The Learning By Doing Writing School Part 2

summerbookssofar

After writing last week’s post, I started thinking about what I have read in the past two months.  This morning I walked around the house, stacking into my arms exactly those books I have played with lately.  They are sitting next to me as I write, two tall piles on my studio work table.  The non-fiction pile includes:

Story Genius by Lisa Cron, The Art Of Memoir by Mary Karr, Zen In The Art Of Writing by Ray Bradbury: all on writing process.

Let The Whole Thundering World Come Home by Natalie Goldberg, Terry Pratchett The Spirit Of Fantasy by Craig Cabell, Waking Up In Paris by Sonia Choquette:  all memoir and biography.

Freehand by Helen Birch, Your Life In Color by Dougall Fraser: books to feed my artist self, on drawing, and using the energies of color.

Here is the fiction pile, which threatened to tip over and crash when I attempted to alphabetize it:

The Girl In The Tower by Katherine Arden, Sword and Sorceress XII by Marion Zimmer Bradley, Brief Cases by Jim Butcher, Babylon’s Ashes by James S. A. Corey, The Third Nero by Lindsey Davis, There Are No Ghosts In The Soviet Union by Reginald Hill.

Fated by Benedict Jacka, The Outsider by Stephen King, Three Moments Of An Explosion by China Mieville, The Shepherd’s Crown by Terry Pratchett, The Martian by Andy Weir, An Incomplete Revenge by Jacqueline Winspear.

You already know I love reading, and here are more reasons why.

In how-to books, I learn directly from their content, but I also learn how a writer captures or loses my interest in something that does not contain a obvious or inherent story line.  They teach me structure, and the balance between telling and showing–information, instruction, questions, personal example.  Ray Bradbury’s book, in particular, shouts his passion for writing.  He proves that how-to can be disguised as story and reach into my heart as completely as fiction.

In memoir and biography, I learn how the writer chooses to structure their story, what they choose to tell and to withhold, and how the writer as an individual shows through, or not, in their writing.  I learn the ways of telling and obscuring the truths of a life.  Again and again I see how easy it is to fool myself into thinking I’ve reached the truth of an experience, when all my words have only bounced off the surface.  I learn how I can be both blind and biased in what I choose to express, and admit that to the reader.  I learn how I can be honest to the bone.

I love love love reading, and I love love love learning new things.  Reading and learning all in one?  Probably why I also started writing.  These books show me if I want to write, I have to read.

Reading fiction is no less a teacher for me than reading non-fiction.  Fiction sets a pushing need in me to write, and the stories continually challenge me to go beyond what is comfortable in what I create.  These books set a demand within me that my writing reach their level of story, of structure, of flow.  That’s a high bar, but every time I write I work my muscles.  I and my words get stronger.

Some of these books swallow me whole, leave me dazed with story when I finish the last page, leave me sitting unable to move or think beyond the words still spinning in the air around me.

That is how I want to write.  That is the writer I want to be.

 

 

 

 

 

The Learning By Doing Writing School

joydiary05.page4and5.2018I am a person who learns best by doing. I can be told something, but I don’t fully understand until I get my hands right into it.

I am in the long process of learning to be a writer.  These days I alternate between writing, rewriting, and reading.

Reading other people’s words inspires me, whether it’s a how-to post or article, a nonfiction book, or a novel. Something in their work connects with and triggers the writer in me.

It seems I can no longer be only a reader when I read. There’s the writer-me in the background constantly taking notes. I have to read with a pencil and sketchbook close at hand to catch the flashes of insight into my project.

I know this happens to other writers. I thought it would interfere with my enjoyment of reading a novel by a favourite writer, would prevent me from relaxing into the story.

Surprise. It adds to my pleasure. As always, I move deep into the story I’m reading, but now I also move into the background process of the words and how they are building the flow of the story. I am not only learning by writing, I am learning by reading. Every book is a teacher for me.

In art school, I learned that the artwork I didn’t like taught me as much as the artwork I enjoyed. Both what I loved and didn’t love showed me who I was as an artist.

It’s exactly the same now, as I learn to be a writer. What I love and don’t love in other people’s words and stories helps me define what I wish to write and how I wish to write it.

I have as many teachers as there are books on shelves. How amazing to be a do-it-yourself student in the biggest learning-by-doing university in the world.

