Saturday, June 30, 2007

I Dreamed about a Dog and a Car

I notice that a lot of people put pictures of flowers in their blogs. These people are often skilled gardeners, recording and displaying the fruits (or blooms) of their labor. So I took a picture of some flowers too. I did absolutely nothing to nurture them. I have no gardening knowledge or ability. They were here when we bought the house 16 years ago, and they bloom every year. But they're pretty, so here you go.

Last night I dreamed I was dog-sitting and also driving across country (east to west) in a car that didn't work very well. I wasn't sure I was going to make it in this funky car. About halfway there, the car kind of spluttered, and I had to pull over. I let the dog out to pee, get a drink, and walk around. We were in the middle of an open dirt lot in a prairie, and--wouldn't you know?--the dog got away from me! I called and called, and he wouldn't come back. Finally, I was so upset, I had to wake up. So, what do you think it means?

Day before yesterday, I sent my new book to a friend to read. I'm waiting to hear what she has to say. I'm so nervous. I keep thinking of all these things I should have--

What's that you say? Loss of control? Me? What about my dream?

Unreliable car + disobedient dog=feeling out of control=my book in someone else's hands?

Huh? Do you really think so? I suppose it's remotely possible . . .

Friday, June 22, 2007

The Things I Can't Tell You!

I read other writers' blogs, and they tell such great stories about their families. You know, the funny things their kids do, for example, is a great subject for a blog post. Horrible, messy, and disturbing things kids do is also wonderful blog material. Husbands provide a lot of good stuff, too. I love to read about the personal, family details, don't you?

My kids give me great material too. Every day. And I love them all the more for it! But here's the thing. They don't like it when I use their lives as writing material. I don't know how these other writers do it, but my kids do not appreciate hearing about themselves in my work. I'll say, "You know that time you ____, would you mind if wrote a little piece about that?" "Yes!" they say. "I would mind! Don't even think about it!" These kids today, I'm telling you! Selfish! Ungrateful! Why, in my day, when my mother told funny stories to her friends about my capers and antics, I--well, I hated it, too. And I made sure everyone knew that it didn't happen that way at all!

Now, if I asked my husband a similar question about whether he would mind being the subject of a blog post about oh, let's say his unwillingness to learn to use a certain modern, pocket-sized communication device, he would not be pleased. I can just hear him saying, "Why don't you write about something else?" What's up with that?

Much as I respect my family's privacy rights, I refuse to waste good material! I have written a bunch of essays that I'm storing away in a vault (my computer) to use at a less emotionally sensitive time. Wait. When is that going to be? When is my family going to come to me and say, "You are a such a witty, insightful writer! Use my life! I'd be honored!"? I'm getting a feeling that this might never happen.

I have a few ideas for coping with the restrictions on my use of family material for blog posts. Let me know what you think.

Option A: Write about our pets, the house, the cars, writing, and myself.
Option B: Make up a fictitious family of four, who "lives on our street." Call them the Vandersomethings (the husband, like mine, is Dutch, and the wife, like me, is American). Use some real stuff and some made-up stuff so that real events are indistinguishable from made-up ones.
Option C: A + B

Monday, June 18, 2007

Getting Unstuck

I did a little sewing over the weekend. It wasn't the blissful escape I had been craving. Maybe that's because what I made didn't turn out all that well; maybe it's because sewing, even when it works out well, doesn't really help you to finish a book. I keep discovering that. Fortunately for me, two Intuitive Writing students helped me get unstuck and move on. They didn't know that's what they were doing, but they were very effective anyway. First, in our weekly phone call, Tammy reported something she's found out recently, which is that having an appointment to write with a friend in a cafe can boost her productivity. A cafe? Hey! I thought, maybe getting out of the house would help me. Then Beth emailed to say that her characters were doing and saying so much so quickly that she could barely type fast enough. She sounded happy and excited. Hey! I wanted to be happy and excited about writing too!

So I got my Crock-Pot dinner all prepped last night. (Can you believe the pre-planning here? I must have been desperate.) This morning, I walked the dog and made breakfast. I drove my daughter to her new job, but I didn't drive home. I went to a coffee place, pulled out my laptop, and restarted my novel revisions. I didn't go home until I'd finished a predetermined number of pages. Beth and I talked today about being stuck. We agreed that everybody gets stuck sometimes, and it's miserable. The trick is to have systems in place to get unstuck as quickly as possible.

I feel better! Thanks, you guys!

