Friday, January 27, 2012

Entry #36 - “Wings of Desire”

Lately, I’ve thought about the ways that desire directs the flight patterns for both fiction and nonfiction for those who read and write. What people want and why they want it drives the writer’s work.

Characters, plots, actions, and events evolve from attempts to satisfy or in some cases, deny desire. This seems to be a basic truth, whether a writer chooses to write a short story, novel, or an essay.

Photo Credit - Jan Bowman - October 2011
If you want to write, it helps to examine what people yearn for and to notice how that longing has the power to alter their fate on the page, just as it does in their real life experience.  Not only does understanding the power of desire help you as a reader to reveal your own truths, but it also helps you as a writer realize the need to provide credible motivation for the characters who live inside your writing.

Whatever someone wants, whether it is a tangible material possession, such as a red motorcycle or a Nobel Prize --- or a non-tangible concept that’s little more than a winged vapor of longing, such as a desire for love and respect, desire is motivation. How humans deal with desire reveals much about a culture and its particular values.  Understanding the role of desire helps the writer define the parameters of time and place. Some yearnings of the human spirit are universal, but other desires are truly of the “particular”.

Readers seek to understand - not only what happens and how it happens, but they also want to discover why it has happened, and examining the why is a complex process. In Janet Burroway’s book, Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, she says... “The human desire to know why is as powerful as the desire to know what happens next, and it is a desire of a higher order. Once we have the facts, we inevitably look for the links between them, and only when we find such links are we satisfied that we understand."  She goes on to say that “random incidents or random character actions neither move us nor illuminate; we want to know why one thing leads to another and to feel the power and inevitability of cause and effect.”  Which is to say, desire drives character,which drives motive, which drives plot  --- and all of this --- taken together --- provides cause and effect that readers understand and that lets them care enough to read more.

Perhaps it’s useful to remember that Kurt Vonnegut said - “When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell students to make their characters want something right away ---even if it’s only a glass of water.  Even characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.”

“Creativity is a continual surprise.”  --- Ray Bradbury

Friday, January 20, 2012

Entry #35 - “Accepting the Mind’s Potential”

Photo Credit - Jan Bowman - October 2011
This week I’ve thought about the way the writing process teaches us about self acceptance and the amazing potential of the mind. Writers must learn to accept themselves in order to write the truest things they know about living.  But often writers, or those who long to write, struggle with how to begin. So - start with a journal - one that is not forgiving if you tear out pages.

Keeping your beginning writing efforts in a journal, rather than on separate sheets of paper, is an important part of the process because you’re less likely to tear up your work and toss it out. In rereading your notebook entries over time, you have an opportunity to see the movement of your writer’s mind as you examine a range of topics or emotions. There is something about seeing your mind’s movement over the pages that helps to clarify the inherent form or structure that works best for a particular piece of writing. That coherence becomes most apparent as words collect on the pages of your journal.

Those early journal writings are the beginning of your writing process.  If you squelch those early starts with heavy-handed judgements the best of what might have been is unlikely to thrive and grown.

Beware the hypercritical editor who lives in your mind and who whispers negative thoughts in your ear and who says things like: “You are a bad writer.” Or “No one will want to read this stuff.” “That’s an awkward sentence.” Perhaps we’re conditioned to think that negative criticism has more validity than positive feedback. But you don’t benefit from giving the “inner critic” and/or “inner editor” so much power over your work in the beginning of your writing efforts.  You will need the editor and critic’s voice later - much later - in the writing process.  Sometimes people want to read those first journal entries aloud or to others, but I believe that writers who do this lose the rich possibility that comes from a careful gestation. Perhaps this premature urge comes out of a deep need for affirmation, and while it might seem to validate a writer, often it actually prevents the work from achieving its full potential.

Writers seek to share the most powerful of their innermost impressions with others, whether the final work takes the form of a memoir, essay, short story, novel, or poetry.  Writers know that writing is a worthy endeavor; it is the way we share the truest things we know about living.  The process of writing teaches us a lot about accepting the amazing potential of our minds.

Brenda Ueland said, “Everybody is talented, original and has something important to say...  But if you want to write, you need to accept yourself and respect the power and validity of your mind.”

Friday, January 13, 2012

Entry # 34 - "Love Your Friend, the Journal"

Photo Credit - Jan Bowman - October 2011
This week I’ve thought about useful advice for any writer who wants to start off the year with a renewed commitment to writing. If you want to write, you might consider beginning with a personal journal.  This is not the same as a diary, but it is a good place to nurture your daily writing habit.  Try to write for 10-20 minutes every day when possible, but don’t stress if you sometimes miss a day or two because of life’s requirements.   
Buy a small lined or blank page notebook that fits in a pocket or bag, and write in it.  Don’t worry about keeping it neat with perfect handwriting, spelling, grammar and punctuation. This journal is a place for your eyes only as you work out the patterns and find the central ideas that interest you.  These ideas are the acorns from which your mighty oak will grow.

Natalie Goldberg’s book, Writing Down the Bones outlines a process that I’ve paraphrased or summarized here.  She offers six basic rules for journal writing practice. These “rules” are made to be broken but they’ve helped me and perhaps you will find them useful.

