View From the Writer’s Desk

Kale: stir fry with ginger, soy, and garlic?

View: a little on the “meh” side this week.

I spent so much time staring out the window that I rearranged the physical view in hopes that my mental view would change. All week long I faced my laptop, but nothing much happened. I’m not sure why. No excuses here, but it got me wondering why it is that some weeks my output flows, and then others it fizzles to a barely discernable trickle.

It’s the weirdest thing. Nothing changed this week. No stressors. Ah, but perhaps that’s it. No stressors! Through last week I was gung-ho to finish a revision for an agent. I was PUMPED. The revision was a beautiful thing, and I knew to the core of my physical being that I was improving the manuscript. It just felt good, you know what I mean? I sent it off one week ago.

Then, this week — fizzle-city. I re-read where I’d left off on another revision, and after the headiness of my previous effort, this revision felt flat. Good news: I think I figured out what’s not right about it, thus far, which is a huge part of the battle. And I did get words down on paper — I did. Just not so much is all.

But, okay, in a fit of frustration I did buy the decorative kale you see in the image, and I did set piggy beside that sickly lily, poor thing. I kept pondering how to cook up kale, however. I like kale okay, but, come on now, not that much.

As a friend wrote in an email message this morning about her own window-staring: Taking a break, it seems.

Apparently, the brain wants what it wants at times, and no amount of striving and self-flaggelation on my part is going to change its stubborn mind. Hey, Brain, vacation’s over come Monday! Uhm, okay, pretty please?

I Get Scared

Current status: Story spinning okay
Current status: Story spinning okay

I’ve been working on a new novel idea, and I’m doing it differently this time. (Hopefully I’ll elaborate on that soon.) At the moment, I’m a little scared. Do you get scared right before you begin your first scene?

I’m so anxious, my chest wall presses up against my sternum. It’s a little tight in there, like maybe my ribs have morphed into squeezing tentacles. A friend reminded me to have fun with this new story. But I’m still taking it all too seriously, probably because I want this fiction-thing to work out. I’ve been disappointed over the last year. Losing agent, languishing finished manuscripts, writing grant fini and day-job sucking at my creative marrow…

I can’t avoid the writing forever — and by avoidance I mean engaging in endless story-development exercises — because at some point the head of steam compels me to set words on paper. I feel uncomfortable and itchy, just gotta start. I’m at the teetering point now. I’ve been here before. The discomfort is familiar, and I’m thankful for that. I’ve worked through it before and will work through it now. 

This discomfort in a good sign. The story has almost completed its initial gestation period.

This discomfort differs from that I felt at the beginning of the summer, when I thought I’d never have another story idea. Now that’s the truly scary place! Glad I’m past that.

River Life


And I’m back from the McKenzie River, and I most emphatically did not bring work with me. No laptop. No manuscript that I’m reading for a friend. No notebooks. Just a library book, the latest Laura Lippman.

I did drink red wine. I did eat too much yummy camp food. I did read and nap. I did get on the river. I did socialize with my hosts and their river friends. That’s about it. These images say it all, don’t they?

Three thoughts:

First, old friends are comfortable like p.j.s. I hadn’t seen much of my hostess in 15 years, yet when I arrived it was like old times. No big deal. We’re both a little wider, with a few wrinkles around the eyes, and we lead very different lives, but, as the saying goes: Whatever.

Second, I need more breaks like this, because even though I came back to a work-grind, I feel semi-detached from it, as if my brain regained some of its space — room for creative thoughts to slip in and stick.


Speaking of which, third, an idea did occur to me while in the woods, and it hasn’t fallen into the nothing-hood void that I mentioned in my last post.

Day-job tasks beckon, but first I’m going on a dog-walk, then hitting a coffeehouse, then fooling around on Facebook because I haven’t visited that virtual realm in awhile, and THEN blasting through a little work. That’s my kind of prioritizing!


And Luna settled right in too!
And Luna settled right in too!

Blowing Out My Synapses

You don’t even get a photo today, that’s how out of touch with my creativity I’ve been lately: no photography, no fiction, much less any ideas at all. Every once in awhile something sparks and then dies back to nothing-hood. Did I have an idea, huh, what was that flitting across my synapses? It was unusual, it felt great, but where did that spark go?