Saturday, June 16, 2007

My Battle with Addiction

Hi, my name is Sara, and I'm a sew-aholic. I've been sewing-abstinent for six months. Well, mostly abstinent. I fell off the wagon briefly in April to make my daughter a quilt for her dorm room. And then, I admit, I started a table runner for my mother-in-law's birthday. But for the most part, my sewing machine has been locked in its case, all my fabric shut in a cupboard out of sight. I've kept away from my regular Tuesday night class, where I know my old quilting crowd will only draw me right back in to that old life of one consuming sewing project after another. I know that sewing abstinence has been the key to almost finishing a new novel. I do know that. But I'm stuck on the novel, and I hear my sewing machine calling me back in that seductive way she has. "Just make a little purse out of those old jeans you have out in the garage," my machine whispers to me in a voice that sounds so reassuring and comforting. "This will only take you a couple of hours. You don't even have to buy anything. What can it hurt?" She's good. She's led me down this slippery path so many times before that she knows exactly where to push me and just when to pull back.

"No," I say, resolute and firm. "It won't work this time! First, it's just one cute little denim bag, then it's a set of placemats. Before you know it, I'm picking out fabric for a queen-size quilt!" Not taking that first stitch is key to my abstinence; I'm quite clear about that.

But my sewing machine is relentless, and oh, she can be wily! "You need a break," she says. "No wonder you're stuck! You need to stimulate another part of your brain! Do something tactile and non-verbal. And where's your joy? Aren't you always telling people how important joy is? What good is a novel without joy? Just one simple project, and you'll be right back into that book, more focused than ever before." She knows she's got me. She's seen me checking out crafters' web sites, telling myself I'm doing "research for the book." She knows what I'm really doing: I'm sliding slowly but surely back into the arms of sewing temptation.

I admit it. I'm a weak-willed addict. But this time, I'm just going to make one denim bag, and then I promise I'll stop! No, really, I promise.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Power Tools

Pictured above are two tools I consider critical to my work. First, let's talk about my personal savior, the Crock-Pot. You guys, I could write a book about the ways this little appliance has allowed me to write my books! In fact, I'm considering dedicating my next book to it: "To my darling Crock-Pot, who always bubbled faithfully away, silently and without complaint, allowing me to concentrate for hours on end without the slightest thought about what I was giving everyone for dinner." My current favorite book of recipes is by Judith Finlayson. The book I'm using is 125 Best Vegetarian Slow Cooker Recipes. I love this book! I'm a vegetarian, but she's got plenty of excellent choices for everybody. So if you don't have a Crock-Pot, get one, and if you haven't used yours for a while, pull that baby out of the cupboard and plug it in! It will free you to concentrate on your primary purpose--your writing--while at the same time taking care of yourself and your family with good meals. Yikes! That's way yummier, healthier, and cheaper than take-out!

My second empowerment tool is the iPod. I walk every day. I drive too. Occasionally, I even do housework. At these times, I use my iPod to listen to empowering audio. This can be inspiring music. Or it can be an audio program for empowerment, such as one of Summer McStravick's. Her CD, Flowdreaming for Enhanced Creativity and Success, is particularly good. On iTunes, you can subscribe to lots and lots of empowering podcasts, many of which come from Hay House Radio. From my own web site, you can download my Transformation Meditations, specifically written to help keep your writing flowing. Or you can listen to interviews with all manner of artists, such as those on Fresh Air, to remind yourself that you are one of them. When you're an artist working alone, it's a good idea to keep the soundtrack that constantly runs through your brain as positive as possible. I don't know about you, but my own personal soundtrack gets a little pessimistic and whiny if I'm not careful. Motivational, inspirational boosts from the outside world, which are abundantly available, can provide that attitude adjustment I seem to need so often. My iPod is the key to keeping myself positively programmed.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Having Control, Losing Control

In the middle of our party this weekend, I noticed that books and parties have a lot in common: You get everything set up beforehand, but once the guests (or characters) arrive, you have to let go of control over how it proceeds. You think you know what to expect, but a party (or a story) really has a life of its own, doesn't it? The best you can do is to have all the supplies ready, stand by, and try to accommodate where it's going.

Sometimes, experience helps; other times, not so much. Here are a few of the unpredictable party elements and how they went this time.

Guests per square inch. At the last party for my husband's lab, the guests spread out all over the downstairs. Some were eating in the kitchen, some were on the couch in the living room, some sat on the floor and put their plates on the coffee table, some sat on the couch in the family room. Getting ready on Saturday, I made the dining room table just big enough to hold the food everyone was bringing; I didn't plan for anyone to sit there. Early in the party, though, a lot of people sat down at the dining room table. Other people came and joined them there. Before long, the dining room table became party's center. Once they sat, people tended to remain planted. As more guests arrived, we ran out of chairs. The boyfriend of one of the graduate students and I collected additional ones from the rest of the house. The guests seemed happy to be squished tightly around the too-small table, so I didn't even try to spread them out.

