Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Walking the Dog: A Writing Lesson

I am a terrible dog parent. Maybe not a terrible one, but a lazy one. I admit it. I don't like to walk my dog. I love her. I really do. I love to pet her and talk to her, and I love it when she sits still. But, alas, she is a dog and sometimes she needs to get out of the house, see the world, and pee on things.

Last week she watched with a look of hope on her sweet face as I pulled the leash from its hook. She tried to hide her excitement. After all, she knows I am known for changing my mind on a whim.

A few minutes later we were on the go. She is a bulldog, squat and wide, and when she walks her backside rolls from side to side. She looks like she is swishing her hips. Very feminine. The front of her is all business. She keeps her head lowered to the ground, sniffing at things that I can't see or smell. I am curious. I want to know what messages those invisible scents are sending her.

Like those scents, picked up by my dog and teasing her forward, so goes good writing.

There are things in my mind that others can't see, hear, taste, smell or generally sense in any way. It is my job to write so that the reader is pulled along and teased forward.

My job as a writer is also to make the invisible...well, visible. If I write, "she lived in a house", the reader has to use her own imagination to fill in the details. This is a lot of work, and she may give up on me before she gets too far. If instead I write, "the house, a small, four-room wooden structure, was once white but is now a naked silver, cleansed of its paint by eighty years of wind and rain. It sits at the base of the foothills, which rise behind it and act as its protector from the howling winds of the Appalachian range"....

You take my meaning.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Keeping a Writer's Journal

"Some things you learn as an adopted child of an alcoholic are to be happy, be cooperative, be helpful, be complicit or be invisible. My name is Francis Rain Buckner. I eventually married to become Francis Buckner Smith. Francis Smith. Such a plain name. I was happy to see the Rain part of my name legally dispensed. Like its homonym, my middle name represented the dark, dreary, cloudy part of my life. At the age of 25 I was able to bury it. At least I thought I had. But the shadow is always there."

This is a paragraph of fiction written on the first page of my first journal. I bought the journal, a green college-ruled composition book, because someone convinced me that real writers keep journals. I want to be a real writer, so there you have it. Writing in a daily journal felt like a chore at first. To make it a habit, I carried it with me everywhere I went. Eventually, it took hold, and I am now nearing completion of this notebook. I already have a fresh one ready to go. So, what have I learned about journaling and its role in my writing life?

1) Just do it. Every day. It doesn't matter what you write. Write what you see. Write what you smell. Write a letter to a person you love or a person you are angry with. Write down your grocery list. No one cares what you are writing. The goal is to get that pen moving.

2) No room for perfectionism. For those Type-A folks out there this will be hard to swallow, but journals can have misspellings, bad grammar, and bad sentence structure. No one cares what you are writing. The goal is to get that pen moving.

3) Allow room for play. Your journal is the place for you to jot down silly things. I remember reading some of Woody Guthrie's handwritten notes that were eventually put to song by Wilco. The words were silly, fun, nonsensical, and never to be found in a dictionary. No one cares what you are writing. The goal is to get that pen moving.

4) Don't think. Just write. Don't plan your journal entries. What fun is that? If you need to get the planning monkey off your back, write a blog or a "Letter to the Editor" or book report, but do NOT plan your journal entry. Use your journal to explore those ideas that are just below the surface. If you are having trouble getting started, give yourself a prompt by picking out a phrase in a book of poetry or looking a postcard in the  neighborhood gas station or eavesdrop on in the grocery store checkout line. Use the prompt to write what immediately comes to mind. Stream of consciousness is what you are after. Remember, no one cares what you are writing. The goal is to get that pen moving.

5)  Use what you write. Okay, this might be in direct conflict with the first four "lessons", but mine your journal for things that you eventually write for others to read. For example, the paragraph that I wrote on page one might one be the beginning of a short story or a novel. If I hadn't taken the time to write it, it might still be lost in my subconscious mind.

So, if you are a writer want-to-be like me, buy a cheap notebook and start journaling!