Sanibel Island Writers Conference – The Authors

I was so lucky that I got the opportunity to attend the conference this year. I signed up to volunteer so I could attend for free, and that was the most amazing thing. It was four days packed with creative energy, great speakers and teachers, and a lot of really cool people.

nathan-hillOver the course of the four days I got three books signed and met some wonderful authors. Nathan Hill, who wrote The Nix, taught a workshop called “X-Ray Writing,” which was genius. He was also funny, and nice and very personable when I approached him to sign my book. He lives in Naples and used to teach at FGCU, but now he’s a full time writer. He says it took him ten years to write The Nix, but what a book! You really need to read it.

rob-wilderThe second book I had signed was Nickel by Robert Wilder.  He’s from Santa Fe and the poor guy spent most of Thursday sitting on the tarmac at various airports. When I picked him up at around 6:30 that evening he’d been awake for hours and hours and probably wanted nothing more than to get some sleep. But he was great to talk to and really funny. Plus he presented an amazing workshop on YA Crossover fiction. I hope he had a better trip home. His book, Nickel, is a novel so funny I snorted coffee out of my nose. It also was honest, and real, and a great read.

steve-almondFinally, my last book I got signed at practically the last minute on Sunday. Some of my Boston librarian friends first made me aware of Steve Almond. They dragged me to a reading of his once in Cambridge, and the guy was so funny and such a good writer I’ve bought everything he’s written since. Three years ago I bought his book Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life but I didn’t get to track him down to sign it. Since he comes to SIWC every year I knew I could corner him this time, and I did. He’s so sweet and a genuinely nice person.

But those were the books I got signed. I also got to meet Liza Wieland, Stephen Elliott, Joyce Maynard, Lynne Barrett, Jeff Thomson, Jim Daniels, Gina Frangello, and Thomas Swick. Everyone I met was gracious, warm, and interested in having a conversation about writing and creativity. I wish I could bask in the conference’s glow for weeks instead of just four short days.

I’ll write some more soon about the classes I attended. They were all really great and I learned so much from them. I am anxious to finish my first draft so I can go back and start editing with some of these ideas in mind.

 

 

My Writing Process Part 2

I have been furiously writing my new novel. It’s historical YA fiction with a fantastical twist. And that’s all I’m going to tell you right now. But I do want to talk a little about how I write.

I told you about my basic writing process long ago here. In it I talked about my “cowbell list.” It is the list of things I need to tweak or change or amp up in subsequent drafts.  I usually put it on a dry erase board in my office. This summer in Nuremberg I bought a real cowbell which I have now hung in my office.

But the cowbell has become intertwined in my writing ritual in other ways. That ritual is what I want to share with you today. I don’t always write at home, but when I do, you can bet I am doing this:

I go into my office and light candles. I love the soft light from them and I usually don’t have any other lights on in the room, except my computer screen. I have a couple of stinky candles my husband hates, but I love.

The second thing I do after lighting those candles is to ring the cowbell. It seems a little silly, I know, and at first I felt silly doing it. But now I have grown to love that noise. It is a signal to the rest of the house not to disturb me because I am about to write. Every time my husband hears it he calls, “Oh boy!” from the other room.

Sometimes I close my office door. That’s if the cats are being their usual rambunctious selves and are chasing each other all over the house. It’s awful to have them tear into my space and interrupt the lovely peace I have created. The husband I don’t worry so much about. He wants me to write as much as I want to and generally leaves me alone unless he comes to ply me with beverages and snacks.

And then, I sit in my IKEA Poang chair, put my feet up, and plop my computer in my lap and write. This little ritual has been working well for me. It’s like I’ve opened a beautiful little portal from my creative self and it just comes pouring out. Usually.

driving-car-nightE.L Doctorow said that writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You have a destination in mind (most of the time) but you can only see as far as the end of your headlights. So you write to the end of your headlights and then drive a little further. I find this analogy extremely apt. I know where I am headed, but I can only write to a certain point to where I have to think again.

