Practicing Introversion

It’s 9:30 p.m., and I’m an hour out from the ending of this week’s emotionally demanding “change group.” One of this week’s conclusions included the recognition that I don’t have (don’t take) enough time to introvert. To sit with my thoughts and be, and process, and feel, and think (conclusions optional).

It’s a funny awareness. It’s like a low-level hum that zeros out as white noise, but adds to the busyness (demand) on my senses.

I’ve said many times that I’m not a quality-time person, I’m a quantity-time person.

That is, I don’t know how to simply focus on a person– at least, I don’t think so, because every time I try I get bored, irritated, or annoying. It’s just easier and more sustainable to simply be around someone and do stuff in each others’ vicinity. Converse, say. Or play a game. Or read, or watch a movie. Or eat, or cook, or ignore each other while you sit on the same couch with your shoulders touching and a screen in your lap.

See, I’ve got all sorts of ideas for this. A real-life set of examples.

But none of these let me be absolutely alone, or off-duty.

I was thinking of this on the ride home, thinking it would be bedtime, I’d send the no-longer-littles off and stay up a bit myself (as I did back in the toddler stage) to think by myself and compose a complete idea. This feels like it shouldn’t be so reactionary any more, but it is.

The dog is sleeping under my legs, and it both creates and soothes an achy part in my chest to have her near.

Two-months-from-13-year-old Melody comes out, and my gut falls. I was alone, “Why do you need me an hour after bedtime?” I ask. And I go on. “This is my time to be alone. I don’t get time during the day, you know?” I feel like she’s deciding whether or not to be hurt, and I keep going. “You know how you go off on your own, no matter how much you adore your mama, you spend time alone during the day.”

She nods, and a grin creeps onto her face.

“Well I don’t get that during the day. So I need you to let me have that now, after bedtime. And to try and solve your problems yourself right now– preferably by going to sleep, because it is after bedtime.”

And she accepts my ultimatum with a smile that I intensely need to see, because for all my assertions, I’m really not okay with her feeling alone with her problems. It’s one of my old wounds and something I wish away for everyone. Maybe even one of the shapers of my life-purpose: not to fix everything, or anything. Or anyone– but to be a witness, a resource, an encourager, rather than know anyone sits alone in their pain.

This is the beauty of written words: from blogs to poetry to novels and love notes. When I hold a book, read an article, I am engaging in something magical. I am inside the mind and emotions of another fully aware and generous human being.

When you read these words, or an email someone crafted especially for you, know you are the recipient of a gift of faith. As a writer we may write for ourselves, but we also write for the reader. I have an image of you, the reader, even now as I type this with my feet propped on the coffee table that never holds coffee.

You are an incredibly patient, and probably curious individual. You’ve made it through 600 words of mindful rambling, and you’re still reading now, maybe wondering what profound (or empty) conclusion I will come to, because I’ve just about exhausted your patience.

I don’t have one.

Not really. I’m writing because this Tuesday night group (and the women in it) have challenged me over and over to look at (for) my true self, and what has been missing from my peace and wholeness. Two of those things are writing and stillness. So that’s what I’m making happen tonight.

This was 30-minutes.  Exactly. And the peace of the exercise is its own testimony. Maybe it will say something to someone else, too.

Peace to you.

 

Convergence (continued.)

It is still my biggest challenge  in storytelling that I cannot select the *perfect* words for a given tale and be done with my work on it. The work is the continual internalization of the story (ostensibly in images– which I’ve learned is not my first language) in such a way that I will feel confident to convey the heart of the story, whether or not I use my most-favorite words.

Of course, between my love for precision, and my gift (I have to call it that, I didn’t earn it) of memorization, I find myself with the impulse to “cram” before every presentation, latching on to my favorite phrases like handfuls of candy, hoping the corner of a wrapper will be enough to hold on to this precious sweetness until I can share it with someone who’s never tasted it before.

From then on, with each day that passed, as the black serpents grew stronger, nourished by their ghastly food, Zohak grew ever more hardened, becoming more cruel and ambitious.

