Writer's Toolbox

Do I have to Carpe Diem today?

Go on - take at your Pinterest board, at the magnets on your fridge, at the coffee mugs replicating like rabbits in your cupboard: I reckon there is at least one version of Carpe Diem in the lot. Scattered about in forms tangible and virtual are quotes admonishing you to live life to fullest, every day, for you never know when it may be your last. Me? I've got Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever ~ Mahatma Gandhi tacked to a bulletin board; scribbled on the inside cover of my writing practice notebook is Begin at once to live, and count each separate day as a separate life ~ Seneca. But sometimes, no - most of the time - that's just more ambition than I'm capable of sustaining. In my mind, I'm the high achiever who plans to climb Kilimanjaro and pursue an MFA and march on Washington in favor of stricter gun access laws. But in practice, I'm made of simpler stuff. The thought of living at full throttle wears me out. It makes me a little sad. Maybe I will die tomorrow, but today the laundry needs folding, the car insurance is due, I'm fretting about work, my weight, my 401k. Does a life more ordinary mean a life less lived?

And hey, didn't Nero force Seneca to commit suicide? Maybe our favorite Roman Stoic jumped the shark with his pithy advice.

There are times -  usually accompanied by a quiet peace or a ripple of endorphins - that my quotidian experience achieves a Technicolor apex. These are not epic events, but simple episodes when I focus my awareness within the moment at hand. It is wrapping a cane around a fruiting wire in a Waipara Valley vineyard with the sun warming my scalp and the Southern Alps throwing shadows across the afternoon; it is mile four of a long run, when my legs finally discover their rhythm; it is the sizzle in the pan and the swirl of aromas as minced onions and butter meet as I create art for the belly and the soul; it is conversing in French without searching for the correct verb tense; it is losing myself in laughter with a friend; it is that wrung out  and hung out feeling after a good day of writing, knowing that I moved aside and allowed the characters find their way.

Nothing monumental, just a sense of doing and being as I'm meant to at that moment.

I also know when I'm at far remove from these interludes, when I'm removed from myself. My friend Will, lighting yet another of those cigarettes that eventually killed him, would drawl in his South Carolina-thick French, "Julie, j'ai le cafard. J'ai le blues."  He would confess his melancholy when work was getting him down. I knew he dreamed of opening an antiques store on the Maryland coast; he lived long enough to realize that dream. Not as long as he should have, but he had his moment.

My blues - that cafard, that cockroach of ennui - come when I spend my time and energy on things which are necessary but not fulfilling. Or on things which are unnecessary, but pleasantly distracting. In both instances, I turn away from that which makes me feel challenged and complete, either because I must - the car insurance has to be paid, yes, it does - or because I am too afraid or too lazy to leave behind the easy affirmation and pursue a lonelier path.

But I can't Carpe Diem every single bloody day, can I?

No, but I can beat back the encroaching cafard which refuses to die. I can start every single day on the page.

I've struggled with the words these past weeks. I've resisted, procrastinated, meandered, despaired, dilly-dallied, denied, tarried, equivocated, prevaricated. I've been very busy doing everything but what I most want to. I'm not sure entirely why this is - it's not writer's block, unless one counts blocking one's own way with dilatory tactics and self-doubt. However I knocked myself so far out of my groove, I'm working, slowly, to knock myself back in.

I hit a manuscript milestone a couple of weeks ago: 50, 000 words. That felt like something. I'm now filling in scenes that were half-starts, completing characters' stories; I'm even thinking, 50,000 words in, that an outline might come in handy. I realized at 50k that my rough draft goal of 78,000 words was too modest, so I upped it. Perhaps I can put off that outline for another 10k or so.

I'm further along than I thought I would be at this point. But I can't shake the feeling that I'm losing ground, that I keep waiting for life to be just a bit more conducive to my creativity before committing wholly to my story again. I know the answer to that. I know my story is just waiting for me to return.

Here's a William Saroyan favorite to end with a little platitudinal dissonance:

“Try as much as possible to be wholly alive, with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell and when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.”

Most days, I think the best I can do is try to be alive, with a smidgen extra: to laugh and to move, to listen and to look outside of myself. And to write.

The Writer's Portable Mentor: Reading About Writing Is The Next Best Thing

The Writer's Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing LifeThe Writer's Portable Mentor: A Guide to Art, Craft, and the Writing Life by Priscilla Long My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I feel the same rush of hands-rubbing-together glee buying a new writing guide as I do a new cookbook (well, almost - if only writing guides had drool-inducing photographs of Truffled Saint-Marcellin or Bucatini all'Amatriciana or Salted Caramel (fill in the blank with anything).

