What’s Next?

Tomorrow begins a two-day affair in which I will receive an honorary degree in letters from the University of Vermont, my new best friend. It’s a lovely honor meant to acknowledge a body of work, especially as it relates to my abiding interest in the creative process.

The university has supplied details of what to expect, including the specifics of the hooding ceremony, a ritual dating back to medieval times, involving velvet—presumably white to reflect the arts. The only color velvet I’ve worn for the last thirty years has been black. This alone causes me to reflect.

The event includes some beautiful meals, parking passes, bar-coded tickets, an escort, hotel rooms for my guests, a citation, a twenty-four page script, two pair of shoes, and speeches before a very large crowd. I will be quoted as having said that “what’s next is what matters.”

That brings me to what’s next for this blog—recently hacked (!), recently honored. Soulofaword has evolved from infancy to headstrong toddlerhood, incapable of fear and impervious to reason.

These posts will continue but irregularly—which yes, I know, breaks all the rules. And they will remain fixated on the nature of creative work, as if there is a choice when you are  dealing with obsession.

And what’s next for this writer?

Well, I could, maybe, write Book A, that I’ve been contemplating for a mere twenty years, and that a writer friend encourages as “getting that monkey off your back.”

Or I could write Book B, aimed more commercially but still with a voice and perspective that another friend—okay two friends—have called “twisted.”

Or I could write Book C, combining the two. Like a tinkerer who wanders the aisles of a hardware store in search of everything and nothing, I could just set off and see where I end up.

Here’s what I know for sure about the creative process:

You need a very big trashcan and a sense of humor. Uncertainty is your friend. Turn something on its head. Perseverance pays. Curiosity matters. Do no harm. And keep an open mind.

I’ll let you know how it goes. Meanwhile, thanks for stopping by—and be in touch. I always answer.

~

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo of glass of champagne by viticulture-oenologie-formation.fr.

How to Innovate

Happy accidents can set you off into new and dynamic directions, but intentionality is also a path forward and one more in your control. Consider this example.

Music-video maker Chris Milk had begun to feel his medium, which includes YouTube, was stale, when he met up with web star Aaron Koblin who was also frustrated with the limits of his medium: digital art.

They started talking, their skills and perspectives mixed, and before they were done, created something new—a kind of storytelling that fused animated images with real-life emotion. Drawing upon audience participation (crowdsourcing), the pair combined music and visuals with startling results, such as “Sheep Market” composed of blended images of sheep from thousands of artists, and “We Used to Wait”, which allows the viewer to “drive” to his or her childhood address while the music plays.

To create something new, the collaborators—as well as any of us who seek to create— needed three things.

First: they needed an appreciation of what had come before both in the tech world and musically. Every medium at first imitates the last. Koblin notes: “The first radio is people reading books; the first photographs are similar to paintings; the first films were of the theatre.”

Second: they needed a willingness to give up the constraints of the old. Says Milk: “When cinema started, nobody saw it as ‘the Godfather’; no one saw it as closeups and music and creating shots in color and dialogue and emotion. It grew to be that. . . fooling around in the dark.”

Finally: they needed a healthy curiosity. They had tools that knew no limits, like the web and computer animation, so they went off exploring. They asked, is this good? Could it be better? The result Kolbin characterized as “experiments on what this medium will  eventually be.”

It seems to me that we writers are on the same voyage.

We seek to create, to innovate, to take an ordinary word and use it so remarkably as to make it stand for an entire world. (Vagina Monologues comes to mind.)

We start with what came before, which is where we learn, and then we leave it behind on a personal, intense, but please Lord playful journey of discovery. Is this good? Could this be better? We ask the same questions. And in the end, we hope, like the collaborators, to have to have created something compelling.

~

For the full story, see Tom Vanderbilt’s, “The Director and the Techie” (WSJ Magazine, May 2012).

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo of the illuminated light bulb by MartinPhotoSport; shattered bulbs by nate2b (catching up).