“I have seen the world, Rabbi, and I know that God cannot be here.”

“What would God have to do,” asked the rabbi, “to prove Himself to you, young Chiam who has seen so much of the world?”

“He would have to make a wonder, Rabbi. God would have to make a wonder.”

For all her joy and relief she was near tears.

Every time I tell a story, it is a surrender to imperfection. Not because I’m sloppy or don’t care enough, but because every live performance contains variables, and aside from memorizing the entire piece I can’t guarantee how exactly it will go.

Surrender to imperfection.

Accepting my limits, and believing that the story itself is more important than flawless delivery, as if it could be spoken as poetry.

It reminds me of a G.K. Chesterton quote, “If a thing’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.”

I latched on to that saying in the beginning of my fight against crippling perfectionism.

Now I’m just a perfectionist. Or maybe I have perfectionism, like most people get the common cold. It can be an irritation, a distraction from the simple experience and enjoyment of life. It reminds me that failure is all around me, like dog poop, just waiting to be stepped in if I don’t pay close attention to every. single. step.

The difference between this and crippling perfectionism is that I’m no longer afraid of scraping dog poo off my shoe. It’s disappointing, frustrating, and sometimes embarrassing, but it’s not the end of the world. Or even the walk.

That said, I’m not bad at storytelling. A number of people tell me I’m quite good. And everyone should know that the vast majority of stories don’t take themselves so seriously that they are massively improved upon memorization. I think my impulse to memorization is tied to my drive for perfection. There’s a competitive element in my nature that wants to get everything “correct” and that element is tangled with an instinct that sees being right as a sort of armor.

Precision as armor is definitely a hold-over attitude from my journalism mind. When I’m writing about something that could make people uncomfortable (especially if they might feel the need to pass that discomfort on to me), getting all my facts/quotes/statistics accurate is the best way I know to shield myself.

Uncertainty feels like liability.

Uncertainty = liability is a crippling mindset to bring into either noveling or storytelling.

In noveling, this shows up as the critical editor, mocking or damning material before it is evaluation-time, squelching the baby bird of a rough draft rather than letting it hatch, breaking itself free with the muscles that must be developed by the fight of its escape. The critical editor’s voice might purport to try and help open the egg, but most often it is too clumsy and can crush the shell while it challenges the blind and featherless life inside to prove its right to exist.

In storytelling, this crippling mindset demands a perfection in practice that is not possible before practice. One of the great paradoxes of learning a story is you always have to start before you’re ready. Ultimately, to make a story mine, I have to step away from carving filigree, from expecting the tools of noveling (falling in love with whole paragraphs of beautiful prose), and start making my story selections based on their content, rather than the poetry in the pen of the collector.

In storytelling, as with noveling and my non-fiction work, the key seems to be know and choosing what’s important to me. Once that core is in place I have the motivation that leads to the attention-span that results in quality work.

I’m still figuring out which tools are best for which area, but recognizing a) different forms thrive in difference circumstances, and b) it makes sense that my __________ muscles will get fatigued through prolonged use, I’m learning to trust my instincts. Which, considering I’ve only acknowledged them for the last five years or so, is an encouraging point of growth.

The Convergence of Expertise

It started out badly enough: a journalism background muddying the waters of my novel-creating.

My scrupulosity — the need to cite/confirm/reality-check everything — was getting in the way of just creating a high-stakes story.

I eventually separated that (in my head) by pretending I was one of those high-output authors who just roll with the story and write it as it comes, waiting till the story is done (and someone complains that it doesn’t work) before seriously considering that something is weird or unrealistic.

Last I checked, a lot of the reason people read is the alternative from reality. (As long as it supports their core view of reality — but that’s another conversation.)

Then, just a couple weeks ago, I shifted from a word-glut of novel-production (that is NaNoWriMo) to prepare for a sudden opportunity to bring storytelling into a local middle school.

And discovered another level of complexity.