I don’t listen to music while I write. I can’t–it’s too distracting. But I do like to have a soundtrack for whatever I am working on. This time my husband, the classical music freak, collated a playlist for me. It’s very dark, atmospheric and moody: Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture, the first movement from Schubert’s Symphony #8, Prayer of St. Gregory by Hovhaness, and others.

So when the time comes that I’ve gotten to the end of my headlights, I pull out that soundtrack, plug in my headphones, and think of the story while I listen. This is when I can really get mileage out of the music. It inspires me, it helps me to see further into the story. Then I can go back and write more.

That’s how it plays out: write, listen to my playlist, think, and then write again. It’s a pleasing little cycle that really works well for me.

However, please don’t think that everything has been easy in the writing of this novel. Parts of it have really flowed, yes, but there are parts where I get stuck. One portion of thirty pages I had to rewrite three times so I was going in the right direction. It was frustrating, but entirely necessary. I had to find the ways that didn’t work before I hit upon the one that did. That’s just how it goes sometimes.

I also sometimes tend to meander between big scenes. Like I got off the main road and took a few scenic routes on my way to the next big thing. I know when I go back to it in the second or third draft I may have to reroute myself, or trim the route so it more directly segues and flows better.

First drafts are a paradox of making the magic of telling a story along with the detritus of a brain dump. The second draft is all about winnowing out the chaff so you can find the real story inside of it, and the third and all following drafts is about tweaking and tightening so the story is smooth as a river pebble. I’ve heard some authors say they dread the second draft but I find it to be where the interesting work really begins.

I raise my glass to all you writers out there who are working on projects now. What is your process and how do you work best?

The Joyful Artist

As I’ve been writing the first draft of my new novel I have been having a ridiculously good time. It is so much fun to set my characters up in a world and then throw things at them and see what they do. I have a daily goal for writing: 2000 words a day. For the most part I have kept to that goal. I started writing this book on September 8 and I am maybe now two thirds of the way through. Plot twists! Murder! Romance! Intrigue!

big-magicThis year the most influential book I read was Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. In it she talks about what it is to be an artist (of any kind, really) and how to get around what is blocking you and create without fear. It is an amazing book. What’s more, she does a podcast called Magic Lessons where she talks to ordinary people about their creative process and helps them get around their fears. It is really interesting and much of it I can apply directly to me.

 
Towards the end of the book she writes a lot about trusting your creativity, and the topic of the Tormented Artist came up. Gilbert believes that suffering does not make on a true artist.  She says, “…I do not deny the reality of suffering–not yours, not mine, not humanity’s in general. It is simply that I refuse to fetishize it. I certainly refuse to deliberately seek out suffering in the name of artistic authenticity.”

I used to romanticize the idea of the Tormented Artist when I was younger. I thought that pain could produce something achingly beautiful. Thank God for therapy! Because today I have to tell you that writing and creating in general is one of the biggest joys in my life. I still have to work a full-time job, yes, but I live for the time I carve out for myself where I can create without interruptions. It is as vital to me now as breathing.

Some attribute the following quote to Ernest Hemingway: “There’s nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” But I wish to remind everyone that yes, he is respected as one of the great writers of the twentieth century, but he also committed suicide. I posit that it is entirely possible to be happy and still produce great work.

Elizabeth Gilbert also reminds us in Big Magic of a quote from Wendell Berry: “To attribute to the Muse a special fondness for pain is to come to close to desiring and cultivating pain.” And in the same breath I quote Yoda: “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering. ” I know you just read that in his voice, didn’t you? But more importantly, why would you suffer unnecessarily? Because you think you are supposed to?

 
I’m not saying I refuse to suffer pain for the rest of my life. I know there will be times that will be more difficult than others. But I do not have to welcome that pain into my center of creativity. It can visit, but I will not allow it to unpack and make itself at home. Writing is my joy and I will not let it be corrupted.

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