 

Is the Postcard Still Worth Anything?

 

Here are three postcard stories. Decide for yourself.

1.
While a sick (now robust) friend of mine was going through cancer treatment, another friend sent him a handmade postcard every single day. He kept them displayed on the kitchen counter, and some of us sneaked a peak when we dropped off meals. Snooping is within the rules of postcards, which are, after all, open to inspection—and more private, when you think about it, than an email or blog bounced through all the time zones all over the globe.

Each was a marvel, as you might expect from an artist’s hand—a tiny treasure the patient turned to for cheer and encouragement, and I had no doubt they aided in his recovery.

2.

The next involved a mother and daughter with an ocean between them. The ocean was no accident, for they didn’t much get along. Still, for decades, whenever one traveled, she sent the other a postcard. This small act spoke of a connectedness that the women could not otherwise express. And, the postcard endured—on a desk or a countertop, or tucked into a book, or pinned to the bulletin board for the indefinite future. In the deliberateness of the gesture and in its tangible persistence, it functioned like a gift.

3.
The final story was my own recent experiment. On vacation, I sent postcards to my sons who were hard at work at their respective colleges. From the schlocky to the provocative, the beautiful to the comic, I had a grand time picking them out. Penned at leisure in cafés and beer halls, I kept it short.

“What they can do with a potato around here!” “Great news about your internship!” “Have you fixed your bike yet?”

They were funny, even ridiculous—especially in volume. There must have been a dozen apiece before I was done. But, as it turned out, both my sons were long out of the habit of checking a physical campus mailroom—where dust and dinosaurs collected—so I had to prompt them along.

The Ohio missives arrived before the Massachusetts ones. And I was home a good week before the last one turned up, a tiny postcard featuring a restaurant. The stamp took up a lot of it.

“Steak frites tonight. The real deal.”

It was an inside joke, a reference to a longstanding family debate on the proper presentation of this dish.

What’s the value of a postcard?

A laugh. A keepsake. A connection. A pause in the hectic day. This is enough for me. Besides, as writing goes, it doesn’t get much better than one choice sentence and you’re done.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo of postcard by fugue; steak frites by umami.typepad.com.

 

Does Your Reader Trust You?

There’s a famous photo of Lyndon B. Johnson sitting despondently, with his head in his hands after he learned that, in a rare moment of editorializing, the venerable CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite characterized the Vietnam War as all but lost.

For nineteen tumultuous years, millions of Americans had tuned in every night to hear Walter Cronkite report on the state of affairs. When Walter Cronkite spoke, America listened.

Do our readers trust us that much?

Trust is a multilayered thing built over time. Here are a few qualities that Cronkite had that writers who seek to cultivate trust should consider:

1.  Authenticity

As writers, we have to speak the truth as we know it, no matter our genre. Sometimes this requires that we show parts of ourselves we’d prefer to keep hidden, including perhaps our vulnerabilities.

2.  Accuracy

As writers, we must recognize our biases, acknowledge what we don’t know, and avoid distortion or otherwise lift things from context. We have to separate fact from opinion, and give credit where credit is due.

3. Consistency

We must also present a consistent level of quality. If we have cultivated a voice, that voice has to be there as resonant as ever. If we have adopted a position or a theme, our treatment of it has to build in a direction a reader has come to expect.

4. Delivery

Cronkite set the bar for eloquent, measured, and calm delivery—exactly what you’d want from a news anchor. Even in the most emotional of times, his voice held the ground and in this, his listeners felt safe, which is fertile territory for building trust. The anchorman cultivated an effective voice—a perfect fit for delivering the news—but any writer needs to do the same. Fiction or nonfiction, whatever our purpose or goal, we too have to consider our delivery. Our tone and voice must fit the work and be such that the reader is able to absorb our words.