It makes me think of the red Snap-On toolbox my dad used for his work as a mechanic in the first half of my growing-up years.

The thing was taller than me (with drawers that slid beautifully smooth, and a satisfying solidity that let one bang the drawer shut  for clangs upon clunks as the tools collided at closing), and no matter how full it got, it never ceased to amaze me that a) more might fit or b) more were needed at all.

Eventually I learned about metric vs. empirical measurements, and the need (essentially) to double ones tool stash in order to best interact with different systems.

Add a third measurement system (tonakle?) and you start to see the convergence of journalism, noveling and storytelling.

All require similar skills, and understandings of a fairly consistent process or structure: Problems – real, natural, or created – are encountered, and decisions must be made and/or consequences ensue. That is the core of everything I deal in.

But journalism (what I began with my formal, college degree) uses what I would call the empirical system. It is (sometimes) less elegant, but definitely complete and logical. And (having the advantage of being brought up in the system), it feels as natural as any externally prescribed system to label the world I’m interacting with.

Words themselves are a system of labels, and God knows I’m comfortable with those.

Noveling, as I encounter and interact with it, is more like the metric system. Decidedly more elegant than raw journalism, “literature in a hurry,” noveling gets to make sense (in fact, most readers demand it).

Mark Twain is attributed with this gem: “Of course life is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.”

Sense and symmetry in journalism is like the beauty in nature as distinguished from the beauty in human-created art; it most-emphatically exists, but we don’t generally get to choose when.

That said, just like a good photographer can bring meaning and (through that) beauty with the angle of a lens, in the way s/he chooses to frame an image of reality, just so a journalist can seek or distill beauty from a hard place.

Noveling has the freedom to be deliberately beautiful, a freedom that can become a beloved obligation.

I’ve made peace with that. I’m wresting into cooperation my two major art forms of the last 13 years.

And then, Storytelling.

Orally. Out loud, in front of an audience: attentive or indifferent, it doesn’t matter.

Let me rephrase that: It most-definitely makes a difference how engaged the audience is, but my job doesn’t change. If I was more of an expert, I might feel more of an obligation to make sure the audience was connected, no matter what.

At my current level of skill, my focus must still be on the story as much as the audience, and if this particular story doesn’t connect with an individual, all I ask from that listener is a quiet patience till the end where you’ll soon get the chance to try an alternative on for size.

Storytelling is another animal altogether.

It has the requirements of the novel:

  • It must entertain, or why will anyone listen?
  • It has elegance and symmetry, because those are ingredients of beauty as well as aids to memory

But it also reminds me of journalism, because the stories tend to be short and spare– a description that invokes a reaction, not necessarily because of the exact words chosen (since the piece is seldom memorized) but primarily because of the content itself.

When I talk about massive snakes growing out of a man’s shoulders (something, in all my years of folklore I’d never seen before this story), people react. And why wouldn’t they? The original teller told it to get a reaction, and so do I.

That is the work of every journalist, every novelist and every storyteller. To grab the imagination of that consumer of our words.

Ah, but the means.

Knowing the difference between the systems has become so important. This is where the tools can start to slip, or have to be held so carefully in order not to strip the useful edges and angles from what we’re working on.

Hardest Writing I’ve Done in a While

I currently have the first regular writing schedule since I began ~10 years ago. The first three hours my kids are gone, I sit down and work on Lindorm Queen.

It helps by having a straight focus (makes it easier to ignore non-novel distractions when I know I’ve just got these three hours — but I do have them, and that creates something of a positive motivation loop…) But that’s not the hard part.

The hard part is looking at a story that seems as though it was written by another person (I started it so long ago), knowing it was me that put all that together, and then remembering to treat me as gently as I’d treat any other fresh novelist who has a lovely story with lots of weak parts.

Sometimes it’s easier to be nicer to other people.

Yesterday I clocked myself (a trick I started NaNo ’13 when I could only write in little chunks) and for raw output I maintained a steady 1100/hour, which satisfies me. Today I went to work, and hit with a familiar problem, I rewound and looked at basics, and saw (perhaps again) the behemoth I’m taking on in changing the story’s main character.

