about it much at all. It’s just what it is.

I love to hear different writers talk about why they do what they do – their answers are often a bit different because just having the writer gene doesn’t mean we all share other outlooks and motivations. It just means the rest of our person found an outlet through words. Some writers swear that the very act of pursuing a career in writing means that there is ego there. Okay, maybe there’s ego everywhere in some degree or another. But there are some who say that they pursue writing because of their ego, their need for attention, their need to be heard and grab the spotlight – so they pursue it through writing because that’s where their surest talent lies.

For me, ego does come in, but not in the sense that I want a spotlight – when my writing veers toward flowery prose that go around in circles and add nothing to the STORY, I know I need to put the ego in check. It’s more about impressing the reader, or more often myself, and less about the objective. And it almost always means I’ve taken myself out of the character.

When I was in high school, I had a number of teachers who wanted to push me toward writing. I was still pretty set on art myself, but I enjoyed writing because I enjoyed the story. And it was safe, because no one knew about it. I wrote an assignment and handed it in to my English teacher and no one else had to know what was in there – but I loved it. I loved playing with the words and I loved the freedom of not having any real expectations on that part of me. Sure there were grades, but I wasn’t particularly worried about my English grade. Then one day my English teacher decided that one of my essays was so good that it should be shared, and she did. She read it to all of her classes, with my name attached, for the whole day.

I wanted to crawl under the foundation, I did. Teachers I didn’t even know were shouting praise at me in the hallways. And all of the sudden there was expectation. My friends hadn’t known I could write, and I didn’t know how to react to the praise. And I didn’t want it. I had a good gig going, compartmentalizing so that this thing was here and the rest of me was there and I wasn’t known by what I did... but more than that, I didn’t want the spotlight, I just wanted to write the story.

The teacher was a really nice and supportive one, and I’m sure she thought that would be a great confidence boost for me. But I wasn’t looking for one really. In my senior year, a different teacher convinced me to submit some of my short stories and poetry for the creative writing competition. I don’t know how exactly she talked me into it, I think it had something to do with the fact that you’d get feedback on the work and that it was a blind judging – so they wouldn’t know who I was. It didn’t occur to me that after they finished judging, they’d have to place the names with the winners. Or maybe it didn’t occur to me that I’d win anything. Really, I just liked the idea of my stories being read. I liked the idea that someone else might get lost in the world I put on paper, might get the same kind of jolt out of the flow of a phrase that I got out of all of the books I read.

Lucky for me, my art teacher couldn’t contain her excitement and she let slip that they were announcing the winners the next day. She didn’t tell me I’d won anything. She didn’t have to. It was all over her face. I ditched school the next day.

A few of the teachers were a little disappointed in me, I know. I just couldn’t do it, though. The thought of my name over the loudspeaker, and pictures and all that... It turned out that I’d placed in all three categories and took the overall prize. I couldn’t have done that. My name over the loudspeaker four times, oodles of praise, egads, I still cringe. I wish I could have explained it better at the time, apologized for missing the big hoopla they planned – maybe I should’ve tried writing it down.

I’m a little more mature now. I wouldn’t ditch out at the thought of accepting accolades, though I’d probably turn red. But it’s still mostly about the story. Not about being a writer, but the act of writing. And the publishing, the goal for me isn’t about anything except being read. It’s why I’m still pursuing traditional publishing instead of any other means. I could write for myself and never show it to a soul, but then it’s incomplete and wasted. I want it read. I want other people to get something out of the worlds I’ve created. There’s the ego, I guess.

How about you guys? Is it nature or nurture that made you a writer? And what’s the motivation? Is it about seeing your name on a book cover, or garnering great advances? Is your writing solely for you, or do you prefer to share it? And when did you know it was the path you needed to follow?

Monday, August 17, 2009

You Can't Go Home Again

A long time ago, some blog friends and I talked about synchronicity - a fancy way of saying we were all thinking about some of the same themes and philosophies at the same time. I often notice that life throws these ideas and themes at me repeatedly... or maybe it’s that they were always there and I only noticed them once they’d come to the forefront of my own thoughts. Kind of like when you buy a new car and suddenly notice the same make and model and color car everywhere.

Synchronicity is why I roll my eyes when new writers (or really paranoid writers) worry over someone stealing their ideas. I can’t post my pitch on a public forum! My ideas are brilliant and some hack with better connections will steal them and sell them before I can!

Most of you are writers, so I’m not even going to go into why this is ridiculous. But ideas, ideas are a dime a dozen. They’re in the air, floating with dandelion fluff, laying dormant in gutters and sprouting from trees. There is nothing new out there. The trick is finding the themes and ideas that speak to you and building your story there, on that foundation. I know, when you’re in a rut and everything seems like drivel, ideas don’t seem nearly so easy to come by. But they are. They always are – what you’re fretting over, really, is the execution.