Last week I had a routine physical. My doctor asked about my nutritional supplement intake. I mentioned my daily 100mg. of 5-HTP. If you don’t know, 5-HTP is a brain chemical that helps with seratonin production (layman’s definition only), and we all know that seratonin is a depression-factor thingamajig. But, I’ve heard many people say this supplement doesn’t do anything for them, or it makes them feel weird.

Not me. I’m a basketcase without my 5-HTP. Skip it for a few days, and I’m practically nonfunctional. So I asked my doctor what that was all about. She looked at me in that piercing way of hers, and said, “You blow out your synapses, yes?” to which I responded, “Yes?” and she said, “Yes. You think too much, always in your head, everything circling around and around — you’re blowing out your synapses.”


Basically I gotta get a life, learn how to relax and live more in the moment, give up a little control. This last befuddles me. If I were a control freak wouldn’t my home be spotless, wouldn’t my clothes be pet-hair free, wouldn’t I be freshly bathed everyday?

And here’s another question: If I’m overtaxing my brain so much, what exactly is it I’m thinking about? Besides day-job stuff, what’s taking up all the space, squashing out story ideas? Can someone please tell me?

Ah well, this was supposed to be a quick note to check in because I’m heading out of town. Please refer to my last blog post, to the comment left by Liz. Talk about coming at the perfect time! She’s a high-school buddy, and the last time I saw her was at a high-school reunion. I didn’t know she was reading my blog, which is cool. I’m about to head out to the McKenzie River — no wireless, sporadic cell phone service — for a few days. Feels like an experiment — no technology? — I might as well be going to the moon.

I vow that I shall do nothing except read, sleep, drink red wine, read, sleep, jump in the river, read, sleep, take walks, read, sleep, socialize…Wish me luck, though, because I already know that I’m going to pack a friend’s manuscript that I was supposed to have read months ago. I’m thinking I can get something done while I’m at the river, yes?

Me thinks this is exactly what my doctor meant about my poor brain, and exactly what she would not order…

EPIPHANY | The Bench and Dead Squirrels

It’s 3:00 p.m. on Monday. I’m sitting here with sun shining in on my desk, cold coffee next to my mouse, revising a chapter. No biggie. Pretty typical.

Various bits and pieces have been flitting through my head lately. Like that short-story idea that’s not an idea yet, the one with a title and that’s it (this post). Also, the notion that my creative-brain feels tight. Clenched. Constipated. I need to loosen up.

I’ve been thinking about posting one of my photos as a writing prompt for you and for me. Once a week, loosen myself up with an hour’s worth of writing play.

All this, somewhere in my head. Meanwhile, just now I took a wee revision break to, what else, flit through the Internet. Low and behold, came upon a blog with photographic writing prompts, and I thought, Huh, fancy this, already out there; still, which photo would I post for my first writing prompt?

I remembered the photo posted here. It’s a memorial bench for Phillip, aged four. Someone had set flowers on the memorial plaque (too bad they’re not in focus). That bench has been bugging me lately, but in a good way: creatively.

I thought, What about that photo? and returned to my revision, la-di-da, and I was in the middle of deciding what to do about this pesky sentence–

I fingered the pill in my pocket, picturing our intermittent and rushed sojourns in the library, the way Jasper’s hands tapped a tune out on my stomach with fingers delicate and precise as spider’s limbs.

–when it hit me that the bench and all the sorrow it symbolizes is the crux of the unknown story entitled “The Season of Dead Squirrels.”

I could be excited.  !!!!! <–yes, exclamation points–> !!!!! Maybe I am!

The randomness and wonderfulness of creativity. Don’t we writers love that?

Okay, back to revisions!

(Not promising I’ll do the photographic writing prompts, just saying. Check out A Thousand Words if you’re curious.)

What I Will NOT Do in the Next Few Days

Here’s what I will not do over the next few days, or even weeks:

I will most emphatically and deliberately and stubbornly not read over the short story I wrote for a 9/30 postmarked deadline. No way. Because when I read it — which I will, but just not in the next few days or weeks — I will find typos and I will find horrendous prose and awkward transitions and plot flaws plus faulty character motivation ambiguous turns of phrase murky backstory…

The thing’s barely a second draft, but I submitted it anyhow. How’s that for silly?