5. Faith

If we want our readers’ trust, we can’t do anything halfway. If we’re bored, or our emotional life is a mess, or we are writing by rote—these things will show. If we have lost faith in the value of what we do, this too will show. A good writing day or a bad one, it comes down to caring—and doing. Perhaps we need to take a break. Perhaps we need a vacation. But nothing goes out until it’s as perfect as we can make it.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo of Walter Cronkite widely cited in reverse image search including at http://www.worldculturepictorial.com/blog/archive/all/2009/7/19; LBJ at Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam, Life Magazine, November 4, 1966; General Westmoreland in the foreground, http://faculty.smu.edu/dsimon/Change-Viet2.html among other sources.

Taking Stock

This is the third look at the numbers. The firstwas at 6 months. The secondwas at 1 year.  This one is late at 2½ years.

Choosing the metrics for it is never a value-free process, and collecting the data is an occupation, but even a loosely gathered set of facts can be revealing.

At post number 150, for example, I figure we’re now into Blogging 201.

0 missed days. 0 tardy.

Brand, though tweaked, remains at 5 words: clean, visual, informative, encouraging, and real. The only addition is “real” but perhaps “straight” or maybe even “opinionated” are more to the mark.

Posts still at 400 +/- words. Still like that focused, quick length.

Still carried high on Alltop. Still with enduring champions and many more ping backs from around the world, of late, Brazil, Holland, Korea, and Singapore. Chinese readership is growing. Monthly visitors  6,600; monthly page views 12,600. .

Posts inspired from wandering museums and galleries: dozens.  Posts inspired from the peculiar goings-on in my tiny, wonderful town: 7.  Subjects I tend to return to: 5 process; storynaming things, breaking rules, and going for it.

Permissions sought and received: 4. Permissions refused: 1 and it was a most awkward moment, and a shame, as it’s a story I really wanted to tell.

Number of attempted posts that just didn’t work: countless, or at least I’m not counting them.

Most popular of late: How to Write a Villain and Open to Interpretation. Also How to Write a Query LetterWhat’s in a Name?, and Three Writing Principles a Long Way Downstream.

Most successful title: “How to. . . ”  Used 14 times, or 9.3%.

Reader response: roughly 50% female, 50% male. Twitter favored.

Most pushback: Do You Need to Know the Ending? and Prayer or Plan? and The Most Important Skill for a Writer.

Total word count approximately 180,000. By comparison, my novel has roughly 115,000, an essay in progress 3,500, while a set of notes taken on the fly and pretty much on a daily basis might have 700 words.

Number of times profanity appears: 3once  in a photo, and again in an expression, and finally in a symbol of an erect middle finger sculpted bigger than life by the bad boy artist Cattelan and positioned not incidentally in front of the Italian stock market.

Most fun: 100% choosing the photos.

Most valuable player: my editor who says it like it is and has some ideas on how to fix the broken bits. And my tech guy, without whom survival is out of the question.

Most surprising turn of events: One honorary doctorate in letters forthcoming in just a few weeks and earned in part for recognition of this blog.

Atahualpa WP 2.92 Theme with 5 widgets and 1 favored classification: “mechanics.” Akismet with 46,850 filtered bits of spam and 106 suspects in the queue as we speak.

The next post, next Friday—number 151.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo of sextant by United States Pacific Fleet and the numbers board is by admanramblings.com.

A Writer Will Go Anywhere

These are raw notes. Unedited. Unshaped. Bricks for a later construction I may or may not build. The scene is a coffee shop, but not the kind you think. This is Amsterdam.

Narrow place. Two seats in the far corner of the bar. Bar top is polished steel and dark wood burnished with the soft touch of so many elbows through the years. Old money hangs from the ceiling as part of the decoration. That was when money was colorful and decorated with Van Gogh sunflowers. Nothing at all like today’s staid euro.

The place hums and it’s barely dawn. The bartender runs the counter and the all-important playlist. Her hips move. Her leopard skin top ripples.

