Tuesday, 27 November 2012

A Writer's Survival Kit: Making a Literary Life

I've mentioned the book I'm currently reading on writing 'Making a Literary Life' by Carolyn See before, but now I just have to mention it again as it has saved me from a crippling block (and almost meltdown)! 

Yes dear readers, last night I was in the throes of lamenting the big bad block and so out of a need for self-consolation, I went to this writing guide to see if it could help me. (Usually while afflicted with writer's block, I can't bear to read someone else's theorising on writing - I prefer just to crawl into a corner and shrivel up until a bolt of returning words find and reawaken me again...) But no, last night, I thought I better take some action. 

And I can tell you - there hasn't been a funnier book written on writing! This book is laugh-out-loud hilarious. I love the author's casual light-hearted attitude she takes to the whole 'craft.' It's so fresh and new and bubbly and exciting. (I always approach writing 'guides' with a pinch of salt, hold them at a metaphorical arm's length just incase you know - their thesis does not sit entirely on par with mine - but this one, this one is so different!)

I headed to it in a frantic search looking for advice on writer's block (even though I goddamn know every last offering there is), but instead found solace in the scathing wit and humour she writes with on every page.

For example, on rejection, she is of the opinion that for every rejection slip we get back from publishers, we should send a thank-you note, just to dispel the inherent negativity that comes with such a knock-in-the-teeth. She speaks of editors as suitors for us writers to pursue and woo and as pre-programmed... plastic ducks: '...editors, playing 'hard to get' at every level, are programmed to act like those plastic ducks you used to see in 99-cent stores. Their little heads with their pink bills are set to wag back and forth: no, no, no, no, no. But the thing about those ducks was: With timing and concentration, you could put a drop of water on their bills, and from then on they'd nod yes, yes, yes, yes, yes! How do you get the duck to do that? It's certainly possible; it's part of the game.'

She has a point! They can be broke down, if we just approach them in the right way, at the right time. And if not, to not let ourselves get broken by their rejection. She then goes on to make the point that rejection (what we writers so fear) is a process, not an event, a process that must play out: 'So you send them a manuscript, and they send it back. Believe me, if you were Jesus Christ himself, they'd send it back."

She maintains that you write them a thank you note in return for their rejection slips and goes on to tell of a few of her own experiences in this aspect (very funny I might add!) The way to diffuse this rejection bad ju-ju is to send back a polite thank-you note that lets the editor in question know you have not 'died' from their dismissal but are simply carrying on the rejection/acceptance process of what she terms comically as 'cosmic badminton.' 

Haha! That's one way anyway to diffuse the whole mystique of approaching editors and to de-fang - even make light of - rejection!

She goes on in the next chapter about how to deal with success, if it comes and tackles the taboo subject of the writer's 'ego' on a very humorous basis: 

'Outside of having children, or dying, nothing more dramatic or life-changing can happen to you than to see your work in print. Oh, maybe winning the U.S. Open or the America's Cup, but I'm not sure about that, because those are fleeting moments, gone almost as soon as they happen. When you've something in print, even if it's a recipe for heirloom tomato aspic, you've bought a ticket in immortality's lottery. Part of you is floating in another universe, and until every last copy of whatever-it-is, is burned, smashed, and gone, you are, because of that little scrap, not bound by the rules of time. ...This is when your ego tends to go stark raving mad... You always suspected the world revolved around you, but your mother set you straight. By the time you got to kindergarten you realized there were other kids, that you were just one of many. But now, look! The proof is undeniable: Right there in the newspaper: 'Making Love Can Keep You Fit', and there's your name right underneath it! Or there, in the campus magazine: 'Adios Barcelona.' Nothing in the world is going to persuade you that there's anything more important than seeing your name in print - not the Ebola virus or World War Three or the love of your life.'

Well yes, there is no feeling quite like seeing your name in print, but her exaggerative qualities are what make the writing really hilarious here. She ratchets up the pride here just enough to pique familiarity as to amuse.  You'll find yourself sniggering along to her train of thought while reading. Here is jauntiness and fearlessness in the face of stereotypical pomp, - balls - for lack of another word. Most writers treat the craft so solemnly, especially when writing about it. This is a book on writing which talks in common sense and with a  wink-wink-nudge-nudge style effect as if saying - 'ah go on, admit it, this is how we writers really feel.' 