An unread book on the craft of writing is full of possibility, of secrets waiting for revelation, of motivation and inspiration. It may contain the one thing I need to know that will turn my writing life around, the checklist I can follow that will make me a real writer, the advice that will level the uphill road and ensure a rejection letter will never again be addressed in my general direction.

Okay, I'm not that naive optimistic. Still, cracking open an author's literary toolbox and peering inside seems so hopeful and busy, like I'm thinking super hard about writing. When what I should be doing is, well, writing.

Priscilla Long presented at the Chuckanut Writers Conference in Bellingham this past June. She had me at, something -  I can't remember what  - but I adored her. Modest, quiet, funny, pragmatic. And a ridiculously accomplished writer who works. Hard. Every day.

Enough of the preamble, the backstory, the poorly developed characters. Let me get right to the point:

You must read this.

Poring over the opening pages of this book coincided with writing the opening pages of my novel. Only a few weeks ago, yet I've forgotten already which came first. What I remember is finally giving in to the one thing that every author of a writing guide writes in their opening pages: You must write every day. Yeah, I know. I know. But look, I have a day job - writing every day isn't feasible. I already get up at the crack of dawn. Earlier. I'm exhausted by the time I get home in the evenings. When am I supposed to do this writing? When do I get to work on what I want to work on, if I'm having to submit to the drudgery of a 15-20 minute free write, every day?

Excuses. That Priscilla Long finally gave me the courage to stop making. And it was so easy. Now I feel I have no other choice. And I'm thinking that if you aren't heeding Priscilla's advice by page 20, you should just stop reading this book until you can. The only thing that makes a writer a writer is writing. Every Day.

Thanks to my consistent daily free writing by hand, I have pages of scenes, character notes, setting sketches. Every day of scribbling brings me closer to my story, my characters, their motivations. I create and cover plot holes. A random writing prompt leads me to ask questions about my plot, jotting notes in the margins of ideas to pursue, details to research. I regularly transcribe these daily writings into my Work In Progress on the computer and doing so leads to other scenes, ideas and characters.

All that, just from reading Chapter One.

The Writer's Portable Mentor is to a writer - of any level of experience and ambition - as much a toolbox as one of those gazillion-piece Craftsman tool sets is to an automotive repair pro. And Priscilla makes you work - there are no hypotheticals here. You take your own work, you take work of authors you admire, and you examine them, rework them, learning every step of the way.

I now keep a Lexicon notebook (right, so it was an excuse to buy what comes third in my bookstore thrill-seeking - after cookbooks and writing guides: Moleskine notebooks). But I have a growing collection of lovely, evocative, provocative, delicious words and sayings that I will find a way to use or be inspired by: phrases such as back-lit light of polished steel (poet Mary Oliver), marzipan moon (author Hilary Mantel), as tender as an extension cord (Pete Wells, restaurant critic, The New York Times); words like borage, palavering, sump, scialytic. It scares me to think of all the gorgeous words and phrases I've forgotten after forty years of reading!

I have several stories cooling in a drawer. I've chastised myself for not making the time or creating the courage to rework my pieces, research markets and submit them. Turns out I was wise to leave them sit, letting my thoughts sift, before returning to them with fresh, more critical eyes.

With Long's guidance on structure, openings, sentences, paragraphs, punctuation, word choice, and revision, I'm tearing these stories apart and reassembling. And I will submit, resubmit - even those previously published, where possible. Long is very keen that you get your work out there - the creative process is not complete until you have attempted to share it with the world.

I will 'fess up: I did not do all the exercises. I did not comb through books I admire and craft my own sentences and paragraphs based on their models. I'm in too much of a groove with my writing and I don't want to slow the momentum. You can't be dogmatic about these things, any more than you can cook every single recipe in a cookbook and blog about it, then write a bestseller that will become a major motion picture starring Meryl Streep, now can you? Oh, wait...

This isn't the be all and end all of writing guides - there are so many astonishing and revelatory works to discover and reread - several that are on my list to explore for the first time, many others I return to for inspiration and practical advice. But if asked to make a Desert Island decision - if I could take only one book - my choice would be clear:

I'd take my writing-practice notebook. And a pen. Thanks, Priscilla.

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