Thank you, all of you who write and share your words, and teach me by doing so.

Writing Between Work And Play

misc.pics 128It’s hot and humid today. There’s a breeze that smells of the ocean and green growing things.  When I look up from my writing, I see a horizon of water that is every shade of turquoise and blue. There’s deep purple at the farthest edge.

I am on the big island of Hawaii.  For the past six glorious days I have been playing.  Swimming, snorkeling, reading, eating, napping, playing cribbage and crazy eights with my husband.  Walking.  Writing.  Sitting doing nothing except watching the ocean.

Yes, writing is here, listed under playing.  Tuesday morning I played with my book, and ‘played’ is accurate.

I pulled out my notes and Mickey Mouse pencils.  I had no expectations.  I only knew I needed to write.  I was missing something I love.

Tuesday I turned work into play.  I wrote with curiosity and wonder.  I opened to possibilities that might show up, even if they shifted my direction and caused a need to rewrite.  I explored the story.

It’s true writing is work, yet it is work I love.  Tuesday I got to be curious and wondering, open and exploring.  I got to watch possibilities arise from my words, and experience creation.

Yes, it  required work in the form of attention, focus, time, and energy.  It required commitment to saying “I will rewrite this” when something was not the best it could be. It needed willingness and courage to move into my truest truth when it felt  painful or frightening.

Something pulls at me if I don’t write for a few days.  Desire, need, obsession.  Yes.  Even more, it is curiosity and love for writing.  I can’t not write.

My attitude has slowly shifted work into play.  I love that writing has become a mix of both these things.  Saying yes I’ll write today, with a feeling of curiosity, opens my heart.  When my heart is open, possibilities open as well.  My writing takes a direction my mind did not expect, I go exploring, and learn something new.

This is play and work as one.  I love that I get to write.

 

I Was Supposed To Be Writing

3.'Laid to Rest 80,000...Spirits (west)'--Cat Fink
Laid To Rest 80,000 Obstructing Spirits (west)

You who love words and books, you know this.  The inability to stop reading a story.  The not caring what other responsibilities are sitting to the side.  The vaguely conscious decision of being okay with missing an obligation and figuring out an excuse later.

I was supposed to be writing my blog post after lunch today.  I promised myself, after not getting time to write yesterday and being cranky about it.

Now it’s today.

I eat my lunch (hummus, tzatziki, chunks of fresh tomatoes, pepper ham, oh yum).  While eating, I read Natalie Goldberg’s new book Let The Whole Thundering World Come Home.  I finish lunch.  I keep reading.

I can’t see a clock from where I’m sitting, and I don’t care.  I know I promised myself I would write the post, and I don’t care.  I keep reading.

How can I stop reading when someone offers me the truest, barest, words of their shot-through-the-heart life?

Natalie’s words in this book are stark.  She offers no consolation and no place to hide, not for herself and not for me.  I can’t stop reading.  These words are her life, everyone’s life, pared to the bone.

Finally, I am done, the book finished, Natalie’s story complete for now.

I feel like crying.  Empathy, recognition, sorrow, relief, love for a fellow human being.

I decide I’d rather write than cry.  I get up and walk to my studio at the opposite end of the house.  I carry Natalie’s book with me.  I am still wrapped in the experience of her story.

I sit at my work table.  I pull loose leaf paper towards me.  I pick up a pencil.  I don’t start writing.  Instead, I remember a September afternoon, years ago.  It is the third or fourth day of a silent writing and meditation workshop.  The air is warm.  There is no air conditioning.  I can smell the wood of the building, hot from the sun.  We are doing walking meditation, a slow circle around the room.  Natalie walks beside each of us in turn, taking our hands, gentle, quiet.

“You’ve got it,” she says to me, smiles wide, and moves to the person behind me.

Why am I remembering this?

The woman who walked beside me for a few moments was teaching me to find the truth in my words, and to settle for nothing less than meeting and loving my life and writing with both hands and my whole heart.

I am not all the way there yet, to the deepest truth, but I am walking the life that stands before me every day, finding a way to love all of it, laying one truest word after another.

Thank you, Natalie, for your hand, your heart, your words, and your teaching.  You are present in your books in my studio, every day whispering “You’ve got it.”

