Grief and Writing

Someone that’s been dear to me and my family for almost my entire life died tonight. It wasn’t unexpected and yet, I’m sad. I heard the news and tears just flooded from me. I can’t stop them. I can’t hold them back.

When we heard she was so ill, I loaded up my parents and drove 10 hours to see her and her family. I couldn’t have done anything less. When you give your heart to someone it doesn’t matter what the distance is or how much money it costs or what must be rearranged … you do it.

I’m sitting here writing because that’s what I do. I write. Through the pain, through struggles, through confusion, through frustration. I write. Words on the page. Words from my soul. Words from my heart. Tonight my emotions are raw, tears are blurring the computer screen, and the words keep coming. Because that’s what writers do. They write.

They put thoughts and ideas on paper for others to read. They tell stories. They create new worlds. They make us cry and laugh and feel something we didn’t expect to feel. At least they should.

Writing isn’t so much about dreaming up what’s never been but rather gathering all the bits of reality that are hard to hold and rearranging them into something that reaches out and touches a soul, a heart, a life. And yet the greatest piece of writing ever written, the best story, the most popular tale will never be as good, as touching, as human, as satisfying as loving another person.

We all reach out and touch others in ways we may never know. We give them a kind word or a smile or a listening ear. We buy them a glass of wine or play a game of cards or show them the stars. And somehow we connect. We let a piece of ourselves go and hope that they will treasure what we have given them.

The treasures I’ve received from the Liggetts over the years are ones I hold dear … too many to name. Sometimes I’ve felt that they were lost over the years but a quiet Saturday afternoon in the mountains with smiles and laughter and memories brought everyone of them back. I would give up just about anything for one more day just like that because the price of love, of connecting with other like-minded souls, is nothing more and nothing less than a miracle.

Rest in peace Marge. I will miss you forever. I know my words will never be enough …


Writing and Passions

This is a post that’s been brewing for some time but I couldn’t put my finger on just how to word it. Tonight I read a quote by one of my favorite horror writers, Clive Barker. (For those that know me, YES, I read horror.)

‘Be regular and orderly in your life, that you may be violent and original in your work.’

And I’m off on a tangent. I have a tendency to surprise people. People that have known me for years are often surprised by the little things I do in life … like drink a glass of wine or reveal that I’m a closet horror fan or use a swear word. Some people that is.

Other people, like Jamie and Anne, know better.

Jamie and I used to haunt the newest horror flicks while in college. I never went with anyone else, never talked about it with anyone else, and have never indulged since we both moved away after college. Gourmet food and horror flicks and intriguing conversation til late in the night … ah … Some days I would pay good money to have just one more of those nights.

Anne has known me since I was 13 years old. Some times, even though we haven’t seen each other much in recent years, I’m still pretty sure she knows me better than I know myself.

But honestly, other than those two, I regularly surprise people with some of my thoughts and actions.

Why? Because I have passions.

Passion is a necessary tool in a writer’s kit. Passion is what makes writing “violent and original”. Passion is the thing that makes life worth living.

I had a difficult weekend. I took my parents and went to visit our oldest and dearest friends in Colorado. These friends I’ve considered family for most of my life, one of them is dying. That may sound harsh or blunt but it’s reality and we didn’t want to stand over her coffin in how ever many days or weeks or months that might be and have regrets.

And yet, as we all said “we know she is dying”, I wondered exactly how we knew that. She doesn’t look any different. She has the same mind, the same wit she’s always had and yet, we all know the time is coming. We all know we face the loss of her in the days ahead.

Because she’s lost her passion. She’s unable to do so many things that the rest of us take for granted – dress ourselves, fix our own meal or even a simple cup of tea, go to the bathroom, crawl in bed at the end of a long day. She gets frustrated and angry and ultimately depressed by it all, and who can blame her. I don’t say these things to embarrass her or put her down but rather to make the point that sometimes having passion isn’t dramatic and big and “stick it in your face”. Sometimes passion is simply the ability to live as we choose.

Often when writing we fail to consider that a characters passion may not be advocating for the homeless or fighting gun control or one of the other myriad of controversial and dramatic things that happen everyday on the news. Sometimes our characters passions are timid and withdrawing – hiding behind a book, cooking a good meal, buying one chocolate truffle a day for a treat, watching the sun set over the mountains – but those are the passions that give our characters life and make them real.

Things like me enjoying a good horror flick, eating gelato, and talking til dawn while sitting on the floor of the kitchen … those are passions which keep me alive.

Art and Writing

One day a year Smithsonian magazine hosts “Free Museum Day” across the nation. Various museums and art galleries participate and provide free admission to anyone with a ticket. Those are free too and require nothing more than an email address to receive.