Here’s how it went down:

Friday night, 9/26: Re-met various workshopping friends, one of whom recently acquired a small press. Said small press periodically publishes themed anthologies. The current theme: addiction.  I hear: Lisa, surely you have something sitting around that you can submit. Lisa, anything can be an addiction.

I dismiss the thought because I have nothing addiction-related sitting around.

Saturday, 9/27: Yet, I can’t help myself: I ponder…addiction, addiction. Perhaps retool that cool novel scene, the one between mom and daughter in a hair salon? You could say the daughter is addicted to her misery…nah, stupid idea.

That night, I feel a glimmer of something. A brand-spanking-new idea. Something a little twisted…

Sunday, 9/28: Glimmer is now a spark. Could be, could be. Sit at a picnic table with my trusty index cards and brainstorm until I have a semi-solid grasp of the story — at least I know the ending. That’s always a good sign. If I’m going to write this thing — feeling the pressure now because all of sudden I must make deadline — I must forgo further canoodling.

Write the first five pages that day. Don’t sleep well that night. The story needs at least another ten pages. Yikes!

Monday, 9/29: Hammer out the rest of the story in 11 pages. I’m a mad fiend at the computer. Don’t eat all day. Worrying that the story is over-the-top and unrealistic in a bad way because that’s what happens when the verbal does its vomiting. And what is it with my protagonist who turned into a Romanian immigrant? I let the worries go because, well, I’m just about out of time.

Stay up too late in bed with a printed copy and jot initial revisions.

Tuesday, 9/30: Deadline day! I must be nuts. I work through my revision notes which compel other revisions all the while eyeing the clock and ignoring the dog scooching her butt across the carpet. Don’t eat all day again. Doing my best here with cuts (not enough I’m sure) and rearrangements…And then I force myself to stop with that and read the story aloud because that’s what really helps. I leave time to read the story aloud a second time because that really helps. Feeling the stress now, the second read-through is too fast, know I’m missing things — and typos — yeesh, typos! — but I have to quit now.

Arrive at the post office with 30 minutes to spare (darn, did have time to slow down over the last scene after all) and want to melt I’m so relieved.

Aaaaaaah. Did it! And the challenge was good for me. Just what I needed, get the blood boiling, shake myself up…aaaaaaah.

Afterwards? Wine and bubble bath? Beer and friends? Wish I could say so. Instead, off to the vet to get the dog’s anal glands expressed. Ah well, perhaps a fitting end to a day in which I’d attempted to grow a story out of a “shitty first draft” (to quote Anne Lamott).

Call me Happy; the Words Flow Once Again

I’m sitting here in one of my favorite coffee houses, Palio, feeling relieved and happy. After weeks of slamming myself against the hump that is the end of my novel, I finally wrote five new pages.

I don’t believe in writer’s block. Yet I do get stymied sometimes. Seems like I spent most of April on a rollercoaster: Great idea! No, that sucks…A better idea! No, that sucks also…Talk about frustration.

I gave up the goat in May and completed other work on the manuscript and story, including lots of brainstorming (previously mentioned). This was probably good and necessary work, but when it comes to first drafts, I tend to discount effort that doesn’t produce shiny, new words on fresh new pages. I end up thinking to myself: What have I been doing with my time? And then feeling kind of crappy.

This week a couple of friends and I talked about the creative process. The key theme was “time.” As in: Creation has its own timeline. Ideas need a nurturing hand rather than my usual impatient whipcord.

What I wonder is: How much of my time away from newly written pages was legitimate (“filling the cup,” as the saying goes) and how much was excuse-making? What’s the difference between nurturance and procrastination anyhow? (And how can you tell the difference!?)

I sometimes wonder if I’m the only writer who faces this inner conflict. I’m sure I’m not, but sometimes it sure feels like it! What’s your take?


Disciplining our Daydreams (When Writing)

Here’s a few photos from today’s coffee house: Papaccino’s. Complete with a shot of a fellow who tried to flirt with me awhile back (sleeping guy). Sometimes I’m clueless; now he ignores me.