Coffee. At a party a long time ago, lots of people wanted coffee and tea. So for the next one I bought two heavy-duty Thermoses and made the coffee and tea beforehand. For the next several years, no one has wanted either. This time, I forgot all about it. Naturally, 8 people wanted coffee. So all righty then, I gathered some mugs on a tray and made a huge pot.

The dog. This was our first party since getting the dog. I was worried that some people might have a problem with the dog, or that the dog would get freaked out by all the people. I had a plan in place, and I briefed all family members in advance. If Sammy misbehaved or got hyper, we would put him in his crate with a treat. We did not have to activate the plan. Sammy loved everybody; everybody loved Sammy. At one point I looked into the living room, and our dog was snuggled happily between a brother and sister, ages 10 and 12, who were lolling on the floor with their Gameboys.

Duration. Some parties are shorter than others. This time, a group of guests stayed seated around our dining room table for 5 1/2 hours. You just never know.

We're hosts to our stories too. Our job is to have the discipline and control to show up every day at the notebook or computer and write. Once we're there, though, we have to be willing to lose control and go in any crazy, unexpected direction the writing takes us.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Footsteps on Grass

Once I was a speaker at a book festival in South Carolina, where I met Karen Joy Fowler, author of The Jane Austen Book Club, which was about to come out. Karen told me that to write the book, she had gone to a writers' colony. She said, "They leave your lunch in a basket outside your cabin door." My eyes widened, and my mouth fell open. She went on, "They don't even knock; they don't want to disturb you." I shook my head in amazement.

Here, there's no lunch left by my door. Not even close. I have a goal for the completion of this book, and it's just a few days away. So I decided that I'd just let the laundry pile up and not go grocery shopping. We can recycle our jeans and live on takeouts. I had my priorities straight. Writing comes first! I did not even see the trash piling up in the wastebaskets or the dishes collecting in the sink. But my plan fell apart when we ran out of clean underpants. I had to do laundry--many, many loads of it. And it seems that I forgot all about the party. What party? The party at our house tomorrow night for my husband's lab, preparation for which will involve cleaning the whole house, buying paper goods, and making two entrees for about 20 people. Oh, that party!

Meanwhile, the book? It was all set a couple of weeks ago. It really didn't even need me very much anymore. It was practically ready to dismiss me. It just needed a couple of more chapter breaks and some transition smoothing, easy stuff. But a funny thing happened when I was fixing up my chapter openers. The point of the book changed. Yeah, it's different now, which means a bunch of scenes that were going one way are going to have to turn around and come back. The whole idea is a little more subtle now, a little more complex, and it will take a little more time. It's that shape shifting thing books do when you think you've got them figured out and then they turn into something else. But that's OK. That's cool. I'm good. I'm just following my intuition here, as I get up a little earlier and stay up a little later.

Sometimes, not every day or anything, but just every once in a while, I think longingly about footsteps approaching silently on grass, a basket being placed in front of my door, followed by footsteps silently retreating.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Magic 8 Ball

Do you remember the Magic 8 Ball? It's a fortune telling toy. You ask a question, turn the ball, and the answer appears in a window. (These are still available, in case you need one. There's even a web site with a virtual Magic 8 Ball, if you have a question you need to ask right now.) Of course you know that before you even ask the question, the answer is already there inside the ball. Answers are printed on a many-sided plastic thing floating in blue fluid and packed inside the ball before you even get the idea to buy one. You might also know that it doesn't help to shake the Magic 8 Ball really hard before you turn it over to read the answer. Some people do this, apparently thinking that the right answer will require work and effort on their part. The shaking creates bubbles in the fluid, which makes the answer hard or impossible to read. So all that shaking is not such a good idea.

The way I think about intuition and stories is that they are like the answers in the Magic 8 Ball. Both are already there, ready to go whenever we ask for them. The more we trust that the material is within us, the easier it is to access. No need to shake or struggle. It's right there within reach right now. Just ask your question, and let the answer float to the surface.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Becoming Your Characters

When you're writing fiction, you become your characters in the same way that an actor becomes the character she or he plays in a movie or play. That's how you make your fiction convincing. You think and feel as your character while you're working. Sometimes the character's thoughts and feelings stick with you even after you've stopped writing for the day. This works out great if your character happens to be happy, funny, empowered, smart, and/or lead a charmed life. Often this is not the case, though, right? Maybe you're writing about a character whose story is pretty dark. In that case, you don't want the character to move in with you for the duration of the writing. But you don't want to avoid unpleasant subjects, either, because sometimes the gnarliest of stories are the best ones! (To the right, I've chosen a still from the most depressing movie I could think of, Midnight Cowboy. I saw it at 15 or 16, and although I recognized its greatness, I was bummed for days afterward. Imagine what it must have been like to write the novel or the film or to act in it!)