_______________________

In this post,

Natalie Goldberg, book Let The Whole Thundering World Come Home: a memoir, Shambhala Publications, 2018.  http://nataliegoldberg.com/

In Love With The Words

1.'Containers for the Soul'--Cat Fink
‘Containers For The Soul’

I am halfway through reading Mary Karr’s book The Art Of Memoir.

I’ve yet to read her other books (my friend just lent me The Liar’s Club), but this particular book’s title showed up three times in the past two weeks, twice in random emails, and then at my friend’s home where I was visiting.  When something shows up repeatedly in my life, it’s a clue.  I need to check it out.

I love how Mary keeps moving back and forth between her passion for memoir and the truth of how fugitive our memories can be.  There’s a fascination with the words, and how the words make her feel, and how odd memory is when we try to pin it down into a story.

I loved hearing stories long before I started school, yet I know for sure I became a different person the day I learned to read for myself.

I see flashes of this particular memory.  Sitting with my classmates at the back of our classroom.  New reader open on my lap, the hand-painted pictures, and the words in large black print underneath the images.  Words printed so big, they feel like they are yelling.  I can smell the reader, its singular dusty, papery odour.  I can feel the stiff round edges of the cover in my hands, the coolness of it as it lies on my bare knees.

I don’t know if I took this reader, or the next, home.  I do know at some point in Grade One I began taking home each new reader as I received it, and read the whole thing in one huge swallow.

I needed the words and story and how they made me feel.  I could not go slowly with a new book.  I had to eat it all right away.

A new book burned in me.  Fierce anticipation.  Curiosity that yelled “Now!”  Satisfaction—too dull a word for the fire I experienced.  Fulfillment and wholeness are closer, yet again nowhere near the wild, bright joy I felt, and still feel, with each new book in my hands.  I understand why ‘voracious’ is paired with ‘reader’.  Even the sound of ‘voracious’ when I say it out loud echoes my feelings.  The word growls.

I became a different person the day I learned to read.  I became hungry for words and story and books.  Addicted.  Completely.

There was a wild, bright, fiery space in me waiting for words, story, reading, books to show up.

There is always a wild, sharp, open space in me waiting for the next new book.  Words have taken over my life.  I read.  I write.  I play with crosswords and Scrabble.  I even write on my drawings; plain image is no longer enough.  My friends are readers and writers.

Some might mutter “obsessed” with a kind of tsk-tsk tone.  I say “Glorious!”

At six years old, in Grade One, I did not know the words I’m using here.  If someone had asked me what I felt when I was reading, the word I would have answered with is “Love.”

Thank you, thank you, thank you Mrs. Johnson, for teaching me to read and love words and story and books.

_______________________

In this post,

Mary Karr, The Art Of Memoir, HarperCollins, 2015; and The Liars’ Club: a memoir, Penguin Books, 1996.  https://www.marykarr.com/

It’s true.  We human beings can’t help it.  We are words and memory and story.  We create and recreate ourselves and our world when we say “let me tell you a story.”  It happens every time.

Writing The Wrong Stuff

archangel (raphael).small
Archangel (Raphael)

Yesterday afternoon was warm and sunny, and I did not resist.  I took myself, my writing, and an iced decaf latte, outside to the porch swing.  I spent most of the afternoon writing backstory for my book, working out why my main character wants what she wants, and laying out her defining misbelief that constantly throws her off track.

Halfway through the writing, I sensed something was off track and it wasn’t the character I was writing about.  It was me.  Somehow I lost the main point and sent myself chasing words down a side track.

I completed the piece anyways, and ended it with “Rats, rats, rats, this is wrong!”

It is not lost on me that I went off track writing about my character’s misbelief that sends her off track.

Today I will go back.

Again, I will write about my character wanting what she wants, and her tricky misbelief.  This time I will deliberately aim the writing in a different direction, and see where I end up.  But first, I’m going to reread what I wrote yesterday.  There may be a gem of an idea I overlooked, one that really does have a place in the story.  Even if I see no gem, I will keep the draft of what I think is wrong stuff.

I keep my drafts because of what I learned and use all the time as an artist.  Sometimes mistakes point me in a direction I had not considered, and sometimes it takes me a while to see it.

I keep my drafts, even the ones that seem wrong, because they tell me where I have been in the story, and they remind me of what wasn’t working and what I didn’t want.  Been there, don’t have to go there again.

I keep my drafts because of my Dad.  He told me once, when I was fourteen and suffering through a high school course I felt was useless, that everything I learn I will use at some point in my life.  I listened, and the words stuck.

