Archive for the ‘diversions’ Category

I’m back, I’m tanned (okay, burned in splotchy areas), rested, shaking the sand out of my clothes, and ready to get back into things.

Or rather, I’m ready to see what new things I can get into, because the old things made me want this vacation so badly that clearly there is something wrong with what I’ve been doing.

There are no promises to make here, no resolutions, no grand agenda, but there is an enormous desire to undo what I’ve been doing which isn’t hard, because lately it’s it felt like I’ve been doing nothing.

I have not been reading. For months now. I have picked up books here and there and never got into them then let life get in the way. That’s just stupid. The “life” I let get in the way had to do with things I’d rather not be doing, i.e. a job for money, where the reading constitutes the necessary manna required for the thing I love, which is writing.

So I’m back to reading.

I have not been writing. Not seriously. I have squeezed in 20 minutes here and an hour there but I’ve also only been toying with things until I could find the time to do the “real” writing. Wrong. That’s just flawed thinking. Back-burnering larger projects because I don’t have time for them? No, I MAKE time for them and stop giving myself these little outs of being busy. Busy doing what? Things I hate, things I don’t want to do?

So I’m back to writing.

And the book reviews, my poor sad book review blog. While I have been reading for some reason I have fallen out of the habit of writing about those titles. In the past I have tinkered with the point and purpose of those reviews – initially they were part of my personal exploration and education, then they were an offshoot of both grad school and the reviewing I did for The Horn Book – but I’ve had a sort of crisis-of-faith that reviewing on a blog was somehow pointless. But I was able to do some quality reading while on vacation – my one and only goal for vacation was to read, which I did – and that reading kicked up some spark that makes me want to rethink and revisit the notion of writing about what I read. Hang the purpose and the style, if it isn’t for me first and foremost then it won’t matter to anyone else anyway.

So I’m back to blogging.

I guess there really is a list there, a plan, a scheme. Basics, I’m back to basics. It isn’t hardcore, planned on a calendar and scheduled to the minute, but the desire is there and I think, ultimately, its important for my soul that I get these parts of my house in order. Of those thing the blogging might lag behind the others, as I have recently been reading non-children’s books which don’t fit within the scope of that blog. I see this occasional gorging on “adult” literature as a sort of palette cleansing but also as a way of refreshing my critical reading skills. How much different is reading Don Delillo from a graphic novel? How are short stories for adults different or the same as those for teens? Whole new topics seemed to materialize out of the salty beach air. Cobwebs of the brain, be gone! I have things to think about and discuss!

So now we’ll see.

How is your summer shaping up, world? Any brain-clearing vacations on your horizon, any grand plans for these next couple of months?

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Many years ago there was this thing I heard about that some guy was doing, a project where people wrote a novel in 30 days. Sounded interesting, but I wasn’t writing novels at the time. A couple years later, in 2001, I thought I’d try it as a lark, mostly because it was immediately post-9/11 and I felt this great urge to do or say something. that was the first year I failed National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo.

I tried again in 2002 then again in 2004, failed on both counts, and decided it just wasn’t for me. November, it turns out, is just a terrible month for projects of any size. That sounds like an excuse but it’s been true across the board, any new project that starts in November is just a stress-filled wreck, and not just writing projects but for some reason writing projects are especially tough.

But a couple years back I stumbled onto PiBoIdMo – Picture Book Idea Month – which takes place during the NaNoWriMo and I thought Finally, a project that’s just my speed. Instead of a complete novel in 30 days PiBoIdMo consists of one picture book idea per day for the entire month. Not a completed story, no even a title, but simply an idea, a seed, a kernel of something that might one day provide fruit. This seemed like a nice bite-sized goal and one that could keep me feeling like I was still writing-active during a usually tough month.

Did I mention this would be easy? No, I did not. Because as it turns out, you can’t always come up with ideas out of thin air on command.

Nonetheless, for the last couple of years I participated and completed PiBoIdMo, and left the month with a handful of reasonable ideas and a couple of stellar ones, but mostly with a sense of accomplishment.

This year I couldn’t even manage five stinkin’ ideas before the month fell apart on me.

Can I blame the new job I started back in July? Well, for this and many other failures, but that seems like a cop-out because plenty of people manage to wedge in writing and plenty of other creative projects around jobs and family and whatnot. Best I can explain it (again, not to sound like an excuse) is I just haven’t found my groove.