My avid photographer husband wants to shoot the twinkling bar lights, the filmy air, the girl in the fuzzy pink sweater and sparkly earrings drinking Coke from a straw.

In the corner, near the door, an older man sits two steps up, selling what people come for. He has a menu. It’s illuminated when he presses a button. He has a drawer that only he accesses. The sign above his head reads “Watchmeester / Officer on Duty.”

Everyone is happy here. Even the bulldog is smiling.

There’s something important in this.

There’s a jail theme going on. Mock prison bars. Al Capone’s face hangs near Bugsy Siegel’s and Jimmy “the rat” Fratianno’s. A fake machine gun is bolted to the “Keep Out!” door.

In the thirty-odd years I’ve been in and of this town, I’ve never been here. But this writer will go anywhere—especially when it’s been a sleepless night stuffed in an airplane, and it’s way too early to check in, and the coffee is good and hot, and the newness of the scene intrigues.

The lives people lead! The bartender hears it all—and so do I, or most of it, at least the bits in English. Everyone speaks English, but I hear German, French, and Dutch, as well.

A new bartender arrives.

“I’m Dali,” the 20-something says, “only without the moustache. Just a little beard.”

He’s not smoking—he wants that known right off—and it puts us on equal ground. In real life, he’s a comic.

Loose limbed, lanky, fluid in his movements, he’s wearing a bulldog shirt labeled “Crew” that some part of me covets. The customers are drawn to him. He’s good at what he does. He alone notices the beat up camera lens.

We talk about where he gets his material and how comedy takes courage. We talk about his shirt. We talk about someone named Rawlings and Dave Chappelle, and Chappelle’s break down.

“Took a break,” Dali says, which is how he prefers to think of it. “It’s a lot of pressure. It’s like living out loud. And everyone expecting you to be funny all the time.”

“Consumptie Verplicht. Drinks required,” says the sign. Another Coke to the girl with the dreamy eyes in the back.  My husband takes his photographs.  I take a note.  We wonder if we will have anything worth anything when we look back later. . .

Take enough notes, as is my habit, and watch with wonder as certain preoccupations appear over and over. Looking these over, I see at least one theme that I am drawn to (happiness, freedom) and several bits of appealing characters (Dali and the Watchmeester). The notes are where I start every morning. These will link to other notes, or stand alone in something new, or sharpen something already in progress. With notes in hand, I rarely face a blank page.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo credits the Bulldog coffee shop by piak; dali by geographie.

The Best Thing that Ever Happened to my Writing

A number of things have helped my writing along, but best thing that ever happened was to stop caring so much.  This came about gradually. In fact it took a couple of decades.

Rejection hastened things along. “No. Sorry. I’m afraid I’m not the right for this.”  “You have me stumped; I can’t do a thing with this.” “Just didn’t connect.” “Too ambitious for us.” And the mean spirited: This has no artistic merit whatsoever.”

I was crushed by the first rejections, but I kept going and subsequent ones got easier. I understood that taste is personal and that reasonable minds can differ. Sometimes the rejections would reach me after the piece had already been published elsewhere. Twice, pieces that were rejected ended up with Pushcart Prize nominations.

Eventually, I gave up listening and trying to please. I gave up explaining and apologizing, and best of all, I gave up the rules.  Oh, I wasn’t stupid about it.  I continued to seek opinion and always considered what was being said, but I no longer worked to please another.

Instead, I shifted my focus to one thing only: the work and what I thought it required.

And that’s when it started to be fun. I wrote things the way they impressed me.  I took example and insight from other art forms—especially painting.  I left out all the boring parts and just wrote the interesting things. I paid zero attention to form. Right now, for example, I have a bunch of notes from a coffee shop in Amsterdam that I’m thinking of running as raw notes.   Would raw notes work for a blog on the writing process?  Maybe. I might try, and see where it takes me.

To stop caring so much means you let your internal compass guide what you hope to achieve and how you will get there. This allows you to work with a new vigor. You can throw away piles of pages, and start again, or not—no worries. You can take the one scene or character that you liked, and change the whole project, the entire point. In the painting world, you can throw the paint at the canvas or even tape the dripping brush to the wall and call it art, if you have your reasons.

And when your heart starts racing at the possibilities, then it’s going to be a good working day.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo by Thorsten Becker.

How to Write a Compelling Narrator

The more interesting the story, the better we enjoy the person telling it to us, but an irresistible narrator is a big part of what we like in a story. Here are some key things that contribute to the creation of an unforgettable voice:

1. The compelling narrator is as complicated as any person you know. He or she comes to the scene with the traumas and bright-penny memories that define him, and as this history seeps into the story, it adds richness and depth.

2. The narrator has a particular attitude that makes him both human and interesting. Is he a timid guy? A romantic? An addict? A fool?  A well-articulated persona is a hard to ignore.

3. The narrator has a point of view that remains consistent throughout the story. A consistent voice is easy to follow.

4.  The reader has to relate to the narrator—hate him or love him—for the narrator to be compelling. The narrator can be likeable, or not, and if not, has to arouse some compassion in the reader for hiswarts and flaws.

5.  Finally, a reader must trust his experience with the narrator. The narrator may not know everything about the tale—indeed, the narrator may be quite unreliable—but the reader has been drawn in by the force of his personality, or his charming quirks, or his most-human vulnerabilities . . . Whatever he says, we want to hear it.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo of Bert and Ernie by See-ming Lee 李思明 SML. Photo of women by Tayrawr Fortune.

The Problem with the Spotlight

Some people find the writing life faintly glamorous, which can spark well-meaning curiosity.

But for me, the attention can be crippling.

Steve Dubner, co-author of Freakonomics—which spawned a sequel, movie, radio show, and a full calendar of speaking engagements—also sees a downside. According to an interview with Dubner in newobserver.com:

“‘It’s not like I’m even remotely famous compared to ‘real’ fame, [but] I get recognized in public pretty regularly, which has become a little uncomfortably weird. The price of fame is interesting to me. Most everybody seems to think being famous would be cool. It would be cool to have the things fame can bring – power, wealth, access. But the actual being-famous part is a nightmare. Right now I have this teeny sliver of recognizability. It will fade soon, and that’s good.’”

I’m with Dubner. Let me disappear into the wallpaper. It’s where I do my best work.

When I’m the focus of attention, I have to give instead of absorb and observe.  And if I can’t absorb and observe, I won’t have anything to say when it comes time to write.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo by Pak Han Foto and cited by Lucas Krech.

 

A Thing for Nostalgia

Why did you call your book “Those Days,” I once asked writer Richard Critchfield, known for his narrative description of village life and disappearing times. He shrugged and said that “in those days” was the phrase he heard most in his interviews. It was what people wanted to talk about—the past, who they were, where they were from, and how that time and place was the standard by which all else would be measured.

Many of us feel a connection with past times and even hold a bittersweet longing for what’s gone by. Wander through an antique store and whammo there it is, the thing that speaks to who you once were and where you came from. Milk bottles. A certain fur stole. White leather gloves over the elbow. Oh look, honey. The juice glasses we grew up with, the ones that came from the gas station, or from S&H green stamps, or the washed-out jelly jars.

So what are we writers to take from this near-gravitational pull that some feel toward the yesteryear? How could we use this element to best advantage?

First, we have to make sure that the stuff of the story—the objects, style, mood and mannerisms, turns of phrase and other detail—fits the time period.

Next, we have to make sure that these charming things, carefully researched and lovingly written, serve as setting and are not substituted in all their beautiful glory for the tale. It’s a question of resisting seduction—the poodle skirts, the silver cocktail shakers—and keeping your eye on the story.

Comments welcome and edited to include first names only, and website, if provided; never your email. Photo by A Slice of Life.com.