So here I am, choosing to find a use for my wrong-stuff-writing, instead of judging it a wasted writing session and tossing the pages.  Even if I discover no gem in the words, it prompted my blog post for today, and that is gem enough.

_______________________

In this post:

I am using the book Story Genius by Lisa Cron, Ten Speed Press, 2016, to guide me through my main character’s backstory.  This book is definitely a gem.   http://wiredforstory.com

Asking The Right Question

Cat Fink 'What Gives Me Joy Nov 9 2016 (books)'I discovered, at six years old, that words and books were magic.  I read a story and became a different person in a world and experience new to me.  I saw and felt the story like a movie in my body.  I became the characters.  Total magic.

That first magic of reading stayed with me, and out of it grew a second magic, writing.  I love the magic of writing, how it leads me to discovery and understanding.  The magic was busy this week as I worked on the backstory of my book, and something new came home to me about creating the truest story I can.

Here is what I realized.

As I write, I ask myself questions about the story being created.  I do this each time I write, but what I came to this week is beyond asking questions.  It is about asking the right question.

I write intuitively, so while I always ask who, where, what, how, and when, I don’t need to ask why.  In writing intuitively, the why is already present for me.  It drives the initial idea, the writing, and the story, even though I do not consciously articulate it to myself.

The problem with not consciously asking why is that the answer remains silent.  The information stays in my unconscious.  I might get close to expressing it, but much of the information is running underneath the surface of the words.

I know, as a reader, I don’t need why spelled out for me all the time.  I see it in the experiences, beliefs, needs, and wants of the characters.  The choices they make come out of that, and the story shows this to me.

As a writer, I’ve discovered I can’t leave the why sitting in my intuition.  I need to consciously lay it out for myself as part of the backstory.  My readers may not need it spelled out, but I do.  Specifically answering why gives me knowledge that informs my writing, and provides me clues as to what needs to be written into the story.  Once I’ve done the writing, this knowledge forms a base to measure against as I review what I have written.

Lisa Cron’s book Story Genius has walked me into this deeper understanding of my story-creating process.  I am working my way through the questions she asks, forming the backstory so I have a clear picture of my protagonist when the story opens.  All of who this character is, is her why.  All of who she is informs and drives the choices she makes as the story progresses.  I know what is pushing her, even when she doesn’t, and the knowledge helps me shape how I show and tell, shapes the words I choose, shapes what I choose to both offer and hold back from the reader.

I will continue to write intuitively but now, after the first draft is on the page, I will go back and consciously, deliberately ask myself the question that needs asking—why.

Thank you, Lisa, for showing me how to ask the right question.

_______________________

In this post,

Book Story Genius by Lisa Cron, Ten Speed Press, 2016.  http://wiredforstory.com/

Tea With A Friend

iced tea at Disneyland.blogA good friend came by today, a fellow artist who I see weekly in the Fall and Winter when I am living in my northern home.  She’s on vacation at the moment, so we took our time.  We talked, caught ourselves up on each other’s families and lives.  We drank tea with lemon.

She told me of a painting she’s creating of the clouds of Jupiter, and a show coming up next month.  I read her some of the back story I am writing for my book draft.  Too quickly (isn’t it always) our visit was done.  We hugged and said goodbye, and she left for the ferry.

My friends who paint and write are blessings in my life.  More than a blessing, they are supports in my life.  We trade inspiration and plans, questions and comments, successes and struggles.  Our friendships are a safe space to play with our creative ideas, the ones only yet a glimmer or half-grown, as well as the ones ready for the world.

There is power in our relationships.  I know I am a better artist and writer because of these women.  I trust them to see what I have missed or hidden from myself, and ask me the questions that need asking.  My images and words are clearer and more focussed because of these friendships.  I am more courageous in what I create because I know they have my back and I have theirs.

Our visit today reminds me how essential and treasured time with friends is for me.  Everything we talk of, families and art and writing, strengthens us, makes us laugh, soothes us.  We help make each other whole.

Our visit today reminds me it is coming time to meet some new artist-writer friends here in my new home.  Yes, find more kindred spirits, as Anne of Green Gables would say.

Thank you, Lynn and Kate.  Thank you, Wren and Yvonka and Fran.  You help me be the artist and writer I am.