But she offers sound advice too. Like for example, when a piece of your work is published and you want others to read it, she advises to send them copies (even your enemies), because if you're relying on friends and family to rush out and read your stuff, it just ain't going to happen. They have their lives to get on with (point duly noted.) And besides, 'nobody could ever love your work enough. Have you heard the phrase 'That kid's got a face only a mother could love'? Your work is your child; you're the one who has to love it, even though it may still be a little funny-looking.' True enough. But nobody ever pointed it out to me like that before - thanks Carolyn!

Also, when confronted with someone who says they saw your piece in whatever, a reader so to speak  - don't, under any circumstances, ask them what they thought of it (for chances are, Carolyn notes, they'll say something you don't want to hear...) Instead, she advises to reply with the standard one-size-fits-all-situations answer 'No Kidding,' and smile politely. Let them say more if they want, but you just smile on regardless. What a gem! If  only I'd followed that advice before, I'd certainly be one or two critical insults down.

Most importantly, she also remarks that it doesn't matter what these people think of your work, whether they read it or do not - it only matters what publishers and editors think of it. After all, they are the ones controlling whether you can do it for a living or not. Exactly. (And again, advice I need to retain a vice-grip upon).

I am now into the second part of the book which deals with the techniques of writing and already it's still written with a humorous, original premise. Nothing predictable about this book! If you want to read a book on writing, I'd highly recommend this one. From laugh-out-loud observations to witty sarcasm to straight-up common sense do this-or-don't to lilting sweep-you-along romantic idealism, the authorial voice is always surprising yet relevant and right. And I suppose writing - the craft, the profession, the life - is made up of all these aspects too.

I'll end with her passage on beating discouragement in writing and in life (for the two are inexplicably woven together, are they not?) and being proactive:
"That's it, isn't it? Do we cry, or do we go out sailing? Do we eat dog food when we're poor and old, or do we make gourmet carrot soup? Do we sit on the couch or go out for a walk? Do we fall in love or make some poor bastard's life a living hell? Do we look out the window and groan about our wasted life, or do we make a plan to see if we can live our dream? Do we go through life asleep or try to wake up? 
I hope I'm wrong, but I imagine that about 90 percent of the human race is snoozing along, just going through the motions. And 100 percent of us dull out some of the time. It takes miracles, white magic, wonders, to jog us from our slumber. What if we really were masters of our mind and life? What if we were God-in-action? What would we do then? 
Everything we write is some kind of answer to that question."

Indeed. That's all I needed to know for now to get me back on the unblocked path. Thank you Carolyn.

~ Siobhán

Monday, 26 November 2012

Writer's Bane/Block (Part II)


Oh God. The dreaded 'b' word strikes again... But at least I'm in good company. So here I take Charles Bukowski's advice and write about writer's block - as it's better that than not writing anything at all.

Because writing nothing is not an option. If I go several days without writing anything, I feel hollow and emptied out. I don't feel right. And it's a horrible feeling. For writing puts me in tune with the world; without it I'm all out of tune, distanced, disembodied. 

Writer's block is a contentious issue among writers: some insist it doesn't exist and others swear by its debilitating powers. It's a bit of a taboo issue really. And lately, it's become a tired cliché.

But that's not to say it's not real.

Sometimes the block seems everlasting, other times fleeting. But one consistency it has is that it's not pleasant. And the longer it lingers, the worse it gets. Like fear in a way. It has to be nipped in the bud right away or else it festers. (Hmm, I wish I could take this advice I'm writing - I'm so far into the block's chronic clutches at this stage...)

Of what I know about writer's block - it is deeply personal and specific. Writers get blocked for different reasons - the easy kind of block being the one which involves the story, a plot question or such. The worst is the psychological block - what if I'm not good enough? The crippling self-doubt that can paralyze a writer.

But I think John Rogers has it right - that it's a 'thinking' block more than anything else; and that the only way out of it is to write. 

If that's true, then here's my first attempt to write out of it. 