I took the day off from writing and visited the Gilcrease Museum of Art in Tulsa yesterday with my free ticket. Not only does it have one of the biggest western art collections, it also has a couple of thousand archaeological artifacts all tucked into drawers that can be explored by all. Mayan jade necklaces, Inuit effigies, bows, spear heads, and hundreds of other things await the visitors eye.

Of course, I say I took the day off. I wasn’t actually putting words on the page but that doesn’t mean my mind was idle. In fact, it inspired this blog post.

Writing rules are kind of like sand. Bazillions abound and when you get one in the wrong place, it’s really irritating. “Write every day” is one of those rules.

For the beginning writer, “Write every day” reads “Put words on the page everyday”. To the writer with more experience, it reads “Make progress on your work everyday”. Now, you might think the two are the same thing. A writer writes so putting words on the page everyday is making progress everyday. True. But making progress everyday is not always about how many words are penned.

Writing is not just about the word count or the mechanics of what is on the page.

Writing is about art, too.

The mechanics of writing, the number of words, the length of sentences, the voice, the verb choice, sentence structure, etc all matter a great deal in a finished piece of writing. But you can have the most mechanically correct piece of writing and still not have a story worth reading.

That’s where the art comes in. The emotion. The spark. That one thing that touches a reader so deeply that can’t quit thinking about the story. The thing that makes them laugh or cry or throw the book across the room is the thing that makes it a story worth reading.

If you’re a writer, you’ll know when it’s there. You’ll feel it too. You may have a hard time admitting it because of all those lingering fears of self-doubt and loathing, but you’ll feel it all the same.

Reading a good book is like visiting a museum. You see the artifacts, you read about the history of them, and then you see them in a painting and realize someone held those things in their hands and used them as part of their life, and the story becomes real, it becomes a part of you.

Probably my favorite thing of the whole museum trip was a single blurb they had posted in a room of portraits. Portraits of everyday people doing everyday things. It made the point that history is not just made up of famous people and single points in history like the date of a famous battle or the end of a war. It is made of people working everyday in so many different ways and living their lives and interacting with one another. It isn’t just the portrait of George Washington that matters, but also of a slave harvesting crops or a child at play or a town at a picnic that makes life matter.

Capital letters, punctuation, passive verbs, word count are all just the stars of the show and will make whatever you write shine, but without the emotion, the love, the heart ache, the joy, the horror, etc it won’t be art.

Writing and Relationships

While being a writer requires hours of alone time and separation from the physical world around us, not all of our time is spent in isolation. We still must interact with other people. In this day of self-promotion and social media, relationships for the writer are abundant. And yet, the depth of most of them is casual at best.

Some relationships in life are simple, like the one with the cashier at the grocery store or the waitress at your local restaurant. We don’t really need anything from them so we’re free from expectations or commitment of any kind. A basic mutual respect is the order of the day. Lighthearted conversation is a bonus.

Online relationships for the writer are kind of dreamy, though. We’re writers. Most of our communication is done through writing when we’re online, so we are in our element, as they say. We’re not standing in the corner of a party wondering if we will have to make small talk with someone or picking out character traits to add to our novels. We’re actually communicating with someone else in a way that we understand. Words are our swords.

Connecting with other writers is easy online and we love them and live off them at times. But maintaining those connections becomes tricky.

One, we want something from other writers. Plain and simple we need other writers who understand what we do and how we do it to give us feedback on our work and pull us back from the edge when we’re ready to throw in the towel. No one understands us like other writers do. Not our spouses, or parents, or siblings, or our best friends from school.

But that want, that need, causes us to have expectations that more often than not aren’t met. I haven’t met a writer yet that doesn’t long to have that one other writer friend that they can rely on to promote their work, listen to their rants, give them feedback at 3 in the morning, tell them that the new story is crap and how to fix it, discuss sources for researching poisons and space ships and aliens and spy agencies and etc …, pat them on the back, kick them into gear, just basically be there unconditionally to support their writing.

We all want it … so why is it so hard to find?

Two. The nature of online connections make them brief. We see a picture, read a witty line, and dive into short conversations… microscopic conversations really. Nothing heavy, nothing deep. A joke here, a comment there, a question or two everywhere. And that’s what we expect from other online writers.

But that brevity doesn’t hold up if we expect to hand them our babies and get feedback or hold out our arms to take in theirs. To be a beta-reader or give a critique demands a level of commitment and sharing that we may not feel comfortable giving.

