What is "Doom Eager"?

Lorrie Moore, from "Better and Sicker"
"Martha Graham speaks of the Icelandic term "doom eager" to denote that ordeal of isolation, restlessness, caughtness and artistic experiences when he or she is sick with an idea. When a writer is doom eager, the writing won't be sludge on the page; it will give readers -- and the writer, of course, is the very first reader -- an experience they've never had before, or perhaps a little and at last the words for an experience they have."

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Thought for the Day

"Why do people always expect authors to answer questions? I am an author because I want to ask questions. If I had answers I'd be a politician." - Eugene Ionesco

Saturday, November 27, 2010

John Gardner on what writers do

"What the writers I care most about do is take fiction as the single most important thing in life after life itself -- life itself being both their raw material and the object of their celebration. They do it not for ego but simply to make something singularly beautiful. Fiction is their religion and comfort: when they are depressed, they go not to church or psychoanalysis but to Salinger or Joyce, early Malamud, parts of Faulker, Tolstoy, or the Bible as a book. They write, themselves, to make things equally worthy of trust -- not stories of creeps and cynics but stories of people capable of a measure of heroism, capable of strong and honest feeling at least some of time, capable of love and sacrifice -- capable of all this, and available as models for imitation. Everything true writers do, I think, from laborious plotting on butcher paper or three-by-five cards to laborious revision, draft after draft, they do to create characters -- the center and heart of all true fiction -- characters who will serve till Messiah comes, characters whose powerful existence in our minds makes a real-life messiah unnecessary. Imperfect, even childish human beings, writers raise themselves up by the techniques of fiction to something much better than even the best of writers are in everyday life: ordinary mortals transmutted for the moment into apostles." - John Gardner, from On Writers and Writing

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

minimize procrastination and worry

"I became an afternoon writer when I had afternoons. When I was able to write full-time, I used to spend the morning procrastinating and worrying, then plunge into the manuscript in a frenzy of anxiety around 3:00 P.M. when it looked as though I might not get anything done. . . . The fact is that blank pages inspire me with terror. What will I put on them? Will it be good enough? Will I have to throw it out? And so forth. I suspect most writers are like this." - Margaret Atwood

The fact is finding time to write is difficult for most writers, even those of us who are home all day. When we look at how we spend our time, however, we may find, like Margaret Atwood, we waste precious time during which we could be writing instead of procrastinating and worrying.

Besides procrastination and worry, watch out for these time-suckers that take away from writing time. Some are just disguised forms of procrastination and worry.

1. Watching television mindlessly. We all have our favorite shows. If possible, I record them and catch up later when I've completed my writing for the day. I try to make watching a show my reward for getting writing done.

2. Running pointless errands. Do I need to run to five different stores, waisting time (and gas)? Can I combine errands or better plan my driving route, so that routine errands don't steal my writing time? I stock up on common household items (buying them when they're on sale, of course), so that I'll need to spend less time shopping.

3. Fussing over unnecessary household projects and tasks. Reorganizing the closet or cleaning out the garage isn't as important to me as sticking to a writing routine. I find it's more productive to write when I'm fresh and alert. Cleaning and tackling projects around the house come after I've written, or can be accomplished during short breaks between chapters or scenes. I've been known to throw in a load of laundry or empty the dishwasher while I'm working through a troublesome passage or scene in my mind.

4. Over-committing of time and energy. It took me many years to realize it's okay to say "no" to friends, colleagues, organizations, and yes, even to family members when saying "yes" means little or no time for writing. The writing life means commitment of my time and energy. This doesn't mean always saying "no," but setting priorities. I ask myself besides writing time, what activities and commitments mean the most to me and my inner circle? What can I honestly commit to and do well, keeping time for writing a central part of my life? It can be hard at times, feeling as if I'm being selfish, but over-committing of my time and energy can leave me feeling drained and resentful.

Monday, November 22, 2010

it's out there ... so write about it!

"The material's out there, a calm lake waiting for us to dive in." - Beverly Lowry

In my case, it seems it's not a "calm lake" of material waiting for me to dive in but more an ocean of waves crashing in. I can catch a wave and ride it in, or I can drown. Think I'll let my writing be my surfboard.

Began a short piece this morning entitled "Spoiled Milk." I'm not sure where it's going yet, but the image of a woman who sums people up by the contents and condition of their refrigerator struck me while I was cleaning my own this morning. Maybe it'll become something, maybe it won't. I, like Lowry, believe there is material for stories all around us - in the ordinary, mundane actions and circumstances of life, as well as the grand and dramatic moments.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

"Clutter" appears in FWA "Slices of Life" 2010 Anthology

The Florida Writers Assoication presented their second volume of short stories, Slices of Life, last month. My author's copy came in the mail Monday. It's always a nice treat to see one's work in print.

"Clutter" was a piece that rolled around in my mind for six months or so before I finally sat down and put it to paper. FWA's call for short "slice of life" stories seemed the perfect occasion for my personal piece that provides a glimpse into a condition that baffles the mind, while it simultaneous attracts and repells, and serves as a constant distraction and cause for disagreement: compulsive hoarding.

One characteristic of the "slice of life" story is that it not provide neat resolutions or offer deep analysis of character behavior. A story about hoarding and the impact it has on relationships, in this case between mother and daughter, felt like a perfect fit. In my experience with compulsive hoarding behavior, there are no clear resolutions or easy analysis, any understanding one arrives at comes after years of struggle and confusion.

While this particular event is fictionalized, the relationship and conditions of the main characters are not. "Clutter" wasn't an easy to piece to write and, looking back on it now, I catch sentences and bits of dialogue I'd love to revise. There are passages that feel clunky and awkward, but, given the clunky awkwardness of emotions presented in the piece, the language feels right to me.

Overall, I'm happy with it - and, even more so, happy to be done with it. It was a bugger of a story that wouldn't let me go. I hope others will find something of value in it.


My mother is a hoarder.

I sit on the edge of her bed in a cluttered bedroom. A stack of clothes, easily a foot high, makes the far side of the bed unusable. I’ve not seen it made since before my father’s death, over four years ago last November.

A week after the funeral, my husband and I had taken my mother to a Thanksgiving buffet at a pricey hotel on the beach. We’d all been very quiet during the meal and after. I’d been afraid I’d say something about Dad, make her cry at the table. Mostly, I’d looked out the floor-to-ceiling glass windows, facing the ocean, and tried not to think of her being alone in her house, her with her mountain of things.

When we’d driven her home, I’d asked if she’d wanted me to stay overnight. Peter could pick me up the next day. We could pack up Dad’s things. Maybe, take a box of his clothes or books to the Goodwill. She’d looked at me as if I’d said we could pack up Dad and take him to the Goodwill. I’d felt bad right way. And, worse later, when it struck me we’d sort of had already.

Walking her to the door, she’d told me she was tired, would call the next day. She’d rather be alone, but thank you for the dinner. The pecan pie had been good. She’d opened the front door, and I’d given her a long hug. Before she’d closed the door, I’d caught a glimpse of the foyer. Dozens of art frames, of various sizes, some with paintings, some without, leaned against a wall. In her bedroom, I knew she kept boxes upon boxes of art supplies: small bottles of paint, many empty or dried up, brushes of every size, their bristles ratted and worn, rulers, tape, scissors, scraps of fabric. So much stuff, she’d given up on keeping the boxes labeled and orderly. I imagined she had so much she’d no way to keep track of what she owned already, buying the same supplies twice, maybe three or four times. She’d shut the door quickly behind her, cutting off my, Call me if you need --

Sitting on the edge of the bed, I stare at a collection of plastic paint bottles and a cup of well-used brushes on her vanity dresser. The brushes stand at attention like weathered soldiers, war-torn and weary but ready for battle. I think she might like new ones, a gift for her birthday next month, but then I think she has these and I know she won’t throw them out.

“Finished any new paintings?” I ask.

“I always have something new,” she says. On her knees, she hunches over a disordered pile of magazines, pushed up against a nightstand.

I look away from her. Watching her rifle through her stockpiles makes me nervous. I look, instead, back at the vanity. Next to the cup of brushes sit two clear, plastic egg cartons, their tops cut off, not neatly, but in a way that leaves jagged edges. They roost atop the cluttered mess. One filled with random, small trinkets: buttons, beads, pebbles, probably from the yard, broken jewelry; the other empty. I imagine the items random but know she would have a full history and intended purpose for each and every one.

“What are you looking for?” I ask.

“An article. I saved it for you.” She moves a stack of the magazines from one side of the nightstand to the other. Pieces of paper and clipped-out coupons fall to the floor, and she pushes them up against the pile. “I just don’t know where it is right now.”

“That’s okay. It’s not important.”

She stops looking through the magazines and looks up at me.

“It is to me,” she says.

The lines on her face have gotten deeper, but the light in her eyes is still strong. Cornflower blue, they pierce me.

“Here,” I say, reaching out my hand to help her up.

She grabs hold my hand, and I help her to her feet.

“When are you going back to work?” she asks.

I walk over to the vanity dresser. I mean to throw away the empty egg carton but do not want to upset her. The dresser top calls to me to straighten it. I pick through the carton of trinkets, separating the button and beads from the other oddball whatnots, placing them into the empty carton.

“Why don’t we clean this up?” I ask. “Let me help you. Just right here. We can get a little clear space right here.” I try to smile at her, as I pick up the brush cup. Its ready soldiers rattle against their plastic barrack.

“This is fine.” She reaches out her hand.

I know she wants to take the cup out of my hand.

“These are old,” I say.

“I’m old.”

“What about this?” I put down the brush cup and pick up an empty paint bottle. Burnt Sienna, the label reads. I wonder how long it’s been sitting here. “Let’s get rid of this.”

I hold the paint bottle out to her, close enough she can grab it if she wants.
She turns and walks back to the pile of magazines and hunches over them, turning her back to me.

“The article was on writing,” she says. “I know it’s here somewhere.”

I sit back on the edge of the mattress and watch her thumb through magazines. When a scrap of paper or torn-out pages fall out, she lays them back inside their glossy tomb and keeps searching.

The room is cold. Spring is weeks away, but it’s still cold outside. I know she keeps the thermostat set on sixty-five. I pull my cardigan, button-down sweater around me. Her back to me, I stand and walk back to the vanity. I move a button from one egg carton to the other. Then, another. Behind me, I hear the shuffling of objects. I put a third button with the others and pick up the Burnt Sienna paint bottle. It fits easily into the palm of my hand. I slip it into the pocket of my cardigan.

The End

Thursday, November 4, 2010

follow your hunches

"A hunch is creativity trying to tell you something." ~ Frank Capra

I think a hunch, a gut feeling, is your inner writer trying to point you in a direction of interest. The reason we don't listen to our "hunches" is a matter of self-doubt. That inner critic that says, "You're not good enough" or "You don't have enough experience." Don't let anyone, even your own inner critique, cause you to stop listening to your hunches. The worse that can happen is that you try something and it doesn't work, so you try something else. There are an abundance of learning opportunities in failure. When you hear your inner writer whisper, "I have a hunch that ...", stop and listen ... at least give it a moment's consideration. There may be honesty and genuine inspiration in your hunch. Self-doubt is a killer. Killer of ideas. Killer of inspiration. Killer of good fiction.

Keep the literary faith, friends. And keep writing. And listening to your hunches.