The good news: story’s getting way stronger.

Bad news, that just highlights how weak it was.

You see, the story itself isn’t weak so much as the characters.

Celia and Torbilan, while unique and interesting in LK, were never (in my mind) built all the way up to major-character status. They existed as foils– contrast, backdrop, opportunities to highlight– the main couple of Asmund and Linnea. C & T were (on-purpose) relatively passive in order to give the other characters more opportunities to be active (a technique I don’t think I’ll repeat, but it got that first story told).

Now I have to find a way to work up the goals and motivations of these two very. quiet. individuals so they have enough energy and drive to be the impetus of their own story.

I spent a lot of my work time today on TVtropes.org, working through articles and examples such as Obfuscating Stupidity, The Coward, Guile Hero, Master of Disguise, and so on. Torbilan has such a deep hope and idealism in the face of everything that he frequently can look foolish or a little stupid (when he’s not), and that might have to go by the wayside, but I’m hoping that this aspect of his will play well with Celia’s super-practical survivor-cynicism.

My play with opposites is less about “opposites attract” than “filling the gaps.” The similarities have to be there for the initial pairing or the gaps won’t get filled anyway.

What shifting the main characters has also done is made the B-line of the story (a kidnapping) more significant. In the original, it was just a tool to get the men off being heroes so the folks back home were stuck solving the Big Story Problem, but since the B-plot is now about LK‘s main character (not a spoiler– it’ll be part of the book blurb), I have more history and an established character to play with, so the options have expanded.

It’s been a long time since I had to dig down and build characters from the skeleton out, but it’s a tiny bit exhilarating, too.

And it’s a reminder that research is part of the writing, even when I don’t know exactly where it will all be used.

Lindorm Queen in Process

I chose to self-publish Lindorm Kingdom, because it had been sitting too long for me to do something else first. It was a matter of something like fairness, and also insecurity.

The story represented not just the amount of time I’d been working on it, but also the themes that had been weighing most-heavily on my mind during this latest bout of self-formation (and reformation): justice, strength, using opportunity, and one’s voice.

One writing friend voiced dissent among the other people who have known the story as long as its been in process. She hated the idea of my spending more time on Lindorm, she said, because it was such an early work, and that after reading my current stuff, offering criticism/feedback now seemed like correcting my third-grade homework when I’ve already moved on to calculus.

I was determined, however, and I wrestled the behemoth into submission, ultimately dividing the story in two, and determining to return to the second half in the future.

Well, the future has arrived, and after a seven-month immersion in reading published novels, I finally see what my friend was talking about.

Don’t get me wrong – I still think the first part was well-wrestled – but the second part represents everything that has barely been touched in five years. And that was maybe only two passes away from what I wrote nearly nine years ago.

What I find myself with is the classic (?) troubled novel, where the characters are there, and even some significant and (I’ll be the judge) moving scenes, but there isn’t a strong, compelling through-line in this half, binding it all together and pulling it toward the necessary end.

“Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story for themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.”

–Kurt Vonnegut

As a result, the experience of revision and pulling this draft up to snuff is daunting.

Sort-of as a result, I’m self-coaching now. I am taking the work, and applying what I’ve learned since I first invented Linnea, her stepmother, stepsister, and enigmatic sister-in-law, considering character growth, drive, goal and relationships.

As a fairy tale (or wonder tale, as I prefer to call them now, since so few include fairies), the plot is already determined. For me, the life in this type of novel comes not from any huge surprise, but from a new logic of events or connection with the characters.

I’ve always felt that the irrational randomness in these tales must have made sense to the principals in the moment, and that’s what I look for in recreating the story – the complexity that creates its own sort of sense. And that eventually becomes (through persistent editing) simple enough to follow.

