Tuesday, July 21, 2015

A peek into my processes*:

(Kinda-part 1 here). With thanks to James for this fun tag.

What am I working on at the moment? I work as a social media and marketing manager and also as an English tutor and workshop instructor, so commercial and editorial-style writing is part of my daily life. The real dream, however, is fiction. So when people ask me about my words, it’s stories that I think of. After I completed my Master of Arts last year (and finished up a work placement of two years just a month later), I fell into a period that felt a lot like creative paralysis. I was frozen. It wasn’t even that I had things to say but didn’t know how to say them; I was truly empty. Ideas weren’t floating in, and words weren’t flowing out.

That season lasted more than six months, and I found it terrifying. Finally I had been set free to do the thing I cared about – and it felt as if the thing no longer cared about me. I’d talked about writing since I was a kid. I didn’t know myself without that dream, without that work happening on the sidelines. And I couldn’t really do anything other than hold on and hope that whatever I’d lost would somehow return to me.

This year has been more about inching back towards that fragile creativity. I’m certainly not at the place where, as a teenager, I thought all writers lived: a flurry of words pouring out in a feverish rush, pen at the ready for ideas to strike out of nowhere. (Gosh I miss those days. The feeling of it all, I mean, not the rubbish I wrote). Rather, there’s a sort of steadiness to where I'm at with words, along with a slight sense of frustration at the constant pull between work, family, community, and creativity.

So what am I actually working on? I’m working on a screenplay treatment for a friend who works in the independent film industry. I’m in the very tentative early stages of a new story that I think is going to be novel length. And there’s a little short story that’s been simmering for two years but is close to being done. I’m writing lots of thoughts about what I’m reading lately, too, and there’s a novel first draft sitting on the backburner while I work out how to take it from A to, if not Z, then at least B, C, or D.

How does my work differ from others in my genre? My last few published pieces have been for children, some other recent stories have been a little speculative, while still another is a piece of adult fiction that is bit (a lot) autobiographical. So I’m no longer quite sure what my genre is. But my heart is with young adult fiction, always and forever.

Something that I find myself exploring, often not realising it until the work is finished, is the idea of otherness. Being other is often viewed with some awkwardness or perhaps even shame. We tend to blame ourselves for our otherness, thinking that “If I was more [whatever],” then maybe I’d belong. But otherness can have great value. It’s healthy to be able to step back from the crowd occasionally. It generates a sense of wonder. It allows us to form our own opinions. And it builds compassion within us for those who may not learn, work, look, speak, or live like ‘everyone else’ does. What’s more, I suspect most of the great men and women of history could be counted as quite “other” in one way or many. The jury’s still out on whether otherness actually turns you into a genius (or a sociopath, for the unfortunate few), but I definitely think it can help.

Of course, there’s nothing unique about exploring the other within literature. One could argue that all literature is about otherness, to some degree. So how does my work differ from others in my genre? I guess one way is that my stories tend to be light on the romance side of things. I enjoy romance, but show me friendships, too. Show me families, show me communities, show me diverse relationships that go beyond high school sweethearts. As I read or write young adult characters, I can’t help thinking that the all-consuming crush that’s occupying the character’s heart and mind might not be there in a couple of years or even a couple of months. But I hope the best friend will still be around, and I’m more interested in his or her feelings about the main character than I am in the feelings of Bad-Boy-With-A-Heart-of-Gold McSpunkypants.

Why do I write or create what I do? It recently occurred to me that I might not actually like writing. It’s really hard work. I’ve never been the sort to be able to churn out thousands of words a day, and it’s been a long time since I’ve felt that whirlwind frenzy of feverish inspiration and had words just fall from my fingertips. Instead, I slog and yank and tug and grimace and fight to get the words out of me and onto a page, and I’m even not sure why I do it. I only know that words are incredibly important to me, and this is the thing I want to do, even when I’m not quite certain what it’s all for.

How does my writing/creative process work? I love boundaries and feel like my creativity thrives under them. Briefs and deadlines and word limits are great. When they are in place, the scope of possibility narrows to something within my vision and, instead of being overwhelmed by the vast expanses of whatever that stretch out before me, I can look just a little way ahead and start to think. I like having themes or content requirements or specific prerequisites imposed upon me. They don’t feel like an imposition; they feel like a starting point. And when such limitations don’t exist, if I’m left with something formless, I have to impose the limitations on myself so I don’t shrivel up or drown under the weight of all that could be.