I mean, we are writers after all. Why should we listen to some other writer we just met online? Why should they listen to us? Why does their opinion matter? And why does our opinion matter to them? Can we allow ourselves to be open to their suggestions and help? Should we waste our time giving advice they don’t listen to anyway?

It takes a good deal of courage to press the send key on our creative endeavors. It takes even more to allow ourselves to be open and honest with someone else who can ultimately help us in those endeavors.

But all relationships have a path they follow. Being a foster parent taught me that. The first six weeks is all about the honeymoon. Everything is happy and upbeat. Jokes are told and laughed at. Interests are shared and discussed. Everyone is smile-ly and enjoying life.

Then reality sets in. Someone says something or does something that the other person can’t deal with. Someone has a bad day and starts being grumpy.  Someone pushes a button. The button.

War ensues whether it’s one with explosions or just a long dead silence, it’s war all the same.

The problem is in any relationship there is no winner in a war. Ever. For the relationship to continue, the war must end, a new peace treaty brokered, a new state of being declared.

For a writer, that’s not an easy thing. We like to hang on to our “notions” about how the world is, what our “ideals” are, how we want the story to unfold … instead of just facing life like it really is. That’s hard, really really really really … really hard. We plot, we map, we outline, we scribble, we draft, we revise, we write and write and write until our world is how we want it to be and anything that doesn’t fit gets dumped in the file called “deleted scenes”. Is it any wonder why two writers struggle to form that one relationship of mutual accord?

Being a critique partner is hard work and not like any other relationship a writer will ever form in their life. It’s not just about the critique or promotion or support or reliability. And it’s more than friendship and sharing common interests. It’s finding that someone other that

-will be annoyed at your whining and yet still push you to put words on the page,

-isn’t embarrassed to cry on your shoulder,

– sits up laughing at your stupid jokes on twitter or Facebook at 3 in the morning and then slams you because you didn’t make your word count,

– tells you “You’re the best writer ever” and means it while sending you your manuscript with so much red ink it looks like someone was murdered on it,

– keeps you from slipping over the edge into that world of your own making,

– inspires you to do more than you ever dreamed you could do on your own.

Distractions and Writing

Writing caves, offices, rooms, cabins, cottages, etc might sound like a romantic fantasy made up by a writer’s collective, but they serve a purpose. They limit distractions from outside sources.

I dearly wish and dream for the day when I will have such a place. Now I’m perched in my bedroom, sometimes on the bed, sometimes at a desk while I write away. Did I mention I have two doors to my room, one which must be locked to stay closed and the other inches from the living sofa?

Oh, you think, I could just lock the door. Sigh. Sure that would work if three minutes later someone wasn’t knocking on it. And if I don’t answer the knock, they just go to the other door.

The point is writing is an all absorbing exercise. To lose oneself in a fantasy world and stagger through the labor of dedicating the words to the page in a coherent manner that tells the tale, demands solitary confinement. The writer is not just one of his characters, he is all of them, all at the same time. The writer feels them, molds them, plays out the relationship between them over and over and over until it becomes real. And then plops them into a made-up world.

It takes time and concentration to keep everything straight. That one knock on the door can take several minutes to hours to recover.

Of course life carries on. In my world I can’t lock it out. I have an autistic son and a teenage daughter. Mom is my #1 job still. And my parents are aging and have health issues that demand my time. They raised me, after all. Family comes first. And then there’s the farm … animals don’t know that I’m writing. They can’t reason to  wait for food or water or attention. The garden can’t cover itself when a storm rolls in. Beans don’t jump in the fridge, carrots don’t wash themselves.

But it’s all a cycle.

Some days I get up at 4 am and sit in the quiet of the house. I write pages after page until my computer battery dies or the growling in my stomach demands to be fed or I have to go to work. I love those days.

I can hardly speak of distractions though without nodding at the blessed invention called the internet. How many times a day do we check Facebook, twitter, and email (among other sites) just to see what someone else is doing or who has commented on something we posted? It’s habitual. I turn off my ringer when I’m writing and let my phone vibrate away. I can still check it to see if I need to respond to anything or answer a call from my mom but usually it lays on the bed next to me and purrs away. I check it when I take a break.

Some day, maybe I’ll have that shack or office or den to spread out in and isolate myself while I commit words to the page, but for now, I make do with what I have.



Conflict and Fiction

In real life most people I know avoid conflict in whatever form it appears. Some people even go to great lengths to hide from it, and pretend it doesn’t exist. While other people I know seem to thrive on it and seek out excuses to create conflict everywhere they go. And others walk that thin line in between seeking to make both sides happy.

The cat sat on the mat is not a story. Sure the cat is the main character and it is doing something and there is even a setting, but it isn’t a story because nothing happens. The cat doesn’t change. The mat remains a mat. And the cat has no impetus to change.