I am traveling back to basics with this one: premise, hook, characterization, goals. It shines an uncomfortable light on on the cockroaches of my noveling process. Apparently most of my stuff comes pre-packaged, already assembled. Picking apart the yarn to weave in a different, more purposeful direction is a new experience for me. But for now I’ve got a bit of time for that.

Acknowledgements (aka My Book is Out)

lindormkingdom_smallerThe book is out in the world. (Here, too, if you prefer Kobo over Amazon.)

It would be really encouraging if you bought a copy, or shared it with a friend, or left a review.

With that out of the way, I wanted to share my thank-yous on my blog, since I already know the book isn’t for everyone (seriously, if you don’t like magic, or dragons or if any kind of violence makes you uncomfortable, this probably isn’t the book for you), and I want to say this “out loud” for anyone to hear.

From the back of my book:

Lindorm Kingdom began in 2006 as my first NaNoWriMo novel. At the time my daughters were two and three, and I achieved a decent one-handed typing speed from all the time at the keyboard while I held my six-month-old son (those midnight wakings were put to literary use).

To all the people over the years who asked, “How do you do it?” the answer is Time. The story – more specifically the themes – wouldn’t let me go. I chipped away for years, learning as I went, and eventually it was sculpted into its current shape.

In eight-plus years, a variety of people have read my pages, encouraging me to stick with it, making me feel heard and valued:

Jay (my husband, best friend, protector, provider), Becky (world-champion encourager, endurance reader and editor), and David (the second engineer to read my work and the only reader to catalog all the places that made him laugh), along with Tori, Mitzi, Kim, Bluestocking (Brooke), Katie, Carolyn, Crystal, Tiffany, Corinna, Kati, Annie, Sarah, (another) Tiffany, Bekki, Lara and Daniel.

Special mentions for Lindorm Kingdom include Jerry Smith (who is one of the reasons this novel didn’t end before it was really started), and the delightful Irene who was born after the stepmother’s name was set, and is nothing like the Irene in this story.

Finally, to my friends that share this writing path and the delight of discovery: Becky (again), Jennifer, Kit, Roy, Janet, Beth, Jen, Kati, and Tiana (my precious Watson), I am so glad to be doing life with you.

With fewer years between books, maybe the next Acknowledgements section will be shorter, but I can’t express with fewer words how tremendously blessed I feel to be surrounded by such honorable people and incredibly live-giving love.

The Necessary Fight: Helping My Depressed Child (Wyn Magazine)

I had to have enough conviction for the whole family when I knew it was depression. That effort on top of the grief, guilt, and personal disappointment was so draining, I couldn’t do anything beyond the naming. I felt helpless, and was silent.

As has been true in so many areas of my life, it was a story that brought clarity and gave me the images and language to move forward. Bearskin, a picture book illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman, crossed our collective laps at this very opportune time.

The title character is raised by a bear, and early in the story he chooses to fight a dragon (“I will go myself if nobody better is to be found.”). The interesting thing is that his Mama Bear does not fight for him. She’s not that sort of mama bear.

She has raised him on bear milk (making him strong), and before his fight, she provides him with armor and weapons, but then he faces the dragon on his own.

I remembered the dragon that stalks me.

Recognizing that it was now going after my kids, my first response was fear, because I knew I would not be able to fight the dragon for them. Even if I had unlimited strength rather than my present weakness, there is not enough “environmental shaping” or help I can give them to keep the dragon away. It attacks from inside them.

Somehow I had to train them. I had to make them strong. And how could I do that when I can’t slay my own dragon?

(Read the whole article at Wyn Magazine)

Noveling Update

I have officially finished the first draft of my 2013 NaNo novel (Sherlockian Daze). Word count is just under 120K, and I did that in just under 5 months.

Which is a super-exciting first for me.

Next order of business is to finish last-last edits on Lindorm King.

I don’t remember if I’ve said here, but a friend of a friend did one last beta and gave me some very meaningful feedback:

I love it when people *get* my story:

“So, I had a bit of time on mine hands, took a look and then was thoroughly hooked. Meaning I read all 344 pages last evening.