Anyone else out there suffer from writer's block? Care to share your stories, fears, remedies...?? 

for now, 

~ Siobhán 

'You can’t think yourself out of a writing block; you have to write yourself out of a thinking block. ~ John Rogers

'Discipline allows magic. To be a writer is to be the very best of assassins. You do not sit down and write every day to force the Muse to show up. You get into the habit of writing every day so that when she shows up, you have the maximum chance of catching her, bashing her on the head, and squeezing every last drop out of that bitch.' ~ Lili St Crow

Writing about writer's block is better than not writing at all.' ~ Charles Bukowski

'Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite: "Fool!" said my muse to me, "look in thy heart, and write.' ~ Sir Philip Sidney 

'All writing is difficult. The most you can hope for is a day when it goes reasonably easily. Plumbers don’t get plumber’s block, and doctors don’t get doctor’s block; why should writers be the only profession that gives a special name to the difficulty of working, and then expects sympathy for it?' ~ Philip Pullman

'What I try to do is write. I may write for two weeks ‘the cat sat on the mat, that is that, not a rat,’ … And it might be just the most boring and awful stuff. But I try. When I’m writing, I write. And then it’s as if the muse is convinced that I’m serious and says, ‘Okay. Okay. I’ll come.' ~ Maya Angelou

'There’s no such thing as writer’s block. That was invented by people in California who couldn’t write.' ~Terry Pratchett

'Being a real writer means being able to do the work on a bad day.' ~ Norman Mailer

'I shall live badly if I do not write, and I shall write badly if I do not live.' ~ Francoise Sagan

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Why so Blue?

'The whole world, as we experience it visually, comes to us through the mystic realm of colour. Our entire being is nourished by it.' - Hans Hoffmann

What's your favourite colour?? Bet your bottom dollar you say blue? Seems blue is the preferred colour of most people. The New York Times ran this really interesting article on our fascination with the colour blue a few weeks ago (you can read it here:  http://nyti.ms/RTqHk4) which got me to thinking a little about, well...blue. Why is it such an important colour? And almost everyone's favourite? And as a fan of blue myself, it got me to wondering just why we are so taken with it.
Maybe it's because it is so multi-faceted. There's so many different varieties of blue. So many shades: cerulean, turquoise, lapis lazuli, cobalt, ultramarine, aquamarine, duck egg, midnight blue, electric blue, baby blue. (And artists out there will add more!) There are as many shades of blue as there are associations with blue.

Blue is all-inclusive. Blue is worldly. Blue is celestial, ethereal. Blue is the colour of creativity. The colour of uncertainty. Oceanic depths. Sorrow. Moodiness. Infinity.  Smoky jazz. The proverbial blues.

In colour psychology, blue is the colour of calmness. Studies have found that people feel calmer in surroundings with blue hues than in those with brighter colours like red and yellow. Blue is relaxing. Just think of all those tropical blue ocean holiday resorts. As well as a mood soother, it is also the colour of trust and loyalty. Did you know that being referred to as 'true blue' means that you are dependable and trustworthy and committed fully to something? 

Feeling 'blue' is a well known euphemism for feeling sad, down in the dumps, under the weather. But why? Where did it come from?  There are several suggestions - the first comes from many old deepwater sailing ship traditions of flying a blue flag if the captain or any of the officers died. Others suggest that because blue is next in line to black on the colour spectrum it was as such  linked to depression and fear. Of course 'the blues' also refers to the popular music genre that exemplifies this feeling. It originated in African-American communities of the Deep South in America around the end of the 19th century, the rhythmic songs of workers eventually becoming known as the 'blues' as they expressed deep melancholy and woes.

The 20th century's most famous artist Picasso took this idea to a new level with his infamous 'blue period'. It marked a period in his art when after a friend died from suicide, he started painting in all blues to mark his sadness. The paintings from this period are all lamentative portraits, his most famous being The Old Guitarist. For him, blue was the colour of sadness and depression, a sort of absence of colour to depict a mournful view of the world. The blue period saw many of Picasso's greatest portraits, mostly of solitary figures set against almost empty backgrounds, the blue palette imparting a mood of melancholy and desolation to images that suggest unhappiness and dejection, poverty, despondency, and despair. Most prevalent among his subjects were the old, the destitute, the blind, the homeless, and the otherwise underprivileged outcasts of society.