Just now, I left a comment on the Dystel & Goderich Literary Management May 6th blog post. And there for all to see is a real-life example of how compulsive we writers can be. Rather than let my original comment with its dopey typo stand as is, I HAD to leave the comment a second time with typo corrected. (Did you find it?) Now I appear more daft for leaving the same comment twice, especially since I’m a client — eesh.

I’ve been meaning to answer a question from “lactatingbookworm” because, unfortunately, it got me thinking:

Hopefully, new ideas will pour in whether we outline our novels or not — and this is good, more to work with. Choose your most-comfortable writing method and know that “disciplining your daydreams” (or, revising, to translate your words into my vernacular) is part of the process.

If the goal is to write a coherent and enjoyable novel, then pruning away those wondrous ideas and plotlines that don’t work is a must. You can choose when to prune: after you’ve written the first draft, while you’re developing an outline, while you’re writing the first draft, all along the way. I’m an all-along-the-way person these days.

Sounds like you’ve got a partial outline completed. Personally, I don’t need to know every last plot point before I start (though I write in-depth character analyses; have you tried this?). At some point, you just have to start — or re-start in your case. You can stop at any point to outline further.

This is my take on your question, lactatingbookworm. Hope it helps.  Truth is, anyone with staying-power, an idea, and the urge to write can complete a first draft — but does a first draft a novel make? Nah. You gotta have revision. And this is liberating! You can filter a muddy awful mess into a clear flow.

I imagine some seasoned novelists don’t revise much, but let’s not count them, okay?



The Ducky State of my Writing

My cat is interested.For the past 10 days I’ve been observing Mr. and Mrs. Mallard from my balcony in an attempt at mindfulness. For months I’d heaped stress on myself: Gotta finish the first draft, gotta finish the first draft, an endless and exhausting mantra. In a comment to this post, “oh” hoped that I had returned to the manuscript after a bad day. Yep, but not in the same way. I needed to step back from the mantra.

     (Mr. and Mrs. Mallard arrived around
      March 4th, and my cat still thinks
      he can make a meal of them. –> )

Last week, I printed out my almost-completed first draft, read it, and am now revisiting various story threads. Back at about 120 pages (November posts) into the manuscript I went through the same exercise, and it helped immensely.

Gotta say, it feels good to use the revision part of my brain rather than the first-draft part of my brain. In an odd way, I find it relaxing, which has to be what a writing doctor would have ordered.

Funny thing is, I have three previous novels under my belt, and their endings arrived on mental silver platters: easy cheesy. So this situation is new to me. Probably why I was so stressed out. It might mean that I’m not as clear on the story as I thought I was. We’ll see! Another learning lesson under way.

( <– After going MIA for many weeks, Mrs. Mallard reappeared on Monday with her new family.)

What-Ifs and Creative Naps

Last weekend I had an epiphany about the scene that will usher in my story’s resolution. I worked all afternoon for that darned epiphany. And thank goodness, because I’d been writing in fits and starts for a good three weeks, stymied by a lack of vision.

Desperate times called for desperate measures. I reluctantly employed the what-if brainstorming strategy. I say “reluctantly” because I first witnessed this technique at a writers workshop, and it struck me as lame. It didn’t help that the workshop facilitators were snide and sometimes just plain mean — a schtick meant to be funny but that left me cold. Until last weekend, I had obstinately refused to play the what-if game.

I jotted every cockamamie idea that popped into my head and forced myself to what-if my way past random nonsense. “Okay, back to the what-ifs. What if…?” After awhile, a deceptively simple thought arose: a surprise action from an unlikely character. Seemed so obvious I wondered why I hadn’t thought of it before.

So, good, but I still wasn’t THAT clear. I needed a visual. All I had was a maddened man floating in space. About then, I decided that a wee creative nap was in order.

I set myself to drifting in a conscious way. (Not that I didn’t fall asleep also — delicious!) Low and behold, a strange thing happened; the perfect scenic image drifted into my head.

I’m not a big believer in waiting for inspiration. Sometimes it arrives on its own, true, but more often it needs a little push by way of mind games that get me out of my own way.