I totally adore your women characters. They are strong, but not in the way that “Now I do stuff like the boyz” that so often gets mistaken for strength. I’m fascinated by how they struggle and try to cope with the roles their restrictive society cast for them.

Also, I wanted to hit Tykone over the head frequently for all his subconscious sexism. Very good job on that one, maybe one day a guy reads it and has a d’oh-moment.”

[This last, in particular, was an awesome affirmation to specify on her own: it was an experiment on my part, since I wasn’t sure it would even be recognized as sexism since it’s so “normal.”]

She also had some very useful structural feedback that was very meaningful. Moving back to revision is already proving to be a blast!

It was this reader who pointed out the main (male) character had the only name in the story of Celtic origin, so I’ve renamed him, and it’s going to be interesting as I reread/revise to see a familiar character with a different name.

That said, I started revisions this morning before the kids were up. Got through about 30 pages in an hour. At this rate the revision will take about 12 hours total, which seems painfully slow, since I can only count this as a minimum.

But… after 7.5 years, can I really complain about another 12 hours?

That thing about “momentum” is true. Once you get started, once you’ve proven to yourself what you can do, a lot of the sluggishness falls away.

What Connects with…Me

Image courtesy of Liana Bitoli via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Liana Bitoli via stock.xchng

I found a “coach,” at the end of last year, because most of what I do with my counselor seemed to be coaching, anyway. I was looking for an “outside” voice and perspective that was sharing a brain/time focused on me.

Becky and I have talked about how this is the reason to hire someone: friendships are more mutual, and we don’t want to muddy those relationships to work through our issues.

The coach got me thinking about some good stuff, and some new angles on older projects that have been marinating for a while.

~  ~  ~

Then I got my heart stomped on, and I was back in the counselor’s office.

I had a double bomb in an exhausting 48 hours: First, someone I already guessed didn’t like me confirmed they didn’t like me, and second, someone I love very much– who has a degree in an industry not supported by our local economy– told me they were saving up money to move away to do the work they went to school for.

Both totally make sense, were almost predictable, and so it took me 4 or 5 days to realize I was deeply hurt and grieving. I was so scared by my response (it felt like my depression was returning- freaked me out and you don’t play around with that!) I visited my counselor the day before my coaching appointment.

The counselor gently reassured me that that this wasn’t my depression returning. She affirmed that I was grieving, and validated my experience that just because someone is a jerk, or someone has beautiful dreams that don’t need to include you, intellectual assent doesn’t necessarily change how others’ choices affect you. Continue reading »

Holding the Fear — January’s Life & Fiction Column

If you’ve been around a while you’ve probably seen me reference The Perilous Gard, a book I feel deeply connected to. This month’s essay combines that book with one of my personal wrestlings: How do we respond to something too big to fight?

[Excerpt:]

I am very interested in those characters who are “stuck” with responding, because that’s where I live much of the time: I am faced with circumstances that are bigger than me, and the best I can hope for is that I find and climb on a sort of surfboard and ride the waves as they come. Preferably without wiping out.

When we’re in crisis mode, simply responding is pretty much the order of the day. Strategizing our way around a problem requires energy or clarity of thought that often is out of reach, and it turns out that’s the case for my favorite characters.

All my favorite characters are very much caught up in something bigger than them. Every one is much weaker than the forces arrayed against them, and barely keeping their heads above water, but I love them because they prove a match for those impossible odds—and that’s why I read!

One example: Kate Sutton.

In the young adult novel The Perilous Gard, Kate is sent by the Queen of England to the middle of nowhere. Kate is utterly alone, has no friends, and ends up trapped probably a mile underground.

My throat closes up in the cloying tightness of the memory.

Kate didn’t know if she’d ever see the light of day again. She was a slave, and the only moment of independent choice she had came at the opening of each day. She had a choice to receive or reject “the Cup,” which contained a drug that would bring an artificial delight and mute her senses to the suffering and isolation she endured. She chose to reject it.

Read the rest at wynmag.com