Maybe this came from the fact that blue is the colour of cold, of ice, of snow. A cold body turns blue. Blue is the colour of the absence of life. To be called 'blue-blooded' is to be portrayed as a cold, uncaring person. But blue is also nothing if not contradictory. 

It can relate to sadness yes, but also happiness. Bluebirds for example, are a famous symbol of happiness. The song 'Somewhere over the Rainbow' is partly responsible for this: 'where happy little bluebirds sing...' And you can't talk about blue and artists without mentioning Marc Chagall, the Russian Expressionist painter. He used blue in most of his later paintings - it became such a defining and important aspect of his work. And the blue he used doesn't appear melancholy or mournful (although he started to use it more fully after his wife Bella died)- but romantic, dreamlike, spiritual, surreal, emotional, enchanting. It is even referred to now as 'Chagallian blue' so famous and unique to him has it become -  a blue of love, of dreams, of intense emotion, of the soul: 'But perhaps my art is the art of a lunatic, I thought, mere glittering quicksilver, a blue soul breaking in upon my pictures.'

Blue is mysterious. Deep. The ocean is blue. Blue is the colour of the unknown: the fathomless depths of the ocean, the highest reaches of sky. Blue is in the ether around us. Actually when I picture 'ether' I picture blue, a deep dark blue. To me, creativity is blue. That spark of inspiration like the blue at the centre of a flame. And great creative ideas (and most random things) come 'out of the blue', that mysterious place/space of infinite miraculous resources.  

Blue is rarity. Ask any gardener about growing blue flowers and they'll answer that the PH of the soil needs to be specially adapted, that only the more seasoned gardeners grow blue flowers successfully. Think about it - there aren't that many blue flowers (and all the more beautiful they are). A blue moon is the term used to describe a rare second full moon in one month. And just look at the sensation Elvis's blue suede shoes caused! 

Blue is the colour of the sky, of endless possibility (did you know 'blue sky thinking' refers to outside-the-box creative thinking?). Blue is the colour of the horizon, the big beyond. 'Blueprints' are the name given to detailed etchings and plans.  Blue gives a feeling of distance. Artists use it to to show perspective. This is a good way to understand the energy of the color blue - it allows us to look beyond and increase our perspective outward. And blue is the colour of energy itself - of electricity. It crackles with power.

Blue is the colour of many beautiful things: blue butterflies, peacocks, skies, sapphires, water, eyes. Blue eyes are the most sought after colour of eyes all around the world. Brown is the dominant colour, blue is more rare - only around 8% of the world's population have blue eyes (which may explain the rise in popularity of blue contact lenses. Doctors in California have even come up with a new revolutionary laser treatment that can make eyes blue - by literally zapping the pigment from them...) 

Oh and, blue eyes are also associated with innocence. The phrase 'blue-eyed-boy' or 'blue-eyed-girl' is the name given to someone who can do no wrong, who is wholly pure and innocent and sweet. (And on the contrary once again, we have 'blue movies' which refer to the X-rated kind...)

But maybe blue is so pleasing to us as it's an ever-shifting colour. Oceans look blue from far away but when you're wading in them, they're more grey or translucent. Skies, the same. The blue colour we see of skies is only a reflection from the earth's atmosphere, it is not really there. When it comes to blue eyes, the blue colour is really the absence of colour - brown eyes and green eyes are pigmented, blue eyes have no pigment. (Note how babies always have blue eyes when born, but then they change.) Maybe it's because blue is sort of an illusion, a colour only half-there that it so fixes us? 

But how can it be half there? It is so intense a colour. Ever seen a piece of cobalt paper in a lab? Squeeze cerulean blue paint from a tube onto a canvas? Blue is at once natural and unnatural; basic and breath-taking. 

For me, blue is my talisman colour to enhance creativity. My lap-top is a shiny opalescent turquoise blue, my Word files are bordered in blue, my notebooks - maybe all this stems from using blue biro, blue ink to write with. Turquoise, indeed, is the blue gemstone to enhance creativity. The colour of our throat chakra or communicative energy space is blue and so turquoise resonates with that. Blue is the colour of communication.