So I’ve been fiddling with this WIP for quite a while. It was going well, really well... and then, not so much. And the wall I hit was so tall and solid, I couldn’t find a ladder high enough to climb over... so I tried walking around it. But every time I neared the corner, out popped another two miles of bricks and mortar. So I sat down. I rested. I thought. I played pinners off the flippin’ thing. Nothing. So I started over from the beginning – no red pen or spell check, just reading.

There was some really good writing in there - some poetry and word play and lovely imagery... so much so that it eclipsed the story. Fucking egomaniacal writers and their longwinded twaddle!

So I tossed it. I did. Did you cringe? I probably cringed enough for all of us. I tossed it, I checked my ego at the door, and I started from page one... a brand new page one. And it’s better. I wasn’t sure exactly what I was trying to do with this story when I started, so what I really did was waste a lot of time and words – really pretty words that no one will ever read intertwined in quite that way... but then again, had I kept those words, no one would ever really get the story.

A few days ago, I happened to be driving through my old neighborhood. (Stick with me here, I’ll get back to the point, I promise). I was only a few blocks from the house I grew up in, so I took a little detour, just to see the place. I haven’t been back to my own house for a very very long time... Did you notice the wording there? own house - I caught it after I typed it, but I’ll leave it here, because it’s truer than the correction. The house looks terrible. Even driving down the block was odd. The streets seemed so much smaller than in my memory... the houses so close together... and my house, well, it’s seen better days.

And to be honest, perfectly honest, the neighborhood itself isn’t that much different. The same bricks and pavement... the trees might be a little taller, where there are trees. Most of the same buildings are there, different bushes or flowers in front – or none at all... shabbier here and there, but there was some shabby when I still lived there... that’s not it, though. In my head, it’s my neighborhood. It’s still there – the neighbors that all knew my name, the kids playing ball on the corner or running bases... skeeching and snowball fights and a million other things that I can think of... In my head it’s still there. In reality, it’s somebody else’s neighborhood now. Somebody else’s memories and place, and I don’t belong to them. The buildings exist, but the place isn’t mine. Except in my head.

And I really didn’t have any plans to go by my old house. It was a spur of the moment thing. I’ve been within a mile of it more times than I could count over the last decade or more, and never drove by. But I needed to see it – for what it is now and what it was then. It’s where my difficult work in progress is set, and I suddenly realized why. Why it was so important to me to set it there, in that neighborhood. Why it was so important to develop these characters who didn’t really live down the block from me, but could have. Why it was so important to me that, if anyone from the neighborhood reads my novel, the first thing they think is, “Yeah, that’s it. That’s home.”

Synchronicity. And no, you can’t go home again, except in your head... my real objective now is to see if I can take you with me.

How about you guys? Does synchronicity pop into your novel ideas or your life? Where do you want to take us with your writing?

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Ultimate Swear Word

About a year or so ago, my littlest guy came running up to me and snitched out his friend.

Littlest guy: He said a bad word.

Me: What word did he say?

Littlest guy: The “C” word.

That thud you just heard was my heart dropping to the floor at the same time my blood pressure went through the roof... not an easy feat, I assure you. I mean, I swear like a truck driver... and that’s actually defamatory to truck drivers, most of them would blush at my more heated tirades... but my kids haven’t heard that word from me. So, I asked the only question I could think of, before hyperventilating.

Me: What “C” word?

Littlest guy’s eyes widened. He stifled a giggle at the thought of being able to curse without getting punished and his voice came out in a whooping whisper – if you can imagine such a thing.

Littlest guy: Crap.

Relief was so quick and so sure that I wasn’t thinking. I let out a huge sigh and said:

“Oh, well, that’s okay then...”

Unfortunately, my daughter was in the room for this little slip in sanity...

Daughter: Wait a second... what “C” word were you thinking of?

Now, like I said, this happened some time ago. I thought the whole discussion was buried and forgotten. We were driving home from the pool and my kids were having some sort of a conversation in the back of the van. Honestly, I wasn’t paying that much attention. I was busy working out the details of a scene in my mind... on my more lenient days, I call this multitasking, but honestly it’s bad parenting... well, not bad as in totally neglectful, but I do spend an inordinate amount of time in my head, even when I’m physically present... the end of the conversation, however, jolted me right back to reality.

Oldest son: I’m going to find out what it is. I have to know (add dramatic movie voice) The Ultimate Swear Word.

Daughter: I don’t know what it is, but I know it starts with a “C”.

Oldest Son: When did mom say we were allowed to know what the word is?

Daughter: (Rolling her eyes) She said, when we’re forty.

Littlest Guy: Forty!!! When we’re forty? That’s a trick – she’ll be dead by then.

So, one might ask, what’s the point of this post? Nothing really, I just thought it was funny. Oh, and I’m back... How’s your summer going? Updates anyone?