I did have a new idea that I thought would/could have made and awesome NaNoWriMo project, entirely manageable and well-suited for short-chapter writing, but the last thing I want to do right now is start a new project with so many others outstanding. Compounding my November anxieties was the fact that I’d agreed to participate in a New Writer’s series put on at my local library. A reading. Of my own work. In front of strangers. I would be just like the readings I did in grad school, only in front of strangers, i.e. people who weren’t predisposed to being supportive no matter what. You know, like the rest of the real world. So where I might have spent my free time during November working on new pages I instead devoted that time to worrying every line of the one section of my WIP that I would be reading from.

It turned out not to be such a bad thing.

First, when you prep something for reading you are forced to read it aloud. Once you start to hear the lines in your ears instead of just in your head you quickly learn what does and doesn’t work. Sections that “read” well on the page suddenly seem to bog down the story aloud and send action and dialog crashing head-first into a metaphorical dashboard with a tremendous whomp. Stilted dialog gets ironed out, precious details get cut because they are too precious. In the end, the pages are tighter and the story is stronger. None of this alleviates the terror of reading in public, but you take what you get.

My reading suffered as well. I found long passages of text too distracting. This happens when I’m preoccupied, and the best thing I can do is give myself a bit of a reading vacation and let myself get book hungry again.

So here it is, December, and despite the harried holiday season and other possible roadblocks ahead, I’m feeling re-energized. I’m ready to finish this one thing and start something bold and new. Or bold and old. Or anything. I’m ready to tear through a backlog of reading and discover something new to become a new favorite.

November was hard, but November is gone.


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That’s right, ignore everybody.

Those aren’t my words, nor are they really Hugh MacLeod’s words either in that he’s probably not the first person to ever use the phrase, though they are the title of his book on creativity called, appropriately, Ignore Everybody, and 39 Other Keys to Creativity.  The title is a pretty good summary of his 40 short, zen-like chapters (taken from various blog posts at gapingvoid.com) where he lays out the problems and pitfalls of what it means to be a working creative, in any field.

I’m mostly throwing this out there to any of my creative peeps, but really there are a lot of people who could use a good shot in the arm when it comes to (re)thinking their priorities. For the writers and artists I know, there’s always something nibbling away at their confidence, something gnawing at their creative productivity, for better or worse. I know for me much of what is in MacLeod’s book isn’t new so much as a collection of reminders about when, where, and what to focus my creative energies on. In a lot of ways the chapters are like concentrated versions of much larger ideas bulking out other books on creativity (which shall remain nameless); these are like espresso shots in a world of watered down instant coffee crystals.

Though I would probably get different things from the books little aphorisms depending on where my head was at when I read it, this time around what stood out were the following:

3. Put in the hours
7. Keep your day job
27. The best way to get approval is not to need it
34. Beware of turning hobbies into jobs

Numbers 7 and 34 hit a funny chord in me as I recently found myself working a day job (after four years of unemployment) and, separately, been thinking of starting a new venture that would effectively turn a would-be hobby into a job. This is where number 3 kicked in to remind me that I just need to put in the hours. On the thing that is most important. Which is the creative stuff.

Number 27 probably ought to be lumped with number 12 to have the most meaning for the writing community – If you accept the pain, it cannot hurt you. Accepting the pain is about the rejection process, and the approval process is a corollary to not caring and letting the process roll of your back. It’s a tough thing because somewhere deep-down the need for approval (or to not be rejected) has to do with confirming that we’re on the right path. Doubt, fear, confusion… they’re all there to keep us off-balance, to keep us from doing the work we’re driven to do.

Friends, creative or otherwise, hunt down Ignore Everybody and see what I mean. Do as I did and read it while commuting or someplace else public; you can practically feel people seething as they notice you reading a book that instructs you to ignore them. Consider it a first step to a new creative path (or path correction, as necessary).

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And by that I mean, did you ever read a book — at any age, but particularly when you were younger — where you thought to yourself: That’s the person I want to be!

Wait! Wait! I didn’t throw a monkey wrench into it yet!

The book can NOT be a fantasy or science-fiction title.

Did that ruin it for anyone? Everyone?

See, last week there was this article in the NYT about boys and reading and yadda yadda yadda. But out of that I found myself wondering what, if any, characters in literature really made me sit up and really wish I could be that person.