Rules for “Happy” Journal Writing Practice

1.  Keep your hand (pen) moving.  Keep your pen on the page and write whatever you can during the allotted writing time. If you’re stuck- just keep writing – “I don’t remember” or “what I do remember” until you find your writing moving on – going deeper into your writing prompt.  Don’t pause to reread lines you’ve just written. That is you stalling and trying to get control of what you’re saying. This is a first cut to see what lies deeper in your mind and memory.
2.  Don’t cross out.  Don’t edit as you write.  Even if you write something you didn’t mean to write.  Just leave it and keep going. Don’t worry about it. Editing at this point tends to strangle your creative efforts.  No one sees this material except you.  It’s too raw to share just yet – so don’t stress over it.
3.  Don’t worry about spelling, punctuation, grammar.  Again – you can deal with this later. But - not now.   Later.
4.  Lose control.    First thoughts have tremendous energy. The internal censor usually squelches them. Your aim here is to burn through to the first thoughts, to the place where energy and memory are unobstructed by social politeness or the internal censor. You’re writing to the place where your mind actually sees and feels, not to what you think it should see or feel.
5.  Don’t think.  Don’t get logical.    Not yet.   Initially you don’t need to analyze or be critical.  Just let your writing go into the subconscious storehouse of your knowledge and experiences.  That’s where the good stuff stays until you lay it on the journal page.
6.  Run Fast. Go deep down field.   Be fearless.  Be brave. If something comes up in your journal writing that is scary – dive right into it. It’s the good stuff. It probably has lots of energy.       ---from – Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones      (modified by Jan Bowman 2012)

Your journal is your private place to work out ideas that you probably didn’t know you had until you saw them in on the page.  So love your friend, the journal.  Care for it. Keep your ideas warm in it. A writer in a journal class I teach on Tuesday mornings knitted a tiny jacket for hers.  

Perhaps it helps to remember - Maxine Kumin said, “I learned how to write in the interstices of daily life.”

Friday, January 6, 2012

Entry #33 - "The Care and Feeding of Your Writer Work Habits"

Happy New Year!  By now you’ve likely started writing the correct year on your checks and bills. And this is a good time for writers to commit to stronger work habits.  Caring for your work habits requires thoughtful planning and regular reinforcement, if you hope to develop a professional commitment to your personal growth.  So I offer a few tips that help me and perhaps something here will encourage and renew you.

Photo Credit - Jan Bowman - January 2012
1.   Give yourself the gift of writing time. Find time - at least 10-20 minutes at a set time each day and write in your idea journal. If you don’t have one, buy one and get started. Finding time requires you to dance around the “significant others” in your life who need you, but it is possible to do this. Make a promise to yourself and honor it as you would an appointment or meeting.  Don’t be discouraged if some days it doesn’t work out.  Just do it the next day or the next. Get up half an hour earlier or go to bed half an hour later. Watch an hour less of television. Honor this time and tell your beloved “others” about your commitment and ask them to help and respect your need for this. Also set aside a larger block of time every week - at the very least - that you go through your journal  and begin to notice patterns and ideas that signal the start of a larger writing project. And then begin.  Set a reasonable time or word plan for each of those longer sessions and if you can’t meet that goal, look at what you were able to do - and set that as your goal - until you’re ready and able to do more.  Know that your first draft of whatever you write is just the beginning. Sometimes you need to see what you’re writing in order to find out what it is you’re trying to say.  That is okay.

2.   Take a small pocket notebook with you as you go about your work, carpool, travels.  Now and then you’ll see something that you will forget if you don’t make a quick note of it. Notice people and what they do. Shamelessly people-watch. Notice small moments of conflict and compassion. Or if you’re one of the totally wired people, dedicate a file/folder in your i-pad, i-phone or whatever electronic device that tries to rule your life. If you capture even a few brief words it is usually enough to spark a related memory later.

3.   Set up a “clean, well-lighted” space somewhere in your world for your writing. Don’t pay bills or fold laundry or watch television there, if at all possible. Make it as inviting and efficient as you can, given your life and its obligations.  Add all the needed tools of your craft whether you write with computer, pen or a Crayola Crayon in your favorite color. Don’t check your email or take phone calls in your space during your dedicated writing time. Be shamelessly guilt-free about this commitment to your writing.  It is important work and if you’re lucky enough to be chosen for it, do it. Remember it makes no difference where you begin, or if sometimes the fits and starts of life interrupt your day, BUT it is important that you proceed.

Find your own best work habits over time and make changes as you learn new things about yourself as a writer.  Some people can get going on a writing project and nothing short of an earthquake will pull them away, but most of us need to impose some planned effort, some discipline or routine; once that’s established- you will not rest comfortably - if you haven’t done it. If you want to write, you can take this year to move yourself to that special place where you will not feel content without it,  just like you will suffer some mild regret if you’ve not brushed your teeth or taken out the recycling can.

Finally, it helps me to remember that mean old Dorothy Parker said, “Only a very mediocre writer is always at his (her) best.”            --- from the Portable Dorothy Parker.

"The Care and Feeding of Your Writer Work Habits" by Jan Bowman was published in The Broadkill Review
 Volume 5, Issue 6, January/February 2012.

Jan Bowman’s work has appeared in Roanoke Review, Big Muddy, Broadkill Review, Trajectory, Third Wednesday, Minimus, Buffalo Spree (97), Folio, The Potomac Review, Musings, Potato Eyes, and others. She won the 2012 Roanoke Review Prize for Fiction. Her stories have been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Best American Short Stories and a story was a finalist in the “So To Speak” Fiction Contest. She is working on two collections of short stories and currently shopping for a publisher for a completed story collection. She has nonfiction work pending publication in Spring 2013 Issues of Trajectory and Pen-in-Hand. She writes a weekly blog of “Reflections” on the writing life and posts regular interviews with writers and publishers.   Learn more at: