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When a book idea falls into my brain, and I’m not there to catch it

This post originally appeared on Girlfriends Book Club, a blog written by a gumbo of about twenty-seven-ish women, who share their agonies and ecstasies about writing, for authors and for readers. Funny, smart, talented women. And me.
     A few nights ago, I took my customary running leap into bed (we have one of those old, four-posters…and, yes, I know there are stools for beds, but they look too much like church kneelers, which I find disturbing next to my bed. But that’s another story). Just as my cheek met the cool pillow, an idea charged through my sleepy stupor into my brain.
     A brilliant idea. Brilliant, I tell you. Nothing less than brilliant. Enough to hip-shove The Hunger Games into Twilight. Enough to make Brad Pitt want my phone number to ask if he could play the male lead. Enough to tell Angelina she couldn’t bribe me for the female lead.
     I can’t tell you the idea.
     Why? Because I can’t remember it. Because I didn’t drag my brilliant butt out of bed to write it down. Because I didn’t lean over and risk a head injury to find the paper and pen I store in my nightstand to scribble the idea.
     I should know better. Well, I do know better. As soon as I hear my brain whisper, “Oh, this one is so A-MAZING, you won’t forget it,” I need to make one of those Bella Swan Cullen new-vampire dashes to write it.  Unfortunately, unlike Stephenie Meyer, I do not wake up from a dream with a four-book series in my head.
     So, where do my ideas originate?
     In the most boring of circumstances.  Like one day, after retrieving mail from my mailbox, I wondered, “What if a woman went out to get her mail and never returned? Or what if she walked out in one year, but when she walked back into her house, twenty years had passed?”  (BTW…if I want to watch my adult children practice synchronized eye rolling, all I have to do is mention this idea.)
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     Those two words, “what if?” can launch me into writer orbit. But I have to be willing to turn ideas inside out and upside down. I have to muzzle the editor in my brain who says, “Go you…you’ve just thought of the dumbest premise in the known universe.”
     Years and years ago, I attended a conference and delighted in listening to Georgia Heard talk about her recent book, For the Good of the Earth and Sun:Teaching Poetry. What I most remember is her talking about poetry constantly surrounding us, that it’s everywhere…from the worn steps outside your grandmother’s house to drinking coffee with a friend.
     And while those may not be ideas that carry a novel into hundreds of pages, they’re a beginning. Even poems marinate in my brain. When I read “Patterns” by Amy Lowell or “The Lanyard” by Billy Collins, I just know a story is there waiting to happen.
     If there is anything I’ve learned, it’s this: whatever the idea, however ridiculous and goofy it may seem at the time, I must write it down.
     It’s a gift. And it doesn’t always keep on giving.

Writing is as right as rain

It’s just damn ugly outside right now. Proof:

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This reminds me that one of the rites of passage into living on your own in New Orleans is having your own hurricane tracking map. That season hasn’t started yet; it’s June 1-November 30. Today’s just one of those pre-cursor events. Mother Nature’s way of reminding us that we’re not the boss of her.

The lights are flashing, the outside shutters are slamming against my windows, and Herman is curled into a canine fetal position in his dog bed.

Today is one of my scheduled writing days. Writing by candlelight, especially in this humidity, is not at all romantic or productive. The paper ripples with the dampness, and the candle singes any wayward pieces of my hair if I’m not careful. So, when I experience one of these days, my admiration soars for those writers who used quill pens dipped in ink, wrote without benefit of electricity, even those who pounded out stories on manual typewriters. For those of you too young to even recall an electric typewriter, here’s a visual of each:

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Oh, the days of erasable bond and correctable typewriter ribbons…(pause for angry crack of thunder).

All this to say…I have a laptop, an iPad, a Livescribe…all the tools necessary to make the actual act of writing easy, of making letters, word and sentences appear as if by magic. Even research is just a Google or a Bing away.

But the art of writing, well…it’s like this storm. It’s at times unpredictable, messy, angry, and gut-churning. But this storm will pass, and the grass will seem greener, the sun will nudge its way out from  behind the waning grayness, the birds will find their way back into the trees, and the thirsty ground may need some time to swallow all the water that’s been dumped on it, but it’s grateful for the excess nonetheless.

So, I’m off to make some messy art while I can because I know it’s going to lead to somewhere better.

 

Starbucks, Snails, and Sororities

I didn’t forget that today is Friday, and I said I’d live to blog again. Working in CST, I still have a four-hour window open.

After getting the downstairs apartment ready for a group coming in for Jazz Fest, I schlepped to Starbucks to write for a few hours before working at the clinic. A snail outran their internet speed today, which meant no blogging for me. Instead, I focused my attention on the new novel idea that’s still in gestation. I’ve learned conception isn’t so difficult in novel-land. Though there have definitely been long stretches of time when my brain puts itself on abstinence. It’s birthing the damn idea that can be the labor from hell.

Without revealing too much, I can say that I’m relying heavily on the expertise of one of my daughters. The novel involves a college sorority. Guess what I know about college sororities? That they all use the Greek alphabet.