We talk so much in the craft of fiction about identifying with characters, empathizing with them, sympathizing with their plight, but how many of them represent who we would actually, willingly want to be identified with?

Did it stick? Did you change your life, your environment, your personality to be more like that character?

Now, why am I removing fantasy and sci-fi from the mix? Well, I have a theory, but it’s only that, that readers might be more prone to adopting a fantasy persona than one from a more realistic or historical setting. Who wouldn’t want to do something impossible, like cast spells or fly to other worlds? Yes, yes, I know that character traits are universal and the setting shouldn’t matter, but my curiosity and my intuition are strongly leaning toward the idea that it is harder to find realistic characters we can identify with.

Still with me?

Please, post and discuss in the comments below. And invite everyone you know to join in.

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Last week I was stumbling around with a notion about how I imagined the future of books would look more like apps than downloadable versions of their paper cousins. I was envisioning an interactive text, something that would allow readers to expand the depth of their reading experience, something that would simply be the digital flipping of pages.

Then my wife discovered this.  Don’t read any further until you take a look.  Seriously.  Scroll down to the sample pages, read the description of what’s included.

Are you back? That is what I was thinking about, am thinking about.

Yes, okay, it’s nonfiction, it’s the civil war, there’s plenty of material to work with. And this is a great way to deal with history, make it alive for the reader. Do this with anything, do this with art history or rock and roll or the study of infectious diseases. Daily uploads?  Why can’t this be done for text materials for classrooms, newly loaded pages every weekday for 180 days, with the ability to take notes in text that you can export to documents.

Notice the price? $8 for two YEARS worth of updates. Show me a textbook, or any print book, that can offer as much for that asking price. More importantly, show me a newspaper that can do this.  I’ll grant you, there are expenses involved in newspapers and textbooks that might mess with the price point, but if newspaper apps could promise this they’d make it up in volume.

And now, why can’t fiction do this?

Already we’ve seen books with links to web content (the Skeleton Creek series) but these feel a little more like playful treasure hunts that are a marriage of convenience at best. The videos require a password from the text, and illuminate the mystery within the story, but their integration leaves much to be desired.

The thing about this is that it totally opens up the possibility for what a writer can do with a story. Multiple and parallel storylines can be accessed, points of view shifted the same way we can view multiple camera angles in videos. The author would still have total control over what is revealed, and when, and how, so it isn’t simply a question of tossing in the kitchen sink and letting the reader find their way.

It also doesn’t have to be so complicated.  Dickens wrote many of what we consider classics in serialized newspaper formats.  Others did as well (including Stephen King a few years back though I’m unsure of the success). Why couldn’t a book app upload a new chapter once a week to a reader to the same effect?

If tablets are going to start hitting the market in 2012 with a child audience and a $75 price tag in mind, then the first real jumps in what can be done with an electronic book are going to take place with children and young adults. People are still going to have to write quality books, but the shapes those books will and how their content will be displayed, that’s a question for the future.

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I should have registered.  I should have registered for this conference when it was announced two weeks ago.  But I didn’t.  I hedged.  I hemmed and hawed.  I got on the fence and I’m still sitting there.

I wonder what writers did before there were conferences.  Before there were places to go and commune with fellow writers and talk craft, did they just go to bars and talk the ear off anyone who would listen?  Instead of attending seminars and workshops did they lurk around near hotel ballrooms hoping to glean some insight from a meeting of some other organization?  Did they become members of fraternal organizations and lie about their avocation?

It’s such an isolating experience, writing, and I’m grateful for any and all contact with others who are in the same boat.  The conference is a chance to pretend I am more outgoing and social that I really am and convince myself I’m not spending a majority of my waking hours in my own head, having both sides of a dialog with characters and plot. Conferences are a place where people knowingly nod when you try to articulate what it’s like to struggle with committing a thought into words that will eventually, hopefully, transmit that same thought into someone else’s head.

So why do I have this creeping sense of dread about attending conferences?

They can be like awkward speed dates, these conferences, compacted moments where you try to summarize yourself in the best possible light to total strangers.  You can’t just be yourself you have to be your best self.  You have to be able to summarize what you’re working on, hide your anxiety as best as possible, look for the opening that allows for connection.  You have to be “on” and you have to be natural at the same time. You have your stories, your books, your labors of love, and they rely on you to make their case in the world. Suddenly you realize, you aren’t just there for yourself, you’re their to play matchmaker for your work.

