After eighteen months of antisocial isolation, masked interactions, and all-round negativity, I found myself always looking for the dark, eschewing the light. This vicious circle isn’t good in any possible way. Personal relationships become strained, micro and macro outlooks tainted, and not of least import, writing suffers. Yes I contributed to a COVID Anthology (poem was successful); yes I was lucky enough to have a few darker pieces published (not that I am overly ‘light’ at the best of times); but I started feeling some dark repetitions creeping in everywhere. This darkness veiled how I looked at everything. So, this morning, I decided to try some positivity exercise. Immediately I noticed that this activity played directly into my writing.
A pickup truck was tailgating me (tailgating should be a cardinal sin), eventually passed on the wrong side, drifted back into my lane without a signal. Easy to get upset, but I tried to look at the scene from the ‘light’ side instead of the dark. Here’s how that went:
He is in a hurry. Maybe he is a doctor, called for an emergency. He can’t use his signal. Maybe he is left-handed and resting his hand after a close call. I wonder what kind of close call. Maybe it was…
And a story started blooming right then and there. So instead of brooding in the usual anger, I turned the situation on its head, shook it, and — lo and behold — little bits of story fell out. Not bad…
Will I be able to do this all the time? Highly doubtful. But, once in a while, I can a) keep the blood pressure down, and b) get a few ideas or images I can eventually use. Win / Win.
Wherever your ideas comes from, be it image, fact, lie, it is interesting to have some type of documentation surrounding those ideas. Maybe there is a biographical link, a creative link, an environmental link, a detail that someone, somewhere, sometime will pick up about your piece. Because the original ideas are oftentimes NOT the core of a story or poem, they can add a certain depth for the serious reader. Having the ability to “uncover” these gems can be very rewarding to the parsers. To others, this type of backstory doesn’t matter. That’s great. Writing should be for different audiences. But giving the hardcore fans, the historical sleuths, the biographers of the future something to discover can be satisfying.
Writing can be a jigsaw puzzle. Although the endgame is a complete image/narrative, the process, the construction, the genesis is mostly lost to readers. Just imaging the exhilaration of finding a little piece of the puzzler inside the puzzle — a tidbit, a factoid, a revelation. This can elevate the serious reader to another level.
Biographical content is not necessarily the key. “Write what you know” can be the worst advice a writer could attempt to follow. This said, if there is a cool detail that lead to your piece, a detail that you can jot down somewhere in a journal, kept safe for future discovery, that is a priceless nugget. Even if it is totally unnecessary for the final fiction, that nugget can add so much to someone who had taken the time to discover it.
With practice, and by following your personal voice, style, aesthetic, these nuggets will start to manifest in the overarch of your oeuvre: links, parallels, juxtapositions that alone mean nothing; bits that taken together, maybe with the addition of extra-textual notes, become beacons of meaning.
That’s why it is important to save your notebooks, to have someone who knows about them, someone who will, eventually, help the world decipher the hidden stories within your stories.
The author is dead, maybe, but long live the author!
Why does fresh ground cinnamon taste better? Does it actually taste better? Either way, there is a difference.
To me, the act of rasping the cinnamon into coffee grounds, onto an apple, into a barbecue rub adds to the experience. There is an ownership of the spice, an effort in making the most of the ingredient that elevates it. Instead of just tapping a few shakes from a plastic jar, you actually make the flavour come alive through action.
How does this apply to writing? Simply. Don’t use canned ideas, expressions, clichés, styles, conventions. Make something new. Create something never done. Act on your writing. Go beyond the idea of stringing words together; go deeper, into sound, structure, meaning, history, foundations. Writing should be active and not a passive exercise in retelling. This is best exemplified in Hollywood these days. Reboots. Reruns. Retellings. All boring, adding nothing new… When a well written, original movie comes along, it truly stands out. In each case, there is a conscientious effort to make a masterpiece, outside and beyond what already exists.
Practice by reading different styles, from different sources, from different cultures. Soon, you’ll transcend the words, you’ll find the elemental spice that make the work unique, vibrant, original. Then find your own ingredients, break them down to the constituent parts, build your own, fresh literary recipe.
Lately I’ve noticed a surge of statistics and articles on increasing popularity, discoverability, readability. This idea also seems to be trickling down into the creative writing world, especially poetry. It seems that content is being replaced by style, message by findability. Ok, so this isn’t new, but the sheer volume of noise behind the movement is disconcerting.
Every title of every article is the same, and some of these pieces even offer exact formulae for proper title wording. To me, an old school writer just wading into this new world, it seems self-defeating. It is the definition of vicious cycle: read articles about how to get articles read. While some of the pieces offer great information and insight, many rehash, refurbish, recycle. Does creativity take a backseat to search optimization?
The same holds true for poetry these days. Themes, styles, looks all drain into one homogeneous slush of ‘poeming.’ It is becoming more and more difficult to tell poets/writers apart — it all sounds the same, about the same thing, written pretty much the same way. Where articles use canned headlines, poems use the same short, choppy prose, losing any differentiating, interesting, identifiable characteristics. The essence of voice (see my short piece on voice) is gone.
Randomly select an article in a publication, on the web, anywhere, and truly try to find the author in it. Do the same with some contemporary poetry. Can you really, REALLY, identify the poet? It is getting tough. This is not to say there aren’t many great writers, poets, novelists, etc… I just find it disheartening that it takes much more effort to wade through the swamp of sameness to reach a little island of beauty. And, people are often instructed to become more homogenous:
● How to get reads ● How to get clicks ● How to get published
In each case, the message is simple: be more like everyone else, and everyone will read your stuff. Journals often tell writers to read what they like, what they’ve published, what they don’t like. If conformity was the goal, we would not have Samuel Beckett, H.D., or any other writer experimenting, excelling, inspiring. Instead of compelling, complex, cerebral writing, we would only have short, simple sentences and paragraphs of a certain length, apps to make us write like Hemingway (no hate, I LOVE Hemingway, mostly because he was Hemingway), apps to cut words we don’t need, to suggest better, shorter, more common words… oh, wait, nevermind…
“They don’t make movies like they used to.” “Whatever happened to the classics?” “Now THAT song will never get old!”
When we do find something different, exciting, fresh, a piece, poem, story, novel, song that is identifiable to a particular creator, we instantly know we’ve found something special. It will survive ‘pop’ culture, trends, the ‘must-dos’ of the day. Without differentiation, experimentation, deviation from the blob of sameness, there is nothing special. That’s why, for me, I want quirky titles, non-conforming articles, poems that are still poetry. I think it’s something we should all want, need, demand. My suggestion: make it yours and let the world find you. It doesn’t help to try and make it fit. That just fills the swamp. If it’s good, if it’s yours, if it’s fresh, it will be discovered, remembered, cherished.
Off to a tiny island, to read weird, wild, wacky stuff, I remain — RLR
where stars whiten
at the death —albeit short-lived—
of the streetlamp
cycle-timed for conservation
frogs creak and croak
he hears them
houses with windows
open to the calm evening air
that carries the din
there are no thieves conspiring
or ne’er-do-wells whispering plans
those night-sounds that bounce
against constructions and preconceptions
The beauty of online communities, networks, publications, is the abundance of information available. We can learn anything, from anyone, at any time. However wonderful this is, there are too many traps to fall into.
Learn from the Teachers
A lot of advice — a lot — comes from novices, learners, students. This may seem fantastic, a fresh pool of opinions to draw from. It is, however, important to remember that Teachers and Masters have learned from experience. They show what they’ve done, more than expound on what they think should be done. The best example is a college/university course. Would you rather sit in a room with an experienced professor, or with a fourth year student lecturing? Ask yourself what is the difference?
The same holds true for writers. Trust those who have been published, those who have been rejected, those who have proven themselves over time. Sure the new kid on the block may throw his or her ideas out there, but often those are conceptual instead of experiential. Also, those new insights are often ‘borrowed’ or ‘reworded.’ It takes time and living the life to really have the ability to pass along wisdom.
Ignore the Sycophants
However good it feels to have someone like you and / or your writing, there is seldom much value in the sycophant’s comments.
I love what you did here.
Perfect as always!
This ego-stroking, heart-clicking, thumb-upping advice does little to challenge, advance, spark an internal discussion. Beware the folks that fawn over your stuff. Maybe there are ulterior motives (reciprocation, follows/likes by association), but certainly there are few constructive motives.
Don’t Ignore the Haters
Unless a reader is castigating just to castigate, or baiting, or trolling, there may be some useful nuggets of wisdom in the vitriol.
Man, could you drone on any longer!
Wow, haven’t seen this a thousand times.
None of this really connects.
Somewhere, inside that dark cloud that weighs on the writer, there is a silver lining. Maybe a short sentence would work here and there. Maybe that was a weak piece. Those readers who take the time to criticize, hopefully politely, will give you pause. Are they on to something? Is the challenge worthy? Could this be improved?