So my process begins with examining my creative boundaries or inventing some for myself. I’m a fan of pulling out a notebook and scribbling down anything relevant on an open double page spread, then examining the work for links and ideas and a proper starting place. If I can’t start at the beginning of the story, I’ll start with a scene that I know that I know, a moment that’s real for me, that reveals my characters, that might even be an instrumental moment in the story. It doesn’t matter where it comes chronologically; I can write away from it or up to it later on. The important thing is to start.

A couple of years ago a friend introduced me to the idea of the writing sprints, and, quite seriously, they've really changed how I write. Now, when I have a project to complete, I set a timer for 15 mins and write fast and furiously just for that fifteen. I don’t pause to look up words, to self-edit, to ponder the decisions I’m making for my characters. I just write. If I’m unsure of a word or a direction to take something, I can fill in that space with nothing words. (I have written BLAH BLAH SOMETHING HERE more times than I could say). After the fifteen minutes is up, of course there’s time to go back and tweak things or check the outline to see if the story is on track, but it’s amazing how many words one can spout when the timer is going. And it’s inspiring to just hit reset and go for another round. I can’t tell you how much easier it is to write in four fifteen-minute bursts than it is to write for an hour.

The primary advantage to this is that words get onto paper. Then there’s the fact that I don’t waste time self-censoring or overthinking my writing decisions. Finally, it’s a way to write even when I think I don’t have time for writing. One of my projects lately is being written in ten-minute snatches, just a few days a week. You can’t do a lot in ten minutes, but you can do something, and it keeps the story (and the hope) alive.

*not a double entendre. 

So... that's a little peek into my creative process. Now I'm going to invite two writerly ladies, Jodie and Katie, to answer these questions for themselves. I'm looking forward to hearing more about what makes your wild mind bloom!

Monday, July 20, 2015

Rock pools and sketches and notebooks, oh my.



As a kid, I loved to read books that were about people making books. There were two in particular that I read a lot, one in comic-strip style about the building of a picture book from start to finish, and another about the actual manual work of collating and binding a book of your own. I borrowed these books from the local public library so often that I’m sure a little part of me felt that the librarian should just take pity on me and give them to me for keeps. 

These days we’d say that reading books about writing, illustrating, and making books is kind of meta, but childhood me had no such word for it. I only knew that these books provided a peek into a process that was like drawing aside a magical curtain and opening up the world beyond, like lifting the lid of an upright piano and seeing the intricate innards of the instrument, like peering past the surface of the water to the microcosmic life of the rockpool beneath. Looking at the processes behind books was mesmerising.

I still feel the same sense of fascination with these backstage tours. I have a small but serious collection of books that each explore someone else's creative processes. One of my favourites is about the writer andillustrator Eric Carle; it has a giant fold-out page that shows the step-by-step process Carle uses to create his trademark collages. Another book shows pages from EH Shepard’s childhood sketchbook, with annotations in a scratchy, childish hand. I can’t really explain their fascination for me; I only know that processes are delicious. Show me your first drafts, your sketchbooks, your outlines, and I’m a little bit in awe.

For that reason, it’s been fun to follow the trail of bloggers passing along the Blog Tour Award and talking about their creative processes. (And gosh, reading about how people write is so much easier and more fun than actually writing.) I was nominated to take part in the fun by James Cooper, chief editor of the author.docx blog and lecturer at Tabor College in Adelaide (you can read his answers here). I took several units under James when I was studying my BA, and loved them all. In fact, James’s recommendation introduced me to Francine Prose’s Reading Like A Writer, one of the best books about books I’ve ever read.

The idea of the blog tour is to answer a series of questions about my own creative processes, and to nominate up to four other bloggers to do the same. I was supposed to post my answers today, but I have a busy house full of local and interstate guests so I’ll be back with my answers tomorrow.

In the meantime, though, I have a question for you: are you a process person? What processes inspire you with a desire to create, do, or become?

Friday, June 12, 2015

A half-circle of light.


Last night was black and stormy. I was driving home from my friends' house, a route that cuts a winding path through a swathe of unlit bush. As I rounded a bend, a tiny car up ahead of me swung out round a further bend. It was one of those moments where, for just a second, the mask of humdrum falls away and you get to see life for the poetry that it really is.

The car was just a gleam in the dark, a flash of glossy black with an arc of yellow light from the headlights, filling out a semicircle in front of it. It looked like a tiny beetle with a torch strapped to its head. It was brave. There was something fierce in the way it cut a path through the darkness before it, seeing only a few metres ahead at a time.