So how can we make it a story? Let’s add some conflict, or even just the hint of conflict. Let’s say The cat sat on the dog’s mat. Now, without the cat moving or the setting changing at all, we have introduced conflict. The readers mind is now on the move asking questions about what will happen next. Is the dog the MC and the cat the antagonist? Or is the cat the MC and the dog a victim? Something is going to have to change before resolution can happen.

If we wanted to go even further, we could say The cat peed on the dog who was asleep on his mat. If we thought the dog was going to be upset before this, now we can be assured that conflict will arise. The dog is now clearly a victim of this ruthless attack. Will he dog take it lying down? Will he chase the cat?

Sure this is a very simplified way to look at writing. Our MC in our stories are much more complex and the relationships they are involved in are more dynamic than any cat and dog are going to be. But the point is we need conflict to drive our story forward.

No matter where you stand in reality, in fiction you must address conflict head-on . Without conflict, you have no story. It might be nice to spend your evening sitting on the porch sipping lemonade watching a beautiful sunset, but other than your mother or our great Aunt Lucy, no one wants to read about it.

Now, if you were sitting on your porch sipping lemonade and watching a beautiful sunset when an neighbors angry dog invaded your space and chased you up a tree, then a thunderstorm whipped up and lightening set that tree on fire, and the fire scared a nest of hornets into a swarm around you, everyone would want to read about it.

Your job as a writer is not to keep the peace, create a happy world where everyone loves everyone, or relate every mundane happy thought someone has. Your job is take your MC and chase them up that tree that’s blazing with fire, swarming with hornets, staked out by a rabid dog, during a thunderstorm and then let them wiggle their way out of it and come out alive on the other end.

A good story is all about conflict and resolution.

One of the most difficult things a writer can do is fictionalize their own conflicts. Those tormented relationships, bad decisions, horrible mistakes, abusive situations, etc that we’d all dearly love to forget ever happened in our lives, can be the very things that create the best fiction. It’s hard because writing about them can bring up bad memories and painful emotions, but only when we tap into those deep gutteral emotions and fictionalize them can we ever really grab the readers hearts.

And that’s what we want to do. We want our readers to feel something, to be moved, whether it’s to anger or love or sorrow or sheer joy. But to do so we have to have conflict and resolution.

Reality and Fiction

The reality of fiction is that it isn’t real. Ha. But how do you write something fictional that seems real enough people can identify with it and still make it fictional? That, my friends, is the trick.

One of my favorite writers to listen to, David Morrell, always says to write from your emotions. Emotions are what connect a story to the reader. And he is sooooo right.

No one identifies with Harry Potter because he’s a wizard and throws his cousin in a snake pen or fights off Voldemort. We identify with him because he’s been excluded from a normal life, he’s been beat down, put aside, kicked around, and had the rug pulled out from under him multiple times before he’s even a teenager … and then he overcomes it all.

In other words, we FEEL something for him. We identify with his emotional state. His perseverance makes us feel like we can keep going as well.

As a writer the things our characters do, the action bits in the story, are the gears that keep the story moving forward. They go to work, talk to people, drive a car, or whatever but, that’s not the whole story. It’s reality that a reader can identify with, yes, but it will never make anyone care.

Ultimately, we want to know what all those gears are connected to. Is it the inside of a giant clock ticking off the minutes of someone’s existence? Or the mechanics of a giant monster ready to devour the world? What is the driving story line, in other words. Is it a coming of age story? A hero conquers the world? Good versus evil? Overcoming adversity? Whatever it is, it gives the characters purpose and a reason to do what they do … but it still won’t make a reader care.

In between all the gears we need some oil to keep them running smoothly. Other characters that join in the journey serve this purpose. They lend a hand to the MC to get him from point A to point X. Even when they get in the way or try to stop a character moving forward, the supporting characters keep the gears moving. But once again, it’s not what makes the reader feel something.

The very thing that makes your story fiction, is the thing that will make your reader care. It must be bigger, better, sadder, happier, grittier, easier, etc than anything we experience in real life before it will grab the readers emotions and propel them to give a damn.

If Harry Potter lived in the real world, some social worker would have shown up and insisted he be given a bedroom or removed him from the home. If he’d locked his cousin in a snake pen at the zoo, he would have been sent to a psych ward in a hospital. Either action would have ended the story. Instead he sits in his cabinet under the stairs and dreams of a place to call his own. He casts a spell on his cousin and is whisked away to a life of magic.

The magic of fiction whisks the reader into another world where dreams and fantasies outweigh reality. We care because to do otherwise is unthinkable.