Thursday, September 27, 2012

How It’s Done

A little over two decades ago, when my becoming a writer was still a newly-borne dream, I read Pam Houston’s, “How to Talk to a Hunter.” I had two reactions: “Oh crap, I’m so far from being able to write something like this,” and, “Cool, this is what’s possible.” Currently, I’m reading Patricia Hampl’s, I Could Tell You Stories, and I’m having the same sensations of recognizing how far I still have to go, while seeing the world of possibilities opening further.
I still don’t write stories anywhere near the caliber of Houston’s, “Hunter.” Then, that particular story stands out when compared to the rest of her work. Yet, I could surely select any of her short stories and still see a distance between hers and mine. It’d be easy to get discouraged, to lay the pen down, and go back to being a French Fry Master at BurgerLand. Fortunately, that second realization also arrives. Just because I’m unable to do as well, now, absolutely does not mean I never will. Ron Carlson repeatedly states that, “the writer is the one who stays in the room.” He means they stay in the writing chair, staying with the story, rather than getting up for another cup of coffee, to look out the window to check on the weather, to go to the stacks to make sure some fact they’ve just written is accurate. Surely, he also means they stay with writing, “in the room,” across the years, returning day after week after month to confront the empty pages.
Due to my having read her award-winning short story, I’ve continued following Houston’s career. I’ve read interviews where she mentions much the same frustrations and discouragements I’ve had. Reading this, especially more than once and across several years, levels the playing field. She, too, is mortal, struggles with and for her craft. It also places the reins back into mine own hands. If one mortal can achieve such writing, then so can this mortal; therefore, shuddup with your whining, and write.

Monday, September 17, 2012

You Never Know

The life of a writer, an artist, can be isolating. While you’re likely not working in a windowless garret; you are, nonetheless, working in solitude. Eventually, you send your work out into the world; and then it’s back to the grindstone, isolated and alone again.
What you’ve sent out into the world is out there, on its own, “under consideration.” You wish it well, hope it’s well-received, but your focus and priorities are now on the next project. What is done is done. Hopefully, what you’ve sent out is accepted, thus finding its place in the world. And it’s from there the life your project leads will take it places you’ll never know of—unless word comes back to you.
One of the things I consistently do is write a short piece for my church’s monthly newsletter. Years ago, I gave a printout of one of these to a friend who worked in the same real estate office as the woman I’d written about. A few months later, I learned that this woman had hit a low spot, questioning whether what she did really mattered. My friend showed her what I’d written, telling her, “It’s about you.” My friend me that that little piece of my writing effected a one-eighty in her co-worker’s outlook on herself and her life. Had I not been told this, I likely would have totally forgotten that little bit of writing, having let it fall from memory like the previous newsletter bits before, and most of them since.
John Lennon wrote, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” Sometimes, while we’re focused elsewhere, a project we’ve worked on, finished, and sent out into the world is still out there, working; still not finished. And we may never know.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Playing Well With Peoria

I don’t think there’s a writer who hasn’t been asked, “Where do you get your ideas?” It can a troubling question—seems it’d be easy to answer, yet it can be frustratingly not so. Stephen King has a ready reply at his disposal: “I buy them from two spinster sisters who live in Peoria.”
In asking where one gets their ideas, it can be inferred the questioner is expecting a singular answer; and perhaps there are writers for whom such is the case. But most of us, I think, struggle with finding inspiration: It can seem such a shy, pensive, volatile and elusive critter, we don’t know, ourself, from whence it comes. Telling somebody that we buy them, somewhere, gives a sought-for elegant answer, while making us seem witty. Additionally, this answer’s humor can serve to point out the ridiculous nature of the question. (“Well now, inquisitive one, tell me, where do any ideas you have come from, hmm?”)
It’s a writing cliché that, “ideas are everywhere, all around us,” and the word we typically use for the getting of our ideas, “inspiration,” has its origins in Latin, indicating an in-take of breath. So is it much of a stretch to say we breath in our ideas, our inspirations, that they’re a literal part of us? (This also takes care of the notion that, “inspiration must come from within.”)
If only it were that simple. How many of us have come to the writing and found nothing? We’re constantly breathing in, ergo, supposedly constantly receiving inspiration; however… (And don’t tell us to, “be open,” because we are; we’ll take anything, right now.) Sometimes, this dryness or emptiness comes after a particularly fecund period of writing, and we wonder what’s suddenly happened. At other times, it’s part of a long dry spell, and we wonder when it’s going to end. Perhaps it’s because there seems to be no explanation for the fecund and the fallow periods, and because ideas seem to come to us, rather than from us, that the notion of muses is still with us.
Maybe King is also being hopeful in saying he gets his ideas from those two sisters. When all else fails, see what’s playing in Peoria.