Yesterday, a student asked me how to shake a character's darkness after the writing session is over. These are my recommendations:

1. Use music to lift your spirits. Before you write, think of several songs or pieces of music that always make you feel happy and empowered. After you write, play those songs and dance.
2. Exercise. Work out or go for a run or walk (even better, listen to uplifting music with an upbeat tempo at the same time.) Can't beat those endorphins!
3. Use positive, guided meditations to change your vibe from "down" to "up."
4. Watch a funny movie with a happy ending.

If you have any suggestions for shaking loose a character or situation after the writing stops, leave a comment or send me an email!

Sunday, June 3, 2007


Last night as I was walking the dog, I listened to a podcast of an interview with a fiction author. Now, as you probably know, my goal for my own writing is for the process to be joyful, effortless, and fast. But you know what dawned on me last night as I listened to this interview? Not all writers regard joyful, effortless, and fast as the best way to write! I'm not sure why that is, but do you know what's important about realizing this fact? I'll tell you. The way we experience writing is a choice. We can choose slow, deliberate, and effortful. Or we can choose quick, easy, and full of pleasant surprises. I didn't always know this, but now that I do, I'm never going back.

Here's another great reason to have a dog: Walking him gives me more time to listen to podcasts and think about big stuff!

Saturday, June 2, 2007

The End

I thought I had the ending to my new novel all worked out. It seemed right, but every time I started writing it, I got stuck after about a paragraph and couldn't go on. For some reason, everything seemed stiff and awkward. My characters' dialogue was making me cringe. Not a good sign. This went on for a couple of days. I kept writing, getting stuck, and trying again.

So what do we Intuitive Writers do in situations like this? We ask our intuition, of course! Why didn't I think of that sooner?! Yesterday morning first thing, I sat down at my desk and just closed my eyes. I asked my characters, "OK, what do you want to do?" Then I waited. You should have been there! It was so cool. It was like a little mind movie. My main character walked out her front door, and--oh, wait--I can't tell you the ending! What am I thinking? Anyway, I watched my characters, and I listened to them talk to each other. Of course, they didn't do what I thought they were going to do. That was my problem. They do what they want, not what I want. The important thing is, I finally got that ending. Phew! I feel better now!

Friday, June 1, 2007

Is My Real Life Based on My Fiction?

In January, I started a short story. As it opened, the main character was grieving about the recent death of her beloved dog. I don't think I've ever had a dog in one of my stories before, because I'm not a dog person. We have two wonderful cats that have always been everything we could want in pets and then some. Though I have never paid much attention to dogs, to my surprise, when I wrote about this dog, she came to me vividly, as if I had already known her for a long time. In my mind, I could not only see her curly black fur, but I also felt her placid, agreeable, affectionate nature. I had the sense of her always there in the background, a patient, good-natured companion as my main character worked, ate, slept, and drove around in her car. I went with the dog thing, of course, because it seemed convincing to me and expressed the heart of the story. A few weeks after I'd finished the story, I discovered it had more to say. In fact, the short story was just the beginning of bigger story, a novel about the woman whose dog had died. At first, the dog thing was only important in the opening scenes, and as I wrote more, I sort of forgot about her.

About a month and a half after I started that short story, our family decided to get--guess what--a dog! Honestly, I didn't really want a dog, but for a number of reasons, I felt it was the right thing to do. I knew I was going to be the one to take care of the dog. I knew it would take time and trouble that I could not imagine in advance. I knew all that, and still I went to the Humane Society with my family and adopted a dog. The dog is male and mostly white, but after a few weeks, it hit me that in all other regards, we had adopted the dog from my story. Just like my character's dog, ours has curly fur and a mellow, pleasant personality. He sleeps in my office while I work. When I go out, he rides around in the car with me.

Often I've written about a character doing something in a story, only to find myself doing it later in my life. The dog thing is yet another example. In one of my books, Second Draft of My Life, the main character, a writer, comments that people always ask her if her fiction is based on her life, but no one ever wonders if her life is based on her fiction. In my experience, the latter is more often true. I always wonder if other writers have this experience, or is it just me?