Okay, maybe you don’t feel it that way, but I do.

For the unpublished aspirant there are so many questions to field: Are you looking for an agent? Who have you queried already?  What kind of responses have you gotten? Have you considered this agent? What’s your book about? Have you talked to so-and-so? Have you read this craft book? Have you taken this seminar? Have you heard so-and-so speak?  have you read this article, and that article?

Everyone is so eager to share their experiences, drinking in as much as what others as saying in hopes of gleaning that one shimmering flake in the pan that leads to the gold mine. Everything becomes a blur of conversations and shifting attentions and scrawled notes that serve as an energy boost.  For that alone sometimes a conference is worth whatever it takes to attend, that feeling of having been recharged and ready to take on the next couple of seasons.

But then comes the withdrawal. That creeping isolation again. All that information and excitement from the conference has faded, the notes forgotten, names forgotten. Doubt.  Doubt about the work and the process. Questions that feel like someone else has the answer, should have the answer. That hunger for connection, a sympathetic ear, that voice that says the exact same things you’re thinking and feeling.

The conference is the answer.  The conference.  It’s like a drug. It is a drug. All the promise, that chance to be the better self you aren’t forced to be on a daily basis when it’s just the writer and the story tugging at each other. At the writer’s conference you can talk about the story but it’s the person that matters, the connection. The conference bolsters courage and confidence, the conference makes you feel sexy, makes you invincible. The conference is the secret antibodies to all those invisible enemies who like germs would infect your spirit and drag you down. Before the conference a friendly rejection has the power to darken your mood and send you into snack food binges; after the conference you become a focus Olympian athlete capable of crushing all rejections into chalk dust.

That said, I’m still on the fence, the registration screen opened as a separate tab waiting for me to fill it in, as it has been for two weeks. What’s keeping me?

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Our brains are great.  They’re complex, elastic, they do so many things simultaneously that breaking down something as simple as the brain activity involved in the mechanics of a sneeze into its component parts would probably fry Deep Blue in a nanosecond.

But but mine has had enough.

There’s so much to read, so many websites and blogs, so many Tweets and status updates, so many books piled around the house, unread magazines and newspapers.  Everywhere I turn there’s more content to filter through, and it keeps piling up.

All of this information is intoxicating, these connections and networks, all this faux social contact, it’s like a crazed addiction, like an allergy whose reaction is a craving for more of the same.  There will never be enough to satisfy the desire for more.

Second to the day I realized what an infinite universe felt like – that hollowness of space going on beyond my imagination, expanding in my brain until I became dizzy – was the day I realized that if i did nothing but sleep and read the published materials (and by that I mean books) available to me at this moment, and did nothing more, I wouldn’t even make a dent in that reading in my lifetime.  That doesn’t include all the books yet to be published.  It doesn’t include all the other print media, or the internet, or all the incidental research reading spurred on by questions raised in the reading I want to do, or might want to read once I discover what I don’t know is out there.

The world is drowning in content, and we keep chasing it like we can ever catch up with it.


What is gained?

It’s like we have this idea in our heads that if we chase down all these threads of content we’ll achieve something greater, faster, than if we’d just take life as it comes.

We’ve found ourselves in an accelerated cultural miasma, with subsequent generations jettisoned faster and faster into the maelstrom, believing this is a good thing.

We come into the world unburdened by all this content, and as hungry as we are to learn, we are never as happy as we were when we were innocent of it all.

I spent over five hours of my day staring at a computer screen today, reading and writing words, but I can’t decide is the best moment of my day came from staring down a goose at the reservoir during a morning run or the simple enjoyment of a spicy meal I made for the family.  And now here I am attempting to hold onto those moments by converting them into some form of content, sharing them in the hope that they will last, give the whole of my day some meaning, some purpose.

Could we, I wonder, collectively, go a day without all this extraneous content?  Could we set aside one day and create a mass moment of clear consciousness, a day where everyone agreed to go without the artificial stimulation, just to cleanse the palate?  No blogging, no facebook, no surfing the web at all, no books, no television or radio or magazines… one day.  Is it possible, or would it require a planet-wide, life-threatening solar flare?

Could it be done?

Have we gone too far?

Would it even make a difference?

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