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Anything else I might know is only information I think I know because I have absolutely no personal experience never having been in a sorority in college. So she’s teaching me a new vocabulary: bid, rush, dirty rush, legacy, PNM, preference, big, little. . .And I have to tell you that after I became aware of the entire process from beginning to end (end being you’re in), I developed a new respect for her. She faced, what I now realize, was an emotionally grueling week, and she survived. I’m proud of her. Not just because she joined a sorority, but because she set a goal, did the hard work, made herself vulnerable, and achieved what she set out to do.

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It’s humbling when your children become the teachers.

Had that experience lately?

 

 

Sometimes I Hate Writing

Note from Christa: This was my post from last month’s Girlfriends Book Club blog. I’m one drool away from smashing my forehead against my keyboard, but I wanted to make something new-ish appear here!  So much to catch up on, so stay tuned…

Years ago, before the release of the movie it inspired, Simon Birch, I read A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving. Over a decade later, it’s still on my top five favorite books of my so-far lifetime list.  (Fugitive Pieces by Anne Michaels is also in that number. If you’ve not read her novel, stop reading this…buy it now…and be prepared for a beautifully written, searingly haunting, and heart-exploding redemptive novel.)

I binged on Irving novels for a while after that until I read A Widow for One Year. Three-fourths of the way into the novel, it seemed as if he grew weary because the remaining one-fourth went by at warp speed. I remember closing the book wondering what caused him to gobble up all the lose ends of the novel with one gulp rather than allowing us to savor what remained.

Now I know.

I’ve written five novels, and I experience the same angsty impatience three-fourths of the way to the finish. I hate my characters; they’re whiney relatives who came for a week and stayed for a month.  And when they’re not whining, they’re mute or engaged in a gab fest entirely unrelated to anything I ant/need them to discuss. I hate the novel. I wonder why I thought it was brilliant 300 pages ago. I want to curl into the fetal position inside a cloaking device and become invisible because, when the book releases, everyone will finally know what a fraud I am.

So, anytime I’m near the end of the novel, and I’m scurrying about like Chicken Little’s twin sister, I remember Irving.  And I breathe, then call a friend who can walk me off the ledge. I make sure I have a case of Coke Zero, boxes of Mike& Ike, and I allow those insistent, annoying characters to take me where they want to go.

Sometimes, they’re actually smarter than I am.

Is your passion worth sacrificing?

Perhaps if I wore a latex bikini and waved around an oversized foam finger with one hand while I tapped on the keyboard with the other. . .I could make money as a writer. The first two seem to be working for Miley Cyrus. And she probably doesn’t have a clue that twerking became popular while she was still in diapers.

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(Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic for MTV)

I seem to have a knack for choosing creative pursuits that aren’t lucrative…like teaching high school, bagel-dipping in Nutella, and writing. Maybe I should have actually read the book Do What You Love, The Money will Follow. But since I’d already discovered outlets that “fulfilled my needs, talents and passions,” I didn’t require direction, just affirmation, so I didn’t read more than the title.

Maybe I could write Fifty Shades of Blue Because I Didn’t Think of Fifty Shades of Gray Before She Did. Or The Sun Before Twilight. Or a prequel to the Harry Potter series. But that would be as successful as me at the age 61 attempting to twerk on-stage with Robin Thicke.

Word to the unwise…back away from your laptop if you’re pursuing fame and fortune as an author. I’ve experienced the wiggling excitement of being offered representation by agents, book contracts, seeing my name on the cover of a novel, finding myself in a bookstore and on Amazon. Yet I’ve invested oodles more in marketing, classes, and conferences than I’ve earned.

So, why do I continue to write?

Because I can’t not write, and that’s never been so clear to me as it has recently. I’d been officially retired for five months after having taught high school English for 25 years when my husband decided to open his own business. He’s a veterinarian.

This is what I do while I’m at work: I smile and say, “Hello. How are you?” or Hold on” and/or “I’ll find someone who can help you.” I’m entering inventory and clients in our database, shelving drugs with unpronounceable names, counting pills for prescriptions, mopping the floors every morning so the clinic won’t smell like the population it serves, answering the phone, leaving the house every morning at 6:30 and not returning home until after 7:00 pm, taking emergency calls with him and working almost every Saturday and often going in on Sundays to catch up from the week.

My consumption of Blue Bell ice cream is increasing in an inverse proportion to my hours of sleep and direct proportion to my depression. I went to bed at 7:30 last night and woke up at 4:00 in the morning to write this post. It’s the first writing I’ve attempted outside of chart notes and prescription labels in over thirty days.

When your passion is suddenly taken hostage, you eventually find a way to survive. To entertain it in your mind where it can’t be constrained. I mop and spin ideas of women once wealthy and powerful who assume false identities and hide out in low-end jobs to escape someone or something. I devise stories around clients who own ten dogs and/or cats. I name future characters after some of the clients’ pets. . . I try to not dwell in the land of, “if I’d written a blockbuster before this, I wouldn’t be wiping up unknown glick on the floor.”

I hope to be ransomed one day. In the meantime, I’m following the advice of my writer friends and keeping a journal. Maybe the glick on the floor will lead to a break-out book. Maybe not. But this I’ve learned: you can’t sacrifice your passion on the altar of someone else’s dreams.

Do what you love. If the money doesn’t follow, your sanity will.

What about you? Doing what you love?