Now, take the compliments when deserved and ignore the insults when unwarranted. But, if you are truly searching for lessons, for improvement, place more weight in those that have done it before, for real, in the real world, and that have something to say that may actually make you uncomfortable.
One of the best aspects of creative writing is the ability to manipulate, transform, mystify. Taking the everyday and making it sublime, ridiculous, awe-inspiring is a skill any writer should hone.
Anyone can describe. It takes a special talent to change what one sees in order to make in interesting, provocative, evocative for a reader. The “stuff” is the same, that original inspiration, but the execution is what counts. Without the ability to engage and entertain, we would all be but scribes, recording the everyday.
When you are writing, exercising the voice and vibe that makes the writing yours, remember that you must run everything through the filter of you. Failure to make the world around you yours, presented in such a way as to bring your world to others, will only result in boring retelling or rewording.
Always ask yourself: ● Is it presented in a new way? ● Is it exciting? ● Will people care?
There are different opinions on handwriting (longhand) vs typing. The arguments boil down to either personal preferences about speed and efficiency or theories about retention and immediacy. I’ve used longhand for decades, and I’ve used laptops, tablets, phones for years. The analog and the digital both have their advantages and disadvantages, but for me, personally, based on my experience, the old pen/pencil and paper wins every time when it comes to drafts, notes, ramblings.
Here are 5 reasons why I think everyone should use longhand (or cursive, or print, or whatever works, as long as it’s pen(cil) on paper).
The Emotional Link Emotions and immediate reactions to the act of writing can be captured, and later felt anew, through strokes, line thickness, pressure. When something is physically underlined, maybe twice or thrice, with a flourish, it’s easy to see its importance. It is NOT an italicized or underlined typed word it’s more, and the line(s) from that very moment in time are immortalized. Strikethroughs are essential to capturing the instant meaning of the writing. The mistakes, retries, frustrated attempts are all captured, frozen, ready to be revived whenever you read your notes. None of this exists in the digital, erase-as-you-go world.
Flexibility Writing on paper gives you the ability to add drawings, flow charts, arrows, bullets, palimpsest-like notes over notes. You can circle, reorganize non-destructively, reformat without losing the original intent as it came from head to hand. A list of points, say 5 reasons to slow down and write, can be written in the original order produced by the brain. Then, with a few lines, arrows, scribbles, the order can be changed, however, the original intent is saved. Maybe it was better the first time. If reorganized on a digital platform, the genesis has long vanished. Tablets and styli come closer to giving the writer the ability to mimic pen(cil) and paper, but the urge to cut and paste neatly may be too hard to resist. Also, see point 3…
No Distractions Your notepad will never beep, run out of batteries, notify you that your friend posted/ate/procrastinated something/somewhere/sometime. No email will pop up, no text message will ding, no weather alert will take your eyes from the task at hand. Also, you will not accidentally hit a wrong key, drag another app from the edge, swear at the screen when your devices freezes up even for a second. Apps have tried to push “focus” modes and “clean writing” interfaces, but, it is almost guaranteed something will pop up and mess with your train of thought.
The Retention of Flow Error and juxtaposition can subconsciously contribute to a final piece. If those connections, be they side notes, eraser-ghosts (you won’t catch me erasing), aren’t preserved, a big part of the reason for a piece of writing can be lost. I have caught myself wondering what the hell did I mean here? More than once. When everything is retained in a longhand draft, the answer may be right there. Forget about answering the question if all that’s left is a clear, focused, clean version on your device. The list order, the birth of that original idea, the bastardization thereof, the tangent that became more important than the first premise, all of if contributes to the flow and eventual feel of the final work. Give yourself the chance to capture all of it.
Longevity and Legacy Notebooks will never need updates. Notebooks will never disappear when a company decides to pull its cloud services. Notebooks will never be obsolete, replaced by new compression or encryption methods. With sufficient care against rot or fire, the paper, the ink, the graphite, all should survive, legible and complete. On a more sentimental level, the notebook is a legacy. It is a genuine, physical artifact that tells a story. The best example would be gramp’s notes about the war, or grandma’s cookbook, passed from generation to generation. The mistakes, scribbles, drawings, they are all as important as the entries or recipes. They are a snapshot of a place, at a specific time. The same wouldn’t hold true for gramp’s Evernote login or grandma’s OneNote account.
The real story is in that notebook with the dirty spine, the one that ate pencils and drank inkwells dry. There is a life in there.