It is also the colour of the spiritual and celestial. Lapis lazuli stone was often considered to have magical elements. The Archangel Michael resonates with the dark blue colour of this stone. The ancient Egyptians used lapis lazuli to represent Heaven, with its dark blue colour and gold flecks. In the Catholic religion, the Virgin Mary wears blue and the colour has become exclusively associated with her. Blue, blue-green, and green are sacred colors in Iran where they symbolize paradise In India, paintings of the god Krishna often depict him as having blue skin. In Greece the color blue is believed to ward off the evil eye. Indigo, a deep blue, is the colour of our third eye chakra, the portal to our spiritual consciousness.

Blue is not an earthy colour - we do not eat blue, (well, apart from blueberries, which are technically more purple in tone). But no, we don't consume any blue foods. But it is an everyday colour. Apart from the presence of it in the sky it's popular in clothing - blue jeans have become an iconic fashion statement of the modern age. They are the symbol of casualness, hard-working, tough, take-it-easy lifestyle. In contrast to the phrase 'blue-collar' which refers to the more upper end of society. Blue is the colour of airmail and of post-boxes in America (maybe because of the sky?) In Ireland, you'll be met by a bright blue sign announcing the name of each street.

To artists, blue is a true colour - 'Blue is the only color which maintains its own character in all its tones... it will always stay blue; whereas yellow is blackened in its shades, and fades away when lightened; red when darkened becomes brown, and diluted with white is no longer red, but another color - pink.' -Raoul Dufy, (French Fauvist Painter, 1877-1953.)
'Blueness doth express trueness ' - the poet Ben Jonson said, and art historian John Ruskin noted that, 'Blue colour is everlastingly appointed by the Deity to be a source of delight.'

A source of delight - yes that's it! Blue is a constant source of delight. From the sky to turquoise jewellery to blue LED lights, to my own personal favourite - bubblegum ice-cream (yum!). It is the colour of the natural world, the celestial world, beauty and dreams and truth. 

Is blue your favourite colour? If so, why? Are they any other associations you have with blue?

I'll leave you with Joni Mitchell's song 'Blue' (so many songs too with blue in their title!) sung here by Sarah MacLachlan. 


Sunday, 18 November 2012

Sunday Morning Musing: The Creative Mind

'The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: A human creature born abnormally, inhumanely sensitive. To them… a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death. 

Add to this cruelly delicate organism the overpowering necessity to create, create, create — so that without the creating of music or poetry or books or buildings or something of meaning, their very breath is cut off… They must create, must pour out creation. By some strange, unknown, inward urgency they are not really alive unless they are creating.'
                                                                                                                                                 ~Pearl Buck

Ah, how very true. I stumbled randomly upon this quotation yesterday evening and it struck me as maybe the truest definition of creativity I have ever come across.

Whoever said sensitivity is a curse, need only look to the greatest writers, artists and musicians of the centuries who all seem to have been blessed with an extraordinary talent and who in turn, blessed us with their offerings and understandings of the human condition.

And so to those who ask - why do you write?, why does he paint?, why does she play music so intensely? Well it's because there is no alternative - we are not really alive unless we are creating. It's as simple as that. 


Monday, 12 November 2012

Crossbreeding a Tomato and a Trout: Why Saying You're a Writer Is Never a Good Idea

I'm currently reading and enjoying Carolyn See's writing advisory manual 'Making a Literary Life: Advice for Writers and Other Dreamers'. It's saturated with tongue-in-cheek humour, with many laugh-out-loud moments, but most especially her opening line which had me hooked from the get-go:

'It's (the book) for students just coming to this discipline, older people who wanted to write in their youth and never got around to it, folks who live in parts of the country where the idea of writing is about as strange as crossbreeding a tomato and a trout.'

Crossbreeding a tomato and a trout! Ha, couldn't have put it better myself. It's safe to say that I live in such a place. And my gosh, saying you're a writer does garner many funny looks. (Which is why, on most occasions, I shy away from it.) 

Carolyn explains why a little further on in the book and she makes a logical argument. - People just don't want to hear about it. Don't want to hear about you being or wanting to be a writer.  Because civilization is made up of structure, rules, routines. And writing throws them all out the window, as she explains - 'the minute somebody begins to write - or to make any kind of real "art" - all that structure comes into question. It's no coincidence that repressive governments go after their artists and writers first. Daily life is serious business. It's hard enough to put a civilization together. And one artist is - theoretically, at least - capable of bringing down the whole damn thing.'