I'm not a fan of that way of doing things. I don't want to see only a few metres ahead. I'd like to live with the high beam switched on. Better yet, I want to drive in full sun, where I can see the path stretched before me, where I can look ahead to the horizon. I like to estimate the bumps in the road before I reach them. I want to plot a course so I can stay on track. I'd like to avoid potholes instead of coming across them in the dark and being forced to swerve. I want to be ready in case a kangaroo leaps from a shrubby block of shadows. I want to be in control.

There's nothing brave, though, about being in control. It requires no courage. A life lived in full sun is a charmed life; the real world has some dark patches. And though my anxious heart wants to see what's waiting around the corner, I'm glad for the tiny half-circle of light stretched out before me. It's just enough brightness to keep me chugging on.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Ice cream.


Last week, I made up a new batch of music flash cards for my younger students. I drew cards for all the usual stuff: quavers, semibreves, crotchet rests, treble clefs, various notes on the stave. Then, on one of the cards I drew an icecream, a yellow cone with a pink scoop and blue sprinkles. I don't even really know why I did it; it was just a random moment of whimsy to surprise the kids, I guess.

This week I've been trialling the new cards and the kids have been enjoying it. Anything that's a bit new is a little surprise all of its own. But the first time I took one of my students through the new flashcards, I was the one who was surprised. "Minim," my little student said. "Bass clef. Mezzo forte. Ice cream. Middle C." She just sailed right on by the ice cream cone without skipping a beat.

She wasn't the only one. It's happened with every single student so far. Some of them grin. Some of them laugh a little as they speak the word. But not one of them blinks when the unexpected thing appears. That to me is itself unexpected, and it's delightful.

I think this probably wouldn't happen with adults. I think that, if I showed the flashcards to my friends, they'd say, "Why'd you put the ice cream in there? What's that got to do with anything?" At the very least, they might say, "Ice cream?" with their voice sliding up on the end to suggest the question. Not the emphatic and certain "Ice cream" I've heard from each of the kids.

It feels like there's a metaphor in there somewhere. Something about hope or miracles or even having the faith of a little child. Something about not yet being so programmed to think that everything must make sense, that there must be a proper order for everything.

But I'm just gonna let it sit and simmer for a while. And I'll keep grinning as the little ones go through their music terminology and without skipping a beat shout out "Icecream!" every time.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

To you:



We live in an era that applauds the big stuff. We celebrate the ones who win, who are the best, who do the most. And we celebrate each other on milestones like graduating, or getting married, or having babies. But life is the thing that is lived in the spaces between the Kodak moments, and excellence really just looks like doing the unseen stuff well. It takes strength to be faithful in the little things.

So good on you, today, my friend.

Good on you for consistently making your bed in the morning.
Good on you for buying celery last time you went grocery shopping.
Good on you for returning your mother's calls.
Good on you for taking a cup of tea to your husband.
Good on you for singing when you want to complain.
Good on you for smiling at the bank teller.
Good on you for dealing with constant sleep deprivation because you are working two jobs in order to pay your rent.
Good on you for crying with that friend.
Good on you for respecting your boss.
Good on you for walking into a new church alone.
Good on you for quietly writing that story in your spare moments.
Good on you for getting up at 5 to spend time with God.
Good on you for doing a lame job well.
Good on you for playing checkers with your little brother when you really just want to veg in front of the tv.
Good on you for tithing off the small amount that you earn.
Good on you for dropping everything to babysit your niece and nephew.
Good on you for going to that party because, even though you hate parties, you love the person the party was for.
Good on you for walking your dog when you feel absolutely wiped out.
Good on you for sending encouraging text messages.
Good on you for being thankful.
Good on you for loving that person when they are being unlovable.
Good on you for being a listener.
Good on you for not betraying confidences.
Good on you for teaching yourself to cook.
Good on you for returning the change you were overpaid.

'If you are faithful in little things, you will be faithful in large ones.' Good on you.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The temporal death that is loneliness:


As a child, I equated loneliness with being alone. It wasn't so much that if you were alone, you were lonely but, rather, that you could only be lonely when you were alone. People are the cure for the disease that is loneliness. This is what I thought.

But as an adult, I now recognise that loneliness is no respecter of persons or relationships. Most of those times that loneliness has weighed heaviest on me are moments when I am quite literally surrounded by people. Because there is not just one type of loneliness. There are dozens, perhaps even hundreds of lonelinesses.

There is the loneliness of being in the middle of a crowd that is engaged in watching or singing or being, and you are somehow disconnected from it all. There is the loneliness of being at a gathering where everyone is sharing and talking and laughing, but you can't speak because tears are close to the surface and to speak would make them spill over. Then there is its counterpart, that other, seemingly irrational loneliness that hopes someone will intuitively know what's up, seek you out, help -- care.

There is the loneliness of evolving friendships, of someone who was once very dear in your life slowly moving out of it. There is the loneliness of not having someone's hand to hold as the clock ticks over midnight and the fireworks blaze up into technicolour life. There is the loneliness of heading north while everyone else is headed south. There is the loneliness of someone saying "I wish I could help you," and then the deeper loneliness of someone saying, "I don't want to help you."

There is loneliness in unfulfilled expectations. There is loneliness in having to keep quiet when you want to speak. There is loneliness in fighting a battle that no one else around you is fighting. There is loneliness in the dying off of traditions. There is loneliness in frailty and loneliness in weakness. There is the loneliness of someone laughing at your dream, and the loneliness of endless rain.

There are perhaps as many different lonelinesses as there are happinesses, and each one of them feels like a small death -- a death of belonging, a death of hope, a death of security. But perhaps that is the very thing that is redemptive about loneliness, too: that just as it can come out of nowhere and make your throat tighten with unfelt feelings and uncried tears, so too can happiness. Just as unexpected, just as powerful.

In the loneliness, though, joy feels far away. Joy feels impossible. In those moments, I have to talk to my soul, to remind it that tomorrow, or next week, or next month, the sun will come out. I remind my soul that loneliness is a side effect of being human. I'm lonely because I'm alive -- which is, after all, the complete opposite of death.

[this post was inspired by the Life Captured Project]

Sunday, November 2, 2014

The Sunday Currently


I'm stealing the format for The Sunday Currently from Carina, who in turn found it somewhere else. I like the idea of a simple check-in, a way to orient one's heart- and head-space at the end of one week and the beginning of another. It's also the perfect chance to switch gears from my last two kind of heavier/more analytical type posts (and thank you all for your really thoughtful and affirming comments, by the way). Here's what's current in my world:

Reading
As always, I'm deep in too many books at the same time. But the two I've spent time with most recently (hello, Sunday afternoon; today you were made of wonderfulness) are Fredrick Backman's A Man Called Ove and Anna Funder's All That I Am. Ove is my local book club's pick for this month and, to summarise it super briefly, it's about a grumpy old Swedish fellow who nevertheless has some endearing redeeming qualities. For the first thirty pages I hated it -- hated his constant grumbling and his almost cartoonish old-mannish ways. Then on page 31 something happened and I suddenly loved this character. I'm looking forward to seeing how the rest of the story develops. And I literally only started All That I Am today, but already it's proving wonderful. Anna Funder's non-fiction work Stasiland was amazing, and I feel confident her fiction will be just as good.

Writing
I'm working on a short story at the moment. It's been in the works for most of the year, and I keep pulling it out when it forcibly impresses itself on my memory. I'm also dipping a tentative toe back into journalling. I haven't done it for so long that I confess I'm quite scared by the whole process.

Listening
I'm all about putting my iPod on shuffle these days. To my shame, sometimes I discover stuff I haven't ever heard before. I'm also not above skipping tracks I'm not in the mood for. Current/always/forever favourites are Josh Garrels and The Civil Wars (who are, sadly, officially disbanding), while Citizens & Saints are my newest favourite. Musically, their stuff is like gentler hard rock, if that's even a thing. Lyrically, their songs are exquisitely literary contemporary Psalms. So good.

Thinking
Oh, what a wide brown land that word encompasses. I'm thinking a lot about being faithful in the little things, about reconciling the present with the future, and the interesting dynamics of share-housing (I've only ever shared with my sister; I'm so intrigued as to how people share a living space with someone they're either not related to nor in love with).

Smelling
Bushfire smoke and a cool breeze.

Wishing
[withheld, because] 

Hoping
...to get better at hope; to find the delicate space between idealism and cynicism; for more cool breezes; to ignore the chocolate cake in my fridge; to connect with people I need to connect with.

Wearing
Post-church, Sunday night daggies. If only I'd written this a half hour ago, when it was a black sheath dress, gladiator sandals, and a diamante collar necklace.

Loving
The feeling that life is maybe finding a rhythm again after several months of really intense busyness.

Wanting
A little more job security, perhaps.

Needing
To go through my walk-in-robe-slash-storeroom-space and overhaul everything.

Feeling
Grateful to be on the mend and getting my energy back after a really prolonged flu. 

Clicking
Here for adorable German words translated into adorable line drawings. Here for cute Israeli cops lip-syncing to The Lion Sleeps Tonight. Here to watch the latest episodes of Doctor Who. And here because there's always something good to read.

You?
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