Well....whoa. I never thought of that before! Could it be...? The suspicion of anarchy in the ranks keeps reactions at bay? (Suddenly I'm reminded of an episode of the cult TV series back in the day The X-Files, where the supernatural foe in question is a suburban fiend who attacks when the conformity of the neighbourhood is subjected to a random riff - and the moment when Mulder, decides to provoke it by sticking a pink flamingo garden ornament on the lawn while uttering a revoke 'Bring it on.' - Are we writers the pink flamingo inciters of the conforming routine-abiding masses...?) 

So, Carolyn maintains it's best not to tell anyone about your writerly status, keep it to yourself, because basically -  'the last thing on earth people living an ordinary life want to hear about is how you want to be a writer.'

Honestly, this never occurred to me. But why exactly? Because writing is not... ordinary??  But then again, being an astronaut is not ordinary and I'm pretty sure they're met with reverence, respect and even celebrity status wherever they turn. Why not writers? Are we the plague of the earth?

Well at least it's not what I originally thought: that they think writing is a vacuous hobby, a non-entity in the work-world, a pithy daydream, a temporary phase, something so non-important as to be dismissed. Phew, I can rest a little easier now! I used to take it so much to heart when people would blank over when I mentioned writing. I used to perceive it as a passive-aggressive personal assault. But it's just that really -they don't want to hear about it, because it's so contrary to what they do know, even challenging to it  - the complete opposite indeed of what I thought.

She goes into more detail in a later chapter after witnessing the parents of one of her best students grimace at the thought of their son becoming a writer - 'The truth is that about 97 percent of "normal" people everywhere - not just in America - look on writing, if they look on it at all, as one step below whoredom. ' ??!

She says even a sculptor would be better received, a wannabe actor, a stand-up comedian. All because you see,  people 'can't see you write. They don't know what you're doing, and even if you do "succeed" - publish some magazine pieces, or your first or second or third book - relatives will say suspiciously, "I went into the bookstore and asked for your book and they never heard of you." Or, more to the point, "Yes, but how do you make a living?" Maybe jazz sidemen have as hard a time as writers do, but they can always pull out their trombone and wave it at their aunts and uncles: "This is what I play. This!"' We writers don't have that luxury I guess. (Although there were times when I was tempted to take out my lap-top and show these naysayers my abundance of Word files - but thought it'd be better to wait until the day I have a few paperbacks to wave in their faces, where I have incarnated them as the most despicable villains...)

I always said writing is an invisible vocation. And it is hard when you get this non-reaction from people, but at least I know now it's not just me who has experienced it - it's universal to all writers. An occupational hazard if you will. 

The author then goes on to advise us to hang out with people who support our writing (other writers mostly), not the ones who reject it (easier said than done....) People to avoid include the non-supporters, who have multiple reasons for their disregard of you, including:
- 'People who resent the thought of your writing: They're working hard; you're not. 
- People who need you to stay in the background, to be dim and dull so that they can look good...
-People who need you to not have "enough", so that whatever they have will look like more.
- People who have such a strong idea of what or who you are in their universe that they can't begin to see or perceive this other idea you might have about yourself.' 

Ha, she puts it so clearly! The haters - that's their characteristics alright. And again, what a relief to know that it is an acknowledged fact and not just an isolated personal experience.

Then she offers the sound advice of ignoring them. Because to rebel against them or defy them will zap your energy, and it does, it really does. 'The smart thing is to be polite and respectful and then gradually fade from view.' Good advice!  I just hope I can abide by it now instead of letting these people get to me. Because it is hard to tune them out. But tune them out we must do if we want to succeed in  our craft. A writer's life is a solo one! 

I'd highly recommend this book! It's so rare to get a book on writing that is not all seriousness and guidelines and exercises. This one is actually fun to read, full of humour and witty insights and exaggerated scenarios. It deals not just with the practice of writing, the technical ins and outs, but the whole writerly 'life' - how to cultivate being an actual writer, habits and quirks and idiosyncrasies and all. 
And worth it all almost just for that first sentence ;)

~ Siobhán

Read more on Making a Literary Life  here